Gavin Calver tells me that he’s from the Christian mafia. His grandfather, Gilbert Calver, was general director of the Evangelical Alliance and helped launch Christian charity Tearfund, and his father, Clive, who now pastors a church in the US, also worked as head of the EA and was one of the founders of Spring Harvest. ‘In time, I’m going to have to come up with a good idea,’ Gavin jokes as he relates his Christian heritage
It may have been predictable that Gavin would go on to become an evangelist and Christian leader, but he didn’t look set to go in this direction through his teenage years. Gavin found himself banned from church for six months aged 14, due to bad behaviour. ‘That led to an exile of four or five years,’ he says.
When Gavin was 17, his parents moved to the US in order to run the American wing of Tearfund. Gavin stayed behind in the UK, and ‘spent about six months doing stuff you wouldn’t want to do and you wouldn’t want your children to do’.
Having almost been hospitalised for heavy drinking on his 18th birthday, Gavin recalls waking up the next day and wondering what he was doing with his life. ‘And so, the day after my 18th birthday, I sought an apartment on my own in Forest Hill in south-east London and surrendered my life to Jesus. No music, no preach, no nothing: just the sense that I was pursuing other stuff and it was empty. But actually, Jesus was real.’
Gavin was rescued from the rebelliousness that got him in trouble as a teenager. ‘That experience has given me a desire to help other generations coming through, and to know that whatever teenagers are trying to be, the only real solution is a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ,’ he says.
Anne Calver also found Christ at the age of 18. She had grown up attending her local Anglican church, but struggled to go along as a teenager. In her late teens, she felt a strong sense that there ‘must be more to life than this’. Anne prayed: ‘Lord, if you’re real, will you reveal yourself to me? I will follow you and I will give you everything if you show yourself to me.’ She had a sense of God speaking back to her, ‘Yes, I’m with you and I love you. I want you to give your life back to me.’
Anne went on to spend a gap year in India, work with Exeter Vineyard Church and then attend London School of Theology, where she and Gavin met. The couple worked for Youth for Christ together, with Gavin becoming CEO of the charity six years ago.
Married life hasn’t always been plain sailing for the couple; they are no strangers to suffering – and the miraculous. After marrying, they found out that they were unable to conceive, after trying for a child for two years. However, within a month of receiving the medical prognosis, Anne found herself pregnant. They went on to have a daughter, Amelie, but subsequently lost a baby.
Their son Daniel, born a few years later, suffered from a rare condition identified before birth, meaning that he had nine blood transfusions in the womb. Delivered at 31 weeks, he made a miraculous recovery after birth.
The original prognosis of infertility had been given to Gavin during his first year as head of Youth for Christ. ‘Before that, if I’m completely honest, my biggest weakness was my lack of awareness of any weaknesses,’ he says. ‘And then you go through a process where you’re told, “You’re the problem.” And I realised, “It’s you…you’re broken. You’re broken like anyone else.”
‘I think I’m 100 times more useful in the hands of God than I was before that process. Because, out of the weakness, you depend on him and you learn who you are…Now we look at this little boy Daniel every day, and know that he’s a miracle.’
This past year has been one of change for Gavin and Anne and their two children. In December 2014, Gavin took on a new role as director of mission for England at the EA. This led to a move from their home in the Midlands to Stanmore in north-west London, where Anne is continuing with her training for ordination into the Baptist Church. Alongside this they have been penning the aptly-titled Game Changers, which will become the Spring Harvest 2016 book.
Gavin, as you reflect on your time leading Youth for Christ, what would you say were some of the joys and challenges of the role?
Gavin: The joy was seeing young people’s lives turned around. We would see lads in prison, who had led gangs on the outside, having an encounter with Jesus that transformed their lives.
YFC have DVD testimonies of young lads whose lives have been turned around. Every church wanted to play the testimonies, but they didn’t always want that young person in their church. So some of the challenges were around dealing with the stereotypes and the media messaging around young people.
The biggest time bomb I felt, particularly towards the end of my time with Youth for Christ, was young people’s mental health. The life of young people is harder now than it has ever been.
Despite a heart to welcome young people on the fringes, actually bringing troubled teenagers into the church community can be quite uncomfortable for the Christians already there. What’s your advice on this?
Gavin: We need to be more generous in how we do church. Church should be aimed at the least spiritually mature, not the most. We need to transform our style in welcoming. We also need to consider that just because people don’t look, sound and smell like us, that doesn’t mean that they’re not on a discipleship journey.
Towards the end of our time at YFC we were still hearing of young people being kicked out of church for having the wrong tattoo, the wrong piercing or the wrong clothing. I would say to older people: humour what they are wearing because they are belly-laughing at what you chose to wear today.
