DeKALB – Since the beginning of January, Martin Jones has been the lead pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Sycamore-DeKalb. Not only did he give up his former profession as a corporate lawyer, he also left his native country to answer the call to preach.
A native of Preston, near Manchester in northwest England, Jones earned his undergraduate degree in law before attending the Lancaster Law School.
“Whenever I say Manchester, people always ask me about soccer, but I’ve never been a soccer fan,” Jones said.
After eight years practicing corporate law, Jones taught law for three years before moving his family to the Dallas, Texas, area in 2007 to study at the Dallas Theological Seminary. He graduated in 2011, then served as assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church of Rockwall before accepting the position here. Located about 35 miles east of Dallas, the church had a congregation of about 3,500.
A self-styled contemporary minister, Jones said he often preaches sermons in blue jeans and a simple shirt.
“It’s not to be gimmicky or to be the latest hip and trend,” Jones said. “It’s to set a tone that people feel they can come, whatever age or stage, wherever they are in life and they don’t have to do something special, they don’t have to dress up. ... People dress like this today, so why shouldn’t they be able to worship like this? Christ wore the clothes of his day; why shouldn’t his ministers wear the clothes of today? I’m sure if Jesus were here today, he’d be in Starbucks, wearing flip-flops.”
Jones and his wife, Fiona, have two children, Nathan, 13, and Olivia, 11.
Jones talked to MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson last week about changing both countries and professions.
MidWeek: Did you decide while you were still in England to go into pastoral work?
Martin Jones: That’s right. I was actually still in law practice when I began to sense that God was moving me from that into full-time ministry. That’s when I stepped down to go into teaching at law school to free up the time to begin preaching. As I began preaching in my own church and churches around the community, God really affirmed that was something he really wanted us to do, so we began looking at that fairly closely.
It was while I was reading a book I saw a review from a past president about Southwestern Seminary. I Googled “Dallas” and “seminary” because I thought the seminary was in Dallas. I hoped they might offer an online correspondence program. Instead of getting Southwestern Seminary, I got Dallas Seminary. I started reading the pastoral ministry program, and I knew that was where we needed to be. I didn’t know at that stage that we’d have to move there, but they made that pretty clear.
MW: So you moved to the U.S.?
MJ: We asked God would he confirm that move. We were settled. We had bought a house that was going to be our forever house. We could picture ourselves settling, retiring, etc.
I lived in the community since I was about 3. Fiona had been in the community for a long time. So God had to speak very clearly, He had to shout into our lives to make it abundantly clear we needed to move 6,000 miles, but boy did he.
MW: When you get a calling, is it a gradual thing or something dramatic?
MJ: It’s different from one person to the next, but I would say most people would feel a gradual call from God on their lives over a period of time. I have heard of people with the lightning-bolt experience, and I can point to passages in the Bible where people have a similar experience.
MW: How does preaching differ from arguing a case in court?
MJ: In court, I would be persuasively trying to convince a jury of my peers, whereas here, I am trying to help people understand the will of God. But I tell you what, I draw on a lot of the same skill sets that I was taught in law school.
MW: Like St. Paul.
MJ: Exactly, on the road to Damascus. My testimony is slightly different. I began sensing, initially, a tug. So I’d be asking, “God, what is this and what exactly are you doing?” He began making it really clear that my future wasn’t in law; my future was in ministry. That involved a big change on our part. When I stepped from legal practice just to teach law that was a three-quarter pay cut. And then to go to a student. When I first arrived in the United States, I couldn’t work as an alien student. I was here under a visa with very strict conditions, so for the first two years I couldn’t work at all. We were totally dependent on God to provide for us, which he did. We’ve never gone without. And then during the later years, we received a work permit which we reapplied to become a religious workers visa.
MW: That had to be a big transition, just moving from one country to another.
MJ: Yes and no. I do get remarks, “Wow, I don’t know if I could do that,” and I say, “Now, wait a minute, if you move from one town to the next, you are going to go through a similar experience. You’re possibly going to move away, possibly from family, which we did, and you’re going to leave friends, you’re going to leave familiarity, and you’re going to have to re-establish everything.”
