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Friends tried to talk me out of it. "These people are scary," said one, who'd been brought up in a strict fundamentalist home. (What does it say about a church when a person is afraid to go there?) My girlfriend brooded about the idea all week, as if there were really a chance that going to Johnston's church might turn me straight, therefore breaking up the happy home where we live in an unsanctified yet sufficiently blissful facsimile of marriage.
Truthfully, the assignment I'd given myself sounded like hell on earth. So I revised my strategy: I would attend a service and tell anyone who asked that it was my first time, that I was a gay liberal who was trying to understand the values voter. And I made a rule, like Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me, who determined that if the server at McDonald's asked if he wanted to supersize his order, he had to say yes. If, after hearing why I was there, anyone at First Family Church invited me back, I'd have to keep going.
November 14 was a cold, gray Sunday. The modern church sits on 51 acres atop a hill at 143rd Street and Metcalf, looking like a heavenly strip mall out on the newly subdivided prairie. Inside, a concourse is lined by storefront amenities, including the Dinky & Coco's snack shop (stocked with Snapples, sodas, bottled water, muffins, cookies, candy bars and coffee) and a Waldenbooks knockoff. ("The Entire Bookstore is on Sale!! Prices have never been so LOW!") The congregation gathers in a giant, white-cinder-block room with removable metal chairs and basketball hoops retracted to the ceilings. (Three hundred "incredible kids" are registered in the church's basketball ministry.)
The church claims 3,000 members, which is still far behind Johnson County's signature megachurch, Adam Hamilton's Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, which boasts an astounding 13,000 souls. But Johnston's $15 million campus has outgrown its current 54,000 square feet; the church has announced a 70,000-square-foot, $8.5 million expansion. Once that's done, First Family plans to set up satellite churches, first throughout the metro, then the country, then the world.
Already Johnston is overseeing a massive operation with ten other ministers. (His son Jeremy's official title is executive pastor and COO of media; there's also a media ministries director, an Internet ministries director and a minister just for married couples.) His wife, Christie Jo Johnston, who credits God for helping her heal after years of panic disorder, now directs the women's ministry, overseeing the 22 groups that meet every Monday night to provide support for folks suffering from traumas such as eating disorders, abandonment issues, single parenting, divorce, alcoholism, pornography addiction and, yes, homosexuality.
With its lite-rock entertainment, the 9:15 service is one of three every Sunday morning. (There's a "traditional" version with a choir and orchestra at 8 a.m., a "blended" service at 10:45 and another on Wednesday evenings.)
When Johnston asks first-timers to identify themselves, I raise my hand.