Share It! is the magazine of Church Army, a society of evangelists who work within the Anglican Church worldwide. Their aim is to take the good news of Jesus Christ to people, as evidenced in their motto ‘Sharing faith through words and action’. The article below was featured in issue 1 of their magazine.
Ball of Fire
The unconditional friendship of a theatre chaplain helped top comic Bobby Ball come to faith in Christ. In an exclusive interview he encourages us to care before we share.
It was an unlikely friendship because they were worlds apart.
Max Wigley was a fresh-faced young chaplain at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre – still wet behind the ears but keen to bring the Good News of Christ to the hundreds of footloose entertainers who regularly walked the theatre’s boards.
Bobby Ball was a virtually unknown northern comic – aggressively determined to make it to the very top as the curly-haired, cheeky-faced half of the double act Cannon and Ball.
Fifteen years after they met the moustachioed master of mischief looks back to their first meeting with a profound sense of gratitude – and a warm twinkle in his eye.
‘We used to go to the discos, a group of us lads’ he smiles, ‘Max asked: “Can I come with you?” We said: “Not with that dog-collar on!”
‘So he took the collar off and used to boogie with us in the clubs. He became a good friend – in fact the only friend I had who believed in God.’
Over a decade later it was Max – and Max alone – that the now hugely-popular Bobby Ball turned to when he knew he needed to put his life into God’s hands.
Bobby Ball’s professional career took the course of many similar personalities – striving for years to eventually become an overnight success. His conversion to Christ bears an uncanny similarity.
It’s a story of a young minister’s unseen and persistent caring and patience that eventually led to what the crinkly-faced laughmaker calls ‘the moment the sledgehammer fell’.
Now, some four years after that initial step of faith, Bobby Ball is taking time out from his hectic TV recording schedule to encourage others to take the long-term view of evangelism – to build up friendships and earn the right to share by showing the way they care.
Before his conversion Bobby had a reputation in show business as a tearaway. ‘Out of seven nights, I would be falling drunk on six of them. I had a violent temper, too.’ he admits, with disarming honesty.
Yet I thought I was happy – and I suppose I would have gone on thinking I was happy if I hadn’t found Jesus.’
When the wacky, brace-pulling antics were over each night, the tough little wisecracker sensed a deepening dissatisfaction with life.
‘I met up with Max again – at the Alhambra – after we became famous. He had patience, an inner peace. I guess he wanted to win me for Christ, but he never pushed it once. He just came in as a mate and it was me who started asking him; “What’s it all about? Why do you do it, Max?”
‘I had these rumblings, these guilty feelings and I felt like a mouse on a treadmill. I wanted to get off.’
It was at the Alhambra that Max Wigley sensed it was time to roll the Ball into divine action.
‘Max said God could forgive me and I could start again. Then I hesitated for maybe two weeks before the big step. Can I go without that – I like that – can I really give it up?
‘The big step seemed a canyon. You think it’s going to make you into a monk.’
He eventually asked Max to come round and see him. It was then ‘the sledgehammer’ hit. ‘Max said that if prayed, I would be forgiven. Something made me get on my knees – and I only got one line out.
The Holy Spirit hit me and I just knew I was a totally different person.’
Like so many young converts Bobby was immediately fired up with zeal. The world was going to change – starting with the conversion of his wife Yvonne. Instantly.
‘I got Max over and I hovered around willing her to do it praying for the sledgehammer to fall,’ he chuckles. Nothing happened.
In fact it was over three months later that Mike Spratt, an engineer with a sound and lighting company called Wigwam, who were on tour with Cannon and Ball, was found huddled in a dressing room with Yvonne.’
‘Rumour got around that they were having an affair,’ smiles Bobby, ‘But he was leading her to Christ. I had to learn that God chooses his time and his way to do things.’
