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Steve Clifford: unity for the sake of the gospel

The Evangelical Alliance's general director renews his call for unity among Christians

As I sat on the platform of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) leader’s conference at the International Conference Centre in Torquay, I reflected on the amazing diversity of the evangelical community across the UK.

Over the previous eight months, an enormous banner with the words of Jesus’ great John 17 prayer had been carried more than 9,000 miles to more than 30 festivals, conferences and events. John 17:21 says, That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”. 

Prayers had been prayed, songs sung, commitments made (you may well have participated). Here was a small symbol of a profoundly significant reality. As evangelical Christians from all kinds of backgrounds, traditions and ethnicities, we were affirming our unity in an increasingly fragmented world. Here was a commitment to unity for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I recently became a grandparent for the very first time. It has taken some getting used to, but I confess that I have become totally besotted with the small bundle of humanity that has joined our family. As I have observed Judah, my grandson, over the last few months, it has caused me to reflect on the world he will grow up in and how he will find faith and see it sustained.

We are living in uncertain times. When we look around the world, we see instability: Syria, Yemen, so many parts of Africa, Southeast Asia – I could go on. There are the more than 60 million displaced people seeking a home. Whilst here in the UK, we are experiencing a time of great fragmentation.

The Brexit vote has revealed enormous divisions between different parts of the UK, age groups and social status. An election which was supposed to deliver us a strong and stable government” resulted in a hung parliament and extraordinary fractures within political parties. The union of nations which makes up the UK continues to be questioned. Gun and knife crime has seen significant growth in our cities, and the threat of terrorism remains high.

At the same time, we as a church are facing uncertainty. Our relationship with the government in numerous areas is proving more difficult, while our mainstream media increasingly marginalises those of faith and particularly Christians as a somewhat weird’ hangover from a less enlightened time. As the events surrounding Tim Farron’s departure last year from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats revealed, evangelical Christians are now having to learn how to live on the wrong side of social orthodoxy. This is a new experience for Christians in the West, as for centuries, we have been regarded as the social norm.

So, what’s our response to such uncertainty? How can we work to protect the freedoms of our children, and indeed our grandchildren, to find faith and hold onto their faith? And equally important, how can we be sure that every person who walks the streets of our villages, towns and cities has an opportunity to encounter Jesus for themselves?

The final instructions Jesus left us, His followers, are clear: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19 – 20). (We call it the great commission.) Thank God, He didn’t expect us to do it on our own. He also promises to be with us, And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and empower us for the task.

But let’s also thank God that He didn’t leave it to my bit of the church, my network, my denomination, my group of friends. No, He called us to share His mission’ in all of our diversity of backgrounds and traditions. Because we have a Father in heaven, this really is our family business’. Because we have a Father in heaven, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and indeed we are the one and only community in the world in which Christ has broken down all dividing walls” (The Message of Romans, John Stott).

How easy it is to get distracted from our great commission. In recent years, as an alliance across the UK, we felt God challenge us to make sure we keep our focus on the main thing’. We are the Evangelical Alliance – there is a clue in the name. We are about the evangel’, that is the gospel (the good news Jesus gave us), and we’re about unity, an alliance for the sake of the gospel.

Our new strategic plan, which began at the start of April, begins with the following words: The Evangelical Alliance joins together hundreds of organisations, thousands of churches and tens of thousands of individuals for the sake of the gospel. Working across the UK, with offices in London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast, our members unite from across denominations, locations, age groups and ethnicities, all sharing a passion to make Jesus known. Today our dedication to serving the church, and society at large, is as strong as it was when we were founded in 1846.

If you’re a member of the Evangelical Alliance, and I really hope you are, I want to thank you for your membership and I trust you believe we are serving you well. As the general director, let me share with you what an amazing team God has put in place to work within this alliance on the staff team and also our board and council. I sometimes step back in awe at the extraordinary talent God has brought together and their passion for Him and His purposes across the UK.

Finally, while we as a Christian community here in the UK are living in a time of significant opposition, we are also living in a time of amazing opportunities. It seems the instability and uncertainty has brought a greater openness to spiritual things. It seems people are entering into a relationship with Jesus in numbers we have not seen in decades – from all kinds of backgrounds in all kinds of ways. So, let’s be prepared for challenges, but let’s also recognise the opportunities it seems God is bringing to us. May we be encouraged by the words of the psalmist: How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forevermore” (Psalm 133).

About the author

Steve has been general director of the Evangelical Alliance since April 2009. He is chair of HOPE Together and has previously been international chair of March for Jesus and chair of the leadership team for Soul Survivor. Steve continues to give advice and support to churches and has worked in a variety of church roles, including many among the Pioneer network of churches. Currently, he is a member of the leadership team at his local church.

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