This post continues a chapter on how success culture impacts the HTB network. In the last post we considered that success culture may be the shadow side of a high value of ‘competency’. We introduced the phrase ‘aim for perfection/settling for excellence’. This post considers the sort of pragmatic decisions that might be made to retain success. It begins by looking at the Church Growth Movement and Homogenous Unit Principle – both of which have impacted HTB’s growth, and finishes with a look at ‘branded church’ and an ideas that there may be four ways in which HTB and the network employ ‘celebrity’ to sustain success as a celebrity church.

Pragmatism and the mechanisms for sustaining success

Church Growth Movement

Heard sees the ‘Church Growth Movement’ [CGM] as key for understanding HTB’s growth mediated initially through Wimber’s teaching and influence. Wimber studied at Fuller Seminary under Donald McGavaran and Peter Wagner and then started a teaching role in 1974/5 establishing the Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth.[1] Much of the CGM teaching stemmed from McGavran’s discontent with ‘fruitless’ missionary methods in 1930s India as outlined in his 1955 work The Bridges of God which was revised in 1981.[2] He argued for four things that are highly relevant to understanding HTB today:

1) evangelism should be intentional and quantifiable not just ‘faithful’ as God’s will is for salvation; 2) resources should not be spent on what does not make disciples; 3) racial, linguistic and social barriers to conversion should be removed so that whole communities could turn to Christ, not just individuals going against a tide of culture. This led to the Homogenous Unit Principle [HUP]; 4) Finally, and critically for its links with this study, he distinguished between ‘discipling’ (by which he meant conversion to Christ and church) and ‘perfecting’ (which might be more commonly labelled ‘discipling’ today i.e. the lifelong process of spiritual and ethical development in the lives of believers) as ‘two distinct stages of Christianization’. McGavaran warned that too many missionary activities had been diverted to perfecting [ongoing deep discipleship] when the original mission charter demanded discipling [conversion].[3]

Within the HTB network these principles can be seen played out repeatedly. The ABC indices are carefully counted under the adage ‘what we measure we value’. There is a high clarity about resource deployment and adhering to the vision. HUP has been particularly significant for HTB and Alpha.[4] There is a clear emphasis on bringing individuals into a relationship with Jesus through Alpha and equipping them to bring others to Alpha. And this early stage of ‘conversion/discipleship’ has been prioritised over ‘deep discipleship/perfecting’. Where detailed teaching on controversial issues threatened to undermine the ‘making disciples/converts’ they have been bypassed, dropped or at least sanitised to make it more conducive for a 21st Century audience.[5]

Millar recalls that:

‘for many years we had a dream that the way that we ran things around here would rival the best of what we saw elsewhere.’[6]

Sandy Millar

Gumbel recruited Trish Neill (a recent Alpha graduate) in 1994 from the business world to help develop Alpha. After three years the explosive growth of Alpha had been so effectively managed that Millar formed a senior leadership team of himself, Gumbel and Neill who then ‘incorporated the ideas, professionalism and process of Alpha’ into the running of HTB itself.[7] The accepted shorthand mantra summarising Neill’s philosophy is: ‘aim for perfection, settle for excellence.’

Seek excellence in everything you attempt. Always run an event to the highest possible standards. Pay attention to detail’[8]

Tricia Neill

The adoption of CGM theory has been paralleled in many parts of the Western evangelical church by an ‘almost complete rapprochement’ between ‘business and religious organisations.’[9] John Drane identified George Ritzer’s four priorities of managerialism with the church growth movement, showing that how uniform structures, building styles, success measured on attendance, and emphasis on giving and member retention have been key factors. [10] [WDA1]

