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Interview: Phil Williams, national director, Christian Surfers UK

29 April 2016

‘I personally believe God created the waves: our playground’

Christian Surfers UK was formed about 24 years ago in North Devon, based originally around Croyde Baptist Church. A teenager, Simon Twitchen, visited Australia and saw Christian Surfers there, and decided it could work in the UK.


It is part of a worldwide movement, which now covers 36 countries, of which ten are in Europe. There are thousands of volunteers in the ministry throughout the world. Our aim is quite simple: “To give every surfer in every surfing community the opportunity to know and follow Christ.”


At the heart of the ministry is the fact that the members are surfers, and are also passionate about their faith; so our witness starts with ourselves as individuals. We have around 20 groups in the UK. We organise an annual gathering, and we run one of the biggest and longest-running surf contests in the UK, the Jesus Surf Series.


We partner and serve at most of the big surf contests throughout the UK, and we aim to break down preconceived ideas about what faith and Christianity is about.


I first got involved with Christian Surfers just over 22 years ago. I saw a tiny advert in a surf magazine, asking me: was I passionate about my surfing and my faith? If so, get in touch. I attended a small Anglican church in Nailsea, near Bristol, at the time, where I was heavily involved with the youth work; but obviously to combine my twin passions was the ideal organisation for me. At that time, I was working for a logistics firm, Excel, running large distribution centres.


I don’t know whether I would claim to be really good at surfing, but, I suppose you could say that, as someone who has surfed for over 30 years, I have got a fair amount of experience. I first learnt when we were involved in the first skateboard craze in the 1970s. We used to hitchhike down to North Devon to hire surfboards during the day, and camp in the sand dunes and skateboard in the evenings. Nowadays, you would never be allowed to do that, especially at the age of 15. In those days there were no surf schools; so we just taught ourselves to surf.


To get stood up on a surfboard initially is not that hard, particularly if you have tuition. However, to start standing on an unbroken wave takes an awful amount of practice — but that’s where surfing for many people really begins. The feeling of capturing that wave, which will exist only once, and riding it all the way to the shore is amazing — especially when you think that the wave could have travelled 3000 miles just to get you. There is a long-known saying: “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” That pretty much sums it up.


To many people, surfing is sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, and the wild-party life. While there is an element of that, surfing is also a sport that many people take very seriously. In fact, it is more than a sport: it’s a lifestyle.


I personally believe God created the waves (our playground), and when we’re sitting out back, seeing the beauty all around, I think many surfers think of some form of spirituality. Whether they think of Christianity or other means is down to them, but I think we have great opportunity to share what we believe with them.


There is also a saying: there are never any atheists when the surf in Hawaii gets above 20 feet.


Many people in the UK surf all year round. Wetsuit technology has improved tremendously to make this more achievable. Yes, it is still pretty cold paddling out in the ocean when the air temperature is below zero, and the sea temperature is around 5°C; but it’s either that, or give up for the winter, which you don’t want to do. In the past month, I’ve been fortunate enough to surf in both Norway and Holland, both of which were amazing experiences, but considerably cold.


Most of the best surf can be found in the winter, although autumn can also be a very special time. Surf in the UK in the summer tends to be quite small — indeed, it could be flat for weeks on end.


We have a lot of contact with local churches. In fact, there are more and more church partnerships forming around the coast, but also inland. Going back many years, very few churches understood about mission to surfers; but, thankfully, much of that has now changed, and there are a growing number of proactive churches that love to work with us.


Surfing is an extreme sport, and people will continually be pushing the boundaries, with some of the big-wave riders riding waves of 90 foot plus, and searching the world to try to find the biggest waves on the planet. It is a dangerous sport, and, sadly, every year surfers do lose their lives, either through drowning, or shark attacks, and also hitting their heads on rock or other people’s boards. I think the adrenaline buzz for surfers is a big part of the sport, and for us that is another area where we can share our faith.


Christian Surfers work closely with Christian skaters, with numerous skate outreaches. We have our own mobile skate-park, which we tow around to events, including Malmesbury Abbey and, over Easter, Gloucester Cathedral — fantastic events in amazing venues.


Even at the age of 54, I still skateboard myself, and have been running skate outreaches for over 20 years. We believe that God loves skateboarders and scooter riders as well as any other person in the world, and therefore the best people to reach these people are those that do the sport themselves.


It’s fair to say I do work hard and play hard. In the past two weeks, I have been heading up the Gloucester Cathedral skate festival; I have had a couple of surfs myself after and before meetings; I have spoken at the Christian Surfers Holland conference; I have been involved with the board meeting at the Tubestation surf church in Polzeath; and, the day after this, I am heading to Sweden to meet the board of Christian Surfers there in a newly formed surf ministry.


Fifteen years ago, I left a very well-paid job, and stepped out in faith to run Christian Surfers. Apart from getting married, that was the biggest decision I have made. It obviously had huge indications for my life at the time, but also for the future, such as a pension, etc.


Faith is also a massive part of organising events outside, when we need conditions to be either dry or warm for the skate park, or we need waves for the surf contests. I’ve lost most of my hair, faced with the challenges of the British weather. But God does amazing things, calming storms and bringing waves from nothing. Without faith, I would not be doing this job.


We would like to see Christian Surfers have a presence in every surfing community in the UK and beyond; and I would love to see a centre for training and development and discipleship in the UK. It would also be good to replace our current van, which has completed 180,000 miles.


I was born in Nigeria. My father was a missionary: in fact, my father was also born in Nigeria, as his father was a missionary. I had three brothers, no sisters. I’m sure that drove my parents potty — in particular, my mum; but it was a lively house.


I was a vicar’s kid in Weston-super-Mare when I first came to faith. At some stage you have to find your own feet, and I did that through Crusaders [now called Urban Saints]. They were a bunch of people I trusted, and appeared to share my mantra of living life to the full. That was at the age of around 13 or 14.


My wife, Annie, and I have spent over 25 years doing voluntary youth work, as well as my heading up Christian Surfers for the past 20 years — 14 of them living by faith.


Currently, we are living in Nailsea — nowhere near waves. We attend our local Anglican church, Holy Trinity. We have two fantastic children: Abi, 21, and Joe, 19.


My favourite sound has to be waves lapping on the shore, or the sound of the Severn Bore coming round the bend in Gloucestershire.


We have an incredible responsibility to love and look after the planet, and when I see people throwing rubbish out of cars, or the amount of litter we have to pick up on the beaches, I get so annoyed.


I love being around people, networking with them; but my family comes first. I’m also very happy when I’m sitting on a surfboard about to catch a wave, travelling the world, or when my beloved Chelsea win a football match (though it’s not been a good season for that).


Prayer is obviously very important for me. I pray for divine appointments on a daily basis, to have the opportunity to share my faith in a relevant way, for the surfers of the UK and beyond to find Christ.


If I were locked in a church, it would be great to have Nelson Mandela with me, Bono from U2, and Kelly Slater, the 11-times world surfing champion. That would be an interesting conversation.


Phil Williams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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