An Interview with Revd Steve Chalke

Revd Steve Chalke MBE is a Baptist minister and founder of Oasis UK, a charity committed to transforming communities by working in an inclusive, integrated, empowering and comprehensive way so that all people experience wholeness and fullness of life. He is also the Founder and Chair of STOP THE TRAFFIK, a global coalition of organisations working to end human trafficking. Holder of the Guinness World Record for the most money raised by a marathon runner, Steve lives in London with his wife Cornelia, where he acts as the Senior Leader of Oasis Church Waterloo.

Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your spiritual journey?

I’m Anglo-Indian, and the first of four kids. Dad was from South India and was very dark skinned, so I was the darkest skinned kid I knew. I grew up in a home that was very poor, a home where I knew what it was like to face discrimination. My mum’s family totally disagreed with the fact that she’d married someone who was effectively a black man, and I think that that had quite a lot of a shaping effect on my life.

I became a Christian in secondary school. I liked a girl called Mary from the school down the road, and I started going to a church youth club just to see her. I’d been going for weeks and weeks and one Friday night my best friend told me that Mary didn’t fancy me, and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me! As I wandered home that night I was contemplating my future without Mary, a life that was meaningless and all that kind of thing - as you do when you’re 14 - and it was all very depressing. And then I thought, ‘what they tell me about who I am at this church youth club is a lot better than who they tell me I am at school, where they tell us we’re riff raff and will never amount to anything, that I’m going to work with my hands not my head, that I’m not worth educating and won’t pass any exams. At the church they tell me my life is crammed with meaning and that I am made by God, in his image, and my life has huge potential.’ I remember thinking, ‘I might be stupid, but I’m not that stupid, I’m going to choose the church’s story over the school’s story, and I’m going to keep going to the youth club whether Mary fancies me or not!’

On the rest of the journey home, I decided that if I was going to be a Christian, I was going to do it 100%, and that I would tell other people this incredible story I’d heard, and when I grew up I would be a church leader, and run a hostel for kids who had never been shown that anyone cared, and I’d start a school that was worth going to, and a hospital. And on that night I committed myself to live Christ’s way, and it was that night that’s directed my life. And I’ve no idea how it happened, except that it was a gift of God’s grace. This sense of direction came from outside of me, and it’s an extraordinary thing.

How did you know that that was from God?

I just never doubted it. It wasn’t as though God shouted it at me or anything like that, but I had this inner conviction that if it was true that God made me, and that my life had purpose, and that God was love and God loved everyone, then my life needed to be dedicated to getting that message out there and demonstrating it. It seemed to me to be the inevitable outcome of choosing to believe these things. All these years later this still fires and guides me all of the time, I’m still committed to that exact same thing, to build communities that demonstrate God’s love in tangible ways. And that was the beginning of Oasis.

So how did you make it happen? And how did you keep going when it was tough?

Well I went back to my youth group and talked to the leaders, and they asked me to join their band to pay the bass, which was incredible because I couldn’t play! And they taught me note by note how to play their songs, and I was also learning from these guys how to get organised, how to put publicity together and how to create a plan so that people would turn up. Then when I left school I worked in a factory in Kent, and I took the money I earned and set up a youth group and a theatre company at a church, and all the time I was learning about leadership and organisation, and we put on productions and the youth group flourished. Then I applied to Spurgeons College to train as a Baptist minister, and they said I was too young, so at the age of 20 I went and worked at a church in Gravesend, running a youth group and developing a children’s club, and it all went from there.

I have never, to this day, met anyone as determined and resolute and committed to not giving up as my mum. She never ever gave up, no matter how hard it was for us, and I imbibed that sense of perseverance from her.

What did your parents make of all that you’ve achieved?

Well my mum and dad were Christians, and as I went off to theological college they became more committed to the local church. My mum ran an elderly person’s dinner evening, and a women’s club on another day, and helped with cleaning and visiting. I think they were inspired by what I did to get more involved

Do you think they were proud?

Well that’s a funny thing, my mum hardly ever came to anything that Oasis did, and she would never give an opinion on anything, so she never told you if she was happy or sad, or excited. And when someone in her church had asked her if she was proud of me, she’d said ‘Well it was his choice, he wanted to do it’, and that was that!

After her funeral, my sister had cleaned out her house and there were four envelopes, one for each of us, with anything in that related to us, and you could have knocked me down with a feather. My mum had kept cuttings from the Christian press, from the Radio Times, the Daily Mail, Hello magazine – she’d kept all of this stuff, hundreds and hundreds of press pieces and never ever told me. It was an amazing thing, because she came from a generation that didn’t express emotion, but she still had all these emotions obviously, and she was proud of me.

