LISTEN TO EP.61
How One Boy’s Story Changed the Lives of Special Needs Children and Their Families
Learn how one autistic boy’s miraculous story, reached millions and launched a ministry to special needs children and their families. Craig Johnson, an Associate Pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, and the founder of the Champions Club, a special needs ministry, discusses how families are transformed and kids and adults find their destiny. If your vision of the future has been changed by your circumstances, Johnson encourages you to let go of the past, embrace today, and trust God for what’s to come.
It is so good to be with you. Thanks for having me, Dave, glad to be on the program today.
And today we get to interview Craig Johnson, who was in your youth group?
Yes, he was in my youth group and he’s a dear friend. He’s like family and I have some stories I could tell, but I won’t.
Craig Johnson is the associate pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and the founder of the Champions Club. The Champions Club is a special needs ministry focused on ministering to and designing developmental areas for kids, teens, and adults with special needs and the medically fragile with over 30 million kids and teens in America alone with special needs, millions of families cannot take their children to church because they don’t have adequate programs for their needs. The program was birthed in Lakewood church to support these families and it’s designed to meet the developmental needs of individuals with special needs and for important ways, spiritually, intellectually, mentally, and physically Champion’s Club has now grown to seven continents in over 90 locations. Craig is happily married to his wife, Samantha, and as the father of three children, Corey, Courtney and Connor. And most importantly was one of my students and my high school ministry when I was first a youth pastor and, and he survived it. Craig, welcome today. It’s so good to have you with us.
I know I survived. I learned a lot. No, it was an honor to be in your youth group. Just such a cool thing, you know, to have known you all these years. So just such an honor to be apart.
We’re glad to have you here today, Craig, and you’re like family with us. We thank God for you for what God’s doing through the Champions Club.
Thank you. Well, Craig, we have a lot in common because I was on staff with Wendell for a number of years though, both of us survived out and
You’re both in therapy to correct.
So I went from Canyon Hills to work for Pat Robertson and then, and you’re now with Joel Olsteen so I got to ask you, what’s the difference between Wendell and Joel Olsteen?
Well, yeah, well, you know, Wendell’s so much like family for me, you know, I mean you know, he, he really was a part of my formative years and really foundational things in my life. And I think with Joel, you know you know, it was later in my life later, my ministry, you know, that, that he really formulated how, how, you know, and helped change even how I lead, how I, how I look at ministry. So I think both played just, you know, huge parts at different times. And man, you know, I mean, you know, to have one influence in your life is great to have, you know, two and three and four, you know, in your life. That’s, that’s a huge blessing.
The Birth of Champion’s Club
Man. Was that a great answer? Wendell’s somebody, you still have those talking points. Well, Hey, we want to talk about Champion’s Club without a doubt, you’re one of the most dynamic leaders I’ve ever met in the Champion’s Club. I mean, God is blessing – It’s expanding, you know, now is there a let go over a hundred of them now?
Yeah. There’s a hundred Champion’s Clubs now around the world. We launched our hundred that plant shakers churches in Australia and, and then they’re expanding to Egypt and just places we didn’t have before. And, and it’s just, you know, God’s timing to see it take place. It’s
So if you could start by telling us what it is, Champion’s Club and what it was, you know, in your life and in your heart, that birth this vision.
Yeah, well Champion’s Clubs or our developmental centers really that, that developed them as is Wendell said in the bio in both you know, spiritually man, mentally, physically, and emotionally for kids and really you know, it was birthed out of our own lives. And one of the things with Champion’s Clubs that we want to make sure of is that every church really they’re in public schools are in orphanages. One’s going to the hospital. They can really go anywhere. And, and what makes Champion’s Clubs unique is they’re duplicatable. And then they’re, they’re one of the few plug and play models, you know, in the world where it has the curriculum, it has the equipment, it has a model and it has training all involved. And it really started out in my own life. It was, I was six months you know, at Lakewood church.
