Student spends study, mission time in England
Release Date: January 13, 2009
PLAINVIEW – Matt Johnston knows his last six months were a divine appointment. To him, it’s no coincidence that a month-long program in Oxford, England, easily transitioned into a semester mission term just six hours away. And it’s also no coincidence that he was able to learn much to help his future career in religion, including what direction he’d go in ministry.
Johnston, a junior religion major at Wayland Baptist University, recently returned from a semester in England, first as part of the Oxford Summer Programme and then as a fall missionary through Go Now Missions, an arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, specifically serving in Gateshead, in the northeast region of England.
His first interest in the region came through Wayland’s Honors Program, where he learned of a travel study trip to England. Upon further research, he learned that Wayland’s partnership with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities offered several travel study programs, specifically one in Oxford. After reading up on the program and learning that it was largely a study of religion and Christianity in the European nation, his interest was piqued. Learning he could also gain course credit at WBU while away sealed the deal for Johnston, a native of Alto, N.M.
After Johnston made his decision, he happened upon the Go Now list of options and noticed one was in England for the semester. Admittedly, Johnston said he didn’t give it much thought, but then a friend happened to mention a ministry opportunity with youth in England and he did some research. It turned out to be the same program.
That made Johnston wonder if he wasn’t meant by God to be in England for the rest of 2008, and he rushed to complete his Go Now application by the nearing deadline. When things fell into place so smoothly – including the fact that he could stay overseas and not make an extra trip – he considered it a divine appointment.
The Oxford experience is held in partnership with Wycliffe Hall, the theological college at Oxford. During that month-long program in June, Johnston and 19 other undergraduates from colleges across the country participated in a rigorous academic program.
“In the mornings we had seminars that were geared toward the history of Christianity on the British Isles,” Johnston said. “Then in the afternoons, we had topical classes to choose from. I picked one on C. S. Lewis and one on philosophy of faith.”
The study portion lasted Monday through Thursday, with evenings set aside for study and coursework Fridays were devoted to group field trips to various cathedrals and other historic locations, many related to the religious history of the region. Weekends were similar, with optional longer travel trips around the area. Johnston and many of his OSP counterparts took advantage of the opportunity to attend various churches in the area, including Christchurch at Oxford.
“It was cool to see the different styles of worship, even within the Anglican church. It ranged from high church to a more laid back style,” he said.
While his month at Oxford was mentally stimulating and challenging, he found Gateshead a much different place, due mostly to the atmosphere and the differing accents. Also, Gateshead is a smaller city of around 200,000 people, situated near a larger metropolitan area of Newcastle and the northern border where England meets Scotland. Americans were few there, and Johnston said despite only a six-hour car ride to his new temporary home, “it was like culture shock all over again.”
While in Gateshead, Johnston basically served as youth minister for the Durham Road Baptist Church, a small church of about 60 in Sunday attendance, staffed only by a pastor. His duties included leading a Friday youth club for junior high and high school students, helping with a church soccer league and teaching religious education lessons at two high schools in the city.
While he enjoyed the experience overall and said he learned much about church work, especially among the British, Johnston said he found the teaching to be surprisingly one of his favorite parts of the semester. He also enjoyed working with young adults, particularly a group affiliated with the 24-7 prayer movement, who provided encouragement and more peer fellowship.
Perhaps the most important lesson with which Johnston feels he returns to America is the realization that God may be leading him in a different ministry path than he originally felt. Through three years at Wayland, Johnston said he’s always thought youth ministry was his calling, but he feels God spoke to him clearly about changing his direction. He was already considering seminary after he graduates from WBU in December 2009 and further mission work, and those options may still be in his future. Teaching religion at a higher level is also a possibility at this point.
“I think missions will be a big part of my life, whether it’s short term or for the rest of my life,” he said. “I know I was supposed to be there, and it was a great experience.”
A side highlight of the trip was a visit from Johnston’s parents, Dennis and Becky Johnston, who spent two weeks in October with their son and enjoyed side travel trips to various sightseeing locales.
Besides being an honors student at Wayland, Johnston was also selected by the School of Religion and Philosophy as its Centennial Scholar for the celebration year. He is one of 20 such honorees, representing each academic school at WBU and each of the other 12 campuses in the Wayland system.