JOHN NEWTON SVENDSEN
PASTOR, FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF EL SEGUNDO, CA
JANUARY 1, 1990 - OCTOBER 1, 2017
Pastor John Svendsen was the well-beloved pastor and faithful servant of Jesus Christ at First Baptist Church of El Segundo for nearly 28 years. He was instrumental in the merger of First Baptist Church with Water’s Edge Church in 2017, which became the present-day New City Church of El Segundo.
John’s life was one of sacrificial giving to those around him, whether preaching from the pulpit, teaching Bible classes, mentoring young pastors, evangelism both local and in worldwide missions, counseling, hospital visitation, or showing hospitality in his home. John lived a simple but profound life. He did not adorn himself with flashy clothes, nor care what kind of car he drove, nor how big his bank account balance was. Rather, he adorned himself with someone that meant the world to him, his Savior Jesus Christ. Those that knew him well knew that, more than anything, he desired and labored tirelessly that others would know this Savior. What people saw in John was the love of Jesus shining through.
The following is a tribute to, and brief remembrance of, the man and the influence he had on individuals in this church, the community and the world. A selection of several of Pastor John's sermons may be found when you click on PASTOR JOHN SVENDSEN SERMON ARCHIVE. The archive page can also be accessed from the main page under the "SERMONS" tab above. These sermons provide a good representation of John’s character, theology and preaching style.
LIFE BEFORE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
John was born on February 25, 1956 to Charles and Audrey (Talbot) Svendsen in La Canada, California, where he spent his younger years. He was the fourth of four children. Both his dad and grandfather were pastors, as were other family members, and John knew in his heart by the age of 16 that he wanted to serve in Christian ministry. During high school and college (1971-1976), John was instrumental in founding a Christian coffee house where he served on the teaching staff, as well as working in two high school Bible studies and regular involvement in street and campus evangelism. He was a member of the California Scholarship Federation and “Who’s Who Among American High School Students.” John graduated from La Canada High School in 1974 and began his college education at Glendale Community College before transferring to Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
While attending Covenant College, John served as a summer intern pastor (1976) at the Kempton Mennonite Fellowship in Kempton, Pennsylvania where he was involved in preaching, counseling, teaching and visitation. He also worked for two years (1977-1978) as the Youth Director and adult Sunday school teacher at Alton Park Bible Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. John graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree from Covenant College in 1978.
John served as assistant to the pastor at Montrose Community Church in Montrose, California from 1978 to 1979, where he was active in preaching and instruction. In 1980 John served as a summer intern in the Pastoral Care Department at the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles, California. Here he worked with street transients, as well as speaking at retreats and providing instruction in Bible.
John continued his education at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia where he received his Master of Arts in Religion in 1981. Following this he accepted his first pastorate in Queens, New York at the Community Bible Evangelical Free Church, where he served until 1986. During this time he also received his Master of Divinity from Fuller Seminary, Pasadena in 1982 and subsequently was ordained in 1983. John received a call to pastor in Canterbury, Connecticut in 1986, where he served as minister at the Westminster Congregational Church through 1989.
CALL TO FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
In the latter half of 1989, following the departure of Pastor Larry Swain, the Pulpit Committee contacted John Svendsen to see if he would be interested to candidate for the position of pastor at First Baptist Church of El Segundo. On Saturday, September 30, John met with the members of the Pulpit Committee and Board of Deacons for lunch and a chance to get to know each other, followed that evening by a dinner with the entire membership of the church for a question and answer session. On the following day, John preached at the Sunday morning worship service. A church business meeting was then held where a vote was taken, resulting in 40 “yes” votes and one “no” vote, thus proving the old adage that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”
John began his pastoral ministry at First Baptist Church on Sunday, January 1, 1990. His compensation consisted of an annual salary of $18,000, use of the church parsonage as residence, a utilities allowance of $1,200 per year, four weeks of vacation each year, health insurance and church contributions to a pension fund.
Thus began a 28-year ministry at First Baptist Church. It was immediately apparent that John’s primary passion was to preach and teach about Jesus. This was no doubt his greatest gift and strength. Every sermon and every lesson centered on the person and life of Jesus Christ.
