Gary Johnson serves as lead pastor/elder with The Creek, formerly Indian Creek Christian Church, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
How has your approach to God been altered over the years?
Growing up, I went to church week after week without ever realizing that one could have a personal walk with God through his Son, Jesus Christ. I was following a religion, not pursuing a relationship. Leah’s family introduced me to a relationship with Jesus.
And has your approach to Christian leadership changed too?
About 15 years ago I went through a period of deep introspection. We had hired a number of gifted young staff here at The Creek. I admired their approach to ministry and methodology. I was attending leadership conferences around the country—Andy Stanley, Willow Creek, for example. I realized I needed to rethink my approach and retool for ministry. This was a defining moment.
The late Dr. Joe Ellis helped the leadership at The Creek transition from a “member-driven church” to a “mission-driven church.” With that shift, we began explosive growth, both numerically and spiritually—many more people were coming to Christ, and discipleship was leading the whole church to more maturity.
Can you detail that growth?
We made a decision to deliberately seek and save the lost. A few hundred people left us over that emphasis, but a few thousand came in. We were running about 1,200 to 1,500, and now we run 4,000 to 5,000. This is in Indianapolis, with the greatest concentration of independent Christian churches, and several megachurches of all kinds.
Tell us more about your personal transition.
My transition and the church’s are intertwined. Long ago, I realized I could not lead people unless I first led myself. Self-leadership is nonnegotiable. To that end, I need to continually develop my leadership skills, while helping to create a leadership environment.
Every church has its own personality, its DNA. Our DNA at The Creek is about equipping and releasing people to serve in ministry. We keep trying to push this envelope. For example, we were the first of our churches to host accredited undergraduate and graduate degree programs on our campus. We pursued that with Cincinnati Christian University because we believe in the marriage between the local church and the educational institution. Whether equipping for professional ministry or simply for growth as a believer, equipping and releasing is in our DNA.
For several years we have sponsored a conference called “Re-Church.” Limited to 500 participants, this gathering is specially tailored for Christian church leaders—staff, elders, and deacons.
In addition, Jim Estep, David Roadcup, and I have established an equipping ministry for elders called E2: Effective Elders. In the last two years, E2 has taught more than 2,500 elders from across the country. We want the next generation of leaders to be equipped, released, and empowered to take the kingdom of Jesus where we have not taken it ourselves.
Is that what led to your recent book?
Yes, the book is called Leader><Shift: One Becomes Less While Another Becomes More. That principle is at the heart of leadership succession.
You emphasize elders at a level not always seen in megachurches. How does that mesh with a strong and dynamic church staff?
The elder team is vital to the overall health of the church. At The Creek, we believe a healthy leader should help produce a healthy leadership team that produces a healthier church. The elder team develops polity called elder governance, which includes me serving as an elder—a peer among peers. Elders are engaged in ministry, setting policy like at the Jerusalem Council, and then trusting the staff to lead the church. Each elder pastors by example, while collectively overseeing the pastoring of thousands.
Indian Creek Christian Church has been rebranded as “The Creek.” What’s that about?
It was a simple decision and it happened spontaneously. A creek formerly flowed through our property, and people casually gave us a nickname: The Creek. The name stuck, and we adopted it as our brand many years ago.
Are you still a “Christian church”?
Definitely. We are strongly committed to being a Restoration New Testament church. Our abbreviated name is a simple effort to be culturally relevant. The name gives us instant recognition in our community and, once acquainted with us, no one has a hard time knowing what our doctrines are.
How does short-term planning change your operation.
We live, breathe, and sleep three-year planning. Our current plan is called “Engage,” and it provides a strategy for pursuing our vision and mission. The current plan has three specific targets, one of which is the next generation. For example, the newest building on our campus was used only by adults, but we gutted that building, repurposing it for children’s ministry. This was the result of three-year planning. “Engage” forces us to pursue the future with intentional and measurable initiatives. Three-year planning keeps The Creek moving forward, avoiding inertia.
Back to Gary Johnson. Help us understand your soul.
Early in my Christian walk I committed to practicing spiritual disciplines. Scripture and prayer is the core of my spiritual formation. I spend a significant amount of time reading, meditating on, memorizing, and praying Scripture. I want to invest my life in that which is eternal: the Word of God and people, particularly younger people.
Psalm 127:3-5 provides rich imagery for me. Sons are like arrows in the hands of a warrior—going where the warrior cannot. I want the next generation to take the kingdom of God where I never could. For example, I love missions, but I do not sense the Holy Spirit releasing me from my being a preacher in the local church. Yet, my son Aaron is a church planter in New Orleans, taking Christ into the lower Ninth Ward that was devastated by Katrina.
Having taught for years as an adjunct for CCU and TCM, I love Christian higher education, but I’ve not been called by God to serve on a seminary campus. Yet, my other son, Jared, is now president of Maritime Christian College in Eastern Canada.
God has not released me as a local church preacher to serve him as a missionary or professor, but my sons have gone where I cannot go.
So you anticipate staying at The Creek?
Yes. Using my book as a guide, The Creek has developed a written succession plan. Working with our elders and Executive Leadership Team, we produced a plan that will drive the process of succession. When the Lord prompts the timing for me to leave, we will push “start” on the plan, trusting that God will enable us to make an effective transition that greatly honors him.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.