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Evangelism on aisle 5: Seminary professor becomes ‘pastor’ of store next door

Mark Johnson, right, talks to a store employee. (NOBTS photo)

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Mark Johnson, assistant professor of evangelism and pastoral ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, goes to the busy, franchised grocery store next door to the seminary every day. On purpose.

“Anybody need toothpaste?” Johnson asks his wife and four children. “Somebody’s got a headache? Okay, I’m going.” 

Johnson has been making the trip almost from the day he joined the seminary and Leavell College faculty in 2019. His ventures in “shopping evangelism,” as he calls it, have paid off. Store managers and employees call him “Pastor” as he ministers and shares the gospel.  

“I’m broke, but … ” Johnson quipped, “I know everybody there. I know the store.” 

The six-foot-five former international pro basketball player knows the layout so well that one day when an employee couldn’t locate an item for a shopper, Johnson chimed in. 

“Aisle 5,” he offered.

Each trip begins with prayer that God will use him in whatever way He wants, knowing some days no opportunity may come. 

“He may call you just to go get bananas,” Johnson said. “It’s that simple.”  

One day he decided his visit was just to buy a new pair of socks for his son. God had other plans. 

“It turned into a 15-to-20-minute conversation with someone who was contemplating suicide,” Johnson said. “If I hadn’t gone to get socks that day, it could have been a different outcome.” 

At first, Johnson went alone on his shopping evangelism excursions, drawing from a previous ministry he led while senior pastor at Liberty Hill Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. There, a rapid transit line outside the church door went directly to the mall and church members’ shopping evangelism sprees were easy and yielded fruit. 

In New Orleans, students frequently join Johnson to pray, minister and share the gospel. 

Johnson feels free to pray inside with individuals, but students usually defer to the store’s wishes and pray outside. As the team prayer-walks the four corners of the parking lot they stop at each one to pray for one of four groups: neighborhood children, mothers, fathers and store employees. 

Often as the teams walk from one corner to the next, they find opportunities to listen, comfort and share the gospel. During COVID-19, as many experienced isolation and anxiety, the prayer-walkers continued to share. 

“We found ourselves hugging, holding and saying, ‘It’s going to be alright,’” Johnson remembered. 

Relationship is key to the open doors he has found. 

His wife Heather was shopping at the store one day when an employee recognized her. Knowing it was Johnson’s birthday, the employee took her to the card aisle, picked out a card and insisted Heather buy it. 

The next day Johnson found the employee.

“You couldn’t even buy a card for me? You made my wife buy it?” Johnson teased. “That’s the kind of relationship we have.” 

While some employees have a church home, many do not. Tragedy struck two years ago when a targeted shooting left one person dead inside the store. Johnson arrived to find it cordoned off. 

“He’s Pastor,” employees said, and Johnson was welcomed in. As he ministered to hurting family members and employees processing grief, God opened many doors to share the gospel. 

Shopping evangelism is easy, Johnson noted. 

“The biggest change for students is their fear of evangelism is dropping,” he said. “When they do this, they say, ‘Oh, that was easy. We prayed and waited on God.’”

While spiritual warfare is real and the people he meets have pressing needs, Johnson sees that God is at work despite the challenges around them.   

He stressed that God will open doors as believers allow Him to work.  

“God has given us an easy missions field that doesn’t take a plane ticket. You don’t have to catch a bus to get there,” Johnson said.

With the engaging smile he is known for, he added, “He’s not asking you to do anything but shop. Just go get socks. Be a willing vessel for Him.”

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  • Marilyn Stewart