This blog episode concludes Chapter One of a thesis exploring discipleship goals within the HTB network. The last two episodes have shown HTB’s early dependency (in the late 1970s-1990s) on an ‘unwanted/unfortunate uncle’ – Iwerne Minster, and a ‘forgotten father’ – John Stott. This episode brings us right up to the present day and considers the major stylistic differences in teaching in the 2020s between Stott’s former church All Souls Langham Place, and HTB. As seen last week this is a significant comparison as in the late 1970s, 80s and even 90s the teaching formats of both churches were much closer aligned, with Raymond Turvey and John Collins in particular deliberately pursuing and propagating a teaching ministry that echoed Stott in style while increasingly introducing charismatic content.
Teaching Topics at HTB – A snapshot from 2020
However, this pattern of trying to grow disciples through systematic expositional teaching has been shaken off in many HTB network churches, and particularly at HTB itself. An emphasis on ‘practical and positive’ teaching however has endured. This can be illustrated in tabular form below with an 11 week review of teaching at HTB from autumn 2020:
|23/8||Living with purpose in uncertain times||‘living in uncertain times and how God uses these times to bring new things from within us’||Jonny Gumbel (Nicky Gumbel’s son, on staff at St Peter’s Brighton)||Esther 4|
|30/8||A time to cross||‘Jacob questioned, struggled and had confrontation with God, but he still steps forward and overcame his struggles – we have a decision to cross into all that God calls us to’||Pete Wynter (associate vicar HTB)||Genesis 32|
|7/9||Don’t lose your voice||‘Don’t be afraid… your God given voice has been given to speak strength to those who are struggling and comfort those who are having a hard time’||Stephen Foster (teaching pastor at HTB)||Acts 18:9-10|
|13/9||‘I am the way the truth and the life’||‘There’s nothing wrong in working in modelling but God had a different purpose for me… I didn’t have a sense of direction… sometimes it’s the smallest seeds that we sow into people’s lives that can have such an impact.’||Tash Kusi, former model and trainee pastor.||John 14:6|
|20/9||In stressful times put first things first||‘You don’t need to do anything to earn God’s presence, or to earn God’s favour, you can come exactly as you are.’||Nicky Gumbel||Luke 10:38-42|
|27/9||A conversation with Nicky Gumbel||Shared experience of grief (Mick Hawkins) ‘Care for the poor, weak and vulnerable…’ ‘finding love, finding purpose, finding a sense of belonging…’ ‘church must take a lead on social justice [not criticise] – it’s about love, God’s love done through humility – the model of Jesus’. Successes of Alpha and HTB’s social outreach ‘Love Your Neighbour’ campaign.||Nicky Gumbel||Isaiah 61:1|
|4/10||The Power of Love||‘what I didn’t expect to encounter was the amazing love from the people I met [at HTB] eyes so twinkly, had this life I knew I didn’t have, so attractive, such love… came on Alpha, heard how you could have this relationship with Jesus… first time I was prayed for to be filled with the Spirit it felt like Jesus himself stepped into my pit. Felt like liquid love was filling me.’ ‘Non-judgemental love and the power of the Holy Spirit’ ‘Love that gives resilience, courage, hope… and helps anxiety’ Testimony about Love Your Neighbour… Make church famous for Jesus’ love.||Sarah Jackson (CEO church revitalisation trust)||John 13:34-35|
|11/10||The faithfulness of God||Over 8.2 million people in the UK suffer with anxiety disorder…so I want to talk to you about how to live in God’s peace. It’s easy to turn in to yourself but God calls us to Himself… when we feel lost and out of control even if nothing else changes he will give us the peace of God – a peace that confuses people when they see us.||Jemima Haley (HTB Alpha curate)||Phil 4:6,7|
|18/10||How to make the most of your next 6 months||How to ‘bloom where you are planted’ during this challenging season… historical reflections on verse quoted from ‘Bible in One Year’ readings this week… ‘in the middle of this period there is HOPE’ God has a good purpose for you… where you are right now is where God wants you to be… bringing hope to those around you. (final 25% is a 5-minute+ ministry time invoking the Holy Spirit to give hope)||Nicky Gumbel||Jer 29:11|
|25/10||10 words to transform your year||Exposition of ‘Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer’ ‘encouraging us to root our joy in Jesus, stand firm in the midst of trouble, and turn our worries in prayer’ – ‘If your joy is dependent of circumstances it is always going to be limited by them.’||Stephen Foster||Romans 12:12|
|1/11||How to find an unshakeable hope||‘she found an unshakeable hope in the person of Jesus’ ‘where do you put your hope’… ‘the love, the hope, the healing that you can have in Jesus has no limit’ finishes with prayer to invite Jesus into your life… ,||Katherine Chow||Mt 12:20|
This time period gave a particularly interesting snapshot into HTB as it was during the pandemic and all teaching was online. ThThese consecutive weeks are illustrative, but not unusual in having a wide range of speakers, standalone topics and diving into scripture at well-known passages conducive to making positive and practical comments on the presenting issue of the day which was clearly coping with Covid-19. Note how 8 out of 11 speakers use 2 bible verses or less for their core message.
