Imagining Mission: a book Taylor-made for our time?

cover art of Imagining Mission with John V Taylor

Naomi Rose Steinberg got in a Zoom room with Jonny Baker to talk about Imagining Mission with John V Taylor, a new book he’s co-written with Dr Cathy Ross.

The book launch on Thursday 1 October at 8pm, will be livestreamed on the Church Mission Society YouTube channel.

imagining mission: Jonny Baker and Dr Cathy Ross

Naomi Steinberg: I’m here with Jonny Baker, one of the authors of the new book Imagining Mission with John V Taylor. Jonny, how do I say this respectfully yet bluntly…why should we be paying attention to what a dead white man has to say right now?

Jonny Baker: Great opening question! John Taylor was the general secretary of CMS in the 60s and 70s and he was just a great thinker about mission. He wrote a number of books. And I’d say he’s kind of a prophet character who was very much ahead of his time. So his writing and thinking feels like it’s very poignant and resonant now, even though he is a white man. In terms of other cultures, his thinking, for example, in his book The Primal Vision, which was about mission in Africa, was very much about engagement in culture in a way that takes the relationship between faith and culture seriously. He calls that an adventure of the imagination.

Naomi: Talking about the importance of imagination might sound kind of fluffy to some. Why is imagination so important to be focusing on right now?

Jonny: My way of thinking about it is that everything that’s been designed has first been imagined. So there’s a strong relationship between real stuff and imagination. It’s not like one is sort of fantasy over there and the real world’s over here. So, this computer, somebody’s designed. This book, somebody thought up and wrote. So I think for me, imagination is very much related to reality, to the world. And I think imagination is one of the unique things about being human: we make art, we create stuff. We imagine. It’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God, I think. So I’ve always loved the idea of imagination, the gift of imagination and thought it’s something that’s fundamental to being human.

Naomi: Tell me about the response to the book in its first few weeks.

Jonny: So far people are really liking it and saying things like, “I couldn’t put it down.” And it’s not a novel so that’s a bit surprising! But encouraging. And I think people are being really stimulated by it. It feels like there’s a bit of a buzz. But how much that’s just our echo chambers of our social media I don’t know. John Taylor’s style of writing and thought is provocative. He kind of pokes you a bit to get a reaction. So I kind of hope the book does that for people. I’ve had two instances already, and this is the strange world we live in – one where a bishop in Australia has bought a load of books to give to church leaders in his area and someone else on the Isle of Man has bought a load of books to give to church leaders because the content feels like it’s relevant to the conversation they want to be having. So that’s good.

Naomi: John Taylor was full of pithy quotes. What’s your favourite?

Jonny: Oh, gosh. That’s challenging. I think today it might be “Leap over the wall or perish.”

Naomi: He was talking about the church there, right?

Jonny: Yes.Presumably if you lead a church, you’ve got buildings to run, services – there’s plenty to do. But John Taylor, who was a bishop mind you, flipped that and said, well, actually, the point of church is to exist for the good of the world. So you’ve got to get out into the community. So leap over the wall or perish. I think that would be a good t-shirt.

Naomi: A Taylor-made T-shirt? Forgive me. Right, so what do you say to people who say they aren’t really a creative or imaginative person?

Jonny: I think it’s very common that people think they’re not creative. So it’s a really great question. A story might help. When I first worked for Youth for Christ years ago, the person running Bath Youth for Christ was a guy called Gerard Kelly. I was kind of in awe at how creative he was. When we had meetings he would just have hundreds of ideas. So if we needed to plan a school assembly for the next day, he’d say, “Oh don’t worry about it, I’ll think of something tonight.” And we’d get in the van in the morning and he’d give us what we were going to do. And then he announced he was leaving. And we had all these things to plan. And I was sitting there during a prayer time thinking, “Who’s going to come up with the ideas?” I felt God say to me in the quiet, “I’ve made you creative.” And I found that a really empowering thought. And the team became known for our creativity. And it was really, really fun. There was something about believing in my creativity that freed me up. One of the books I really like on creativity, which is 25 years old or so, is called A Whack on the Side of the Head, and the author talks about blocks to creative thinking. And the first block he talks about is the phrase: “I’m not creative.” So if we say to ourselves, I’m not creative, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last term, actually, I was teaching and a student said out loud, “I’m not creative”. And I said, “I will not allow anyone to say that in my class. You are creative.”

