Howard Jones: Downward Mobility and Radical Acceptance
Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.
I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.
So I’m really delighted to be with Howard Jones, in Cobridge
C: So do you want to introduce yourself?
H: Of course, yeah, I’m Howard, and my wife Iona and I moved here to Cobridge in 2009, so about 13.5 years now. I’m a Baptist minister; before moving here I’d been the pastor in charge of 2 Baptist churches, one in the Cotswalds, one in Solihull. I’ve done 21 years of doing that and in the lead up to our move we started to think it’s time for a change, to do something different. Both of my previous churches, I had gone to a church that was small, and it had grown. Both churches are still alive, which is rather nice to know. So Iona asked me, did we want to find another church and go there and build it up. No, I think what I’d like to do is go somewhere and start with absolutely nothing. Start absolutely from scratch. That was an interesting thought. But we explored it and eventually we linked up with an organisation called Urban Expression, which has lots of small teams around the country doing just that kind of thing. It’s not just urban any more, they do them sometimes in rural areas, but I think the chief characteristics are that they are places where the church is not thriving. So Urban Expression helps and supports and enables and trains people who feel called by God to go into places like that and just say, “let us go there and see what the Spirit will do.” So that’s what we felt would be right for us, so in 2009 we came here, just Iona and me, having done 21 years in busy baptist ministry. We started, as I say, with just this house that we are sitting in, in Cobridge.
C: Incidentally, what was it that drew you into Baptist ministry in the first place?
H: Well, I became a Christian in my teens, a bit before my 15th birthday, I was in a large, thriving evangelical Anglican church in the outer suburbs of London. I enjoyed the whole thing of the bible and speaking and teaching and that kind of thing, and I had this picture of one day being a minister. I did actually explore Anglican ministry when I was a teenager. They very sensibly said “Go and do something else first.” So I did, I went to university, I became a music teacher, which was a very very bad fit for me, I just wasn’t fitted for teaching in a secondary school at all, I was the wrong person for it, I feel sorry for the poor kids I taught. Or more accurately, failed to teach. At that time I was playing in a band, we were living in Slough, we looked around for a church and we found Slough Baptist church. It did seem like a really good fit for us, emotionally and theologically and everything. We just liked it. I was married to Iona by then, and she said “Is this what you want to do? Be in a band for the rest of your life?” I said, “I don’t know, all I really want to do is be the minister of a church.” Her jaw hit the floor. So when we explored ministry it was in the Baptist church. I think often, people tend not to go into particular denominations for denominational reasons. It’s largely because they found a church and they feel comfortable there and that’s the shape of the church they go into.
C: So the desire for ministry, to be a church minister, was running through you since your teenage years, and exactly what colour of church was less important?
H: Yes, with the desire to see the movement and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
C: So you went to the Cotswalds
H: Yes I know, that was weird, wasn’t it? Because it was the last place on Earth we thought we’d end up, we went to train in Regent’s Park in Oxford when our daughter was 5 weeks old, we moved there, we thought we’d end up somewhere exciting and groovy, I went out on a preach in my first year to this little tiny church out in the Cotswalds in a place called Chipping-Camden(?), which is a beautiful Cotswalds, size of a village called Silvertown, and this little tiny Baptist church with about 20-30 mainly elderly people, and I just loved them. At the end of the service it was “we’ll have to see when you finish training, maybe we’ll be ready to have a minister by then”, they didn’t have enough money to have a minister. They called me in my 2nd year, so I went through the rest of my training knowing I was going to that church. It was actually a great place to start. I think if I’d been thrust straight into some urban setting, I’d have been quickly overwhelmed. So I just started there.
C: So what did you discover about what kind of minister you were?
H: It’s funny, y’know, I’m in the latter half of my 60s now, and it’s fun when you get to that age, an awful lot of it is looking back and thinking, “goodness, did I really do that? Did I say that? I did, didn’t I?” but I suppose really I’m a performer. One of my gifts and skills is in storytelling, performing and preaching. And worship leading. It’s not that they are a performance, but they both require perfomance skills to click, d’y’know what I mean?
