Problems with Success

One of HTB’s charisms is its competency. Previous posts have argued that together with its conservative evangelical roots and a charismatic supercharge, competency has been the third leg to its growth. Competency is, if you like, a ‘high-functioning’ version of ‘success culture’. So insiders consider the growth of many HTB related charities and churches to be a celebration of ‘ad-ministry’. Growth happens when visionary clergy/leaders have been paired with administrators who can ‘form things behind them.’ Some key players like Tricia Neill and Rebecca Stewart have already been mentioned, but there are many others through the network who excel in the spiritual/natural gift of ‘ad-ministry’. Rachel Abraham at Worship Central, Louisa Jacob at Youth and Fund-raising and James Cox were all mentioned, and there are a whole layer of Operation Managers in churches and plants who make a real difference. The impact of one such manager on a young staff member (now in middle management) was profound:

‘They took us under their wing and forced young student type staff to work in a workplace manner, with diary management, project planning etc’. Aim for perfection was a jolt I needed…

But that same person could see that this ‘jolt’ was ‘probably toxic for someone else’. So is there an issue with a drive for competency in the network? What is the shadow to its impressive spotlight? Students recalled that at St Mellitus College, Andy Emerton as Dean of the College, and an impressive ad-minister (now Bishop) himself, modified the mantra to ‘aim for excellence, settle for good enough’ when it came to essay writing! If competency, charismatic practice and conservative evangelical theology have been three legs of a stool for HTB, what happens if a drive for competency (sustaining success) extends that leg beyond the others?

Firstly, when is success really success?

The definition of success needs honest examination. For all the positivity, marketing, and expectations of growth (cf Warner in post 16), there is some statistical analysis to suggest the story may not be as good as it claims to be. If we just look at the church planting story e.g. it is only honest to say that there are very mixed stories of how growth has taken place.

Jason Byassee, drawing on Bob Hopkins and George Lings’, notes how at one time many dioceses seemed ‘allergic’ to church planting and were nervous of the HTB brand, but now, in the face of much diminished resources, the same dioceses (in panic) have courted the HTB brand.[1] Using evidence from 2013 research he claims that 80% of the members of new resource churches come from transfer growth,

HTB-style plants may not be trying to steal sheep, they must just be ‘growing better grass’ as apologists put it. But it is happening.[2]

Jason Byassee

Hopkins argues that the places around the resource churches ‘get darker and darker, because everyone is gathered at church and not doing mission in their own area.’ He thus argues that the HTB model needs to be kept in context with the rest of the models and synergised rather than being singled out as ‘the answer’ to our crisis.’[3]

Byassee and Hopkins’ analyses are not the whole story, but there is enough in what they are saying to call into further question the mathematics of the funding claim highlighted in post 13:

Assuming that each CCRC [City Centre Resource Church] 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.

I’ve previously argued why it is improbable that this strategy will reach ‘30,000 additional church goers by 2025’, but if that number was realised and yet 80% of that 30,000 came from other churches imploding, or from transfer or simply from people moving to the area and joining the new well-funded CCRC rather than the next ‘strongest’ parish church they might previously have perfectly happily joined, then that is a net increase of 6,000 new congregants rather than 30,000, and quite unlikely to ‘reverse the long-term decline of the Church of England’ however much we might want to still celebrate each new sheep in the fold.

Secondly, who pays for it and does that matter?

The pursuit of sustained success requires funding. This can leave HTB/AIpha International and network churches in a position of financial dependency on major donors and funders. This has been true throughout church history and relationship with rich potential donors always needs care (cf the book of James), so just four possible tension points are highlighted here:

Firstly: ‘Breaking America’: courting influencers: Secondly, Church of England influences, Thirdly, UK Government influences. Fourthly, accommodating the rich and powerful.

