Impacts on Espoused Theology

The last post posed 5 key questions for the HTB network in this time of transition: What is success? Who pays? Is it worth it? What when it goes wrong? What has been stifled? A further key question for the network is how to present a message in a winsome way without succumbing to what 2 Tim 3:4 describes as giving people ‘what their itching ears want to hear’. At what point does marketing the gospel mean that the core message is fundamentally altered?

Next week’s post will begin a series examine the focus of teaching in the network as seen in interviews and questionnaires with key practitioners. This week completes a six week series on the impact of success culture. Is it possible that changing the ‘model’ of church, might have not just been relevant and effective ‘marketing’? Or has the new model including moving away from an expositional style of preaching and teaching dominant in the 1980s/90s at HTB, and uncoupling from liturgical and evangelical Anglican foundations (inadvertently) changed the core ‘message’?

This post looks at a few areas where change may have occurred/be occurring.

(key terms: normative theology: the theology you think you believe; espoused theology: the theology you talk about (what you say in public); operant theology: the theology that is in evidence by your actions. HTB: Holy Trinity Brompton)

Making the Gospel fit for the (upper) middle-class?

Matthew Guest’s ethnographic study (of groups working with official follow up material to Alpha) identified a conflation of middle-class values with bible teaching. In his persepctive Nicky Gumbel’s teaching on ambition ‘seems to anticipate the concerns of his middle-class Knightsbridge audience’ and it is not insignificant that this material was initially produced for those with lucrative careers who are financially comfortable: [2]

‘To take a rather cynical perspective Christianity becomes appropriated in a way that avoids inconveniencing its members or challenging their existing lifestyles. As David Lyon sardonically put it, quoting from Henry Mair, “Jesus comes dressed up in the clothes of our own culture.”’[3]

Matthew Guest

Giving people what they want?

Effective marketing means being savvy about giving consumers what they feel they want and need. From almost the start of the Alpha course Nicky Gumbel was prepared to adapt the form of Alpha due to participant feedback:

We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, or any authority outside of ourselves. That’s why we’ve changed the order of the Alpha talk. It used to be the Bible first, then prayer. Now, people love prayer, but they’re deeply suspicious of the Bible because it’s an authority outside of ourselves.[1]

Nicky Gumbel

Here Gumbel is arguably doing part of what John Stott called double-listening. Double listening is listening to culture and to the christian faith. Listening to the prevailing culture in the feedback of participants he notes what is often called a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’. His conclusion is that a more experiential encounter with God in prayer needs to precede explaining the use of the bible due to a popular mistrust of external authority. The experience may then later help participants come to terms with the Bible as an authority.

In this his conclusion differs from Stott. Stott relied on his conviction in the efficacy of Scripture to transform lives. For Stott, you can trust the Bible to be the experience – the living sword that makes the difference. So you focus on helping them encounter Christ as revealed in Scripture. For Gumbel, they need an encounter with the Spirit first e.g. in prayer, to have a hope of discovering the Bible as an experience/authority.

If people are looking for an experience perhaps it is a wise marketing strategy to give it to them as much as possible and build the church with people who have ‘encountered Jesus’. It is interesting that a current popular Christian Contemporary Music song includes the lyric ‘I will build my life upon your love it is a firm foundation’ when any Sunday school graduate would know Jesus’ charge at the end of the Sermon on the Mount is to build our lives upon his words. In his famous story of wise and foolish builders the wise man builds his house upon the enduring, lasting rock of his teachings. Love is obviously at the heart of the Christian faith, so the song is not utterly wrong, but it does depend how ‘love’ is defined. If ‘love’ is understood to be basically experienced as a feeling (rather than e.g. a self-sacrificial state/action implied by the New Testament word ‘agape’) can it possibly last in the storms of life?

