I had a dream this week that I was sitting at a small coffee table, at the edge of some conference, chatting away to Nicky and Pippa Gumbel about this dissertation. It was good to do. I also had a real-life meal with someone who has been important in helping Alpha spread to another major denomination. Again, it was good to do. And I’ve has some fascinating dialogue online with HTB insiders who have been very encouraging about where this research is going. But some of what this next chapter is about is not the easy stuff to say, especially to those who you admire:

johari window
Johari Window (source: http://www.successfulculture.com).

In the well-known Johari Window there are parts of our selves/organisations that are referred to as ‘blind self’ and others that are ‘hidden self’. The next few blogs are largely focused on those parts of that window. There is also the ‘God only knows – ‘unknown self’ part of that window, and that is where caution is most needed. I/we do not have a first clue about that. How God evaluates the people these next few blogs will talk about is not (if CS Lewis can be depended on), something he likes to tell to third parties routinely. ‘Hidden self’ is also by its very nature something of a mystery.

Sometimes things come out in interviews that reveal a bit of ‘hidden self’. Other times they remain hidden. Even ‘blind self’ needs huge caveats. What may appear to be true from the outside may well have other explanations that no-one can quite put their finger on. So the following is offered with the the understanding that many motivations remain unknown and a mystery, but also with the invitations for friends in the network to benefit from sharing in understanding each other’s experiences.

Success at HTB

As with that of Whitefield and Wesley, the success of HTB itself can be rooted in a variety of socio-religious factors. The location, leadership, conducive ecclesial authorities, early adoption of Wimber and TTB phenomena, financial muscle, talented personnel, marketing savvy, and Alpha have all played a part, and we will come back to these. The Human Resources HTB have been able to call upon have of course been extraordinary. We have already talked of Sandy Millar as the man ‘on the throne or behind the throne’ for 45 years, and the consummate skill with which Millar was able to operate as a leader has certainly made him a hard act to follow. But there have also been extraordinary lay leaders in the church and staff team, best known of which are probably Ken Costa, Tricia Neill, and Rebecca Stewart all of whom have helped drive HTB and Alpha towards their many successes.

What is harder to quantify but emerges repeatedly in this research on HTB, was the focus of Chapter Two ‘Life in the Spirit’. [1] Insiders will consistently point to an openness to the Holy Spirit as the key factor in growth.[2] This was also true for Wesley and Whitefield (despite the attempts of revisionist historians to discount this). So the last few blog posts have mapped out how Renewal/Wimber and Toronto each helped accelerate growth at HTB, (and some of the side effects of the structural changes that these renewals each brought – including dislocating the network from its Evangelical Anglican heritage). So there is a real rally cry of: “To God be the Glory, Great things He has Done” when examining the growth of HTB. Much of it has been truly miraculous and quite wonderful whatever the issues there may be from an increasing pneumatological/experience focus.

A second factor, equally hard to quantify, and I will argue is related to the first, is the extraordinary ‘ecclesial friendship’ between longstanding leaders in the HTB network that has its origins in the way the staff team was run and organised in the 1980s. As part of my interviewing I have been privileged to be in a room with people who used to be on staff teams together decades ago, and found there is still vibrant love, friendship, self-deprecating humour, joy and depth of relationship few find in their lives. There is an amazing loyalty and interconnection at the heart of the network, for those who find themselves in one of the inner circles.

But both ‘life in the Spirit’ and ‘ecclesial friendship’ have had to compete with a) the success culture that has been both a contributor to and a by-product to the extraordinary growth and b) with the managerialism that has helped sustain that. These are both explored over the coming weeks.

Wimber Paradigm Takes Lid Off Success

John Collins had already seen dramatic growth throughout his ministry in three diverse contexts: At All Soul’s Langham Place, St Marks Gillingham and Canford Parish. With John Mumford (Anglican Curate who would later leave the CoE to found UK Vineyard) Collins had also begun a church plant from Canford to the nearby housing estate of Merley.[3] At HTB Sandy Millar had seen dramatic growth in the ‘small’ group he had pioneered at HTB, which was exploding with talented young professionals like Ken Costa, Nicky Lee and Nicky Gumbel.

Yet John Wimber’s model was key for helping them ‘succeed’ beyond the parish. Bishop David Pytches had once famously referred to the parish system as the ‘Condom of the Church of England’ (impeding natural reproduction across parish borders). The HTB clergy like Pytches warmed to John Wimber’s enthusiasm for church planting. Indeed Wimber was by their account the main driver behind their church planting exploits. Initially this meant taking over other parishes, but Wimber offered a model that would eventually change the paradigm for Anglican Evangelicals from growing a strong gathered church base to extending beyond traditional parish boundaries.[4] As HTB plants got established they became new inspirations for future plants.

