Rev. Tim Alban Jones, vicar at St. Andrew’s Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire, became nationally known in the worst of circumstances. It was in this quiet market town where 10-year-old best friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman disappeared and were later discovered brutally murdered in 2002. In the face of unspeakable grief, the family, town and, in some ways, the nation were touched by Jones’ evident compassion and sensitivity.
I remember at the time seeing him undertake one of the most moving expressions of mission I had witnessed. It was very simple, but I’m sure it was carefully thought through. It was not without the capacity to go wrong, and he could have faced much criticism, but it was as if he instinctively knew what was right. So he did it.
The occasion was the morning service in St. Andrew’s Church on Aug. 18, 2002. It was the day after the girls’ bodies had been discovered. The church was packed, and hundreds more were listening on the relay outside. The world’s media were recording everything ready for the news feed that day.
The moment came for the Eucharist, and quite simply, without fuss everyone who attended was invited to take communion. Interestingly, even the BBC report carried that detail.
That was it – as simple and yet as profound as that. Theologically wrong, some might say, but missionally absolutely right. No mention of “this is for those who love the Lord and seek to follow him” or “feel no embarrassment as you let the elements pass you by.” Either statement would have been tragic.
Everyone who attended was invited to take communion.
In Matthew 12, Jesus, confronted by a man with a withered hand, was challenged whether it was right to heal on the Sabbath. Theologically, according to strict Jewish law, they had a point. But he reminded them that their application of the law was somewhat selective. After all, if any of them had a sheep fall into a well on the Sabbath, they wouldn’t be slow to rescue it.
More to the point, needy people need care. If the prevailing theology of the day seems to dissuade us from that course of action, then in effect Jesus said there is a need to sit down and look again at that theology. Even when “we know,” there is always “more to know.”
Mission will always run ahead of theology. Theology drives mission; that is fine. But, propelled by the theology of the day, mission takes us onto new ground and encounters new boundaries. And as God’s people engage with these new boundaries, the need to do theology again is vital. Theological change won’t always be the right response, but the need to think afresh is non-negotiable.
So the resurrection and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) and the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) propelled the Jewish church out from Jerusalem and Judea toward the ends of the earth. Soon, they encountered something quite new. Gentiles, would you believe, were accepting the gospel. What do we do now? Answer: Convene a Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and examine our theology again.
Then look what happened. The church expands throughout the Roman Empire and the Greek-speaking world, and different ideas about the person of Jesus abound.
What do we do? Answer: Convene Councils at Nicea and Chalcedon and agree to some theological frameworks expressed in Greco-Roman terminology that, who knows, might last a thousand years or more.
Centuries later, in a world of theologically sanctioned slavery, it was largely Christian activists who challenged the slave trade in the Old World. Then theology had to change.
And yet in America it was still defended on theological grounds that black people should sit at the back of the bus while white people sat at the front. In South Africa, black people were to avoid swimming at the same beach as white people. Only when activists, among them Christians, said this was an affront to the Gospel did this aberrant theology have to change.
Today’s world presents its own unique boundary encounters. These are intellectual encounters (secularism, post-modernism), new social encounters (family planning, recreational drugs, new patterns of family life, euthanasia), new scientific encounters (stem cell research, genetically modified crops, global warming) and new economic encounters (globalization, debt-ridden families and the scandal of ongoing poverty).
Who does what?
Pre-existing theology will help us at each of these points, but pre-existing theology was formulated at a different time in the face of different realities to answer a different set of questions. So the need to go on doing theology, to go on diving deeper into the unfathomable riches of Christ is as vital as it is exhilarating.
But here’s the challenging bit. Theology often changes, or changes more quickly, when mission pressure demands it. When the mission engagement of God’s people pushes at the kind of boundaries mentioned above, the pressure grows to revisit that theology.
And so the real driver for change comes from the foot soldiers, the rank and file, the ordinary people of the church who feel in their bones that there is a different way of responding to these new realities.
This is mission. It’s messy, it will get things wrong and it will certainly break some conventions. But if it’s right, it will be evident that it is of God.
Everyone who attended was invited to take communion.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.