Making Sense of a Movement

This post begins a series looking at findings of qualitative and quantitative research into the HTB network (i.e. a mixture of observation, semi-structured interviews, surveys, informal conversations, and immersive experience). This first post goes back to very initial surveys in 2015 with six leaders of churches which had over 500 people in their congregations / plants.

My initial round of interviews in 2015 focused on the motivations for ministry of the six planters. My intention was to consider what model of ministry are advocated and practiced and how duplicable the model may be in these ‘flagship church plants’. I was particularly keen to spot any motivational ‘drivers’ for sustained ministry in the planters and found myself naturally comparing these to those of Wesley and Whitefield whom I had been intermittently studying since my undergraduate dissertation in 1998-99. William Law’s rule ‘seek for eternal happiness by doing the will of God’  quoted in full above, had helped mobilise the early Methodists and resonated for me with the scripture verse, ‘For the joy set before Him Christ endured the cross’ [Hebrews 12:12].[1] So, I was naturally interested both in both eschatological motivators and whether the resulting ‘telos’ of the HTB planters accorded with the early Methodist priorities in producing a holy people for a holy God. 

I discovered that their initial motivations for church planting were mixed. Alongside generally clearly articulated senses of calling and presenting opportunities, across the generations, half reported feeling compelled to plant as younger ‘star’ clergy (or even ordinands in one case) had been appointed to HTB and now had the attention and limelight. Others had had a clear desire to plant but could have happily stayed on and served in the main church. Most were happy to propagate what had been learnt at HTB, but each was bright, articulate, driven and also wanting to make their own mark, for contextual, theological or personal reasons. One partly wanted to plant to outwork their own (affectionate) critique of HTB that while: 

It was wonderful seeing thousands of people come to faith and exploring charismatic spirituality in an Anglican context we didn’t do the discipleship thing very well and it wasn’t always clear that we were equipping people for discipleship. [CLD]

With this in mind three of the initial questions became particularly important in formulating the ongoing wider study. 

5. What did / do you most want to see happen through the church plant in terms of: a) vision for individuals; b) vision for the surrounding community?  6. Who or what do you turn to for inspiration? – in terms of models of ministry, bible resources etc…  7. How would you define success in church planting?a) To what extent has success galvanised your work? b) When (if) you have had to how do you cope with failure?

There were five key findings that informed the ongoing research: 

Firstly, while vision for individuals was typically framed in very active language: 

CPE: I would send them out to church plant… the vision is to get them to the point where they want to do likewise elsewhere.

CPD: a disciple who is still growing, hopefully on solid food, who can disciple others., 

CPA: grow in discipleship… and being rooted in the local church – that was how God was going to change the world.

There was also evidence of a very different approach: 

I would want to give some the classic discipleship answers, but one that I am often saying these days (this is frightfully wooly and liberal/touchy feely) is to grow in self awareness… that is the key to personal growth.[2] [CPB]

CPB referenced Willow Creek, and an ‘inner healing course’ as key to this, which aimed to integrate a person ‘on the inside and outside’. When pushed on holiness he talked about vulnerability as being a sign of real transformation and interpersonal relationships as the real thermometer of holiness. He then noted that this was passion for God and compassion for other people. This was outworked through practical things like a ‘healthy clash of ideas’, ‘sharing weaknesses’. 

Secondly, initial vision for the surrounding community was remarkably different between the generations. As suggested in Chapter Two this seems to correlate with the idea that TTB released a new concern for community and social outreach. [3]  This was not only seen in church planters priorities but also in national youth initiatives like Message 2000 and Soul in the City which HTB underwrote in partnership with Soul Survivor and the Message Trust. Whereas CLA believed his church could have been located anywhere he could draw a crowd, the later plants had a high reflexivity about context and a strong sense of calling to local community. This counterbalances the McDonalidisation thesis explored in Chapter Three, and resonates with the Millar’s assertion that ‘all of our church plants have been different as they have been led by different people.’[4]However with regards to social action within the network it is worth noting that there has been various centralisation processes at work through the William Wilberforce Trust, Prison Alpha and most recently the Love Your Neighbour campaign organised by CRT and it may be true that a certain sort of social action engagement has become part of the network church brand. But the shift to more direct concern for community after TTB does correlate with a significant theological development towards a ‘Kingdom Come’ narrative explored later in the chapter. 

Thirdly, the models for inspiration show an evolution over time from John Stott and John Wimber as key influences, towards a decidedly eclectic range. These shifts are amplified in the follow on interviews, particularly among younger planters, and this is also described more fully later.

Fourthly, my original investigation into motivations for ministry highlighted the significance of success and (avoiding) failure as possible influences on theology in the network. The high level of reflexivity in the respondents showed how powerful a dynamic this could be – the more so as each of these initial six had achieved very tangible successes in the McGavan/Wenger ‘ABC’ terms of ‘attendance, buildings, cash’. This led to the reflections on success as a motivator already outlined in Chapter Three. 

Fifthly, This left me musing to what degree their motivations were in fact eschatological / eternal (‘for the joy set before him…’) versus temporal and measurable in the here and now. This became a key focus of a seminar and follow on questionnaire that I was able to conduct with HTB network church staff team members. It helped develop the idea that there may be a gap between what might be considered as a normative theology for the network and the operant theology that might be discerned in interactions with the network and the espoused theological teaching. This then informed my second round of interviews with these six planters, and wider interviews with 14 further church planters/leaders. 

[1] Interestingly this verse from Hebrews 12 features on the values page for HTB as explaining their fifth value ‘tenacity’ [accessed 25.1.21].  

[2] cf Simon Walker Undefended Leader, 2010 150, Walker makes a critique of defensive, power-based leadership arguing that, ‘The only proper goal of leadership is…to enable people to take responsibility.’ 

[3] See Wilkinson, M and Studebaker, S (Eds) A Liberating Spirit: Pentecostals and Social Action in North America. (2010). United Kingdom: Wipf and Stock Publishers for discussion on impact of what they call ‘progressive Pentecostalism’ in N.America and how worldwide one Pentecostal response to the Spirit has been engagement with social issues. A 1996 Methodist Church report in UK saw ‘hints of developments in social outreach’ due to TTB which can be partly explained as a unifying sense in the movement was ‘sharing the Father’s blessing’. But note also Poloma, M, 1989, 232 ‘although charisma has long been registered as a factor in the rise and revitalisation of the religious movements, it seems to depart quickly once it has completed the task of institution building. Now it is more fragile than ever, for modern institutions are prone to favour efficiency and pragmatism rather than charisma’s illusive spirit. Charisma and institutionalisation thus appear to be at odds, with charism quick to take on routine forms that stem its free flow.’ This helps account for the tangible outputs of social action being prized, but conversely also highlights the unusual prevalence of the ‘Come Holy Spirit’ charism in the HTB/Alpha circles. It is ultimately this charism that has proved the most marketable selling point… enabling an experience of the divine to a post-Christian world whose biggest felt social need has often been a desire to ‘love and be loved in return’. 

[4] Millar (ref)