And we were getting ready for, you know, a huge season of going into a new building. And it was a busy time. And my son who was really like my other two kids, you know, he would talk to us, he’d interact with us. He would play with other friends, all of a sudden that that shifted in about two weeks time. And it was a huge shift, not only for our son, but for our family and our lives. And we were like, at that time, honestly, Dave went and we were like a lot of families, you know we had never experienced autism that we knew of in our family. And so just dealing with all that was involved with it, how it was going to affect you you know your daily life, you know, just being able to go out and do things how the most important thing, how is going to affect your child and how you help them educationally and help, help develop them, and then how it was going to change your family dynamics, you know, and then the big thing I think for us as, as believers is how, how does that affect how our child develops spiritually?
You know, so it was just one of those times where our life shifted so much. We didn’t really know what to do. And it was just leaning into God at that time. And there were just a couple of key moments, you know, in that process where God revealed himself and he, you know, load. I know, you know, when we got the diagnosis that we might become someone’s best hope on down the road, because we were just trying to survive and, and God was going to show us a new way to live
An Unexpected Miracle
Beautiful. There was an amazing miracle that happened with Connor when he was about five Craig, can you share that story?
Yeah. You know it was probably one of the most difficult times because when Connor stopped talking, when he stopped interacting you know, he knew at one time he could talk. Now he can get those things out. And so he would point at things and, and, and when we didn’t understand, when we couldn’t figure those things out, the frustration would come and it’s like a lot of families with autism. You deal with a lot of meltdowns you deal with, with, with struggles emotionally because one part of the brain is working really strongly. And then another part it’s like, it’s like a cloud over it. So we’re an autistic child. It can be very confusing, very difficult. And it’s difficult for the parents not knowing really what to do. And he probably had one of the most difficult times. I remember he was in a grocery store with my wife and he wanted some candy, went to pull all the candy off the shelf.
And she was just trying to keep him from doing that. And he had this terrible meltdown and he did things, you know, we’d never seen him do like bang his head up against the floor and he couldn’t control it. You know, it was just something that, that, that that was just coming out at that time. My wife was just trying to get them out of the grocery store and she was just trying to pull them out there. And I remember she was so physically tired. She was so mint, mentally tired. By the time she got to the car, she had called me. And she said, Craig, I’m not sure if I can take it anymore. And you know, my wife’s one of the strongest people you’ll ever meet. I mean, she’s my hero. I mean, I’m not just saying that she’s my hero.
What she’s done for Connor, our family. Amazing. So I was pretty low. And even as a pastor and, and being in the faith, I was probably at the lowest time in my life. And I just said, I was driving the car. And it was, it was almost like, you know, God was sitting right next to me, you know? And, and I just asked him why, and this is a question we all ask God, when, when we don’t understand something, you know, it’s so beyond what we can comprehend. And I remember God, just speak to me, speak to me. So clearly he just said, Craig, your child’s a burden. Your child is a gift. And I say, God, I know what you mean. We love our son Connor, but we’re trying everything. And nothing’s working. And he said, again, Craig, your child’s on burden.
And a child’s gift. He said, you’re looking at everything. That’s wrong with them. You’re not looking at what’s right. And I said, God, what do you mean? He said, I’m going to use your son to reach millions of people. And you gotta understand that time being in a vulnerable place. I couldn’t see it. And it’s amazing how you can have faith for other people and you can’t have enough faith for yourself. Right. But, but you’re broken, you know, you’re, you’re, you’re, you’re, you’re completely and totally dependent upon God. And I picked up a ball of water and I just said, God, my son can’t even ask for a drink of water. How’s he going to reach millions of people? And then God spoke to me for words. And I believe these are the four words. God will speak to you. You know, whenever you’re in the desert, whenever you’re going through a dry time in your life where you have no answers.
