This post continues a series within the dissertation on so-called ‘success culture’ at HTB. One interesting reflection is perhaps this could be reframed in a more positive way? I had a helpful conversation with a network insider this week who pointed out two things in relation to the term ‘success culture’: 1) it sounds pejorative (bad!), but what would the opposite of success be? – complicity with failure? And isn’t a ‘complicity with failure’ what we get a lot of in the wider church; 2) it sounds pejorative (bad!) but isn’t it just a shadow of a much nobler thing – competency. Indeed perhaps ‘competency coupled with the ‘conservative’ and ‘charismatic’ roots already explored are the three terms that help explain the HTB distinctive:

On the other hand I had another conversation with someone else involved in managing HTB clergy who said that approval mechanisms within the network were a bit like a hit of crack cocaine. If you had the slightest twist towards narcissism you could get addicted by this ‘competency culture’ to every hint of approval from on high, approval which was often related to measurable indices of success.

Cambridge Dictionary

Kipling’s poem, “If” suggests that both “triumph” and “disaster” are imposters. But is it harder not to strive for success/triumph and fear failure/disaster when you are following people of such competency that they seem to have found success natural and easy to achieve? So while ‘competency culture’ may be a positive and indeed the third leg on the stool in understanding HTB (along with conservative roots, and charismatic fuel), this weeks post highlights why it is a culture that will always need examination to keep it safe.

[Key terms: Interviewees are coded CPA – CPU; TTB: The Toronto Blessing (see previous posts)]

Success as a galvaniser

As in the last post success has often been tacitly or implicitly measured in the ‘ABC’ of attendance, buildings & cash. But irrespective of whether success is considered to be quantifiable by those interviewed it is clear that it has been a significant motivator. [CPU] ‘Success certainly helps. When things go well it encourages me and spurs me on.’ [CPK] speaks of success ‘feeding me’. It was clear that both success and failure had an impact on identity for many planters. A solution for one planter came through his self-identity:

I do not think of myself often as being a leader at [church name] I just think of myself as [first name]. It’s about not making it too important… I like journaling and so even with failure I can see self-improvement. [CPE]

In this he was dislocating his identity from his externally validated success story. Yet others who had gone through church stagnation found this dislocation in times of perceived failure much harder to achieve.

Coping with Failure

Most participants were remarkably able to talk about failure in an undefended, if sometimes regretful, fashion. This was commented on by an older leader at a retreat I attended where another significantly younger leader was telling his (now published) story of losing £0.5million in 30 minutes. Addressing another older leader across the room he commended the younger leader and others in that generation for their emotional honesty, saying that ‘we would not have done that in our day, would we?’ [CPB].

The younger leaders surveyed were remarkably quick to own stories of failure and many mentioned mental health strains. It is clear that many had benefited from a culture shift where talking to a therapist was now quite normal.

Plenty of failure. I can get low and mope. Talking it through with my counsellor, friends and wife is a real help. [CPU]

I’ve always found the love, support and prayers of family and close friends the most important thing – alongside aligning myself with God’s grace and mercy in my personal prayer times – whenever I have experienced disappointment and failure in leadership.[CPR]

I’ve not dealt with it well in the past, taken too personally. I started out and then got gut punched and had to go back to realising I knew less than I thought. It was hard to separate personal success/understanding and I have taken it too personally [CPJ]

I have failed in so many ways. It is hard at first. It is easy to take it personally. [CPO]

But for most leaders these stories could sit within a wider story of success and achievement. Many UK ministers would happily settle for the ‘failure’ of 50+ young adults attending an evening service which [CPO] experienced:

But I have learned that innovation involves failure and without it there is no breakthrough. In many ways our evening service was a failure. I had hoped it would be 200 strong and full of young adults by now, but we rarely have more than 50… I am quite a positive person and generally see the good even in a failure. [CPO]

The desire not to fail, and corresponding drive to show quick results was clearly as strong in most, and at least as significant a driver for some as the desire to succeed over the longer-term…

The most gruelling failures across the generations however had to do with relationship breakdown. As will be seen, a culture of ecclesial friendship has been of pivotal importance in the growth of HTB network and where this has broken down, due to factors such as someone challenging the status quo, this has clearly been very painful. Several also dated their decision to lead a church plant from the point that they began to feel expendable while on staff at HTB. While an older generation generally took this stoically and pragmatically, there are signs that the younger church planters (and their younger still teams) are more fragile when feeling unneeded. Furthermore at the highest levels of leadership there are signs that even longstanding friendships may crack when ideas of success diverge. 


