Today’s post remembers an informal HTB network gathering in the upper room of the Tiger Tiger nightclub near Piccadilly Circus. It says so much about what is good about the network: a brilliantly organised event, the father-figure role of the headliner, Sandy Millar, a family like atmosphere. But look closely and it also hints at a divergence of espoused theology among second and third generation network members, which will set up the wider findings in Chapter Four (which begin next week).

Tiger, Tiger club, with headliner Sandy Millar

The upper room at Tiger Tiger began to fill up with familiar, smiling, and great members of the HTB network. The informal atmosphere combined with a sense of family identity meant that the 30-40 attendees were in a comfortable setting, encouraging each other, strengthening each other in faith and basically doing everything a gathering of likeminded leaders might hope to do. The message from the network Patrician, Sandy Millar was warmly anticipated. It was a meeting worth travelling for. It was a glorious antidote to many a deanery chapter.

As a prequel to Sandy two young speakers had been given the warm up gig. Both were highly successful in their own ways.

The first speaker was a lay member of a church, an adult convert to the faith. He had been invited into ‘a relationship with Jesus’ and was then discipled at one of the main London church plants of HTB. He described how he had been a sex addict, living a promiscuous life-style, and how he had finally been delivered from that four years after coming to faith.  

It was through ongoing bible-based personal discipleship with two of the local clergy that the speaker had made it through the ‘two year’ drop off point that many network churches report they have experienced with their Alpha graduates. He found himself working in a (highly) liberal arts university, but self-identified as an evangelist. So he sought to influence those around him to Jesus.

His instinct was to major on verses talking about the love of God, but he described how this had suddenly changed. One night he had a dramatic dream. He describes his dream as a vision of hell. This led to his new approach to mission. Through his online presence and creative media his aim was to bring to people’s attention verses such as Romans 3:23 ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …’. His story was powerful and moving and it was clear that he wanted people to have the same freedom from sin that he himself had experienced. His reorientation of message towards a clear challenge and warning them from sin and hell he said was backed up with clear fruit. He had seen exponential growth in Instagram followers wanting to hear more of his message, many from no faith background and some who had being baptised in their local context in response to his no nonsense message. 

The second speaker also had a story to tell of exponential growth of influence. This time as a YouTube star on a channel where his good looks and winsome personality were making him a hit among the churched and de-church young adults around the world. Without directly challenging the evangelist who had just spoken, the second speaker made a point of emphasising that his was a warm, positive, non-judgemental message. He had reached 50 million YouTube views through his winsome, gracious approach and had grown a large Instagram following. His message was ‘successful’, ‘warm’, ‘positive’, and ‘non-judgemental’. He had challenging words to say but these were saved for a strong critique on how the church does ongoing discipleship formation among young adults. 

This diverse warm up was the prequel to Sandy Millar.

The patrician was immediately disarming, delightful and self-effacing and yet very much in control of the room from the moment he stepped up to the microphone. Sandy began with a trademark opening: ‘I can’t imagine for the life of me why you invited me here dear boy’ and continued with a humorous but harmonising address which reminded me of a comment made to me by one church leader: 

Sandy has a gift. He will listen to you intently and make you feel like you are the most important person in the room. He will agree with you on all sorts of things and you will come out of the meeting feeling loved, cared for and liked. But he will not have budged a single inch on anything he had already decided to do.[1]

Sandy produced from the archives of his mind a tasteful anecdote on judgement that reoriented the question of the evening away from the concerns of universal judgement back to each of our own personal standing when faced with meeting Jesus on that Day.

In the anecdote a man imagines himself standing in front of Jesus and experiencing the emotions he will feel when his Saviour lovingly looks him in the eye and simply says “Well?” The man considers that he would rather experience the flickers of the ‘fires of hell’ than see disappointment in the face of the One asking him to account for what he has done with his life through that simple question: “Well?” 

From this story Sandy then proceeded to reorientate the room back to the ‘positive’ characteristics of God – love, compassion, grace, kindness, which he himself seemed so clearly to exemplify. It would not be a stretch to say that there were few in the room who would want to look in the loving, compassionate, gracious, kind face of a man who was (in some non-defined way) still their key father figure, and see disappointment if he ever looked them in the eye and said “Well?’

The other thing that was striking about Sandy’s talk was his constant affirmation of Alpha as the ‘one thing that all denominations could turn to for hope’. There is an old joke about a Sunday school where the teacher describes a squirrel and is amazed that none of the children can guess what he is describing. One boy eventually pipes up: ‘Please, Sir, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus but something grey, fluffy with a bushy tail that jumps from tree to tree and collects nuts sure sounds like a squirrel.’ In this talk the answer to all the wider church problems was clearly ‘Alpha’, but it sure sounded like it could have been ‘Jesus’ instead.

A great evening. A great patrician. A clear vision… but also a clear divergence of theological paths from those coming next…. a divergence perhaps both from each other, and maybe also from Sandy. Sandy represented the centre ground of espoused theology in the room, but the younger generation were clearly trying to make sense of how to market it themselves. Hard sell, or softly, softly…?

[1] Pers comm with leader from another network.