What motivates you?

Well it comes back to what I said earlier about the gift that I’d been given, that I never doubted, was that my task in life was to tell people, to demonstrate to people, the Christian faith, and to run a church, a hostel, a school and a hospital. My understanding of that vision has changed, and the theology behind it has developed too. What is the kingdom of God? It’s holistic, it’s integrated, it is good news at every level - this gift has been what has kept me going all this time.

In the leadership seminars that I run now I tell people that they shouldn’t do something just because they think it is a good idea, because when you commit yourself to something that you think is a good idea, when the winter comes, metaphorically and literally, and its warm inside and you don’t want to go out to that meeting to get whatever it is off the ground, you will be defeated, you will give up. For me, my motivation was from outside of me, from God. That’s what sustains me.

Your father experienced quite a lot of racism and discrimination in his lifetime. Have you experienced this, or was it a problem for you?

No, it’s never been a problem for me, but I did experience it. Throughout my childhood I was called a half caste, everyone called me a half caste. People are offended by the term these days, but that’s what I was called growing up. My biggest pain as a child was worrying about my dad. He used to do shift work and I worried about him walking home, about him getting beaten up.

As a teenager I had a couple of girlfriends, and their parents never liked me because they worried that if we got serious our kids might be even darker skinned than me. Britain has changed a lot though and people are different, even if we did vote out of the EU!

Do you think that Britain leaving the EU will have an impact on tolerance and inclusion?

I wish we hadn’t voted out. I campaigned for us to remain because I care passionately that we’re part of the wider world. But I do think this - there’s an opportunity now for us to realise that we are part of a wider world, and that we are global citizens. That’s how I think of myself. Geography means this is the place I call home but I consider myself to be a citizen of Earth, and this doesn’t make me less committed to the UK, it makes me more committed. And I believe that I should be as committed to the abolition of poverty in Peru as I am to the abolition of poverty in Peckham.

What’s your view of the current state of student Christianity, and where do you see it going in the future?

I’m concerned about what is happening in our universities, or what is not happening rather, because at university young people are forming their worldviews. I know that in my late teens and early twenties my worldview was being formed pretty fast, and was formed by people who did things beyond our shores and people who thought holistically, and that has impacted who I am.

The work that happens in our universities for Christian students, and for older Christians to fund this work, is really important. One of the things that concerns me is that there is little representation of a robust, joined up, integrated Christian faith in our universities, and another thing that worries me is that the representation of Christianity in universities is often homophobic, anti-women in leadership, and represents an overly simplistic theological view of the world that is not just out of sync with where we are in the 21st century, but with the bible itself. It’s not a grounded, developed, mature theological stance based on a reading of biblical text and a holistic application of those texts to life. All of that worries me because I find as a local minister so many people who have abandoned Christianity, and time and time again I hear stories from people who were put off their faith by their experiences at university, or that when they faced difficult times the faith they’d been taught didn’t match up to the life experiences that they had.

What is your hope for Christianity in universities, and what can churches do to support it?

A friend of mine said to me that he’d had a ten year gap in his faith because he realised when he left university that God he’d been told about didn’t exist, so he left the church. Now he’s realised that the God that inhabits the universe is bigger, better, kinder, fairer, more gracious and inclusive than the God he’d believed in that doesn’t exist. This is a problem. The task in universities is to present a mature and biblical view of who the God of love, the God of grace, really is, and to present a clear understanding of the mission that he calls us into partnership in.

I recently spoke at our church in Waterloo on why the bible says that God always answers prayers, when it is clear that he doesn’t. I talked about the fact that the bible doesn’t say that, and we looked at the verse in James, ‘The prayer of a righteous person achieves much’ (James 5:16). A few lines beforehand James mentions Job, and says remember Job, remember his patience, and perseverance (James 5:11). And everyone knows the story of Job who has everything taken from him, and even at the end of the book of Job he has no answers, but he clings on to the belief that God is just. James uses Job as an example and is saying be like Job, keep praying and always trust. Prayer is not a mechanistic thing where if you get all the clauses of your prayer right and say Jesus loud enough then every tragedy will be mended, and every sick person will be healed. That just doesn’t happen. It’s a terrible illustration of how simplistic the type of Christianity that is often taught is, and that we need a deeper and more robust understanding of what the bible is saying and of who God is.

