The Blessing of Forest Fires


I first met Jonny Baker more than 20 years ago, when I spent two weeks in England exploring the rebirth of youth ministry in a culture that had experienced a metaphorical forest fire—a rapid decline that “burned down” most of the church. At the time Jonny was the longtime leader of Youth For Christ in London, and a major catalyst in the “emerging church” movement. He was passionate about adventuring into creative, experiential ways of engaging people with the Gospel in their context. I was blown away by his ministry “experiments.”

One night he invited me to Vaux, an alternative congregation that met on Saturday nights in a tiny-ish and centuries-old Anglican church on the outskirts of London. A few dozen regulars were there when I arrived. On the floor was a huge printed map of London, taped down securely. That night this community was exploring the depths of what Jesus meant in this Sermon-On-the-Mount proclamation: “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16).

The leaders passed out funny-looking markers to everyone in the congregation, then invited them to get down on the floor and use their marker to trace all of their travels from the past week on the map. People crowded next to each other as they crawled around the map, highlighting their movements and pausing to remember places they’d forgotten. After 10 minutes or so, we returned to our seats and the leaders turned off the lights, then turned on a couple of large blacklights. The marker-paths lit up, making the map look like it was on fire. In the dark, they asked us to take five minutes of silence to consider again what it means to be a “lamp on a stand” in our everyday life. They closed with a short reflection and invited people to share what had bubbled to the surface in their quiet reflections. And then they dismissed to the pub across the street.

Beauty Behind the Smoke
This all happened two decades ago, but I still remember the details of it today, and what I learned from participating in this experience. Looking back, I see the beauty and blessing of forest fires—with the traditional structures, patterns, and expectations of church now a non-issue, these people were free to explore their relationship with God improvisationally. They had nothing on the line, and no burdensome budget demands to worry about. And so, communities of Jesus-loving people simply met to explore, together, the depths and heights of their love for Him.  

Today, Jonny is a leader with one the oldest ministry organizations in the world—the Christian Mission Society in London. He trains ministry leaders to plant missional outreaches on “the edge of the church.” He calls this training “Pioneer Practice.” Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with him about eight years ago, from his home in London—even so, I think what he has to say is prophetic for today’s ministry leaders in America…

Jonny Baker: Over the last 20 years or so there’s been a whole wave of creativity around the edges of the church—it’s been variously called alternative worship, emerging church, or the missional church. Whilst the church is under pressure, there’s been this surprising wave of newness around the edge. The Church of England described this as a “mixed economy” of church. It’s saying that traditional church is great, so let’s keep that going. But there are whole loads of people who are never going to connect with that. So we need fresh expressions of church.

Rick: And that seems like a natural momentum for you. How did you end up leaving Youth For Christ for an ancient organization in England that you now work with?

Jonny: I think what intrigued me about the CMS (Christian Mission Society), was that… they wanted to take a kind of missional approach to connect with people in Britain, and that interested me… The church likes to think that if somebody goes to plant something new they’ll just produce what you’ve already got. So they expect to see a church with people playing guitars and putting money in the collection and so on. And they like to think they’ll get that within about three years, and that group will be paying them money. But actually that often doesn’t work unless you have a very similar culture to the sending group.

So the kinds of people who can do new things see things differently. They have the gift of sight or imagination. So if business-as-usual is in one direction; they see a possibility that’s a bit more in left field. There’s a whole group of people for whom business-as-usual is never going to connect—that’s the point. They build friendships and bed down in that culture, and what they plant doesn’t initially look like church. That’s where the challenge is. We’re going to grow something over here, but it will look different. That’s the whole point. And it works well where there’s a relationship of trust. It takes time.

There’s a woman, Kim, who’s just trained with us—she finished her Master’s degree with us. And she’s running a really great thing called the Upper Room—she works with homeless guys and addicts in a drop-in center. She had the idea, eventually got it going eight years later, and her and some other housewives raised some money for it. And the, seven years after that, it’s successful. That’s a 16-year trajectory to something that looks mature.

Rick: You talk about “the motivation of mission”—how would you describe what that is?

Jonny: I’ve thought about this quite a lot, actually. I use the metaphor of north on the compass. Every kind of discipleship or spiritual formation has a hidden, unnamed pull toward things that are held dear. So, what I was actually trying to do was to form leaders in such a way they wouldn’t be able to help themselves—they would have to hang out beyond the edges of the church. I’ve failed in forming them if they’re business-as-usual sort of people.

Rick: When you say forming them—what are you forming them into?

Jonny: Well, a number of factors, I think. Mission is at the heart of it—I expect people to orient toward their missional purpose in the world. One thing that’s part of our true north is what I’ve come to think of as freedom. I think in a lot of churches there’s a culture of expectation that you have to do things in a particular way. But the older I’ve gotten the more I think there’s great freedom in Christ.

One of the things that’s important in formation is people becoming more fully the gift of who they were meant to be. Another way to say that is that people coming home to who they really are. Mission tends to flourish when they’re not trying to be somebody else. Your life’s work is to be more fully Rick Lawrence, my life’s work is to be more fully Jonny Baker, and that’s surprisingly challenging for people to do.

Formation also includes things like being Christlike, prayerful, and curious. We also emphasize “context”—we try to get people to think about the position they’re in and the context to that. We want them to be able to enculturate the Gospel in a range of particular contexts, imaginatively, and let go of their own ways of doing things in order to discover a new way of doing things.

A Severe Mercy
Reading over this conversation, now years later, I’m still struck by the urgency I feel when I listen to Jonny describe what he’s been trying to do in a post-forest-fire culture. In so many ways, the church forest-fire we’re now experiencing is what C.S. Lewis calls “a severe mercy”—a great grace hidden behind a great grief. And for those of us who can smell the smoke hovering over the American church, there is hope in Jonny’s words, and the promise of new life for those who will leave behind their captivity and enter into the freedom Jesus is inviting us to explore…

Others will experience that freedom flowing through our ministry leadership as our “non-anxious presence”—the phrase rabbi, therapist, and leadership guru Edwin Friedman used to describe healthy relational impact. It’s also what characterized the upending goodness in Jesus’ interactions with His disciples, His followers, and His enemies. Vibrant Faith’s Jim LaDoux will be leading a two-session MasterClass called “Growing As a Less-Anxious Leader” on two successive Wednesdays—May 29 and June 6. You can register for the course Here​. 

Just for You!
If you’ve been reading my Friday blogs for the last few months, you know my new book Editing Jesus comes out soon—June 4th to be exact. The book’s publisher has put together an extended excerpt (the first three chapters!) that is exclusively available to the Vibrant Faith community. So, here you go… Just click on this link and you can download a pdf of this long excerpt from the book.   

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.



A Deeper Way to Lead Others Into Faith Maturity… Guide your people into depth relationally and experientially… A new curriculum by Rick Lawrence for both youth & adult ministries. Learn More Here




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