His backpack holds a MacBook, Canon 550D, two camera lenses, an external camera flash, wireless triggers for the flash, lots of spare batteries, an iPhone charger, and some headphones. He just walked out of the kindergarten where he teaches endless English phrases like, "May I go to the restroom?" to little Korean kids. He jumps on a large blue city bus that barrels through the herky-jerky traffic of South Korea’s dense metropolis, Seoul. As John hangs on the suspended ring-shaped grips hanging from overhead rails, his earphones blare rhythms and melodies that block out the commotion on the bus. As the driver pumps the brakes and accelerates simultaneously, bodies bounce and sway around John. He, however, stands in solitude. Serene, really.The commotion does not faze him. He just watches the people buzz on the streets outside of the bus’s window.
John Westfall is amongst his people in Seoul. But none of those people know it.
John looks like a white guy, but with a Korean mom, he actually identifies as being very Korean. Yet very non-Korean too. Disconnected and connected to the people around him, all at the same time.
John exits the crowded bus with headphones still soundtracking his commute to a building tucked away in a cramped, hilly neighborhood of Shillim-dong. He walks the 10 minutes from the bus, stops to get a quick snack at the convenience store, and finds the back door of Jeil Sungdo Church. The large brick building boasts a sky-high steeple with a cross adorning the highest point. A mural of Jesus spreads on the building’s large sidewall. Jeil Sungdo Church stands over 40-years-old. The neighborhood Presbyterian church has almost 3,000 registered members, and John is one of them, kind of. He first came to the building in 2008 but did not go into the main sanctuary.
main sanctuary. He went to the back, like he does on this day, then walked up three flights of stairs and into a smaller sanctuary. The back sanctuary houses the English ministry: New Philadelphia Church’s “Hillside” campus.
John waltzes to the back of the room, up three short stairs and onto a sound stage. He plops into position. His position. The position he has sat in for the last four years. Behind the soundboard.
The on buttons click and snap as he turns on the sound equipment for the Friday night prayer meeting called “Friday Fire.” His computer whirs as he edits slides that will later project song lyrics. John answers some last minute emails, and the rapid tapping of the laptop keyboard fills the room. The service includes live music, recorded music, PowerPoint-style slides with prayer topics for the congregation to follow, a sermon, and then more live music. All of which are queued up by John.
These tasks all fall under the umbrella of “tech” stuff. Like professional sound technicians at concerts, John sits behind large machines that sprout a jungle’s worth of cables and cords with more knobs and buttons than are ever used. And like sound guys, his focus proves essential for a smooth service. While the crowds sing and dance, sound guys sit in the back. John sits no differently. He rarely allows the excitement of the moment to skew his focus.
Around 7:30 p.m., almost two hours after John arrives, people trickle into the room and start to settle in their seats. Meanwhile, the band begins to play, and John subsequently begins to click the lyric slides that project onto the screen at the front of the sanctuary. John must be on point. No one notices the tech guy in the back unless something goes wrong on the screen in the front.
With every verse, chorus, and bridge, John must be on time with his clicks. Not too early. Not too late. As the bandleader goes, so goes John.
An extra verse here, an extra click there. For the second song in the set, the bandleader decides to sing an unscripted verse. No slide is prepared for these lyrics. But John deflects panic. In the moment, he quickly edits a new slide, clicks on it, allowing the crowd to sing along with the now-projected lyrics, not noticing the delay. As the musicians slow the beat and change the chords for the next song, John changes the set of slides, once again, staying in rhythm.
“My instrument is a screen and a mouse pad,” John says. “Just like the lead guitarist works on his craft to perfect it for when they go on stage, I have done the same with buttons, dials, and knobs.”
This idea of approaching his voluntary work as the tech guy with the same vigor as a musician may seem odd. After all, this is not something John inherently knew. However, God revealed this to John over many years of serving in the back of the church.
John grew up in many places but when asked, he says Spanaway, Washington. As a young child, John’s dad served in the U.S. military, which caused the family to move all over the place.
“I was a military brat,” John says.
John’s dad met his mom in Seoul, South Korea and married her shortly after. They gave birth to John in Seoul on the Yongsan army base in June of 1985. At the age of nine, his family moved to the state of Washington.
John describes Spanaway in three different ways: part country, part suburb, and very laid back. But he emphasizes laid back. And repeats it later, then reiterates it again, and finally reflects on how much that laid back approach to life has shaped his personality.
The grade “A” example comes in his 10th grade year.
John always had a multitude of friends. His ethnicity and down-to-earth personality established him as a guy that could be socially mobile. He hung out with the Asians, the artists, the jocks and the skaters. A high-school campus journeyman. But one of those groups swiped most of his time throughout his sophomore year of high school: the stoners. They smoked weed, and he joined them. At first not making it a big deal, but eventually allowing it to become habitual.
The odd thing came in his approach. He always knew it was bad, so he only smoked for the social aspect. Therefore, he refused to let his grades slip—always keeping a 3.8 or higher—and he refused to smoke on the weekends. He did not want his parents finding out. But he remembers smoking almost every school day throughout that sophomore year.
Until the day he got his driver’s license.
At 16, like so many Americans before him, he had access to the open roads. However, on that first weekend with his very own car, he made a unique decision. He woke up on Sunday morning and filled with an odd urge to do something different, to do something radical, he headed for Tacoma, about 20 minutes away from his house. He, then, pulled into a parking lot filled with cars owned by people he rarely saw anymore. Church people.
