Canon J.John has been sharing the gospel since the day he was converted 40 years ago. He tells Justin Brierley why his biggest challenge is yet to come
Let’s be honest. It’s a bit of an unusual name. Why just an initial followed by the surname? And what does the ‘J.’ stand for anyway? But then J.John is an unusual sort of person.
I first heard J.John speak in a church in Oxford while I was at university. That the diminutive evangelist could keep hundreds of students on the edge of their seats for over an hour while delivering a talk on ‘You shall not covet’ is an indication that stage presence has nothing to do with your physical stature.
In fact, the hundreds of students would return (and more every week) as J.John spoke on all ten of the commandments at the start of his incredibly popular Just10 tour. To date, more than 1 million people have attended a Just10 talk in which the evangelist relates the principles of the Ten Commandments to everyday life. The series has seen thousands commit their lives to Christ, and hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of stolen goods dropped into amnesty bins following the talk on stealing.
Given that one newspaper described J.John as a blend of Mr Bean and Easy Jet founder Stelios, you may wonder how the evangelist has continuously filled churches and auditoriums through his ministry with the Philo Trust.
Certainly he’s a great storyteller and very funny with it (views of his anecdotes and illustrations run into the millions on social media). But what makes J.John more than a religious version of Michael McIntyre is that he always uses his humour to drive home the thing he really wants to get across. Which is always Jesus.
It seems to have been that way since the start when, the day after becoming a Christian in 1975, he noticed a homeless man on the street and invited him for breakfast. J.John recalls that he had passed the man every day for months, but that ‘the first day I am a Christian I’m seeing homeless people for the first time’. The homeless man brought his friends along, and so began J.John’s first Bible study.
A fellow university student had been instrumental in J.John’s conversion. He was also a Greek Cypriote, Andy Economides, and Andy remains a close friend and ministry partner to J.John to this day. Together with another friend they established a Christian Union, which was attended by over 100 Muslims at its first meeting. So yes, you can expect the unusual when it comes to J.John.
I felt the Lord say, ‘It’s time to preach my good news in the football stadiums again’
As his calling as an evangelist became clear, so the Philo Trust was born, giving J.John and his wife Killy a ministry to reach thousands of people. This July he will be training hundreds in evangelism at Unbelievable?: The Conference 2016. But perhaps his greatest challenge will come next year.
Fifty thousand seats at the Emirates Stadium in London (home to Arsenal) have been booked for Saturday, 8th July 2017. The ambitious event, titled JustOne Emirates, plans to see half the seats filled with Christians and the other half with their non-Christian friends. Matt Redman, Hillsong London, the All Souls Orchestra and a 1,000-voice children’s choir will provide the musical programme, but at the centre of the event will be a small Greek evangelist telling people about Jesus. And I think that will be enough.
So, what’s with the name?
Well, I’m a Greek Cypriot, my name is Greek and if you translate it into English, the nearest equivalent is John John. So when I first started out I decided I’d just initial it as ‘J.John’. I never dreamed it would be a name in ministry for decades.
What made you decide to become a full-time evangelist?
I often get asked, ‘I think I’m an evangelist…How can I work full-time at it?’ And I say, ‘Have you got a full-time secular job? Continue doing that until you can’t do it. Do evangelism on the side until your evangelism becomes so much that you haven’t got time to go to work.’
With me there was this zeal and passion and I wanted to learn more. I eventually went to theological college; I was hungry for knowledge. That led me to go and work in Northern Ireland in reconciliation, which led me to work in evangelism in a church in Nottingham, St Nicholas. While I was there I was invited to go to do university missions.
You have become a very popular speaker at mission events. What’s the key to engaging a large audience?
Whether it’s one or its 10,000 there are similar principles. It’s very important that we simplify things. If anyone ever comes up to me and tells me I’m a very simple speaker, I take it as a compliment! Whenever I give a new talk for the first time, I always say to my wife, Killy, ‘How can I simplify it?’
Some of my most effective talks have been when I’ve given a family service talk – I have geared it for the children but the adults understand it. A lot of people’s understanding of Christianity is a misunderstanding, so I try to clear those things up and make it digestible.
Which of your stories have most captured people’s imagination?
The Bible says that Jesus never spoke to people without telling a story. I think there’s a head-heart thing here: you’re trying to get people to think and you’re trying to get hearts warmed.
On one occasion I took out a brand-new £10 note and then I put it on the floor and rubbed it and put dirt on it, and said, ‘A moment ago it was worth £10. It was brand new. But now it’s got dirt on it and it hasn’t lost its value, it’s still worth £10.’ Then I creased it up and unfolded it. I said, ‘It still hasn’t lost its value. It doesn’t matter how dirty or how creased you think your life is, you have never lost your value in God’s eyes.’ When I first used that illustration, people gasped, people got it.
