has made a significant mark on both church and society as the founder of Oasis Trust, Faithworks and Stop the Traffik. Huw Spanner checked him out at the Greenbelt Festival on 26 August 2013.
Photography: Andrew Firth
I don’t know where I had imagined you came from, but it wasn’t Croydon. Are you a typical Croydon man?
I’ve lived most of my life in Croydon – I was born in Croydon, grew up in Croydon, brought my kids up in Croydon – though I’ve actually just moved to Kennington [in south London]. My mum still lives there.
Do you know the term ‘Croydonisation’? It’s in the Oxford Dictionary, defined as ‘the architectural ruin of a town centre’. People always moan about Croydon, but it’s a great place – it shaped me in loads of ways.
The other important thing about me is, my mum is English but my dad was an ethnic Anglo-Indian, from Madras. He came here after the partition of India and then found that he couldn’t get a job because of the colour of his skin. South London was very pink then and South Indians are very dark-skinned – almost black. My dad was the darkest man I’d ever met. Compared to my friends, I was pretty dark, too!
He always wanted to be a church pastor but he never had the opportunity. He found it hard to get work at all.
Were both your parents Christians?
Yeah, slightly nominally. They were not really involved (though my mum was later) but they went to church.
Anyway, he eventually got a job with British Rail, as a ticket collector at Norwood Junction, and he worked there until his retirement. I witnessed someone who bore the prejudice and discrimination that came his way and dealt with it very well, and I think it built into me a feeling for the underdog and a sense of justice – standing up for the person who’s getting a tough deal.
I’ve got to ask: Were you called ‘Chalky’ at school?
Yeah. ‘Chalky, Chalky!’ I never felt oppressed by it.
On our first day at school, the head stood up in assembly and said: ‘You’re the kind of young people who won’t do well in life with your heads. You’re going to be blue-collar’
The other thing is, Croydon used to do the 11-Plus. I was a borderline case, I was told, but anyway I had to go to this dump school called Davidson Secondary Modern. Wearing the badge was like saying: I’m thick and I’m going nowhere. On our first day, the head stood up in assembly and said: ‘You’re the kind of young people who won’t do well in life with your heads; you’ll work with your hands. You’re going to be blue-collar.’ I never did any O-levels, wasn’t given the opportunity. I think half my friends went to prison. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a tough, tough school.
I think that that and my dad’s ethnicity and the way he dealt with it have been huge factors in my life – insofar as I’m able to self-analyse, that is. You know, we lived in a house without hot water, or any form of heating; we never went away on a holiday ever. I don’t say that any of those things were bad at all – I think they were wonderful things in my life. Every moment matters, doesn’t it, and I think they all helped to shape me.
By any standards, what you have achieved since then is remarkable. What do you put your success down to? Was it a matter of character, or…?
No, I think it was simply this: in every possible way in which you can use the word ‘salvation’, I was saved.
When I was 14, I fell in love (or infatuation) with a girl who went to the girls’ grammar school. If you went to Davidson, you weren’t even allowed to walk down the street it was in. The only place I could see her was at the youth club at the Baptist church, so I started going there. Then my friend Kit told me that not only did this girl not fancy me, she hadn’t even noticed me!
This was an extraordinary existential event for me. I wandered home that night, up a little road parallel to Crystal Palace Football Club, and I thought: ‘She doesn’t want me. My life is pointless!’ But as I walked, up this road the length of a football pitch, I went from thinking, ‘I’m never going to that youth club again’ to ‘But what they tell me at that church makes a lot more sense than what they tell me at school.’ At school they told us we’d never amount to much but at the church they said we were made in God’s image and we had potential. I actually remember this thought running through my head: ‘Well, I may be stupid, but I’m not that daft! I’m going to keep going to the church.’
And I decided that night – because you run these things through in your head fast, you know – ‘Well, if I’m going to keep going to the church, I’m going to be a Christian. And if I’m a Christian, it’s got to matter more than anything else. I’m going to spend the rest of my life’ – I expressed it in this way, I remember – ‘telling people about Jesus. And when I grow up, I’m going to be a church leader and I’m going to set up a school and a hostel and a hospital for people who’ve been told they don’t matter and I’m going to tell ’em a different story.’
That was the salvation event. I’m not saying that the lights went on and life has been a bed of roses since. Actually, the whole of life’s a struggle! But it was at that moment I felt redeemed, I felt rescued. Until then, you know, I was just a bit of riff-raff going nowhere.