Is there a danger that in giving people what they think they want we are inadvertantly just inviting people into a low-bar fair-weather relationship with Jesus, which similar to so many other fair-weather relationships in our culture will not last the after-glow of an initial positive experience, and fade out for many in two years max? We will come back to this when we contrast the HTB network presentation of the gospel with the gospel as presented by Wesley and Whitefield in the penultimately chapter. It boils down to: is starting a ‘relationship with Jesus’ in our 21st Century church the same offer/ask that Wesley and Whitefield made when they preached ‘new birth’/conversion/being born again (or for that matter what John Stott and John Wimber thought conversion should be)? Can you have a relationship with Jesus without the ‘dying to self’ stuff implied in being born again? At what point does this encounter with the Jesus become the marketing of a tamed version of the Lord of Heaven designed to meet felt needs? And even if that comes out of a pressing and perhaps wonderful desire that millions should be able to accept it, is it ok to lose so much in the marketing?

When is Positivity more like ‘Spiritual Spin’?

The aspiration to ensure that ‘The Good News is good news’ has shone through the HTB model over several generations. This good news/positivity can be seen in Collins’ teaching, Millar’s pastoral care and Gumbel’s evangelism. It seems almost churlish to ask can the gospel ever be too good news, but what if the gospel has been edited to make it easier for our ears? At what point does that become spin? And does it change the message?

Bible In One Year

A good example of HTB positivity is the often very inspiring and hugely successful Bible in One Year. Sandy Millar gave Nicky Gumbel a Bible in One Year in 1990, which Gumbel has read daily ever since (one of many impressive things about him!)[4]  From 2009 he made his comments available to others and it is now available both in print and electronically as an app, website and email. The app has been downloaded over 3 million times.[5] It draws on Gumbel’s own private personal devotional practice over three decades, and he continues to revise it each week.[6]

Gumbel has had a small army of young researchers and church staff help with the editing and digitialising. He acknowledges a particular indebtedness in the content to 4 Anglicans: Sandy Millar, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, John Stott and CS Lewis, 3 American megastars: Billy Graham, Joyce Meyer and Rick Warren, 2 Catholics, Fr Raniero Catalamessa (preacher to the papal household) and the since disgraced Jean Vanier (founder of L’Arche community now known to have been a serial abuser). Jackie Pullinger – a missionary and conference speaker completes the named list.[7]

It is a deliberately eclectic mix, reflecting the broad influences on his thinking. Meyer is particularly prevalent in the commentary where each entry is edited to exactly 1500 words. The tone is similar to that of Joyce Meyer in that it is consistently uplifting and positive. Gumbel’s commentary on Noah’s flood in Genesis 7:1-9:17 is an apposite example. He writes:

Christians should be positive people. We see in this passage that the blessings outweigh the battles. Of the four great themes that run through this passage (and the entire Bible) only one is negative (the fall that leads to the battles). The other three are about positive blessing.[8]

Nicky Gumbel

Alpha Course graduates who make it past the commentary to read the actual Scripture text about the destruction of every almost living creature on earth, may be forgiven for equating this slant on the text to that of the spin doctors we have got used to in the political sphere.[9] The fall is mentioned, as he announces that God’s judgement came because of the seriousness of sin, and yet the whole narrative is so joyously positive it is not surprising to find the summary prayer for that section on the flood is:

Salvador Dali’s take on Genesis 7 is a lot more bleak than Gumbel’s _ Die heilige Bibel (1964-1967)

Lord, thank you that ultimately your blessings far outweigh the battles. Help me to remember that my light and momentary troubles are achieving for me an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

Nicky Gumbel

The tendency towards a distorting (?) positivity is exacerbated on the BIOY website where readers are encouraged to choose between reading ‘classic’, ‘youth’ or ‘express’ versions. The express version has the entirety of Gumbel’s commentary (and the ‘Pippa Adds’), but just a few carefully selected verses from each of the Wisdom/Old Testament/New Testament sections. Sampled days showed that while all the commentary is to be read less than 20% of bible verses are used in the Express version. The Youth edition on sampled days was identical to ‘Express’, but with an ‘Action for the Day’ added at the end.  ‘Pick the edition that works best for you; Classic, Youth – for teens and young adults, or catch up with the Express edition.’

