Trivia Question: In Who's Who in America: 2001, whose biography is listed just ahead of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the husband of the CIA agent who was outed by the Bush White House in order to get revenge for the ambassador's article in the New York Times? That's right. Strangely enough, it's the biographical article on our pastor.
Dr. Johnny L. Wilson has pastored churches, taught at the seminary and seminary extension level, edited a national magazine, published magazines, lectured in a half-dozen countries, and written a number of books. This is a long article and those who merely want the bare facts should skip to the bottom of the page for the Pastor Johnny Bubble Gum Card. Those who simply want to know why Pastor Johnny opts for expository preaching as to other, allegedly more modern types, should skip to the section just before the Bubble Gum Card called, "Why Expository Preaching?"
First called to ministry at a young age, Pastor Johnny prepared for his calling by studying at California Baptist University (then, California Baptist College) where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1972. He earned his basic ministerial degree, the Master of Divinity (M. Div.) from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in 1975. After pastoring in the Bay Area and later, in Sacramento, he matriculated at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky where he earned the degrees of Master of Theology (1978) and Doctor of Philosophy (1981), both in Old Testament Studies. Upon graduation, he began pastoring and teaching as an adjunct professor at The Southern California Center of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (then in Garden Grove). Today, he teaches on the adjunct faculty of DePaul University, and serves as senior pastor for True North Christian Fellowship. He is married to his wife Wailam (pronounced "Way-Lean") and they have four grown children--two in Washington State and two in California.
But that sounds like a straight line and Dr. Wilson's pilgrimage has been anything but a straight line. Even though called to ministry, he didn't major in Bible or Religious Studies in college. He majored in English and had a diversified minor that allowed him to take both Bible and Drama courses. He had a drama scholarship while attending Cal Baptist, but still took a semester off to study at the University of Southern California before running out of money and returning to take advantage of the scholarship.
While attending Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, he served as Minister of Music and Youth for Rollingwood Baptist Church in San Pablo, California. Upon the pastor's resignation, he served as interim pastor and later as pastor. He was ordained by Rollingwood Baptist Church in 1974. While at Rollingwood, he wrote a week of devotionals for youth that was published in encounter, the devotional quarterly for teens from the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway).
One of the interesting sidelights of the pastorate in Rollingwood was opening up the extra land owned by the church for use as a community garden and allowing commuters to use the church parking lot through the week in order to encourage car pooling. The latter proved interesting when the county threatened to revoke the church's tax exemption because property had to be reserved EXCLUSIVELY for worship and religious education in order to qualify for tax exemption. Pastor Johnny didn't believe this was fair, so he asked his assemblyman to author a bill that would allow churches to use their parking lots in this manner without risking their exemptions. The bill passed and Dr. Wilson has freely given up any ambition toward a legislative career since that point.
In 1975, Pastor Johnny accepted a call to Temple Baptist Church in Sacramento, California. While there, a local mortuary sponsored a 15-minute show that was called "Temple Tapestry" ("Where the richly woven thread of gospel truth runs through the entire program!") and featured some of Dr. Wilson's original radio dramas. They were interesting experiments and served as one way that Pastor Johnny could use his drama background for Christ. However, they required a lot of work that a busy pastor didn't need to be expending on a ministry that wasn't seeing any visible results.
Also at Temple Baptist in Sacramento, Wilson wrote a series of lessons for the Youth Sunday School quarterly published by the Baptist Sunday School Board, and an article on the Hebrew word for "Holy" for Proclaim, a publication for pastors published by the Sunday School Board.
Scrambling for Dollars
After entering The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1977, Dr. Wilson began living a dual role. He was not only a graduate student in Old Testament Studies, but he worked as a warehouseman, security guard, teaching assistant at the seminary (for Religious Drama and for Old Testament Hebrew), and substitute teacher in order to earn enough money to stay in school. He not only preached and accepted interim pastorates whenever possible, but he played in the orchestra at his regular church in addition to juggling part-time jobs. Those who know that Pastor Johnny is not the most imposing physical specimen often laugh when he shares that, during that period, he had one occasion when he was assigned to "guard" former heavyweight chamption Muhammed Ali. During his Ph.D. work, Pastor Johnny attended classes on Roman History at the University of Kentucky.
