"The first night, eight kids showed up with piercings and mohawks--the kind of people we were trying to reach," says Johnson. "And Nathan jumped on top of the thing they put coffins on, and he started talking about how Jesus healed the leper. When he was done, a couple of the kids came up to us and said, 'That's me at school. I'm the leper.'" Many of the youths had troubled home lives, Johnson says, and some were doing drugs. As the Bible study continued, he began to spend more and more time with them, letting some stay at home with him, his wife, and two children.
When it became obvious that live music brought bigger crowds to the services, Johnson encouraged bands to perform and started singing in one of his own. ("I suppose it was better than nothing," said one audience member at an early gig, christening the band.) Johnson says Better Than Nothing's music was "really, really bad," but he says the band gets over on sheer spirit. "I just know what God's called me to do," he says. "I think people who have more talent musically, they probably struggle more."
After a year of Hardcore Bible Studies, Johnson left his job as a pastor to work on the project full-time. He kept his ties with David Pierce's Steiger International, a world missions group with similar pop-music ministries around the globe. But Steiger doesn't pay Johnson a regular salary, and to support his family, he's taken jobs with Federal Express, worked as a roofer, and clocked hours in a parking lot.
When their funeral home space was bought out from under them in the summer of '94, Johnson and company began doing street theater in the parking lot next to the Hard Times Cafe, the West Bank multiculti and counterculti crossroads. Nathan Hieb, who had preached to punks at the old space, got into a coffin, which friends covered with black construction paper. To begin their play, Hieb jumped out to give a prepared monologue about the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life.
"A lot of people clapped, because that's what they believe," remembers Johnson. "But then it was my turn, and the plan was to have this conversation where we'd talk about spiritual things, so everybody hears about it without being preached at. I said, 'Hey, crazy-guy. You're right. All man's philosophies lead to death. But there's another way. Jesus...' and as soon as I said it, the place kind of exploded."
Unable to finish the play, Johnson and the other Christians engaged the hecklers, talking to people in the back lot for hours and even praying with one. "As soon as you say 'Christian,' everyone thinks of fundamentalists," says Scott when I bring up some of the concerns people have with politically reactionary Christian groups. "It all gets mushed together, where Christian is Republican is pro-life is gay-bashing is blowing up clinics. That's not accurate, because following Jesus is on a different level. It's not political."
During his Foxfire sermon, Johnson quotes a Bible passage in which Jesus rebukes one of his disciples for judging the tactics of another follower. In painstakingly down-to-earth terms, Johnson tells his young audience that their disdain for other, stuffier Christians is as suspect as the judgments usually visited on them. "Anyone who claims to have the only, ultimate truth, I suggest you run away from people like that," he says. "None of us are experts. Sometimes we know more about some movies than we know about God. I used to be able to quote every line in Caddyshack, and I probably still can."
Johnson's speech, like his music, is accessible precisely because it's unpolished--casual, but also apparently heartfelt. In style and substance, he subtly rebukes traditional evangelical tactics. "When we send missionaries to other countries," he tells me later, "we make them learn the language and the culture. For some reason, we've been slow to do that here."
Call him a man with a mission.
Hardcore Bible Study meets every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, 319 First Ave. N., Mpls.; 338-2360.
Clear performs on January 7 at the Coffee Shock, 1532 Larpenteur Ave. W., St. Paul; 647-1887.
The New Union celebrates its 10th anniversary December 31 through January 2, with concerts by Little Kelly, Lloyd, and Urban Street Level. 3141 Central Ave. NE, Mpls; 781-8488.