Rediscovering a radical

Portrait of John V Taylor by

This vibrant portrait of John V Taylor by Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko hangs in the Taylor room at Church Mission Society in Oxford. It shows him in his robes as Bishop of Winchester, the post he held after his time as general secretary of CMS from 1963-74.

Ten quotes that show John V Taylor is a voice to be heeded in 2020

If you don’t know who John V Taylor is, you probably aren’t alone.

A former general secretary of Church Mission Society and author of several books, he never exactly became a household name.

Yet, as renowned mission thinker Dr Cathy Ross recently gained increased access to Taylor’s travel diaries and newsletters from the 1960s and 70s, she uncovered a trove of insights into mission so fresh and radical, they could have been penned for 2020 and beyond. The findings inspired a new book, co-written with Jonny Baker, called Imagining Mission with John V Taylor.

“The book is inspired by Taylor’s writings – but it really isn’t a historical book,” said Jonny. “It’s more about soaking in his ideas and imaginings and then speaking boldly into today’s questions and issues in church, mission and society.” Taylor was one of the earlier voices in the Church to speak out about the environmental crisis, for instance. Cathy and Jonny believe tapping into Taylor’s ideas will help people become more bold, creative and innovative in mission today. 

“He was a prophet figure without a doubt,” says Jonny.

But if you don’t believe Jonny or Cathy here are 10 pithy quotes and phrases from John V Taylor that show that this former missionary in Uganda was at least a generation ahead in challenging Christians to put their imagination into action:

1. “Cherish the weakness of limited means.”

Cherish the weakness of limited means - John V Taylor

Taylor is a big fan of learning and working through the small, the weak and the ordinary – not relying on major cash influxes. The former, he says, encourages imagination in ways the latter can’t.

2. “I shall come as a stranger with everything to learn again.”

Come as a stranger with everything to learn again - John V Taylor

In mission we are always learning, making mistakes and re-learning. “Taylor’s posture of humble listening, attentive curiosity and lively interest in the world around him captivated us,” said Cathy. This sentiment can be applied when we cross cultures or any other kind of perceived boundary.

3. “Leap over the wall or perish.”

[The church must] leap over the wall or perish. - John V Taylor

John Taylor had some challenging words about turning the church inside out, about not being shut away in a building but enthusiastically out in the local community. He decried the tendency to focus on services rather than service. There are some great practical examples of how this works in the book. And of course, this is particularly pertinent advice for church in a pandemic.

4. “Jesus is the great disturber.”

Jesus is the great disturber - John V Taylor

Jesus changes our view of the world and as followers of Christ we are to follow him in allowing ourselves to see differently, take risks and live with ambiguity and mystery. Taylor advises us to go with Christ in friendship and humility into other worlds, recognising our weakness and how much we always have to learn.

5. “Enough is enough.”

Enough is enough - John V Taylor

A phrase Taylor used early and often to critique the “ruthless, unbridled, unthinking excess” of the Western world at the expense of others and the planet. The pandemic has thrown back the curtain, revealing the consequences of not understanding “enough”.  Developing a lived theology of enough takes both courage and imagination. Taylor said, “We need a thoughtful, convinced minority that will live in such a way as to challenge the cherished beliefs of the consumer society and defy its compulsions.”

6. “The art of being a minority”

The art of being a minority - John V Taylor

Embracing vulnerability is talked about more frequently now than it was in Taylor’s day and in doing so, he definitely swam against the stream. If Christians can refuse the temptations and illusions of power and control, and get more comfortable on the margins, this will free us up to be more empathetic, more creative and more humbly reliant on God and each other. A better, more Jesus-like posture all round.

7. “Look to the fringes, watch the things that are pushing out on the edge.”

Look to the fringes, watch the things that are pushing out on the edge - John V Taylor

The energy is often found at the edges. We know that Jesus was loved by fringe-dwellers and vice versa. Taylor calls us to minister with – not just to – people on the fringes, co-creating a new world together. Above all, he cautions against comfortability. Gravitate to the fringes and pay attention to what God is doing there.

8. “The yeast of nonconformity”

The yeast of nonconformity - John V Taylor

What are the gifts of nonconformity that we can learn from? “We know that following Christ can cost us everything, but may our witness be stirred with the yeast of nonconformity for the sake of the world for which Christ died.” (from Imagining Mission)

9. “The long trek into the terra incognita of Christ”

The long trek into the terra incognita of Christ - John V Taylor

Taylor insisted that to be in mission one must be an explorer and an inquirer. He wrote, “For what drives the true missionary…is not what he knows but what he doesn’t know.” The journey into ‘the terra incognita of Christ’ can be long, risky, even dangerous. It calls us to new places, to cross boundaries, to be really there for each other. In this we must be willing to be changed by what we learn.

10. Mission is an “adventure of the imagination”.

[Mission is] adventure of the imagination - John V Taylor

True boundary-crossing mission is an adventure of the imagination according to Taylor. He encourages us to be involved in imagination, innovation and improvisation – all themes that resonate today. All gifts that are urgently needed. Mission is about curiosity, exploration and transformation. Most of all, it’s an adventure that is all about Jesus.

If this has whet your appetite, then please do check out Imagining Mission with John V Taylor.

Also you’re invited and welcome to join CMS on an adventure of the imagination in God’s mission. You’ll be hearing a lot more from us on mission and imagination over the next several months.

Keep in touch with our latest stories, resources and thoughts about imagination in action by signing up to our mailing list at the bottom of this page.

Published 28 August 2020
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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