From pub quiz to culture and contextualisation: interview with Tim Jones

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tim_jonesThe CMS Pioneer course is a major journey of self-discovery and questioning for Tim Jones, first-year Durham MA student and youth pastor. Helen Harwood asked him more.

HH: When we chatted earlier last week you gave me a very vivid picture of your spiritual life, from your roots in a Christian family to your current position as assistant youth pastor of St Paul’s Church, a “New Wine” Anglican charismatic-evangelical church in Cheltenham. Can you explain a bit more for our readers as to where your faith journey has taken you so far, please?

TJ: I think it’s fair to say that I can’t really remember a time or a place when I wasn’t somewhere on a journey of faith. Or, lest that seem a truism, the sense that an explicit question(ing) of faith – more especially, a faith in (relation to) Christ – has had something to do with my life from its very beginning is not something I can otherwise escape.

I was born into a Christian family, both my parents have a strong personal faith. I have always had a strong sense of a long and multi-denominational Christian heritage, including Baptist, Methodist, and United Reformed on my mother’s side and Roman Catholic and (what I like to call) “Middle” Anglican on my father’s.

In my own adult life, such a catholicity of Christian faith has only prevailed, whether while studying philosophy and theology with the Benedictine brethren of St Benet’s Hall in Oxford, or working as a boarding house tutor in a local private school with an explicitly evangelical Christian foundation. It was following my time at these institutions that I found myself at St Paul’s – almost entirely by accident. Having accompanied a friend to her first service there, I was convinced to volunteer for the church’s up and coming holiday club, before I was later invited to join a number of other student and young adult volunteers working with young people at the New Wine summer conference. Two years on, following an internship with the volunteer team at St Paul’s I now find myself the assistant youth pastor.

It is not only my present tradition which continues to inform my continuing faith journey, but also each and every one I have so far encountered. It seems clear to me that even now I haven’t completely settled for any of the ‘cultures’ or ‘forms’, even ‘functions’ of Christianity, that have otherwise been made known to me.

So Tim, here you are a youth pastor – give us an idea of a typical day (if such a thing could exist)…

In fact, it probably IS quite difficult to speak of a typical day, not least when a typical week is often a case of wearing (quite) a few different hats in very quick succession!

That’s no bad thing, of course. In fact, it’s been great to have been forced to develop quite a disciplined weekly timetable, in which a different set of days, ideally, are given to my study (both at CMS and back in Cheltenham) and another to my explicit working hours on behalf of our young people. However, on occasion, and perhaps more frequently of late, it does leave one feeling like a different person each and every day of the week, or at least a man ‘in two halves’.

Nevertheless, on the days that I’m firmly a youth pastor in St Paul’s I coordinate a combination of both programmed and more detached activities for both our ‘churched’ and ‘unchurched’ youth, including a weekly football meet and Friday-night youth club, as well as the team of largely student volunteers who are very much becoming the ‘boots on the ground’ for our ministry.

I know you had quite an unusual route to becoming a student with CMS on the Pioneer course. You started out by attending our ReSource weekends, spread out over about a year, and then joined us for the Pioneer MA. Could you tell us a bit about how you heard about the course and first connected with it, and how we became a part of your story?

I originally found out about CMS and more particularly the Pioneer course fairly unintentionally. At least, while volunteering at the New Wine Summer conference, I spent quite some time enquiring with the various mission societies there about the possible opportunities for a recently out-of-work, probably-wanting-yet-another-gap-year, former boarding house tutor and tried-and-failed religious studies teacher. And, as a result of one of those conversations, I actually took the Pioneer course leaflet AGAINST the recommendation of the CMS representative there, which then just happened to fall out on top of the vast pile of papers I eventually brought back from the conference.

It was then that I called Jonny Baker. Even after a very encouraging first conversation with him, the question(s) still very much remained. If I was to even begin to (re)think myself a Pioneer, let alone develop as one, what was to be my context? Did I even have one? And, regardless as to wherever I could in fact imagine myself, whatever could I envisage specifically doing there?

Jonny and I agreed on a possible (or at least temporary) solution: why not come and see what others were doing? So I began to attend the ReSource weekends over the course of a whole academic year.

And I had an incredible time of it, while, it must be said, becoming somewhat ‘infamous’ as the one who would always ask (if not probably still asks) too many unhelpful questions of each and every one who attended and/or hosted.

But it was also these voices which continued to suggest it was high time for me to be ‘reeled in’ to cross-cultural mission here in the UK and join the course. Eventually it was the very situation of my newfound position – indeed my newfound context in St Paul’s – which made studying with CMS not only possible but also altogether necessary.