And he just said, do you trust me? And you know, I didn’t give him the pastoral answer. I didn’t have it. I just say, God, you’re all we’ve got, but I trust you. And I thought things were going to get better. And they actually got worse. And here’s the testing time. Right? And I remember about, but about three months later, my wife came calling from upstairs. Craig, Craig get up here. And I knew she was in Carl’s room. I thought someone was a matter. And she said I ran upstairs. I said, what is it? And she was crying. And she said, Craig, I put in a bed and I was praying over him. And all of a sudden he began to speak and he began to say one word after another word, one sentence after another sentence. And you’ve got to realize, I’ve never heard my son, but together more than two words and in three years.
And so tears rolled down my cheeks and I said, what do you mean? Maybe he can speak? And she said, Craig, he spoke and he didn’t just speak. He spoke a declaration. So well, what he’s saying, I’ll never forget. She walked me over his bed and leaned over his bed and said, Connor, say it for mommy. And daddy said to get my little you know, little five-year-old boy looked up at us. And all of a sudden he began to speak. And he said, “This is my Bible. I am what it says. I am. I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do today. I’ll be taught the word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart…” So he speaks the whole spiritual declaration that Joel speaks before every message. And we were blown away.
We didn’t, we didn’t know what, what had happened. And apparently we were bringing the DVDs home of the messages every week. And we didn’t know he was taking them upstairs, putting them in as DVD players while he played. And it didn’t matter if the message changed that declaration was at the front of every message. And that became his first words. And we knew it was a miracle of God because he could have learned anything. He could have repeated anything, but the fact that he spoke a spiritual declaration and that was really the catalyst for everything else that took place
That is so powerful. And it’s just such a powerful God story, Craig, it’s just amazing Lakewood churches. If there’s an amazing church with lots, you know, great ministry going on, and I know how busy you guys are with so many things, but how did you come to realize that at Lakewood church, you guys needed a ministry and a program to be developed for families with special needs children.
The Unspoken Need
Yeah. You know, it was really a second intimate conversation Wendell. We were, you know, after the miracle pastor Joel spoke about it and, and it literally went kind of viral. That message did, it became one of his most requested messages and millions of have heard that message. And so the prophecy was fulfilled what God told me in the car, but God had even bigger plans. You know, he wanted to use Connor’s life. And I was walking through Lakewood church and God just literally like in the car, stopped me at the children’s area. And he said Craig, look at what you’re doing for typical kids. So it looks like Disneyland, but he said, look, what you’re doing for special needs children. And at the time we were, we had a room, but we were really doing a lot. And he said, Craig, those kids deserve the very best.
Just like every child. He said, when you look in these kids’ eyes, he said, who you’re looking at, you’re looking at me because when you do it, at least these, you do it for me. And he said, favor will follow you and your church when you begin to reach out to these kids and families. And so I didn’t really know what to do, you know, at that time, but I knew God spoke to me. And so I pulled together a task force and I pulled together some of the top doctors who were doing some of the top research at the university of Texas medical center right here in Houston. And then we pulled together some of the top educators of special needs schools. And then we pulled together who I feel is the most important parents of special needs children because they’re walking through it.
They understand their child. And we pulled together our ministry team for the entire year. We worked on what will become the Champion’s Club and it’s really a holistic approach. What came out of that mind, body, soul, and spirit. So that’s why there’s four stations that speak to the mind, the body, the soul, and the spirit. And then the kids rotate in between these four stations. And they’re developed just like every other child. As a matter of fact, they may even have even more development in these areas and, you know, little did we know we launched it like when we had no idea the response we had? No, I didn’t, I don’t even think I fully understood the need, but I tell pastors this all the time, you know, you’re trying to grow your churches in different ways. And there’s people that fish in this pond. And there’s a lot of people that would love to come to your church to love me apart. We launched at Lakewood and literally within the first six months over 300 families started coming to Lakewood church just because of the Champion’s Club. And then from there, other people started hearing about what had happened and it grew from there.
That is incredible. And went to like Canyon Hills, you’re one of the champion clubs.
