God is already at work here – and has already gone ahead of us
There’s a great line in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ when Eric Liddell explains his love of running: ‘when I run, I feel God’s pleasure’. I came away from my morning with Toby Lewis Thomas sensing that Toby feels something similar about his work. For him it’s not just a job, not simply a means to an end, it’s an expression of the boundless creativity of God – and God enjoys it.
We met at Toby’s workplace, a small office on the Bethnal Green / Shoreditch / Spitalfields border – and the location is important, because although technically a lot of Toby’s work could be done by remote or home-based working, the relational and network aspects are important in a creative industry where people can often find themselves isolated. Toby was clearly concerned about the pressures on young people in his working environment, and he is determined to make sure that his company plays its part in supporting and encouraging young creatives as they make their way in the working world.
This is an exciting and sexy world, filled with beautiful young people exploring those thin spaces that art – like spirituality – inhabits. It’s an intense environment where it is easy to be seduced by acclaim or demoralised by criticism. I was struck by the way that Toby’s faith gave him a perspective from which to sit lightly to both of these dangers.
I was interested to discover how far Toby had thought his way in to the ‘theology of work’, and although he may not have described it in these terms it was evident that his attitude to the working environment goes far beyond the rather simplistic Christian approach of ‘behave well, and be a good witness’. For Toby, the work itself is part of the way that he lives out his discipleship. I have long thought that we are living in a mystical age of symbolism and sacrament, where ‘words are not enough’ to explain or describe faith, and this brief insight into the world of still and moving images reinforced my belief that it’s a participation in God’s continuing creative work – not just a means to an end or merely utilitarian, but part of the end in itself.
I was curious to know if Toby felt his church ‘got’ him, and whether it honoured and valued what he was trying to do as a Christian in and through his work. I’ve had similar conversations with other artists who felt marginalised and misunderstood by their churches (and clergy), so it was a pleasant surprise to hear Toby speak so positively about his own experience.
I’m currently reading Daniel Pink’s stimulating little book on human motivation: ‘Drive’. Pink’s analysis revolves around the motivation that human beings derive from three fundamental aspects of human behaviour – autonomy, mastery and purpose. It struck me that the world of the creative industries may not offer the lucrative salaries of other professions in London, but it does offer its workers a healthy dose of autonomy, mastery and purpose – and if Toby is anything to go by, motivation levels certainly seem to be high.
We filmed our final interview in a massive converted warehouse in Shoreditch, which offers co-working space to a vast number of people working across the different sectors of the creative industry. It was quite an experience, simply to walk through this building! Almost everybody was under the age of 30, drawn together by shared endeavour and the synergy of ideas and relationship. It reinforced for me the importance of churches considering co-working space as part of our mission. Dipping my toe in to Toby’s world made me realise just how significant this could be for the church in London.
My visit was a glimpse, nothing more, of a world that is foreign territory to me. I came away infected by Toby’s enthusiasm, intrigued by the familiarity of the landscape for anyone who is interested in mystery, and encouraged by the opportunities for the church to align our mission with those who have discovered that God is at work here and has already gone ahead of us.
‘Frontline Fridays’ is a series where bishops visit Christians in London seeking to be ambassadors for Christ right where they are. Episode 2 features the Bishop of Stepney taking a journey into the creative world of East London with Toby Lewis Thomas.
What does it mean for you to be an ambassador for Christ right where you are? Read more stories and share yours www.ambassadors2020.org @ambassadors2020.