Mark Johns

Despite what your geometry teacher told you, parallel lines sometimes can intersect far off in the distance. Two parallel paths of my life converged in the autumn of 1999 when I began my career at Luther College. One of those paths was a commitment to God and the Church that had called me into the ordained ministry more than two decades earlier. A second path was a lifelong fascination with radio, television, and electronics which had begun as a hobby and turned into a profession.

I took apart my first TV set at about age 12. I wanted the parts to build a shortwave transmitter, and in taking that old broken TV apart, I also got some idea of what had made it work. At age 15 I passed a federal examination in electronic theory and radio law to obtain an amateur radio license, allowing me to transmit signals to other amateurs around the world. I had my heart set on a career as an electronics engineer, but looking at my math grades, my high school guidance counselor suggested I might be more successful in something else. Later, when my highest ACT score was on the math portion of the test, I questioned that decision, but by then the die was cast.

Some people are “P.K.s”—Preacher’s Kids. I was an “O.K.”—the organist’s kid. My father has been a church musician for nearly 70 years, and he and my mother continue to be very involved in church activities even in old age. Church was just what our family did. I fell in love with a church camp and went there as a camper every summer until I was old enough to join the staff. I sang in choirs, went to youth events, taught Sunday School, and was treasurer of the Luther League. My college choices boiled down to a small selection of Lutheran liberal arts colleges, and I soon had declared myself a pre-seminary student with majors in history and sociology.

But the interest in radio and electronics remained. I hung out at the local AM radio station, where they let me read newscasts, and in J-term of my senior year I convinced a physics professor to sign off on an independent study to work toward passing my commercial radio operator’s license—another federal exam—that would allow me to be employed at a broadcast station. When my new bride and I moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, so that I could start seminary, I used that license to get a job as a technician for public television. They paid me to watch Sesame Street and other PBS shows, and if everything went smoothly, I could study between station breaks. After my first year of seminary I quit school to work full time for a local NBC station, but like Jonah, several months later I found myself heading back to seminary and on my way to ordination.

As a parish pastor, I was frequently called upon to use my media background for various church media projects. I was appointed to synod communication committees, and eventually, to the ELCA Communication Advisory Committee. But daily work in a congregation was quite separate from the media, so I began to take some media courses at a nearby university. I hadn’t known that there were scholars who actually studied the history of technology and the ways media affect society. Those few part-time courses eventually led to a master’s degree, and at age 45 I resigned my parish to begin a Ph.D. program in mass communication.

Coming to Luther allowed these separate strands in my life to converge. Here I remain a pastor of the Church, guest preaching frequently around Northeast Iowa and working with churches to improve their communication efforts, while serving in a ministry of education, sharing my knowledge of the media with my students. Parallel lines really can intersect!