Disappointment -- His Appointment
Upon graduation, Wilson discovered that there wasn't a lot of demand for overeducated pastors in the Southern Baptist denomination of that time. He pastored a couple of small churches, but his real passon was to teach seminary. He was fortunate enough to help start California Korean Baptist Theological Seminary, an unaccredited institution established in Los Angeles, but soon moving to Walnut, CA. He served as the nominal "president" of the seminary but his duties were limited to teaching one class per semester through an interpreter and handing out diplomas at the graduation ceremonies (pictured here). But his seminary was looked upon suspiciously as being liberal and he didn't help his reputation by assigning textbooks to the left of his own positions when he finally got the chance to teach at the Southern California Center of Golden Gate. When he was not asked to come back after what he thought was a successful period of teaching, he didn't think he could bear pastoring and never having a chance to teach at the seminary level.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon one's perspective) during this period, he had started writing reviews of computer games for a new magazine called Computer Gaming World. He said it was to keep his sanity, but the hobby was to prove God's provision for a time in his life--as well as a foundation for some of the teaching he does at the university, today. When he resigned his church in discouragement, he took on the task of assistant editor (pictured here) at Computer Gaming World. As he describes this period in typical California-speak, "I was able to ride that wave for over a decade, watching the magazine climb from around 5K in circulation to over 345K in circulation. And much to my joy, a lot of people seemed to give me more of the credit for this than I actually deserved."
Pastor Johnny calls this his wilderness-wandering period with regard to his calling as pastor. He knew that he had been called, but he felt like he had never had the chance to be the kind of pastor that he could be. So, he worked mostly as, soon to be, editor and then, editor-in-chief of the magazine and taught Bible Studies, performed "supply preaching" or served as "interim pastor" for churches who needed help, and wrote material for The Holman Bible Dictionary and The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. He wrote a workbook on the Book of Exodus for the Baptist Sunday School Board and he penned his first secular book, The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook, for Osborne-McGraw Hill. This was followed up by The SimEarth Bible, Sid Meier's Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day (with Alan Emrich), The Sim City 2000 Planning Commission Handbook (with Peter Spears), and the strategy guide to the first Civilization: Call to Power (with Terry Coleman). He served as the software reviewer for the National Space Society (for Space Journal and Ad Astra magazines) at this time and also received his first national television exposure at this point with an interview on Good Morning, America during the Mortal Kombat controversy along with doing radio interviews and satellite media tours from the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) floor. Pictured here is Dr. Wilson at a Computer Gaming World event at Road Atlanta. His favorite memory of the Road Atlanta experience was, "We were supposed to compete in a 'blind autocross' where the driver was blindfolded and the passenger/navigator told him or her when to turn and how much. There was a penalty for how many cones you hit, but we figured out that the penalty was so insignificant that we would just drive madly and go for the fastest time. We would have won, but the referee changed the rules." Sadly, Pastor Johnny has spent too much of his life hitting the cones instead of staying on the track. Other memorable experiences included "hands-on" experience in flying prop-driven aircraft (on one occasion, side-by-side with a real stunt pilot).
While at Computer Gaming World, Wilson also designed his first published computer game scenarios. One was a scenario based on the history of Wales for Heroes of Might & Magic, a fantasy-strategy game published by 3DO. It was published on the cover disc for the magazine. But the second scenario was for an add-on Celebrity Designer Disc for Empire Deluxe. His claim to fame in that product was a scenario called Vortex and the fact that due to alphabetical order, he was listed in the credits right next to world-famous designer, Will Wright (designer of SimCity, The Sims, and Spore).
Clerics and Congregations
Dr. Wilson's pilgrimage took another strange twist when he was invited to become the Group Publisher of the magazine division for Wizards of the Coast, publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and The Pokemon Trading Card Game. A life-long gamer, Pastor Johnny quickly moved to Seattle to take over that publishing division. For several years, Wilson managed the editorial content, costs, and advertising sales for Amazing Stories, Dragon, Dungeon, Polyhedron, Star Wars Gamer, Star Wars Insider, and TopDeck magazines before spinning off the magazines into a partnership which proved ill-fated from his perspective. In addition, he wrote the history portion of Game Developer's Market Guide (edited by Bob Bates), co-wrote High Score: An Illustrated History of Electronic Games (with Rusel Demaria), the strategy guide to Civilization: Call to Power 2, and his first novel, The Bloody Eye (a short novel written under the house name, T. H. Lain). It also proved to be his opportunity for national television exposure as he was interviewed by The History Channel for a Modern Marvels episode on video games.