Again, it’s hard to fault a movement putting daily bible reading in the hands and ears of millions of people. But is it worth reflecting if the positivity in the commentary is just a helpful, encouraging and uplifting start to the day, or causing or enabling a (subtle) shift in theology because it systematically avoids or steers over the hard bits?

How to avoid (talking about) sexual sin

Sexuality is unsurprisingly the hardest issue for the HTB network to grapple with. It is hard for any young urban congregation to talk about in this cultural setting when their normative theology affirms sex is a gift in the context of marriage between one man and one women. But for HTB this difficulty in speaking on a difficult subject is compounded by both real and perceived fears of reputational risks to ‘brand Alpha’ and the HTB brand itself. This has led to at least two forms of self-censorship. The more subtle ones include pulling books off the HTB bookshop that deal with sexuality, and more obvious are studiously not speaking on contentious topics wherever possible.[10] Several sources have suggested that staff are politely banned from speaking publicly (including in sermons) on ‘controversial issues’. Certainly the induction at key churches includes asking staff to self-censor on social media and some who had led discussions on sexuality in prominent network churches report being asked to make sure they state that it is just their own opinion they are sharing not an official espoused theology of the church.

Self-censorship has come from the very top. The original bestselling Searching Issues (Gumbel, 1994), a core text for 1990s Alpha graduates, had a chapter on homosexuality. This chapter was dropped in the 2013 revised edition that (coincidentally?) came out just fourth months after Justin Welby was elected Archbishop when HTB were keen to provide ‘their man in Lambeth’ as much support as possible in his job, and ‘promote unity’ in the body of Christ.[10]

Nicky Gumbel and Justin Welby’s mutual love, respect and synergy can be seen in this May 2013 interview at the Royal Albert Hall.

An exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Challenging Lifestyle, by Nicky Gumbel in 1996 also dealt with human sexuality. This was gradually used less and eventually replaced with The Jesus Lifestyle (2018). To get a flavour of the cultural shift that had occurred over 22 years the 1996 exposition of Matthew 5-7 had a chapter entitled ‘How to avoid Sexual Sin’, whereas the 2018 version became ‘How to understand Sex in the Twenty-First Century’.

They are worth reading together. The replacement chapter is completely reworked. In fact it is longer and carefully expanded and tries to do more work, assuming that it needs to take people on a longer journey towards an orthodox Christian ethic. It begins with an acknowledgment that pornography, adultery and premarital sex are now commonplace and acceptable in society, and then gives a biblical overview that sex is 1) good, 2) complicated 3) restorable 4) not an end in itself. Gumbel then gently encourages the ‘romantic’ option of committing to one ‘partner’ for life, ‘repentance’ for any lust or sexual relationship outside of marriage, and a ‘ruthlessness’ about keeping any urges in check that might lead to adultery, including not getting too close to anyone of the opposite sex.

‘Sex is designed in a way that the association of the pleasure of sex should be with one person only, and in that context it acts like glue.’

Nicky Gumbel

So (to the surprise of some critics) this espoused theology then remains a cautious restatement of what many evangelicals would term ‘biblical orthodoxy’, suggesting the normative (underlying) theology of Gumbel and the network remains the same. The model it is presented in has changed. It is presented through a very pastorally savvy, unthreatening and gentle presentation. It concludes with practical tips for abstinence. Yet even this gentle restatement is cautiously given. The model has clearly changed from 1996-2018, but perhaps then the message has not? The sense is that with Nicky Gumbel, the normative theology remains the same – despite huge pressure to bend (see [10] again).

But this 2018 chapter, if it has been read by network members, will the one of the few teaching moments on the topic that they can draw from over what has otherwise been an increasing public silence. Because the ‘espoused theology’ on sexuality has been largely silenced in the network, while the culture around has shouted loud, there is a lot of evidence that ‘operant’ theology in the network has (for many congregation members, ordinands etc) diverged from the normative theology that Gumbel quietly holds.

