By Kevin T. Czerwinski
It’s difficult not to notice the pirate hat and plastic flintlock pistol sitting on the shelf in Matt Jones’ office.
That the pastor of the Mountaintop Church in Mount Olive would have such toys in his office might seem a bit out of place for anyone but Jones. Though he is a man of the cloth, the cloth from which Jones is cut is much different than that of a traditional religious and spiritual leader.
Jones, 53, is a man of God; there are no doubts about that. But he’s also part pirate, part Sherlock Holmes, part Marty McFly and a whole host of other characters that have come together to help make the Mountaintop Church one of Mount Olive’s most integral community institutions.
The church, during the course of the year, will be transformed into a pirate ship, Sherlock Holmes’ laboratory, a scene from A Christmas Carol, the bridge from the fictional town of Bedford Falls in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” or a DeLorean. The sets are Jones’ brainchild and draw on his background in photography and videography. They also help him teach and reach the people in his congregation in a way that’s relatable.
Jones is the star of short videos based on the aforementioned fictional characters. He shows the videos before his weekly Sunday sermons. The videos, in conjunction with the props on the altar, have allowed him to reach his audience in a way that others might not.
“My biggest gift is teaching,” Jones said. “With this generation, what I have tried to do is put things in a way that will open people’s hearts. We put together a Journey at Sea, where we had a pirate ship on the altar. I was Captain Matt Sparrow. One year we did “Back to the Future”.
“I was also Sherlock Jones. I dressed the part and I looked ridiculous. But I loved doing it. I had fun with the skit and it opens people’s hearts so I can teach the bible. At Christmas time, we did “It’s a Wonderful Life” and had a bridge set up on the altar. This year we are doing “March of the Wooden Soldiers”.
Jones’ love of photography goes back to before he began his ministry. He also worked putting together wedding videos when he was younger but as he began his life in the church, finding time for his hobby wasn’t easy. Now, however, with a little creative thinking and modern technology, he’s been able to incorporate something he enjoys with something he loves.
“What you can do with your phone alone is incredible,” Jones said. “We have a green screen here and its fun. I love doing it but I also love that it is something that can be used for my ministry. It helps me bring forward a real spiritual truth.”
Bringing forward that spiritual truth has allowed Jones, his family and his staff to build the Mountaintop Church into something special during the last 16 years. The church had fewer than 10 congregants when Jones arrived in 2002. Reverend Kenneth Young founded the Bethesda Christian Center, which is now known as Mountaintop Church, in the mid-1980s and served as the pastor for a dozen years.
Young was a quadriplegic – the result of an automobile accident in the early 1970s – and built his church from a wheelchair. He became the first Assemblies of God missionary for the disabled and worked tirelessly to support them, building his church to accommodate their needs.
“He had a ministry here, ‘Hope for the Handicapped’ and he had a vision to have the first handicapped church in the country,” Jones said. “The hallways are wide and he thought about bringing in wheelchairs and stretchers. The pastor was a great man.”
The church, however, began to fail over time. When the opportunity to become its full-time pastor presented itself, Jones was up for the challenge. Jones was serving as the principal of the Full Gospel Christian School in Livingston, N.J. prior to his arrival in Mount Olive.
“I thought I was coming here to close the church,” said Jones, who was also a presbyter for the Assembly of God for six years, overseeing 27 churches during that time. “Some churches are growing, some plateau, some are dying and some are dead. I wasn’t sure if I was going to resurrect this one or be a mortician. But The Assembly of God had some programs to revitalize the church and it grew very quickly.
“Within two years we were up and running and healthy. We’ve seen great things happen and we’ve been able to get involved in the community. I don’t emphasize denomination here. My emphasis is for people to find a place where they belong and find their own relationship with God. My mission here is for people to come here and find the most abundant life that Christ offers them.”
Jones’ congregation has grown to a point where he’ll have nearly 200 people in attendance “on a good Sunday”. The church is also involved in a whole host of community programs ranging from feeding seniors every second Tuesday of the month and helping run a food pantry to aiding veterans and working with local law enforcement to help stop human trafficking in New Jersey.
The notion of helping his community comes, in part, from his father Don Jones, a long-time Methodist minister in New Jersey who now resides in Florida. Jones’ father instilled in his family the idea that giving back to a community goes hand in hand with being part of a community. Helping those less fortunate is an integral part that of approach.
“We have a philosophy to do what we can when we can,” Jones said. “We do what we can with what we’ve got. Don’t worry about doing great things, just do gracious things and be available. We’re talking about scores of people who serve here with all our programs.
“I have the wonderful blessing of being a leader, a motivator, an inspirer and example of serving others. I am grateful that God has put me in that place but I am no one special.”
While Jones may not see himself as special there are those who would disagree. He has a staff that includes two fulltime employees and five part-timers in addition to a volunteer staff of more than two dozen people. Included in that group is Mountaintop Youth Pastor Kody Vagle, whom Jones says is “a great preacher and someone not afraid to get his hands dirty”.
Diane Jones, his wife of 27 years, along with his children – Matthew 26, Anthony 24 and Dionna, 22 – have also played an integral role in the church’s growth. His oldest son is following in his footsteps as a youth pastor in Long Branch.
Former NFL star Lee Rouson, a Mountaintop Church congregant, also has a great deal of admiration for Jones. Rouson played seven years in the NFL, six with the New York Giants. He won a pair of Super Bowls with the Giants and earned NFL Special Teams Player of the Year in 1986.
Rouson also served as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ [FCA] Northern New Jersey director for several years in addition to being an associate pastor in Harlem for eight years. He is still an FCA representative and speaks on behalf of the organization.
“It’s really easy to be taken by him [Jones],” Rouson said. “He’s one of those short dudes but he is powerful. He’s little in stature, but his heart is huge. He has that New Jersey mindset. He has a sense of community with street wisdom. He reminds me of a lot of athletes that I have known from New Jersey with that kind of mentality.
“Who do you want to line up with to play for the football Giants? Who do you want to go to war with and come off the ball with? I would say that Pastor Matt has the type of heart and mentality that a lot of my peers had when I played with the football Giants. Pastor Matt is that kind of guy. That’s why I am part of that fellowship.”
Jones would like to put serve as the pastor at Mountaintop for another 20 years but knows his future isn’t set. He’ll be wherever he is called to be and go willingly.
“I’ve seen founder’s syndrome in business and in the church,” Jones said. “Sometimes people don’t know when to leave. The church is far more important than me, though. It’s Christ’s church and I am just a servant. If the day comes that I need to hand it over to someone else, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Don’t be surprised if and when that day comes that Jones also hands over his pirate hat, pistol and all his other costumes in addition to the keys to the building.