Tell us a little bit about you and how you came to faith!
I grew up in a Christian home, did my best to follow the faith but it didn’t quite work out that way. When I was 14, I got banned from church for six months and left the church then for quite a few years. For my 18th birthday party I tried to drink 18 pints of beer and managed 17 and a half and passed out. The next morning I got up and went and sat on a park bench and gave my life to Jesus. My mum and dad had moved to America six months before and I went a bit off the rails but then came to the Lord in a very powerful way.
When I came to faith, I said to the Lord ‘I’ll go wherever, whenever and whatever for you.’ That was a dangerous prayer because that’s led to all kinds of ventures.
How did your parents feel? Did they know this was all going on at the time?
I told them if they emigrated I wouldn’t spend another day pretending to follow Jesus. They felt called and went to run the America Tearfund equivalent and went anyway. For me it was pushing boundaries, working out my place. Everything people like about me now is what they hated about me as a young person: ‘you’re brave, you’ll take things on, you’ll stand up for stuff, you don’t mind standing out from the crowd.’ As a young person, those things were the challenges.
As Director of Mission at the Evangelical Alliance, can you explain a little about your role?
My role is to cheer on people involved in mission and evangelism, to catalyse new things, to bring people together that wouldn’t be together, to dream about what’s possible. I’m a practitioner too so I do platform evangelism at least once a week and see people come to faith.
One of the big things we do at the Evangelical Alliance is the Great Commission website which seeks to be a one-stop hub for everything you want for mission and evangelism. You’ve got videos on it every week of people coming to faith, blog articles, prayer. Then you can search by who you want to reach and we’ve put all the good resources in one place with over 220 resources on the site. We’re here to strengthen the arms of individual Christians and churches in reaching people.
In your view, how do you think we can best share the gospel of Jesus today?
All story. My story impacting your story and the story of Jesus told as well. It’s all about use of narrative. Every person might not be an evangelist, but every Christian is a witness. The reason you are a witness is because you’ve got a unique story of the difference that Jesus has made in your life. In the end, it’s the telling of our story that makes all the difference.
For example, when the Brexit vote happened (I live in an area that is highly multicultural with loads of Europeans), I went to the school gate the next day and all that matters that day is what’s different when you face this moment because I have Jesus. We were out in the playground talking to the mum’s and dad’s and saying ‘It’s great to have you here. We love having you here. It’s brilliant.’ The difference when you have Jesus is your perspective is different on everything. It wasn’t about who has won this political discussion, it’s about how do you help people realise who they are and their identity in Christ and know they’re loved.
There’s moments where we all go through the same things, but what difference does it make to have Jesus? Part of our storytelling is showing that difference. If there is no difference for Christians facing the same things as non-Christians with having Jesus, then why have you bothered? I think the telling of our stories and the living of our lives makes the most profound of differences to people.
What sets Christians apart from others who are trying to share their faith and belief?
I think the same thing that set Jesus apart – the relational element. People could choose not to like what Jesus said but they couldn’t deal with the fact that he ate with sinners. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, come to your door they’ve got a clear outcome they want to achieve, if they achieve their outcome they’re happy, if they don’t they just move onto the next. We deal with people.
If I’ve got friends who aren’t Christians, I will meet with them when things have gone wrong, but I will rejoice with them when things have gone right. I’ve got an active relationship with these people. It’s not just about ‘how do I get my gospel out in 30 seconds’ and see if they’ve got a decision or not. I think what is incredibly important for Christians is we live amongst people and then we show what’s different, we show generosity in a different way.
There’s also how you cope with disaster. I know for Anne and I we had all sorts of problems having kids and we lost one as well and our son was given a 5% chance of survival in the womb, had nine blood transfusions in the womb, was born 10 weeks early. When we were going through that difficulty, people realised that the Jesus we worship is quite something because we still worshipped him in the rain as well as in the sunshine.
The church often appears divided on many issues and that’s often picked up by people that don’t even attend church. We know from reading the Bible that unity is important, but how do you envision unity being achieved across the church for the sake of the gospel?
It depends what you mean by the church. The church is very wide. I work for a unity organisation but it’s an evangelical unity organisation. The danger of unity being too wide is it can be seen as either uniformity or it can become bland. I think we unite around purpose and we unite around commonality. I think many of the issues that you’ll be thinking of or referring to, I think often the theology is quite easy but the pastoral implications are really hard. You’ll often see with people when they are more liberal on something, they’ll say ‘my friend’ or ‘my brother’. Again, it’s that story that comes in again and the story perhaps takes over from our theological basis.
