As CEO of the United Kingdom’s Evangelical Alliance (EA), Gavin Calver sometimes compares the organization to the polarizing British breakfast spread Marmite: You either love it or you hate it.

The EA hears plenty from its critics, taking hits for stances on issues like transgender identity, and is calling on Christians who love them from a distance to actually join.

“We’re asking, ‘Will you please stand with us as someone who loves Marmite, not dislikes it?’” Calver said. “In our culture, it makes it a little lighthearted, but it needs very little explaining. People get it quickly.”

More churches, organizations, and individuals are responding to the call, and after record growth in the past year, the tally of dues-paying individual members recently topped 23,000. The total is a signal of the group’s influence to government officials and societal leaders, allowing the EA to represent evangelicals more effectively in the wider culture.

Many of the new individual members signed up when EA representatives spoke at member churches, so much of the recent growth “reflects the constituency we already have,” according to Calver. Still, the EA’s membership is becoming more ethnically diverse and trending younger, he said, with most of its growth happening “beyond the southeast of England where we were strongest to start with.”

Calver recently spoke to CT about his vision for the EA, why so many new members are signing up now, and how evangelicals in the UK are staying united despite their differences.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For readers outside of the United Kingdom, could you give a brief overview of the UK evangelical landscape?

The UK evangelical landscape is quite diverse. For example, 25 percent of UK evangelicals are people of color. Within the Evangelical Alliance membership alone, there’s 80 different streams, networks, and denominations of church represented.

One of the great joys in my job is I get to preach in lots of these places, and the first worship song on a Sunday morning tells you where you are: how charismatic an environment, how free an environment.

We have egalitarians as well as complementarians within our membership. There’s a great diversity within it. … Like many evangelicals globally, Bebbington’s quadrilateral kind of sums us up: Hold firm to Scripture; the death and resurrection of Jesus; we’re desperate to see people converted, to reach the lost; and we want to be active in making the world like the kingdom.

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You recently shared that the EA had hoped to recruit 3,000 new individual members during its past fiscal year (which concluded at the end of March), but that membership had actually increased by over 5,000, the fastest growth since the 1990s. What factors do you think are driving this growth?

We’ve really started asking again. There was a while where the EA perhaps took its foot off the gas a little bit with this. Another factor is we can’t ignore the current landscape where you could argue that some parts of the church are baptizing the culture a little, and that means the distinctiveness that evangelicalism offers brings hope. I think we are clear on stuff.

Certainly, in the UK, our access to the corridors of power is amazing. I was at [the prime minister’s residence] 10 Downing Street last week. We’re in and out of Westminster and the four governments of the UK all the time. We get to take people’s voices to somewhere they wouldn’t get otherwise.

The EA here has only really existed for two things since 1846 when it was formed: unite the church in reaching the lost in every corner of the UK, and secondly, give the church a clear and effective voice into the corridors of power. I think a lot of people are wanting their voice to be heard, and by joining the EA, we add their voice as we go into those places.

Does this strong rate of growth change your vision for the EA in the coming year? Or in the next ten years?

It doesn’t change it, but it speeds it up. … Last year I said to my board, “If you let me set a ten-year direction for where we want to go, I’ll stay for a decade to see it through.” The plan can be summed up in one sentence, and that doesn’t change. Basically, we need to stand firm theologically, whilst going for it wholeheartedly in sharing the gospel.

I know people that are good at one of those: I know great theologians who don’t know a non-Christian. And I know people who say they want to share the gospel but don’t know Scripture. Those two must go together. We must hold our nerve theologically. Do not compromise on the things that matter in the Word of God, no matter what the price tag within your culture, and then go for it wholeheartedly in sharing the gospel. For me, that’s the next ten years at the EA.

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Let me be honest, if we had gotten to 3,000 new members in a year, that would have been the most in a long time. With 5,000, the Lord’s blown out of the water what we thought was possible.

