And it’s not any old church. Gold Hill Baptist Church comes close to achieving mega-church status in UK terms. It’s situated in Chalfont St Peter, a rich, Buckinghamshire village which, after Mayfair, is the most expensive place to buy a house in Britain. It means it can afford to do things other village churches can only dream of.
Displaying his entrepreneurial spirit before we’re out of the car, Malcolm Duncan talks the photographer and me through his plans for redevelopment (all focused on reaching the local community), for which a recent gift day yielded a significant sum.
Duncan, an Elim Pentecostal minister originally from a council estate in Rathcoole, Northern Ireland, was approached by Gold Hill to lead the church in 2010. Steve Gaukroger and another former minister, Jim Graham, still worship there. He made it clear that the church would change under his leadership, and he has certainly rejected some of Gold Hill’s more conservative theological history ? women’s authority to preach and teach, for example.
You get the impression that Duncan says what he thinks, isn’t afraid to disagree, and isn’t too worried about being political, which makes for great answers on all sorts of topics where others might choose their words more carefully. He speaks with candour about the issues he sees in Christian culture and, most endearingly, about his own walk with God. Duncan has more on his CV than a temporary defection from Pentecostal church life. He’s also taken on the mantle of chair of the planning group for Spring Harvest, which has undergone significant changes in the last couple of years, and his work history includes significant roles in many other Christian organisations, and authoring scores of books. And yet he sums himself up like this: ‘I’m a bit of a plodder. I’ll just keep going until God tells me not to.’
In its previous incarnation, you didn’t have women as leaders at Gold Hill, is that right?
We had women leading in certain areas of ministry but we didn’t have women in authority over men, in eldership. We wouldn’t have very often had women preaching, occasionally perhaps…but very, very rarely. I explained to the church that if they asked me to come and lead that I would not be neutral on the issue of the role of women: I would teach, preach and seek to release women into every area of ministry that God was calling them to. Our constitution actually said ‘Elders shall be men’. And actually, funnily enough it said, ‘Elders shall be men and over the age of 21.’ And I said, ‘We’re clearer than the Bible on this! We’re saying that our constitution is clearer than God’s word.’
In making the change at Gold Hill, is there anything you learned that would be useful for the wider evangelical Church in the UK?
Well, I don’t think it’s helpful when people start to bandy about phrases of badged orthodoxy on the issue. The Mark Driscolls and the Newfrontiers people who make this into an issue that brings God’s anointing on them ? it’s just wrong. That creates division, that creates resentment and a sense of trying to undermine. I would rather look at where God is working. Is he working in churches where women preach? I think he might be. Is God working in churches where women don’t preach? I think he might be. So let’s try to work out the things that really matter. Let’s gather around the one true gospel. I want my children to grow up in a church where all four of them realise that they can do anything that God asks them to do ? and that’s it. Let’s be big enough to have robust conversations without yelling at each other. But let’s be humble enough to assume that we might be wrong.
Other than women, what do you see as the other tension points within the wider Church?
I think the fundamental and the prophetic issue that underlines every other issue for every church in the United Kingdom, in Europe and in North America, which our generation has to grapple with, is what we do with the Bible. Will we let the Bible’s revelation of God shape us, or do we shape it? I believe that evangelicals are in danger of allowing our culture to shape our understanding of the Bible instead of the other way round.
Have you got examples of that? Is same-sex marriage one of those things?
We as a church would not marry a same-sex couple; we would not conduct a blessing. But it’s only one example, and we use it as our only example at our peril. I think the way in which we have fitted in with consumer society is another example. I happen to lead a church in the materialist Mecca of Britain and it’s really easy to justify spending inordinate amounts of money on houses, clothes, schools or cars because everyone else is doing it.
Because you’re allowing yourself to be shaped by the culture?
The culture is shaping you and it’s incredibly hard to say, ‘Actually, I’m not going to buy into the culture that says my children can be defined at the age of 10 by an exam.’ Scripture tells me that children shouldn’t be defined like that, so I’m not going to do it. I’m going to make a choice about what coffee I drink, I’m going to make a choice about where I bank. I’m going to make a choice about buildings and how we invest our money. Those are all culturally determined. So, the Church’s relative silence on key issues of justice, of poverty alleviation, of what we do in a broken world to make it better, are examples of us having a culturally bound gospel.
