JB: How would you summarise your job at the Evangelical Alliance?
JE: I am the team leader for the operation. It ’s a general liaising role with key church leaders. There is another element which is ‘visioncaster’ and sharer on the role of preaching.The final element is relating to the media.
JB: When most people think of the EA they focus on the aspect of representation, that EA can be a voice. Constantly speaking on behalf of the evangelical constituency – does it get tiresome and wearing?
JE: No, it’s quite a privilege to do that. Sometimes I become very conscious that the stakes are high, depending on what the programme happens to be and what the subject happens to be.
JB: But it must be tricky sometimes on certain issues to represent such a diverse body of people. How do you decide that “this is where evangelicals are at on this issue ”?
JE: It’s a good question, and one of our enduring questions. The whole issue of being a representative voice is really what you’re digging at. I think we do it through a number of avenues. Firstly there is an intuitive thing about where evangelicalism is on certain issues. For example, the gay issue would be a fairly safe one. The issue of ‘should a gay person be appointed to be the vicar?’ I think our constituency would be fairly clear on that. But the way in which we try to make sure that we keep close to the constituency is by asking them what they think about a range of issues. Every so often we do put out surveys about a range of issues so we’re actually feeling where the evangelical constituency is. We have a whole range of coalitions as we used to call them, Partnerships for Change we call them now - of expertise in a number of different areas, so once again we are always filtering where people are at.
We have a very vocal and responsible council who meet with us twice a year and every so often we bounce things off them and they make their opinions known. We also meet with our board who are very eminent people within the evangelical world, all very opinionated people who actually know what’s going on. Again, if there are really hot potatoes, we’ll put them past the board - so we’re being sensitised to what is happening there. And there are two very key arms for opinion formulation which we rely on. One is the Theological Commission and the work David Hilborn does with them is quite key to us. The second is the Policy Commission which is a group which considers various issues such as ‘transexuality’ for example. So we ‘test the waters’, hopefully intelligently before we make certain pronouncements. And when one surrounds oneself with those mechanisms, it does mean that you have a framework within which you can pontificate on people’s behalf.
JB: Isn’t it becoming more and more difficult to represent evangelicals? Even the word itself, ‘evangelical’ is becoming fragmented.
JE: It is becoming far more challenging, you’re absolutely right. Which is why we have those mechanisms around to actually make sense of what our constituency means. But the word evangelical has become far more diffused than it was maybe 10 years ago. The word evangelical is becoming more popular beyond evangelicalism. Growing numbers of journalists now use the word to speak of enthusiasm, conviction and commitment. I think that’s good, it actually means that out there beyond the evangelical world, the word is becoming far more current than it used to be. We need to capitalise on the fact that there seems to be something about evangelicalism which has given life into the main vein of the ecumenical movement.
Even though we are struggling with its definition, it’s got to mean that there is some key thing still identifiable. I guess there are things which I can take a lot of courage from because I used to get quite concerned about this very diffused meaning of the word evangelical until I came across a couple of quotes which indicated that Spurgeon had exactly the same problem about ‘what is an evangelical?’ This ‘problem’ has been around for the last 200 years. So we shouldn’t panic that the word is coming up again for definition and that this is just as the Christian landscape changes its contours and becomes more complex.
JB: Just imagine the word ‘evangelical ’was banned from use on pain of death. Is there an alternative word?
JE: It would make a very interesting scenario because for me evangelical is not something to venerate. I’m a classic Pentecostal, for many years I was an evangelical without knowing it. If you walked into the average black church and you said evangelical, they’d say ‘evan-what?’ But if you look theologically and in terms of our ethics and so on, the values of historic evangelicalism would be fairly intact. So we need the values of evangelicals without dying for the big ‘E’ which is to venerate it.
Essentially evangelicals are a body of Christians who say God’s word is inspired, we don’t understand it all, we have to wrestle with its application in the 21st century, but we started by saying ‘this book - God gave us’. And then evangelicals look at Jesus and say this man is uniquely different, we will not barter his uniqueness away to 21st century values. And we say there is something about the mission of the church which begins at the transformation of an individual who meets at the cross of Jesus and we will not throw that away. Evangelicals hold that this person’s transformed life touches society and we have a responsibility to get involved. There are options about how we do missions and the work of the Holy Spirit but if we keep the Trinitarian commitment to a God who has revealed himself through scripture and the uniqueness of Jesus – that’s who we are –whatever word you want to call it.
JB: As you enter your fifth year as the General Director of the EA how would you assess your progress?
JE: I would give myself eight out of 10 for effort and about five out of 10 for application: I think I’ve still got a long way to go.