 HTB is committed to working towards ‘unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’.  The staff get this and are fantastic.

An official response to why staff are asked not to comment on sexuality

This divergence of operational theology is especially true for the younger generations in the network who have not had the evangelical heritage earlier leaders could draw from. In an ‘experience first’ theological framework where self-censorship has become a norm it has become much harder (almost impossible perhaps) to clearly and authoritatively restate the normative theology. This chapter alone will certainly not do that. A buried normative theology can also be a huge frustration to those who get drawn in but do not realise what the church’s normative theology still is. One article sums up a ‘common experience’:

I grew tired of “wanting to get more involved but being kind of knocked back”. Churches might have a line on their websites saying “everyone is welcome” or “come as you are”, but those in same-sex relationships might be restricted from serving in leadership roles.

Another article makes a similar claim covering all the ‘hip’ or ‘celebrity’ churches: ‘the new hip churches are fooling us.’

Journalist Jules Evans makes an interesting defence of HTB/Alpha in an article entitled: ‘Is Alpha and HTB as bad as Alex Preston says?.’ Preston is a novelist who has written a book ‘inspired by his experience of doing Alpha’ which portrays ‘The Course’ as a sinister cult. Evans makes a sympathetic defence of Alpha, HTB and ‘Humble Gumbel’ in particular who he rightly sees is not at all like Preston’s money-grabbing, egoist and narcissistic central character David Nightingale. So Evans’ summary of the sexual ethic he experiences at HTB as an Alpha participant/church attender makes an interesting read:

What about HTB / Alpha’s attitude to sex? Gumbel has been criticized a lot for saying in the past that homosexuality is a sin. He doesn’t say it anymore, but I think he still thinks it’s a regrettable ‘lifestyle choice’. Plenty of people in HTB, by contrast, think homosexuality is not a choice and not a sin. But the church is hardly a leader in protecting gays from homophobia in others or themselves. Gumbel has said he wants the church to be ‘famous for love’. On this issue, it’s not there yet.

As for the general sexual climate of the church, Preston may have a point that the pretty girls of HTB draw in men, siren-like, to their salvation (or destruction, depending on your viewpoint). That’s often been the way in Christianity, and in other communities (how many men joined protest movements hoping for a shag?). Two guys in my group did the course because their Christian girlfriends asked them to. That’s not weird: people prefer to marry someone who shares their metaphysics, otherwise you’re basically living in different realities. Neither of them converted.


There is something of a confusion of the erotic and the sacred in evangelical Christianity, as in other religions. That confusion is inevitable because, as Socrates said, the urge to sex and the urge to God are mixed up together. I remember once hearing a lady have a Holy Spirit moment at a service, and it sounded like a particularly intense orgasm. It’s because of that closeness of the erotic and sacred that, as a community, you need to be careful to protect people in it, particularly from predatory leaders.

HTB, unlike Preston’s church, is pretty well-behaved in this department. The sex is mainly sublimated into religious ecstasy. The curates all look like they’re in boy-bands but they don’t exploit their flock. There’s a fair amount of flirting among the single people, but on the whole they seem to adhere to an unspoken ‘no sex before marriage’ ethic, which is obviously quite out-of-step with our culture. I don’t personally follow it – my own slightly-tortured position is not to have sex with someone unless I’m open to the possibility it might lead to a baby and I might spend my life with them.

Jules Evans, Feb 20, 2014,

This in contrast to ‘The Course’ where:

“Sex before marriage is a definite no-no, but the Course helpers still shag around and then feel guilty.”

All of which gives an interesting window into 1) the level of criticism HTB leaders have had to deal with (how many church leaders get novels written about them accusing them of being cult leaders?), 2) the way that the espoused theology seems to have changed (or been silenced) 3) whether there is a substantive gap between the normative theology (hidden) and the espoused (silent) and operant theology (theology lived out in the community in practice) when it comes to sexual ethic. The answer to that may be a complex yes and no, depending in part on how far into the community and leadership positions someone has come.

