Stumbling towards the edges
Andy Roberts and Jonny Baker talk about the edges of mission, in the UK and globally.
When we talk about CMS and mission at the edges, what does that mean? Is this different for global and UK mission? Naomi Rose Steinberg spoke to CMS mission directors Andy Roberts (international mission) and Jonny Baker (Britain mission) to get some answers.
Naomi: How have you each personally felt called to the edges in mission?
Andy: I kind of stumbled to the edges. When I was 16, I went on short-term mission to Croatia to help Bosnian refugees. And then going to Brazil, to a place of extreme poverty, working with street kids, based in a church literally on a rubbish dump… God made it clear that I was supposed to give my life at the time to people on the edges. And now I find myself helping lead CMS into the edges internationally.
Jonny: I’ve always enjoyed the adventure of thinking about how Christ connects with people beyond the reach of traditional church. I am still involved in that but if I had to summarise my sense of vocation at the moment, I would say I’m called to be an advocate for pioneers. I love people who want to be with people at the edges and I think I’m good at encouraging them.
Naomi: CMS and the edges: why now and why us?
Jonny: Well in a nutshell, Jesus. Former CMS general secretary John Taylor talks about how Jesus was loved by outsiders, fringe-dwellers. The community I’m part of are reading Rowan Williams’s book Being Disciples. He says, “Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself. If you are going to be where Jesus is, if your discipleship is not intermittent but a way of being, you will find yourself in the same sort of human company as he is in.”
So for me, that’s why the edges: because Jesus couldn’t resist them.
Andy: And that’s why CMS started: to send people to the edges. CMS has done amazing work down the years and it’s gotten hugely varied, which is good, yet it is also good to re-examine our calling. So over the past two years we’ve gone through this refounding journey, which has led us back to remembering that CMS is all about being at those edges.
Jonny: I definitely feel that CMS at its best has followed Jesus to new spaces.
Naomi: So we go to the edges and then what? What should we be doing there, or not doing there?
Jonny: Watching pioneers, they tend to build community and friendships, learning as much as possible. And through this togetherness, faith is shared and good things happen. Hopefully new disciples grow, but we get changed as well. Sometimes it’s tempting to talk about “unreached people” and “we’ll go over and do something to them so that they can become something else”. That language is uncomfortable and it’s not what happens. I think things go better when you sense that Jesus is at the edges, you go and join in with what’s happening, and you find that God is at work in people’s lives and they get changed and you get changed. You have something to offer in that space. But it’s not the story of, “right, there’s these poor people over there, let’s go to the edge and sort them out.”
Andy: Building on this, I come from the South American Mission Society (SAMS) which later joined with CMS. SAMS has had a rich history, working with indigenous people in South America, and you could say that’s a real edge: they are marginalised, suffering huge injustices. But missionaries over decades have gone into those spaces and found exactly what Jonny says. You don’t find helpless people waiting for outside help. You find people who are already doing a lot of things and have a lot to teach those who come to them. It’s a holy exchange of gifts.
Naomi: So can you actually define what an edge is?
Andy: We can talk about the edges as being the edges of society, those who are marginalised, or the edges of our comfort zones. I would also say that the edge is where the church is minimal or marginal, where it’s difficult to be a Christian.
Naomi: Jonny, is it hard to be a follower of Jesus in the UK?
Jonny: Stefan Paas talks about it being hard ground, and my African friends are often shocked at how hostile the UK is about people of faith compared to Africa. In some ways it can be a tough place to follow the way of Christ.
Andy: I’d echo that from my experience in Latin America; it’s difficult in the UK for sure.
Jonny: For me, the critical thing is how you discern what God is calling us to. Andy’s challenge in terms of CMS’s international work is, how do we know what those spaces and places are where God is calling us to contribute? And can we discern that together?
The UK is definitely a place where CMS has weighed that up; there was a members’ vote in 1979, where it was prayerfully discerned that, yes, God is calling us to participate in UK mission, where vast numbers of people are never going to hear the story of Christ through expecting them to come to church.
Naomi: Do people need to be pushed to the edges? Or should this work be for those who are innately called?
Jonny: I found Rowan Williams’s words (above) hugely challenging: if you want to be with Jesus, you need to keep the company of those that Jesus keeps. So we need to intentionally go to the edges for the sake of our own faith and discipleship.
Naomi: So if people go to the edges it will fuel their faith?
Andy: I’ve found that to be true. In going to fairly risky places, I discovered life there, I discovered God was moving in ways I’d never experienced.
Jonny: Spending time with pioneers, your faith comes alive in those spaces.
Andy: Going to the edges can make you vulnerable. Vulnerable to failure, doubts, all sorts of things. And that’s how faith gets fuelled – making yourself vulnerable to others and to God and then hoping God will work and you know any success hasn’t come from you; it’s come from God.