H: There are people who just do it to show off, and I’m always paranoid that people think I’m just showing off, but actually there is something about projecting, and that’s what brings a sermon, and actually a worship session, alive. Martin Llloyd Jones used to say, “a boring preacher is a contradiction in terms. If they’re boring, they’re not preaching.”
C: So the preaching and the performing and the bringing life to something, in order to connect with people?
H: Definitely, yeah. So I know that’s largely where my skillset lies, that’s a big part of me. I’ve always loved stories, I’ve always loved storytelling, I love reading to my kids, I love reading to my granddaughter, reading stories and doing the voices, all that kind of stuff, it’s magic to me, I love it.
C: So what else do you think you discovered about where your gifts and your passions lie in that first church?
H: You have to build up other skills in areas where they are not so prevalent. So there are people whose entire personality is that they just love sitting and chatting with people, a very pastoral kind of thing, and that’s one of the things I had to work a bit more at. And organising. There’s a lot of organising in a lot of church ministries. Obviously you have to work on those other parts of the ministerial life. Everyone is different and they’ve all got high areas and low areas. Does that make sense?
C: It does, it makes perfect sense. So you were in the Cotswalds for how long?
H: 7 years
C: 7 years
H: and then started to think, “maybe it’s time, for the church too, for me to move.” We went to Alton, which is part of Solihull, the posh part of Birmingham. In order to get a house we had to live over the border in Birmingham. A B27 postcode was a lot cheaper than a B19 postcode. Again, it had been a plant from another thriving Baptist church, they’d gone through a difficult time, and just wanted someone to bring them together and encourage them; they liked me and I liked them, so there we were. We have to recognise the work of the LORD leading that too, but it was a good fit, we started there and I was there for 14 years.
C: When we were talking before we started recording, you said that you’d seen some growth in both of those churches?
H: Definitely. Both churches grew and, I would say, thrived. That was wonderful to see.
C: I wonder if there are moments of things you look back at and think, “that was really good, was successful”?
H: In both churches, I did encourage the church at one time to do a particularly concentrated mission time. But in terms of projects, I don’t think I would actually say “I remember in this particular year we did this particular thing and that was a high point.” Basically in each church there was just that long process of doing what you’re doing and keeping going, just keeping trying to keep the church in well fed and enthused and encouraged
C: And as somebody who likes to perform, taking the stage every week.
H: Yes, yes. It’s a funny kind of 2-edged thing. It’s one of those things you’re not supposed to admit to. In preaching circle, “did you enjoy that?” “Yes, I’m afraid I do like to do that.”
C: So we prefer to have people stand up and preach who don’t really like it, who are bringing an element of performance, but only because they have to, rather than because it’s something that you’re talented at?
H: Aren’t we a crazy, mixed up bunch? It’s all important who you are to try and walk humbly with God, keep an ear open to the Spirit. That’s actually the whole shooting match really, at the end of the day that is really the thing that counts, it’s character.
C: Yes, and having known you a bit for a while, it was nowhere close what I was thinking listening to you, that you were just a performer. The impression that I would have is that when you are talking about enjoying the performance, that that is a way of communicating what’s within, if that makes sense?
H: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. The last few years, I’ve been doing a Mark’s gospel. I started learning it back in 2014/5, it took me a few years to get it all in my head, but then I teamed up with a friend of mine called Frank McGregor, who’s an actor, and said “I’ve done this, I can’t just do it for my own interest, I want to tell this to people.” We worked together and he coached me and we did all sorts – curtains and lights and stage props and boxes. We had a great trailer full of bumf that we used to drag around and it took 3 people with a combined age of over 180, lugging this gear all around the country and setting up. That was really plugged into who I was. I loved, and I still do, telling the story of Jesus in a way that brings it to life.
C: I think that’s a really good example of the sense that I get of you, because Mark’s gospel isn’t ‘Howard telling Howard’s story and thoughts’, it’s presenting the story of Jesus. So there is a sense in which you are both on stage but not on stage. Because it’s not you.