But it was not just a model it was also an attitude – a faith position. Without Collins, Millar and Gumbel taking on Wimber’s philosophy of ‘give it away’ that vision would have not come to birth.

I learned a basic Kingdom premise is you only get to keep what you give away. I already knew that through evangelism you gave away your faith and your faith was sharpened in the process. I knew that by teaching you give away the things that nurture you, in the process yours are replenished. I found out that the same thing was true in the leadership dimension: I had to give it away in order to see it multiplied and spread.[5]    

John Wimber

Wimber’s genius in the ‘give it away’ mode was to trust that God would multiply whatever you gave him. This enabled radical and rapid development of a network. You should be measured by your sending capacity more than by your seating capacity. This ‘give it away’ principle is at the heart of what HTB seeks to do today.

Motivations for success

But visionaries like Wimber or Millar are not always easy to live up to! However talented and motivated those who followed in their footsteps were, few found that it was easy to imitate them. (An interesting parallel to this was John Collins operating as John Stott’s curate at All Soul’s Langham Place in the 1950s. He was not blessed with the same ability to speedily write sermons or books as his mentor Stott, and so would sometimes be up to 3am/4am composing and honing talks for the large and cultured audience). What Sandy Millar could do in the leadership space was similar to what Stott could do in the writing space. It is very hard not to want to please Sandy, but also very hard to imagine crossing Sandy. Few who came after him really felt like they could live up to him, and yet face to face he can make you feel like a king!

My first set of interviews with church planters in the HTB network focused on three pairs of (very successful) planters representing three eras of church planting from HTB. Each of these planters articulated their ‘human motivations’ with an impressive level of reflexivity describing how:

  1. they wanted to succeed to please Collins/Millar/Gumbel and others who had sent them,
  2. they wanted to succeed for themselves,
  3. once success happened, which was often very quickly, they then felt the need to defend and maintain that success to keep within the narrative of ‘healthy things grow’.

What was striking about these interviews is that while these initial six had been selected because of their measurable church growth indices,[6] ‘success’ for most came with an inherent fragility. In my assessment none of them had (yet) fully lived up to Ric Thorpe’s allegedly ‘ambitious but realistic’ growth target (cf: blog thirteen) and two of the churches represented had experienced substantive decline following the initial decade of growth.

My follow up interviews included other church planters/leaders from the network who were chosen deliberately as a more eclectic group. This including two whose plants had stagnated/closed. These interviewees are anonymised and randomly coded from Church Leader ‘A’ [CLA]- to Church Leader ‘U’ [CLU].

Research Findings

Whether the respondents shared the scale of Gumbel and Thorpe’s ambitions or not (see blog thirteen), it was clear that planting growing churches was a substantial validator and motivator for ministry. One commented:

Success has been too strong a motivation, I think. Only it was always dressed up in godly language and that sort of thing. I acknowledge that it’s far too easy to be over concerned about growth and numbers for the wrong reasons. So, at its best, it’s concern for spiritual growth. But the danger is always, you spill over into adding up the wrong things. [CLB]

Others talked about a self-perpetuating adrenaline rush as numerical growth led to more work, excitement and more growth [CPA/CPC/CPD]. This has led to near burnout on several occasions for many planters. Although there is a degree of awareness about the issues arising from communicating the ‘ABC success indices’ (attendance, building, cash), these have been consistently used as a validator and status symbol. Several commented that is sometimes the subconscious by-product of which stories are chosen to be celebrated and what is highlighted from the stories. A well-rehearsed illustration is the way the growth of one church plant was repeatedly told as:

‘the astonishing story’ of one plant which grew from ‘11 adults and four children …to 574 people after 26 weeks.’[7]

Nicky Gumbel

Such exponential growth has not however been the norm and in such situations where it has been dramatic growth there has sometimes been an implosion of another prominent church or churches in that town, (which may or may not have been directly linked). There are plants that have peaked at a relatively small size, some that have dissolved, and other flagship plants that have since seen dramatic decline.[8] Yet, with the success paradigm platformed so consistently, the expectations on planters have increased.

In my observations I noted several young would-be planters consciously dismissing opportunities to move to churches that would require a ‘slow burn’ ministry as the prevalent model that they had learned was one of immediate rapid success. This is a serious issue for a movement that is now trying to ‘fish’ in places where the sort of fish they are used to catching are not usually found. One mitigating value prevalent in the majority of my interviewees was the ‘give it away’ principle, learned from Wimber and propagated so successfully by Millar.