Naomi: Very Dead Poets Society of you.

Jonny: Yeah, that’s right. And then the other thing I think about creativity, which I say in the book, is that it can go flabby like a muscle. So if you don’t use creativity, if you’re not used to coming up with ideas, I think it is something that you need to exercise. Get around other people and knock around ideas and then you can grow that muscle. In the book, at the end of each chapter we have some exercises on creativity to help people a little bit if they’re thinking, well, what do I do? A few games to play, etc.  

Naomi: You talk about needing to exercise creativity, which I can totally buy into, but also the constant pressure to be creative has driven some artists to depression or despair. So could the pressure to be creative in a mission context lead to some kind of burnout?   

Jonny: A good question. With that, there may be other things going on. I actually think, funnily enough, that one of the things that can help creativity is pressure. So there’s nothing like a deadline to help you come up with some ideas. You need a certain amount of pressure sometimes. It’s a sort of paradox, I think, because one of the questions I try and get people to think about is where did you come up with an idea that you’re proud of? And often people come up with that idea when they’re not sitting down trying to come up with an idea. So you’re more likely at an art exhibition or wandering along the beach or chatting to someone about something. And somehow that idea is percolating away. So pressure can be helpful, but also getting into other spaces and playing, I think is where ideas can percolate.

And I think in mission, one of the pressures that can be difficult for people is that, and this is true for pioneers in the UK as well as people in mission in other countries, is that we need imaginative approaches to things, but people are very used to the way things are. So new ideas, new approaches can feel threatening. And that can be very frustrating for people who are coming up with ideas. And they think they’re doing exactly what’s required and yet those in the system pour scorn on them. I think for creativity to flourish, there’s nothing better than encouragement. I was listening to Warren Ellis being interviewed by Mary Anne Hobbs last week on BBC 6Music, and he’s recorded this soundtrack to a documentary on people train-hopping in America. He was talking about meeting Brian Eno, who is known for his inspiring thinking around creativity. And he said when he met Brian, Brian was just hugely encouraging about the project. And he said, ideas take flight with encouragement. And I thought, what a great line. That’s so true. So I think for imagination, you want to put yourself in spaces where it feels like creativity is celebrated. One of the things I say in the book is that cynicism is the death of creativity. You’ve got to get into a space where you’re free to dream and won’t be shot down.

Naomi: Former leader of CMS Philip Mounstephen, has said and reiterated recently that the biggest problem facing the church today is a lack of imagination. What’s your response to that?

Jonny: I like that very much because I think often churches, and indeed pioneers, myself included, can get into thinking we haven’t got enough of this, that or the other. But I think for Philip to say that really the issue is around imagination hits the nail on the head, because I think there’s always so much possibility, certainly with God, the kingdom of God, you know, mustard seeds and all the rest of it. So much can be done. But it is about seeing those possibilities and working to make them happen. So when he said I really agreed. I loved that.

Naomi: So if you could suddenly be piped in to a few thousand church services on a Sunday and you had a few minutes to say whatever you wanted, what would that be?

Jonny: I think coming back to the mustard seed, it’s a parable I’ve always loved. I like that that with the seed of an idea, actually, you can grow something wonderful. And I quite like the idea of encouraging people to do something that’s within their reach. So for example, at St. Mary’s Church that I go to, there’s a guy, Wayne, who I think is in his 70s. He listened to a programme on Radio4 about loneliness. And as a result, he thought, “I want to do something about that” and he talked to the vicar and he started a lunch for people that were lonely, it’s largely older people. A lot of people go to that lunch and they have a time of reflection. And I don’t think he realises this, but I think he started a fresh expression of church. But the innovation is so ordinary; it’s so accessible. He hasn’t bought any books, he hasn’t gone on any courses, he probably doesn’t even know that’s a thing. But he’s just seen something, had an idea, talked about it, made it happen. And so I think that’s the sort of encouragement that probably churches need – I mean, in a way, perhaps we’re bad at this in pioneering circles because we love stories that are really “out there” but people don’t need to start a boxing church. I love it and those things exist and they’re great. But something that’s closer, easier, an idea that people have already got percolating away: maybe that’s the kind of thing I’d encourage.