  • FIRSTLY, Breaking America: HTB, partly in a bid to get Alpha known in America, have courted key influencers. This can be seen most notably at the Royal Albert Hall Leadership Conference. These include megachurch leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, an array of leadership specialists, and an eclectic range of Pentecostal prosperity teachers including John Gray from Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church and popular broadcaster Joyce Meyer. While ‘Purpose Drive Life’ author Warren may have seemed a natural fit, Willow Creek founder Hybels has since been discredited in the ‘Me-too’ movement and Meyer has always attracted a strong critique due to her positivist, prosperity-orientated Pentecostalism and large personal wealth gained from ministry. [4] We’ll come back in a few weeks time to how Joel Osteen has recently been suggested as a communication model for developing HTB speakers.
Problems of platforming… when celebrity Christians are not all they seem…
  • On the one hand courting these influencers can be seen as championing global Christian unity. So prosperity Pentecostal John Gray was platformed alongside Roman Catholic speakers who clearly had an impact on him [see here]. But on the other hand if we ‘unite’ around conferences, courses and choruses what core theology are we prepared to surrender to do so? (see Andrew Wilson’s argument here). Building on last week’s post on celebrity church it is clear that high profile platforming is often problematic. One of those featured with Gray was Jean Vanier from L’Arche community who also featured on the Alpha Film Series, and was considered a ‘living saint’. Yet it turns out that he abused at least 6 women between 1970-2005. It’s one thing to ‘hitch your wagon to a star’, quite another to hitch it to a black hole. Care is needed courting (and celebrating) influencers whatever their theological persuasions.
  • SECONDLY, Church of England influences. Within the UK the HTB network through City Centre Resource Churches and the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication (which is mainly staffed by members of the HTB network) have been major recipients of millions of pounds of Church Commissioners’ money and millions of pounds of local funding from individual dioceses.[5] HTB’s St Mellitus College is dependent on funding from central church funds. It remains to be seen what the full (theological) cost will be to the network of aligning so closely with the Church of England within the Welby era. If whoever pays the piper does indeed call the tune this may be expected to impact espoused theology.
  • It is worth noting that this is a swift reversal for a large evangelical church to be a net recipient of central church/diocesan funding. HTB’s parish share (contribution to the central diocesan funds that pays for their vicar’s stipend/housing/pension and then the excess helps poorer parishes) as recorded in its annual returns to the charity commission in 2020 was slightly reduced to £248,000pa – around £62 per electoral role member in that year or 2.5% of overall expenditure. [In the same year they received £655,679 from UK Government furlough scheme and a further £500,000 from central government funds through a Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) match fund grant for social action project ‘Love Your Neighbour’ via the CRT]. Usually a large evangelical church contributes more than it receives from other church funds, and arguably HTB continues to do so through raising up ordinands, its financial support for church planting initiatives etc, but the maths has changed. The success of the network has been yoked to the financial generosity of the Church Commissioners Strategic Development Fund and local Dioceses, and while HTB could very easily pull out of any relationship with the central church and now has the Churches Revitalisation Trust able to operate like a pseudo Diocese, why kill (or offend) the goose that lays the golden eggs? [A similar quandary exists for the Dioceses served by very large network churches – when they seem to be among the few places capable of producing growth how far can you dare challenge/ push them at all?][6]
  • Consider e.g. a young City Centre Resource Church leader in receipt of £3million over 5 years to set up a church. The Diocesan Bishop changes and then promotes an ethical or theological position in the diocese that runs contrary to the planter’s core belief. Do they a) keep quiet but ask a questions in private to salvage conscience, b) keep quiet because what else can they do? or c) keep quiet and gradually realign their own position with their major funder over several years…? [If you’re wondering what option d/e would be, they would be d) publicly speaking up / e) publicly making a break with the Diocese – but what magnitude of an issue would it take to active d/e – and where would pressure come from to conform – especially if it jettisons the City Centre Resource Church / Alpha brand ???].
  • THIRDLY, UK Government influences. If there may be issues with the Church of England being the piper who calls the tune, how much more might there be issues with the UK government playing the same role? Prince Charles recently came to HTB and St Mark’s Battersea Rise, accompanied by the faith minister to see how £4million of UK Government money was being stewarded by the Churches Revitalisation Trust [CRT] for the HTB ‘Love Your Neighbour’ Campaign. £4million is a lot of money, and over half of the CRT’s expenditure. Not all went to network churches, but £0.5 million of it was allocated directly to HTB itself in 2020. This success in grant funding may vindicate HTB’s ‘neutrality’ on political hot topics, but might it also guarantee that neutrality going forward? Many once passionate evangelistic movements have lost their Christian identity over successive decades by pursuing government funds.
Church Revitalisation Trust, Income vs Expenditure… income includes an impressive £4million match fund grant from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) as part of the Community Match Challenge scheme for the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ initiative. (source here🙂

FINALLY, sustaining middle-class/major donors… HTB has an impressive giving culture built around clear regular teaching and asks of the congregation which raises around £10million a year (besides that given to Alpha International / Churches Revitalisation Trust etc). And as with every church a few donors have given disproportionally more than others. This giving is achieved by setting clear expectations, teaching etc that other churches could do well to emulate. But to achieve a happy giving culture and sustain an overall £12million a year show is there a danger of complicity? How much can the gospel be allowed to challenge an (upper)middle class lifestyle? And what seat at the table/podium does a major donation get you? More on this in next weeks blog when we consider whether the method does in fact inevitably change the message.

Thirdly, is ‘success’ the perfection we should aim for, or even the excellence we should settle for?

