Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his socially conscious ministry at 26, an age we now consider a millennial. With that in mind, the Defender sought out four millennial members of the clergy to get their take on the big issues of the day, and how those issues impact how they do ministry.
Rev. Christopher Johnson with Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church shares his thoughts.
Defender: What are the challenges unique to a young minister?
Christopher Johnson: There are many challenges that are unique to the young millennial minister but there are three that immediately come to mind.
The first unique challenge is how to communicate God’s eternal truth to this generation. The millennial generation has been bombarded with countless research-driven surveys that criticizes and labels them. After reading these assessments a person might think that there is no hope for our generation. God’s plan of salvation is the same for this generation as it was for those before them. How does the 21stcentury young preacher communicate God’s truth in their own unique way? A way of communication that their generation can relate to so that they can be all that God would have them be?
The second unique challenge is, will the young millennial preacher actually make an attempt to live out the very Gospel that they preach? In a time where social media is so vital how do we as ministers balance our personal and public lives? We must be committed to transparency and accountability.
The third unique challenge is how do we identify and meet the needs of God’s people in 2019? What worked 20-30 years ago will not work today. Are we willing to be creative and innovative not only in our stratagems but also in our thinking and approach? People are looking for a real and authentic encounter with not only God but with His people as well. What does that look like in the 21stcentury? These are only a few unique challenges that come to mind.
Defender: What are the opportunities unique to a young minister?
Johnson: In my humble opinion the young minister has the unique opportunity to serve people faster and more efficiently than ever before. Social media has given ministries and ministers the opportunity to get information in and out quicker. Technology allows us to gather data, process it and come up with prayerful evidence based solutions. Another opportunity that we have as young ministers is the ability to speak to our culture and influence it. I believe that people are hungry for God’s truth and His way of living. God’s truth leads to the betterment of His people. The end result is always the glory of God being manifested in the life of His people. Because of technology, we no longer have to wait until Sunday or Wednesday to touch the community. We can do it in a matter of minutes. We are able to connect quicker than ever before. Because we are at the dawn of the new technological age the church as to be ahead of the curve instead of behind it (technologically speaking)
Defender: How do politics and social issues (police brutality, Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, #Me-too, LGBTQ issues, healthcare access, etc.) frame and/or impact your approach to ministry?
Johnson: In addition to teaching/preaching the word, the job of the Pastor/Preacher is to serve the people. The word Pastor means shepherd. The image of the shepherd and sheep is an important one. In the time of the Bible the primary job of the shepherd was to take care of their flock of sheep. This means that they had to be intimately familiar with the needs of the flock. They also had to be just as familiar with the needs and potential dangers and threats to the flock as well. The shepherd is placed over a flock (people/community/congregation) for their holistic guidance according to God’s truth. Our job is to know what affects the people so that we can prayerfully, lovingly, and strategically guide our people through those issues. All of the aforementioned issues are very important in our lifetime. The Pastor must be sensitive yet strategic when addressing these issues. I’m really concerned and passionate about all of the issues mentioned above. Because we are all created in God’s image, we all are entitled to our God-given right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (as long as it’s aligned with God’s plan for our life). One of the biggest strengths of the African-American church has been the ability and willingness to speak truth to power. The Black Pastor/Preacher must begin to speak truth to power again. That truth must to be told in a spiritually and culturally unapologetic way. I think these issues must be on the agenda for the Pastor/Preacher/Church to address from the perspective of God’s word.
Defender: What is the biggest (most important) political issue impacting the U.S. and/or members of your congregation? That’s difficult to say.
Johnson: I serve under Dr. D.Z. Cofield, senior Pastor of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Third Ward Houston, Texas. We see and are engaged in so many political issues that impact our community and congregation. If I had to choose one it would have to be police brutality/community violence. I believe that we have to expand our definition of police brutality. Police brutality is not only the physical attack by Law enforcement on people of color. Police brutality is also when Law enforcement refuses to police minority neighborhoods in a way that is fair and addresses the criminal element in that community.
On the south side of Houston, we are in the midst of the worst pandemic of community violence this city has seen in almost 40 years. When I listen to residents there is the belief that police just don’t care. There are many residents that believe the biggest form of police brutality is the absence of police protection in their communities.
Defender: What are your thoughts and positions on the current president, his administration and his policies?
Johnson: President Trump is who he said he would be. My concern is not only his xenophobic rhetoric but also the large population of White-Americans who support his race-baiting and fear-mongering. Our white brothers and sisters can no longer claim ignorance of racism and intolerance as an excuse. Unfortunately, 55 years after the March on Washington and the Voting Acts Bill being passed, we are dangerously close to going back to a time where civil and human rights mean nothing. What makes President Trump most unsettling is the lethal triadic combination of ignorance, arrogance, and white-entitlement. His policies only speak to a segment of people who want to see people of color only as second class citizens. His lack of care and concern for the environment is evident with his stance on coal, the Keystone Pipeline and climate change. His withdrawal of Troops in Syria has only weakened us on the world stage. I believe that his presidency is meant to be a wake-up call to those of us who say we are change agents for our generation.