Because preaching and teaching about Jesus was his passion, his love of books fed and built upon that passion. A regular part of John’s work week was a reading day. He read to prepare for his sermons and lessons, he read to build his knowledge base, and he read for pleasure. Theological books were the mainstay of his library. Some of John’s favorite authors were Charles Spurgeon, John Stott, R.C. Sproul, John Piper and J.I. Packer, as well as the Puritan authors including John Calvin, John Flavel, and John Bunyan. If anyone, at any time, needed a recommendation for a good book, you could count of John to help you in almost any area.
In part because of his love of the works of the old theologians, John loved the old hymns because they are so rich in theological content and meaning. Some of his favorite hymns were those written by John Newton (“Amazing Grace”), Thomas Chisholm (“Great is Thy Faithfulness”), Mary Byrne (“Be Thou My Vision”), Horatio Spafford (“When Peace Like a River”), Caroline Sandel (“Day by Day”), and Joseph Gilmore (“He Leadeth Me”).
Second only to his preaching skill was John’s skill in the pastoral ministries with individuals. He was frequently interacting with people, either visiting them in the hospital, counseling those with marital or personal conflicts, bringing the gospel to neighbors, or comforting those who had experienced loss of relatives or friends. He performed his share of weddings and funerals and, in either case, made it a point to bring as part of the message the preeminent personal importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who were listening to him.
Pastor John was joined in the ministry at First Baptist Church by Lisa Lait, who came on staff in July 2000. Lisa first met John through a church member and mutual friend while she was working at a daycare in El Segundo and going to Pepperdine University in pursuit of her Master of Divinity degree. From the time Lisa first heard John, she was drawn to his expository preaching and teaching of God’s Word. While she was finishing up her last year at Pepperdine, Lisa served as a volunteer leader with the church youth group. After graduating with her Masters degree, Lisa was hired as the Director of Children’s Ministries and subsequently became the Assistant Pastor, continuing that role in present-day New City Church.
Lisa supported John in many ways, with her strengths in administration and organization; teaching children and youth; leading women’s small groups and Bible studies; coordinating building usage among the the external groups using the facilities; and coordinating various outdoors ministries supported by the church, to name just a few. Lisa felt she also benefited greatly from the opportunity she had to discuss theology with John and, from his recommendations, to be exposed to some of the great theologians and authors. As she once said, “Seminary gave me a foundation, but John’s teaching, preaching, and book recommendations gave me the ability to build on that foundation.”
GLOBAL EVANGELISM IN MISSIONS
Reaching unreached people groups for Jesus fueled John’s passion for international missions. Along with Henry Walton, John spearheaded the missions’ program at the church and began the yearly Faith Promise giving to missions. John and Henry, with other missions-minded members, worked to develop a support relationship with missionaries and organizations working both nationally and internationally. John was instrumental in motivating the congregation to reach in their pockets so the gospel could reach around the world through various organizations like Frontiers, Operation Mobilization, Pioneers and Wycliffe, just to name a few.
Missionaries were regularly invited to come to the church when home on furlough and talk with the congregation, giving reports and stirring up interest in missions among the church members. The highlight of the church year was the fall missions conference and potluck luncheon where a guest missionary, along with John, would speak in the morning, prior to taking the Faith Promise Offering, followed by a luncheon where members would bring food representing dishes from all over the world.
John’s interest in world missions went hand-in-glove with his love of travel. He regularly traveled internationally to visit missionaries, sometimes preaching or teaching in their churches and schools. Over his life he travelled to every continent except Antartica. John made regular trips to Israel to visit Jerusalem, sometimes with friends, sometimes with Susie, and sometimes just by himself.
When traveling to Jerusalem, John would take a suitcase full of books which he would read while on his visit. He liked to stay in out-of-the way places, such as a Catholic monastery, or in the Muslim quarter of the city. He would spend his time walking around the city, reading, and striking up friendships wherever he went. John’s visits to Jerusalem often coincided with open hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. While church members worried, John never had any fear in traveling.