In the Autumn term of 2019, prior to COVID-19 and any need to make a response to this, the series presented was on ‘Life Hacks’ covering ten topics such as ‘passion over anger’, ‘forgiveness over resentment’, ‘trust over worry.’ This was again presented by an assortment of speakers and a medley of favourite bible verses interwoven with simple application and uplifting illustrative and often personal stories.
Not all teaching at HTB jumped around Scripture so much. An earlier series that year was focused on standout characters in the Book of Judges. This had a piecemeal approach looking at some but not all of the so-called ‘imperfect heroes’ and branded each talk with purposeful titles such as ‘how to build strength of character’ or ‘how to have confidence’.
‘How to…’ is the most common descriptor for talks on the HTB archive, ranging from ‘how to live with hard times’ to ‘how to change a city’. The second most common category (although they overlap) is about improving your (own) life: ‘living a joy-filled life’, ‘reorienting and rededicating our lives’, ‘how to have a stand-out year’.
A simple contrast with the All Souls Langham Place sermon series over the 11 week period tabulated above is illustrative. At All Souls over those 3 months a range of entirely male speakers preached, but each were disciplined to a clear brief and passage selection for their exposition. They ran two Sunday teaching streams and a midweek one over this time period including the end of a series on Lessons from the Book of Ezra (one chapter per week), Questions God Asks directly of people in the Old and New Testaments, Journeying with Jesus in the gospel of Luke (verse by verse coverage from Luke 9 onwards), and another systematic expositional series in 1 Peter ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’ considering how to practice holiness as a scattered people. The mid-week series was on prayer at work.
Whilst there is one ‘how to…’ title among the All Souls catalogue, there were few titles in these expositional series about self-improvement or handling anxiety and other emotions. Where Covid is addressed directly in a one off special the theme is on ‘rediscovering awe in lockdown’, orientating people towards God rather than inwards to themselves and their own needs or feelings. Titles and themes tend to be Christian imperatives:
- ‘the path of suffering’ – the way to heaven is unavoidably the way of the cross,
- ‘the privilege of mission’ – get on with evangelism,
- ‘facing temptation’ – heed the warnings of God against temptation, and be equipped for the battle to resist,
- ‘right fear, wrong fear’ – choosing the fear of the Lord over the fear of man,
- ‘cutting corners’ – remember who you are working for, pleasing the King of justice, integrity and generosity.
All Souls and HTB represent two different types of mega church, even though they belong to the same denomination: one is Conservative Evangelical, reflecting reformed commitments, and the other is Charismatic Evangelical, reflecting pietistic in particular Pentecostal impulsesMark Cartledge, 2016
We looked in the last blog post at Cartledge’s surprising discovery that these two churches with such similar evangelical foundations are now categorically different.
This brief survey show that in content, scope, structure and methodology underlying these teaching programmes the two churches are distinct enough to validate Cartledge’s contention that they represent different types of mega church. His categories of ‘Pietistic’ HTB and ‘Puritan’ All Souls, while simplistic, are well illustrated here. The HTB topics focusing on self-improvement and overcoming anxiety, peppered with anecdotes about the success of their programmes (Alpha / Love Your Neighbour) and contrast markedly with the systematic teaching of All Souls whose themes are as more to orientate around who God is and what allegiance we may owe Him.