A year ago, you told the Religion Media Centre that more Anglican churches would probably join the Evangelical Alliance because of that communion’s debate over blessings for same-sex couples. The Church of England subsequently approved those blessings and began offering them for the first time in December. Have these developments in fact spurred more evangelical Anglican individuals and congregations to join the EA?

We’ve seen more Anglican churches joining us than normal, and when I’ve preached in Anglican settings, we’ve seen more individuals join us than normal. So, there is no doubt that for those who are wanting to stay within the Church of England, they’re also looking for a home with us as well, and that’s exciting. … There’s no happiness on our part that [these developments have] led to that, but we are here to serve and support.

A lot of our work is advocacy. You have [Church of England] bishops in the House of Lords here, so why would an Anglican church need the advocacy of the EA historically? Now they’re not sure that their bishop is always going to say what they believe. So yes, what we predicted a year ago has come to fruition.

The EA describes itself as an “evangelical unity movement.” Evangelicalism in the US has often seemed very divided in recent years. Do you think that UK evangelicals have been able to maintain a stronger sense of solidarity? If so, why?

Look, you can pick up the UK and drop it in Lake Michigan and it doesn’t touch the sides. So let’s be realistic about the scale of where we are. Because the nation is small enough, you can have the relationships, and there’s a unity. Also, in the UK, we’ve lost our churchgoing culture. We unite or we die, so we’re united. Is that pragmatic? Is it a message from the Lord? It’s probably a bit of both. But we can’t afford competition within the kingdom.

And we don’t have quite the same marrying between evangelicalism and politics. That is quite liberating. We have a member of Parliament for the Labor Party and a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party serving on the Evangelical Alliance council. Both are members of the EA, members of our council, and represent us more widely. I don’t think that would quite happen in the same way in some other parts of the world.

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Previously, you led Youth for Christ in the UK and before that served as a youth worker with that organization. How did serving in youth ministry mold you as a leader?

I learned to preach in school assemblies (you can’t do those in the US, but we can go to schools and do assemblies) and youth prisons. When people ask now if I’m nervous about preaching to a large crowd, the answer is no. I was nervous about preaching to 1,000 teenagers at a school who didn’t want to listen, or to 50 teenage lads who were imprisoned.

So firstly, there was a real grounding to it. Secondly, in youth ministry, you have to innovate. The average church leader in the UK lasts seven to ten years. The average youth worker might last a couple of years. And the reason for that is youth culture changes four times as rapidly as adult culture. The most tiring thing in ministry is reimagining. It’s not about substance, it’s about contextualization. Reimagining to reach a [different] generation. I learned skills by doing that in youth ministry that are helpful to no end in what I do now.

When you work in youth ministry … you get empowered early. And that’s important, because when Jesus wanted to change the world he started a youth group, not an elder board. According to the late John Stott, the disciples were 15 to 22 years old. I think that’s really challenging to us, because sometimes in the church if you’re not old enough, you’re not good enough.

You have set a goal of having 50,000 total individual EA members within the next decade. What gives you confidence that this is achievable, and what potential obstacles do you see to reaching that target?

The last year gives us some confidence. I think the UK is crying out for a brave and kind Evangelical Alliance that can steer them through the storms, that can keep the main thing the main thing, which is about people meeting Jesus.

But we’ll also take stands on the important issues of our time from marriage to abortion to end of life care to racial injustice and everything in between. As long as we stay on mission, and we don’t drift, and we keep our focus, and we spend more time on our knees than on our feet, I’m confident that the Lord is with us and we’ll get there.

There are quite a few obstacles. We’re living in a secular tsunami. It’s a very contested culture. There are fewer Christians in the UK than before. I’m believing for a major movement of God, but we can’t currently claim to be in one.

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Another obstacle is that the UK has an aging population. Let’s be honest, of the 23,000 members we currently have, how many of those will still be alive in ten years? I don’t want to start doing that math, but some are going out the back door as well as through the front door … I have confidence that the Lord’s got this, but only a fool would look at our culture and think there are no obstacles.