John Pearrell pauses on a mission trip to Kenya. In his retirement from being a pastor, Pearrell has included more aspects of his magic show in presenting the Gospel. JOHN PEARRELL/Special
COVINGTON — What do magic and ministry have in common? John Pearrell does both to reach the lost for Christ.
Pearrell recently retired as pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington after 28 years. Though he sees his retirement as relaxing, his ministry isn’t finished. He has simply started another one where he presents the Gospel using magic tricks, or illusions, to tell about Christ.
Throughout his ministry, the 68-year-old Pearrell has done tricks to illustrate his point between Bible truths.
“It does hold people’s attention,” he says. “We entertain and try to bring a lot of comedy magic but ultimately with an aim of getting to the Gospel and a chance to make a presentation.”
One of Pearrell’s simpler tricks he does is the cut-rope-and-restore illusion. “I cut the rope in pieces and it is done in front of them. It is destroyed and before their eyes, we put it back together. Christ and Christ alone can restore and people grasp it.”
Prior to his work at Gateway and his previous church, Rockdale Baptist in Conyers, Pearrell performed many shows. “I would say, ‘You can give me $200 and I will do a magic show, or if you will let me present the Gospel, then I will come for free.’ And, they would always let me present the Gospel.”
After becoming a pastor, however, he only did it for special occasions such as Easter and Vacation Bible School. Pearrell sees his retirement as riding his bike, getting back in shape, and doing some work around the house.
But he is getting requests to do his magic at churches around the area. “If I get asked, I will do it,” he notes.
A clear message
Pearrell picked up magic while working with delinquent kids for Youth Guidance Incorporated in 1975 in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. “There was a guy by the name of Andre Cole, who was with Campus Crusade for Christ. He came and held the students spellbound by doing illusions,” Pearrell remembers.
“I said if he can hold a bunch of students spellbound, a bunch of college kids, maybe I can use this to reach the kids that I am working with at the camp. I began to do little illustrations of magic and all of a sudden, they were on the edge of their seat, and I was watching them respond to Christ.”
Doing ministry wasn’t in his plan when Pearrell was a kid. He wanted to be a doctor, but a volunteering opportunity as a counselor at the 1968 Billy Graham Crusade in Pittsburgh began a series of events that changed his plans.
He had to interview, so Pearrell went to his grandmother’s to prepare. As a young man, his hands shook pretty bad and he took therapy classes for a speech impediment. He wasn’t sure if he could be a counselor.
“I just basically said to God ‘Look, I’m not sure if I can do this. But, I’ll give a try and go. If it works, it works and if it didn’t, I’d take the credentials and enjoy the crusade.”
She gave him three verse cards to look at. One card was about Moses. “It was like I was hit by a sledge hammer. I kinda sat back for a second, thanked my grandmother for the cards, went back over to the house, and said, ‘God if you can do that for Moses, you can do that for me.’ No lightning or anything like that. I went to the crusade and I counseled and I could be understood.
“And, my hands didn’t shake.”
Building a church
After this, he wrestled with the decision to do ministry. A dream featuring a fork in the road and affirmation from a coworker led him to submit to the call.
Since those experiences and prior to his tenure at Rockdale, Pearrell served with Youth for Christ in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Georgia. He began serving as pastor of Rockdale in 1987. He and his wife, who he met while attending Moody Bible College in 1974, have a son, Colin.
His ministry at Gateway wasn’t by design.
After resigning from Rockdale, Pearrell was asked to do a Bible study. After some thought, he decided to go to a friend’s house to pray, where about 32 people had gathered.
“We had our first prayer meeting that day. And, they said, ‘Would you at least teach us a Bible study?’” He said he would pray about it, ultimately agreeing to do it.
The group decided to do their next Bible study at a bolt factory called Gateway Industrial Supplies in Conyers. With 75 attendees, the congregation approved the name Gateway Community Church and asked Pearrell to become pastor. That December a constitution and bylaws were formed, with the church incorporating in January 1992.
Meeting locations included a middle school in Conyers and shopping center in Covington before their current location. GCC started as independent and non-denominational, but Pearrell soon felt there were three things missing.
‘It’s who we are’
“I felt like we needed an identity. I was tired of people coming with weird theologies and thinking they could pull that over on us. And, I wanted an accountability group. I was out there by myself and needed people to be accountable with. I felt like we could do more together than apart. We started to look around and settled on the Southern Baptist Convention because it was the closest to us. It is who we are.”
The demographic of the area has changed at lot since they started: from 10% to 80% African American. Pearrell felt they needed to reach the community and did so.
“Primarily, we stuck to the truth. A lot of prayer. We just recognized what was going on around us. And, we slowly started getting people in,” he said.
He said it started with one lady coming and inviting another person; the rest is history. Church membership is about 50% African American. He says the key to a good ministry is loving one another.
His future will include more magic and evangelism. He hopes to see people accept Jesus as Savior.
“I’d rather be known as an evangelist that just so happens to do illusions. What I usually tell people at the beginning is what you are about to see is not magic. It’s an illusion. As a matter of fact, what I am about to do any eight-year-old could do with 20 years of experience.”