However while HTB (in this snapshot at least), can be shown to have moved away from Stott’s preferred form of expositional teaching, there is a sense in which they are doing a more focused job than All Souls at following Stott in speaking directly into ‘Issues Facing Christians Today.’ A government survey of the UK population in March 2020 found that almost half (49.6%) of people in Great Britain reported “high” (rating 6 to 10) anxiety; this was sharply elevated compared with the end of 2019 (21%), and equates to over 25 million people (out of the population aged 16 years and over). This suggests that HTB’s teaching series was a profound example of applying Stott’s double listening. Furthermore, like HTB, Stott was not averse to addressing issues of emotion. He tells how he had to overcome his upper-class aversion to emotion when he became a Christian and how it led him to believe that there was a place for emotion in spiritual experience, public worship, gospel preaching and social and pastoral ministry. Many charismatic Anglicans from a similar background came to the same conclusion through profound experiences in the charismatic movement. Nash reportedly called Stott, ‘the most thoroughly converted boy I have ever met from the moment he was converted’, so one explanation might be that Stott imbibed such a full measure of the Spirit at conversion that it took most others a few ‘encounters with the Spirit’ to catch up.
So how far are you embodying Stott’s ideals? may also be a pertinent question for the current team at All Souls. Whoever is the truer heir to Stott (if indeed either church could fully claim to be), the current divergence between the churches remains profound. This could be seen in embryonic form in the development of a ‘rival’ evangelistic course to Alpha in 2001 by Rico Tice at All Souls Langham Place. ‘Christianity Explored’ (originally ‘Christianity Explained’) is at least in format ‘consciously modelled on Alpha’. According to Ireland the key difference between Alpha and Christianity Explored is the ‘difference in theological position between the churches’ summarised in terms of pneumatology and approach to Scripture:
All Souls does not share the charismatic emphasis of HTB, and stresses the centrality of biblical exposition rather than personal experience of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, there is one talk on the Holy Spirit (compared to [a whole weekend on] Alpha), and the first five weeks are all Bible Studies on the person of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s Gospel… Christianity Explored has a very strong emphasis on sin and grace. As the handbook explains, “A firm and counter-cultural emphasis on sin makes Christianity a disturbing experience… Grace is only amazing when sin is seen clearly.’Mark Ireland and Mike Booker
An outsider view: Andrew Wilson on HTB as the new centre of evangelicalism?
Opposition to Alpha and HTB within conservative evangelical circles, as well as a desire to ‘market’ Alpha more widely and ecumenically are partly behind Gumbel’s reluctance to own the label ‘evangelical’, despite own his clear roots in Iwerne Camps and affinity to Stott. This reluctance predates the times when political usage of ‘evangelical’ in a North American context became internationally toxic and abusive practices within the Iwerne camps by Fletcher and others became widely known. One typical response from Gumbel when pressed on this in 2013 was ‘I hate the word evangelical! If you torture me, I’m Anglican. But it’s not helpful. We label people in order to dismiss them.’
Nevertheless Andrew Wilson, influential commentator and columnist for Christianity Today, makes a compelling argument that by 2014 HTB had come to represent ‘The New Centre of British Evangelicalism’. If the HTB network can still be usefully described as evangelical, if only by outsiders, it remains helpful to consider continuities and discontinuities with the ‘activist, conversionist, biblicist, crucicentric’ movement Bebbington describes. As suggested in an earlier post this thesis will argue later that only one out of four of these categories can definitely apply to all churches/leaders across the network.
Wilson’s analysis of why HTB became so significant and a potential centre for evangelicalism is hugely helpful, although couched in terms that suggests he is also holding up a warning flag to a church network he admires. As he sees it HTB has become central precisely because its espoused theology has been broad and embracing, often focusing on operant practices rather than creeds and controversies. He argues that firstly, evangelical identity and alignment is now formed through ‘conferences, courses and choruses’ rather than denominational affiliation. Secondly, this has significant theological implications, as the sorts of things that denominations had to agree on, clarify and articulate are not the sort of things conferences, courses and choruses need to agree on. An inter-denominational conference or course does not need a policy on baptism and church polity and will likely stretch its soteriology to attract as many people as possible, although it will need to agree on whether men and women can teach or whether we can have charismatic ministry times. This elevates the perceived importance of things that conferences, choruses and courses care about above the doctrines of God, Christ, the cross, the church etc… Hence Alpha is presented as neither Calvinist or Arminian but it is clearly a conduit of charismatic experiences and therefore over time an encounter with the Spirit becomes the core identity of the course. (I will argue later that the experience of the Spirit even becomes Alpha’s default soteriology – [how you get saved]). Thirdly, this elevation of ‘secondary issues’ over doctrinal ones both contributes to and fits well with ‘decreasing levels of doctrinal clarity in British evangelicalism as a whole.’ In Wilson’s words:
‘they have numerous staff and even worship leaders, let alone church members who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues… and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their churches, conferences and Focus weekends.’Andrew Wilson
How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church? (Egalitarianism, as mentioned above, is probably the exception that proves the rule). Most evangelicals will wonder why it matters: if someone has a good course, or runs a good conference, what difference does it make what they think about penal substitution, hell, gender roles or gay marriage?Andrew Wilson
While this may be intended as a warning flag the article is genial, pragmatic and honouring of HTB. He ends on a broadly positive note stating that:
HTB represents British evangelicalism’s friendly face: biblical but not dogmatic, evangelistic but not ranty, activist but not politicised, Anglican but not really, centred rather than boundaried. Hard not to like, right? And certainly more likely to unite evangelicals, and to get favourable write-ups from cultural gatekeepers in the Telegraph or the Guardian, than the hardline confessional types.Andrew Wilson
Wilson’s lingering question regards ‘some of the theological issues that wash through HTB’ which ‘haven’t (in 2014) come to any public expression yet’. But by 2021 these theological issues have come to a fore in numerous contexts including quite dramatically and publicly at a church plant in London that remained close to HTB. This may have been part of the wake up call to HTB that saw them campaign widely to get out the vote for the General Synod elections in 2021. Culture wars in the Church of England and wider society may now mean it is impossible to keep the metaphorical heads below the parapet forever, and candidates backed by HTB for General Synod will no doubt be scrutinised for their voting record as evidence for an (often well disguised) normative theological position on key ethical issues. The most interesting question being, will they speak with one voice?
Thus, whether it likes the label ‘evangelical’ or not the HTB network has emerged from a particular dominant school of upper-middle class Anglican Evangelicalism. As will be seen in the next chapter (blogged over the next few weeks) some of this heritage and culture was immediately subverted by charismatic renewal in its various waves, and others will have been challenged by the expansionist agenda explored in Chapter Three. However, particularly in the highly able pastoral-theologian John Stott the network should be able to find an ally in tracing a normative theology that self-consciously roots itself back to Wesley and Whitefield in evangelical history, and to exposition of Scripture for matters of discernment and discipleship goals.
Stott’s ‘godly ambition’ for church and society was not limited to individual salvation but mirrors HTB’s own stated aims: ‘The revitalisation of the church and the transformation of society.’ Those members of the network who benefited from an evangelical heritage before coming into the charismatic experiences described subsequently may also like to reflect if they have ‘thrown the baby out with the bath water’ in their rejection of some aspects of classical evangelical culture, or have adequately passed on what was good from that heritage on to the following generations.
 This 11 week survey was conducted during COVID-19 lockdown, so all the teaching presented to the church was straightforward to review in online format. See https://www.htb.org/sunday-talks-archive
 Quotes taken either from the official summary from the website, or where that is brief and non-descriptive from key quotes distilled from the audio.
 ONS (2020) Personal and economic wellbeing in Great Britain: May 2020
 Stott, Contemporary Christian, 1992, 121-123 (perhaps contra Packer – see above).
 A theory John Collins warms to, pers conv…
 Ireland, in Ireland and Booker, 2010, 50
 Ireland, 50-51. If Stott does have a ‘relatively optimistic view of human nature’ (as per Packer) it is interesting to question whether it is Gumbel or Tice’s course that most reflects that starting point.
 Matthew Bell, ‘Inside the Alpha Course – British Christianity’s biggest success story’, Independent, Sunday 31st March 2013.
 Andrew Wilson, ‘The New Centre of British Evangelicalism’,12th February 2014, Think Theology, http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/the_new_centre_of_british_evangelicalism [7th August 2019]. As Wilson sees it HTB has become central precisely because its espoused theology has been broad and embracing, often focusing on operant practices rather than creeds and controversies. If he is right then what HTB espouses matters even more for UK evangelicalism.
 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 1989, 2-3. His definition has won support for being succinct and clear even if perhaps understating revivalism (which may be seen in activism), sinfulness (which is implied in converstionist), and the sovereignty of God. Nevertheless, even scholars less comfortable with Bebbington’s definition have ‘tended to defer to it.’ Hutchinson, Mark., Wolffe, John. A Short History of Global Evangelicalism. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2012.17, see also Nathan A Finn in Themelios , 33.3 (2008), and Timothy Larsen, The Reception given Evangelicalism in Modern Britain since its publication in 1989, in Michael AG Haykin and Kenneth J Stweart, eds The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities, Nottingham,: IVP, 2008, 21-36.