Lucinda van der Hart meets Charlotte Gambill, who is following in her father Paul Scanlon’s footsteps in leading Life Church, Bradford.
You’d never guess that Charlotte Gambill was born to unmarried teenage parents who weren’t universally encouraged to keep their unexpected baby. Gambill exudes confidence and charm, but I sense she’s also a no-nonsense type.
When I meet her, she is in London to preach at the Jesus House women’s ministry conference. Travelling and preaching are staples in her life; she has 18 more preaching engagements booked for this year, in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the US. When she’s not hopping on and off planes, Gambill and her husband Steve lead Life Church, Bradford (formerly known as Abundant Life Church). They have two young children, Hope and Noah.
Life Church, which Gambill has been part of almost all her life – ‘I’ve tried to tunnel out several times, but never with any success,’ she says – describes itself as one church on three campuses. It recently planted in Leeds and Belfast, while a third plant in Poland is in the pipeline for the autumn. Up to 3,000 people attend one of the church venues each Sunday.
Known by many in UK charismatic and evangelical circles for its contributions to the worship scene, Life Church’s latest album, Dance Again, featured in the Top 40 secular charts.
‘We were so pleased about that, because there is nothing about what we are doing that could have made that happen. It was like God kissing the simplicity of musicians that love God and love writing worship songs for the local Church. God did what we could not do,’ Gambill says.
Gambill is also known for her leadership of rapidly growing women’s conference Cherish, which she began with a handful of Christian girls more than 20 years ago. This year, 4,000 women attended the conference, which was held at the First Direct Arena in Leeds for the first time.
How did you come to faith?
I grew up knowing the things of God through my family; being planted in the church from a very early age. My parents never forced faith on me. They always just said: ‘This is what we believe, these are the values that we have for our household and you need to make a choice.’
I remember making a decision for God around the age of ten. I became seriously excited about the things of God for my life as early as 14 years of age.
What has it been like following in your father’s footsteps as leader of Life Church? Did you always expect to do that?
Not at all. It was never my own or my husband’s plan to take over leading the church. My most comfortable position is to help behind the scenes. God has got a sense of humour, because he keeps making me go up front. For most of my life, and still even now, a lot of my time is spent serving behind the scenes, helping build a team.
A long time ago, God spoke to me about having a ministry where I would uphold the arms of someone else, and I felt I did that for years alongside my dad’s ministry. Then I served with my husband on team. It was when we were away on holiday that Steve and I felt God speak to us at separate times that we had to prepare ourselves to step into new roles in Bradford. At that time we thought we would go somewhere else; maybe plant a church out from Bradford. We were both shocked.
Life Church is about to send out its third church plant, this time to Poland. Is there a strategic plan to the way you are planting?
Some people have an amazing ability to say, ‘We are going to plant this many churches in this many years’, but that has never been our particular distinctive. If there are emerging leaders in our team who are thriving and have a call to a different place or nation, then that is where we look to put our attention.
The couple that will be pastoring our Poland church have been at Life Church for seven years and have been through our leadership academy. They are both Polish and have a real heart to go back.
We are letting God guide us on each one, otherwise I think we would be overwhelmed. Right now it’s going to be four campuses, but who knows what it will be next year.
What do you see as the key success factors God is using to cause growth at Life Church?
We have built a church on being real and not religious, on helping those around us in our neighbourhood and on serving.
We have another distinctive that we outline to our church, which is the word ‘soul’. We break it down to explain the key dynamics of what makes Life Church. ‘S’ stands for being servant-hearted, ‘O’ stands for being otherly minded, ‘U’ stands for being united in purpose and ‘L’ is for legacy leaving.
Wherever you find people that are willing to not just be self-centred but live for serving, and those that will unite – not around their preferences or their opinions, but around a common purpose – and those that will live with a vision that outlasts themselves, I think that church is going to be successful. That is a Jesus model.
Life Church is known for its high production values. You even have a fantastic coffee shop in the church building. What advice would you give a leader of a small church who doesn’t have such strong resources?
Over a period of time we have built to the level that we have. Like in your home: you add a pair of curtains, you add a coffee table. This is a long journey, so to anyone that has a small church with a handful of musicians, that is your starting point; it’s not your end point. You should always be growing and developing. God can keep adding and increasing, so just be brilliant where you are with what you have got.
When you walk in through the Life Church doors there is a big ‘welcome home’ sign. We want people to feel like you do when you invite someone to your own home; that they can be themselves and that somebody cares that they have shown up. The environment is a huge thing and that is a huge part of my maternal side, my mother’s heart. There is a big part of me that wants to make sure that God’s house is welcoming in every sense.
Your latest book is called Turnaround God (Thomas Nelson). Where have you seen God turn things around in your own life?
For me, one of the most miraculous turnarounds came after I was told I would never be able to have children. I remember the day when we were in the doctor’s surgery and that was spoken over my life. I thought, ‘Well, I will just pray and God will fix it.’
And I did pray, and nothing happened. And so I prayed even more, and still nothing happened. We speak a lot about the God that does the ‘suddenlys’, but God does ‘slowlys’ too. I started on this slow turnaround with God.
