Pastor: An Interview with Ken Davis
If you told me that there’s a pastor who has a strong, multi-cultural ministry in an at-risk part of town, who is theologically robust with a winsome, funny edge, I’d want to meet the guy. Add a few other qualities, and the fact that the guy also likes spicy food, and I’d be even more interested.
Ken Davis is such a person. He’s pastor of Thistletown Baptist Church in north Toronto. He’s become a friend and a pastor I really respect. I’m grateful to Ken for answering some of my questions.
There were times in your life you probably weren’t thinking of becoming a pastor. How did you end up becoming one?
My father was a pastor and he was a great role model for me. I saw him helping people and I wanted to help the needy. I can remember “hobos” at the dinner table. When I was in grade five our teacher asked us to write what we wanted to be when we grew up. I immediately wrote down “preacher”. I remember looking down and seeing what I had written and being horrified, because the teacher was a member of my father’s church and I didn’t want little old ladies pinching my cheek in glee on Sunday, so I scratched it out and wrote down “civil engineer”. I still don’t know what that is. Most of the engineering students I knew at university were somewhat less than civil.
In my first year of university I told a visiting evangelist to our church that I thought God was calling me to the pastorate. He said that I should finish my degree and see how I felt then. It was great advice. All through those university years people in my church kept telling me that I should pastor. My peers, my youth leaders and my pastor.
My father had a real heart for underprivileged people and that led me to study for a Social Work degree. It was while I was in university that I developed a strong social conscience. But even though I was heavily involved in my church I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with what I perceived to be a shameful disregard in believers for the social concerns of people and it seemed to be the natural outgrowth of concern for the soul. I couldn’t reconcile statements of concern for the eternal welfare of people that was absent of concern for their temporal welfare. I couldn’t understand why the two could not co-exist. I was forced to choose between my church and my social conscience and I sided with the social.
I ended up in the Yukon working in a silver mine by day and teaching ESL at night to immigrant miners. I also became a weekend alcoholic. I was drunk three days a week. On a Saturday night in August of 1977 I passed out drunk in the doorway of the gym where a dance was being held. I woke up a few hours later, my sweater hanging from the basketball hoop and a piece of salami stuck to my forehead. I was still in the doorway. The gym was empty. How did all my friends get out of that gym? Well, it was one of two doors but a great many people had to step over me to get out and no one even bothered to drag me out of the way. When I woke up the next morning I got on my knees and repented and told God that if He wanted me He could use me any way He chose. The advice of that evangelist came back to me and I called my father and told him I thought God wanted me to be a preacher.
You pastor within an at-risk urban community within Toronto. What are some of the challenges and joys of your context?
Isn’t the opposite of joy, sorrow? Oh well. Let’s do the challenges first.
- One of the challenges is interacting with my peers from a setting that most of them have no idea about. Some of them seem to think I am special and it just isn’t true. We are just a church with needs that may be different from those churches with different demographics. One missionary in Toronto told me that what his peers are amazed about is that I live in the community I serve. This should not be remarkable. We’re just a church.
- It frustrates me that there are not many resources in the circles in which I travel that address our situation from a theologically conservative point of view. I asked Ed Stetzer a few years ago if he could recommend good books for me that were theologically conservative and spoke with a strong socially conscious voice. He replied “You won’t find any”. That’s a real shame.
- A large proportion of our church are first generation immigrants and quite often, when they get on their feet economically they leave our community and buy homes in the burbs. This hurts even though it is understandable. Some of them keep coming but some do not. And even if they do they cease to be a part of this community and therefore there is less Gospel witness in a very needy part of town.
- I was once told by a pastor that the reason he didn’t want to have a joint service with us was because “your people are different”. I was stunned and agreed that they were, although I am pretty sure I meant something different than what he did, and I wish I had asked what he meant. I have an idea and I hope I am wrong.
Now the joys:
- You haven’t seen real faith until you have seen it in people with deep economic, social, mental issues rejoicing in their worship. I love to stop and just watch our church at worship on a Sunday morning. I love standing on the platform and watching our people sing. Watch, not listen. I see arms waving and faces smiling and tears flowing and people doing actions to the choruses. And then I think of the horrific problems that some of these people are currently enduring and it just breaks the heart. It is a testimony of great grace.