I think we do need to know what it is we are uniting around because lots of people claim to be all kinds of things, but the evidence is shown in your life, in your love and how you hold yourself. With the Evangelical Alliance, we unite around a statement of faith but what has been so amazing joining them from Youth for Christ is when I was at Youth for Christ we worked with all kinds of Christians but in a much narrower arena. I’ve joined the Evangelical Alliance and 25% of evangelicals in this country are not white for example which is amazing. I’ve preached on all kinds of platforms where I’ve been the only white person in the room. Whereas before, I didn’t realise these parts of the church existed. The church also needs to realise what there is in this nation that we wouldn’t be aware of.
I don’t think unity equals uniformity and I think that’s important. I go into churches where I feel more comfortable than others. That’s OK. We all have preferences but we do need to make the main thing the main thing which is the gospel of Jesus.
Jesus talked about repentance and turning away from sin. This can be hard in our own lives let alone talking about it with other people. When it comes to sharing the gospel, at what point do we talk about sin, hell, judgement, repentance etc.? How can people understand the good news without knowing the bad news?
There is no good news without bad news. I’m not for ‘one size fits all’ because Jesus didn’t operate in that way. There comes a point in which light shines on darkness and Jesus will reveal within people areas that need changing. I think one of my problems is I think the church is in danger of not believing that there are things that are sinful anymore, of us being more in love with our culture than with our Jesus and of changing the Bible to fit our culture, not changing our culture with the truth of the Word of God.
In our culture it feels like there is an erosion of sin. I’m not sure we really believe in sin anymore. I think a lot of Christians don’t believe in hell. I think there is a growing universalism creeping into Christianity so therefore there is no need for the proclamation of the gospel. And ‘saved from what’ is an interesting question from people. It’s an incredible time to be alive but it’s also an incredible time to be working out how you navigate these issues of faith with the landscape that we’re facing.
The closer I get to Jesus (and I’ve been a Christian for 20 years) the more of a sinner I feel. I am aware of His greatness and of what holiness looks like and it ain’t me. It’s not just about the big things. When I came to faith I stopped smoking, I stopped swearing and I changed my approach to the opposite sex. Then I thought I’m done – it’s highway to heaven, it’s all good. But actually, some of the little things get in the way – some of the moments of pride, some of the moments of using your tongue in the wrong way to destroy someone in an argument. There are things that the church doesn’t always preach on that the Lord’s not happy with too. I think the admittance that we are all in this together – we’re all broken, we’re all sinful – really helps because sometimes it can come across as superior – ‘look at you, you need to deal with your sin’, but we all do. Not one of us is spotless.
I’m not sure salvation can be understood without sin. What are you being saved from? What’s Jesus being sacrificed as a substitute for? I think we are in danger of ending up with a Christianity where you don’t need a death or resurrection of Jesus. Whereas that is really important. The problem is every generation has its litmus test of orthodoxy which then seems to heighten those sins above others and I don’t think that’s helpful always.
What advice would you give to someone who is really passionate about sharing the gospel and perhaps feels called into mission and ministry?
Every single Christian is called into mission. Have a go at it, just try. I think witnessing is like a muscle – it gets flabby if it’s not done but when you do it regularly it becomes a habit. There’s different ways of creating new habits to start Jesus conversations. I know for me every six months I ask the Lord ‘what do I need to start doing that makes me scared?’ because if I’m not scared then I can’t help other people who are scared of sharing their faith. About six months ago, every time I went out for meal I said to the waiter or waitress who was bringing the food ‘I’m about to give thanks to God for the food. What can I pray for for you?’ It’s led to loads of conversations but now it becomes something I do – when I’m in that context I talk to people.
We’ve got to make it normal to talk about Jesus. The church has made it weird not the world. We can blame the world for not wanting to listen but we don’t talk about our faith so therefore we’ve made it weird. People who are passionate about stuff talk about it. The amount of Manchester United fans who go on about football to me – I love football but I don’t love Man United, but they go on about it because they are passionate! If you’re passionate about something it should pour out of us.
I met a passion expert who asked me ‘do you know how you can tell what people are passionate about?’ and I said ‘what they spend their money on’. She said ‘no, that’s a terrible answer, it’s not true. What you spend your money on is socially conditioned.’ I said ‘OK.’ She said ‘what you spend your time on and what you talk about shows what you’re passionate about. It’s impossible to spend half an hour with someone without knowing what they’re most passionate about because it comes out of their mouth. If you look at how people spend their time, it shows you what they love.’
I think we need to start talking about Jesus and start trying to make that normal. We need to make sure that we are actually interested in people and not just interested in them so we can talk about our faith.
Gavin Calver is the Director of Mission at the Evangelical Alliance and the Chair of Spring Harvest. He has a burning passion to see the Gospel reach every person in the UK. Formerly the leader of Youth for Christ, Gavin’s an ordained evangelist and regular public speaker, and has authored five books. Married to Anne, they have two children, Amelie and Daniel. He loves new challenges, is a passionate AFC Wimbledon supporter and was part of the team that broke the World Record for the longest 5 a side football match.
You can follow Gavin on Twitter: @GavCalver