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The Way of Books: (5) John Clayton

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John has been studying at Trinity Theological College and will soon graduate with a Master of Divinity. He is currently working as a Staffworker (part time) with the AFES at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

TGCA: Can you tell us about your life before studying theology, and how you ended up at college?

I didn’t grow up as a Christian, but had a nominal affiliation with Roman Catholicism. Towards the end of secondary school, my dad’s health started to deteriorate. He had been battling cancer for years, and just after my final exams, he died. This led me into a restless pursuit of questions about truth, life and religion during my first year at university. After practicing Buddhist meditation and dabbling in Western philosophy, I reluctantly visited my friend’s church. After a few weeks, I bought a Bible and started reading Matthew’s gospel account. It was then God opened my eyes and I knew I wanted to follow Jesus.  

After finishing my studies in Media and Culture followed by Secondary Teaching (English), I did some ministry training with my home church in Perth. After that I knew I wanted to go into gospel ministry via college, but decided to work as a teacher for a bit. I moved to London, taught there, and was then persuaded to do a second stint of ministry-training at an evangelical Anglican Church in London. After this, I moved back to Perth to study at Trinity.

TGCA: Were there any life experiences before college that you think were particularly beneficial?

Studying Media, Culture and Literary theory helped me develop my analytical thinking with respect to language, meaning and interpretation. More significant was my first AFES Mid Year Conference. It was there I was introduced to life changing doctrine and helpful modelling of exegetical, biblical theological and systematic theological approaches to Scripture. These things put me in good stead for college. 

Ministry training has been the most helpful in testing whether or not gospel work would be the most effective way I could serve Jesus. But I think teaching helped too. In teaching there is the planning and classroom management, but also the complex art of appreciation of students’  learning contexts. Take Shakespeare. Teaching his works to students of privileged backgrounds with high literacy levels is very different from teaching them to students in gangs (often facilitated by drug abuse, imprisonment and breakdown in the home) whose literacy levels are very low. Therefore, imagination and sensitivity to context is needed. In different ways, ministry and teaching helped me have a more grounded way of processing theological content as well its implications.

In different ways, ministry and teaching helped me have a more grounded way of processing theological content as well its implications.

More personally, moving to London grew me as a person. For a start, I met my wife there! And as well as teaching and travelling, I was able to eavesdrop on British evangelicalism. Despite their funny accents and inferiority at sport, the Brits I knew modelled faithful and engaging Bible teaching, helpful ministry patterns and warm hospitality. So I’m very grateful to God for how that period helped me.

TGCA: What were the high-points and low-points of studying theology?

The excitement of asking new questions and exploring new possibilities in interpretation and theology were high-points. The lecturers were very gracious with their time, so I’m grateful for that. Another high-point was seeing the fruit of my learning through the occasional preaching, teaching in kid's ministry and small groups I was able to do at my church. Seeing how my studies helpfully nuanced my engagement with the Bible and theology was encouraging.

The sense of being overwhelmed by studying, writing and thinking was a low-point. It seems lecturers and former students also testify to something of a mental low half way through their studies. So I took heart that I wasn't alone. Another low-point was the frustration of feeling like I could have done better in tests, exams, essays etc. What contributed to this was juggling too many commitments (more to be said later). This kind of frustration was ongoing conversation with classmates close to me. But this in itself is a different kind of test: will I treasure the theology I profess which says that God's assessment of me in Christ matters most?

TGCA: Do you have any particular lessons from (or regrets about) your years at college?

Time management is one, though not in the usual way we understand it. My friend talks about two Greek words for time: chronos (linear hour-by-hour time) and kairos (season/moment based time). Sometimes I lived on KST (kairos-standard-time). This was manifested in getting lost in topics or bible texts for assignments. Consequently, deadlines were more stressful than they needed to be. I don’t think the lesson is to never do this, but to get better at switching timezones (if you get my drift).

For all the talk on time, the fact of the matter is that I had too many commitments outside of college. This meant my studies were compromised at times. There is the unforeseen circumstantial stuff of life and then there are commitments. I’d recommend pausing before saying “yes” to committing to things. If possible, I’d recommend using the semester breaks to get other things done, whether unaddressed admin or ministry tasks.