Yes. John Westfall felt like driving to church on his first weekend with his own car.
“Ehhh, I don’t know,” he says. “I just felt like it. I recognize now that it was God leading me.
was God leading me. But at the time, I couldn’t say what provoked it. It, uh, just felt right.”
A few weeks later, he told his buddies that he wanted to stop smoking.
“They didn’t care,” John says, shrugging his shoulders. “Everybody was so laid back. They honestly did not care. They'd sometimes call me ‘church boy,’ which I didn’t care about, and that was that. Everybody is so laid back.”
His laid back surroundings influenced his laid back persona. He carries a nonchalance about him. But not a stuck-up nonchalance. More of a matter-of-fact, steadfast understanding of how things should be. Take, for example, his car crash.
After that day he drove himself to church, he kept going back, Sunday after Sunday. And for the next seven years, he faithfully attended. In his senior year of high school, he began helping with the services by making and clicking on the slides for lyrics. Even throughout his four years at the University of Washington, he drove the hour to church to serve. Every once in awhile, they would ask him to speak at a service.
On one such occasion, the drive did not go quite as planned. As he sped down the highway, his brakes suddenly locked. He had no way to slow the car down. He quickly yanked the emergency brake and held his breath as the tires stopped turning, the screeching sound began, and the momentum of the now-sliding car took John straight into the back of a truck.
A slight "V" shaped the front hood of his black 2002 Honda Accord.
After settling the insurance info with the other driver, John got back in his car and kept on driving to church.
car and kept on driving to church. At no point did he consider not showing up to the service. He even recognized that the moment could add to his sermon.
“At the time, I worked at Allstate Insurance,” John says, “and I remember seeing their catch phrase, 'Allstate, you're in good hands' and thinking, yeah, we are in good hands. God's hands. So that is what I preached on, which is funny because I ended up getting into a car accident on the way.”
John reflects on that night with slight amusement. Still driving to church after getting into a serious accident was a no-brainer. It was his responsibility to get there, and he did. No questions or sympathies asked. He made a commitment and intended on keeping it.
“My whole life has been about God leading,” John admits. “And because of that, I have always had a strong spiritually moral code.”
He's not judgmental of those around him because he recognizes that people all go through different things. But for him, being punctual, not influencing others to act immorally, taking responsibility for mistakes and things of the like come naturally.
But a problem can come with that. No tough times can mean no learning. No life-altering mistakes could mean no life-altering redemption. No drive could mean stagnated growth. No moral sufferings could mean a decreased need for God.
And so, as John served at his church throughout his four years at university, his need for spiritual fulfillment dried up. His time behind the soundboard and computer became routine. He did it because it was needed, not because he wanted to.
not because he wanted to. Simply put, taking on the responsibility faithfully was a good thing. Unfortunately, a desire for continual growth was few and far between.
Which is when God stepped in. As John’s spiritual fervor lessoned, God’s desire to bring him back to a place of passion increased. Thus, He uprooted John.
After graduating college in 2008, John moved to South Korea to teach English. John’s plan: teach for a year, get to know his ethnic roots a bit, and save some money.
God’s plan: restore a heart of worship.
A few months after he arrived in his birth country, John stumbled into the back sanctuary of New Philadelphia Church. On that day, something sparked in him. People prayed as if they were talking to a person. And people sang out of celebration and not obligation.
The pastors dressed like him. The people talked like him. And the band played with a fervor like it was their last chance to be on stage.
John looked on in awe. He could feel the emotional tanks in his heart fill up. He could feel the presence of God. A feeling he had not had in many years of going to church. So, that is why when the lead pastor came up to him after service and asked, “What do you expect?” John replied, “Well, I want to get back to the highest point I was at. But I want to go even higher."
John doesn't know what made him think of that. He didn't even know what it meant. But he knew it was good. He decided to jump in headfirst. A few months later, he ended up leading the group of people in the back who were responsible for lyric slides, sound, and podcast recordings.
“At my old church, I was definitely burned out. Doing all of the tech stuff became functional,” John says. “But here, I am definitely not burned out. I am not in that functional place anymore. I see it as worship now.”
For some people, worshipping Jesus means singing. Some people worship by dancing. Others simply do it all in their head, without outward actions. But for John, he worships by serving. His actions—his worship—enhance the atmosphere for others to encounter God face-to-face. By making sure the sound and slides move fluidly, the people “out there” are less likely to be distracted and more likely to experience God in a new way.
He sees it all from the back of the room. He has a very unique perspective and a distinctly important role. He leads the team that controls what people see and hear.
John has shown up, ran the tech stuff, and posted podcasts for sermons online for over 430 services to date, only missing a few services for vacation since November of 2008. With Friday Fire prayer meetings every week since 2008, which only recently switched to twice a month, as well as monthly leadership meetings for the church, in addition to "Joint Prayer Meetings" once a month, where the English ministries of Seoul gather together to pray for North and South Korea, John serves an estimated 40 hours a month behind the board. From 2011 to 2012, John also spent all of his Tuesday nights mixing sound and clicking slides for the Kingdom First Prayer Tabernacle.
Some of the church staff call him “Iron Man.” And the name fits. A man that staunchly understands that responsibility must fall on someone, so it might as well be him.
He stands in the back of the sanctuary, truly grateful for the task set before him. Not desiring glory or recognition. No paycheck. No trophy. But rather, desiring to worship the best way he knows how...via his computer screen.
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