5863 Hardy Avenue, College Area
Membership: 34,000+ (entire SDSU faculty, staff and student body)
Pastor: Darin Johnson
Born: Sioux Falls, SD
Formation: Iowa State University, Ames, IA; Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago; Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, IA
Years Ordained: 20
San Diego Reader: How do you preach to 34,000 people?
Pastor Darin Johnson: Here at Agape, we don’t preach, really. Rather, proclamation of the Gospel is a conversation. That’s somewhat unique to our community. We’re engaged in a conversation of seeking. So, when we’re wrestling with passages of scripture, I’ll usually warm it up for people, but then we really do turn it open to the community — and we have conversations, not a monologue, usually.
SDR: Where’s the strangest place you’ve found God?
PJ: Honestly the most surprising place I’ve found God is in the U.S. I know that’s big, but this is such a divided place. Yet its diversity is its greatest strength. With all our -isms, our arrogance, our fundamentalisms, our pursuit of money and material things, our constant distractions, I’m constantly amazed that people can be touched by the infinite here, and yet it happens. That’s got to be a God that loves us anyway. It’s mysterious to me, but I love that, too. It’s part of our tradition. God is in those places that seem strange to people; in human terms, Jesus seems to say, “The stranger, the better,” because it’s the stranger that opens us out beyond our human concerns and narrow-mindedness.
SDR: Where do you go when you die?
PJ: No offense to people who are certain about those things, but I’m not. For me, this life is plenty of mystery for me to wrestle with. I don’t have any illusions about my individual personality or mind persisting after death. To me, life is breath; it’s a gift. I received breath from my birth, and I return it moment by moment. When it stops for me, whatever of me remains will return to where it came from. I trust this life is a gift, and I accept my humble space in time as my part of that gift. Heaven is here or nowhere. Science has helped us become clear on that. Orthodox Christianity proclaims that Christ conquered hell, so I wonder what all the fuss is about hellfire. For me, Christ is suffering hell on Earth as long as we oppress and violate one another as if we’re not one big family. What I get with Christ at the center of the message is that punishment is a human habit, but God is ultimate mercy. God can forgive what is beyond our imaginings to forgive. Somehow we can be set free from that — by mercy, not by punishment or fear. God is the reconciling factor. We don’t cross over to the reign of God by our own effort, but God comes to us in mercy. So, where we are when we die is more interesting. Every night I surrender to sleep; every morning I die a little bit to the busyness that lies ahead for me. When I get up, I thank God for my breath; I meditate and study. By the time I get my child out the door I’ve died a little bit to the idea that I’m in charge of everything. That for me is a way of life — death and resurrection.