An interview held by Theo Visser.
You have this vision for 2033. I would really like to hear more about your heart? What are you planning to do? What do you expect of the next ten years?
Theo, I am sure, the seventeenth of April 2033 is in your diary. That is, you know, the 2000th anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. What follows shortly after that is the Great Commission: Go and make disciples of all nations. So that is not my idea, we are just joining together with many others who have a vision to make the Gospel available to everyone on the planet by 2033. So, the Bible translators are working together, to make sure that the New Testament is in 99.996 procent of the languages of the world, and 25 chapters in every languages in the world. People like Rick Warren is working on a Bible, a believer and a body of Christ in every people group. Then, we love to work with cardinal Tagle who heads up evangelization in the Catholic church. And all the others, to work in synergy, to make sure that everyone on the planet gets the opportunity to hear the Gospel by 2033. I happen to be preaching on Easter Day 2033, God willing, at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. We will launch it from the Garden Tomb and in the beginning of May at a leadership conference where people from all over the world gather together and we really launch it and see what we can do together.
Why is this so important to you? Why do you really look forward for the Bible to be translated in all those languages?
Well, my father was refugee, he was a secular Jew, an agnostic, and I was an atheist, and I encountered Jesus when I was 18. Ever since then I want other people to experience what I have experienced. It’s nearly fifty years now. The difference Jesus makes in your life is so great, I want everyone on the planet to have the opportunity to hear the good news.
I can identify with that. The best thing you can ever experience is meeting Jesus, isn’t it? What will be your role then, over the coming more than ten years? Where are you going to invest your life in?
So, we are refilming the Alpha Film Series. We are two years into that project and there will be another two more years of investment in that. We will do a little bit more travelling. I wasn’t able to travel as I have been vicar here over the last seventeen years. But I have been a bit more free to travel. And also investing in the theological college and particularly recruiting the people who are at the moment often trapped on the ground, the Peter’s, described in Acts 4 verse 13 as the unschooled. But Peter had a big impact on the church, although he was a fisherman. But we haven’t got so many of those in the Church of England. So, recruiting the Peter’s and see them ordained. Many are trapped on the ground by racism, intellectualism or ageism. That is the Caleb stream. Caleb was still going strong when he was eighty-five and he followed the Lord wholeheartedly. We are getting people ordained. They have probably twenty-five or thirty years of active retirement, but they would do it for free. Because they have a pension. So I want to make sure that no church is closed in this country. And that every church has it’s own focal minister. So that is the vision for the next few years.
Why is it that you are especially looking for the Peter’s and not for the Paul’s?
Well, the Paul’s already exist. And we are certainly still looking for them. I think, the Paul’s outnumber the Peter’s in the Church of England. And in order to reach the whole population, you need a lot more Peter’s. Peter’s and Petra’s.
Many of us in mainland Europe look to the UK as you are ahead of us in many ways. The church has in general much more vision, and is more thriving and alive as far as we can see than in the rest of Europe. What do you like to say to mainland Europe from the perspective of the UK?
Well, I am not sure about that. I don’t think we are ahead of you. The church’s decline in the UK is nearly going on for hundred years. So many people think that therefore this will continue till eventually there is no church. But that is actually not the case if you look back in history. What happened in history is that the church’s declined until 1750. And then in 1750, Wesley, Whitefield, Wilberforce, Raikes and the Sunday schools… By 1912 there were five-and-a-half million children in Sunday schools. So, a decline can turn around. That the church is in decline does not mean that it stays declining. We are about to celebrate Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the church, and Jesus said: The gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Jesus is alive. There are lot’s of reasons for hope, for optimism, and there is potential for the church right across Europe to turnaround.
What is your vision for all of Europe?
Well, the vision is to play our part in seeing the re-evangelization of the nation, the revitalization of the church and the transformation of society. That is kind of a way of describing the Kingdom of God: re-evangelization, revitalization and transformation.
I am also very interested to hear from you like what do you think is the role of church planting in all of this?
Church planting is the most effective form of evangelization as Peter Wagner said. If you need a lively church within a striking distance of everyone in the country, then you need a pastor, so that everyone can find a church where they can find community. Everyone is looking for three things: they are looking to be loved, to find purpose and to belong. The good news is that you are loved. The Son of God loved you, and gave Himself for you. And the Holy Spirit gives us and experience of God’s love in our hearts. We find our purpose in our relationship with God through Jesus and you come into His community. So many young people in Londen they often join gangs, because they are looking for community. And there is a far better community than a gang where you likely get killed or stabbed. A community that follows Jesus, a beautiful diverse community. It is a place where you can belong.