Nothing to ‘burden believers with?’

Percy’s contends that Charismatic Christianity apparently succeeds quickly as it has no great substance in terms of doctrine or praxis to ‘burden believers with’. Instead:

‘believers are offered an immediate form of spiritual experience – a kind of bathetic sentience through which one discovers quasi-numinous phenomenon’.[11]

Martyn Percy on Charismatic Christianity

In this paradigm Percy suggests ‘faith’ grows through a community of feeling. The positive experience is primary. We will assess this challenge in the research findings in the next few blogs. Yet what is immediately clear is that the earlier HTB of the 1980s and early 1990s, more grounded in classic evangelicalism, would not easily fit Percy’s assessment.

It is hard to imagine that the normative theology of HTB’s current core leaders is fundamentally different to what they held to be true in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then their normative theology was infused with John Stott’s teaching and John Wimber’s Kingdom Theology. But as has been seen already, and will be explored much more fully in the coming weeks, the espoused theology is presented quite differently. This may be marketing savvy, proclaiming the gospel afresh to a new generation in a positive format that works for them. But it may also be leading to an increasing shift in the operant theology as seen by the rising generation in the pews/comfy chairs and in the vicar factories. If the operant theology shifts, in a marketing model (where consumer needs/wants are instinctivley responded to) the espoused theology may well shift more, and eventually the normative theology becomes a distant memory. The theology of Stott and Wimber then gets hidden under positivity, spin and carefully chosen culturally appropriate words. If that happens has the faith been handed on to the next generation at all, or will it be a pale parody of the one preached by the likes of Wesley and Whitefield?

This blog then concludes 6 posts that make up a chapter on competency/success in the HTB network. Reading these 6 posts suggests that the network needs to consider whether pursuit of success is always positive, or even neutral, and has begun to identify some of the impacts success culture may have already had on espoused and operant theology. The next series of blogs will spell out my research findings from interviews. This will help to see where the ‘message‘ may have been changed by a ‘model‘ that is responding to, or driven by, the needs of the ‘market‘.

[1] Gumbel interview

[2] Guest, M, 2007 p.177-178.

[3] Guest, M, 2007, pp.179-180

[4] Gumbel, BIOY, preface


[6] Interview, Gumbel

[7] Gumbel, BIOY, preface

[8] Gumbel, BIOY, 8-9

[9] [emphasis added] [accessed 1.6.21].

[10] Released 24 May 2013. Welby was elected on 4 February 2013. For a sample of some of the pressure building for this revision see Rachel Stone ‘Nicky Gumbel, evangelicals and homosexuality’ 13 April 2009 Stone a research associate at Kings College London, succinctly discusses Gumbel’s approach to homosexuality in the 2004 version of Searching Issues and his ‘dilemma as an evangelist’ that his approach has a) no rational basis and b) seems unjust; for an example of a more ‘hostile interviewer’ see Adam Rutherford ‘Nicky Gumbel: messiah or Machiavelli?’ 28 August 2009 after a dialogue where Gumbel is careful to align Alpha stance to the ‘whole Christian church’ Rutherford concludes ‘This whole dialogue was a politician’s answer. Gumbel is very aware of how the evangelical stance that homosexuality can be healed is homophobic to many people’s ears, mine included, and thus plays his cards carefully. It’s frustrating, because no matter how offensive I find this sentiment, I just can’t work out whether he is naive or sinister. Certainly, the proclaimed welcome of gay people into Alpha, coupled with their insistence that gay sex is a sin, leads me to think that celibacy is what Alpha wants. Gumbel left the interview to play squash with a gay friend.’ But see also Stephen Hunt’s chapter ‘Is Alpha homophobic’ Chp 13 in The Alpha Enterprise 2016

[11] Percy, Clergy, 140

[12] Collins, 210