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Entertainment opens hearts, minds to understanding gospel in Orlando

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Forty million tourists annually flock to Orlando, Fla., to be entertained to their heart’s content. If Marc and Sandra Johnston have their way, a growing number will return home with changed hearts.

Johnston serves as resort ministries director for the Greater Orlando Baptist Association. He and Sandra are among the featured missionaries of the North American Mission Board’s March 3-10 Week of Prayer for North American Missions.

Each year the Johnstons recruit up to 20 college-age youth to serve on creative arts and other ministry teams throughout central Florida, sharing their faith as they provide entertainment and ministry.

If there’s an empty section of sidewalk, chances are the students will stake it out and transform it into their stage.

“You name it, our creative arts team does it,” Johnston says with an upbeat optimism for the upcoming tourist season. When it comes to variety, he works to be sure his audiences are never bored and enjoy every performance.

Musicians. Vocalists. Puppeteers. Jugglers. Choreographers. There’s even a fire-eater on staff to mesmerize the audiences with flames he quenches before their eyes.

“We’ve learned that we can reach a lot of people through nontraditional methods,” Johnston says. And the more nontraditional, the better, in the land of Shamu the Killer Whale, Mickey and Minnie, and (King) Kongfrontation.

“Last year we reported 200 professions of faith through all of our ministries, and we’ve had an increase for each of the last five years. Nearly 130 of those occurred during the busy summer tourist season,” Johnson recounted.

“We use a variety of ways to tell the gospel story and try to present it in a different light so people will understand it easier than through a traditional sermon approach.”

The scene at Church Street Station in downtown Orlando says it all.

This major tourist destination attracts thousands each night, with larger crowds on weekends. Unofficially known as Party Central, it’s where folks go to see and be seen. Johnston has gained permission to allow the team to perform outside the massive complex as people wait to enter.

On this balmy evening, the crowd is attracted to David Hicks, a US/C-2 missionary from Alabama, as he performs a juggling act. Then the program takes a slightly more serious direction as local volunteer Peter O’Driscoll presents the gospel using fluorescent paint.

The glowing colors fascinate the crowd as they listen, in a fresh new way, to a story as old as the ages. Before they know it, many who would not sit through a sermon have heard the plan of salvation.

The schedule for the creative arts team, popular with tourists, is not for the fainthearted. The team regularly performs in seven different locations Tuesday through Friday, with a larger program featuring the knife-apple-torch juggler on Saturday evenings.

On Sundays they split up into praise teams and help lead in worship services at the Disney’s Polynesian Resort and in small churches.

But resort ministries is more than just creative arts. Johnston also utilizes up to 30 student volunteers in a variety of ways away from the performance mode, including:

— supervising a program of nearly 30 Kids Clubs at area hotel swimming pools, reaching up to 400 children a week in a setting similar to a Backyard Bible Club. By reaching the children, opportunities arise to minister to their parents.

— piloting for the last three years a program in which students are employed at hotels, giving them an opportunity to provide complimentary chaplaincy services to other employees with whom they work. Many times that relationship opens doors to beginning a Kids Club on the property.

— helping students secure jobs as swimming pool monitors at manufactured housing communities.

— coordinating eight weeks of day camps, ranging from four to 10 each week. With 50 percent of the central Florida population residing in multihousing settings, many of the camps are held in apartments and manufactured housing communities which proliferate in the area.

“A lot of what we do through these ministries is relationship building,” Sandra explains, “whether that be with adults or children.

“We can get a lot more accomplished through getting to personally know someone and meeting their spiritual and other needs than standing around at venues and passing out tracts. Once we have genuinely befriended someone, we feel we have earned the right to share our faith; that opens many doors to give a solid gospel presentation.”

Johnston says the approach is a win-win for the student missionaries as well as the community.

The community feels it is getting a quality product and employers frequently ask for more workers the next summer; the students are stretched out of their comfort zone and learn to minister in a variety of settings to people from a variety of cultures. It really helps them to grow in their faith, gives them a chance to hone their faith-sharing skills, and return home as a better witness.”

But the couple’s biggest problem is finding enough volunteers to meet the demands.

“I had an apartment manager who called me recently and was begging me for some students to provide ministries at her complex, but I had to say ‘no.’ I’m beginning to have to say that a lot these days.”

Sandra Johnston explains that people from around the world are employed in a large number of the area attractions and many have trouble adjusting to the new culture. The volunteers — especially those in chaplaincy roles — play an important role in befriending those individuals, helping orient them to America, and putting them in touch with churches and Christian families who ease their transition.

It’s the first encounter many have with Americans, and the Johnstons want to be sure the initial encounter is with Christians.

“The doors are wide open for year-round ministry down here,” Marc says.

He’s praying that more students or church mission youth groups, as well as adults who will help in other ministries, will be willing to walk through those doors.
For more information on the Johnstons and other missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit the www.anniearmstrong.com website. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ORLANDO OUTREACH; TIME FOR TOURISTS and CARS, TOURISTS & a WITNESS.

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  • Joe Westbury