Fourteen is very young to be so high-minded, isn’t it?
Well, that’s why I told you about my dad and Davidson Secondary Modern, because, I mean, it is bonkers, isn’t it? You know, why a hostel, a hospital and a school?
That’s why I say I can’t self-analyse.
Was homelessness a particular problem in Croydon?
I’d read that Jesus wasn’t so much a preacher as a politician: he had a message for the way you do society. Of course, that resonated with everything I believed
Ah, no. When I was 15, I used to go every Friday night up to Charing Cross Station, where the tramps, as they called them then, used to hang out under the arches. My mum used to make me sandwiches and two flasks of soup and I used to go and talk to homeless people and give them this stuff my mum had prepared. (Would I recommend that to my own kids? I certainly wouldn’t! London’s changed a lot, but it was probably a lot more dangerous then than I thought.) And then, about half eleven, the police used to come along and put [hoses] on them to clear them out.
In due course, you went to [the Baptist theological college] Spurgeon’s College…
I went for an interview there for the first time when I was 15, I think. The college was only up the road from our church and half the faculty used to go to it, do you see – including the principal. I managed to get to see him, and he said: ‘I’d just stick at school for now!’
I went back again at 18 and they said: Go and work for a church. I did that, and then I worked in a factory for two years, sweeping the floor and driving a forklift truck. And then I applied to Spurgeon’s again.
At that point, did anyone see much potential in you?
They said I was very impressive in the interview but I still didn’t have enough experience. And I cried! They sent me to work with a minister who told me he’d been told that I was too working-class and I had no manners and he had to get me to speak properly. But he was brilliant: he allowed me to be me.
Spurgeon’s then accepted me and I did four years there, and got married in the last year. And then I did four years as an assistant minister in Tonbridge. But all the time I kept talking about this hostel – I knew that a hostel was going to be the first one I would do because it was easier than the others, do you see?
You finally founded your first hostel, in south London, in 1985. Why did you call it ‘Oasis’?
That’s what my wife, Cornelia, said we should call it!
Let’s jump to The Lost Message of Jesus,1Published by Zondervan late in 2003 which you wrote with Alan Mann when you were 47. It caused a ferocious storm in evangelical circles…
I’d read a sentence in a Tom Wright book years before which said that Jesus wasn’t so much a preacher as a politician: he had a message for the way you do society. Well, of course that resonated with everything I believed. I believed it was my task to work with those who had lost out in life, so the social and political aspects of the gospel had always made sense to me. So, I wrote this book about the Jesus who comes with a message that is good news emotionally, educationally, economically and environmentally as well as spiritually.
The first words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel are ‘The kingdom of God is near.’ He talks about the kingdom all the time – he’s got a one-track mind. And he constantly talks about it being for everyone. I think the message of Jesus is about good news right here, right now where you live. It’s a theme that runs through all four of the Gospels – as Jesus says in Luke 4: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me and he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’ That’s why he says in his great parable in Matthew 25: ‘When I was hungry, you fed me’ and so on. It’s a holistic thing. And I think that Jesus’ ministry – his life, his teaching – demonstrates that.
Yeah, and do you know where I got that phrase from? I was accused of reading French feminists who had used that term (which I subsequently found out they had); but that’s not where I got it. Oasis’s offices used to be next to a pub and we would go there on Friday nights and sit and talk to the locals. I was on GMTV at the time and they used to love me telling them stories about the celebs who had been on that week; but always in the end we’d end up debating faith. And one night one lady said: ‘How can you lot believe in a God who’s angry and has to kill his son so we can be forgiven? It’s immoral!’ And then she said: ‘It’s like some kind of cosmic child abuse!’
The nasty version.
But were you not actually saying that the answer to the question ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is not ‘To die for our sins’ but ‘To heal and teach and show us a better way to live’?
I think my gospel is: all of that.
All those tracts I’d read all through my teens – you know, God’s got a wonderful plan for your life, you’ve really messed it up, your good works can’t get you to heaven, Jesus died on the cross for you, say this prayer and you’ll be saved – I used to think: Why do all these presentations of Christianity leave out Jesus’ life? And why don’t they talk about the Resurrection? On Easter Day, an evangelical wants to preach about the Cross again. And at Christmas – it’s a lovely carols-by-candlelight service and someone has to go ranting on about the Cross. It just didn’t make sense to me.
