New York congregation grows from 18 to 6000

New York congregation grows from 18 to 6000

City Beat, October 22, 2000
By Dave Saltonstall

When Steve Johnson first brought the International Church of Christ to New York City, he had barely enough followers to fill one pew. They were 18, to be exact, in 1983.

Now, this preacher’s son with the Southern drawl regularly fills the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center not once, not twice, but three times on Sundays.

“God has blessed us with almost 6,000 members,” Johnson said recently, as if he almost can’t believe it himself.

Many would argue that God had little to do with it, and that the church’s success here, as in other cities, is rooted more in its aggressive recruiting practices and cultlike devotion to the church’s founder, Kip McKean.

But Johnson seems to have an answer to everything, and his delivery is often as deadpan as any Broadway showman’s.

As he said to one reporter during a returned phone call, “Hold on, I’m looking around for some more nails so you can crucify me.”

On allegations that his church is a cult, he said, “Please print this people can leave the church and say bad things. If we were a cult, how could they get out?”

On why his church has grown so rapidly, Johnson, a one-time theater major, said: “Hey, we put on a darn good show. That we do.”

He will get serious when talk turns to faith, or to allegations that he and other leaders in the church where weekly tithing is required lead lavish lifestyles.

For several years, Johnson lived in a three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot condo on W. 98th St. that today would probably fetch more than $1 million. But Johnson said he never owned the apartment and moved out several years ago after the owner, a friend, “went belly up in the real estate market and had to sell.”

Johnson bought a four-bedroom house in West Nyack, Rockland County, for a reported $123,000 with help from his father-in-law, he said. “It’s kind of junky,” said Johnson, an assertion not disproved by photographs.

Last week, workers could be seen repairing water damage to the two-story home. Outside were parked the three cars registered to Johnson: a 1997 Ford Expedition, a 1975 pickup truck that Johnson said he shares with his father-in-law, and a 1989 Ford Mustang that Johnson said “will go fast, when it’s running.”

When asked, Johnson refused to detail his salary. But he did give this assurance: “If I ever get rich, it won’t be because of the church. It’ll be because I won the lottery.”

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