There have been various critiques of ‘secular’ leadership concepts impacting the church. Influential evangelical leader Dallas Willard,critiquing a wholehearted adoption of the managerial worldview, laments that the ‘popular model of success’ has become maximising the ABC of ‘attendance, buildings and cash’.[11] Budde emotively describes the use of quantitative indicators to ‘ensure more sheep-per-shepherding-unit’ and Watson and Scalon went as far as describing it as ‘dining with the devil’.[12] For a more sympathetic take see Mike Bonem who suggests a both/and approach to integrating managerial leadership techniques with Christian formation practices.[13] This is a wide phenomenon and debate as seen in Richard Smith’s account of a Black Church Organisation becoming a global brand Becoming McChurch, where he summarises: ‘to lead is simply to perpetuate the system’.[14]

The practitioners with this approach who have had most impact on UK churches are Bill Hybels at Willow Creek through his Global Leadership Summit and Rick Warren through his Purpose Filled Life publications.[15] 

Willow Creek is known for both its managerial approach to leadership and its equally pragmatic take on service which are devised as ‘seeker sensitive’ outreach events. These are characterised by ‘embracing contemporary music styles, thematic preaching and skits that demonstrated the relevance of the issues being discussed.’[16]

Seeker-sensitive services had a mixed reception at HTB. Aspects of seeker sensitivity, like the ‘homogenous unit principle’ chimed in well with a Wimberite model and can be seen at work in the small and mid-sized groups at HTB and in the way Gumbel organised Alpha by 1994.[17] Indeed the idea of being seeker-sensitive seems to sits well with Millar’s ‘it’s not the message but the model that needs changing to satisfy the market.’’[18] So Hunt and others claim that Alpha and the HTB model ‘puts the customer first’ from a ‘need to satisfy consumer demand and provide answers for the erstwhile spiritual “seeker.”’[19]

However, on the other hand, under Millar HTB decided to prioritise Wimber’s model of ‘intimacy in worship’ above ‘seeker-friendly’ non-participatory music.[20] Indeed, this sort of Wimberesque worship remains integrated into even the Alpha programme despite prominent critics.[21] This again suggests the extent to which HTB’s growth mechanisms are pneumatologically centred. Encounter with God through the Spirit is the one key praxis they are prepared defend to the hilt and so a degree of organised discomfort is allowed to facilitate encounter with the Spirit – even if the ‘consumer reviews’ show e.g. that they dislike sung worship in Alpha.[22] (This may be contrasted with ‘normative theologies’ that may be sacrificed or palatized at an espoused/operant level leaving what Hunt labels a ‘comfortable theology’ which avoids unattractive doctrines).[23]


The notion of a McDonaldisation of the Church was advocated regarding Alpha as early as 1998 by the then Archbishops’ Advisor for Youth Ministry, Pete Ward, who like Drane above was also echoing Ritzer.[24] According to Percy, Ward has since revised his views,[25] but his 1998 description of Alpha that can be summarised as a simplification of religion, a stifling system spreading uniform spirituality, an illusion or ‘simulacrum’ and a convenience mission, provoked what Ward claimed to be manoeuvrings against him by HTB through ‘powerful, rich people who had connections with me’ and ‘serious anti-spin.’[26]

Heard has convincingly responded to this with regards to Alpha.[27] He sees it as ‘a bit of a truism’ that Alpha includes elements of the McDonalization hypothesis, but notes three significant dissimilarities that Ward doesn’t spot:

Firstly, the (financial) profit making motivation for rationalisation which is key to the McDonaldization hypothesis is not present in Alpha. Instead Alpha International [AI] executives such as Ken Costa have given ‘significant amounts of their own money to AI.’[28]

Secondly, ‘Gumbel’s instructions for choosing leaders could not be further from Taylor’s ethos’ when it comes to replacing humans with non-human technology.[29] Alpha is deliberately labour intensive in order to enculturate Alpha graduates on to teams.