A little like a pyramid scheme, success in the network is collective, demonstrated not by creating your own strong independent brand, but by perpetuating HTB culture into an increasing array of newer plants.[9] Success is bigger than any individual plant, and the ultimate measure of a plant is whether they can help add a layer to the pyramid by planting and planting again.

Definitions of Success

Perhaps contrary to the official network positions and espoused intentions for growth my interviews show an increasingly reflective range of definitions of growth over time. Even those who had seen prolific increases in attendance had a more nuanced definition when thinking about their fellow planters.  Two were genuinely perplexed at the growth of their own church. The earliest planters tended to have initially seen success most clearly aligned to ABC of attendance, buildings, cash, but over time this had changed, with one church leader referring to Graham Tomlin’s ABCDE as his benchmark – Adoration, Belonging, Compassion, Discipleship and Evangelism [CLR]. A key turning point seems to have coincided with the Toronto Blessing, with churches begun after TTB more likely to have a focus on community transformation as a core part of their vision. As [CLP] put it:

‘I would now define a successful church plant as having brought health to a local community.’


Nevertheless, success is most commonly seen as something that could and should be measurable by both qualitative and quantitative criteria. In qualitative terms there were responses such as ‘success is very simply changed lives’, [CLU] where testimonies are the clear evidence for blessing. In quantitative terms the answers were more tangible but not directly linked to the data driving the funding. Few of the more recent planters responded with anything like: ‘I see success as gathering 1000 people, planting twice and having an array of smaller church plants’, although some of the most entrepreneurial e.g. [CLO] defined success as ‘our building is full, planting out into other buildings,’. However the most common stated ambition was simply of healthy, growing self-sufficiency: ‘A church planted as an ongoing viable church,’[CLR] ‘I want it to grow in an organic way – outlasting the person in charge – I can’t get away from the fact that “living things grow”’ [CLJ]. The capability (and desire) to plant again, even from a small base, was highlighted by several [e.g. CLD/CLE]. One circumspectly commented that while, ‘[growth in] numbers is a sign, some [difficult] people moving on is also success!’ [CLS].

Neverthelesss the ABC measures of church growth were clearly weighed on the minds of many respondents, particularly those who had received substantial (and time-limited) start up funding. This comment was typical of several:

A big problem here is that culture and the church define success in terms of numbers, growth and probably increased parish share. A healthy church will grow but the pressure of a plant, in terms of needing to be seen to grow, is actually a very heavy thing to carry. [CPP]


Next week we look at success and failure in the network and whether these ‘two imposters’ can ever be treated the same…

[1] Although Whitefield’s contemporary detractors were not adverse to seeing an alternate supernatural hand behind his ministry, so Adam Gib: Whitefield’s ‘practice is so disorderly and fertile of disorder’, so his ‘success must be diabolical’, and ‘people ought to avoid him from duty to God.’ cf Noll, 2004, 103-4

[2]Sandy Millar: “My feeling is that God had a plan, and all of us are part of that plan for God to renew the world. Just as at the Reformation Justification by Faith was not a new idea, but it was as though God had decided that it was about time it came to the top of the pile again, I feel that was what God was doing with things of the Holy Spirit… it was happening long before Wimber” Millar speaking to Gumbel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhV2I_kIYe0 [accessed 20.1.21]; ‘I feel that I’ve simply stumbled into a move of God that many other people have been praying to see for years. Each day I feel like I am clambering to keep up with the Holy Spirit as he moved forward’ Tim Matthews, Love Church p.10-12, Cf. Nicky Lee interview in Cartledge (footnote 18);

[3] See Ian Saville, ‘Canford Magna Church’ in Eddie Gibbs ‘Ten Growing Churches’ 173-87; see also Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century: Reform, Resistance and Renewal. United Kingdom: Boydell Press, 2014, 224.

[4] for Pytches see Paul Harcourt, New Wine: Greater Things, p.105-6; Cf Anglican Church Planting Network, http://www.acpi.org.uk

[5] John Wimber The Way in Is the Way on. United States: Ampelon Pub Llc, 2006.206

[6] In each case the church or group of congregations that they led had more than 500 members. 

[7] http://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2015/August-2015/Nicky-Gumbel-and-the-evangelisation-of-the-nation [accessed 14/6/15].

[8] So, two churches once considered to be over 800+ Usual Sunday Attendance now are at 200+, another has reduced from 500+ to 200+. Some have had abortive starts, some plants of plants have slowly folded, others have settled into more local churches despite grander original intentions.

[9] Several off record conversations showed that planters and leaders who had sought to develop their own brands tended not to survive in the network, including two who felt how they had been treated amounted to spiritual abuse.