John and Susie (Gausselin) were married on June 24, 1995. John described Susie as the “love of my life” and once said, “I was an old bachelor until Susie rescued me.” Susie's personality, talents and abilities complemented John's in many ways and proved the adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” They were married for 24 years.
Susie was always a very active presence at First Baptist Church. She played the organ and piano, and sang with the worship team during most of the worship services. She helped with the children’s ministry and fellowship ministry. She had an eye for just how to make a room or table beautiful in a simple way. She also started the women’s Bible study that is still going on today. Those involved in that early Bible study time will remember acting out the story of Daniel with scarves and trinkets from around her house.
John and Susie both enjoyed practicing hospitality at the parsonage. They regularly hosted church members, friends, family, visiting missionaries, or even people in need. When you were invited to their home for a meal or event, you knew it was going to be a wonderful time of good food, warmth and laughter, and probably music in some form or fashion. Their home was especially festive at holidays, e.g., Resurrection Sunday (Easter), 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. For several years John and Susie hosted the church Christmas party at the parsonage. Thanksgiving dinner saw an army of family and friends feasting in their home.
John had a big heart for animals of all kinds. As a teenager, he trained pigeons. As a pastor, he and Susie were adopted by a cat that conveniently gave birth to a litter of kittens in their wardrobe closet! From that litter Trajan became a regular attender at church services and would often keep John company in the church office as he worked on his Sunday sermon.
CANCER DIAGNOSIS AND HANDING OFF OF THE BATON
In early 2015, after experiencing several months of illness, John was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. He made the announcement to the church congregation on Sunday morning, March 15, 2015. What followed was a rollercoaster of highs and lows, both for John and for the church, as he underwent surgery, radiation therapy and chemo therapy. John continued to preach and minister to the church as his health allowed, with the full support and prayers of the congregation. John had many friends in the community, several of whom were pastors themselves, so guest speakers were ready and willing to fill the pulpit on Sunday mornings when he wasn’t feeling well. During this time, the congregation appreciated hearing from Pastors Jerrard Heard, Dusty Vroom, Philip Heidt, Andy Noch, Rich Freeman and others.
It was during this time that John gave considerable thought to who would follow him as pastor and what direction the church should take. Over the years the church had maintained a small (50 to 100 people on average) but loyal congregation. It had always been a family community in El Segundo and also insulated, in a good way, because it allowed for families to grow and thrive here.
John believed that First Baptist Church could benefit from some fresh direction moving into the future. “I’ve sort of been a chaplain, and they need more of a captain,” he said. “Every pastor brings to the table a certain skill-set, and that leadership may be better served by someone else going forward.”
As John’s health stabilized somewhat towards the end of 2015, he encouraged the Board of Deacons to form a Transition Team to look into leadership options for the church following his eventual departure. After considering several possible paths for the church, and at Pastor John's recommendation, the Transition Team began meeting with Elders at Water’s Edge Church to look into the feasibility and desirability of merging the two congregations. This lead to many hours of meetings, several presentations to the respective churches, and much prayer.
After considerable discussion, the members of the Transition Team and Board of Deacons of First Baptist Church and the Elders from Water's Edge Church felt that there was a good match between the two congregations. While the two churches were different in their denominational memberships, they were nearly identical in their theology. First Baptist Church had an older congregation, a building and facilities, and was in need of a pastor. Water’s Edge Church had a younger congregation with many young families, a seasoned pastor and support staff, and was in need of a permanent place to worship. The merging of the two churches would meet the needs of both and provide for a more diverse overall membership in terms of Christian maturity, background and family composition.
The leadership of the two churches presented the recommendation to their respective congregations, and on November 4, 2017, in separate business meetings, the members of First Baptist Church and Water’s Edge Church voted overwhelmingly to merge their respective memberships, staff and resources to form a new church.
In the later part of 2016, a year and a half removed from a stage four cancer diagnosis, John decided it was time to lighten his daily load a bit and retire from the ministry. Although his health was stable and he was doing fairly well, the illness was a pivotal part leading him to make the decision. As John said, “I realized that if I don’t have as long to live as I might have thought, I wondered, ‘What do I want to do with this next chapter?’” he said. “I love teaching and preaching, and I want to help mentor young men to be the next generation of pastors.”