Grace and Grief Cycles

One tool for analysis which is familiar to many in the network is Frank Lake’s model of the Grief Cycle vs Grace Cycle.[1] The ‘grace cycle’ has an explanatory power for showing how the ‘waves of the Spirit’ referred to in the last chapter could fuel a productive success strategy. It is explained more fully here, but has become well known in younger Anglican/Evangelical church leadership circles through the expanding influence of the CPAS run Arrow Leadership Course.

This can perhaps be illustrated from Nicky Gumbel’s own story:

Nicky’s Gumbel’s Story

In the ‘grace cycle’ the starting point is a deep acceptance. Gumbel experienced this from the human source of Sandy Millar when Millar began mentoring Gumbel at HTB in 1976. Ten years later, against strong opposition from the Area Bishop to curates returning to their ‘sending church’ , Millar managed to bring Gumbel back to HTB as curate in 1986. (Ironically this opposition to curates returning persisted despite clerical luminaries Millar (HTB) and Stott (All Souls Langham Place) having successfully done so). This was after nine other curacy options for Gumbel fell through/were rejected and Gumbel had even signed on as unemployed. As Gumbel put it:

‘it was like all my dreams came true in one moment…I knew that Sandy was the star that I wanted to hitch my wagon to. I admired the way he ran the church, his family and his life and I wanted to learn from him.’ [2]

Nicky Gumbel on Sandy Millar

Gumbel served Millar loyally as curate for 19 years.

He also experienced this acceptance supernaturally most notably during the Wimber visits and during the Toronto Blessing (TTB). Gumbel was initially sceptical about Wimber, but over three evenings moved from cynicism to a deep personal encounter with the Holy Spirit.[3] As he got prayed for there was a physical manifestation like ‘10,000 volts of energy going through me’, whilst Wimber publicly pronounced over him: ‘God is giving to that man the ability to tell people about Jesus.’[4] In Gumbel’s words:

‘at the core of the experience was an affirmation of the love of God,’ which lead him to articulate that at the ‘heart of Alpha is the opportunity to experience the love of God, not just to know it but to feel it. God’s love is what I experienced and what I wanted others to know too.’[5]

Nicky Gumbel, reflecting on impact of his encounter with the Spirit at Wimber meeting.

Twelve years later on 24 May 1994, (coincidentally the anniversary of John Wesley’s ‘My heart was strangely warmed’ 24 May 1738 Aldersgate Street experience), another heart-warming happened to Gumbel. Nicky and Pippa Gumbel were present at Elli Mumford’s house when she prayed for those there to receive the (Toronto) blessing and the Holy Spirit manifested. Gumbel then went to the staff meeting at HTB and gave the closing blessing which resulted in the same phenomenon being replicated among the staff at HTB. (Millar arrived at 5pm to see the aftermath of this outpouring and was quickly on a plane to Toronto to experience it for himself).[6] Although the contentiousness of TTB means Gumbel now rarely refers to TTB and has removed direct examples of these encounters from the Alpha talks, he is still on record in 2000 describing the Toronto Blessing as a ‘wonderful, wonderful thing.’[7]

Lake’s model argues that when ministry starts from mentoring relationship and experiences marked by ‘unconditional grace’ a virtuous cycle of ministry emerges.

However, a side effect of success can be that the model begins to work backwards. This is known as the ‘grief cycle,’ and that version begins with identity arising from achievement. Gumbel has articulated his own experience of that while at theology college, having given up a successful legal career.

‘What I realised at theology college was that far too much of my self-esteem was tied up with what I did…’

Nicky Gumbel

But at that formative stage a nearby curate, David Hawkins, was able to encourage Gumbel back into the ‘grace cycle’ by affirming to him that:

‘what matters is not what you do, but who you are, and that your self-esteem comes from that.’[8]

David Hawkins to Nicky Gumbel

In my interviews many church leaders admitted to having moved from a ‘grace cycle’ into a ‘grief cycle’. This often occurred at the point that they had either achieved a certain level of ministry success and felt they had something to protect, or alternatively when faced by adversity such as criticism or difficult life circumstances:

In the model there is always a danger of shifting from ‘grace cycle’ to ‘grief cycle’ triggered by handling success, pressure, opposition or adverse circumstances.