Defender: How big or small a role does your blackness (Black history, pride and heritage) and attacks upon your blackness (white supremacy/racism) have in your approach to ministry?
Johnson: One of the ways the Gospel is told is through the context of culture. There is no dichotomy in my spirituality and my culture. By definition, Christianity is a North African spiritual practice. The handprint of African people and its diaspora is all over Christianity. We have to teach our people how to find our contributions to Christianity. In regards to America’s Christianity, I quote the words of Fredrick Douglass “I am against the Christianity of America but me love, practice and follow the Christianity of Jesus Christ”. When we read the writings of our ancestors like Fredrick Douglass, Reverend JWC Pennington (Pastor of the Amistad slaves), Phillis Wheatley, James Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and others it gives me hope. They were attacked more harshly than we are being attacked now. However, they all endured and persevered because of their faith and trust in God. The black church was birthed in pain but it has progressed because of it. I realize that as we struggle, God struggles with us. Jesus tells us that because we follow Him we will be persecuted. The same sticks used to attack us are only logs that fuel our fire for God and His ministry here on earth. Our history has proven our people are strong mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Our blackness uniquely gives us an insight and perspective that otherwise I don’t think we would have. Because of our struggles past, present, and future Black people in this America know God in a way that is unique all unto itself.
Defender: For Rev. Dr. MLK Jr., a young minister who became a pastor at 26, fighting for civil rights and later economic equality were big drivers of his ministry. Is there one or two political or social or cultural issues that drive your ministry?
Johnson: Socially it would be Community Violence and Community Restoration with an emphasis on Human, Civil, and Community Rights. Politically it would be voter suppression, with an emphasis on voter awareness and registration.
Defender: How do you balance commitment to your ministry with parenting?
Johnson: It is difficult. I have an 8yr old son his name is Christopher Johnson II. I am constantly working be a better Father in all aspects. I’m constantly reminded that He is my first ministry commitment.
Defender: With society in general becoming less religious (less committed to a particular denomination; less committed to one specific church home; etc.), how does this impact your ministry?
Johnson: I believe this is a great opportunity. A recent Barna survey revealed that most Americans across racial and ethnic lines consider themselves spiritual and not religious. I think that there is a great desire and need that many people have to know God personally. Personally, I’m always interested in talking and listening to people and finding out why people are less committed to one specific church home or why there is a shift in society toward God or the church. The main job of any pastor/teacher is to equip his/her congregation for the work of God in their daily lives. If there’s no congregation to equip then in my mind the question is where are the people; what are they being equipped with and for; and who’s equipping them. I think these issues provide us the opportunity to engage people in a meaningful way.
Defender: How do you respond to the criticisms many millennials voice about religion in general, and the Christian church in particular? (i.e. it is anti-intellectual; often treats women like second class citizens; ignores or downplays culture and social issues, etc.)
Johnson: I would first by saying that many of these criticisms of religion and some churches are true. I am an older millennial myself. I didn’t grow up in the church like some of my friends. I had to learn that the church is not a perfect place. The people in the church are not perfect people. They are fragile, flawed, deficient, hurt, and in the process of becoming just like everyone else. I was in the music industry for thirteen years. I worked for some of the most successful music CEO’s in the business. I managed some of the biggest artists in the world at that time. When I left that culture and came to God, the church was (and still is) a culture shock. The talk is different. The lifestyle is different. America has commercialized the church to look like a place where everything is perfect. Sadly that’s not the case because the church is not a perfect place. God is perfect. Jesus Christ is perfect. People are not perfect. We are an imperfect people in the processing of being perfected by a perfect God. People are the total sum of their experiences. Some people have been to churches and have not had good experiences and for that I am truly sorry for them. The majority of people go to church looking for an authentic worship experience and to encounter with God. Every church isn’t bad, nor is every church sexist, or anti-intellectual, and not every church is behind the curve socially and politically.
One of the biggest criticisms that my friends have of the church is that it feels like a business. By that they mean that they don’t feel any level of connectivity with the people, pastor or worship experience. One friend shared with me that after growing up in church all her life she just didn’t feel as if her place of worship was authentic enough. She said it was the same old routine. There was no passion in the worship service she said. Basically she felt as if the mood of the worship environment was manufactured and not authentic. Another friend told me that his issue was the lack of political and social activity. He was upset because of what he perceived to be the unwillingness of some black churches and Pastors to speak out regarding the shooting of unarmed black men. Another friend was upset about the lack of cultural recognition in black churches. She felt that the form of Christianity practiced in most black churches has been whitewashed. All of these are important issues. I believe God has earmarked this generation to be change agents in their communities, churches, workplaces, and families. My response is to listen carefully when I have these conversations and ask questions. The Church has to begin to listen to what the younger generation says it needs spiritually, relationally, emotionally, socially, politically, and economically. When those things begin to happen I believe that there will be a change in the attitude of some toward the church.
This article originally appeared in the Defender News Network.