Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

Al Johnson faithfully attended a church for years and even served as a deacon, but something was missing.

“I loved God but was not happy going to church. I was happier leaving the church than going to church. I loved the people in the church, but it wasn’t a family. I had had enough, and something had to give,” Johnson recalled in a telephone interview with Light + Life from his home in Columbus, Georgia. “As I look back now, I had outgrown that church body. My faith in Jesus was pushing me for more. The Holy Spirit wanted me to move.”

Johnson realized “there was more that God had for me to do. There was more to being a Christian than knowing Bible verses, raising money, and going to Bible study on Wednesday nights learning about early Christian living, yet not understanding how to apply the Bible to my everyday life.”

Then two co-workers, Kelly Cargill and Mercedes Parham, invited Johnson to Christ Community Church, a Free Methodist congregation in Columbus, Georgia, that Bishop Keith and Pam Cowart planted. Johnson said that on his first visit five years ago, he experienced “love that enveloped me by everyone who I met. … I just felt God’s love was there.”

Christ Community exemplifies The Free Methodist Way values of Life-Giving Holiness, Love-Driven Justice, Christ-Compelled Multiplication, Cross-Cultural Collaboration and God-Given Revelation. The church’s commitment to these values has attracted unexpected attention. Guideposts featured Lead Pastor Derrick Shields on the cover of its February issue, and the magazine included an article titled “Diversity Has Strengthened the Bonds of This Pastor’s Congregation.”

The Free Methodist Way includes “valuing the image of God in all men, women, and children” with devotion to the denominational “founders’ deep convictions around matters of injustice as they took their stand against the evils of slavery, the oppression of the poor, the marginalization of women, and the abuse of power in the church.” Christ Community’s acceptance of women in ministry caught Johnson’s attention. Kelli Wommack, the pastor of leadership development, preached on the first Sunday that Johnson attended.

“In the church I came from, women couldn’t go as far in the church as God may allow them,” he said. “When I saw her giving that sermon, everything fell in place. … I would see these sisters [at the previous church] and they would be saying, ‘God wants me to do this, and God wants me to do that’ … and they couldn’t because of the denomination. … It was like a burden had been lifted off of me hearing that sermon from Pastor Kelli.”

Johnson quickly became friends with the people sitting near him, and these friendships have lasted.

“My row at church became my circle, because we started encouraging each other,” he said. “Two of them have moved because of the pandemic, but we still communicate by internet.”

Pastor Shields said that Johnson has become an active member of the Christ Community family who has served on missions trips and in volunteer positions. Church leaders invited Johnson to share his testimony during an outdoor “family reunion” service and picnic that the church promoted with a video set to the music from the TV show “Family Matters.” (Click here to watch the video via the church’s Facebook page.)

Johnson shared about his experience beginning to attend Christ Community: “I cried during the worship portion of the service for the first six to eight weeks, not because I was sad or because of past missteps, sin, or even not talking to my Father as much as I should. It was because of the love that encircled my soul, it was the love that God was showing me how He wanted his family to be here on earth. It was the Holy Spirit in the place!”

In his conversation with Light + Life, Johnson said his previous church focused heavily on building projects and internal matters. Christ Community is more service-oriented.

“Since I’ve been at Christ Community Church, I’ve been on a mission trip to Rwanda. I’ve participated in numerous food drives. I’m a part of the tech team. I’m a part of In Loving Color, which is a group that meets every other week, and we discuss the issues and how we can help people see the love of God. There are a lot of activities and ways to work for the kingdom,” said Johnson, who added that Christ Community “is giving people the opportunity to do what God would have them to do and to set us up for success in the kingdom of God.”


Crossing Cultures

According to The Free Methodist Way, “from the beginning, God’s intent was to have a people from every nation, culture and ethnicity, united in Christ and commissioned to carry out His work in the world.” Johnson has witnessed Cross-Cultural Collaboration as a reality at Christ Community.

“Christ Community to me is the way God would want it. It’s God’s family here on earth,” he said. “There are all different nationalities. There are all different races. There are colors of the spectrum there.”

Johnson knows what it’s like to cross cultures. He was born in Delaware but grew up primarily in Chicago. His parents would send him from Illinois to Delaware for summers with his grandparents.

“My upbringing was pretty rural, and it was pretty urban at the same time,” said Johnson, who retired from the military after 21 years of service. “I went in the Army when I was 18. I really didn’t mean to make it a career. It was just that I asked the Lord what He wanted me to do.”

For many years, he didn’t feel God leading him to another career, so he served for more than two decades in the Army. He served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm where he received a Bronze Star. He also had three tours of duty in Germany and a tour in Korea. After retiring, he worked in Chicago as an installation and repair manager for a telephone company, and he now works in security at the Columbus Museum.

Holiness in Community

The Free Methodist Way includes an invitation for “every believer to embrace the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that empowers us to love and serve God and others in joyful obedience.”

Johnson has experienced joyful obedience among the believers at Christ Community. At his previous church, he said, “I loved a lot of people there, but it just wasn’t family. There wasn’t that cohesiveness — brotherly and sisterly love that you feel as a family.” In contrast, Johnson said, “I’m just having a great time in the Lord at Christ Community. It’s a blessing in this community to have Christ Community. Bishop Cowart really did a great thing in listening and letting God drive him to set up this church in Columbus.”

He added, “I am not so naive to think that every day in any family is always a bed of roses, but the Holy Spirit has let me know hard patches become soft when the family works as one toward the plan of God. God’s plan for us, from my perspective, is to get more of Him, so we can give more. I have been helped in so many ways to get more of Him because the more I get, the more I must give.”

After Johnson shared his testimony at Christ Community, Pastor Shields commented to the congregation, “What he gave witness to is the body of Christ and what happens when the body of Christ operates like the body of Christ.”


Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.