We were one of the early Champion’s Clubs. And it changed our church in so many ways. So many powerful ways. There’s no looking back once this gets a hold of your heart. It just transformative for everyone
Who Can Join the Movement
You know, but you know, we have a lot of pastors and lay leaders that are watching right now or listening. And as it relates to special needs, it’s kind of like trying to grab onto a cloud. You know, they don’t even know where to start and share with us Craig, how a pastor or a lay leader can become a champion center in their church.
Yeah. One of the greatest things that’s happened over the past 11 years. And, you know, I, I think my pastor and, and then just working with Champion’s Clubs, like, like windows Champion’s Club, you know, they come up with ideas. They develop things we basically worked on for the last 10 years. Every reason why a pastor or a leader or somebody says they couldn’t do it. So we’ve tried to respond to every question. Now you literally have a plug and play model. So they call us, we consult with them and we’ll usually ask them two questions. Do they have a space? And do they have somebody that has a heart, you know, for special needs? And the great thing is even if they don’t have a space, we’ll figure it out. And you know, we’re, we’re launching Champion’s Club under a tree in Ethiopia.
So we can launch a Champion’s Club and, and, you know, it’s just having that hard to say, you know, we want to reach these families, but what you have to remember with special needs, it’s not, you’re not just giving life, you know, and w a life giving ministry to the child, especially as child, you got to remember, there’s other siblings in this family. There’s a mom and dad who haven’t been to church in five, 10 years, and when you open this up, they come to church for the first time, they volunteer for the first time. They’re, they’re part of a community for the first time. For me, special needs ministry and Champion’s Club. Isn’t just a great ministry. It’s transformational for families. It changes their whole life. They start going out and doing things they never did before, because we’re not just a Champion’s Club. What we teach our families, we work with them on and teach leaders is look, yes, care is a part of it, but we’re here to point these kids, teens, and adults, their destiny, and help them navigate how to get there. And just like God’s using Connor. He can use children, your church to do great things, and we’re going to help you get there
So powerful. It’s just, it is amazing as a pastor to meet a family that is coming to the church, who says we weren’t able to go to church for, you know, these many years because of our child with special needs. And the church is just not being set up to respond to those needs. But now we are. And to see them integrate into the life of the church and to see their children, teens, and sometimes adult children integrated into the life of the church, because there’s a focus on that child. It’s absolutely, it’s just powerful. There’s no words for it to describe how beautiful it is and how wonderful it is for the church. And there, there are four specific areas of focus with Champion’s Club. And can you just help us Craig understand those four areas? How is it different in Champion’s Club than it would be in regular programming for children? How does it look different?
The Ultimate Goal
Well, obviously the spiritual aspect, it is the key. I mean, for us, that’s where it all comes down to. You know, we want to see these, these kids, teens, and adults receive Jesus Christ. We want to see them get baptized. We want to see them live a life of illness. So, but, but you have to, it’s kind of like, you know, you can’t get somebody to come to Christ if you don’t give them something that brings hope to them first, right. And these families. So when you develop them physically, let’s say their child has a certain type of disability and, you know, they need development physically. Then that’s what we do. We work with them physically. So that’s where the physical therapy area is for it develops them physically and helps them use muscle work, their muscle tone. And then we implement different activities within that, that tie in to the lesson.
Then you go sensory wise, well, you want them to begin to, to understand, and they’ve gotta be retaught things. So, how they see things, how they feel things, how they touch. It’s a lot of behavior as well, and they have to be retaught. So we work with them sensory wise and then educational. And the reason why we work with the students educationally is because schools will tell you they’re filling in two areas, at-risk kids and special needs. The reason why school districts will tell you they’re filled with special needs is now there’s too many kids. So really many of the kids need to be developed. One-On-One you know, two, two on one, whatever it might be. And, the schools just have to meet kids. So these kids aren’t being developed properly, great teachers, they’re trying, they’re doing their very best, and I just applaud them.