- I have told this story very many times but I never tire of it. At a testimony service at church one New Year’s Eve, a lady stood up and said “I thanks God that He choses me.” This lady has not and never will, read Calvin or Sproul or Piper. I doubt if she reads much at all. But she rejoices in the truth that God predestinated her to life. This is one of my greatest joys. There are many people in our church who have a solid grasp on solid biblical doctrine and get it completely out of the Bible and from the teaching of the church. Most of them do not know the formal theological terms for what they believe and I have no plans to start using those terms now. The Bible seems sufficient. Deep theology from ordinary people is a joy to be a part of. And it is absent of ostentation and embraced by them because it helps them in their daily lives.
- One of the greatest joys is that when we talk about needy people we are not talking about some group of people who exist somewhere out there. We are talking about some of our very own. When we take up our benevolent offerings for the needy, I announce it by saying that this offering will be used to help our own needy people and others in the community. We have two funds; one for the community needy and one called “members in need”. It is thrilling to be a part of a church that has members in need and that also sees that it is part of our mandate to help them. And they give. We are currently over budget in our giving and I am told that no one is carrying the bulk of the load. We are nickel and diming our way to meeting our financial obligations.
- We are a community church. There are people who come to our church, not because it is theologically lined up with their beliefs or because they are Baptists. They come because it is the first church they come to when they leave their apartment building and walk south on Kipling Avenue. In our church on any given Sunday you will find Calvinists and Arminians, charismatics and dispensationalists, reformed, covenant, new covenant people. We have people who believe the Gospel makes you wealthy and healthy even though that view is slammed pretty hard from our pulpit and we have people who get prophetic visions and probably speak in tongues. We have women and men who disagree with the official church stance on women elders but keep coming because this is their church and they are welcome. It’s a small taste of real Christian unity. I love these people.
- I love that this church welcomes people without question. I have no doubt that anyone would be welcomed here. People come because they feel like they belong. No one will enter Thistletown church without receiving a genuine heartfelt welcome. I can’t prove this, but I think it is in part due to the fact that our people have tough lives. Some of them are greeting a believer for the first time since last Sunday. A few weeks ago a young man with serious mental issues was in our church. He used to come semi-regularly but hadn’t been with us for a long time. He sometimes stands on our church door step preaching hell fire on the passers by. When people saw him after the service ended he practically got swarmed because they were so glad to see him in church again.
- It thrills me that the ground at the foot of the cross is level and that those with financial resources in our church are not treated better or worse than anyone else.
- It is a joy that after nineteen years there hasn’t been a general uprising to replace the current senior pastor. A few individuals have wanted it but so far no mass movement.
You’re theologically conservative, and you have a social conscience. Those don’t always seem to go together. Why is this?
Who knows? My theories are just that – theories.
- Greed, selfishness, individualism, probably come into play. Not that those with a strong social conscience can’t be guilty of these things too, but I suspect that in a culture whose God is money it is not very surprising that it would be found in the church.
- I think there is a strong sense of poverty and mental illness being the fault of the sufferer.
- I was raised in a fundamentalist home where the term “social Gospel” meant a desertion of the Gospel. And the early twentieth century social Gospel was such a desertion. I think people may be afraid of watering down the Gospel.
- It seems to me that believers of various stripes compartmentalize their lives too much. They seem to believe that a conservative view in theology necessitates being conservative politically or socially. We label ourselves wrongly. We are not “Conservatives” or “Liberals” who must carry our team’s banner no matter what the issue. We are “Christians”, and we will carry that banner no matter what the various teams think. Sometimes this will make us look like George Bush. Sometimes more like Jim Wallis. We shouldn’t care as long as we are looking like Jesus. If a believer can be comfortable with a non-Christian label in all areas of his life, then he is probably compromising the faith at some point. There is no political or philosophical understanding of life that will not conflict with the Scriptures somewhere. We need to take the hyphens out of our description of ourselves. We are not capitalist-Christians or, socialist-Christians, or egalitarian-Christians, or complementarian-Christians. We are Christians. End of story. Most often the word before the hyphen gets the most attention and people try to make their Christianity conform to whatever that designation in front of the hyphen is. All this makes me wonder if some people are afraid to take stands on things or speak their minds because what they believe sounds like it comes from the wrong camp. Our camp is Jesus. Don’t try to be faithful to your label. Be faithful to Him.
