Promiscuity is genetic," exclaimed the Anglican bishop of Edinburgh on British television. The bbc immediately contacted Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, for an evangelical response. Calver was clear and direct: "Perhaps there is also a rape gene and a murder gene. What are the societal consequences of such an unfounded claim? The Bible teaches that God has given us moral choice and we are responsible for our behavior."
As he told me this story in his office, Calver sat forward suddenly, his dark eyes flashing. "We have to address an enormous range of issues, from euthanasia and the global arms trade to miracles and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There has been a remarkable increase of interest in evangelical opinion in Britain in the last few years. This growing demand is, frankly, taxing me and the resources of the Evangelical Alliance to the absolute limits!"
The demands on the alliance will very likely increase in the coming years. How the ea is already handling these demands is instructive to American evangelicals.
Evangelicals with a difference
Like our British counterparts, American Christians want to influence our society. But in the United States, unlike Britain, an increasingly inflamed culture war is dividing both church and society. The church in America is often much more seriously divided by politics than theology.
One cannot be considered an evangelical Christian in many circles within the U.S. if one is not a conservative Republican. Nowhere else in the English-speaking West—Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada—does one have to be the equivalent of a conservative Republican to be considered a born-again Christian. This is a uniquely American phenomenon. When the British evangelicals do get involved politically, it is usually in a nonpartisan and irenic manner.
The Evangelical Alliance is the largest Christian organization in Great Britain, representing 1.3 million Christians from 30 denominations and over 800 Christian organizations. The ea celebrated its 150th anniversary last month with an event to which 4,000 Christian leaders from Great Britain and elsewhere were invited.
That was then
It was a very different world when EA was founded in 1846. Queen Victoria was 27 years of age, and the potato famine was devastating Ireland. Originally the alliance was to become the first world alliance of evangelicals. At the organizing meeting, held in August 1846, evangelicals came from Britain, continental Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. However, when a representative from the Baptist Union proposed that slave holders be denied admission to membership, the American delegation protested, and the alliance fractured. Instead of a worldwide organization, they settled for a loosely linked network of national organizations not accountable to one another.
The initial emphasis of the Evangelical Alliance in Britain, still strong today, was religious liberty. In subsequent years, through tough times and good times, the alliance has emphasized prayer, the renewal of the church, and the advancement of the gospel. In 1951 EA joined with the National Association of Evangelicals in America in birthing the World Evangelical Fellowship. The alliance was also instrumental in inviting Billy Graham to the historic Greater London Crusade of 1954.
Over the past 15 years the church in Britain has experienced remarkable renewal and outreach into British society. The alliance, under the unifying leadership of Clive Calver, has grown significantly during this time. When Calver took over in 1983, he and his team established a two-track strategy: (1) to develop greater credibility with the larger evangelical community in the U.K. and (2) to achieve visibility and credibility with the media and political leaders in Britain.
It succeeded in building trust with evangelicals by providing leadership in an area of key concern at that time, the influence of the occult in children's literature. ea also built bridges to the media, signaling that the archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican leaders do not speak for all Christians in England. Over time, both the media and political leaders in Parliament were educated by the alliance about evangelical Christianity, its constituency, and views on religious, social, and political issues.
By 1988 the alliance had turned the corner. Members of the media began routinely to contact EA for its views on a broad range of issues. And the alliance became highly respected because it was nonpartisan, and it always did a thorough job of researching issues for its theological and public-policy implications.
Aims and means
The objectives of the Evangelical Alliance today are straightforward:
—to promote unity in the church;
—to stimulate prayer;
—to encourage evangelism; and
—to enable Christians to act as salt and light in society.
One way EA seeks to achieve these goals is to sponsor an annual event called Spring Harvest. This yearly conference attracts evangelicals from house churches, and Baptist, Methodist, and Anglican congregations, along with Pentecostals, charismatics, and many ethnic congregations. Worship and prayer are the vital core of Spring Harvest. But there is an educational component as well: leading evangelical scholars from the U.K. and beyond are tapped to educate evangelicals on the history, theology, and social implications of their faith.
This year the theme of Spring Harvest was "Faith Beyond Belief." Over 20,000 people participated at two different sites. During one week more than £100,000 was raised to support evangelical missions.
This is now
Calver, writing on the evangelical renewal in Britain during the last 15 years, says: "Fresh styles of worship, an acceleration of church planting and new commitment to social responsibility have played their part in producing numerical increase among evangelicals in all denominations. As evangelicals have begun to depart from an inherited policy of self-imposed isolation, they have emerged from their comfortable ghettos to grapple with the needs of contemporary society."
