Stephen Johnson | Graduate School of Theology

stephen johnson

Once Dr. Stephen Johnson's students realize he actually is old enough to be a professor, they embark on a journey with him that expands their minds and their souls.

But the professor's youthful looks cause a few double-takes at first. David Ayres, who is a senior this fall, remembers taking part in the Freshman Blessing in the spring of 2007.

Johnson is a mentor for both the Freshman and Senior Blessing programs, which are annual retreats held in the Department of Bible, Missions and Ministry. 

David remembers the question Johnson posed to the second-semester freshmen back in the spring of 2007.

"How old do you think I am?" he asked the surprised students.

David recalled that everyone guessed late 20s or maybe early 30s. They were stunned to learn that the man who could pass for one of them actually was closer to 40 than 30.

Bible student blessings

Johnson has been a part of the Freshman Blessing since it started three years ago and the Senior Blessing since he returned to ACU as a faculty member in 2001.

The Senior Blessing started in 1999, which was nine years after Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in biblical studies from ACU.

In the past eight years, the Senior Blessing has become special to Johnson.

"It's my favorite day of the whole year of teaching," he said.

Johnson has taken over a new position in the Graduate School of Theology this fall as an assistant professor of ministry and director of contextual education.

He looks forward to the new challenges, but he definitely will miss working with undergraduates. Johnson not only looks college age, he may be as tuned in to popular culture as the students.

Intersection of Christianity and culture

That comes from a natural interest and from teaching a course in Christianity in culture. Johnson and his students explore the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary culture by studying movies, music, lives of performers and literature.

The question he poses to his students is, "How do you move forward in the 21st Century as a person of faith?"

He calls it "contextual education" or "How do you read the world?" Those questions, he believes, are essential for young people to ponder, especially if they are planning careers in church ministry or missions.

Johnson also teaches upper-level preaching and worship classes in the Department of Bible, Missions and Ministry and will continue in the graduate school.

Preaching and worship, along with teaching about preaching and worship, are two of Johnson's loves.

"I'm just wired to live in both worlds," he said.

Fortunately for him, he can do both. For the past five years, he has been the preacher at Buffalo Gap Church of Christ in addition to teaching full time. That's a trend that started years ago.

Johnson grew up in Wichita Falls and graduated from nearby Iowa Park High School in 1986. He remembers that as far back as elementary school, he had one answer whenever he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"I wanted to be a preacher," he said.

When it came time for college, Johnson hadn't changed his mind, so he headed off to ACU. While attending ACU as an undergraduate, he worked with youth programs at churches in Hawley and in Hamilton.

Preaching and teaching: Best of both worlds

He was preacher at the Church of Christ in Trent in 1988 and preached full time in Wichita Falls from 1990 to 2000. He also preached at a church in San Antonio for one year.

After earning a bachelor's degree, Johnson added a master of divinity degree from ACU in 1996 and a doctor of ministry degree in 2000.

Not wanting to stop there, Johnson added a doctor of theology degree from the University of Toronto in 2007.

But before that trip to Toronto, Johnson had returned to ACU, this time as a faculty member. When he was asked to come back in that capacity in 2001, he immediately thought about what his days at the university had meant to him.

"I knew how very formative my time was here as a student," he said.

Professors shared experiences with students, formed relationships with them, and then helped sustain them when they left for all parts of the world.

Johnson realized he wanted to be a part of that again - this time from the other side of the lectern. As much as Johnson knew he would enjoy teaching and being a part of students' lives, he also knew he couldn't give up preaching.

And he hasn't. A love of preaching, in fact, is what led him to the University of Toronto to get a doctor of theology degree. Actually, it wasn't the university itself that attracted so much as one of its faculty members, Dr. Paul Scott Wilson.

Johnson wanted to study homiletics, and he admired Wilson's writings on that topic. When Johnson learned that Wilson taught in Toronto, he applied. By that time, Johnson was married to a woman he had met as a freshman at ACU, Gayna Harris.

The couple married in 1988 and now have three children, Claire, 17, and Emily, 15, both students at Abilene High School; and Henry, 4. Gayna teaches at Taylor Elementary School, working with students who have problems with reading and math.

When Johnson decided to pursue a doctorate at Toronto, the whole family went.

"We had an absolutely wonderful time there," he said.

Now, armed with two doctorates, Johnson is taking his expertise to ACU's Graduate School of Theology. No doubt, those students will come to appreciate the same things about Johnson that his former undergraduate students cherished.

David Ayres, who had Johnson for several classes, was impressed with how excited Johnson was about his courses. He believes graduate students are in for a real treat.

"He is inspiring," David said. "He gets you excited about the content."

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