Pastor guides own, church's growth

When the Rev. Scott Johnson was a boy, a couple women at his Wisconsin church told him he'd make a good pastor.

Johnson tucked that thought away until his junior year in college. In the middle of nuclear engineering studies, he says he decided maybe those women were right.

"I got to thinking about what I wanted to do in my life," Johnson said.

"I thought 'maybe this course isn't God's plan for me.' They planted the seed."

The seed grew into a 25-year ministry career that led him to Conover.

St. John's Lutheran Church, his congregation and home for more than 16 years, will celebrate that quarter century of ministry this weekend at its 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sunday services and a meal that follows. The public is invited, said Randy Baker, who grew up in the church and became president Jan. 1.

"Before he came, we were just looking within and going along on a daily basis of trying to take care of our church and take care of ourselves," Baker said. "He brought this insight that it isn't just us here. Not only did he open up the world around us here, he opened up the world in general."

Johnson switched his major to secondary education his junior year in college and then attended Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Afterward, he moved to Michigan. He served full time as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Fairgrove, and spent nearly two years filling in as pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church 20 miles away in the community of Bach.

One of the Bach church's members, Marilyn Esch, previously attended St. John's in Conover and recommended him for an open pastor position here.

"She probably, more than anyone else, is the reason my name ended up on a call list in a state I'd never been to before," Johnson said. "It's amazing how God works."

Johnson visited Catawba County in 1995, enjoyed a warm welcome from the St.

John's congregation and says he noted the housing developments popping up in the area around the church.

"I kept thinking 'what an opportunity to reach so many people two-three miles from this church,'" he said. "That mission opportunity."

So, he accepted the pastor position and was installed in December 1995.

In 2000, he received a call to serve at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Raleigh. He said he weighed whether to accept or stay at St. John's.

"Our fire happened the next year," he said, "so I'm glad I decided to stay."

A fire started during construction on a new building wing at St. John's in 2001. The blaze destroyed the church's sanctuary and existing wing and badly damaged the new building.

Johnson said he got a call at 1:30 a.m. one morning that the church was burning. By 3 a.m., about 75 members and firefighters gathered for an impromptu worship service.

During the following two and a half years, the church met on folding chairs in a gym.

There were no printed bulletins and no robes. The congregation borrowed an altar, received a donated piano, and Johnson used his Bible from home.

"Even through tragedy, he opened up our eyes," Baker said. "Hey, this could be a fire of destruction, or it could be a fire of blessing. It lit fires in our hearts to not be afraid to build bigger and stretch it a little bit further than what we were comfortable with. We'll pay it off next year and are packing it out."

After the fire, some church members suggested people start attending other Lutheran churches in the area, and they suggested the congregation dissolve.

"I said 'no way,'" Johnson said. "(The fire) certainly was a challenge, but all the members pulled together because we needed each other."

And the church started to grow. Sixteen years ago, the church averaged about 225 people in worship and 625 members. Now, St. John's seats nearly 400 for worship each week and maintains 950 or so members.

The church has also expanded its ministries, offering a monthly program for the blind, broadcasting its worship service on WNNC 1230 AM each Sunday, posting its sermons online and serving at least 35 short-term mission trips across the country and around the world.

St. John's sends teams above the Arctic Circle to a church in Alaska that has no pastor and no literature for teaching, Johnson said. A St. John's team will teach Vacation Bible School at the church again this year, and another team plans to visit the Birmingham, Ala., area to help rebuild areas devastated by tornadoes in the past year.

The church has also sent a team to St. Petersburg, Russia, to teach English and Bible school.

"Through the years, we've seen where we've been able to help people all across the world with our congregation," Johnson said.

He said he's also proud of the six children he shares with wife Denise. His children share a vision for ministry: one teaches at the St. John's preschool, another plans to direct Christian education, one plans to direct parish music and another wants to be a missionary.

"There are so many opportunities for ministry, as there are here," Johnson said. "A church is not a building, it's the people. This is a good strong Lutheran congregation.

Good place to be."