Yet even times when we may be working in a ‘grief cycle’ can be outwardly fruitful.

Jonathan Aitken in his intriguingly titled ‘Heroes and Contemporaries’ suggests that the international expansion of Alpha almost came at a calamitous cost to HTB. In the wake of 5000 churches taking up Alpha in 1995 and numerous international invitations to expand, Aitken claims Millar was reluctant to see Alpha dominate HTB. His more cautious approach led to ‘tension between the two close friends’, resolved only by ‘prayer and mutual understanding’ and because ‘Nicky deferred obediently’ to his vicar.[9] Then he claims:

‘Sandy changed his mind and gave the green light to Alpha’s international expansion, subject, however, to the somewhat bureaucratic proviso that the number of Alpha staff in the HTB office should always be equalled by the church staff.’[10]

Jonathan Aitken

And on a very different note Aitken also records how the death of Gumbel’s beloved squash partner Mick Hawkins at this time, while they were playing together during the Focus church holiday week, led Gumbel to throw himself into his work on Alpha ‘with an obsessive attention to detail’ as he ‘constantly adjusted the presentation’ and analysed every word in the course.[11]  And yet, in Aitken’s account, this ‘long dark night of the soul’, also took Gumbel into a deeper spirituality based on the sharing of suffering.

Health Warning: Success and Failure Expectations in a Wider (Evangelical/Charismatic) Context

We have already noted JI Packer’s misgivings about upper-middle class Eclectics being ‘overly optimistic’ about the human condition. Robert Warner takes this further in his survey of UK evangelicalism from 1966-2001 which explores varying espoused and operant theologies of success in the UK church.[12]

Building on Brierley’s 2000 survey, Robert Warner analysed growth expectations within their churches people of different by churchmanship (types of churches).[13] He found that just 15% of Catholics expected significant growth, compared with 51% of evangelicals. Among that 51% only 25% of ‘broad’ Evangelicals expected significant growth compared to 43% of ‘Mainstream Evangelicals’. But a staggering 79% of Charismatics expected to see significant growth.[14] Whilst Mainstream Evangelicals attributed their optimism to ‘confidence in the gospel’, Charismatics attributed their heightened optimism to the continued or expected outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words 4 out of 5 charismatics expected their church to grow and (if the (long) expected ‘outpouring’ came, to grow dramatically).

What is striking in Warner’s research is that these expectations had no correlation to actual growth and decline patterns. In his analysis Charismatics experienced a 16% decline in the 1990s, but 79% expected a significant growth in the following 10 years, while Pentecostals underwent a 9% decline yet still 87% expected significant growth. By comparison ‘Mainstream Evangelicals’ who had experienced a 68% increase only had a 43% expectation of significant growth.  Warner concludes that for Charismatics:

Optimistic expectations have become heightened beyond reality as a result of embracing later-modern assumptions of assured growth and success. Moreover, this ideology appears to have become unfalsifiable: if success is the automatic and intrinsic destiny of the true church, whenever churches suffer decline, it can only be, according to the law of inherent and assured growth because they are not Evangelical, Pentecostal or Charismatic enough… there has been a zealous stroking of vision inflation… when their growth expectations wantonly disregard the fact that the decade of evangelism has been a decade of decline evangelicals in general and charismatics in particular appear to be in denial … and exemplify Fastinger’s account of the characteristic response to cognitive dissonance – a defiant optimism that is essentially an escapist fantasy to sustain implausible convictions.[15]

Robert Warner

Warner’s thesis concludes that a type of ‘conversionist-activist’ evangelicalism is remarkably resilient within the contemporary charismatic church, and that this defiant optimism is the engine room for a ‘pragmatic, non-reflexive entrepreneurialism’.[16] Yet this comes with ‘delusional tendencies…ever amnesiac to past disappointments’ and confident that their latest initiative ‘was sure to produce the advances in convertive piety that they continued resolutely to expect.’[17]