JB: What ’s the main thing that as you look back on you are most satisfied or encouraged by
JE: Lots of little things actually. Lots of signposts along the way over the last four years. I’m pleased that after the colossal work of my predecessor, Clive Calver, that the Evangelical Alliance as a team has built, consolidated and moved beyond the excellent work he did. Much could have been lost. I think we haven’t just held it, we’ve honoured it by building creatively on it. Clive Calver was almost bigger than the Evangelical Alliance. Now it is more established and not perceived as one person. I don’t say that negatively about Clive – it’s just that he was and is a larger-than-life character.
JB: Imagining for a minute that you’re in this role for another five years, what would you hope that within that period of time you and your team would achieve?
JE: In another five years I hope that the evangelical constituency would have become captivated by a vision, a realistic and do-able vision for transformation. Evangelicalism will be at ease with itself and its diversity, but will have moved beyond any hint of survivalism. It will have united itself around a commitment to see do-able change in its culture, even if that was a whole generational transformation - a mission for change which went beyond a commitment to unity.
JB: What aspect of evangelicalism needs to change the most?
JE: Our relationship to our society. We’ve got to be incarnated within it. We’ve got to reposition ourselves as an integral part of that society but with something very different to offer. It’s easier to stand apart, to critique and comment, much harder to actually be on the pavement and to be salt and light. This means exploring how we do church. We have to be right at the heart of that dialogue and inform that dialogue not just by lots of words but also by repositioning ourselves.
JB: Recently you appeared on BBC TVs ‘Question Time’ – what was that like??
JE: I was quite nervous beforehand, but then again I think everybody else was quite nervous. It was really surreal because I hadn’t really had a very long time to think about being on the programme. It took me the first couple of questions to break myself in, but I felt buoyant through prayer, and a lot of work had been done before I got there. It felt like a real privilege and I was very conscious too about representing the evangelical constituency. I sat there knowing that out there in lounge-land there were lots of evangelicals who either knew or just randomly switched on and saw me, who were sitting there thinking, ‘that’s our boy, are we all going to go down or up with this man?’.
JB: What would your friends and family say that your personality is really like?
JE: I am an introvert. They’d probably say that Joel Edwards is pretty quiet, easy going and laid back. My daughter would say I’m mad - quite zany. It probably comes out more when I ’m tired.
JB: Are you an adrenalin addict?
JE: That’s what I’m told. I’m into adrenalin but not necessarily for public performances. My EA colleagues say I don’t rush for the big part, they think it’s very tiresome that I’m not really competitive.
JB: The Evangelical Alliance Assembly is coming up in November – the last Assembly ten years ago was in Bournemouth:what did that achieve?
JE: We met as evangelicals without killing one another apart from a couple of minor skirmishes behind the scenes! This achieved a great deal because it said our unity and diversity was intact. The second thing it did was to hold up a snapshot of change in society and a snapshot of church and ask ‘what’s the relationship between these two?’ A lot of leaders were shocked by the snapshot of society because they’d no idea that that was where we were. Beyond that,what was achieved was all that we’re experiencing subsequently – the Assembly was the adrenalin from which we have drawn much of our activity over subsequent years. A lot of people may not recognise that, but the tour which came a year later (Seizing the Moment) gave the EA our label of ‘Resource, Network and Voice’ because we asked our members, ‘why do you support us? What ’s in it for you?’ They said, ‘we love your resourcing, we love the fact that you network, we love the fact that you’re a voice for us ’.
JB: And what are your hopes for this new Assembly in Cardiff?
JE: We orchestrated the last Assembly fairly carefully because we weren’t sure how it would work. This time we’re more hands-off. We hope that leaders will leave with an updated snapshot of the issues facing us in society and with an updated snapshot of the challenges facing us in being disciples - in applying truths and being church. But above that, if people left with a really good sense of having been together in God’s presence and worshipping together then that’s great. And if they left with a pile of resources tucked under their arms to draw from - then brilliant. But if the leaders left the Assembly saying; ‘We understand a little better what’s going on in society, but we think we can bring hope to it, and we think that if we look at what God is doing among us, we really can bring some positive change to our society, down our street, in our community, in our region, in our nations’, then we would be very happy with that, because that’s what we try to achieve. We want people to leave feeling a sense of hope, not naivety, but hope.
Reasons For Hope – Evangelical Alliance’s Assembly takes place at the Cardiff International Arena on 5-7th November. Christian leaders will explore four main streams: Society, Truth, Discipleship and Church. It is billed as a time to ‘reflect, prepare and strategise together for the future. For further details contact Evangelical Alliance, 186 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BT or phone 020 7207 2138.