Addressing a Christian leadership conference in Birmingham in 1995, Calver declared, "I challenge Christians in Birmingham to get out of their church building and address the urgent and growing needs in their community." To which a man from the audience named Cameron responded later: "I work with single-parent mums and I find them very responsive to the gospel of Christ. The only problem is that I have difficulty locating churches in our city willing to get involved in working with single parents and their kids."
By the end of this EA-sponsored event, I had witnessed a very gratifying response to Calver's challenge. A number of pastors and church leaders gathered with Cameron and arranged to visit his ministry; others who presented urban mission opportunities were also inundated by interested persons.
Activism with an English accent
When Sir Fred Catherwood resigned his position as the vice president of the European Parliament, he was invited to become the president of the Evangelical Alliance. He said he would accept the position on one condition: if he could spearhead an Evangelical Social Action Network in Britain to expand and coordinate Christian outreach to those at the margins.
In his autobiography, Lord Catherwood says: "I believe we need to get together in all the major cities to form Christian action networks so that anyone in need can look to a church and be directed to help somewhere in the network."
When the alliance's network was publicly launched, it was welcomed by city leaders and covered by the mass media.
The Salvation Army, Scripture Union, Oasis Charitable Trust, and many churches were reaching out to drug addicts, homeless, and unemployed people long before ea ever started these new networks. But under Catherwood's able leadership the social action networks seem to be doing a more effective job of coordinating and expanding this area of witness and service. Already social action networks are established in London, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bristol, and Worcester.
One success story involves Tracy, who lives in a part of Liverpool with a very high rate of unemployment. Like many of her peers, Tracy had not been able to find a job after she graduated from high school three years earlier. She lacked self-confidence and became withdrawn. When some Christians, concerned about growing unemployment in Liverpool, started a ministry called "Training into Jobs," they got in touch with Tracy. They gave her job training, which boosted her self-esteem. As a consequence of their efforts, an important transformation has taken place in Tracy's life. First they helped her get a job. She has now worked two years in the hotel industry. Most important, because of their care Tracy has committed her life to Jesus Christ. She has become fully involved in a local church and has developed enough confidence to lead a women's group in her congregation.
Tracy is only one of over 2,000 people in Liverpool that Training into Jobs has trained and placed. Of these, 12 percent have found, like Tracy, a vital Christian faith.
When the alliance seeks to be salt and light, it enters the public arena as an agent of reconciliation. It repudiates partisan, ideological, and adversarial politics.
Calver wrote me that "The rise of the religious right … has caused grave concern here in the U.K. We have long sought to develop a partnership between those on the right and left of evangelicals … in fact our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Right Honorable Kenneth Clark, once commented to me: 'Clive, one minute you are talking to me about social issues, the next moment on moral ones. What are you evangelicals? Are you right wing or left wing?' My answer was that we are both!"
British evangelicals believe the gospel transcends traditional political categories. They are also working with a broader array of issues than many evangelicals in the U.S. Concerned about abortion and other family issues, they also engage world hunger, the environment, human rights, religious liberty, racism, the disabled and the poor, Sunday trading laws, and violence in videos.
The Evangelical Alliance seeks to be a prophetic witness for the gospel from outside the political order. It also insists on a scriptural foundation for public-policy advocacy. As a result, EA has joined conservatives to lobby Parliament to protect children from access to adult videos, and it has joined progressives in lobbying for greater government assistance for the disabled. Since it seeks to define its position from Scripture and conscience rather than from political ideology, it is respected on both sides of the political aisle in Parliament.
Evangelical scholarship is taken seriously by the alliance. Its sense of social responsibility is shaped by persons like Lesslie Newbigin and John Stott and thought leaders from outside England. The serious attention to evangelical scholarship may explain in part why the focus of the Evangelical Alliance is broad, its style conciliatory, and its use of Scripture foundational.
Quid pro quo?
Although American evangelicals have much to learn from the Evangelical Alliance, we cannot appropriate its models completely. Our journeys are so different. Britain is an island nation in which established faith and established government are inseparably linked. As a consequence, the British media see a link between Christian faith and politics. America, on the other hand, is a frontier nation that has sought
to create a pluralistic society in which we separate church from state.
Nevertheless, British evangelicals regularly borrow from America. Models of church growth like Willow Creek Community Church, urban outreach like John Perkins's work in community development, and charismatic renewal like the Vineyard have influenced the ministries of British evangelicals.
American evangelicals could best join in celebrating the Evangelical Alliance's 150th anniversary by learning from it, especially its approach to public witness. Should we not allow Scripture to move us beyond partisan politics and ideology as we work for the common good? Couldn't we be reminded by the alliance that the primary way the Bible teaches that God changes society is not through politics but by proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of Jesus Christ? Can't we learn from these evangelicals with a difference?
Tom Sine is author of Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture Wars (Eerdmans, 1995), from which some of the material for this article was drawn. Cease Fire was included in CT's top 25 Books of the Year for 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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