C: I took my youngest, he was supposed to be in respite care, and I was going to come and watch and he’d refused, so we were both there and I thought “oh blow it, I really want to come and see this”, so we came along, and he was riveted by it, and insisted that we needed to come back the next night, so we came twice!
H: Fantastic! Well, that’s most gratifying. The thing is about that, it’s exactly as you say, really the exciting thing is the story of Jesus. Trying to get that across. When you watch royal things on the telly, and they do the service in Westminster Abbey or whatever and you get so-and-so up to do the reading –
C: Oh, they’re awful!
H: – I think “why didn’t they ask me?!” *both laugh* Never mind, eh?
C: So I’m imagining you in your churches, and things are growing and they’re quite successful. You go along to conferences and you meet with your fellow ministers; I imagine that was quite a comfortable place to be?
H: You imagine wrong!
C: Oh, ok.
H: It was purgatory, I used to come back from ministers’ conferences and I always said, “why do you do it to yourself? Why do you go to these things?” Cause I’d always come back really depressed. Super depressed. Because you’d hear all these amazing stories of people who’d done this amazing ministry, were doing this and doing that and doing the other, and I’d think “I haven’t done that, oh, I haven’t done that, oh.”
C: So being part of a successful growing church did not make you immune to feeling that it was all a bit useless?
H: Oh no, absolutely not! I’m just being honest, it was different for me, I’m from a different era. It’s not a virtue or one of the assets of my personality, it’s just a thing to try and deal with and, I suppose, grow through, because it’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing, really. It’s kind of saying to God, “You know your work in me? It’s not really very good, is it?” It’s a bit rude really! Kind of saying “You’re doing a great job with everybody else, but with me you’ve got to pull your finger out.” It’s not right, it’s just not right.
C: Has it diminished, or is it still there?
H: It’s still there somewhere, definitely. Like I said, I have to realise that performing and things like that, is something that brings me joy and is part of who I actually am as a person. Well, this is also part of who I am as a person, but it’s not a very good part. So everyone has different struggles, or a different cocktail of struggles.
C: I think that’s very true, and working out where our self-worth and our value comes from. Y’know that sense that it comes from having done the right kind of project or had the right kind of success
H: then too there’s those 2 super-big churches in America, Saddleback church and Willow Creek church, and both of those guys just do this amazing, amazing job. Thousands of them, they’ve influenced literally millions. They do this incredible work, and so of course I compare myself, don’t I? “Why aren’t I building something like them?” and often – often! – the LORD has had to say to me, “I’m very glad there’s one of him, but I’m also very glad there’s one of you! I don’t need you to be him, I need you to be you. You don’t have to do what these other people do. You have to do what I’ve called you to do.”
C: You have to do Howard Jones.
H: Exactly. Because you do compare yourself. And you’re never going to win. A jogger in the park saying, why can’t I be Hussein Bolt?” It’s surprisingly, surprisingly hard to shake off that. I think our whole society is geared around this competitive… . There is an ‘up’. Up is bigger, up is richer, up is sparklier. That is the direction to go. The whole thing of our western world is “whoever dies with the most toys wins”. Wins what?
C: we have a version of that in the Christian world, don’t we? So whoever dies with the most church growth, with the largest number of books, with the best international speaking career –
H: Or the most people who come to Christ through your ministry, or the most steady, the most, the most, the most! If you have the kind of gifts and the kind of personality, from God, to be able to inspire and lead and enable a movement, rather than… – then for goodness’ sake, do it! Bless them, I’m glad that they’re doing what they’re doing. Genuinely. It’s super. But I know that that’s not a thing I could do.
C: So interestingly, Howard, given that you have this sense of wanting a certain amount of success, you moved to Cobridge. What was the urge behind that, what was stirring in you?