Firm Friends: Off stage Bobby Ball (left) and bis partner Tommy Cannon are still ‘mates’. ‘He’s not fully convinced about being a Christian himself, but he’s been very supportive of me.’ says Bobby. I pray for Tommy every night – after all, it took me 10 years to come to Jesus’
But Bobby found becoming a Christian was no immediate bed of roses. ‘I found it very hard, so hard, to read my Bible. It’s taken three years, and only in the last three months do I really enjoy it.’
Among his colleagues in showbusiness he has had mixed reactions. ‘I suppose some now regard me as a religious looney. But it doesn’t bother me – I’m not the looney. I’m not the one who’s losing out.
‘If they’re cynical about the change in me, it’s because of ignorance. They just don’t know.’
‘I only realised this since I started reading Timothy – I just couldn’t get to grips with loving your fellow man – even those who call me an idiot for believing what I do.
It’s only in the past three months I’ve come to realise what it’s all about – and I feel sorry for those who don’t know what I know,’
Reaching others for Christ, reckons Bobby, is all about caring. ‘I like to think I was a caring person before I became a Christian, Even if you are not a Christian, and you care for someone that’s God at work in you.
‘When you become a Christian, what God does – and I think it’s out of order – is to make you care for people you don’t necessarily like. They say: “You’re a fool!” and have you to say: ‘Yes, I know’. When what you want to do is smack ’em in the mouth.’
Bobby’s partner Tommy Cannon, he says has been marvellous, ‘He’s been very supportive. It seems to him like a huge step to take – I know, because I’ve been there. And I like to think I’ve influenced him a little bit.
‘He’s not fully convinced yet, but then it took me ten years – and I pray for him every night,”
One of the spin-offs they can both see is the increase in their audiences. We get bigger family audiences now,’ reckons Bobby. They know they’re going to get a clean, funny show from us. And they seem to like it.’
He doesn’t push his Christian faith on others, but he is proud of it. ‘If I meet anyone new, I slip in early in the conversation that I’m a born-again Christian. If they want to take up the point they can – if not we just carry on talking.’
And those who knew him in the old hell-raising days are surprised at the change.
We met some dancers after a gig in Birmingham and we were talking with them. I’d known one of them before and she just couldn’t fathom the change in me. She was asking so many questions – and that happens a lot.’
Rock On, Tommy: Comedian Bobby Ball (left) gives Cliff Richard (centre) a musical lesson. Both artists make no secret of their Christian faith.
So what advice would he give people who want to share their faith with others? ‘If they go end pray to Jesus, then Jesus will be with them when they approach people.’
‘If they get rejected, so does Jesus. If they can grasp that fact then they shouldn’t feel bad about failure because they know they aren’t walking alone, they’re walking with Jesus.’
One of the commonly-available text-cards that has helped him witness to others is ‘Footprints In the Sand’. Two sets of footprints merge into one on a sandy beach,
‘What touches people is that Jesus is there carrying them even when they’re not aware of it,’ says Bobby, who still gets choked with emotion when he describes the caring aspect of God.
‘I think if Jesus were alive today he’d be a really together person; he’d have street cred. He would go and sit in Soho, like he did in Bible times, and get talking to the people.’
But that lovable and child-like defiance and aggression returns to this rough diamond of a disciple when he gets on to the subject of the church in Britain. ‘The churches just don’t try hard enough to reach out.’
He values his friendship with Dave Berry, whose Servant Arts Trust, supports and counsels Christians and non-Christians in the world of arts, media and entertainment. Through the Trust Bobby makes occasional appearances to share his faith.
To start with I wanted to sing all gospel songs. Now I talk about Jesus as well. I love to tell others about him and how he changed my life.
‘I want to talk about him so that people get over the stigma they think is attached to being a Christian. You don’t have to be boring to be a Christian!’
The launch of Share it was featured in ‘Renewal’ (a general Christian magazine), November 1990. The text read: Comedian Bobby Ball helping to launch the Church Army magazine Share It! It is being published three times a year as a ‘no-nonsense guide to witness and evangelism’ and is part of the Church Army’s Faith 4 2000 project linked with the decade of evangelism. On the left is editor Donald Fadyen and on the right Church Army Chief Secretary Philip Johanson.