Over the last four decades of being a Christian there have been a handful of individuals who have significantly influenced and shaped my faith. My parents come out top by far, but after that a number of more well-known names feature. Mike Pilavachi, leader of the Soul Survivor Church and festival, and the song writer Matt Redman, are both right up at the top too. Without their input directly into my life it is highly likely that I wouldn’t be in a position to be writing this post now.
Further down the list is Steve Chalke. He has been one of the biggest names in Christian circles for as long as I can remember and has constantly been in the background, through Christmas Cracker radio, his youth work resources and various talks and seminars I have attended over the years. I particularly remember one talk he gave to several thousand young people – again at Soul Survivor – on the theme of serving the poor and homeless. At the end he challenged everyone listening to go back to their tents and think hard about what they could donate to the homeless individuals that his charity Oasis was working with. After several minutes, a continual flow of young people came, bearing items of clothing which they set down in pile upon pile to be given to others who needed them far more.
This has always been one of Steve Chalke’s greatest gifts. He challenges his listeners, taking the biblical message of social action from being something that we agree is a good idea, to actually making it happen, stirring consciences and breaking hearts in the process.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Steve from a distance, but I’ve never met him, so when I was invited to have dinner with him a few days ago, it was hard not to accept.
Of course, what Steve has predominantly been known for over the last couple of years is his vocal support of same-sex unions and a belief that they are acceptable in God’s eyes. Having upset plenty of people who believe he has strayed far from biblical orthodoxy, he has taken a fair amount of stick (to put it mildly) as a result, including having Oasis kicked out of the Evangelical Alliance.
I was asked to attend an expenses-paid meal along with a few select bloggers and journalists in order to hear about Oasis’ Open Church conference being held next April. This is billed as: “A safe space for honest, open conversation as together we explore the pastoral, theological and practical issues around the Church’s inclusive engagement with local communities.” By inclusive, what is really meant is LGBT. Steve Chalke is clearly keen to keep the discussion going that he entered into two years ago, and further challenge individuals’ and churches’ thinking on this issue. What I was really keen to find out, though, was his motivation behind this. Why is he investing so much time and energy encouraging others to discuss homosexuality? Steve’s stance is widely known: could it be that the purpose of putting on a two day conference is just another attempt to win attendees over to his way of thinking?
As it turned out over the course of the evening, Steve has had this subject on his mind far longer than I had realised. His journey to this point dates back to 2003 when he took on the leadership role of what has morphed into Oasis Church Waterloo. At the time, his Oasis charity was based not far away from the local Baptist chapel and, wanting to be grounded in the local community, Steve offered to get involved. The congregation consisted of a handful of elderly people who would meet for an hour every week singing the same hymns which were played from the same cassette tape in the same order every time. This was a church on its last legs. Steve went in and found himself desperately praying that new people would come through the door and hopefully want to stick around, despite the lack of life.
Over time this did indeed happen, but to Steve’s surprise many of the people coming through his doors were gay. What he repeatedly found was that they had been made to feel unwelcome at or even rejected by other churches. Some had been considerably hurt emotionally by the treatment they had received and were still carrying with them the scars of their experiences.
As Steve began to get to know these new members, he was deeply challenged both at the theological and pastoral level. Jesus spent a great deal of time with those rejected by society and the religious authorities. If the church is a place that reflects the love of Jesus, welcoming all people, why was he hearing such stories? As time moved on, Steve felt an increasing need to speak up about this treatment and the need for a greater understanding. He began writing around 2010 and it took him the best part of 18 months to put something together. He saw this as a grave injustice that one group of people was still being excluded from the body of Christ to a large extent. Sometimes this was purely because of their orientation, but it was more likely to be the case if they were in a loving same-sex relationship. Just as he was getting to the point of finally being ready to go public, David Cameron announced that the government would be looking to legalise same-sex marriage. So when his now infamous article was published in Christianity Magazine, it became caught up in a much bigger national debate.
Steve again reiterated during our time together that, in his mind, it isn’t possible for churches to be both truly welcoming and to believe that gay relationships are sinful. Rejecting the validity of same-sex relationships “denies a fundamental principle that God is love”, he said.
I’m not confident that Steve is ever going to win the theological debate on this. Others have looked at his arguments and found it easy to find flaws. When he wrote in 2012 that he wanted to start a conversation, he failed to acknowledge that one has been going on around the subject of sexuality for a very long time – albeit to a limited extent in your average church. In the same way I do wonder what hosting a conference on sexuality will achieve. I do genuinely believe that Steve’s intention is to provide a space where speakers from a variety of viewpoints can meet under one roof and allow those attending to hear all sides of the debate. The fact that the majority of speakers signed up so far – including Vicky Beeching and Bishop Alan Wilson – side with Steve’s views suggests that as a ‘damaged brand’ amongst Evangelicals, Oasis is struggling to find those on the other side who are willing to participate in this event.
What becomes apparent from spending time with Steve Chalke is that he is willing to take big risks even when the outcome is unclear or likely to cause him trouble. He said he had been willing to take a big hit to his reputation and the Oasis charity over the issue of sexuality because someone needed to stand up for those who are being ostracised by our churches. When Steve sees an injustice that he can address, he won’t hold back. He may upset and offend others, and possibly draw some wrong conclusions in the process, but he does it all not to deliberately stir up dissent, but because he cares.
And he cares because it is personal. Steve is of mixed race. His father is Indian and his mother is British. He grew up at a time when such relationships were far from fashionable. He was something of an outsider as a result. When he talks about the marginalised, he talks from experience. His acute awareness has been channelled and heightened as a result of his encounter with God in his teens. Now, many years later, he heads up an international organisation working on five continents and in 11 countries around the world, delivering housing, education, training, youthwork and healthcare. Oasis is a substantial voluntary-sector provider in the UK, supplying crucial services for local authorities, as well as self-funded initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for the most underprivileged and dispossessed, of all faiths and none. It employs in excess of 5,000 staff in dozens of schools, hospitals and homeless shelters. He is also the founder and Chairman of Stop the Traffik, and a special adviser to the United Nations on human trafficking.
All of this quite incredible work is done with an openly Christian emphasis. Unlike some Christian organisations, Oasis has not held back on the public declaration of its foundation in Christ.
Steve Chalke may have become a pariah or even a heretic in the eyes of many Christians, but he has also transformed the landscape. He certainly has played his part in challenging others to reconsider their attitudes to gay people and move beyond a “love the sinner, hate the sin” superficial mentality. He is also right that there is work still to be done. How many churches are still excluding others because of their attitudes and language irrespective of their stance on gay relationships?
I just wonder how much more Steve has to offer in this particular area, though. He has paid a heavy price for his decisions. Some may say that it is an inevitable consequence of his biblical interpretation and that he deserves the criticism he has received. Perhaps so. But as he talked about his day over dinner, he told us about how he had managed to secure over half a million pounds of funding for the local community around Waterloo, including a major grant for one of the churches. How many of us who have dismissed Steve outright because of one or two of his views will ever come close to achieving the amount of good that he has, or spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to as many?
Jesus talked about eyes with specks of dust in them and eyes with logs. The church should be a place of healing far more than a place of division. Judging by the way some have been treated in these situations, we still have some way to go. Thankfully, all things are possible through Christ, and the more we fix our sights on Him rather than on each others’ perceived failings and earthly distractions, the more we will see what God is really asking of each one of us.