You’re naturally humorous. Not all preachers are! What’s the value of encouraging preachers to use humour?
I might say something quite humorous but I’m only telling it to make a very serious point. At the end of telling a really serious story, there’ll be a pause; you can feel it, and you’re applying the principle of that story.
There’s an ingredient in Nurofen that is probably disgusting. If we actually had to swallow the liquid, we wouldn’t be able to. But it’s covered in sugar in order to make it soluble. What we are trying to do is help deliver the message to make it accessible and soluble.
Jesus was doing this; a lot of people don’t recognise Hebrew humour, as it is humour by exaggeration. Before you take the speck out of someone’s eye, take the telegraph pole out of your own. It was all exaggeration.
The Just10 tour was a watershed moment in your ministry…
Going back to 1999 – we were going into the millennium and it felt like you had to rethink things. I said, ‘Lord, what should we be doing?’ I had an epiphany. I felt the Lord say, ‘Preach the Ten Commandments.’
I rang up my minister from my local church and said, ‘I’ve got an idea, actually a God idea. Would you let me preach them for ten consecutive nights?’ And he said ‘yes’.
When I got to the stealing one, while I was preaching I felt the Lord say to me, ‘Tell everyone to return their stolen goods, and if you can’t return the stolen goods to their rightful owner, we’ll have amnesty dustbins the following week.’ I couldn’t believe it; people just brought stuff they had stolen from work, library books and hotel bathrobes. There was an envelope with £25,000 cash in it with a note saying, ‘We got burgled 20 years ago and we claimed for jewellery that wasn’t stolen. We want to return it.’
We ended up doing 36 series. Over half a million pounds came in through the amnesty dustbins, and all the money went to children’s hospitals. Other things went to hospices and homeless shelters.
A phenomenal number of people came to Christ through it. Everyone in the whole world needs a new heart, we know that – but if you are a Christian, you don’t need a new heart. The problem with so many Christians is that they’ve got blocked arteries. For many Christians the series was like an MOT and you were getting your arteries cleared out.
You’ve had a vision for an event in London in July 2017: JustOne Emirates. What is it and what are you hoping for?
I was doing a mission in Winchester. The largest venue there was, the cathedral, and it was packed. I had this prompting, another little epiphany. I felt the Lord say, ‘It’s time to preach my good news in the football stadiums again.’ I felt like it was a curve ball. I said, ‘Lord, its pretty good in Winchester, a good crowd, we’re getting thousands of people. A football stadium is a significant jump.’
The Quakers, whenever they get an idea, push it down until it comes back. This kept on coming up. I spoke to my friend Duncan Collins and he agreed, let’s push the door.
We thought, ‘Which would be the best football stadium in London?’ It’s got to be the Emirates in terms of the feel, the look, it’s modern, so we contacted them and they said ‘no’. So we thought maybe we had got it wrong. And then nine months later they said ‘yes’. We will be proclaiming for just one day; one unique message and asking 25,000 Christians to bring just one friend. And then we plan to do it in other football stadiums around the UK. That’s the plan.
Once you feel like you’ve got a God idea, you do need to convince church leaders, of course. The gospel hasn’t been preached in football stadiums since Mission England 1984 with Billy Graham. God willing, by the time we get to 8th July 2017 we will have 300 to 500 church partners.
Some predict that the age of stadium evangelism will pass away with Billy Graham. What convinces you there’s still a place for it?
If you look at Jesus’ ministry – he spoke to 5,000 men and their families. That’s around 20,000 people. He also went to Levi’s home and spoke to his former colleagues – so maybe that was 20 people. He also stopped at a well and spoke to one woman. All three are still ways of God working.
You’ll be speaking on evangelism at Unbelievable?: The Conference in July this year. You have been an evangelist since day one. Do we sometimes over-complicate evangelism?
I think we do. I’m trying to make it natural. Having studied evangelism, read evangelism, lectured on evangelism, written books on evangelism, my conclusion is… Evangelism is giving out an invitation to a party that is out of this world. That’s it. Would you like to give out those invitations? Let me show you how. Every one of us can do it.
Hear the interview in full on Premier Christian Radio, Saturday, 27th February, 4pm
J.John will be speaking at Unbelievable?: The Conference on 2nd July 2016 premierchristianradio.com/unbelievable
For more information on JustOne Emirates 2017, visit justoneemirates.com