Thirdly, contra Percy,[30] Heard argues that Alpha cannot be dismissed for superficiality as ‘many testify to being profoundly affected by experiencing Alpha’.[31]

Branded and Celebrity Church

Pete Ward more recently has described two phenomena worth attention: ‘Branded Church’ and ‘Celebrity Church’. In his terminology ‘branded churches’ have a brand identity, that is ‘carried by media generated commodities.’ He notes how products like Alpha enable branded churches to ‘become more than a local congregation.’  Their global reach comes through use of media, and for Ward, it is this use of media – not theology or message – that characterises these Megachurches:

Branding is the means by which these products develop an emotional connection with a wider audience.  The brand operates as a personality that invites affective engagement from those who are drawn towards the products, and, through processes of identification and the formation of group identities related to the products and the events at which they are promoted, a connection is forged, between the brand and evangelical Christians around the world. 

This process leads to a new form of evangelical celebrity: the celebrity Church.[32] Celebrity church culture impacts HTB at various levels:

Firstly by attracting (and keeping) ‘media-profile celebrities,’ from former page-three girls to a Spice Girl [33].

Secondly in using celebrities for marketing, most famously explorer Bear Grylls’ fronting the Alpha campaign and BAFTA winning TV presenter Gemma Hunt hosting the Alpha Film Series.

Thirdly by making celebrities within the Christian sub-culture (including Nicky Gumbel) and/or leveraging (buying in) existing Christian sub-culture ‘celebrities’ for their brand. Since the 2005 appointment of prominent worship leader Tim Hughes, HTB have bought in several well-known Christian figures to the staff team and to varing degrees have absorbed their pre-existing ministry… Martyn Layzell/Ben Cantelon/Sam Bailey (worship) Pete Wynter (leadership), Will Van DeHart (mental health/pastoral), Pete Grieg (prayer) all brought name recognition and existing ministries to the church as well as generational connectiveness.[34]

Fourthly, by promoting other Christian celebrities (e.g by platforming them at the Leadership Conference based at the illustrious Albert Hall) in the hope of a reciprocal promotion of Alpha (particularly in the USA.[35]

HTB, and some key network church plants, are not alone in utilising the draw of celebrity church. but there are many cautionary tales worth heeding when it comes to this heading route. Current cautionary tales include Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill, Seattle and ‘Hillsongs’ in New York.[36]

There are also issues with being a Branded Church. The instinct is likely to be to protect the brand. The 1998 rebuff of Ward’s ‘McDonaldization’ thesis is an example of when the brand needs protection. Cartledge found this protectionism across his engagement with megachurches. He described how how research sometimes took months of negotiation.[37]

Branded and celebrity churches have a lot to lose when faced with reputational damage. In a branded church a simple answer to a problem tends to work best e.g. ‘Alpha is our part in the evangelisation of the nation’. The revitalisation of the church is through ‘planting resource churches.’

And conversely a branded church will also have a studious avoidance of either nuanced statements that may be misinterpreted, or bold statements which may be ‘weaponised’ against them.

So the danger is that this protectionism stifles innovation and risk taking and limits what discipleship goals are allowed to be articulated and the limits the breadth of espoused theology.

[1] See Wimber, C, 1999, 97ff including vague dating.

[2] Revised edition produced in 1981.

[3] See preface to Wagner, CP & McGavaran D, Understanding Church Growth, 1990, viii-xi Third Edition. These ideas originally outlined in The Bridges of God, 1955 and in a revised edition in 1981.

[4] See Heard…

[5] See discussion on Search Issues 1994, Challenging Lifestyle 1996  and The Jesus Lifestyle, 2018 below.

[6] Millar, in his forward to Neill, T From Vision to Action, 2006.

[7] Neill, 13

[8] See Neill, Vision to Action, 2006, 61Seek excellence in everything you attempt. Always run an event to the highest possible standards. Pay attention to detail’…

[9] Pattision, Challenge, 87

[10] John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church: Spirituality, Creativity, and the Future of the Church, London: DLT, 2000; George Ritzer key works were: The McDonaldization of Society Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA(1993) and The McDonalidization Thesis Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA (1998).

