10 September 2014
Leading a generation for Jesus
Ten years ago Gavin Calver was a 24-year-old London Bible College graduate and the youngest ever member of Youth For Christ's (YFC) leadership team –at the time holding the position of assistant director of church resources. He was also named in the 'Magnificent Seven' feature of young leaders to watch in idea May/June 2004 edition. A decade on and he's national director of Youth For Christ –a position he has held since April 2009. Richard Woodall caught up with him about being a young leader and discipleship among younger generations…
"I think we're a bit like British Gas, we're something the Church might not want but they have to have. At church I am always asked how we should get more young people. I always say, 'Do you want more young people, or young-looking old people'? Because I think a lot of places don't want the change young people bring about."
Gavin Calver seems sure about one thing: the Church needs to get with the programme. And that programme is making sure the needs of young people are met;and that when teenagers and 20-somethings do come through the doors of a church, they don't leave again a few months later.
What strikes me too about the work of the Youth For Christ (YFC) movement is not just that the organisation has a long-term view, but that it offers something distinctively different from similar parachurch organisations seeking to bring the kingdom of God into the lives of young people.
"Other youth organisations do far more 'mountaintop moments'," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that, we do some of them but not as many. Where I would say YFC is different is that we're on the ground working with young people every day. At YFC, everything we do has to either demonstrate the good news and love of Jesus, declare the good news of Jesus, or see decisions to follow Jesus made, and we want to disciple people too. If it's one of those four things, and ideally a couple, well that's how we make sure it's Youth for Christ."
As Calver adds, part of his role upon joining YFC was to reposition it to work with the Church far more than it historically had been. Whereas a lot of Christian organisations run events for young people, YFC see themselves as 'incarnational', working with around 250,000 young people a month - whether that be in schools, prisons, or young offenders' courtrooms.
Such scope allows for a lot of time investment;something which is not always easy to see the fruits of immediately.
"I think we judge whether our work has been a success at too early an age in young people," said Calver. "People get very excited about their 14 or 17-year-old going to church;that's great, I don't want to take away from that, but show me them when they are 25. "In reality, if you love Jesus when you're 25 years old, you're not likely to walk away. "When I took over leading YFC, our constitutional age was 11-18 but I changed it to 7-25, because a young person includes someone up to the age of 25. That's the government measure. "At 25 you're not going to give up the faith because you don't like the worship, you'll just go to a different church. Whereas at the age of 17, you might give up. Our vision is that by 2020 we reach a million young people every month. That would be 15 per cent of Britain's teenagers.
"According to secular research, if you reach 15 per cent of the demographic, you have the ability to transform the culture." Part of quadrupling the reach of YFC in the next six years has included the launch of the RE:quest website. Material is provided to help schools explore and learn about Christianity in religious education with a raft of multimedia content.
The strength of Youth for Christ, supporters say, lies in its ability to be both a pioneer and an innovator. It will celebrate 70 years as a movement in 2016.
"We're constantly changing the style. We've launched street dance recently;I couldn't be less into street dance but it's great for young people. We don't care about the method, because the method changes like the wind.We never claim to be the best at anything, but we are brave and we will go first."
Ten years ago, Youth for Christ worked with Alton Towers to place a feature called The Crux at the theme park's Gothic Tower chapel;a project which used technology and creativity to help young people think about their faith. It had four years of use at the Staffordshire theme park.
Going back further, some 36 years ago, leaders at Youth for Christ felt Christians weren't coming together enough to worship God, so a residential was planned. It's now known as Spring Harvest.
Calver says: "One of the things we find with young people is that when they come to faith it is totally transformative. There's not much nominal Christianity among teenagers. But then they might go to church and meet people for whom Jesus is just some kind of random friend - not everything. I think it's a challenge that if the older church is not on fire, it puts teenagers off.
"Too many leaders say no one is feeding me; you've got to feed yourself. I was asked recently by a leader ten years older than me as to what my biggest frustration with our generation of Christian leaders was. I said: 'Ten years ago, a load of us wanted to change the world, but ten years on a lot of my contemporaries are more interested in the Ikea catalogue than in changing the world'. As you get older, you have to fight becoming safe."
Gavin Calver is a member of the Alliance's Council, is on the leadership team for Spring Harvest and runs the youthwork programme at New Wine. His wife Anne is associate minister at King's Community Church, Oldbury, West Midlands.
We caught up with the rest of the young leaders we featured in the Magnificent Seven article in 2004. Where are they now? Read more about them on eauk.org/idea/magnificentseven