There are some theological questions as to whether the pursuit of success is morally good. Ritzer noted in McDonalised systems:

‘…quantity must be equated with quality – if there is a lot of it then it must be good.’[7]


It is easy in the network to point to a proliferation of church plants / growth in a church / growth of Alpha and argue that this is a sign of God’s blessing and favour. But how close do we get to ‘the ends justify the means?’ Is increasing quantity the same thing as replicating quality, or is that quality being worn down? To put it another way, are the people graduating through Alpha into a network church today being as deeply formed in Christian discipleship as HTB church members were in the early 1980s, when the charismatic Wimber Kingdom experience was built on a foundations and practices of a John Stott-like evangelical faith?

It is worth engaging with some ‘Formal Theology’ here for deeper reflection. Chloe Lynch at the London School of Theology (LST) notes that the ‘prevalence of managerialism in leadership has been impelled by the erroneous assumption that efficiency is neutral’.[8] Here she is drawing from MacIntyre, who questioned whether ‘organisational leaders and managers [can be seen] as morally neutral characters whose skills enable them to devise the most efficient means of achieving whatever end is proposed’.[9] Lynch helpfully draws on another aspect of Taylor’s work on the Malaise of Modernity, to show that success is now commonly quantified as 1) the technical management of an organisation’s success and 2) satisfaction of individual (consumer) choices.[10] Lynch argues that the second of these, ‘fulfilment of an individual’s narcissistic choices’, is in many ways a subset of the former – seeking to guarantee repeat business.[11] So, she argues, in a vacuum of other clear goals ‘efficiency and individual fulfilment become the ultimate telos’ to which leadership should be directed.  In pursuit of quantifiable success do network churches face the danger unwittingly orientating around meeting the felt needs of consumers they cater for in order to achieve ‘individual fulfilment’?

Lynch’s conclusion is:

It is not that pursuing increased attendance and resources or meeting needs is necessarily inappropriate; rather, these must be limited by a telos [end goal] constructed from theological reflection instead of pragmatism and market exigencies…. churches may choose quantitative metrics not for theological reasons but because what might have been the church’s ultimate telos has been eclipsed by managerial priorities relating to organisational growth. I do not necessarily reject measurements of ecclesial movement towards its telos: certainly, where the telos is theologically defined, measurement of success would likely be beneficial. Yet measuring the ABCs [attendance, buildings, cash] may indicate focus on substitute teloi, dictated by managerial narratives of leadership.[12]

Chloe Lynch

Fourthly, what about when it goes wrong?

There are personal stories from people who have felt themselves to be spat out of the HTB success machine. Although several could be told the most damning public critique has come from Azariah France Williams (2020). In Ghostship, (an expose of institutional racism in the Church of England) he describes HTB, with scant disguise, as:

‘a global faith enterprise, the Amazon of the Christian world, distributing goods and services in an ever-expanding, ever-ambitious march.’[13]

Azariah France Williams, Ghostship

His book pulls no punches. It is hard hitting reading building on two metaphors. The first image is of the church as a high-class escort (Delilah) offering the promise of access to great opportunities but actually enticing rebel Samson to his doom.[14] The second image compares the ‘Delilah-church’ of HTB, to ‘Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.’ [15] This is a ‘wonderland of rooms where one is taught how to make a product more addictive, more marketable.’ The boy Charlie is chosen, in this original telling of the story, because he has ‘the least power and is the most manipulatable.’ He is the one boy who might run the factory in the way Wonka wants it run. Wonka, on the other hand, is idolised as a seemingly ‘benign dictator’ who ensconced Charlie through love-bombing and, in France Williams’ words, his ‘assumption of a father-figure role.’  Charlie is suggestible and unquestioningly obedient, accompanied solely by an aging grandfather who will not challenge Wonka for the paternal place. Young Charlie is ultimately taken into Wonka’s house and becomes his possession (rather than ending up as his heir and successor).He is trapped in a chocolate mould and lacks the agency to free himself.

Writing of HTB and Gumbel he says:

[HTB] had three key values: loyalty, hard work and love, primarily on behalf of our very own Willy Wonka who really was the king in that setting, and emperor of a larger domain.[16]

Azaraiah France Williams

In this version of the story the black Charlie imprisoned in a chocolate mould at Wonka’s house rescues the household from a gang of robbers. His reward however, is not to inherit the factory, but to ‘run a shop stockpiled with Willy Wonka products.’ France Williams had gone to HTB full of expectations and (like many, many others) looking for that father-figure in Gumbel. He had hoped to develop his own product that could be adopted into the brand. But that was not to be.

Fifthly, what is being lost along the way?

France-William’s account begs another key question for the network. What creativity and energy may be being sacrificed in order to maintain church growth and promote core products like Alpha? France Williams describes how he wanted to create his own course, and he is not alone in having creative and entrepreneurial drive among an extraordinary capable cohort of creative ministers (and lay people) who have served in HTB and network churches.