[11] Willard: ‘Instead of counting Christians, we need to weigh them. We weigh them by focusing on the most important kind of growth—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and so on—fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom.’ (‘The Apprentices’,, accessed 9.1.21) Mike Bonem, Great AND Godly Leadership, 2012, 235-240.

[12] J.B. Watson, Jr. and Walter H. Scalen, Jr., ‘“Dining with the Devil”: The Unique Secularization of American Evangelical Churches’, International Social Science Review 83:3-4 (2008), Michael L. Budde, ‘The Rational Shepherd: Corporate Practice and the Church’, Studies in Christian Ethics 21:1 (2008), 96-116, 100. See also: Richard H. Roberts’ trenchant critique in: Religion, 161; ‘Order and Organization: The Future of Institutional and Established Religion’ (78 -96) in G.R. Evans and Martyn Percy (eds.), Managing the Church? Order and Organization in a Secular Age, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

[13] Bonem, Mike. In Pursuit of Great AND Godly Leadership: Tapping the Wisdom of the World for the Kingdom of God. Germany: Wiley, 2011.

[14] Richard M. Smith, ‘Becoming McChurch: A Case Study of a Black Church Organization’s Transition From Leading in the Local Community to Creating a Global Brand’, JRL 15:1 (2016), 5576, 71. This lament is echoed at HTB in Azariah France Williams Ghost Ship (cf. Chapter Five)

[15] Both have been main speakers at HTB’s own Leadership Conference in the Royal Albert Hall (Hybels in 2013; Warren in 2012 and 2014).

[16] Cf James Hudnut-Beumler, Mark Silk [eds] The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America. Columbia University Press, 2018.

[17] See Gumbel, 1994, 153, and Hunt 2019 for further discussion of this

[18] Get exact quote…

[19] Hunt, Stephen. The Alpha Enterprise: Evangelism in a Post-Christian Era. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2016.

[20] Despite a senior staff member wanting to shift to ‘seeker friendly services’ Interview ___

[21] See e.g. [accessed 10.1.20] Although see Chapter 5 for Millar’s comments to HTB network leaders on whether more recent music is conducive to ‘intimacy’ as Wimber modelled or has migrated to focus on performance/production based values.

[22] See Heard, Inside Alpha 2012, 117 for reported discomfort with sung worship at Alpha.

[23] See Hunt, Stephen. Anyone for Alpha 2001

[24] In what proved to be a very controversial journal article Pete Ward, ‘Alpha – The McDonalization of Religion’, Anvil 15.4 (1999) pp.279-86

[25] Percy, Martyn. The Salt of the Earth: Religious Resilience in a Secular Age. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. 185, n.46.

[26] Stephen Brian, 2003, 269.

[27] Heard Inside Alpha 2012, 65-68

[28] Heard, Inside Alpha 2012, 67. Which is not to say that executives have not gained other reputational benefits, profile and influence from their involvement.

[29] Ibid.

[30] In a chapter on ‘Shopping for God’ in which Percy concludes that ‘consumer-led religion has already arrived and may not be a bad thing, he describes Alpha as a beginners guide to Christianity, ‘for people who are already too busy , which offers a “light touch” in terms of demands of the gospel in exchange for a network of new relationships,’ and is a good fit for consumers. In Percy, Salt of the Earth, 2016, 189-190

[31] Ibid. 68

[32] Ward, due to be published 2021.

[33] Hunt, 2019 – note the complex relationship of celebrity with media and public discourse may make it harder for churches known to have prominent celebrities attending to speak into any issue that may upset fanbase. As far back as 2007 celebrity endorsements included Sam Fox (former Page-3 girl), Geri Halliwell (former Spice Girl) and Jonathan Aitken (‘perjurer and former lost sheep; now a fervent Christian’).

[34] See for a common critique.

[35] Eg Willow Creek began Alpha in 2014 – shortly after Hybels spoke at Leadership Conference.


[37] Cartledge, 2019, 31 – notes that research ‘took years of negotiation’