Faith, not football, inspires former tight end
But for Johnson, 36, who grew up poor on a steady diet of gospel preaching, football was never a mission — but a means to a higher calling.
“I knew I had to go to college to build a future for myself,” he said.
Playing football was the only way he could afford it.
He majored in criminology, intending to work on the rehabilitation side of law enforcement after graduation.
The National Football League delayed those plans, but when his playing career ended, he worked at a juvenile detention center. He also served as a youth minister. However, he had no desire to return to football.
But then came an opportunity he couldn’t refuse: a chance to mold young lives at a school that he said puts God first. Johnson returned to the field in 2005 to coach Mount Dora Christian Home and Bible School’s inaugural football team.
The part-time position, he said, gives him an even greater venue for his work as youth and family minister at the Orange Avenue church in nearby Eustis.
“It’s a great arena to reach young people,” Johnson said of the K-12 school, where about 70 percent of students come from non-Church of Christ backgrounds.
By all accounts, it’s a kingdom-building strategy that’s working. Attendance at the Orange Avenue church has jumped about 65 percent since 2000, averaging nearly 400 on Sundays.
Much of that growth can be attributed to Johnson’s work with the youth group, elders and members said.
“Our young people are very evangelistic,” said elder Rick Brown, whose son, Parker, 16, plays football for Johnson at Mount Dora Bible. “If you broke down where a lot of the growth has come from, it has been our young people bringing their friends in.”
Orange Avenue elder Jeff Bay also serves as president of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Christian school.
“Lonnie has just been a great leader for our kids in all aspects,” Bay said. “We’ve seen quite a number of the football players … in our Wednesday night classes.”
But Johnson stresses that he’s far from the only adult who contributes to the youth group’s success.
Member Andrea Carter, for example, teaches the teenage girls and developed an annual program called “Stand Out, Speak Up!” It lets girls give speeches, pray, read Scriptures and lead songs for other women of the congregation.
“Girls don’t have an opportunity to do that on a regular basis,” Carter said. “So when I started teaching the teen class, that was a vision I had.”
Ana Van Dingstee, 17, a junior cheerleader at Mount Dora Bible, said: “It gives us a chance to exercise our talents and grow in our faith.”
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PAINTBALL
Wednesday nights are a big deal for young people at the Orange Avenue church. The teens help prepare and serve a meal in the fellowship hall before services. Proceeds from the $5 meal help pay for youth mission trips.
Afterward, the youth group enjoys socializing before Johnson leads a Bible study applying the lesson from the previous Sunday.
As a boy, Johnson said, mature, faithful Christians blessed him by teaching him God’s word. But he’s not certain he always understood how the “head knowledge” he gained applied to his heart. At Orange Avenue, he said he strives to convey to young people what the Bible means to them. Sometimes, that means putting himself in uncomfortable situations, he said with a smile.
“Personally, I’m not a big fan of paintball,” he said of the extreme sport in which participants eliminate opponents from play by hitting them with colored gelatin capsules shot from special guns.
But since teenagers enjoy it, he often takes the youth group. When he does, he said, “I’ll have 15 to 20 kids come from the school who don’t even go to this church.” As a result, he said, he might have an opportunity to engage teens on subjects such as integrity, courage and honesty. He might liken protecting a teammate from the enemy in paintball to the struggles of the Christian life.
“I give the kids a little bit of what they want as teenagers,” he said. “But in doing that, I try to make sure I also keep them aware of and grounded in God’s word.”
Amy Roberts, 18, is a Mount Dora Bible senior and the daughter of pulpit minister Joe Roberts and his wife, Judy.
“I can’t tell you how many kids come to church on Wednesday nights now just because they have done something fun with the youth group,” she said. “They can see, ‘Oh, wow, these Christian kids can have fun without making trouble.’ Plus, they figure out we are pretty cool kids, too, and end up hanging out with us.”
A PASSION TO GIVE BACK
Johnson and his wife, Ushanda, have a son, Tyrone, 16, who plays football for his father; and a daughter, Summer, 7. But for months at a time, the Johnsons also have taken in two of his nephews, Kyle Cork, 18, and Raymond Bernard, 15. They also raised his niece Arrielle Taylor, 19. And they served as foster parents to Franklin Mitchell, 20, who was a student at the Christian school.
Asked about his obvious passion for young people, Johnson recalled growing up so poor that a high school coach once gave him a bed because he didn’t have one.
“Lots of adults contributed financially for me to be able to go on church outings and church encampments,” he said. “They invested in me, and because of them investing in me, I became who I am.”