Do you think we’ve been too preoccupied with evangelism at the expense of other concerns?
Yes, I do. I actually think that there are two equally dangerous decisions to take. One is the dangerous position of saying that evangelism no longer matters. The second is that evangelism is the only thing that matters. What I think is important is that we live out our lives in mission, coordinating and cooperating with God who is our fellow worker. "If you want to find a new direction, stop looking at your life and start looking at God" Mission and evangelism are different things. Mission isn’t a trendy word for evangelism. Both are important, both are required, both complement each other, but they don’t replace one another.
You seem optimistic about life. Do you get depressed when you look around at the mess we get in and the mistakes that we make?
Yes, I do. I actually, at this moment in time, am finding life rather difficult. I don’t think I’m an optimist... maybe I have an optimistic streak…About 15 years ago I took pretty much three months to say to God, ‘What do you want me to do with my life? Because I’ve got one shot at this and I need you to tell me.’
What did he tell you to do?
Three things. I believe he told me that I had to commit myself to the leadership of a local church. And to serve the people faithfully and never to use it as a platform for something else; just to serve the people in front of me and to teach them the Bible and that God loved them, and help them to take his purpose and plans seriously. Secondly, to give the best of my focus and attention to helping Christians understand the potential of living out a life in love with Jesus, and what that would look like. The third thing is to advocate for the poor, the marginalised and the excluded and to be a voice for the voiceless and to use my gifts and skills to challenge government, public life, public spaces, on the rights of those whose voices aren’t heard. Lots of people feel directionless and that they just don’t know what God wants them to do.
What do you advise people if they come to you and say that?
The first thing I talk about is God’s will. I’m not of the view that God’s will is some fixed and unbendable thing. I went through a period of time where I thought God’s will for me was a motorboat. He was the engine, and I got in and he’d take me, but that was abdicating my responsibility and giving it all to him. I overcompensated and went through a time where I thought it was like a rowing boat where I’m the rower... but that’s abdicating God’s responsibility and giving too much to myself. I actually think that God’s will is like a sailing boat, and I’ve settled with this for 15 or 16 years. The wind, according to John’s gospel, can blow wherever it wants... and it’s my job to raise my sail and catch the wind. But the wind can change. It’s really upsetting and most inconvenient, but when the wind has changed then you can change the tack of your sail to catch it. I say to people if they’re trying to work out what God wants them to do with their lives and they’re directionless, 'Catch the wind of the Spirit'.
What is it, in you, that you can see as the recurring traits and characteristics... the things that get you out of bed in the morning... the thing that you really enjoy doing?
Work out what they are, and focus in on them.’ Secondly, catch a fresh vision of God. If you want a fresh mission from God, get a fresh vision of God. If you want to find a new direction, stop looking at your life and start looking at God. Look at his greatness, his grace, his purposes. Is the celebrity Christian issue one of the ways we’ve allowed culture to shape the church? I think it is a deep, deep, deep yearning for something different and I feel it intensely. I don’t want this to sound arrogant…I feel it intensely as someone who could allow himself to be perceived in that celebrity status and actively and deliberately refuses it.
Were there points when you have had to actively say, ‘I’m not doing the “famous Christian” thing’?
Yes... pretty regularly. It’s why being part of a local, broken, flawed and vulnerable community really helps. I will not conduct my diary and my life in a way that makes me into a celebrity. I really don’t like the idea ? I think Spring Harvest does it a bit and that New Wine does it a bit ? that we invite people onto platforms because they are really special. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of people loving you for who they think you are, rather than who you really are. The minute we think that we are indispensable, the minute we think we’re the centre of attention, we fall into that celebrity status. You don’t need to be a Christian celebrity to fall into it. Some of the people who are the most blighted by that demonic spirit of the age are those who hanker after big platforms. If you can’t serve God right where you are, you are never going to serve somewhere else.
Is there anything we could do to combat this?
It is a demonic spirit. I’m convinced it is. Yes, we could think a bit harder for ourselves. We could allow ourselves to be grounded in local community more. We could go to fewer conferences (and I say that as someone who cherishes Spring Harvest). We could make sure that the platforms that we give to people are not just given to those who are globally or internationally known. I think we have a fundamental responsibility to get over ourselves a little bit. And to make sure the way that we construct weeks like Spring Harvest does not pander to the entertainment and materialistic model of ‘Let’s get a big name, and everybody will come.’