H: In part of our exploring stage, when we were thinking about this whole concept of going somewhere with nothing, this is where we encountered Urban Expression. One of the things that struck us is they did a presentation at the Heart of England Baptist Day, we went to it. They had this map of the UK, made out of floor tiles. They put all these Jenga blocks and little blocks and said “these are the areas of greatest poverty. These are the places of greatest need. These are the places where, basically, the church is…not absent, but these are not the areas of the greatest church presence.” I was thinking about that, why is it that the church tends to move to the suburbs and –
C: – and the posh places. Which is where you’d been most of your Christian life.
H: Where I’d been. It’s time to actually move something on. Me, I never thought of myself as posh, but wow. I was brought up in the rich suburbs of London, my Dad worked in the City, I went to a public school, absolutely no self awareness of that. So on paper I’m the very worst person in the world to come to a place like Cobridge. It is one of the poorer areas of Stoke on Trent. It’s a place where people want to get out of. But we love it. It started really exploring around Stoke, we moved to Burslem, we found this house, we looked at it again, it looked unpromising, but we came here again and we just knew. This was the place. It started with the house, really. Then with the house, comes the neighbourhood. Because the whole thing about this is being actually, genuinely part of the neighbourhood. Moving in and living there as people. So that’s what we decided to do. Well, we didn’t ‘decide’, we ‘felt’ that this was the place we had to be. So we moved here, and it’s great, we never regretted moving to Cobridge because we love this neighbourhood. It still has a feeling of ‘home’ to us. You have to be aware of – how can I put this? – motives that aren’t very good, and you have to watch out for the ‘saviour complex’. I’m sure there was a bit of that, maybe, but there is a Saviour, and it’s not us. Our job is not to save this place, our job is to live here and be here and attempt to ‘be Christ’ to whoever He brings in our way and meet, to try to just live an authentically Christian, humble, loving, helpful type of life. With our neighbours, with people. That’s kind of it. Be a blessing. One of the stories in the bible that got me here was the story of Abraham, moving from the place where he was comfortable. Moving to a place that God would show him. Moving into this area called Canaan, that he didn’t know, where he didn’t know anyone, he had nothing but God said “I will take you there and I will bless you, and through you people will be blessed.” If you ask us, Urban Expression Cobridge, what is it here to do? Be a blessing. Be a blessing to this neighbourhood.
C: What are, what have been some of the signs of that blessing, that you look back on or you look at and think, “yeah, we’ve made a difference there” ? Or is that the wrong phrasing?
H: I have to answer in terms of categories that aren’t part of the ‘church growth movement’ language, really. We’re talking in terms of encounters with people. Many of whom we know and smile at. Some of whom we don’t know so well now. Just because, I think each person has the capacity to truly know and influence and be engaged and involved with, a limited number of people. So when we first moved here I went up the road to the local primary school and said “one of the things I did was assemblies, I can do assemblies”. Do what you can do. So we moved. I remember one time early on, our daughters got us 2 chickens, so I thought “they’ll be fun”. So I took one of the chickens in when I did an assembly! Of course, being a chicken, it pooed on the floor. The kids killed themselves laughing. It was just terrific. I get 17-18 year old young men with beards come up to me, “hiya, do you remember me?” I say “I’m afraid I don’t”. “I was at school, you brought that chicken in”. It’s a stupid thing really, but there are young people around Cobridge, you walk down the street, they just smile at me, because, I suppose it’s just using what I had, and made it every so often in their school assembly, a bit more fun. They enjoyed it. Then we started a toddler group. I got involved in a little toddler group down in the community centre, and then that closed. Ok, this place needs a toddler group. So we started one up, and it’s still going, still thrives. There’s this constant stream of tiny children. So I spend a lot of my time singing “the wheels on the bus” and all that. It’s very simple. People come in. The kids play with toys. We have some fruit and toast, and then do some songs. There’s nothing, really. Once a year I’ll do the Christmas story with teddy bears, which always goes down well. I’ve got a glove-puppet of ‘Zippy’ who’s always the inn-keeper. *puppet noises* Older people will know who that is. But you just get in at the ground floor of these little kids lives, and the parents too, and just try to be a blessing to them. These people that we know, and have or had relationship with, in a way we’re able to say we brought something of the LORD to them. This is not a sort of exercise where you can keep score. It’s not very numbers based. For me this was part of the struggle when we moved here, because for one thing, when you’re a pastor, you’re the pastor. Even if it’s within a fairly closed group. There is a definite status to that, and you’re an important person. You’re the person people listen to, you’re the person people have to take into consideration. When we moved here, I moved from being that person to being absolutely nobody at all. I remember still, walking round the streets after I’d been to the doctor’s, I was walking back through local estates and just thinking, “what have I done? Who am I? I had a job. What am I doing here?” I remember waking up with night sweats thinking, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know if it’s of any value or ever will be.” I suppose it sounds very good, “we’ve become downwardly mobile”, that sounds like such a precious thing, what a Christian thing to do, but when you do it, you think that with it goes that loss of status, and you think “what on Earth are you doing?”