Tim, I am sure your questions were not unhelpful.

I know from our earlier conversations that the course is at an early stage for you, you’re in your first year, and you are just beginning to see the spheres of your study and the work/mission life ‘bleed into each other’, to use your phrase. Could I ask which module so far has most connected with where you are, or is it all still beginning to work around the edges of connecting what you are learning and what you are doing in your work?

It IS still very early days but I think it’s also fair to say that each and every module has had, to say the very least, an incredible sense of timing, even providence, with respect to my current work/mission life:

Be that Leadership (which started just as I was explicitly commissioned as assistant youth pastor – along with all the various social, relational, and professional alterations that went with it), Anthropology (which has ended up throwing up all sorts of terrifying questions that might well soon be answered or at least placated in this present module), and now Research Methods (which seems to be setting the stage for a whole year, if not a present life-time, of thinking and doing, finally, coming to something of a head).

I think it’s worth recognising how both my ethnographic research and the larger questions thrown up during the course of my reading from the last Anthropology module have very much ‘followed me home’.

In the first case – it was my participant observation in my local pub quiz that opened the door to a whole host of explicitly (what is) mission and (what is) church-focused questions from both the long-term and newfound friends who make up the team along with me.

Meanwhile overriding questions of (what is) ‘culture’ and (what) ‘contextualisation’ (should look like) have forced me to think long and hard, and increasingly sleeplessly, about what models of mission I am in fact pursuing (even on what so-called grounds) each and every day – more especially with our young people, but even throughout our church family’s wider ministries.

It’s always good to see where study and ‘real life’ connect, or rather life outside study breaks in and vice versa.

Some students talk about a lot of peer support from the CMS Pioneer course, others of feeling they fit in, I understand from you that you still feel rather like you don’t totally fit in any of the areas of work or study and yet this may be teaching you something about life at the margins. Could you say a bit more about that please?

From the off, let me be clear, I couldn’t agree more with those who speak of peer support from within the CMS Pioneer course. If there’s one thing that’s never been in doubt, it’s been the prevailing atmosphere of a mutuality of vulnerability – I would even call it a constructive intimacy – in this wonderful learning community.

That said, I think what IS at issue for me, and what the course is facilitating, is asking the question as to what “mission”, let alone Pioneering, might even mean.

In many ways this is, of course, completely understandable, even altogether uplifting. Only it seems to me that one of the many insightful aims of this course is to be in curation of a fascinating pluralism of views, even, with respect to its very own end(s) – not, of course, for the sake of excess, but rather to the overriding end of a “critical contextualisation” of definitively missional life.

What I seem to be increasingly conscious of, however, is that even a “critical contextualisation” begins to carry with it a fairly fixable set of ‘criteria’, perhaps even should do for the particular Pioneer. And yet, it is precisely these ‘criteria’ that I continue to feel at pains to pick apart within myself – arguably in the heady and heavy midst of Pioneering ‘adolescence’ – certainly more so than the many who it seems have begun to hold fast to the wisdom and experience they have otherwise gleaned.

It is this which has enabled them to at least begin to settle upon the fundamental principle(s) of their own personal “mission”, better put, that all-apparent drive, even that undergirding passion or motivation – be it say a hope, even anger, sometimes a fear, or perhaps even a promise – in their pursuit of mission for their context: a passion which, unfortunately, I myself, even for myself, am yet to identify.

And, while this could potentially lend itself to placing me in the intriguing position of being one to bridge the gaps between those of various missional dispositions, it also seems to leave me sitting in ‘the space between spaces’, which is a rather alien (even alienating) space to be – and certainly one that pervades both halves of my week, and not simply while studying with CMS.

Still – this may prove itself to be nothing less than a step in, or at least a posture towards, the right direction. Perhaps, then, if I can begin to more practically embody something of that feeling of the perennial alien – certainly the marginal, even liminal, and as some have suggested, prophetic being – then perhaps that’s a drive and a passion, at least a potential empathy, that I can begin to carry into whatever context I happen to find myself in.

And finally, Tim, please tell us how we can pray for you.

Please simply pray for a continuing self-acknowledgement (even an eventual, if only partial, understanding) of my own missional motivation and, and perhaps more essentially, for the communities and contexts (and their continuing patience) that I continue to inhabit while doing so.

Pray: Please do pray for Tim and for his studies and wider work, for the youth work he does and for part we will be able to play in his life, and he in the lives of his fellow students.

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