So, when I wrote The Lost Message of Jesus about Jesus’ life, of course I get to the point where I talk about the Cross and I have to say: God is a God of love, he’s not a God of anger. He doesn’t want to get you. And he doesn’t live by some different moral law than [the one] he’s asked us to live by – you know, he’s asked us to forgive and not let the sun go down on our anger and yet he has let a million suns set on his anger, which he has stored up to unleash – It just didn’t make sense to me.
I mean, the Cross has got to be about something bigger and better and more life-changing than that. The word ‘repent’, I had been taught, had loads of negative connotations – you know, repent or you’re gonna go to hell! – but it actually means: Wake up! Think again! See things differently! Life is here, let’s live!
Did the furore over the book ever get too much for you?
No. I was scared once or twice. I was attacked left, right and centre. I was put on a kind of public trial in central London organised by the Evangelical Alliance, and 700 or 800 people showed up. People wrote to Oasis and said we weren’t Christians and stopped funding us. It was a hard time. But good people befriended me, you know.
Nine years later, you have provoked another storm with an article you wrote and posted on your website,4bit.ly/2jrcMYb titled ‘A Matter of Integrity’, which defends committed same-sex relationships. You said you wanted ‘a gracious and mature conversation’ about this issue. Did you get one?
I think a much more gracious and mature conversation than was conducted about the Atonement.
I’ve been attacked – I was expecting that – but nothing has been said to me that has even begun to come close to what is said to people who are gay, do you know? I’ve got friends who all their lives have been demonised and told they’re not welcome in churches, they’re less than God’s best, they need healing. So, that’s sustained me, really. I’ve thought: Boy, if I can’t take this…!
The funny thing is, I must have been rehabilitated since 2004, because people said then, ‘You’re not an evangelical. You’re not a Christian’ and now they’ve said all that again. So, somehow I must have got back in the door just enough to be kicked out again!
You can’t out-pastor God! He is love and truth, so to set the pastoral against the theological shows there’s a basic fault at the heart of your theology. If truth is different to love, we’re all in serious trouble
Well, the first thing is this: there’s nothing I’ve said that has not been said by many people. What I have done, though, is pull it all together and put it out there.
And why am I not a theologian? What you mean is, I don’t sit in a university all day and write books which only ever appear on the shelves of other academics. The truth is, if you sit in the academy you will come up with different answers sometimes to the ones you’d come up with if you were a pastor working with people. I’m a working pastor – I lead a church and I’m an employer of many people – and so my theology is hammered out in the reality of everyday life.
Somebody wrote to me [about this article]: ‘Pastorally, Steve, 100 per cent! Theologically, zero.’ And what is so funny about that is that God is the great Pastor. You can’t out-pastor him! God is love and truth, so to set the pastoral against the theological shows there’s a basic fault at the heart of your theology, doesn’t it? If truth is different to love, we’re all in serious trouble.
You have written: ‘I have formed my view … not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously.’
Presumably, the people who disagree with you have done exactly the same thing. Doesn’t that fact rather discredit the whole idea of ‘grappling’ with the Bible? People outside the church may suspect that the opposite conclusions you’ve come to have more to do with your different backgrounds and temperaments and so on – in your case, for example, your passion for inclusion.
I would say this: the Christian community is called to debate. We have to disagree but respect one another and recognise that we’re all in development. It’s strange, isn’t it: you talk to some Christians and they say: ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, and you’re in trouble because you disagree with me!’ Do they hope to grow over the next five years? Of course they do! And they do grow. And then they say: ‘Well, five years ago I used to think that but now I think this. But I’m right and you’re wrong!’
Scripture itself represents different views. We are not the People of the Book, are we, we’re the people of a library, and that library was written over at least 1,500 years, in several languages, by authors with different world views, and by its very nature it calls us to debate. It’s that debate we have with one another that is so important; and we believe, don’t we – I believe – that the Holy Spirit works through it. And I’m only one tiny voice in it. I’m not saying that anything I believe is true; it’s as I see it at the moment. That’s it. We’re always in development and always moving on. I hope that in a few years’ time there will be whole issues I’ve become aware of and am engaged in that right now I’m completely blind to. Because that’s Christ’s work in us.
With Stop the Traffik, you have confronted the reality of the buying and selling of human beings. When you read the rules on slave-trading in Leviticus,6Chiefly, Leviticus 25:44-46. See also eg Exodus 21:20-21. do you ever doubt the providence of God? I can’t help thinking that he could at least have given a hint back then that, like polygamy or Israel’s monarchy, slavery was ‘less than his best’.
