01 September 2009
Unity with a bigger purpose
General Director Steve Clifford discovers that working together is what it's all about...
It's been quite an induction. The first five months in my role at the Alliance have taken me to many parts of the United Kingdom testing the temperature of what's going on. I am really encouraged. The evangelical community is amazingly active. You name it, we seem to be involved in it. Alongside this, Christians are positioning themselves in key places of influence.
Whenever I've talked about unity to Christians, the first response is a big "yes", which captures the heartbeat of God and is reflected in that great prayer of Jesus in John 17.23: "I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity." It echoes the unity in the Godhead - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - their community of relationship, a mystery of mutual giving and receiving founded in love. So when we talk about unity, our "yes" reflects something of who God is.
The history of the Church however is one where unity has not always been done well. We want to say "yes"; history says "but". It is amazing historically what we have managed to argue over and for how long. It is also tragic that when we talk about unity we often end up forming a committee, only to discover more disagreement or become paralysed in endless discussions with little outcome.
For the Alliance the word "unity" is crucial. Our vision is "uniting to change society": this is unity with a purpose. My experience is that unity for the sake of our mission is a very exciting thing. In John 17, Jesus goes on to ask that we are "brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and love them".
There is a spiritual principle at work here: something in our unity releases us into more effective mission and brings revelation that people are loved by their Father in heaven. This isn't created with institutional agreement or uniformity, but through relational unity.
At the Alliance, we thank God that this is exactly what's being expressed all over the country. Last year as chair of Hope08, I saw this in practice as thousands of churches united together, committing themselves to do more, do it together and do it through word and action. And this powerful combination was underpinned by united prayer.
I am convinced we are at a pivotal moment in the history of our nation. The decisions being made over the next two or three years will shape the future for generations to come. If there ever was a time for us to unite with purpose, surely it is now. Such changing and uncertain times encourage us all to engage in the conversation as to what kind of society we want, not just for our children but for our children's children.
But somehow it is more than this. All this talk of changing society must earth itself in our everyday lives and relationships.
One conversation I had recently has both haunted and challenged me. As I stood in the bike workshop, surrounded by scantily clad women (of the pin-up variety) and unsure which way to cast my eyes, Sid (not his real name) asked me what I did for a living. I'm not always quite sure how to answer that question - "the general director of the Evangelical Alliance" would tend to stop the conversation dead. Vaguely I explained that I was a church leader working with other leaders all over the country.
A conversation started, and Sid began to tell me about himself. In his early 20s, he moved to London with his dad after his parents separated. Having been excluded from school 16 times, his educational attainment wasn't great, yet he spoke in fond terms of his teachers and how they had cared for him. Living in London, managing to hold down a job, but doing drugs, he was recently knifed, robbed and now lives in fear that the friends of those that attacked him will retaliate as he informed the police and the gang went down.
He talked about his relationship with his mother (whom he didn't see for over 11 years) and his dad who is ill. He confided that he often "just got so angry", doesn't treat his girlfriend well, that drugs are affecting him badly and he doesn't want his life to be like this.
As we talked for more than an hour, he voiced interesting views on life, religion and the Church. And I told him my own story, my journey to faith and the discovery of a Father in heaven who loves me. He wanted to know about my church and to get together for a drink to talk some more. My final comment before paying the bill was: "Sid, your future does not have to be based on your past."
Our unity is about big changes; we want to see society changed. This is about change for the Sids around us - in our family, where we work, in the pub, in the gym, among our friends, our neighbours, in our place of education. Let's pray big prayers that will shape the future of our nation. But let's also look for little miracles that impact the lives of those that surround us.