In addition to working for Wizards of the Coast (acquired by Hasbro, the toy company, during this period), Pastor Johnny served on the Board of Directors for Turbine Entertainment, an online developer in the Boston, MA area. While working with Turbine, the company acquired the online licenses for Dungeons & Dragons: Eberron and Lord of the Rings Online. But during a round of investment by some venture capitalists, Wilson and others stepped off the board to make room for the new investors.
But the strange part of this experience was explaining to people in churches how Pastor Johnny could play and publish material about Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Pokemon without subtly encouraging people to "go to the devil." Pastor Johnny explained that games are essentially intellectual puzzles with chrome on them. Just as chrome doesn't make a car go any faster, so the fantastic, magical elements of games wouldn't even begin to help someone learn about real occult spells. Essentially, these games are about maximizing the mathematical models underneath the games and one can put a lot of imaginary flavor on top of those models in order to tell interesting stories about good confronting evil. "The Holy Spirit has actually used my D&D characters to convict me of things I needed to change in my real life. At first, I protested that I was nothing like the character and then, I realized that I really needed to get past that denial. I still TRY to play characters differently than I perceive myself to be, but that doesn't always work. I think it's really healthy to experiment with ideas and attitudes where no one can get hurt. That's the beauty of the games." And when Pastor Johnny wrote The Bloody Eye, a novel set in the D&D universe, he drew from Isaiah's prophecies to illustrate some of the points.
Still, Wilson discovered his joy and passion during this time was no longer the magazines, but teaching the small group of couples who met on Friday nights in Bellevue, WA. "I realized I was something of a pastor to this small group and that this was where my real calling was." He sold his interest in the publishing partnership and started his own company to publish The Wytte Media Bible, a series of multimedia study guides on biblical books, each with a fresh translation, printable workbook pages, and PowerPoint presentations to go with the studies. A former Batman comics writer once saw Pastor Johnny's video of the Philippian Jailer and said the performance was the "Honey, it's either this or community theater" experience. Pastor Johnny just laughed. He knew he didn't have time for community theater. Unfortunately, the Wytte Media Bible could never gain enough distribution to sell and didn't do well in the places where it had distribution. It was used in several churches in California, Georgia, and Oklahoma for Bible Studies, however.
Pastor Johnny preached at and led Bible Conferences for several churches in the Atlanta area. He taught Introduction to Game Design and Careers in Animation and Game Development at the Art Institute of Atlanta. During his last year in Atlanta, he accepted an interim pastorate at Northwest Baptist Church in Atlanta and believes he made an impact there. He taught New Testament Greek to pastors as an unaccredited introduction for those who wanted to review or just get some basic knowledge of how to translate and he tutored his own pastor in Old Testament Hebrew while in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, he entered into a business arrangement for the distribution of games via the Internet. He was enthusiastic about the business and hoped that it would be able to help sustain his various ministries. Unfortunately, the venture never garnered the funding for which the partners had hoped and the critical mass was never there for the company to be successful. Discouraged, he felt like there must be something better for him.
The Windy City
There was something better. Wailam got a better job in the Chicago area and they became involved with a Korean American congregation. Pastor Johnny started teaching through the Greek text of Galatians to a group of ethnic pastors on a weekly basis. A Chinese-American congregation and another Korean American congregation asked Pastor Johnny to help with their Youth and teaching programs, so he and Wailam joined both churches (strange, huh?) as Teaching Pastor.
For the first year in Chicago, Dr. Wilson taught game design at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, but was fortunate enough to start teaching at DePaul University thereafter. Pastor Wilson still teaches Introduction to Game Design, but he also teaches History of Games, History of Video Games, Introduction to Virtual Communities, Special Studies in Role-Playing for Designers, and Ethics in Games and Cinema.
But the best thing that happened for Pastor Johnny about coming to Chicago was being called to True North Christian Fellowship as first interim and now, senior pastor.
Why Expository Preaching?
