Young pastor exchanges politics for a pulpit

BOTHELL — Russell Johnson worked in the war room of a U.S. Senate campaign and walked the halls of power in Olympia,

Now, in what he considers his true calling, he’s exhorting young adults to build a relationship with God as an associate pastor at Cedar Park Church in Bothell.

Johnson, a 27-year-old Everett resident, is the impassioned spiritual leader of The Exchange, which caters to young adults with a Sunday night service featuring performances by a five-piece band and his energetic and animated sermonizing.

Throughout each service, which begin at 7:30 p.m., there is intense praying with some coming to tears and others on the floor speaking in tongues.

Johnson said people walk away saying, ‘I’ve never seen church done like this before.’

“We challenge them,” he said of the congregants who range in age from 17 to 30. “I am not content to just babysit these young adults.”

The Exchange began in the winter of 2011 when Senior Pastor Joe Fuiten asked Johnson to work with those in their late teens and twenties. It started with four people meeting the church’s cafĂ©.

“We began to pray and fast and God began to appear,” Johnson said. “Word spread and people started coming.”

Today, the Sunday service draws an average of 100 people.

“People just began to encounter God. It was like a revival with young people,” he said.

The Exchange, Johnson explained, stands for a transformation brought about by prayer.

“You give yourself to Jesus and the exchange is he gives you new life,” Johnson said.

Johnson, the son of a pastor, graduated from Shoreline Community College and earned an undergraduate degree in political studies at Seattle Bible College. He undertook graduate work in leadership studies at Vanguard University, a Christian college in Southern California.

“God got a hold of me and challenged me to not only live my life but to give my life to him,” he said of his days in college.

But he veered into the world of politics before making his own personal exchange.

Four years ago, he worked as director of governmental affairs for the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

The Lynnwood-based group made headlines last year when its leader, Joseph Backholm, assumed a central role in the campaign against gay marriage in 2012.

Johnson worked on Republican Dino Rossi’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2010 and then for state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Mill Creek, before exiting to lead The Exchange.

Though Johnson is off the stage of politics, he’s not lost his interest in it.

“If you would have asked me four years ago, my long-term goal was to one day get in Congress. I am not 100 percent sure I won’t ever run for some elected office,” he said. “At this juncture in my life, I have committed myself to see God invest in this generation.”

He wants congregants to be good citizens as they strengthen their faith.

“I want people to vote in a way that honors God. I actually believe God cares about the way we vote,” he said. “But politics isn’t the answer for my generation. I think we’re on the edge of the next great awakening. We don’t want just a moment. We want a movement.”

Photographer Genna Martin contributed to this story.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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