For a man whose ultimate aim in life was to be a really rich judge, Ben Staunton has travelled an awful long way to end up in Darwin as a roving evangelist with no visible means of support.
Ben has set up a new mission organisation called ConnectNT through which he hopes to receive support for his ministry, which he sees as a much-needed home missionary assignment to a city with huge gospel needs.
“Once you know you can meet the real Jesus through the gospels, you want people to meet the real Jesus, not our perceptions of Jesus or misperceptions, or The Simpsons Jesus sort of thing,” he says.
“I just think there’s a lot of people here that have never engaged with the real Jesus … And in terms of gospel needs there just seems to be a lot of subcultures or people groups in Darwin that no one is trying to actively show the love of Christ to and speak the love of Christ to.”
Ben’s story is as full of contradictions as the riot of tattoos on his right arm, which is a mix of general Celtic symbols with those from the Book of Kells, reflecting both his physical and spiritual heritage.
“Be good, be good, be good, and then Jesus would cover up the rest.”
Born into a mostly Irish Catholic family in Armidale in northern NSW where he grew up out of town on 10 acres, Ben decided in Year 9 that Christianity was a sham and quit church. He’d read The Da Vinci Code and thought its theory about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene sounded just as reasonable as the dogma he’d been taught.
“My understanding of Christianity while I was young was that if you were good enough, Jesus would die for you to make up the difference. That was the messaging I received – be good, be good, be good, and then Jesus would cover up the rest. You had to tip into a pass mark.”
Things started to change again at a Year 12 formal when he met some guys from an organisation called Young Life, a Christian ministry to unchurched high school kids.
“Initially when I met them I thought they were idiots, but as the course of the night went on I thought ‘actually they’re not too bad.’”
Against his better judgment at the time, Ben succumbed to an invitation from Young Life to attend a Christian study camp.
“I got a hard time from my friends for it. They made all these jokes about how we’d be singing songs like Lean on Me or something like that. But I went along, and then they had the first session and – no lie –the first or second song was Lean on Me.
“And, I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going home tomorrow.’ And then they had another song, Swing Low Sweet Chariot – with actions. And I’m like ‘This is ridiculous. I’m out of here, this isn’t for me.’”
“It was the first time I’d heard someone with a reasonable explanation for some of the problems with Christianity.”
It was only when he got the chance during a discussion group to give the five reasons why he was not a Christian that his perspective began to change.
“My leader was like, ‘that’s great. Let’s talk through one of them tonight.’ And so we did, and I think it was the first time I’d heard someone with a reasonable explanation for some of the problems with Christianity – it wasn’t that I believed but it was reasonable.”
During the rest of the week, Ben was struck by seeing people who were intelligent and Christian every day. He’d known Christians who told him just to believe without question and friends who went to church but were no different to him any other day of the week.
“I prayed ‘God, if you’re there I do want to know.’”
Even after he heard the message at the core of Christianity, though, Ben put off making a decision for Christ despite attending another Young Life camp in January. His head was more in going down to attend Sydney University and partying.
“I picked Wesley College because I’d heard it was the party college and I was all set to go wild. And then God really worked to keep me in Armidale for what I thought was six months through a few different ways.
“Then because I stayed, I said, ‘okay, well, I’ll check out church’ … I knew I wasn’t a Christian and I wouldn’t take communion, and some of my questions were profound and some of them were nit-picky, silly. But there were a few points where I thought ‘Maybe there is a God.’ And one where I prayed ‘God, if you’re there I do want to know.’ That culminated, I guess, one night of church where I just remember looking around during a song and being like ‘I wish I could believe like these people believe.’
“And then either God called me an idiot, or my own thinking was like ‘Oh Ben, you idiot, you actually know it’s true, you’ve worked out It’s true.’ So, I thought ‘okay, I’ll become a Christian … But then I didn’t tell any of my friends because I was worried I might wake up the next day and be like, ‘What was I thinking?’ And I knew my friends would be excited so I decided to have a 24-hour cooling-off period to make sure that I was still up for it. And then I didn’t change my mind, so I told people, and so that was May of 1998.”
‘Oh Ben, you idiot, you actually know it’s true, you’ve worked out It’s true.’
Ben says that since then “I’ve been slogging it out by grace really.” He chose to study accounting and law at uni “because I wanted to be really rich. I wanted to be a rich judge. That was my ultimate goal.”
By the time he reshuffled his priorities he was already halfway through his degree; deciding to stick with it, he went to work as an accountant in Dubbo. It was a great time of Christian growth, but he realised that he hated office work.
After realising at this time that ministry was what he found most rewarding, he did three years of Ministry Training Strategy back at his church in Armidale, where he discovered how tough ministry is when you don’t set boundaries of self-care. He ended up burnt out and vowed never to do ministry again.
“God was very kind and I came through that still wanting to serve God.”
However, after a year, God called him back into ministry and he spent four years as Area Manager for Young Life until a rough patch of mental health caused him to take a step out of ministry to sort himself out.
“I went back and worked for the uni for another year or so. And that was a real pruning time, I guess, like it really showed me that so much of my identity was tied up in my ministry, and what I did for God, that it was a real challenge to not feel like I was contributing to myself or something like that. All I had left was Jesus really, which is all I needed, but it was a tough way to learn that lesson again. But God was very kind and I came through that still wanting to serve God.”
Continuing his life on the roller coaster, Ben returned to vocational ministry and spent two years as a youth minister at St Marks in Armidale – and loved it – before deciding to bite the bullet and study full-time at Moore College in Sydney.
“I want to be loving people and sharing Jesus, the real Jesus in word and deed with people outside.”
After graduation, while visiting visited Darwin and hanging out with some friends from Moore College, Ben felt challenged by hearing of the great gospel needs in the Top End. While praying about this, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to spend most of his time connecting with those who had little or no contact with the church.
“I want to be loving people and sharing Jesus, the real Jesus, in word and deed with people outside,” he says.
“That’s why I decided not to go work for a church because you’re lucky if you get 10 per cent of your time to do evangelism as a church worker.”
“I’m convinced that Australia needs more ‘home missionaries’.”
As a single guy who had the capacity to live cheaply if necessary, Ben decided to give it a crack and move up to Darwin to be a roving evangelist.
“The plan is to raise support from individuals and a few churches … I’ve set up an organisation, Connect NT, partly for the money to go through and partly for support and encouragement and just some big vision planning, or dreaming.
“So that if it goes well, and if I meet other people who are keen to do this sort of thing, we’ve got some structures in place to employ/support them. Because I’m convinced that Australia needs more ‘home missionaries’, and we don’t really have broad stuff happening in that space.”
While Ben sets up his website, please contact him on [email protected]