Church camp turned around a troubled childhood
Church camp turned around a troubled childhood
First Family Church
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star - 3/11/07
Born in Oklahoma City on May 12, 1959, Jerome R. Johnston was the fourth of John and Joyce Johnston’s five sons.

The family moved to Overland Park when Jerry was in third grade. Johnston says he was a troubled and rebellious child who spent much of his time partying and doing drugs.

“I wasn’t a mainlining heroin addict,” he told The Kansas City Star in a 1985 interview. “I was into pot and downers, and I was hospitalized twice. I was a 68-pound burnout on a liquid diet at one point.”

Things got so bad, Johnston said, that he considered committing suicide by swallowing valium. But he grabbed the phone and called his father for help. His dad rushed home from work and took him to a hospital, Johnston said, where he was treated for depression.

In June 1973, at the age of 14, Johnston went to Windermere Baptist Assembly camp near Roach in central Missouri.

“I never prayed so much in all my life,” he said.

On the final night of his stay, he sat thinking, “Let’s get this over with.”

The speaker was the Rev. Bob Werner, and he was preaching about hell. He said that hell is real.

That got Johnston’s attention, he later said, “because we used to smoke joints, laugh at Billy Graham and tell people they were going to hell.”

That night, June 21, 1973, Johnston said he invited Christ into his life.

“I went from a freak to a Christian,” he said.

Two months later, Johnston said, he dedicated his life to full-time ministry. He began spreading the gospel, starting a Bible study at his school and, according to his biography, speaking an average of 25 times a week to clubs and organizations through his high school years.

While in high school, Johnston attended Youth for Christ’s Bible school, Christ Unlimited Bible Institute, and graduated in August 1978. His biography says he received a full scholarship to attend the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in 1978. While there, Johnston served as Falwell’s “associate evangelist.”

Johnston met his future wife, Christie Huf, in October 1978 when he preached in her home town in western Michigan.

“I was so struck by his passion for his life call,” she said in a church publication.

They were married five months later — on a Tuesday, because Johnston was on the road so much that it was the only day available.

The next month, when Johnston was still 19, he founded Jerry Johnston Ministries Association, a nonprofit organization. His speaking tours and evangelical crusades soon gained national prominence.

Annual disclosure reports filed with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office show that in 1984 the ministry’s assets were $206,000. By 1990, they had grown to $383,000.

But that year, Johnston sent out a mass mailing to supporters, warning that his ministry was on the edge of a “financial abyss.”

“Satan is trying to shut me up and shut down this ministry,” he said in the mailing.

The devil was opposing him, he said, because his 1989 book, Edge of Evil, exposed Satanism. The solicitation quickly brought in $100,000.

In 1990, Johnston told The Star that his ministry had revenues of $1.3 million. His annual travel budget was $120,000, he said, and his salary was $80,000 a year. He said he also kept royalties from books he had written.

Johnston said that Jerry Johnston Ministries planned to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which sets standards for religious and fundraising groups. However, that didn’t happen until 1994.

From 1979 to 1996, Johnston said, he’d spoken to 5 million people at 3,200 colleges and universities around the world. He’d also written eight books and made videos on such topics as teen suicide, drug abuse and the rise of Satanism. By 1993, according to Johnston’s biography, more than 1 million cassettes of his sermons were in circulation, along with more than 500,000 copies of his books and 62,000 videos.

By the time Johnston decided to start First Family Church in 1996, the assets of his ministry were $454,000, according to Kansas corporation records, and the family was living in Hallbrook Farms, an upscale Leawood neighborhood. The amount of donations the ministry was taking in is not available, because the Internal Revenue Service destroys the records after a certain number of years.

Johnston said he took $252,000 from his ministry and used it as seed money to start the church. He also took with him a strong donor base from Jerry Johnston Ministries. When he launched his church, Johnston discontinued his affiliation with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

In January 1998, the church bought 137 acres on a hill near 143rd Street and Metcalf Avenue in southern Johnson County for $7.2 million. The church later sold 86 acres and used the profits to reduce its debt.

The new church opened in April 2001 at a cost of $10.1 million. The 54,000-square-foot building features a “Jo to Go” coffee shop, a high-tech sound system and an 1,100-seat sanctuary.

By the end of 2004, the church needed more space. Johnston raised more than $5 million to construct buildings for children and youths. The $8.5 million buildings were finished in 2006, adding 65,000 square feet to the First Family campus.

Johnston places a heavy emphasis on radio and television. In 2001 he launched a global radio and TV ministry, with his sermons broadcast around the world by satellite and through Web video-streaming.

His TV show also airs on the Far East Television and Middle East Television networks. Johnston announced last week that plans had been approved for the program to air on the largest station in China. A new program, “Jerry Johnston Reports,” is to begin airing soon nationally.

“In the last year or two, our growth has literally gone off the charts,” Johnston said in an October 2005 sermon. “I believe our church right now is on the threshold of something that none of us in this room could even begin to imagine. God is going to expand our territory. He’s going to bless us in ways that are going to shock you.”