Julia Faire speaks to Steve Clifford, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance.
WHAT is your personal journey into faith in Christ?
I’m a Yorkshire man by birth and brought up in a Christian family. Sadly, my dad, a vicar of an inner city Bradford church, was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver when I was five years old. My mother was very suddenly left alone and her life turned out very different from what she had expected as a vicar’s wife. Very soon we were in danger of losing our home; incredibly, God stepped in, someone gave us the money and we were able to buy our house.
Faith was always around in the house. As a teenager, I was sports mad and into music and socialising; I believed in God but He didn’t have much impact in my life. One summer I had a job working on a farm at Capernwray Hall in Lancashire. On one particular evening I went along to the chapel there and a guy was talking about Jesus and the cross. As he spoke, I knew at a deep, deep level, the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was true and, because it was true, I was forced into a decision. Shall I live my life on the basis of that truth, or continue my life as it is? I prayed a prayer of commitment to Christ and something happened. There was no great sense of heaven opening but, when I returned to Bradford, I had a relationship with God through Christ.
What is your vision for the Church across the UK for the next 30 years? What role does the Evangelical Alliance play in this?
This is a really good question. Often, our vision is too short-term. We pray for revival but there is a danger that we pray for revival and do not put the necessary work in. We need to do the work of preparing for revival.
Recently I and three others called a gathering of senior denominational leaders together with leaders of networks and people of key influence (50 in all) and spent 24 hours in a hotel by Lake Windermere. We were asking: “Is there something God is asking of us for the next 35 years as we look towards 2050?”
People are more likely to become followers of Jesus if they know about the real Jesus. People are also more likely to find Jesus if they have a friend who is a Christian.
The conference was a profoundly significant event as we discussed the way forward: During the next 35 years we hope to improve the understanding of who the real Jesus is amongst the UK population as well as tracking our progress in this (every five years). Recent research by the Barna Group research commission has revealed a shocking lack of knowledge of who Jesus is in the UK. We also want to track how well we are sharing Jesus with our friends and neighbours. All of us can own this vision.
Church attendance is going down; we are seeing the near death of nominalism; it is not socially advantageous anymore to occupy a pew or seat on a Sunday morning. We need to raise the bar of knowledge of who the real Jesus is.
The challenge we have to face is: how do we make the real Jesus known? We can give people an opportunity by using language, stories and metaphors that connect with them in their culture. Our job is to present Jesus: people can either choose to follow Him or turn their back on Him.
The challenge we have at the Evangelical Alliance is: how do we make sure the ‘Evangelical’ is at the heart of evangelical churches?
Where do you see the church growing?
The church is experiencing growth in all sorts of surprising areas. The migrant church is knowing significant growth, especially in city areas, as are various evangelical churches from many different backgrounds. Many Catholic Churches are growing with the influx of eastern Europeans to the UK.
Thank God for the ethnic and cultural diversity, even diversity of understanding, of the Christian faith. We learn from each other!
From your vantage point, where do you see God particularly at work in the UK at this time?
Unity movements. At a national level, good relationships are being built between leaders of networks and denominations. As the situation in the UK becomes more and more desperate, the challenge to the church is enormous. Some of the petty disagreements amongst Christian groups and the fighting for space are going. Christians are working at building relationally and respectfully and asking how can we collaborate rather than compete.
At a local level there are small unity movements all over the country. There is so much going on across the nation in terms of social action initiatives and often churches and Christian groups are acting together – not individually e.g. HOPE, CAP (Christians Against Poverty), the Night Shelter, Foodbanks etc. Christian leaders (not just ‘church’ leaders) are meeting together and asking the question, “What would transformation look like in our city?” “What’s on God’s agenda for the spiritual, social, political transformation of our city?”
Conversations are taking place with local authorities. People from different groups are praying and listening to God together – then engaging together in the doing of it.
At the Evangelical Alliance we have initiated ‘Gather’, an emerging national network of unity movements in towns and cities across the UK. We have said to ourselves, “How can we get behind unity movements?”
Let’s encourage them into existence and, where they exist, let’s cheer them on.
Is Christianity being persecuted in the UK?
I would speak of ‘marginalisation’ rather than persecution. The Christian faith has had a profound impact on the culture of the UK. Now, those with a secular humanistic agenda have a far greater influence in shaping government policy and influencing the media. We are not in the centre of power; this gives us opportunities as well as creating pressure. I think the church functions better when we are not in power. Throughout history, the Church is most effective and passionate when they are marginalised and even persecuted.
The Evangelical Alliance exists to serve and equip the Church to be more united in its mission and more confident and effective in our voice. The call on the Church is not to abdicate and disappear. There is always the danger of being enclosed communities without an involvement in wider society. God loves the world - that’s why He sent His Son. We have to continue our commitment to be ‘salt and light’. We must encourage Christians to be included in and influence every aspect of nation life. We want to encourage Christian leadership in politics, business, arts, media, social work, entertainment and key areas of influence as well as Church. As Christians, we are called to bring leadership wherever God places us.
Are there any mistakes from the past we can learn from as we press forward as churches together?
We face the challenge of balancing grace and truth. We have often been strong on truth and weak on grace. We can win people as we move in grace, even if they don’t always agree with us. Our tone of voice and body language are so important as we engage with them. Christians can sometimes come over with a pointed finger and furrowed brow and we alienate people quickly.
Sometimes we have to say, “It’s out of order”, but say it in the right way. Even in that, we can speak with sadness and tears, not a clenched first; our own humanity is very important in how we speak - we are people in need of our saviour, in the process of being saved and recognising our own struggles.
Have you noticed any encouraging signs in young people across the UK finding Jesus? How have organisations been successful in winning young people to Christ?
Movements like Soul Survivor, Youth for Christ and the Message Trust are fantastic. They have reached out to tens of thousands of young people and many have become Christians. What are they doing right? I guess they are in it long-term, not in a hit-and-run way, and the gospel is at the heart of what they do; they have adapted to changes in culture, they see there is not just one way of doing things and are open to the Holy Spirit.
Are you optimistic about the future of evangelicalism in the UK?
Yes, I’m optimistic. The day will come when Jesus will return! I’m also optimistic that God is working His purposes out in the earth and we’re caught up in it. We are living at a time in human history when the worldwide church has never seen growth on such a scale. We may feel dismay as we face the death of nominalism and decline in numbers in the UK, yet the church here is more passionate than it was in its desire to follow Jesus. It’s part of a worldwide church that is growing fast!
The Evangelical Alliance, formed in 1846, represents the UK’s two million evangelical Christians. It connects and empowers evangelicals for mission, for influencing both society and government at every level and stands for them before the media and government.
The Evangelical Alliance states: “We believe the Church is the key to long-lasting change in our country - and that by working closely with our amazing members, we can transform our communities.”