The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
James Robson, new Director of Keswick Ministries, explains his views on Christian unity and the role of believers in a secularised society.
About 15,000 Christians attend the Keswick Convention every summer. The gathering takes place in the Lakes District (North West of England) and is described by many as one of the best opportunities to listen to good Bible teaching.
During the 2017 event, Evangelical Focus interviewed the new Director of Keswick Ministries, James Robson.
We asked him about the role of the gathering in a secularised context and about how the town of Keswick responds to the arrival of thousands of evangelical Christians from all over the UK. Robson also explained his vision of serving future generations of believers.
Q. Getting to the end of Week 1 of the 2017 Convention, how would you analyse how things are going so far?
A. This is the first time overseeing the Keswick Convention. I have no other benchmark to compare with. But I am extremely thankful to the Lord for the fact that the Word is being preached well, and we are thrilled to have so many people here. I am also thankful for the fact that the youth work and the children work are going so well: people are being saved. Generally, I am just delighted and people seem to very positive.
Q. How do you think the town of Keswick (citizens, the town hall, etc.) see the presence of thousands of Christians here every summer? What do you want to offer to Keswick’s citizens, regardless of their faith?
A. I think there is a varied response. Some are very glad about us being present because they like the moral values, the kindness in lots of ways of conventioners… And accommodation is fully booked in the town.
On the other hand, there might be people who are not so favourable. Either because they would not call themselves Christians and do not like the values Keswick holds to, or perhaps the pubs, for instance, do not do as big a trade as in other times of the year.
Obviously, there has been a relationship between Keswick and the convention for 142 years, and I think there have been some low points as well as some high points. But we are working very hard to have a genuine partnership in some ways, as much as we can do to be a benefit to the town and be involved with the town.
We had an excellent meeting with some of the town councillors and press a few days ago.
We are passionate about Jesus Christ, He is who we want to offer to people regardless of their faith.
We want people to behave in Christ-like ways wherever they are and whatever they are doing in this town, that is really important to us.
The premises we have are often used by different groups of people, and we are exploring ways, especially with the new Derwent project, to provide some facilities for conferences, etc.
Q. You mention the Derwent project, a new site in what used to be a pencil factory. You hope you will be running the 2019 convention there. What is the most exciting aspect of this project?
A. There are a number of ways in which this is incredibly exciting. One is the unified site, which gives us more chances for interaction and team work, with children and young people. Another exciting thing is that we will be able to develop teaching training in other times of the year. We want to provide a resource for churches in the north of England and the south of Scotland, for the rest of the UK, and beyond.
But fundamentally, the building is really only a means to the end. The end is to equip new generations to stay faithful to Christ, to be trained up and to keep walking with Him. We want to offer spiritual refreshment and renewal in this place. The building is going to be wonderful, but the kingdom is not about buildings as an end in itself.
Q. There have been dozens, if not hundreds of people giving small donations to this project. How are you feeling about this?
A. Since I started, and even before, one of the things that has impressed me is this extraordinary sense of commitment and family, the care and love for Keswick Ministries, which expresses itself in that way, in sacrificial giving and support.
This is deeply humbling and moving, I find. The Lord has richly blessed them and their families through Keswick Ministries, through the convention particularly, in the past, and they are very keen for this to continue.
We obviously have a way to go, but we are thrilled that we are way ahead of where we expected to be at this point and time. We have repaid the trust that helped us to purchase the freehold fifteen months or so early, which is incredibly exciting.
We have seen the Lord provide, he has actually been providing us 142 years, and we are excited to trust Him for the next steps.
Q. How would you define the identity of Keswick Ministries in the context of many theological debates happening in the UK, such as the authority of Scripture, homosexuality, the role of Christians in society…
A. This is challenging question. Fundamentally, our ministry is about the spiritual renewal of God’s people for his service in the world. The three strands to that are: hearing God’s Word, becoming like God’s Son and serving God’s mission. Each one of those speaks, to some extent, over against alternatives.
So, for instance, “hearing God’s world” means that we are passionate about listening to Scripture and sitting under rather than over it. That is one of the fundamental things.
Then, “becoming like God’s Son” is not merely about head knowledge, but is about Christlikeness and transformation. There are many that go in the name of Christ, but sometimes we do not behave as we should.
“Serving God’s mission” is seeing God’s heart for the world nations, and keeping that mission right at the heart.
We believe these core ingredients should be at the centre of the church’s life in the UK. But we also believe of course, as our motto says, “All one under Christ Jesus”, that we are committed to work across denominations. It is not about which denomination someone belongs to, but one’s commitment to Jesus Christ and His Word.
Q. The UK is a country that has experienced the Reformation. Now, as in the rest of Europe, secularism is very strong. Some days ago, Prime Minister Theresa May put pressure on the Anglican Church to accept homosexual marriages inside churches. What do you think Christians in other countries could learn from the lessons Christians have learned here in the UK?
A. Again, this is a very big question, which goes beyond Keswick. But the relation between gospel and culture, church and politics, is immensely complex.
I am always very struck, in 1 Kings 18, to read about Elijah and Ahab. You find, basically speaking, three kinds of approach of the people of God at that point and time.
You have Elijah who is the confronter, he confronted Ahab and spoke up courageously, boldly. You have the prophets in the cave, which was their only way to stay alive, to some degree they withdraw. And you have Obadiah, who was in King Ahab’s court, with Jezebel - and one thinks, how can you be a Christian in that court? So, it is interesting, in that day, you had different people and responses.
In the Christian world you will have different responses in the current days. Some will try to stay within politics, and try to be a witness in that world. You will have others that will confront the culture. And others who will, in a sense, withdraw. And sometimes in History all these strategies have been necessary.
My concern is always that we judge other people for what they do or do not do. We need to stand together, always fix our eyes on Jesus Christ and the gospel, and not lose sight of that. There needs to be solidarity and love and respect one for another.
We believe that engaging with the public sphere, and not becoming pietistic and withdrawing, is really important.
We have had Keswick lectures in the past on that kind of question, in which we have tried to help people to be thoughtful, humble, Christ-like and gracious in responding and engaging, regardless with whom they are working. Listening to other people’s points of view, carefully understanding. Not going with slogans or soundbites, knocking other people back.
We have nothing, if we are not Christlike.
Q. For the first time, there have been armed police officers patrolling the convention this year. You have explained that this is for the protection and safety of everyone, and that there is no specific threat on the convention. What has been the response of conventioners so far?
A. Sadly, in a sense, this is a point in time in which large gatherings of people, Christian and non-Christian, are facing potential terror threats. But people have adapted very well.
Q. Finally, where do you hope to see Keswick Ministries in ten years time?
A. The Lord has a way of surprising us, so I would never want to put a limit or a blueprint, because the wind of God’s Spirit blows where He wills. Nonetheless, you need to have a plan and a purpose in mind.
The key things will be to be on a unified site with a newly built conference centre, and running good quality teaching and training events during other times of the year, which Keswick fellowships around the UK or around the world, as well as other organisations, churches and Christians will benefit from.
The combination of spiritual and physical refreshment and renewal in a beautiful place, experiencing genuine unity in orthodox evangelical Christian faith.
We’re thrilled to have such an age range of people, but obviously many people are older, because the church demographic is older. We long to see a continued growth in families and young people attending the convention. All are welcome, old and young.