We all have to do some serious work around the text of the Bible and how we understand it and use it – what I call ‘biblical literacy’. I’ll be doing some writing on exactly that question next year.
John’s Gospel says that Jesus is the Word of God. The writer to the Hebrews says: In former days, God spoke to us through prophets, but now, in his Son, we finally see God as he is. Well, that implies that we don’t see God as he truly is through some of those earlier writings. If it had all been revealed, through the Levitical code or through the prophets, there’d be no need for Jesus to come. But slowly, slowly, through the story of the people of Israel – who are called to be a light to the nations because God is the God of everyone and everything, he is not a tribal god – slowly, people learn: ‘I don’t want sacrifice, I want justice’ –
But even Jesus can give the wrong impression. When he said, ‘If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out,’ couldn’t the Spirit have said to him: ‘Uh, Jesus, in 1,500 years’ time the Inquisition is going to twist that line and use it to justify a lot of cruelty. Could you reword it slightly?’ Do you see what I mean?
Yeah, I do, I do, and I often have that thought. Look, I pray: ‘Lord, why didn’t you make it a little bit easier?’ But, you know, I think the point is that it’s the responsibility of the church to take the Bible very seriously and I don’t think the church has done so. Evangelicals are always telling me how important the Bible is, but they don’t read it a lot of the time, you know? We have to take it seriously.
Our sacred text can be read violently because it actually is violent. The other day, I heard someone telling a bunch of kids the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel and, you know, the fire from heaven – and [their message] was all about prayer. They didn’t mention at all the 450 prophets of Baal who get slaughtered at the end!71 Kings 18:16-40 Christians protest about [the video game] Call of Duty – it has got nothing on the story of Elijah!
We have to have a consistent approach to the whole Bible, both the texts we like and the texts we don’t like, rather than keep the ones we like and dump all the ones we don’t. We don’t like homosexuals, so we’ll keep those verses that say homosexuality is an abomination. Well, eating crustaceans is ‘an abomination’, too – but we like lobster!
People say that it emerges from Genesis 2 & 3 that, you know, it’s a man and a woman and that’s a ‘creation ordinance’. But the one conclusion the Bible draws from that creation story isn’t to do with homosexuality, it’s that this is the reason women can’t lead: it’s a creation ordinance! And the writer of 1 Timothy 2 goes further: not only does he say that women can’t lead because of the creation story – because ‘Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived’ – but then he says: ‘But women will be saved through childbearing.’81 Timothy 2:15 I mean, stick that in your pipe and smoke it! You know, like, what’s that about?
You’ve said that the Bible ‘is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity,’ which, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon, ‘continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s ongoing redemptive movement.’
So it has continued, through Augustine, and Luther – and Aquinas and Francis of Assisi, I guess –
And Spurgeon, and Stott – and Wright. But they’re all men.
OK, and Julian of Norwich, and Mother Teresa…
If God guided this conversation, why didn’t he bring women into it centuries and centuries ago?
The church’s job is not to be the puppet of the left or the right but to be the agent of bringing in the kingdom of God, working for it together – with all our differences
I mean, if you read Genesis 3 with an open mind, it suggests that Eve had to be deceived, by the craftiest creature on earth, before she would sin, but Adam just said: ‘Oh, if you’re eating it, I’ll have some, then.’ So, if you ask, ‘Who was the weaker, or the stupider, or the more malleable?’, it appears to have been Adam…
I think God is always struggling with us, and slowly we are getting there. Go back 200 years and people wouldn’t have thought that God could speak through a black person. Slowly we are learning – far too slowly – and I think we are at a point where more and more women are being called. We’ve got some great women who are theologians and church leaders.
You yourself have been, in many different ways, very influential, both in the church and in the wider society. You have the ear of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Has it all gone to your head? I heard once that you’re so busy you have to have your hair cut during Oasis staff meetings.
That’s not true! But it’s true that, because Oasis is large and we run schools and academies, people assume I’m a millionaire. They assume that all the time. And I’m a Baptist minister!
And, actually, I don’t think I have the ear of – well, I talk to them but so do a thousand other people. But if you were the Prime Minister, who would you listen to? You’re going to listen to the people who are active and engaged.