For me, it was five years of believing God, but those five years became some of the most fruitful years. They were painful, it was hard, I got frustrated, but I tell you it was where I discovered what I really believed. It’s where I found other people that were in the same miserable situation and realised that I can either witness to them or I can just go past them. After five years I had the turnaround of having two children.
What advice would you give other couples facing fertility issues?
Don’t get on the rollercoaster of emotions. You are up, you are down, you are sad; this might work, this might not work. You need to get to a place where you find a level of trust in God that is a bedrock to you, because otherwise your hormones, your emotions, your inner desires take the lead. It can create tension and stress in a marriage and it can become all you ever talk about.
I remember in that season just thinking: if I do truly trust God, then trust doesn’t look like this. Trust doesn’t look like this stress, trust doesn’t look like blaming someone, trust doesn’t look like being up one minute and down the next. Trust is a different thing. I had to begin to teach myself the behaviour that went with the trust that I was saying I had.
ONE OF THE MOST MIRACULOUS TURNAROUNDS CAME AFTER I WAS TOLD I WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO HAVE CHILDREN
The Bible says in Isaiah 54:1: ‘Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song’, which is the exact opposite to what you want to do when you are barren. In scripture, singing is what you do when you trust, because you are so free of the circumstances that you are like: ‘I can sing because my heart and my soul knows where my strength comes from.’
Tell us about the vision behind Cherish, the women’s ministry you head up.
I never thought I would do women’s ministry; I have to say that up front. Initially I was resistant because actually, many years ago, before we were at Life Church, my family were part of a denomination where most of the women had to have their head covered. I did not fit the mould in any way.
The beautiful thing about Cherish – and I prayerfully hope that we keep this as we grow in size – is that Cherish has never been about Life Church, it has been about facilitating something for God’s women to step into their full potential. Cherish is this place where every kind of woman comes; different backgrounds, young and old. It is a filling and it is a sending out point to bless our whole nation, Europe and beyond. I prayerfully hope that it helps every church. We have pastors who write to us after Cherish saying, ‘Thank you so much, our women came back blessed, encouraged, empowered and loving the local Church even more.’ That is the heartbeat of Cherish.
What holds some UK Christian women back?
In the UK in general we suffer from smallness. We think small. I am married to an American, so everything is big. They are raised with a much bigger mindset: believe for the stars, shoot for the moon. I think some of our Britishness, our conservativeness, comes into the Church.
As women, we may spend time on things that are important but small: pairing the socks or folding the laundry. You can begin to make your life smaller, saying: ‘That is all I am good for.’ But actually, no. If you are a mum you are raising future leaders, you are raising champions, you are entrusted with the most incredible potential on the planet. Some women need to find a voice. Not a bolshy voice, not an arrogant voice, not a fight-for-our-rights voice. They need a confidence to find their voice.
How do you maintain your relationship with Jesus day to day when you’re leading, travelling and parenting?
Matthew 11:28-30 says: ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me…’ (The Message).
In order to have a balanced, restful life with God you have to actually work with God. The key is working with God, not working for God. Once you discover that, everything finds its place.
It actually goes on in the same scripture to say, ‘Learn the unforced rhythms of grace’. For me it’s about finding the rhythm for my life, and everybody has a different rhythm. If we compare our lives and compete, then you will get out of tempo.
I have to find my own rhythm, and when I find it I know how to fit my prayer life in and how to fit in my devotional time as well as how to fit in bedtime stories.
You recently tweeted out Proverbs 11:24-25, which says ‘The world of the generous gets larger and larger; the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller. The one who blesses others is abundantly blessed; those who help others are helped’ (The Message). You said this was foundational for your marriage and family. How do you live that out?
From the get-go of our marriage, that was something that Steve and I have been passionate about. When we had a small house and a car that hardly worked and not much money in the bank, we said, ‘Well, what can we do? We can open our home, we can host a life group, we can babysit as we have no kids right now.’
We decided that the currency of our household would always be generosity; in our finance, in our words, in our deeds. It was an agreement that we came to because we believe scripture teaches us that if we are generous; God will keep giving us things to give away. He will keep blessing us to be a blessing. He will use our hands to do many things for him because they are safe hands. We have prayerfully kept to that – for over 20 years together now – building a marriage, a church and a family. It’s a ministry that has generosity to its core.
Generosity is not about amount, it’s about a value. If we all, as Christians, just got that right, the world wouldn’t be able to resist the Church.
The title track on Life Church’s latest album Dance Again tells the story of a miraculous healing
There is a lady that came to our church who was very ill with ME. She would sit at the back of the auditorium in a wheelchair or lie out on the back seats of the church, just so that she could be in the atmosphere of the worship. This went on for quite a long time. Then she began to come a little closer to the front as she started to get a bit more strength.
One day in the worship there was a real presence of God and there was prayer for the sick. Matt Hooper was leading worship, and out the corner of his eye he saw that she stood up and began to dance. She and her husband used to dance together many years ago. It was an incredible miracle.