A hammer for God
Roy Crowne is a nuts-and-bolts evangelist who fixes things. At present he’s driving home an inspiring message for churches to do mission together. Clive Price lifts the lid on the man behind HOPE...
He grabbed a hammer and hurled it across the workshop. As it crashed among the tyres and tools, it stopped an annoying little colleague in his tracks.
‘Pilgrim!’ he cried. ‘I didn’t realise you could be so real!’
The troublesome workmate had been testing and tormenting. But now he was suitably stunned. 'I get it now,’ he said. ‘You can break. You can crack. Just like the rest of us.’ From that moment, ‘Pilgrim’ – a.k.a. Roy Crowne – enjoyed respect. ‘He had me in this little holy bubble,’ said Roy, ‘thinking I’d never do anything wrong and always be good. He reached a point of reality.’
A mere 20, Roy was a young Christian lad sweating it out as a mechanic. People know him now as former chief of Youth for Christ, currently leading the nationwide initiative Hope. He’s fixing mission instead of motors. He likes to drive a point home, but the hammer stays in the box these days.
From his base in Rugby, he travels across the UK, stirring up churches, groups and individuals to join together on a four-year journey into the heart of their local communities. The aim is to share the Christian story in word and action – ending with a whole year of all-out mission in 2014.
It’s a continuation of Hope08. That project saw countless Christians working together across their communities over a 12-month period. And their activity emerged from urban or rural churches – irrespective of tradition.
The whole thing came from what’s been described as a ‘crazy God idea’. Roy had met with Mike Pilavachi of Soul Survivor and Andy Hawthorne of The Message in 2006 – to talk about mobilising churches for mission.
The idea grew. Thousands of Christians all over Britain grabbed the vision and were moved to reach out to their communities in all manner of creative ways. For a whole year, they literally put their faith into action. It was an elaborate range of initiatives and events. They included – joint praise celebrations, fun days, gardening projects, street evangelism, give-aways, healing teams, acts of kindness, street clean-ups and sports ministries.
And now it’s started all over again. But what kind of journey led Roy to this point? What made him think doing some practical stuff in the community could make such an impact?
The son of a Fleet Street printer, you could say Roy himself was a bit of a media event. He started life as an East Ender, but the family moved to Borehamwood.
‘Rough’ is how Roy describes the town those days. In fact, it’s almost the Hollywood of England – as loads of famous movies have been made there, such as ground-breaking horror movie ‘The Shining’. Jack Nicholson wielded an axe in that one, even more menacing than Roy’s humble hammer.
Borehamwood also enjoys the privilege of being Simon Cowell’s hometown. And strangely enough, it’s one of the featured settings on the zombie role-playing game ‘Urban Dead’. You could say the place gets under your skin.
‘You just become streetwise very quickly,’ Roy said of those formative years. ‘And in the light of that, you have to survive – not bullying – but just survive. And to do that you’ve got to be pretty clued up.’
For all of its shortcomings, the town also became the place of Roy’s second birth. ‘That’s where I encountered Christianity,’ he remembered. ‘I basically came to faith as a result of one person sharing their faith with me.
‘I had no church background. My brother went to Sunday school once and didn’t like it, so I was never sent. So it’s kind of an interesting connection that he didn’t go on in the faith, yet I did.’
Roy was a pupil at Hillside, one of the original settings for TV drama series ‘Grange Hill’. Within two weeks he’d read the entire Bible – ‘to find out what happened to me’ – and went to see the headmaster.
He put an idea to him. How about taking an assembly? ‘I don’t like doing them,’ he told young Roy, ‘you can take two!’ So the 16-year-old evangelist let them have it.
‘I realised going public about your faith changes everything,’ Roy recalled. ‘I got involved in ministry, led a youth group, and my whole mission was basically to convert the school. I was passionate about seeing things change.’
When the inevitable career choice came along, Roy picked engineering. ‘I did what they called a sandwich course,’ he said. ‘So you went to college two days a week and then worked the rest of the time.’
It was the grit and grind of garage life for five years. ‘I loved it,’ he confessed. ‘It’s kind of raw, the language is a bit choice and the comments about the customers – you just discover a whole stack of stuff.’
His spare time was spent in the church youth group. But he also played rugby. ‘On the pitch, people would call me “Vicar”,’ he said. ‘I was prop forward in the scrum. They’d say, “Give it to the Vicar – he’s got God’s power”. And if I’d get tackled, they’d say, “Satan got you that time”.
‘In the bar afterwards I used to always drink shandy because I felt I should. They’d talk to me about all their issues.’ But when his mates said they were off for a ‘night on the town’, Roy said he wouldn’t be going. He knew it could end up being extreme.
‘I said, “That’s a line too far – I don’t do that”. And I discovered respect. But I didn’t then say, “I’m holy”. I was with them, but I knew where the lines were…We’ve got to help men to be as gracious as they can, but know where the lines are,’ he reflected, ‘and when you draw the lines, people respect you.’
At 21, he went to his church elders – ‘the first time I’d gone to see them’ – to ask them what they felt he should do with his future. ‘They’d obviously heard me preach,’ joked Roy, ‘so they told me I should do theology.’
