HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“If it means me dying and lost people coming to know Christ, I’d die.”
Those words were spoken by 16-year-old Nathan Johnson this past summer at camp — a few months before he lost his life in a car accident.
In more than 240 remembrances written in notebooks by visitors at his funeral service, it is clear that Nathan had a passion for God and meant what he said.
“God shined through him.” “He had a full life with God at the center.” “God’s Word — he lived it.” “He loved God — everyone knew it.”
Nathan’s father Chris, who is pastor at Central Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., and an editor at LifeWay Christian Resources, recounted that on one of the worst days of his life (July 28, the date of Nathan’s accident) he remembered one of the best days of his life — the day he got a call from his wife Kathy informing him that 7-year-old Nathan had gotten off the bus from school and told his mom he had been thinking about Jesus and was ready to pray to receive Him.
“I talked to him about it and asked him questions and it was clear to me that he was ready and he understood,” Chris Johnson said.
And since that time, Nathan made it the passion of his life to share Christ with everyone he encountered.
“Nathan was an incredible kid,” said Jeff Lovingood, youth minister at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville where Nathan worshiped. “He got it. Wherever he went, he shared Christ. He was a special kid.” When he entered a room and flashed his smile, Lovingood said, “it was evident he was different.”
When Nathan was in the fourth or fifth grade, an influential coach told him, “from everyone who has been given much, much will be required -– Luke 12:48.” That passage evidently stuck with Nathan throughout his life. His mother recalled a time when Nathan was pondering over it and asked her why she thought God had given him so much. “Because He knew He could trust you. He knew you would use it for His glory,” she answered.
By all accounts, Nathan had everything going for him. He was a gifted athlete -— the place kicker and punter for Beech High School who was being compared to current University of Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit.
He was also a gifted musician. His band, Through A Glass, named from 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” was scheduled to perform the night of his death before representatives of three major record labels at Rocketown, a popular Nashville music venue.
“He had the ‘it’ factor,” said Jeremiah Barnes, Nathan’s friend and fellow band member. “I’m not sure what ‘it’ is, but he definitely had it. Everybody was attracted to him — girls and guys. He wasn’t friends with just one crowd — he was everybody’s friend. To all kinds of kids.”
Allie Brooke Shelby, who was dating Nathan at the time of his death, said an aunt had encouraged her to begin praying for the kind of husband she wanted. “What I wanted, he [Nathan] had,” Shelby said. “He had it all. He was always so happy and had such a passion for Christ.”
Nathan used all these gifts — his athletic ability, musical talent and charisma — to share with others his obvious passion for Christ. As far back as the third grade, his parents recalled, Nathan used the resurrection eggs during a show-and-tell exercise to share the Gospel with his classmates at school. From that time forward, there are numerous accounts of Nathan sharing the Gospel with those around him.
“His freshman year in high school — he was attending his first football camp — and he called me and told me he had led two guys to Christ the night before,” Kathy Johnson recounted. “He said he was reading his Bible to them and talking and he looked up and the whole team was looking at him and finally someone said, ‘Hey everybody, shut up, Nathan’s talking about God.’ That night, two guys prayed to receive Christ -– one of whom he had been concerned about for a while.”
Kathy laughed in recounting that Nathan told her one of the guys asked if it meant he would have to stop smoking marijuana. She said that caught Nathan by surprise, but he responded, “Well, yeah. But He’ll give you the strength to stop.”
“We don’t have life,” Nathan wrote in his journal, “unless we breathe His Word.” Kathy said he did what many believers make so difficult: “We make it [witnessing] hard. Nathan let it be part of who he was. He lived it. He would just start talking to people and say, ‘Hi, I’m Nathan Johnson. Do you know Jesus?’”
On Aug. 8, 2005, Nathan wrote the following entry into his personal journal: “Today … He has enlightened the eyes of my heart to His will in which He has with no doubt called me…. His will for me is to radically impact my school for Him…. This will be the start of a revolution at my school for God and by the grace of God.”
Lovingood, who’s been at Long Hollow almost five years, said he has never seen anything like the responses since Nathan’s death. “At visitation, it took four hours to get in and just say something to his parents,” he said.
“The morning of his funeral I woke up in a cold sweat wondering about what I would say,” Lovingood added. “I knew I had to give an invitation — if I didn’t Nathan would be mad at me.”
Of the dozens who have turned to Christ since Nathan’s funeral, Lovingood said, “… He’s still having an impact. It’s like he’s still alive, and he is through all the people his life and his story are continuing to touch.”
Even so, his parents and brothers, Andrew and Matthew, continue to grieve. “We’ll always have a hole in our hearts,” Chris Johnson said.
Meanwhile, those closest to Nathan are continuing his revolution. A couple of students approached Lovingood after Nathan’s death with an idea for a T-shirt. The front says, “What’s it all about?” The back states, “Nathan knew — Let’s finish what he started — Romans 12:2.”
“We can’t keep the shirts in stock,” Lovingood said. “We print about 150 every week and they’re sold out before we know it.”
All proceeds from the sale of the T-shirts go toward Nathan’s pledge for the building of Long Hollow Baptist’s new youth center.
“Our youth group is still struggling,” Shelby said. “A lot of kids are still asking why. But we’ve come to realize that God’s will is perfect. Even though we don’t understand it, so many great things have happened as a result. And people are starting to realize we never know when something like that may happen to any of us. We’ve grown closer spiritually.
“Nathan lived every day for Christ,” Shelby added. “I’m trying to do that now. I’m living Philippians 1:21 — ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’”
“We’ve renewed our sense of urgency about evangelizing and telling people about Jesus,” Barnes said about the band. “Real people die every day. There’s no excuse not to minister. We believe God will use us. Nathan wouldn’t have wanted us to quit and neither do his parents.”
If you visit Nathan’s grave, you’ll read, “Dude, Heaven is sweet. See you there” on the marker.
“Nathan said ‘Dude’ a lot,” his father noted. “And there’s no period after ‘See you there’ because he’s still telling his story and witnessing.”
Dawn Ferguson is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn. This story is provided courtesy of the Baptist & Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.