Scratching the Surface

February 12, 2013

Rev. Mark Johnston (M.A.R. ’83, M.Div. ’84), pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA.

In 1981, Mark Johnston came to Philadelphia from Northern Ireland to study at Westminster.  He came both for its academic reputation and the quality of the faculty. He also describes coming to Westminster for cultural reasons: “Northern Ireland had such a parochial environment at the time where people tended to be born there, grow up there, serve there, and die there, and the theological training opportunities were fairly limited. I thought, if I just get out of the province for three years and get exposure to church life in America and Christians who are studying from all different parts of the world, that would be a healthy thing.” Mark’s time at Westminster confirmed his expectations and more.

Mark came to Westminster for a Master of Arts in Religion degree, and stayed an extra year to complete the requirements for a Master of Divinity. He remembered a conversation he had with a fellow student at the time: “The first week I was here with a guy from New Zealand, we walked around the grounds of Machen and we said to each other, ‘In three years here, we’ll know everything we need to know for the ministry.’ Providentially, we saw ourselves three years later standing in line ready to graduate, and we looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve only scratched the surface.’”

One of the main things that Westminster provided for Mark’s future ministry was the ability to work through a text exegetically. “The main course that was offered on hermeneutics was enormously significant (Drs. Gaffin and Poythress taught it when I was there). The principles taught in that core course were woven through the other biblical studies courses.  Ray Dillard used to compare the principles of hermeneutics to the toolbox of a workman, that each tool has a place and a purpose, but all the tools are not equally valuable. [It’s important] to identify which tools of interpretation are of most importance and which are of secondary importance to work towards a balanced interpretation of the text.” Utilizing the hermeneutical chain of biblical, historical, systematic, and applied theology has been a great help in his preparation for sermons and pastoral ministry.

During Mark’s time at seminary, he and a few other students came up with the idea to start a preaching conference. “The idea was hatched in Van Til Hall while cleaning windows and sweeping floors. One of the bits of advice I had been given from my home pastor, Rev. Derek Thomas, about learning how to preach was ‘listen to as many good preachers as you possibly can.’ That was the year the Walkman had just appeared, and we used to go across the library and get cassette tapes of Eric Alexander, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jim Boice and people like that, and we listened to probably two sermons per day.  We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could inspire the students to hear that kind of preaching on a regular basis?’” In 1983, with Mark’s help, Westminster held its first Preaching Conference.  This year, the preaching conference will celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Shortly after graduating from seminary, Mark was called as a pastor of a church plant in Northern Ireland. Mark describes some of the challenges they faced there: “The first six weeks were hard because we didn’t see too many people come to us. The big test of our faith came on Christmas day, when we thought, ‘Should we or shouldn’t we have a Christmas day service?’ We decided we would, so we put out 12 seats and 15 people came, which was a real surprise.

“Right about two months into the work, the other man who had been there from the start and I sat down to tea one night. We talked about how some people thought it was crazy to do what we were doing.  He opened his Bible to Acts 5 where Gamaliel stands up in the Sanhedrin and says, ‘If this is of men it will come to nothing, but if it is of God, who will stand against it?’ In many ways, that became our watchword for the years ahead, and we thought that if our work was just of ourselves, then it would be better for it to come to nothing. But if God was really in it, then it would succeed. And we saw that unfold over the ten years we were there. It was an exciting time in our lives. We purchased a four-room cottage that we were able to make into a little church. That filled up fairly quickly during the first two or three years, and then we built a proper sanctuary. So, after ten years the church was 100-110 strong.”

One story from his time at the church plant was particularly remarkable. “At the end of roughly three years of the church plant work, we got to the point of being particularized as a church and ordaining our first elders that same night. We asked Donald McLeod from Edinburgh to come and preach. He preached on Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build my church.’ He got to the point of the passage where it says, ‘The gates of hell will not prevail against it.’  At that point he immediately broke off and said, ‘We all know what he meant, that the church will ultimately triumph. But why did he use that expression?’ He said, ‘In the ancient world, the gate of the city was where the council met to make decisions and to strategize. Tonight we meet in this building to constitute a church and ordain two elders. Tonight there is also a parliament in hell to plot its downfall.’ We all came out of the room that night struck by that one part of what was a great sermon—it sounded prophetic. Within six days of that sermon, the IRA put a huge car bomb outside of the house of one of our members. Thankfully, he discovered it before it exploded, but as he was clearing the houses nearby, he was caught in the blast. 10 houses were demolished, and a hundred houses were damaged. From that night onwards, every month for the next 18 months, every single family in the church was hit with a major challenge: bereavement, illness, job loss, family difficulties, etc. I think if it hadn’t been for that sermon, preparing us as a church for the challenges of the next 18 months, we would have lost our nerve. But the Lord used that to keep us and to help the work to flourish.”

After ten years with his first church plant, Mark was called to Grove Chapel, Camberwell in London, England – one of the historic Calvinistic Chapels in the United Kingdom. The Lord used the move to teach Mark whole new dimensions of ministry in the context of a large city. “It was a complete contrast from working in a village of about 3,000 people to working in a city of 6 or 7 million. That was a huge cultural change. It brought its own challenges, and had its own learning curve, but it was a special time when I grew in the ministry and so did the church as well. I think one of the big things was that my first church was in a very culturally conservative part of the world, with a very high proportion of evangelicals who leave their influence on culture. So to go to a very secularized culture in London, and a very multicultural situation, was a whole new environment.”

Towards the end of 2009, Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA, contacted Mark to ask if he would be willing to pastor their church.  After much prayer and discussion, Mark agreed and began as senior pastor in August of 2010 after pastoring the church in London for 16 years. While he had spent plenty of time in America for various reasons, Rev. Johnston has found pastoring a church in America to present its own challenges. “I have been particularly struck by the extent to which post-Enlightenment individualism has taken hold not just in secular America, but in the church as well.” One of his main concerns in seeking to nurture the church has been to repeatedly point to the fact that Christ builds his church by the Means of Grace he has ordained (the Word, fellowship, the sacraments and prayer) and through his people being led by the pastor-teachers he has given to the church to lead them towards unity, maturity and usefulness (Eph 4.11-16).

Rev. Johnston’s prayer is that he would continue to be a faithful preacher of the Word and that the Lord would use him to bring the people of Bryn Mawr and the greater Philadelphia area to a deeper knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Join us on February 20th as Rev. Johnston preaches in chapel at 10:30am in Rust Auditorium.