I’d recommend pausing before saying “yes” to committing to things. I’d recommend using the semester breaks to get other things done

The third is to be intentional about spending time with friends who aren’t Christian. This is harder to do at college than say the workplace or studying something else. The first reason for this is simply to have a Christ-like love for the lost.  The second is to reinforce to yourself that most people (even Christians) aren’t talking about things like the New Perspective, Q or Schleiermacherian theology. The third is to work at the process of conveying learned theological truth into their lives of theologically-illiterate people. Because truth be told, ultimately, your studies could not be more relevant to those who aren’t Christian. 

TGCA: Were there any surprises?

The first was how easy it was to talk about Christian things to people who aren’t Christian. When asked about my studies, they would sometimes respond with: “What’s that?”, “Are you going to become a priest?” or “What does that lead to?”. Such questions actually allowed me to transition more smoothly into speaking about the Christian hope—something perhaps harder to get to if I was in the workplace or studying something else. 

Another surprise was the growing realisation that the more I knew, the less I knew. Everyone says this going into college, but when I finally started exploring how much paper (or online data) is given to all kinds of questions relating to the content of any given unit, you see that to every question there are many subheadings!

TGCA: How has studying helped you live and serve Jesus?

Studying theology is an amazing privilege. However, it cannot be equated with Christian maturity. Satan’s theology is spot on at points in the Bible, but this does not make him a Christian! And so at college, despite the warm greetings, chapel, pastoral care and theological-speak, I would sometimes behave as if Jesus said to love the Lord your God with all your mind, mind, mind and mind (May I add that this is not the lecturers’ fault or intention!). But by God’s grace, through the grind of life, Jesus' patient love has helped me to be honest about this. It has also helped me to increasingly see that biblically anchored theology is not just true, but is beautiful and to be delighted in with all faculties that make us human.   

TGCA: What factors went into your decision to study where you did?

  1. Theological commitments. I wanted to study at a college committed to historic evangelical understanding of the Bible, but one that would help me to think through all sorts of questions posed by people all over the spectrum, whether liberal or conservative.
  2. Academic rigour. I wanted to be in a place where the lecturers knew their stuff and modelled how they reach their conclusions with respect to biblical languages, doctrine, church history, philosophy and engagement with contemporary issues.
  3. Ministry mindedness. I wanted to be somewhere that had a heart for gospel ministry in its city, the nation and the world.
  4. Geography and networks. Being a Perth boy meant Trinity was an obvious option. I loved living in London, but I had always planned on coming back to WA (my solar-powered watch actually works here). Part of this was to be connected with like-minded people in a similar ministry context.

TGCA: Do you have any advice for people who want to go into ministry but aren't sure whether they need to study theology?

Theological education is a privilege—not every Christian in our world today or over history has had it. Clearly God raises up fine ministers of the gospel without it. But at the end of the day, whatever you make of God, the Bible, His gospel, the church, evangelism and contemporary issues will actually inform how you do ministry. Studying theology is to make you more theologically informed about these things. Sure, studying theology will take you away from ministry perhaps for a few years. But it will put you in ministry with a more theologically measured way of doing things in the long run, which I would argue is ultimately more effective. So if you can and are able to do it, go for it.

TGCA: Are there principles you would suggest for those working out where to study?

  1. Theological rigour. Choose a college which encourages theological reflection not only on how evangelical belief accords with biblical revelation, but also on how it makes sense of the God of the Bible, His plan, our world and ourselves. Also, it will facilitate better discernment across the theological spectrum as well as other world views. 
  2. Ministry-mindedness. Ministry training is best done on the ground for many reasons. But theological training should still have ministry as a shaping influence with respect to its content and its relevance. A college that has a transparent commitment to local churches is probably good evidence of this.
  3. Networks and friendships. If possible, think about the geography of the college with respect to future ministry. Graduating with a group of friends in similar ministry context will lead to mutual encouragement after college. Though in theory this can happen wherever you move in the Body of Christ. 

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