When I hear you about church planting, and your heart for church planting, what could be the role of Alpha in church planting?
We planted, I think, one-hundred-and-seven churches now. Some are children, some are grandchildren and some are great grandchildren. But I think, pretty much everyone of them uses Alpha. Because you don’t want to plant a church and take people from other churches. That would be shooting ourselves in the foot. We are not interested in church transfer, we are interested in biological growth, through people finding Jesus, coming through Alpha, joining the church, and the church growing in that way. So, every church needs a big front door, which in our case is Alpha, and a big back door, what in our case is church planting. I swim in a place, which is not far from here. It looks pretty dirty, but it is actually quite clean, because it has water flowing in and water flowing out. That keeps it healthy. Churches need to have people coming in, new people coming to faith, and then planting churches, sending them out. That keeps the church healthy.
What would you like to see happening in the coming years?
I want to see everyone on the planet having had an opportunity to hear the good news. And it is possible now. Since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and people getting able to get the Bible in their own language. Now everyone can get the Gospel through their phone. This is an amazing opportunity. Some very bad things have come into the world because of the phone, like addiction. Also terrible things went out because of books. But books was an opportunity for the church to get the Bible into every language and in every home. And the mobile phone is an digital opportunity to get the Gospel to every person on the planet.
And what is your dream regarding church planting in Europe?
I would love to see that everyone works together in unity, so that there is not competition but synergy, working together. To see that everyone in Europe has the opportunity to hear the Gospel. That involves something like Alpha. Alpha is one way. I have always said: I am not interested in Alpha, I am interested in people encountering Jesus. I haven’t found a better way yet. Pippa and I, last night, we are in our ninety-sixth Alpha small group in a row. And I am carrying on doing it until I find a better way. But right now, we haven’t found a better way. We see people all the time encountering Jesus. New people coming to the church, people exploring, hundreds of people coming every night, and now a thirty-thousand churches around the world are using it. No, I haven’t found a better way.
And as a church grows, you have to plant. We planted twenty-two churches in our movement last year. There are children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It multiplies. Because the more you plant, the more you have children. We have three children, but we have now nine grandchildren. We might have in the future twenty-seven great grandchildren. I don’t know. And then eighty-one great-great grandchildren. That is what happens. It is naturally to grow. Biological growth should happen to the church. Planting is like having a child. It is not like McDonald’s. Is it not a franchise. Usually, in our case, there is an old church building with six people left. We planted a church in Brighton, St. Peter’s Brighton. They had seven people left. We sent thirty people from London and that church is a child. A child, hopefully, looks like both parents, and is proud of both parents. But it is not the parents. The church in Brighton looks a bit like the old St. Peter’s and it looks a bit like HTB. Hopefully it is proud of being part of St. Peter’s and having HTB as a parent. But it is not HTB, it is St. Peter’s Brighton. St. Peter’s has now five church plants. And all these church plants look a bit like St. Peter’s and they look like a bit like the place where they are planting into. Church planting is organic and it means that every church is different and every church is unique like every human being is unique.
Thank you for this reminder, that is helpful. We are also planting intercultural churches, what is your idea and your vision for diversity in the church?
Diversity is beautiful. Racism is evil, a terrible evil. My father was Jewish, and he came as a refugee to this country and many of my family died in concentration camps. That was the result of racism. Racism is a terrible evil and needs to be eradicated from our society. And the church needs to speak out against racism in all its forms, whether it is antisemitism or any other kind of racism. But the opposite is also true, diversity is beautiful. There is a verse in Ephesians three which talks about the manifold wisdom of God. The Greek word for manifold is polupoikilos, which is a hapax legomena. It is a unique word, it is only used once. And it is only used once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. The Jews used the word for Joseph’s coat of many colours. Paul is praying for the church to manifest the manifold wisdom of God. So the picture is of a very integrated beautiful diversity. That is what it will be in heaven. In heaven, before the throne, there is every tribe, every race, every language worshiping Jesus. So, in heaven diversity is not eliminated but celebrated. Jesus taught us to pray: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What is God’s will in heaven? Diversity. Everyone before the throne worshiping together. Diversity is to be celebrated, is to be aimed at on earth, as it is in heaven.
