Denise Tims has a graduate diploma in theology with an indigenous specialisation. She enrolled in postgraduate study with Carey in 2020 and hopes to complete a master’s degree. She and her husband Dave live in the Randwick Park community, where they serve with Urban Neighbours of Hope. We asked Denise to tell us about her discipleship journey, how her theological studies interweave with discipleship and her work in the community, and her thoughts on what needs to be addressed if churches are to grow disciples more effectively.

Tell us about your discipleship journey, Denise.

When I was 20 and became a Christian, I thought I needed to go to Bible college. I spent three years fully engaged in church, loved it, but then came to a place where I felt like I’d learned everything I needed to know, and so now what? I had a career in teaching and thought that maybe I’d become a missionary, because I couldn’t see any other pathway from the church.

And then I met Dave, who I’m married to now. And he said, actually you don’t need to go to Bible college just yet. You just need to go and do it. He was talking about how you can do stuff in New Zealand, on the ground, grass-roots. And so I suppose I learnt from lived experience.

We really thrashed out what it was to be a disciple. Like details about how we would use the things that we own, what kind of vehicle we’d buy and how many rooms we would need if we had a home. Would it be a home that would just have us in it? Or would we have a home where we had others live with us? What kind of ministries would we be involved in? We discussed all this when we were still working full-time.

And so I felt like God discipled me along the journey as we lived and worked out what that meant in our everyday life, making choices that said no to things and yes to others.

After just three months of marriage we took on teenagers living with us. We had a home that we registered with the Open Home Foundation and CYFS (Oranga Tamariki), and I felt my faith was stretched massively. Because even though I’m Māori, I came from quite a nuclear family in some ways.

So I suppose when I read the scriptures in the gospels, I started to feel more at peace with the Jesus I was seeing there as we tried to live it out in our own lives. I saw a lot with our youth work through Te Ora Hou which was a ministry that Dave started in Whanganui. Later we led Youth for Christ in Gisborne, we joined Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH) ten years later and moved to Melbourne and then we came to Randwick Park 11 years ago. The last nearly 30 years of my life have been involved serving God through these ministries.

What led you to theological study in the end?

I realised I needed some grounded theology and understanding of the scriptures to be able to articulate, in an academic way, what it was that we were doing.

In 2014 Laidlaw College decided to run some papers from an indigenous perspective. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to understand what it meant to be Māori and Christian, and also to hear from indigenous voices.

Being Māori, I have grown up understanding that life is not fair, that there’s lots of injustice in New Zealand. I’ve experienced racism and from a young age I was very aware of that. So I felt like this was an opportunity to engage with people of Christian faith who were Māori, who probably had an understanding of what it meant to deal with injustice.

So that’s what kind of inspired me, and then also hopefully finding, through that, a way of connecting the work we do on the ground and in the community, especially communities of poverty, with the scriptures that we find in the Bible. I finally found a pathway to put the lived experience and the theology together.

But part of the reason why I’m studying is because I feel like we need to write down our story and learning. People who have come to us over the years have asked, ‘Have you guys got a book or material that we can take away to help us understand how we could do neighbourhood development and community work?’ But we haven’t. Others have written parts of our story, but I think it needs to come from our own hand and voice.

And so I hope when I get to a master’s thesis, to start to document some of the things that we’ve learnt doing what we’ve done in neighbourhoods and grappling with different issues. Hopefully this will empower, give pathways or insights, or spark interest for others who want to do something similar.

How does your theological study connect with discipleship?

This year I’m doing Discipleship and Gospel Transformation with Mick Duncan, and Kingdom Economics with Michael Rhodes and Sarah Harris. I’m really excited about the stuff Michael Rhodes has got, because his Practicing the King’s Economy book aligns with everything Dave and I have been doing.

In ‘Kingdom Economics’ we have been asked to choose a scripture and do an exegesis on it, and then in our next assignment we put it into application. One of the scriptures I’m looking at is in Deuteronomy, about gleaning. God commands the Israelites not to harvest all their crops, but to leave some of their grain, olives and grapes. So God’s concern for the most marginalised—the widows, the aliens, the orphans—was something that he commanded. It’s important we note it wasn’t a choice but a command. He knew as human beings we can easily forget about others. But he deliberately had systems in place to stop the accumulation of wealth.