- We live in a culture that does not understand the difference between loving someone and supporting their lifestyle. If I say I believe sex is reserved for two married people of the opposite sex then the culture seems to think I am promoting hatred of homosexuals. I find that Christians often think like that too. Many Christians I think, are afraid to take a stand on some social issues because they think it means they have to agree with everyone involved in the cause. If a gay man is beat up simply because he is gay shouldn’t Christians be the first to decry the wrongness of that? But we are afraid that defending the man means that we support him in everything he stands for.
I really appreciated your post, “Don’t Waste Your Depression.” Why do you think that we have such a hard time accepting that Christians can be depressed?
Well, the title was “Wasted Depression” but I am glad you appreciated it. I don’t know why people can’t accept Christians being depressed.
- People seem to understand how a body can be sick but not a mind. Even if a person is sick due to his own behaviour it seems to get more sympathy than mental problems. Fear perhaps?
- I think people who cannot reconcile faith in a depressed person need to start reading their Bibles, especially the Psalms, with their eyes open wider. David was depressed – a lot. Moses wrestled with it and Elijah had a famous episode of it as well. Paul confessed to great anxiety. This is not to defend it. Depression is not a trait that is desirable. It is a condition that real believers live with. Christians aren’t super humans. They are super forgiven.
- Perhaps they cannot put together the joy verses with the thought that depression is so joyless. Texts such as 2 Timothy 1:7, Romans 14:17, 1 Peter 1:8-9 and others give people the impression that depression is incompatible with Christian joy. Depression is connected to sadness, self-pity, pessimism, and none of these things fit well into a biblical view of life in Christ. But depression and joy can, and do, co-exist. In depression believers cry out to God – that is real faith. They look forward to the day when they will no longer be haunted by the depression – that is hope. They are thrilled that even as they wrestle with the depression, their sins are still forgiven, Jesus still loves them and they are not alone – that is joy. Proverbs 14:13 speaks to this, I think – “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.” The laughter is not fake and the joy is real but it is accompanied by depression at the same time.
- I think that maybe many of us really do not know the magnitude of the grace that saves us. Grace did not just get me into the Kingdom. It keeps me there. We think that the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we can simply will our way into mental health. The Holy Spirit keeps me hanging on to Jesus. He does not always make all the scars go away. Depressed people are heavily scarred. They rejoice in Christ in the midst of great pain. That is grace at work.
- People view mental health very differently from physical health. Some simply put everything that smacks of mental disorder to demonic influence. Some think that the fact that they don’t have depression means they are stronger than those who do. Since they have the ability to stay well mentally others can too.
- If I can combine this question with the one about serving in a needy community, I would say that economically depressed communities have an inordinate number of depressed and mentally ill people. Serving in this church has helped me see that real, solid, strong, growing faith does exist in mentally ill and depressed people.
What feeds your soul?
- When someone says that something in our church helped them get to know God better.
- When somebody gets it.
- Listening to others pray, especially Hassan, my compatriot in pastoring here.
- Praying for direction and getting it.
- Theological discussions.
- The Bible. I know, I know. Shibboleth, Shibboleth. But this Book is a marvel. It is God speaking to us. I cannot adequately say how this Book thrills my soul.
- Knowing that God uses the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are. I tell the church that if we ever change the name of the church we will call it “Are Not Baptist Church”. It just doesn’t matter what we are in the eyes of the world. God has been calling nobodies for a very long time and it is thrilling to know that we are numbered among them. Moses – meet Thistletown.
- Waking up in the morning and seeing that Heather didn’t leave me in the night. Seriously.