Naomi: What role does cultivating imagination play in terms of discipleship?

Jonny: Well, I think we’ve got this weird thing in the church, and I don’t quite know why we’ve got it, where it feels like when I look at the life of Jesus and the Jesus that I’ve come to know, there’s a real freedom at heart of it, freedom with the spirit and joy and imagination. And somehow in our churches, we we’ve got cultures, I think quite often that are about the right way to do things, and the right way to behave, and the right way to think about the Bible and so on. So somehow I think we’ve got to, in terms of discipleship, free people up a little bit, trust people to kind of make the connections between the gospel stories and their lives and recover some sort of sense of adventure and quest about that. I’ve always found in terms of my own discipleship, I don’t know if I’m just weird, that I’ve got to be exploring something. You know, it’s not some formula to follow. It’s like what’s so important for me now and probably for lots of people is Black Lives Matter and thinking about my whiteness. I’ve been reading around that, thinking about that. And that feels like that’s a whole quest of discovery and deepening of faith and undoing some things.

There’s book that’s just come out by Steve Aisthorpe called Rewilding the Church. And one of the things he says, and he’s got an article on Anvil about this as well, is that in research they categorise religious people in a number of ways, of types. And one of the types is questing. And he’s discovered because he’s done a lot of research into church leavers, that the questing types find church really difficult. So that suggests that our cultures of church need a bit of freeing up around imagination.

Naomi: John Taylor had some forthright things to say to the church and about the church, so going back to the book, do you think it’s a book for everybody or more niche?

Jonny I think it’s accessible and the ideas around creativity are accessible. It’s organized into three sections: church, mission and society. I think it will definitely be of interest to people who are involved in church and mission. And there’s a chapter focussed on the environment and the inequalities of wealth, and one on relating with other faiths. So I think those are probably relevant to everyone.

Naomi: John Taylor’s daughter will be at the book launch on 1 October. What does she think of it?

Jonny: I’ve not actually met her, so I’m really looking forward to that and hearing from her how she finds it. It’s not an historic book; it’s more about soaking yourself in his thinking and speaking boldly out of that for today. I understand she is delighted her father’s work has resurfaced.

Naomi: When you think of CMS’s work, near and far, what are some of the most imaginative examples that you can think of?

Jonny: Well, one of the things that inspires me is CMS’s early risk-taking craziness. In the 200th year of CMS, they published a magazine and there’s a chart in it that lists the places that CMS went. And the first 50 years just lists so many places like the Arctic Circle and Japan and New Zealand as well as Africa. There was just so much drive and energy motivated by a love for Christ and wanting to share that with people. We know it’s complicated because of colonialism and CMS was part of that era. But I find that kind of drive and energy in the early years pretty exciting. As were some of the developing ideas. Like what Henry Venn called the church principles: that CMS’s approach should be to go to a place, to try and grow indigenous church and then move on so that you didn’t impose a Western thing, but allowed the local thing to grow.

In recent years I’ve been blown away by Ann-Marie Wilson. I remember when she arrived at CMS and said she wanted to end FGM in 28 countries in Africa. Such a bold vision. And she has tirelessly worked at that. I’ve found her really inspiring in terms of someone who clearly had a call, a dream, has gone and done amazing things with it.

Naomi: Yes she’s someone who has been able to imagine a different world for girls and a different life for herself, leaving her career and refocusing entirely. Seeing and living beyond the status quo.

Jonny: And of course I’ve also been really inspired by the pioneers we are training in the UK. So it was 10 years to the day on Monday 28 September since the first training day with pioneers. So I’ve be feeling a bit celebratory and euphoric at the moment. They all come with ideas and a heart for something that isn’t business as usual in the church. They’re concerned for people at the edge, whether that’s young people or a particular housing estate or prisoners, etc. They’re all dreaming something and working to do that. And we’ve seen so many great things that have come out of that. CMS has just been a fantastic home for that because these students are on an adventure of the imagination which again is what John Taylor called mission. He really captures so many things I think and feel about mission. And I hope reading about him will inspire others.

Published 1 October 2020
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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