So his next destination was Moorlands College, Dorset. There he had the second most important life-changing encounter of his earthly existence. He met his future wife.
It hadn’t been planned that way. ‘I vowed when I went to Moorlands I would give that time to God and I wouldn’t get into any relationship,’ said Roy. ‘But we clearly became attracted to each other.’
Flossie was from a Northern Ireland farming family. One of no fewer than 11 children, she was a member of the Church of Ireland. Flossie had already started a youth work and served in a drug rehabilitation centre.
‘She’s passionate about caring and loving people,’ said Roy. ‘She thought she was on her way to Africa – but we just connected.’ As a result of that connection, Roy travelled to Northern Ireland to see her folks.
He remembers driving through the little village where Flossy lived – ‘which had one pub, one post office’ – in a car with English plates. It was the height of the Troubles. Rather inconveniently, Roy had chosen one of the dominant male fashions of the time. He was a skinhead.
‘Some people, I’m sure, thought I was a soldier,’ he said, ‘because I’ve always had a short haircut.’
People would flock to meet the young lad from England who was going out with one of their local girls. ‘In London no one knew anything,’ he recalled, ‘but in this village community, everybody knew everything!’
Roy and Flossie got married a year after college. An eternal romantic, Roy took her from the misty, waterfall-strewn mountains of Mourne and brought her to the concrete beauty of Borehamwood.
He led a church for a year. ‘It was a bit early for a young evangelist like me to run a congregation,’ is how Roy summed it up. But he didn’t want to return to the job market. Well-known preachers Clive Calver and Eric Delve asked him if he’d join Youth for Christ.
Roy also became part of Eric’s ‘Down To Earth’ mission team, along with another young preacher called J John: ‘J John said, “I want to be the evangelist to the nation” and I said, “I want to mobilise hundreds of evangelists to be evangelists to the nation”.
‘He then went off and set up Philo Trust, and I stayed with Youth for Christ and constantly invested in finding those young evangelists to get the job done and to see it happen.’
Roy did that for 13 years – from putting a band and theatre company on the road, to leading university missions. ‘Flo came on a few missions with me,’ he remembered, ‘but as soon as we had children, that all changed. She felt her calling was to them. And she did an amazing job.’ They had two sons – John and Michael.
When Youth for Christ’s National Director Lowell Sheppard moved on, Roy took his place. ‘I realised you don’t see other people in ministry as competitors,’ he said, ‘you need to build relationship with them. So I met with Mike Pilavachi and Andy Hawthorne quite often, and we just talked.
‘It was off the back of that, we said we should do something together. We did Festival Manchester in 2000. Then Mike said, “I think we should do London”. We partnered together again for Soul In The City.’
The trio felt the emphasis of ‘word and deed’ mission could be something from God rather than just themselves. Over a drink and a chat, they pondered the impossible – how about mobilising the whole nation into mission?
‘So there we were, all running youth ministries, yet giving time to make this thing happen, on a skeleton staff,’ he said. ‘Hope08 happened. And it was amazing.’ The year-long mission came to a close. That was that.
Roy believed his time leading Youth for Christ was also ending. ‘I actually did 13 years,’ he said, ‘and it was a brilliant time, an amazing journey. But I really felt it was God’s time for me to step down. I was given the honour of being Vice President – and I’m still involved and love the ministry.’
With the Hope08 office closed and all the documents in the shredder, he took a year’s sabbatical. ‘I’d been praying and thinking,’ he recalled. ‘I’d kind of looked at a few things but none of them had really caught me.’
Other leaders from Hope08 told him they should start it all up again. ‘It was a real shock,’ said Roy. ‘I was really concerned with integrity because I said we told everybody 08 – and now to go back to them and say, but not really…’
One thing that convinced him was a conversation with leadership team member Paul Bayes – who’s since become a bishop. ‘Everywhere I’ve been,’ he told Roy, ‘everybody’s saying to me, “We’ve seen some other things, but this was truly catalytic, yet it didn’t go far enough…it should live on”.’
It was too big a temptation. ‘This has been your dream since you joined Youth for Christ,’ Roy told himself, ‘to see mission on every church’s agenda.’ He thought he could give himself to that.
So the re-evangelisation of the nation is back on the agenda. ‘But we’re only going to do that if we can work together,’ said Roy. He also feels Hope offers a great opportunity for men to get involved.
‘Recognising your manhood is really important in faith,’ he said. ‘And in the light of that there’s a kind of risk, there’s a challenge, and Christianity doesn’t make us nice – it wants that risk and that challenge of a man to push out and do it and have a go.’
He admits he ‘hasn’t written the book’ on men and church. ‘But I think a lot of the stuff we do doesn’t get men. A lot of the preaching is not relating to my life. It relates to theology but doesn’t apply to my life.
‘And I think what I’m looking for is – and this is where the evangelist in me comes – an outward focus. So I don’t want to just be entertained and amused, I want to do something. So I sit here, I sing some songs, hear the word – which is all good – but what am I going to do?’
Roy reflects the frustration of the average bloke. ‘What I need is a visionary leader to say, “This is where we’re going, guys, are you in? It will cost you everything, but we’re going to have a go, we’re going to get there”.
‘Imagine it completely different like that. I think that’s the kind of church men want to be a part of.’