That is where I think the scriptures can link to everyday applications. For example, how do I use my skills to create employment opportunities for the marginalised? In what practical ways do we use the resources that we have? It’s about using our education, our ability to connect with people, our understanding of networks and communities.

So, as we are learning the scriptures, we need to ask what does that look like on the ground practically? To me, that’s discipleship. It’s the good news. It’s the Kingdom of God. It’s us being the hands and feet.

Tell us a bit about how you have been growing disciples at Randwick Park.

We ran a youth club in Randwick Park, who called themselves the Warriors of Change. It was one of the most significant groups of young people who we had journeyed with for years. They came because they had a passion for kids in their community. We met with them every Monday night, doing training and having a meal together. And so that programme and the work we did was a form of discipleship.

They all came from different backgrounds. Some had never opened a Bible before. Quite a number of them made commitments to Christ, but not all of them did. But they all experienced God. It’s that whole interwovenness of just doing life together. Because we live in the neighbourhood, we see each other in practical things like running a youth club together, or hanging out and having dinner together. And then there’s that whole other area of having conversations about God, or inviting or seeing him in your life, in the decisions that you make and the things that you do.

What I loved about that form of discipleship is that when you’re committed to a neighbourhood you get to know people and they get to know you as just everyday people. But also when they come to know that you have a faith, you can then take opportunities. So the opportunity to build trust in a community, and then the opportunity to respond to people who want to learn about God, in whatever form.

Recently Dave took a young child’s dedication. In his conversation with the mum he asked, ‘Why are you doing this? Part of what you’re doing is committing to bringing up your child in an understanding of who God is.’ But she didn’t really know who God was herself, so she asked if she could learn that from us. We’ve known her mum for seven years and their family for the last four years. So this is now a journey of one daughter who’s saying, ‘I think I’d like to learn about God.’

It’s that whole long journey of, hopefully, as they see little bits of God, little bits of Jesus, they’ll remember they need it and they’ll know where to come. Honestly, you don’t have to be amazing to do this. You don’t have to be some superwoman. You just need to be in places. And I think when you’re in places for a long time, and you’re intentional about that, then God creates opportunities to connect you with others in your community so that you can take people on that discipleship path.

How can we, the church, do discipleship better?

If we’re asking the question ‘How do we do community?’ or ‘How do I do neighbourhood?’ then I think there’s a gap in our theology. We need to work out what are we teaching, what we are focusing on, and what we are developing.

I feel like the theology in our churches misses half the parcel. It is focused upon ourselves and our relationship with God, which is really important, but we’ve forgotten the Kingdom of God aspect. We’ve forgotten that we’ve been asked to be part of that journey of building the Kingdom. Unfortunately that’s skewed us and it’s changed the way we walk, the way we live. And now we wonder why we can’t connect to the community that well.

There’s a whole lot of strategic planning that needs to go on for leaders. Because there are so many gifted people in our churches—incredible nurses, doctors, health workers, educators, etc.—but I don’t think we’ve even done a stocktake on our congregation. What are the gifts and abilities we have right now? God, what have you given us and how do we use it? That’s being a disciple.

I’d love to see church leaders looking out for those who might have a passion for theology and for study, and tapping them on the shoulder and encouraging them to do it.  I’d love it if leaders sponsored people to do study. It doesn’t have to be full-time study. Their churches will be better for it.  We’ve also got Orbit; we’ve got leaders doing things differently in our communities, so those leaders encouraging people to do some study or to grapple with stuff theologically is all good.

And then there’s a whole lot of stuff about young people and why the church is decreasing. I don’t think we have many pathways for our young adults. We need to become a lot more creative and think how we disciple them. Dave’s been talking about discipleship flats.  We need something like that. We need to have churches investing in maybe a couple of homes where they are focused on discipleship and growing their young adults, specifically with a focus on building them up.

I don’t know that many of us even have really good discipleship material, either, which is another big issue. There’s a real lack of discipleship material that’s New Zealand- and culturally-based. What new material do we have out there that’s addressing issues of today?  Do we know what’s available?  Are we all familiar with it? Because all of us should be discipling somebody, but I don’t think we are.

I go to quite a lot of church services but how often have I heard a sermon in church that asks us about who we are discipling and teaches how to disciple somebody? I’ve been a Christian for over 30 years and very rarely have I heard anything like that. It’s supposed to be our bread and butter: we’re to go and make disciples. That’s our core business!