It was a big move and, yes, there were cultural things.
MW: Like what?
MJ: There were never any big things. It was always the small things that would drive you nuts. Like how to work your TV. I know that sounds ridiculous. In the U.K. if you buy a house or rent an apartment, you get a TV and you take a coaxial cable and you plug it into the back of the TV and into the coaxial outlet. You get TV through the air because the coaxial goes up through a wall. You have an antenna either in the attic or the roof. I just assumed that was the case, so why couldn’t I get any TV? I met a guy at one of the churches we began visiting and he looked at me like I had a second head. He said, “Do you have a cable subscription,” and I said, “No.” And he said, “So why are you plugging into a cable outlet?” And I said, “That’s a cable outlet?”
And then it’s trying to get car insurance without a Social Security number. Because I couldn’t work, I didn’t have a Social Security number. Trying to get health insurance without a Social Security number. These are things citizens take for granted. It’s very difficult to establish utilities without a Social Security number. You usually have to pay a fee.
Even though I’ve been in the United States for six years, I still use words and phrases that must still be really English, because people will look at me really strange, so I have to mentally backtrack.
But you adapt to those things.
MW: So you were a Baptist before you came to the Evangelical Free Church. Is there much of a difference between the two?
MJ: There isn’t really, no. In fact, my time at the Dallas Seminary prepared me for my time here. The Dallas Theological Seminary is a non-denominational school.
I never considered myself a minister tied to a denomination. I consider myself as being a minister of Jesus Christ. It just so happens I was in a Baptist church in Dallas, and it just so happened I’m in an EFCA church here.
Some people are very defensive about their denomination. As long as a church fell within my theological convictions, then I believe that I would have the freedom to worship there. So for me, whether it’s a Southern Baptist church or an EFCA Church, they fall within my theological convictions, I’m fine.
MW: How does preaching to a congregation differ from arguing a case in court?
MJ: In court, I would be persuasively trying to convince a jury of my peers, using the truth and facts I have, whereas here, I am trying to help people understand the will of God. But I tell you what, I draw on a lot of the same skill sets that I was taught in law school.
MW: Is there a difference between the way people worship here and in the U.K.?
MJ: There are differences. The U.K. is in a much different religious climate. The phrase we use is “post-Christian.” Now what that means is the people in England as a whole – the overwhelming majority – don’t see any relevance in the church and don’t see any need to believe in Jesus Christ. In the U.K. the task of the church is engaging a generation that has completely written off Christianity.
Now then, I do think there are some increasing parallels in the United States. I think Christianity is still broadly embraced culturally, but even in the six years we’ve been here, I think increasingly we are looking at a culture that doesn’t understand that God is relevant to them. They still have a desperate need for a faith in Christ. So my task as the lead pastor of the church is to make sure that the church is communicating in a way that today’s culture understands. It’s taking the truth of God and expressing it in a way that our culture today gets and feels that they connect, but not to water down the truth of Scripture. I stand on the absolute truth of Scripture. There are times when that is going to make me very politically incorrect, but I answer to God, not to society. My task is to help people see the relevance of it today.
MW: I know people who say the church has to change its message, but it really can’t.
MJ: That is the key. The message doesn’t change; it’s the way you present the message that does.
I am a very firm believer that to connect with today’s culture, we need to present music like the music people are listening to in the 21st century. We need to use instruments that they recognize. I am a big fan of using contemporary Christian music in my services. ...We are looking at a new chapter. We are looking at a new century. How do we reach the people of today? Just one example is music.
MW: So what do you think of the weather here?
MJ: Some of our church members were commenting on what a mild January we’ve had, and I said, you must be joking. This has been bitterly cold for us. A winter in Dallas, our last six winters, is like 50, 60, 70 degrees. You may have a week of freezing temperatures, but it’ll go right back up to 70. This has been such a big adjustment. I can tell you I am looking for warmer weather.