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01 March 2009

A conversation with Steve Clifford

A conversation with Steve Clifford

In January, the Evangelical Alliance's UK board named Steve Clifford as the next general director. Before he officially takes office in April, Rich Cline sat down with him for a chat...

Born and raised in Bradford, Steve Clifford is the son of an Anglican vicar who was tragically killed in a car crash by a drunk driver when Steve was only 5 years old. His mother went to work as a teacher while she raised Steve and his brother.

As a teen, Steve says he was "disconnecting from the church" when at 17 he took a summer job over the border in Lancashire at a farm connected with Capernwray Hall. This was to be the first in several key transitions in a spiritual journey that has included a year on a Youth With a Mission team in Copenhagen, a theology degree at London School of Theology and work as a teacher of both RE and PE.

In 1985, after moving to Cobham, Surrey, he had what he calls "another of those pivotal moments" and felt a calling into the life of the church.

idea: Was it a big step to move from school to church life?
Steve: I'm a believer in Church. One of the privileges I've had over the last year working with Hope08 was travelling around the country seeing the Church doing the business of church. And it's fantastic, in all kinds of expressions - in rural settings, towns, villages, cities - just the Church being good news through actions and words, engaging in communities, caring for unemployed people, offering accommodation to those without homes. I love the Church on a Friday and Saturday night in the early hours out on the streets of our cities escorting people to taxis, giving them water because they're coming out of clubs where they've had too much to drink. And handing out flip-flops because the girls have lost their shoes in the clubs and they're walking out into streets that are covered in urine and glass. So flip-flops are a kind of 21st century equivalent of washing people's feet.

idea: And you got a taste of the global Church in your work with March for Jesus.
Steve: From a prayer march in the City of London, March for Jesus grew into a global movement of 80 countries and 60 million people. And I ended up chairing the international board. Just the sense of being caught up in something that was bigger than us - we couldn't have manufactured that. But somehow God had taken hold of this little idea and exploded it. And that took me to lots of places around the world, which gave me an amazing appreciation of the Church - this global phenomenon of people of so many backgrounds and cultures and theological persuasions, all lovers and followers of Jesus. The Church wasn't British and it wasn't necessarily Western; it was an incredible Church in all of its diversity. March for Jesus looked very different wherever you went. In Sao Paulo there were 2 million people there, then off to Lagos where the Redeemed Church of God held what was the largest prayer meeting of all time. There were something like 5 million people there. And to come back feeling I'm part of the Church in the UK, but I'm also part of a global Church.

idea: Sometimes, this diversity puts a strain on our unity.
Steve: In all families we have differences in terms of our preferences - what kind of food we eat, what kind of music we listen to. That's part of family life. I know the differences make it difficult at times, and sometimes the differences are a bit painful, but as we engage in mission together and in caring for our communities some of those differences become less and less relevant. The things that unite us are far greater than the things we might have questions about. So let's celebrate the things that we're united in and let's agree to disagree agreeably about the things that we have differences about.

"I would love us to be part of the discussion as to reshaping and redefining the kind of society that we want"

idea: But some issues don't seem to allow for agreeable disagreement.
Steve: As an Evangelical Alliance we have a basis of faith, a reflection of theologians and church leaders who have grappled with this thing called evangelicalism. And I think we unite around the basis of faith and we also unite around principles as to how we're going to relate to one another. Now, there's clarity in the basis of faith, but there's also space within it for differences. And I think the challenge I'd love to put out there is that if we're going to disagree, let's disagree well. Let's sit in the room and work hard, grapple with these issues, and let's respectfully hear each other, believing the best of each other. These are the things scripture exhorts us to do. Paul writing to the Corinthian church, where there were things that needed to be sorted out, speaks strongly to them as a father and as an apostle. But in the heart of that epistle the challenge that he brings to them is to love each other. And I think that the challenge for us is to relate to each other as God relates to us, even in the midst of our disagreements.

idea: The world will know we are Christians by our love for each other. But how do we present ourselves to a sceptical society?
Steve: I think we need to be authentic. Look at the experience of Hope08: as the Church across the UK engaged in its communities, it found friends among local councils, the police, social services, you name it. These people might not share our faith, but they do have a concern for the communities in which they're living. We've been known for the wagging finger and the intense brow - there are things we feel strongly about, and we don't need to be ashamed of them. But how do we express those with the right body language, the right tone of voice and having gained the respect because we've been willing to get our hands dirty and be involved in people's lives? How can you view the life of Jesus other than seeing the activity of Jesus: the hands touching people's lives alongside the words that He spoke? I think, if we can do that, there will be friends who will be willing to hear us better because of what we've demonstrated to them.

idea: Will this help us rise to the challenges of our society?
Steve: I think we are living at a moment in history that's unprecedented certainly in my lifetime - banks closing to bankruptcy, the whole loss of confidence, businesses just running out of money because banks aren't willing to lend to them, the knock-on impact of that in terms of employment. And we are facing potentially another million people being made unemployed over the course of the next year. That has an impact not just on the individual but on families and communities. I live in London, where young men are killing each other with guns and knives. We're living in a crisis of parenting with so many young people being brought up in families where there's only one parent. Alongside this is the environment and what we're going to do about global warming. These kinds of issues are tremendous challenges that society is facing, and I would love us to be part of the discussion as to reshaping and redefining the kind of society that we want. I believe that the decisions that are going to be made in the next few years will shape how society is over the next hundred years or more.

idea: As Christians, how can we meet our responsibility to the world in areas like poverty, relief and climate change?
Steve: We are part of an ever-smaller world. The decisions we make today - the purchasing decisions - have an impact on other nations. And sadly, the truth is that the recession we're facing will have a greater impact on Africa than it will do on us. So we can't ignore our responsibilities. I think we've got to get behind the kind of work Tearfund and Micah Challenge are doing and support them. This isn't the time to step back from our international responsibilities. We've got to step up to the plate and recognise that alongside our responsibilities to the society of the UK we also have responsibilities to the globe.

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