OK, so you may not be rich or mega-important; but, still, is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a good-looking, charismatic guy with a built-in tan to enter the kingdom of heaven?
A built-in tan – a built-in half-caste tan!
Well, first of all, I don’t think it has all gone to my head, but that’s for you to judge. But the truth about it is this: I was very lucky – in the Nineties, I got involved in media and became a presenter on GMTV, and a leader in my denomination wrote to me and said: Steve, be very careful: you’re getting involved with people of the world and they’ll lead you astray – and be particularly careful of the women, you know, because, you know…
And the thing is this: I am so grateful to God for that opportunity because I learnt in that world, when I was invited to all sorts of things – because everybody wants to know TV presenters – I met some wonderful people who’ve stayed my friends and I’ve learnt that they’re vulnerable and they’re weak and they’re struggling like me and I learnt that life is not easy for anyone and I learnt they’re all on a spiritual journey.
I did television for about 10 years, and then I went out of fashion. I used to walk down the high street and everybody recognised me. Everybody, you know? And now I walk down the high street and nobody knows me. And that’s a good thing as well, isn’t it?
And I lead a church, do you know? So, I turn up at a thing like [Greenbelt] and I give my best talk – well, a talk but nobody’s heard it before, or not for years – but in Waterloo I speak week in, week out, I pastor people, I work with people – and they’re not impressed by what you say, it’s who you are and so on.
Also, you know, I’ve been married for 33 years, I’ve struggled through, I know there have been one or two points at which our marriage could have easily failed and I could have turned from evangelical hero to evangelical zero just like that.
I’m a bit long in the tooth to be getting a big head. And I don’t even know that I’ll be alive when this gets published, do you know? Anyone building an empire is wasting their time, aren’t they?
No. Oasis is an element of the church.
And there should be no end to the church’s ambition?
I believe that the church should be involved [in providing welfare] because the big infrastructure companies, the G4Ss and Sercos of the world – and there are loads of them, aren’t there? – are picking up a hospital here, a school there and a prison there and so on, but the problem is constantly that the profit is being sucked out of the community and into someone’s pension fund or bonus or whatever. I think that churches – and not-for-profit organisations and community groups – need to step up to keep the value in the community.
It’s the task of the church to bring shalom – wellbeing, flourishing – to local communities. I think we are called to be prophetic – I don’t mean that in a big-headed way, I think every church is called to be prophetic. At Oasis we had our differences with the Labour government, we really did, and we have many differences with [the present] government. The church’s job is to see things God’s way and report on that, not to be the puppet of the left or the right but to be the agent of bringing in the kingdom of God, working for it together – with all our differences, debating away.
This edit was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Third Way.
Steve Chalke was born in 1955 and was educated at Davidson Secondary Modern and Heath Clarke Grammar School. He then studied for the Baptist ministry at Spurgeon’s College.
He was ordained in 1981 and served for four years as assistant minister at Tonbridge Baptist Church.
He founded Oasis Trust in 1985, initially to set up a hostel for the homeless in south London. It has since developed into a group of charities operating in 10 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
In 1996 he started the ‘integrated communications agency’ Oasis Media, and in 1997 Parentalk. In 2001, he launched Faithworks.
In 2003, he became leader of Christ Church & Upton (renamed Oasis Church Waterloo) in central London. It is now the centre of both a growing network of new Oasis churches and a global virtual community.
In 2004, he set up Oasis Community Learning, which now sponsors 34 academies in England: 19 primary, 13 secondary and two ‘all-through’.
Since 2006, he has been founding chair of Stop the Traffik, a global coalition of over 1,600 charities in 97 countries. In 2008, he was appointed a special adviser on community action to the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking.
In 2008, he set up the Oasis Charities (now People’s) Parliament.
He is the (co-)author of more than 40 books since 1987, including Intelligent Church (2006), Change Agents (2007) and Apprentice (2009). With Alan Mann, he has written The Lost Message of Jesus (2003) and Different Eyes: The art of living beautifully (2010). He contributes a monthly column to Christianity and is a frequent conference speaker. He was GMTV’s social-affairs correspondent from 1993 to ’99, and has also hosted his own series on social affairs on ITV, BBC1 and BBC Radio 4. Nowadays, he occasionally ‘pauses for thought’ on Radio 2.
He was created an MBE in 2004 for services to social inclusion. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1997, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
He married in 1980 and has four children.
Up-to-date as at 1 September 2013