Although Dr. Wilson uses drama, film clips, PowerPoint presentations, and readings to both illustrate and provide variety for his sermons, his primary approach to the text is called expository preaching. Some claim that this mode of preaching is out-dated and old-fashioned.
In today's world of "topical" preaching (preaching on whatever "topic" seems timely), Wilson believes an emphasis on the text is very important. "Speaking as someone who tries to be creative and relevant, I know that there is always a temptation to try to be 'out there' and make one's own mark. By forcing myself to be tied to the text, I protect myself and my listeners from being seduced by the 'next big thing.' After all, the Wise One (Qoheleth could be translated, "The Preacher") said, 'There is nothing new under the sun.'" But that doesn't mean that Dr. Wilson's messages aren't full of multimedia, drama, and topical references. It simply means that every message begins with his experience with the text (and he'll often give you the reason from Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew grammar for why he interprets it or translates it that way).
Without expository preaching, one is likely to get one of the following types of messages: "touchy-feely," "feel good," "manipulative," or "sword drill."
- The "touchy-feely" sermon doesn't provide a lot of facts (much less scripture) and is designed to evoke emotion, damper hostility, and provide psychological relief. It would be filled with lots of emotional (often heart-warming) stories as well as possible tears. One can have catharsis when hearing such sermons, but they don't offer the tools for life-long change.
- The "feel good" sermon is the style in vogue for television ministers and mega-church pulpiteers. Largely affirmative in nature, the goal is not to challenge the believer to change, grow, and serve, but to hammer on what one already knows and make one feel good about oneself. Of course, if one feels good about oneself, there is no need for soul-searching reflection, much less change. One feels good listening to such sermons, but one is unlikely to have enough doctrinal depth to refute heresy or Biblical grounding to withstand the subtleties of modern temptation. While the occasional "feel good" sermon may serve its purpose (there are, after all, "feel good" psalms in the Bible), a steady diet will make one "feel good" temporarily while setting one up for a spiritual health crisis in the future. How can one cope with disaster, failure, grief, sorrow and the like when one is constantly told that Christians are to be happy (joy is not the same as being "happy") and feel victorious all the time?
- The "manipulative" sermon is the typical sales pitch. The preacher as salesperson will pull on tradition, cliches, emotional stories, guilt, and scripture verses out-of-context in order to get people to do whatever needs to be done. I once knew a pastor who began every "manipulative" appeal with "I've been burdened for a long time about..." and then, would launch into the cause of the day and what everyone should do about it. The trouble is that there wasn't enough time lapse between his appeals for him to really have been burdened for a long time. The "manipulative sermon" will usually ask or demand that you do something (say, "Amen!" raise your hands, stand-up, clap, shout, come forward, etc.) in order to get you in the habit of saying, "Yes!" with your mouth, your body, and your attitude. Then, the "manipulative" sermon goes in for the kill. A lot of offerings have been raised, buildings have been built, endowment funds established, and budgets increased with such efforts, but once they realize that the messages are always "push and shove" instead of "share and teach," they begin to believe that all of Christianity is a big con game.
- Finally, there is the "sword drill" sermon. It's easy to fall into this trap because there are lots of tools (some even available free online) that help you prepare this. In the "sword drill" sermon (I take the name for this from the activity where youth used to compete by being given a Bible verse and trying to be the first to find it in their Bibles. Since the Bible is the "Sword of the Spirit," we used to call them "sword drills."), the preacher compiles a list of scripture references on a subject and throws them at the audience in an impressive machine-gun delivery. The congregation is so overwhelmed with "evidence" that they are willing to accept whatever the preacher is pushing at them, but they haven't really seen the evidence because the preacher doesn't offer the context of the verses. As a result, the verses might not really mean what the speaker implied that they mean. You hear a lot of these sermons because they are easy to prepare but they seem profound. They fill up a lot of time with scripture references, but they don't really take you deeper into God's Word.
Even with Dr. Wilson's disdain for such methods, he admits: "There are times when elements of all of these types of sermons sneak into my preaching. But expository preaching keeps me honest, forcing me to examine the text in the context of the book, translate from the Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew in order to understand the root ideas under the words, and to conform my messages to the Bible rather than fit the Bible to what I want to say. My sermons may not always be entertaining, though I try, and they may not always be interesting, though they usually are to me, but congregations can always be sure that I've spent time in God's Word seeking what God has to say other than what I can say about God's Word. Without approaching my sermons from an expository basis, I'm not sure I could say that."