The Sigmoid Curve in business circles suggests innovation should occur in advance of what is currently going well plateauing. Is there a case to say that Alpha peaked in the UK back in 1998 as the Toronto Blessing began to fade and the next key innovation should have happened by then (perhaps whilst Alpha International continued to expand abroad)? One minister remembers Ken Costa approaching him as a young staff member in 2001 and encouraging him to innovate as ‘Nicky had done when he was your age.’ But how much scope has there been for such innovation when the machine has been so carefully managed? The recent Alpha Film Series may have prolonged Alpha’s life, and online Alpha may have been a great success, spurred on by COVID-19 isolation needs, but would both of these projects have happened much sooner in the hands of a younger generation?

As Warner put it:

The seeds of future decline of Alpha may have been sown in the years of success – centralised control, ambitious and expensive expansion, a dated apologetic, a pneumatology that overstates glossolalia and thaumaturgy, an accelerating bureaucratization, and a self-reverential sub-culture that may make future modifications increasingly elusive. Above all, neither Alpha nor any other church initiative appears capable of reversing the tide of secularised alienation from traditional religion.[17]


So there we have it. Five questions for the HTB network regarding the pursuit of competency and success. When is success, success? Who pays? Is competency a neutral aim? What about when it goes wrong and has innovation been stifled? Is a heady list of questions to consider and a tall ask for anyone. So it’s probably worth returning to the start point and praising God that competency, charismatic and conservative theology have combined to produce such an influential movement, and praying that it can continue to ‘succeed’ in every way that God wants it to.

Next week: Could the model have changed the message at HTB?

[1] Jason Byassee in Wells, Samuel., Byassee, Jason. Northern Lights: Resurrecting Church in the North of England. United States: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020, 91 conversation with Bob Hopkins. Millar about this shift in Dioceses approach concurs; ‘They think it’s a short-cut to a full church, which of course it isn’t, it’s much more complicated than that – all the leadership and things Ric is going to help with, local leadership and sensitivity..’ pers comm 2015

[2] Byassee, Northern Lights, 2020, 93 quoting Church Growth Research Project: An Analysis of Fresh Expressions Oct 2013, 33

[3] Ibid p.92

[4] On Meyer as controversial to come to Leadership Conference see, for a write up of her reception see

[5] Some of the grants for the past 4 years can be seen Despite an ‘Electoral Role’ [church membership] of over 4000 people, and central church funding for ten ‘planting curates’, HTB’s contribution to central church funds in 2019 through the Parish Share was just £250,000 (although its contributions to the development of Church of England life through its own mechanism ‘The Church Revitalisation Trust’ are much greater.

[6] The current (2021) Church of England debates on human sexuality are one clear place that allegiances will be tested. A St Mellitus tutor was forced to apologise for his part in promoting a Church of England Evangelical Council film that restated the Church of England’s current position on human sexuality.  See further  in David Baker Bishops deplore ‘personal insults and attacks’ in Church of England sexuality war 26 November 2020

[7] Ritzer, McDonaldization, 14.

[8] Chloe Lynch Ecclesial Friendship: see for a full reading list.

[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (3 rd ed.), London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007, 25, 74

[10] Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, Ontario: Anansi, 1991, 5); Ritzer, McDonaldization, 46

[11] Lynch

[12] Lynch

[13] France-Williams, A. D.. Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England. United Kingdom: SCM Press, 2020, 72. While HTB is not named neither is it in any way disguised that he is describing the church he served as a curate.

[14] This relates to a previous criticism he makes from the story of Samson and Delilah, where he portrays himself as a type of rebel Samson, in whom is a ‘bubbling rebellion and desire for liberation’ matched by a ‘desire for power and validation’, who becomes attracted to ‘a high-class escort [Delilah] with whom [he] is infatuated’. HTB is Delilah. Being with her gives him access to this dominant (white) power, but it is access on their terms. Samson is a threat to established order and while he is ‘furnished with the illusion’ of welcome he is cut off from his people, expected to assimilate, alter his appearance and ultimately left as a ‘neutered novelty’ – a ‘performer.’ France Williams, 162-5

[15] The focus of the book is the institutional racism France Williams has encountered and he builds on the 2017 work by Catherine Keyser that reveals that the Roald Dahl’s original version of the story has a black hero i.e. Charlie is black. See Keyser, Catherine. “Candy Boys and Chocolate Factories: Roald Dahl, Racialization, and Global Industry.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 63, no. 3 (2017): 403-428. (Note this insight can be found first in Sturrock, D. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Road Dahl. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.397). But see also Schober, A. “Diversifying the children in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: From Page to Screen” Red Feather Journal, Volume 9, Issue 1, Spring 2018 who explores the various racisms apparent in book and screen adaptations and questions whether ‘re-imagining Charlie as a black child living in abject poverty comes with its own set of racist preconceptions?’

[16] Ibid 167

[17] Warner 155