Pastor John announced his decision to retire on Sunday morning January 8, 2017, just short of his 61st birthday. He told the congregation that he and Susie planned on moving to Portland, Oregon. Saying goodbye to El Segundo would be bittersweet, but they hoped to make a difference in this new locale. “We have family in Salem, which is 45 minutes south, and Portland is a cool city,” John said when asked why he and Susie chose that particular town. “Plus the rain will drive me indoors to write.”
Writing was one component of Svendsen’s plan to embark on something he called “WPTM Portland.” While that may sound like a radio station, it actually stood for “Writing, Preaching, Teaching and Mentoring.” His goal upon arrival was to check out various congregations and eventually land in one spot where he could help out the pastor. In some ways, it was an extension of what he already did at First Baptist Church, only without the burden of all those administrative responsibilities. “I’ll offer my services to preach if the pastor’s sick, on vacation or needs a break,” Svendsen said. “Or I can conduct a class.”
In addition to settling in at a new church, John also planned to travel to China as part of a teaching excursion. He had made similar trips in the past to areas as diverse as Georgia (the country) and the Dominican Republic. “There’s a great need in many parts of the world that don’t have as many theological opportunities,” he explained. “Your garden-variety pastor can make a contribution by going to those developing world situations and teaching the pastors there. It’s a rewarding experience.”
On October 1, 2017, one month before the two churches of First Baptist and Water’s Edge would vote to merge, John addressed the congregation at First Baptist Church for the final time as the pastor. After 28 years in town and well over 1,000 Sunday sermons, John was retiring.
Once they had settled down in Portland, John and Susie looked for a church to attend and soon became very active in Hinson Baptist Church. There John was given the opportunity to preach and teach in front of his new congregation, including a sermon on the topic “Lessons From a Washbowl,” with scripture taken from John 13:1-17. In addition, he lead services at a local retirement facility, taught at Portland Rescue Mission, preached at the Chinese Evangelical Church, mentored young people interested in ministry, and lead a class in his home where pastors and their spouses would come.
John pursued his plans of travel and made it back to Israel in the spring of 2018 with a mixed group of travelers from the South Bay, including some from New City Church. His health was holding up, and he was in one of his favorite spots, revisiting the sites where Jesus had walked. His plans to travel to China to teach did not come to pass, however, due to his on-going health problems.
John followed through on his plans to write and he self-published two volumes, one entitled Preaching to the Choir: Why Christians Need to Hear the Gospel Too, and the other entitled Reflections of a Cancer Patient: A Pastor Looks Back on His Stage-IV Cancer. Both books are available on Amazon (click on the titles for more information). John and Susie graciously gifted several boxes of these to members and friends at New City Church.
John and Susie returned to El Segundo a couple times over the next year and John preached again to the congregation at the newly formed New City Church on December 30, 2018. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing with members and friends, past and present. It was a grand celebration that continued well into the afternoon with lots of food and fellowship. John and Susie were in good spirits, and John was in good form.
In what came as a surprise to many, John’s health deteriorated quickly in the new year. John knew that his time on Earth was short and provided these final thoughts in an email to the congregation on March 20, 2019:
Dear First Baptist Family:
I wanted to let you know the latest concerning my health. First, though, let me thank you for all your prayers. I so appreciate the concern that you have shown to me. God answers those prayers in different ways, and we trust in His wisdom, not ours.
So let me tell you what has transpired most recently. Yesterday I was informed by my oncologist that there was basically nothing more that could be done to treat my cancer medically, and that the time frame before my death would be a matter of months, if not weeks. This is due to the fact that the cancer is active in the liver and is in a very difficult location for the doctors to get at. We both agreed, therefore, to end all medical treatments and for me to go on hospice. Today the hospice people came and I am now officially signed up to be under their care.
