Moving Closer to Christ
How God Has Led One Kansas City Pastor Through the Years
May 1, 2004
by A. Kirk Johnston
I couldn't believe the contents of the letter in my hands. It read, "Billy Graham is coming to Kansas City."
At key times in my life and ministry, God has used the ministry of Billy Graham to bless me, my church and my world. And now God was doing it again!
Between the ages of 8 and 12 I was full of anxiety. I was afraid of death. My thinking went beyond simply fearing the means of death; it went to the deeper problem—the state of being dead. I feared the "nothingness" of death, the fact that life would go on without me. I was a junior nihilist!
By age 12 I was beginning to cope with this fear through compulsive behaviors, like touching things an even number of times, adding numbers in my head—superstitious behavior driven by fear. As these behaviors began to control my life, two wonderful things happened.
First, an interim minister came to our church and preached the simple Gospel. He told the whole truth—the bad news of death (which I already knew!) and the Good News of life in Jesus, something I had never understood before.
Second, I came upon a telecast of a Billy Graham Crusade. And there I also heard the simple truth of Jesus preached clearly. I heard of the God who knew my fear and who made a way for anxious people to have peace. And I heard the music of George Beverly Shea, who sang with the deep confidence and joy I was seeking. I also heard an invitation to lay my burden on the cross and receive life with Christ. The Holy Spirit roused me from a fear of "nothingness" to a life of "something-ness." I needed Jesus, and I prayed to receive Him. By the Holy Spirit, He came into my heart, life and mind. I remember thinking, "If all the things Jesus said are true and I put my trust in Him, then I don't have to worry whether I live or die. I can just live."
After watching Mr. Graham on television that first time, I could not flip past a Billy Graham telecast. In fact, the ministry of televised Crusades called me to rededication at important intervals in my life. Having been freed by Christ from my earlier fears, I began to really live and enjoy my life—to the point where I began to take control of my life back from God and to reset my own agenda and desires. But at key moments, when my growth had stopped, when other appetites and behaviors had crowded out obedience, when fear returned, when I needed to take a new step of trust, a Crusade telecast would pop up. Mr. Graham would preach the truth of Jesus, and the simple Gospel would again call me back to my first love. And with each "Yes" to Jesus, I grew to be more like Him.
After college I began a career in business. I thought I could serve God best by making a lot of money and giving Him 10 percent. I figured God needed rich people, and I could be rich and give God His share. I saw myself as God's assistant.
But during that first year a burden began to grow inside me. One night while I was listening to the radio and thinking on these things, I heard George Beverly Shea sing "I'd Rather Have Jesus":
I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold / I'd rather be His than have riches untold / I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands / I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hands.
I felt the Holy Spirit saying, "You are wasting your gifts. I have not made you to spend your days consumed with money but consumed with me. I have not made you for 10 percent—I want all of you." I realized that God doesn't need assistants; He wants servants.
Through the lyrics of George Beverly Shea's song, God had used BGEA again to precipitate a turning point in my life. That same week, I made the decision to attend seminary and go into ministry.
After graduating from seminary I became pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Paola, Kan. As I shared the simple Gospel message with this church, our fellowship began to grow. Since 1992, our church has grown by 170 members.
And I began to grow. In reading Mr. Graham's autobiography, I was convicted by the Crusade Team's commitment to financial, personal and pastoral integrity and accountability. These standards ranged from keeping the office door open and not counseling someone of the opposite sex alone, to principles of church finances, to how to bless your spouse.
As the church grew, I prayed that God would send us someone who would come alongside our church and lead us in discipleship. In 1997, God answered my prayer through a 30-year employee of BGEA. Joe Gillespie had been through acoustic neuroma surgery and could no longer continue to travel and organize Crusades for BGEA Associate Evangelist Ralph Bell. But Joe could lead us in personal growth and evangelism. Using many of the BGEA methods and materials, we learned how to bring our friends to Christ and to care for and train new believers.
Recently our church had been praying for greater effectiveness in our outreach. I wondered if we were truly fulfilling our purpose as a church. About that time the letter arrived announcing the Billy Graham Crusade in Kansas City!
Preparing for the Crusade has given our church the opportunity to live out our purpose by training our congregation to reach out to friends, neighbors and family—to invite them to the time and place where they might meet Jesus.
So many times, God has used Mr. Graham's ministry to move me closer to Christ. I pray that God will use my ministry and my life to do the same for others.