Adrian Hastings concurs:

‘It seems characteristic of Evangelicalism both to appeal especially to youth and to make rather grand claims in regard to its advances… the consequence is that Evangelicalism looks like a tide always claimed to be just about to come in, yet never quite reaching the shore with the force proclaimed.’[18]

Adrian Hastings

It is worth noting that Warner is broadly positive about the success of Alpha: He sees it as:

‘[the] one initiative without which the decade of evangelism would have been invisible’… ‘one of the most effective plausibility structures for Christian faith and witness in the post-modern world… a buttress against a widespread withdrawal into privatized and hidden faith.’[19]

Robert Warner on Alpha

Yet he also noted that ‘when we strip away the rhetoric of success 74% of churches using Alpha for three or more years are not growing’, and hence that the explosive growth and early successes of Alpha (largely reaching in to existing congregations) ‘could easily beguile enthusiasts into premature and exaggerated expectations.’[20] And when Alpha has not produced growth in 3 out of 4 churches who have enthusiastically adopted it, according to the ‘law of inherent and assured growth’, where is the blame for such unconscionable failure said to lie?

Some questions to think on:

  1. If the church leader/planter is left to feel they are to blame for a ‘guaranteed’ product like Alpha not working, how might that switch a grace cycle into a grief cycle?
  2. If a church member/ordinand/curate/leader/planter is a little bit narcissist and desperate to please the ‘star’ to which they have chosen to ‘hitch their wagon’, how will they relate to failure and what will they do to succeed?
  3. If the ‘centre’ is never satisfied and wants exponential growth how will those desperate to get into the centre seek to behave?
  4. What damage can be done by only highlighting success stories?
  5. What damage can be done by ‘defiant optimism’, if it proves to be both unrealistic for the future and grounded in a partial/glossy telling of the past?

Next week’s post: (out on the day after Boxing Day) looks at what a church, network and movement may contemplate doing if success and growth become close to being seen as an end in themselves.

[1] Known in the network primarily through its use in the Anglican mission agency CPAS’ ARROW leadership programme. Lake, Frank. The Dynamic Cycle. United Kingdom: Clinical Theology Association, 1986. For more on Frank Lake see Bridge Pastoral Foundation.

[2] See Gumbel Facing the Canon for Millar/Gumbel 23mins for Millar’s influence on Gumbel leaving the bar to be a vicar, account of curacies 26 and 29 mins… 14 Feb 2014 ‘it was like all my dreams came true in one moment.’ ‘I knew that Sandy was the star that I wanted to hitch my wagon to. I admired the way he ran the church, his family and his life and I wanted to learn from him.’ He was curate from 1986 to 2005.

[3] The call was for 10 people who had athelete’s foot to respond. He was the tenth to respond and asked for prayer to be filled with the Spirit. ibid. 50mins

[4] see Heard Inside Alpha 2012, 16 for fuller description.

[5] Gumbel, Interview with J John, Facing the Canon

[6] See Hilborn 2001, 160; Heard, 2012, 14

[7] Quoted by Heard Inside Alpha 2012, 22.

[8] Gumbel, Interview with J John: Facing the Canon, 29 mins

[9] Aitken Heroes and Contemporaries, 2006, 240

[10] Aitken, 241; Tricia Neill tells a more harmonious story of this development in From Vision to Action 2006, 13.

[11] Ibid 241

[12] Warner, R Fissured resurgence : developments in English pan-evangelicalism, 1966-2001 p.130 [accessed 19.3.2021].

[13] Brierley, P. W., and Georgina Sanger, eds. Religious Trends 2.2000/01 Millennium ed. London: Christian Research; Harper Collins, 1999.

[14] Warner, Fissured Resurgence, 130

[15] Ibid 131

[16] Contra this thesis which questions if ‘conversionist-activist’ can only be ‘recruitment-activist’ if separated from the demands of ‘biblicist-crucicentrist’, i.e. is it a true conversion if the way of the cross and scripture do not become central?

[17] Warner, Fissured Resurgence, 130

[18] Hastings, A, A history of English Christianity 1920-2000. London SCM, 2001, xlv

[19] Warner 155,156

[20] Ibid.