Let me tell you how I feel about all this. I am not at all fearful of death because of the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross at Calvary, and I willingly accept God’s providential allowance of this turn of events. Thank God for the great salvation that He has provided for us! There would be absolutely no hope unless Jesus had come into the world to bear the penalty of the sins of all who believe in Him.
I would ask that you pray for Susie, as naturally this comes as a blow for her. And I ask that you continue to pray for me, that I may bring glory to God at what looks to be the last lap of my earthly life. Think of all the opportunities I will have to share the good news of the Gospel with each hospice caregiver who comes to the house! I really believe that the main duty in life is to honor God and share the good news in whatever situation we are in…whether it is behind a pulpit or from a hospice bed. There is always a needy audience for the best news in all the world!
So that is the latest. I just wanted to keep you apprised of the most recent happenings. Again, my great thanks for your friendship in Christ, and for the opportunity to serve you at First Baptist of El Segundo. Charles Wesley put it well: “God buries his workmen but carries on his work.” It is His kingdom that matters most of all. May it soon embrace the entire world and may the day come quickly when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Your brother and friend,
By March 25th John was on hospice care and finally on April 13, 2019, in Portland, Oregon, Pastor John Newton Svendsen graduated to Heaven.
A life so wonderfully lived deserves to be beautifully remembered; so, a memorial service was held at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon where John and Susie had been attending. A second memorial, a celebration of John’s life, was planned for New City Church in El Segundo on May 5th at 3:00 pm.
Those that knew John will fondly remember that he was meticulous when it came to the planning of worship services or, indeed, any service where the gospel could be preached. To that end, John planned out the details of his own memorial service. An email received by Lisa Lait spelled out the specific content and order for the service at New City Church:
A couple of weeks after I die, I have planned to have a memorial service at Hinson Baptist Church. … Perhaps a week after the Portland service there could be one in El Segundo? It really would not matter the length of time after my death that it takes place as I will already have been interred through direct burial. (I think dad had his two weeks after his death). …
The order of service would consist of:
1) Bill Crawford as moderator,
2) Two scripture readings:
Old Testament Reading - Psalm 23 (Jerrard);
New Testament Reading - John 14: 1-6 (Lori)
3) Special Music - Kris and Cathi (He is Worthy)
4) Reflections of an Elder Brother (Charles),
5) Reflections of an Older Sister (Liz)
6) Reflection of a Colleague (which, in this case, I would like to have you. Philip will fill that role in Portland).
7) A short presentation of the Gospel (Ron)
8) Three hymns: Great is Thy Faithfulness, Day by Day (and with each passing moment), He Leadeth Me; (to be interspersed throughout the service),
9) Closing (Bill Crawford)
This would make the service about 1 hour 15 minutes. …
The memorial service held at New City Church on May 5th was packed to overflowing with family; church members, both past and present; friends both far and near; neighbors; pastors from the community; and anyone that had known John. Appropriately, the length of the service went well over the estimate of “1 hour 15 minutes”. While the mood was sorrowful, it was also joyful and triumphant. Our good friend and pastor was no longer in pain and he was now at home with his Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. This had been his constant hope and goal, and was the complete fulfillment of everything he had done in this life.
Click HERE to listen to the memorial service.
Some have asked about memorial gifts in John’s memory. Foreign Missions was a passion of John’s and the missionaries supported by New City Church were especially dear to him. The family requests memorial gifts be given to whatever church you attend and designated for MISSIONS.
The proclamation of Christ’s loving sacrifice and empty tomb was the object of John’s trust and the source of his joy. May it also be for you.
Click here to listen to the sermon, "Finally ... (Pastor John's Last Day at First Baptist Church)"
Pastor John's final sermon as pastor at First Baptist Church; now entering retirement and departing with Susie to Portland, OR.
Click here to listen to the sermon, “Two Different Ways of Looking at Life:”
Pastor John tells the FBC congregation of his intention to retire and move to Portland, OR with Susie.
Click here to listen to the sermon, “Paul's Happy Dilemma ... and His New Congregation”
Message wherein Pastor John informs the church congregation that he has stage IV colon cancer.
March 15, 2015. Pastor John preached on Philippians 1:12-26