There are always people in life who like a black and white world. This is right, this is wrong. Do this you get that result. I don’t think that the world that the bible talks about is black and white. There are huge areas of greyness, and we find those in life too. We should be equipping students earlier for that, so that they don’t abandon their faith when they come across these grey areas. I was talking to someone who said that they’d left the church because they were looking for a God that was more active in their life than the God that he’d found. And actually, God is active – the narrative of the bible calls us into partnership with God. When Jesus says ‘When you pray, say Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name, your kingdom come on earth’ (Matthew 6:9-10), Jesus is saying pray that prayer and live it, enter into that partnership.

Christianity, following Jesus, is not like sailing on a cruise liner, enjoying all of the food and relaxing and being entertained, it’s more like being on a battleship. There’s a fight on. There’s poverty everywhere, there is oppression everywhere. Our task is to bring God’s kingdom to earth, creating a world where God is in charge, not bankers and bent politicians, and where the lowly are lifted up – like Mary sang in the Magnificat. That cruise liner is sailing into oblivion and its running out of fuel.

Where can you see God working in the world today?

I see God at work right across the world, and I think it’s the church’s task to catch up with what God is doing and join in! I remember talking to a young girl of about 15 who had just given birth to a daughter, and I watched her looking down at her baby, this scrap of life a few days old, and I could see her praying. And perhaps she wouldn’t vocalise it and I’m sure she wouldn’t express it in the way that I am doing, but I could see it was there. And her prayer was ‘I’m not going to give you up, I’m not going to let you go through what I’ve gone through and suffer like I have suffered, I’m going to get you out of here.’ That’s God’s spirit at work, and it’s our task to join in with this.

Why does the church seem to get into such a mess talking about human sexuality? 

I think the church is frightened of sexuality, and has been less than honest about sexuality. If you look at the track record of the church, it’s always been on the wrong side of human history and human issues. We believed that the world was flat, that it was at the centre of the universe when it wasn’t, that white men could own black men as slaves, and that women should not be in leadership. I think we need to look at this and ask ourselves how we have read the bible so wrongly. Then we need to apply what we’ve learned from history and apply that to how we treat the LGBTI community. I’ve had people say to me that they support the full inclusion of the LGBTI community in our churches, but this needs to be said publicly. The Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently apologised for the way churches have treated LGBT people, and an apology is a good place to start, but it’s only as good as changed behaviour.

What do you think the next big issue to face the church is going to be?

I think the next big issue for us to get our heads around is euthanasia. It’s a big issue because of the advances in medical science that keep people alive longer, and this stacks up a huge number of moral issues for us. Obviously every human life is sacred, but we need to ask ourselves what this actually means. Is prolonging life artificially through the use of expensive drugs, while people on the other side of the world are dying in their 30s and 40s because of a lack of nutrition fair? Is that equality for every citizen of the world?

If we want to change the world, where should we start?

We start where we live, and with what is in our hands. Use the gifts and talents that you have, and the values you live by, and start there.

We often see you on TV or hear you on the radio. What is your experience of being a Christian voice in a secular space?

My experience is that it makes my faith sharper. It’s challenging, I need to talk about my faith in a way that others can understand, and I need to think through my faith so that I can do that.

If you could give one piece of advice to students, what would it be? 

I have so many! I’d say, success is the three days between two crises. What I mean is that everyone’s life is a struggle, but I’ve found over the years that hanging on to Jesus makes a lot of sense.

What book would you recommend to students?

The Challenge of Jesus, by N T Wright. It sums up all of Wright’s theology and it’s totally accessible. It will give you a framework for your faith.

What’s your favourite piece of scripture?

Luke Chapter 4 when Jesus reads those verses from Isaiah. It reminds me that Jesus brought good news to people at every level of their life.

Who is your favourite theologian?

I love theology! Probably Helmut Thielicke. He’s a contemporary German theologian, and his work is best summed up in one quote - ‘the task of the church is constantly to forward the gospel to a new address, because the recipient keeps on moving’. His whole body of work is about how we present the timeless truth about God in fresh ways in new cultural settings. He points out that Jesus didn’t just tell Old Testament stories, he told new ones and he asked new questions, but his message was the same truth.

Tell us a bit about what you enjoy doing outside of work.

I like running. I often pray when I go running, and I find it’s the best time to pray sometimes actually. I love football, I support Crystal Palace, and I enjoy visiting our kids and grandkids.