But when you have so many kids, I mean, when you look at the epidemic of autism, 10 years ago, 100, 110 kids were being diagnosed with boxes. Now it’s one in 48 in America and across the world it’s growing. So, what we try to do is we say, look, you know, we’re going to come along your side. We know you may not have all the resources. We may know. You may not be able to get all the therapy, especially those, you know, you find the inner city and places in socially economic situations where they can’t get to everything we come alongside. And that’s what the church should be. The church should be the very best at coming alongside people and helping them meet their needs. And then ultimately helping them know Jesus Christ as their personal savior and, and have a destiny with him.
I love that. You know, I love what you say. We often say in a city center that compassion is scalable, you start where you’re at with what you have, and God will multiply it. And bless that. And when you talk about that Champion’s Club in Africa, on a blanket anyone can engage and start where they’re at. Jesus said, even a cup of cool water matters. So that’s such a powerful message that every church really could lean into special needs.
Yeah. And you know, I’ll say this Wendell to remember when God told me favor will follow you and your church, when you begin to reach out to these kids and families, you know, me, people might look at the favor of Lakewood and, and they might look at it and say, well, it’s, it’s from the television ministry, which, which is true. I mean, God used Joel in a miraculous way, but what people don’t see many times at Lakewood are these ministries that are helping people in their deepest needs. And that Joel man, he was, he was a pioneer. I mean, when other pastors I would get in front of other pastors and they would cry with me and they would be moved by my story, Joel, didn’t hesitate to launch Champion’s Club. And I think we’ve seen so much favor come to Lakewood by launching ministries to the most desperate needs and, and seeing them become everything God created them to be.
And I really believe there is. I believe when you chase after what God chases after God will chase after you. And, this is a God breathe type of ministry. And I think what you guys are doing, City Serve you know, when you look at, at, at the different things that you’re targeting right now th this, this is God, man, this is the heart of God. The areas that you’re touching. And so he’s going to bless that. And so, yeah, it’s such a, it’s such an honor for me to, to just be a small part, you know, with you guys.
We love that vulnerable initiative, this Champion’s Club really is at the top of that initiative. Seeing every church develop a Champion’s Club ministry,
And we Craig, we loved our time there with you Paulo Steen Joel’s brother his son Matt, what an incredibly emerging leader is. And then our time would Joel. And we’re excited about where God’s going to take this partnership. There, you know, in Houston, really what we like to say from the neighborhood to the nations.
Well, it’s, it’s, it’s really cool when God brings God connections, you know he, he, he takes influence and, and, you know, I rather have influence he day more than money, you know, because influence means impact. Right? And so I think what God’s bringing together with Lakewood and CityServe, wow. You know, it just flows and what we do and relief from recovery, and it flows with what you do. And then all the other initiatives that you have, you know, I can look at all those initiatives and say, well, Lakewood, Lakewood is doing something like that in some way, shape or form. So to bring that together man, you know, I, I think there’s just so much power in that. And we’re really excited about, you know, what’s going to come with CityServe and with Lakewood and, and just seeing what all God’s going to do. And, and I think, I think you guys are really developing strong models for regions that can, that can impact not only regions, but the churches within those regions and help them feel like man, we can make a difference wherever we’re at.
Well, as we conclude let’s, let’s finish what the Champion’s Club, but really more importantly, these families that have special needs kids, you’ve already ministered to them today in a powerful way, Craig but what would you say to them as really a kind of a closing message? I, I know you love to say, you’re not a victim, you’re a big door. And so what would you say to them? And then would you mind closing our time praying for them?
Yeah, it’d be my honor. I would just encourage, you know, if you’re a family of a special needs child, teen, or adult just some key things that, that Sam and I had to remember, you know, as we were walking through, this is this, you know, many times our, our, our vision of the future gets changed when we have a special needs child. And that’s one of the things that weighs on special needs. Parents so much. Remember you have grace for a day. You don’t, you don’t have grace for two weeks from now. And two years from now, we have grace for a day. The children of Israel didn’t have manna for three days. They had manna for that day. And the reason why is because God wanted them to pin upon him because obviously, you know, he didn’t come for us to serve him.
