DJ Johnsen: When your gifts and passions grow up

Joanna Martin, Guest Writer

Westmont alumni and North Park Theological Seminary graduate Daniel “DJ” Johnsen ‘15 now works at Ocean Hills Covenant Church as the director of compassion, mercy and justice. Johnsen’s story is a testament that God incorporates people’s natural interests, hunger and desires into their vocation 

Johnsen’s call to ministry was gradual. Although he couldn’t see it at the time, his compassion for people on the margins of society and his commitment to God have been part of his life since childhood. “I always had an attentiveness to the kid who didn’t fit in with the group,” Johnson recalled, “I always knew how to make friends with the kids on the fringes.”

As a child, Johnsen would commit to something with all of his energy. This commitment especially applied to his faith, which Johnsen felt he took more seriously than many of his peers did at the time. Johnsen described his younger self as “deeply concerned” about living for God. 

This concern for faith and the people around him continued into his high school and college years. In high school, Johnsen was involved in youth group leadership at Shoreline Community Church, where he “felt most alive” and most himself. In college, he thrived under a four-year mentorship with a man named Byron Beck, who taught him about living faith authentically. 

At Westmont, Johnsen witnessed what he described as “spiritual ripples reverberating around campus.” He participated in spontaneous prayer nights in various dorms and worship nights in Reality Church in Carpinteria. Through these experiences, Johnsen explained, “I was learning to love God at the level of my heart, my emotions, and not just my knowledge about him.” He also led Bible studies with freshmen on the soccer team. Others would tell Johnsen that they looked up to him spiritually. 

In college, Johnsen had a strong passion for reading about theology. Although he wasn’t a religious studies major, Johnsen recalled, “[I] saw no other way than Jesus. The call of Christ is for me to give my whole life away so that I would find it.” He found himself exploring the question: “What [does] it mean to give my entire life to knowing God and to [know] God’s love for me, and to [let] the world know about God’s love?” 

Johnsen’s spiritual growth was the centerpoint for his time at Westmont. “It kind of occupied most of my mental energy outside of the time to study,” Johnsen said. “I loved having spiritual conversations … it’s what I found myself doing all the time and what I looked forward to.” 

Initially, Johnsen enrolled at Westmont as a biology major on the pre-med track, hoping to become a doctor. Eventually, he realized that the same desire that once motivated him to become a doctor — to be able to “sit with people in weighty spaces” — could translate into serving people within the church. 

Because of his passion for theology, Johnsen decided to give up studying medicine and pursue ministry. Several other factors influenced this decision: his natural tendency to spiritually guide others and plunge into God’s work, the confirmation of those speaking into his life, God’s suggestion that perhaps a life of financial security was not a kingdom need, and a mediocre score on the MCAT.

“My call wasn’t a radical Damascus Road kind of experience — a sudden turning — it was more of a process of learning to listen to my own life,” said Johnsen, citing Parker Palmer’s book “Let Your Life Speak” as an important guide for him in this time. Johnsen explained, “It happened through stepping through one door at a time.” 

After graduating from Westmont in 2015, Johnsen got involved with Ocean Hills’ ministry because he wanted to serve in a church setting. After six months, he was offered a volunteer role to help lead the young adult community. As Johnsen served in this role, many people recognized his leadership skills and encouraged him to continue developing them.

Johnsen started working with young adults because he appreciated the stage of life they were navigating: “Young adults are this awesome population who’s being forced to ask these questions, cause you’re in such a transformative portion of your life” he explained. 

Undergoing his own “period of minor deconstruction” in his faith, Johnsen observed a discrepancy between how the Bible talked about God’s heart for the poor and marginalized and how little the church engaged with these communities. He felt like the church [emphasized] God’s unconditional love but then “[put] conditions on loving people.”

“Why isn’t there more of this?” Johnsen would ask himself when reading about how Christians are called to care for the poor and marginalized: “I was burdened by the hypocrisy of the church.” 

While many of his peers who were equally disturbed by ecclesial hypocrisy were leaving the church, Johnsen instead felt called to press in and “gently, but determinedly, to change things from the inside.” 

Two years after beginning to serve the young adults’ ministry, Johnsen found himself in a more specific role. His church asked him to help with the Protege program, which trained and disciplined young adults who were considering full-time vocational ministry through a community living experience in downtown Santa Barbara.

When the program was cut in early 2020 because of costs and concerns related to COVID-19, Ocean Hills invited Johnsen to write his own job description. He now spends 30 hours a week acting as a liaison between Ocean Hills and local non-profits, recruiting and resourcing the local church to serve in the community. Non-profits include SB Act, the Turner Foundation, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), Noah’s Anchorage, Franklin School and the Rescue Mission. 

Johnsen noted one of the most rewarding parts of his role is watching “a person coming to a full realization of God’s love for them, and being transformed to share love with the rest of the world.” He loves sitting down one-on-one with people, listening to them, encouraging them and praying with them. 

Johnsen’s life embodies a vocation that reflects the desires and passions God put in his heart at a young age. Johnsen’s passion for putting God first and his compassion for the marginalized has equipped him well for his role as director of compassion, mercy and justice at Ocean Hills.

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