How to…use your imagination

People gather outside beach huts at night round a brazier

Flashes of light in the darkness: Brighton collective Beyond turned beach huts into Advent calendars


John Taylor, former general secretary at CMS, called mission an adventure of the imagination. Yet many people think creativity is a gift you either have or you don’t – and often they conclude they don’t have it. But it is more like a muscle that is strengthened through use – we all have it, but need to practise using it. So how do we get started?

Portrait shot of Jonny Baker
By Jonny Baker, director of mission education at Church Mission Society

One way to be creative is to combine two things from different areas. Einstein called this combinatory play.

A classic example is the printing press: Gutenberg famously observed the way that a screw press was used in winemaking to press grapes and combined that with typesetting to create the printing press. A more recent example is James Dyson observing dust extraction at a factory and combining that with a vacuum cleaner to come up with the Dyson.

Something old, something new

Jesus told a very simple parable saying that the Kingdom of God is like a teacher who took something old and something new out of the cupboard (Matthew 13:52). He too knew this art of combinatory play. His parables were invariably this kind of combining of, say, yeast and messianic expectation or Jacob and Esau with a story of homecoming. The essence of contextual mission is exactly this kind of combinatory play. It’s an adventure to combine the story of Christ with a culture or context.

Let me give you a few examples. When I have helped at Mind Body Spirit fairs sharing Christ with spiritual seekers, I use something new – a pack of cards called the Jesus Deck – with something old – lectio divina. The Jesus Deck is a set of cards with four suits of scenes from the Gospels. Using something from the culture of spiritual seekers, card reading works amazingly well combined with an old method of Scripture reading.

Combine the unexpected

Jo and Darren Howie have combined coffee with communion to develop the Sacred Bean eucharist. They work with ex-offenders and have set up a coffee roasting business around which they are building community and training people so they can get jobs. They have developed a wonderfully creative ritual to remember Christ which the guys absolutely love.

KimSon Nguyen has written a brilliant book on contextual theology in Vietnam in which he explores combining the Vietnamese spirituality of the Dao (the way) with the gospel. In this case he is combining something old with something old to come up with something new!

A fresh expression of church in Brighton called Beyond combined beach huts with Advent to create a beach hut Advent calendar. This ran for 11 years and really caught the public imagination.

A beach hut was opened each day with an art installation about the Christmas story and people gathered to share a short reflection, mulled wine, mince pies and carols. Simple but so Brighton!

Don’t get stuck in your bubble!

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic murder, I read James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The book explores the combination of Christ’s death and lynching. This has largely been avoided by white theologians in America but Cone demonstrates how artists combined these two things in very powerful ways. CMS’s much-loved resource The Christ We Share is really combinatory play like this – combining the image of Jesus with representation in local cultural forms.

What’s great about combinatory play is that it is really easy and anyone can do it, including you. It just requires a couple of things.

One is getting outside your area, so don’t remain stuck in a church bubble. Crossing cultures is brilliant for this.

Secondly, it requires practice, and as you do that you will get better at it – that creative muscle I mentioned can go flabby through lack of exercise.

Creativity in practice

So to help you get started, here are a couple of exercises to try. It’s actually more fun being creative with other people, so why not do these with a friend or a small group?

  1. Choose one of the Gospel stories where Jesus encounters someone, such as the woman at the well. Combine it with your village or neighbourhood and retell the story in an imaginative way with characters and places from there.
  2. Take a photograph of something that catches your attention in your neighbourhood. Combine that with an approach to prayer you are familiar with such as confession, the Lord’s prayer, silent prayer, praise, the examen, or a communion prayer. I tried this out and took a photograph of a parking sign and combined it with communion at home. For me this was a powerful reaction to the Church’s response on communion at home during lockdown.

Recently Cathy Ross and I have really enjoyed exploring John Taylor’s themes and imaginative approach to mission in his CMS newsletters. We have just released a book which is really combinatory play in itself – combining Taylor’s insights with mission challenges in today’s world. We conclude each chapter with an exploration like the ones above to help people exercise creativity and imagination.

Imagination may well be the church in Britain’s biggest challenge.

Imagining Mission with John V Taylor by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross is out now from SCM Press. Use code MISSION2020 on the SCM website to get a discounted copy.

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