Diversity is beautiful. I love our morning services here. Twenty-five percent African, thirty-three percent Chinese, and just every nation represented. It is so beautiful! London has three-hundred different languages. And our sort of services are a representation of that. Every culture brings their own gift and together there is something really beautiful.
What would you say to churches which would like to become more colorful and represent the different ethnicities that live around them?
Just welcome everybody. And it is very important that the stage represents it. If people don’t see anyone of them on the stage, then they think the church is not for them. In heaven the worship is diverse. Very important is that the worship group is diverse. I always look out to make sure that there is diversity in our worship group. They suppose to have it, but I check every Sunday that there is diversity. Not tokenism, because the songs should ideally been written together as well. Think also of the preacher, people giving communion, people doing the prayers, so that people can see diversity on the stage. Not tokenism, but that it is genuinely representative. It is either a vicious cycle or virtuous cycle. If they can see diversity, they will come to the church, and then you will get people who want to sing in the band and so on. But you got to get this virtuous cycle going to make sure that there is diversity in the church. If you live in a diverse city like we do in London, or if you live in a remote part of the country where there is no diversity, you cannot force it. The church should be representative of the city that is in. And in London there is forty-five percent of the global majority and our church is the same. It is forty-two percent. So, it should be representative of the city.
What is your dream regarding Alpha and the diversity in Europe?
As I said, I am now in our ninety-sixth Alpha small group. Last night, I met some new Ukranian refugees, who were on our Alpha course, in our small group. There are people from Barbados, Ghana, Korea, Hong Kong, Malesia, Singapore, Italy, Wales, London. There must be at least ten nations in one Alpha small group. So the people coming into the church are from all over the world, because they are from London. London is representative of the world.
We are working with people from Alpha all across Europe. And what would you like to say to them to make sure that they also focus on diversity?
If there are people in the city where you are working and living in, just welcoming them. And the speaker, the person who gave the talk the first night was Ghanaian. He was a fashion model and now he is getting ordained on our Peter’s stream. He is in his twenties, loving music, talks about dancing, he is so vibrant. Everyone loved it. The band what was playing last night was diverse. And I think, if people who walk into the room and they can see people like them on stage, then they think: If they can do it, I can do it. But if they do not see anyone of them, they think: oh, it is not for me. You have to demonstrate, but it is not tokenism, but it is real. It is not white people leading, the white on top. That is not how it is meant to be. It has something to be where we are in together. That is not just representation, but there is real involvement and genuine friendship and relationship at the heart of it. It is about inclusion, involvement, friendship and genuine equality at every level.
Speaking about diversity, I see that quite often that migrants come to the continent of Europe, they come from a very different background, where you can just preach the Gospel at the corners of the streets, and now they want to share the Gospel with Europeans, and they don’t know how to do that. What would you say to them? How could they use Alpha to do that?
Well, I think, Alpha is running in every country in the world pretty well. It is running in countries where you are allowed to preach the Gospel, and it is also running in countries where you are not allowed. They do it in homes. It is very hard to stop people running Alpha in their homes because they watching it on their phones, or a computer. It is quite hard to track that. It is hard to forbid people. They are allowed to watch any film they like in their home. They watch the Alpha film series. It is very hard to stop it. So it is getting out to every part of the world.
I have a last question for you. Why is prayer so important in Alpha?
Prayer and worship is the foundation of the church. It is the fire underneath the church. What is prayer? It is our relationship with God, it is talking with God. So, that is the most important activity of our lives, it is to be in relationship with God, through Jesus, and the Holy Spirit helps us to pray. It should be on number one priority. First thing what I try to do in the morning, before I get distracted, is to say: Lord, what are you saying to me? as I read the Psalms, the New Testament, and a bit of the Old Testament. I try to read the whole Bible in a year, every year. It is more important that God speaks to us than we speak to Him. So number one: Lord, what are you saying to me? And then I pray. I love to hear God’s voice. I love to bring my request to God. I have to try to make it the number one priority in my life.
The content of this article is based on the “Webinar with Nicky Gumbel”, founder of the Alpha course.