C: Because along with the status, there are a number of things that you have to do if you’re running a church. Earlier we were talking about rotas and organising things, you wake up on a Monday morning and you’ve got a to-do list, whereas here, there is no to-do list.
H: We did all kinds of things in the community, we organised community picnics in the park, events out in the park, then we got very involved in the local community centre, the toddlers. We set up a youth club in the community centre. And a spin-off, youth sports. I didn’t do the sports, but I was there. We turned up and got to know these young people – and sort of butted heads with them a bit! I remember one time a group of travellers came and parked the caravans on the football field in Cobridge estate, and oh my word, you’d think the worst thing in the world had happened. All the prejudices and fears came out. We went home, we listened to all of this stuff, we went home and we made some cupcakes, took them to the traveller camp and said, “we’ve just come round to bring you some cupcakes to say ‘not everyone is not happy to see you’.” It’s just a cupcake, isn’t it, it’s not a huge thing. Where do you chalk that up on the scoreboard of ‘church success’? “What did you do with your life?” “Well, I did give a cupcake to someone.” It doesn’t sound that amazing. We did say “this is the football field, if you moved to that area of the field over there, people could have their football pitch back, and that might help.” So they took our suggestion, eventually, and I think somebody started a football match with some of the youngsters. They weren’t there for very long, they were there for a wedding, they were there for a couple of days and then moved off again. I don’t know that we did very much, but it was a bit of pouring oil on troubled waters and trying to be a quiet peaceful influence. It just seemed like that was the thing for us to do.
C: Excellent. Takes a bit of courage, I think, to go round and give cupcakes to a group of people you don’t know.
H: I don’t know, we didn’t think about it really. They’re people. We just thought, “they’re people. If you approach them genuinely and humbly and, not in a cheesy kind of way, just say, ‘hello’.”
C: How has your view of God and Jesus shifted, do you think, in these 14 years?
H: I would answer that with radical acceptance. That’s one of the things you observe in the gospel. Jesus hung out with all the ‘wrong’ people, and He just ruthlessly, almost, showed them this radical acceptance. He really, really did take them as they were. So we had a tax collector, we had a proto-terrorist, Simon the Zealot, they were like what some people called a terrorist group, and we had Jesus. He chose Judas. He chose people no-one really had the time of day for. He touched lepers, he touched dead people. He broke the taboos everywhere, in order to show this radical acceptance of people. I just think that our world at the moment is polarised and becoming increasingly polarised, it's becoming increasingly binary. ‘You are either in Team A or Team B’. Whichever way you go Team A or Team B are the good guys and the other one is the devil. Social media is all over this because they’ve monetised it. Because it makes them billions and billions of dollars in advertising. It’s far more profitable to get people into 2 camps, filled with fear and hatred and resentment, shouting obscenities at each other, because it generates clicks. That’s the world we live in, that’s the political world we live in, people just don’t talk to each other any more, they shout at each other or possibly kill each other. I’m afraid to say that the church is often involved in that. It’s not part of the solution. And I suppose that radical acceptance of Jesus, that sowed the Kingdom seed, the Kingdom principle. You know He told that story of the mustard seed, and you plant it in the ground, and it looks like absolutely nothing and it grows and it becomes the biggest of all the plants and all the birds of the air make a nest in it’s branches? There’s something in that, isn’t there? So I think this radical acceptance of God for people, His willingness to love and care for them and affirm them – it’s not that I’ve never thought that before, I guess I’ve always thought it, but it’s become stronger and deeper and more important. More central.