Speaking of Spring Harvest, you’re now ‘chair of the planning group’. You’ve given yourself the least sexy job title available, basically. Was that intentional?
Yes, because actually I don’t lead Spring Harvest on my own. My fundamental observation with Spring Harvest is that it isn’t an organisation. It is every person who goes. It’s a community of believers seeking to think about their faith, to be open to the Holy Spirit, to be biblical and be committed to mission. I think that Spring Harvest has a unique place in the Evangelical World’s heart which we should never take for granted, but we should not strut and we should not be arrogant. The people that chair it, develop it, and shape it, like me, should put themselves at the bottom of the pile. They should never use it as a platform for their own ministry or to launch their ideas or to promote what they are doing. It needs to be a place, a community, where the Body of Christ encourages one another and seeks an authentic relationship with the Holy Spirit... encountering release into mission.
Is it fair to say that it has lost sight of doing that? Or is that too harsh a criticism?
No, I don’t think it is too harsh. I think if you are to listen to friends who tell you where something has gone wrong you can then put it right. I think Spring Harvest, like many of the big Bible weeks, has gone through some difficult times. We’ve had a rough period of history recently, but in reality, numbers at Spring Harvest have been declining for some years. It needs to think about not what it was 20 years ago, but what it can be if God wants it to continue 20 years from now. "I don’t like the idea that we invite people onto platforms because they are really special"
You’re not wanting to hark back to the heyday? The thing that people get nostalgic about ? the huge numbers in the 80s and early 90s…
Absolutely, no! Do I think Spring Harvest is important? Yes, or I wouldn’t be chairing it. Do I think it has a voice into the Christian community? Yes, or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Do I think it has a future? Yes, I do. I think its future is brighter than it has ever been. But I think it’s brighter than it’s ever been only if we acknowledge that we are a part of God’s purposes in the United Kingdom and around the world. I think we’ve had to be humble and we’ve had to recognise that there was a time when Spring Harvest came to be about two or three personalities or three or four names. It should never be that. The hero in Spring Harvest is Jesus. If we can keep that in perspective, then Spring Harvest’s future is really vibrant and exciting. Tell me a bit about your personal faith journey. Are there a couple of moments in your life that you feel were turning points for you with God? One of my sons suffers with a significant lung condition. When he was very little and first taken ill, he was taken into hospital and put on life support. The doctors told my wife and I that he wasn’t going to make it through the night and that we should inform our families. So I went home to do that. A guy who had been at a prayer meeting that was called for us was outside my flat. And he said, ‘God’s told me about Benjamin. He’s told me he’s going to die because of sin in your life’.
From that moment, I’ve had a deep, deep, deep suspicion of hyper charismatic word and faith prosperity gospel stuff. I think it’s dangerous and destructive and destroys lives. I went in, closed the door and collapsed in tears. I do not know how long I cried. But eventually, I heard a voice ? one of the only times I’ve heard an audible voice of God. And God said to me, ‘He’s mine.’ He didn’t tell me that Benjamin would get better and he didn’t tell me that Benjamin would get worse, he just told me that Benjamin was his. I had a deep peace about Benjamin settle on me that has never left me. My wife, who was in the hospital bed beside my son, eight miles away, had exactly the same thing happen at exactly the same moment. And we’ve both felt that assurance ever since. One more! On my 30th birthday my wife and I went to Rome. One night we were coming out of a concert that hadn’t gone very well and we snuck out early.
Across the road there was a man and a woman and a little girl under cardboard in an archway. We were about to go over to give them some money or buy them a meal when around the corner came two Roman Catholic priests. They knelt down beside this family and opened their bags. One of them took out a primus stove and started to cook. And they put five plates out, not three, and they ate together. The other one opened his bag and took out a book ? I think it was the Bible; it could have been a breviary ? and started to pray with them. I’ve never seen a clearer example of the gospel. It was physical, it was relational, it was spiritual, it was biblical, it was Jesus-focused, it was egalitarian and I decided that is what the gospel looks like. And anytime [we embark on a project] that’s the picture I have in my head: is this going to do what those two men did for that little girl and that man and woman? If it isn’t, let’s not do it. Find out more about Malcolm Duncan on his blog: malcolmduncan.typepad.com or follow him on Twitter @malcolmjduncan
(Photos: Steve Fanstone)