Johnny Lee Wilson
Jennifer Lynne Isaacs (nee Wilson)
Jonathan Lee Wilson
Bachelor of Arts: California Baptist College 1972
Master of Divinity: Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary 1975
Master of Theology: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1978
Thesis: The Contribution of Tribal Organization to the Structure of the Book of Numbers
Doctor of Philosophy: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1981
Dissertation: A Rhetorical-Critical Analysis of the Balaam Oracles
Rollingwood Baptist Church, San Pablo, CA -- 1972-1975
Temple Baptist Church, Sacramento, CA -- 1975-1977
Interim -- New Harmony Baptist, Austin, IN -- Summer, 1978
Interim -- Mt. Pleasant Baptist, Simpsonville, KY -- Fall/Winter 1981
Church Planter -- Hermosa/Redondo Ministries, Redondo Beach, CA -- 1982
Pastor -- Immanuel Baptist Church, La Puente, CA -- 1983-1986
Pastor -- Providence Baptist Church, Anaheim, CA -- 1988-90
Interim Pastor -- Northwest Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA -- 2007
Teaching Pastor -- Grace Chicago Chinese Baptist, Arlington Heights, IL -- 2009-present
Teaching Pastor -- Living Grace Community Church, Arlington Heights, IL -- 2009
Senior Pastor -- True North Christian Fellowship, Chicago, IL -- 2009-present
The Southern California Center of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (early '80s)
Seminary Extension for Long Beach Harbor Baptist Association (1982-1983)
California Baptist Korean Theological Seminary (1988-1990)
Union of Evangelicals Master Program, Belarus (2003)
Union of Evangelicals Master Program, Belarus (2005)
The Rock Baptist Church (Greek for Pastors), Fayetteville, GA (2006)
Republic of China Game Design Incubation Seminar (2004)
Art Institute of Atlanta (2007)
Illinois Institute of Art -- Chicago (2008-2009)
DePaul University CDM (2009-present)
encounter magazine (week of devotions for 1977)
Sunday School materials for Southern Baptist Uniform Series--Youth
"Word Study: Holy" Proclaim magazine
Articles for the Holman Bible Dictionary
Articles for the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible
Workbook on Exodus for Southern Baptist Bible Book Series--Adult
Articles for Space World and Ad Astra magazines
Articles for Computer Gaming World and Computer Gaming Forum magazines
Polished Translation for Ultima hintbook for Nintendo version
The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook
The SimEarth Bible
Sid Meier's Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day
The SimCity 2000 Planning Commission Handbook
The Official Strategy Guide to Civilization: Call to Power
Chapter in Taming the News Media
Chapter in Game Developer's Market Guide
Articles for Dragon, Dungeon, and TopDeck magazines
High Score: An Illustrated History of Electronic Games
The Official Strategy Guide to Civilization: Call to Power II
The Bloody Eye
Wytte Media Bible: Jonah
Wytte Media Bible: Philippians
Wytte Media Bible: Amos
Wytte Media Bible: I, II, III John
University of California at Los Angeles (Mark Litwak's multimedia course)
Hastings College (Nebraska) Annual Fine Arts Lecture
Computer Game Developers Conference
Massachussetts Institute of Technology (Multi-discipline seminar with JFK students and MIT students)
Milia Festival in Cannes, France
Banff Arts and Television Festival, Canada
Electronic Entertainment Exposition
Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholarship
Georgia Institute of Technology
Jilin Animation Institute, China
Good Morning, America
Discovery Channel ("Inventions that Changed the World" Spring, 2011)
Outstanding Young Men in America (1977)
Best Software Reviewer, Software Publishers Association (1991)
Who's Who in the West (1993)
Who's Who in America (2001-present)
Who's Who in the World (2001-present)
Strategy Games (board and computer)
Favorite Bible Character: Jeremiah
Favorite Movie: Citizen Kane
Favorite Novel: It Can't Happen Here
Favorite Comic Hero: Rocketeer
Favorite Novelist: John Mortimer
Favorite Non-Fiction Author: William F. Buckley
Favorite Theologian: Walter Brueggemann