C: From what you’ve said you’ve worked to model that and to be Jesus in that community, in this community in that way. I wonder if you’ve also been on the receiving end of that radical acceptance?
H: You mean from people?
C: Yes. As a posh boy from –
H: Yes, absolutely. I thought there’s absolutely no point trying to hide my accent or myself or try to pretend to be something. People just accept me. I’m so grateful for our neighbours, our next door neighbours are white, stokey, been here forever. Absolutely love them. During lockdown we had a sort of tea over the garden wall. We had to be socially distant, but I got some scones and we just had tea. So they’re just brilliant neighbours, we accept them and they accept us and it’s wonderful. My next door neighbours are a very large-knit family, all sorts of things going on in their lives. Absolutely love them. They’re brilliant neighbours, it’s absolutely wonderful to have them as neighbours. They love having us as neighbours and we make them laugh. And when the chips are down, I remember one time one of the children, it was one of those “call the doctor out” type of ill, and them came and said, “would you come?” We came, we just went in, sat with them, comforted them, prayed with them. And then came back home again. It was just nice. Different relationships, but, accepted. It’s great.
C: I wonder if there are things that the people you have spent time with and been in community with around here, are there things that you think you’ve learned from them?
H: Oh yes, of course, of course! I think just the experience of living here, that’s been the life, and I have all of them to thank. It’s not been, “oh yes Person A taught me this valuable insight and Person B said this and I thought ‘hmmm’,” it’s more just the experience of being in this place and doing life in this way, has been a really good life lesson.
C: In what way do you think you have changed and grown?
H: I think I’ve relaxed a bit more. I think I’ve learnt, or I am still learning, the value of the little and the unspectacular. We’re grandparents now, we’ve got a wonderful, wonderful 5.5year old granddaughter, who’s just the joy of our lives, and being able to be with her, to be her safe space, that this house is a safe space for her, a happy space, that’s incredibly important. Singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ with the toddler group, and then seeing Jesus looking at the arguing disciples saying “Who’s the greatest? Who’s the greatest? I’m the greatest! No, I’m the greatest!” He said “What are you arguing about?” and everyone kept quiet because they had been arguing about who is the greatest. He takes a little child, one of our toddlers, and brings this little person up and says, “If you accept one of these little childs in my name, then you accept Me. You welcome Me. And if you welcome Me, you’re not just welcoming Me, y’know, you’re welcoming the One who sent me. You wanna be great? Look at these little guys.” I can remember back in the church days, toddler group, the background thinking is always “How can I get these people to church? How can we use this to enable these people to come to ‘proper church’?” And actually I kind of think, “well, why isn’t this church?” This is, in a sense, we’re having church. There isn’t a sermon, there isn’t a bible reading, there isn’t prayer time, but we are welcoming and accepting and loving these parents and carers and grandparents and their kids, and as we do that, we welcome Jesus.
C: Yes. It means that you can value the encounter that you’re actually having with somebody, and experience that at a deeper level when you don’t also have this subtext running in the back of your mind of, “well, this is alright, this conversation, but where’s it going?”
H: “How do I move it to the one I really want? That I really ought to have?” There’s a big lot of ‘ought’ in there.
C: There is a big lot of ‘ought’ in there.
H: I don’t want to say in this, to the churches that are doing a different thing, “oh you’re doing it all wrong, everyone ought to do it like me.” I just think this is the way I’ve got to be, we’ve got to be. But the Kingdom is bigger than the Church, and the Church is bigger than what it looks like.
Thank you Howard, that’s been great.
H: You are entirely welcome.
Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org You can find a transcript of this podcast at lovedcalledgifted.com and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.
Thank you for listening.