Today’s post comes with a huge congratulations to the very admirable Archie Coates who has been appointed Vicar Designate at HTB. Archie was in many ways the most impressive leader I interviewed, a prince among men/people, and has a hugely impressive structure to life including carefully defined time to read, think, pray, be with family, rest and then well organised and highly productive time for work/staff/people. Even six years ago when I first interviewed Archie I remember thinking what a phenomenal person/leader he was, and many other interviewees refered to him as a key influence and role model. He is his own man, but will stand on the shoulders of Nicky Gumbel, Sandy Millar and all that has gone before them. Our prayers with him as he seeks to see clearly above the haze of this cultural moment we are in.

“The one disadvantage of working at HTB is you get the impression that God owes you a full church… we’re not called to succeed we’re called to be faithful, but Wimber used to say ‘If you’re going fishing you’re wise to go where there are fish”

Sandy Millar

“…every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” Jn 15:1 “Pruning can seem cruel; branches are left jagged and exposed to face the harsh winter. But the purpose of pruning is to give way to newness of life. When spring and summer come, there is an abundance of fruit. The sharp pruning knife will, in the end, bring fruitfulness and blessing.”

Nicky Gumbel, Bible in One year

The next few blogs make up Chapter Three of this thesis, and all orientate around how HTB as a church and network has been impacted by success. It has not only bucked the trend of church decline in this country but instead seen prolific growth in numbers, finances, staff, influence, church plants, publications, social media reach, institutional penetration in the Church of England etc.

In previous chapters we have seen that the legacy of EM Nash, wanting to see ‘another Wesley’ produced from his Iwerne proteges. We have seen the explosion of gospel ministry associated with John Stott, outworking the zeal of Iwerne in a central London church. And we have seen how three waves of the Spirit (Renewal/Wimber/Toronto) helped galvanise and give energy for expansion with Wimber in particularly sowing seeds that would ultimately change the paradigm away from parish churches to the networks of franchised ‘insta-church’ plants we see today.

But how much has success become a goal in itself? Is there a hidden (spiritual) cost to perpetuating growth? In the contemporary chinese church believers sometimes talk about ‘caged birds’. These are the churches/leaders who accept censorship from government as to what they can speak about. Has success orientation, preserving the brand, and more recently accessing the abundant finances of the Church of England Strategic Development Fund and Dioceses, meant theological self-censorship has occurred/is in danger of occuring? Is the network flying free, or has it found a cage to thrive in?

The following posts will pick up on drivers for success, coping with failure, expectations in the network, pragmatism, church growth movement, the so-called McDonaldisation of the church, celebrity and branded church. All of this builds up to one key question: Has success orientation changed the discipleship goals and theology in the HTB network at all? And a secondary question lingers: if the mantra is ‘healthy things grow’ what happens when the gardener comes to prune?

This chapter evidences one of the key findings of the research that while HTB as a network has been birthed out of an evangelical heritage as seen in Chapter One, through the three successive waves of the Spirit described in Chapter Two, it has also been birthed into a success culture. This culture is fuelled not just by that charismatic and evangelical heritage but also by the socio-economic setting and expectations in which it is primarily located. The chapter explores some of the ways that success has been defined, encouraged, propagated and prized together with the impact that this has had on those who have been interviewed. This sets up discussion about how a ‘success’ mentality may have put pressure on both operant and espoused theologies and how discipleship goals are described, packaged, branded and marketed.[1]

What does success look like at HTB?

The current success orientation can be illustrated through two of the key contemporary practitioners: Firstly, Nicky Gumbel on the spread of Alpha in 2014:

I genuinely feel like I am a bad steward because I see this amazing gift [Alpha] and only 18 million people around the world have done it and you think what a big world we live in. What I see on our own course is that so many people, not everybody, but so many people: cynics, sceptics, agnostics, atheists, lapsed church goers, nominal church goers, have an encounter with Jesus, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, their lived are changed and they start doing amazing things and I think “how come only 18 million people have done this? How do we accelerate this, get this to as many people as possible?” And the same in the UK…[2]

Nicky Gumbel

Secondly, Bishop Ric Thorpe (former associate vicar at HTB and HTB network leader) describing his ambition for exponential growth in church planting in 2017:

‘The expectation will be for each City Centre Resource Church [CCRC] to grow and plant onwards within three years, and subsequently to then further plant every three years. Following this model, we could see 15 new churches by Year Three, 30 by Year Six, and 45 by Year Nine. This has been shown from experience to be an ambitious but realistic target. Assuming that each CCRC will eventually grow their congregation to 1,000, and that each ‘2nd generation’ plant will grow to 500, this will result in around 30,000 additional churchgoers by 2025. If current trends in declining weekly attendance continued at the same rate, these additional attendance numbers would represent an increase in 2025 in national weekly attendance of over 3.5%, helping to reverse the long-term decline of the Church of England. If growth happened at a slower rate than we have already evidenced and the 15 grew to 500 and planted a further 30 churches with 250 each in them that that would still be an increase of 15,000 attendees per annum, mainly from a younger demographic, and would have sparked or birthed a range of other ministries including (as we have seen already) vocations to ordination in the Church of England.’[3]

Ric Thorpe

This seemingly insatiable drive, energy and vision, is of course highly motivational and inspiring to many… As we will see stories of growth, including especially growth at Archie Coates’ church St Peter’s Brighton, have inspired a new generation to great things. But in the next post we will begin to consider the flip-side to these success stories. There is a mantra that ‘what you celebrate you propagate’, but where does that leave church planters/congregations when things are not going as they expected and hoped? And has anything ever really been as rosy as the pictures painted of the past/future by these high level vision carriers? All this building towards the question that is core to this thesis: Is it possible that a success orientated model and method has subtly changed our message – perhaps without us even realising it, and if so, is that ok?

[1] See Percy, Martyn. The Salt of the Earth: Religious Resilience in a Secular Age. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016 183 for discussion on a therapeutically tuned version of the gospel that is intentionally socially relevant being doomed to be ‘a fashion victim’. Where success is being ‘at the forefront of spiritual fashion, riding on the crest of the latest wave’ the danger is that ‘punters eventually become bored’ without ‘anything new to sing about.’

[2] Gumbel, Facing the Canon, 39-41 mins. In this interview Gumbel clearly locates the failure of some Alpha courses with the local leadership in the church.

[3] ‘SDF’ London Diocese funding bid to the Church Commissioners, October 2017.