Let’s get away from letting the superficial stop stuff. A young person can lose their faith because you said they can’t come dressed like that to church. An older person probably won’t lose their faith over that kind of issue. But when you’re dealing with volatile age groups, be more generous, be more understanding, accept people where they are, but then help them to be like Christ. It’s where Max Lucado says, ‘God loves you just the way you are. Brilliant! But he loves you too much for you to stay the way you are. He wants you to be like Jesus.’
You’ve recently written a book together called Game Changers – it’s going to be the Spring Harvest book for 2016. What’s it about?
Anne: We got really excited when we were told about the theme for Spring Harvest this year. The whole idea of changing the game really inspired us because we are passionate about living lives for Jesus – wherever, whenever, whatever – ‘Lord, we will say “yes” to you’. That’s been our motto all the way through our married life.
The book looks at the story of Moses and his journey towards the Promised Land. How do we encounter God and how do we join in with what he’s doing, and how do we do this as part of a team with other people?
You can’t write a book like this without journeying it personally. If we’d had any clue when we agreed to write it, about what that would mean for us going on from 2014 into 2015, I don’t know if we would have said yes to writing it…
Gavin: At the start of writing this book, we’d lived in the Midlands for 14 years, I’d been at Youth for Christ for 14 years, Anne was doing her early stages of training for ordination. Our kids were very settled, we’d got a nice home, [we’d] got a nice thing going on. Probably for the first time in our married life, we were actually quite comfortable.
Anne: I remember saying to Gavin, ‘I think you’ve got too comfortable, too safe and too popular.’ Later in the year, we felt God say, ‘I want you to move. I want you to be willing to let go of everything that you’ve seen and done so far and step with me into something completely new.’
Gavin: And then an opportunity came up with [the] Evangelical Alliance to be the head of mission for England, and I’ll be honest, that might not have been quite what I was looking for. My granddad and my dad both ran the EA, and of all the organisations to end up in, that perhaps wasn’t the one on my bucket list. However, the Lord was clear enough, so we went for it and I was offered the role.
You are well into the role now. What’s your vision for the post?
Gavin: There are two things. The first thing is I want to help strengthen the muscles of the Church to reach more people. I think this really matters. I’m not critical of anything in the Church because a lot of what the Church does is brilliant. But if you look at how changes in Church have happened, you could argue 30 years ago the Church preached a lot, but didn’t necessarily do a lot.
Now, the Church does loads, but we’re not necessarily seeing enough fruit. We need to talk about Jesus, as well as be his hands and feet, and these two things have to go together. I don’t think we should separate them. At the moment, there’s a need for a greater emphasis on words to go with the actions, and at EA, we can help with that.
I also have this stirring within me that we could see something remarkable in our time. I really believe that in my lifetime we will see an incredible move of God in the United Kingdom. If we don’t, I will die believing it’s coming tomorrow. I want to be a person of hope.
I’m not sure there’s enough hope around. Often, it strikes me that Christians are the opposite of football fans. I’m a massive football fan. I like to think I support the same team as Jesus. Football fans every summer believe their team’s going to do really well. Even if their team is hopeless, they still believe.
It has taken England 60 years of being rubbish for us to think they won’t win the European Championship next year. But I kind of still think they will. And yet I look at Christians and we’re so down on ourselves. What other group in this world would produce books that talk about how it is one generation away from extinction? We’ve got to start speaking up what the Lord is doing. We’ve got to start being optimistic.
Anne, you’re training for ordination. Tell us about your latest placement.
Anne: It’s been honestly incredible, because I was so reluctant to leave where I was, and then I said to Gavin, ‘We’ve got to pray about this. And if the Lord wants me to move, he’s going to have to make it really, really clear.’ And we both sat down to pray, and [Gavin’s] phone was between us and it just went, ‘Bring! Bring! Bring!’ And it was the minister, Shaun Lambert, at the church that I’m now working in, saying, ‘[I’d] just like to say that Anne can have a job here on the same terms that she’s got and I’d really love to have her.’ It was just almost a laugh- out-loud moment for me.
Gavin, you come from a Christian family and you’ve got this legacy of your father and your grandfather having worked for the EA. What legacy would you hope to leave?
Gavin: I would like to leave some soil that was ready for seed, and some seeds that grew well in soil. What I mean by that is when you look at the parable of the sower, if the soil is not ready, the seed can’t land. So I would like to think there were some lives I’m impacting that would be ready for someone to bring on further seed in the future. And also I’d like to think that I’m someone who’s going to give the opportunity for people to meet Jesus and spread the seed.
There’s no point in me preaching unless I give a chance [for] people to meet Jesus. Often, following a preach, we’ve stopped asking if people want to give their lives to him. If there is one thing I would love to be remembered for, it would be as someone who gave people an opportunity to choose to follow Jesus