Feeling your way


I love creativity and imagination. I always have. Everything that has been made or designed was imagined first by somebody.

The incredible world that God has made, and given us to live in and look after with care, was imagined and dreamed by God before it came to be. I’d love to know what that process was like as God dreamed up cloud formations, deep sea creatures and the variety of trees! Mission is no different. It is something creative – John Taylor called it an adventure of imagination. [1]

The challenge of thinking about how Jesus is present and can be made known and the gospel articulated in a particular culture and time, with a group of people who have never heard about him, is an act of imagination before it is an action. You have to dream before you can do. This is the adventure that pioneers and people in mission are on, as are all of us in the CMS community.

While it is not new, in that the adventure has been undertaken by many people before, it is new and innovative in a particular time and place. That is what makes it so exciting.

Getting stuck

We get reminded of this when things get stuck and aren’t working so well. This is a normal part of change whether in society or business or life. Essentially, while it might be a bit simplistic, that is what has happened in the church in the UK over the last 50 years. She has got a bit stuck! She has got stuck by thinking that if we simply carry on doing what we do in church in the way we have done it before, people will come and understand and say “yes I see”. But as Lesslie Newbigin pointed out they don’t come and they don’t see! [2] And, to be honest, this has been a bit baffling for lots of people in the church.

I first realised this when I was doing youth work – it was really hard to get young people to relate to the way we were doing church. But the good news is that this very stuckness is the ideal environment for innovation – a great time for dreamers and innovators. I suspect it has always been thus. The Spirit of God who is the Spirit of mission is also the Spirit who is making all things new – in other words she loves and participates in imagination, newness and adventure. We’ve simply got to see what she is doing and try to join in and ride on her coat-tails.

Getting stuck in

One of the challenges in innovation is the temptation to simply tweak what you’ve been doing in the past rather than go for a much deeper change. There was a television documentary a few years back on moving big objects and one of the stories was of a church in a village in Canada that was put on the back of a huge lorry and moved down the road to the next village. The church choir paraded in front of the lorry as it slowly drove along. I roared with laughter at the irony – why would what is not working in one village work in the next?! That’s an example of a tweak.

We had a really fun day a year or so back with pioneers trying to flip this kind of thinking, which we called Future Present. The idea was to get people to stop thinking about how you tweak what we’re doing and instead think about another possible future and then act in the present on the basis of that imagined future – to make the future present, to make a better world now. That can be applied in your church, your relationships, how we treat the planet, prisons, education and so on. There is a great tradition of this sort of thinking in the church. It’s what the prophets did.

Future: present

They grieved for the way the world was broken, enabling the shedding of tears where people had become numb to the reigning empire’s way of doing things. Grief leads to newness. Then they imagined a different future through their poetry and art – another world where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where there is no sorrow and sighing, where the healing of nations takes place, where justice dwells, a banquet where all are at the table together and there is no exclusion, there is a new heaven and earth. Jesus called this future the Kingdom of God and announced the future present when he said “the Kingdom of God is here”, and proceeded to live life in the light of that incoming future.

The Future Present day was so interesting that we’re now doing two things. The first is encouraging groups of people to do this sort of imagining in three simple steps:

  • Get some people together
  • Pick something you want to see changed and imagine a different future
  • Design the present on the basis of that future to make the future present

Secondly, we have spent about a year gathering 14 contributions around this and have crowdfunded to publish them in a full colour magazine which has just been printed as I am writing this piece. We are really excited about it – it looks fabulous and launched at Greenbelt Festival. [3]

One of the things I have realised about innovation in the last year is that once you’ve imagined something, the process of making it happen is not always straightforward. I think this is partly because you are never quite certain of what you are doing or what it is going to look like in advance. Rather, you have some sort of idea, then you try it out, you learn from it, you adapt it and then you try it again and gradually develop something really good learning from mistakes.

I call this “feeling your way”. I used to think this sounded a bit vague and airy fairy, but I now realise that nearly all innovation happens in this way rather than being fully sorted out in advance.

It’s how CMS innovated the Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course, for example, which we have now developed into something really good.

I hope this encourages you as you go on an adventure of the imagination in mission, as you feel your way forwards, as you follow Christ to make the future present.

[1] John Taylor, The Primal Vision (SCM Press, 1963)
[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989)
[3] You can order a copy by going to the Proost website.

Published 19 October 2018
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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