He came to serve us, let Jesus serve you. You have grace for a day. Just, just do the best you can with today and trust God to give you everything you need for tomorrow. You gotta let go of the past. You gotta embrace today and you’ve gotta trust God for the future. And I think that’s one of the things that’s so important. I think when you talk about a victim or instead of a victim, many families, and if you’re watching right now, you felt that victimization in your own life. And here’s why, what I would encourage you to do, you know, when an Eagle’s flying in the wind and rain, the Eagle doesn’t stay there and let it, let it pound them back and forth. What the Eagle does, spreads its wings as wide as it can as wide as it can. And the wind begins to lift the Eagle up out the wind rain into the eye of the storm, where it’s peaceful and beautiful.
And it gets a different perspective on storms. And I believe this to be true when you’re good to someone else, even when you’re in the storm, you’re going to be like that Eagle spreading its wings, and God’s going to lift you. And then those people that you’re helping, they’re going to help you. The greatest thing that Sam and I did in the midst of the most difficult storm was be good to someone else. And I think it gives you a different perspective. I think you see things differently. And so I’d really encourage you. You don’t have to launch a Champion’s Club, just call one of your friends and, and, and just encourage them today that has a special needs child or, or get with other families and start a small group, come around each other and encourage each other. And, and the biggest thing I would say is what God spoke to me.
Do you trust me, trust God, you know, try, do your best, but, but, and let God do the rest. If you’ll do that, I know, I know I’m a witness to it that God can do the same thing for you that he’s done for me. So let me pray for you. All right now, heavenly father, I just thank you God, for just allowing us to have this time together. W with my dear friends, Dave, and Windell, I thank you, God that we get to do this work of reaching father those who you go after. And, and it’s an honor and God to see these families rise up from little ashes and God, you begin to take them to fly like Eagles. Like they’ve never flown before. And God I’ve seen one family after another, that that’s happened. I thank you, God, that you’re going to continue to, to do that within the lives of families.
First, let me speak to them. Father. I ask you to meet every need that they have. The things that were hard will become easier. That you’ll give them hope. You’ll give them encouragement today. You’ll let them know that help is on its way, and that you’ll let them know as they depend upon you as a trusted new father, that God, you will figure it out for them. You’ll direct their steps. You’ll direct their path as Proverbs three, five, and six says, and let them lean into you, God. And I know that they’re not just going to get through it, God, but you’re going to use their children to do great things for you. They have a desk and father, I can’t wait to hear even testimonies that will come out today. God of someone that stepped out and trusted in you and God, you did miraculous things in their life.
I thank you for this partnership with CityServe and what you’re doing. Champions club and, and Lakewood, God that God we’re going to reach so many more families together and reach the vulnerable that we’re going to see families literally transformed because they’re going to find hope. They’re going to be able to go to church for the first time and their lives are going to be changed. And they’re going to see their children get God, become everything that you’ve designed them to be uniquely, Father. I thank you for, for Dave and Wendell God and the entire team of City Serve. And God, I just believe that your hand is upon them. I believe, or God that you’re using them like God in profound ways, maybe they don’t even know it right now. And maybe we’ll never see it, but God, this is going to be something that’s going to impact generations, father, until you come back and father, I just ask you, bless it. I asked you to guide it. I asked you to orchestrate every step of each and every leader, each and every person that’s involved in each and every person that impacts God and God, it will be for all your glory and all your praise, Lord Jesus. And we thank you for this privilege just to serve you in Jesus name. Amen.
Yeah. Thank you, Craig. And we’ll put information up on the screen on how they can reach you, but you want to give that to us?
Yeah, you can go to https://championsclub.org and we’ll give that to you as well.
Thanks Craig. For joining us on the charisma podcast network.
All right, we’ll see you soon.