Action Research

This post continues a series looking at data gathered from 2014-2021 on the HTB network. Here we are looking at ‘espoused’ and ‘operant’ theology – the theology that you teach, and the theology discernible from observing you in practice.

This post focuses on the results of a 2015 seminar I conducted with HTB network leaders and their staff teams. It involved an ‘action research’ methodology designed to test the dominant evangelical voice participants preferred to give / receive in a pastoral situation, which I could observe and then a more detailed survey.[1]

The seminar group were split into sets of six. One played the role of someone with a presenting pastoral issue and four were given a brief to respond respectively in 1) a classic evangelical voice; 2) an attractional / pragmatic evangelical voice; 3) an inclusive/progressive post-evangelical voice; 4) a hyper-charismatic voice (with the highly realised eschatological perspective that believers can have all the benefits of heaven on earth) ); Examples of each were given adapted from well known Christian leaders. The sixth was an observer who would feed back on what they saw and felt.

The tone of each ‘voice’ was agreed in advance using the caricatures of well known positions (worldview) in the evangelical world and examples that were commonplace. But in every scenario the role play was ad lib from participants. Each person in role offered a single piece of advice in turn and then the other two members gave feedback on what it was like to either receive that advice or be a detached observer. Scenarios ranged from concerns about health, afterlife, deliberate sin and human sexuality.

Reactions of the of the 63 people in the room varied, but the most comfortable and popular approach was a ‘come and see’ attractional voice (exemplified by ‘Try Alpha’), but most commonly expressed in vocabulary closest to an affirming ‘progressive’ voice if there was any controversial issue on the agenda. This in part seemed to reflect the Alpha course methodology of not challenging participants (‘all opinions are welcome here’) and a genuine desire to be as loving, kind and as non-confrontational as possible. Many found formulating classic evangelical responses in roleplay a ‘harsh’ or uncomfortable experience – even for those who acknowledged that they held the position themselves.

There was some split in the room as to how ‘realised an eschatology’ they were comfortable advocating/receiving in pastoral situations (especially with regards to health) i.e. a split between those tended to thinking healing should be commonplace now and those who wanted to balance that with a theology of suffering. It may be worth noting that this seminar predated the 2016 visit to the HTB Focus Holiday of a principle exponent of the ‘heaven on earth’ charismatic position, Bill Johnson (Bethel Church, in Redding, California), who was the main speaker at the summer event that year.

This section of the seminar was impressionistic but fascinating to observe.[2] I did a similar exercise with charismatic church student leaders the following year and found similar results from charismatic churches of various denominations across the UK. Leaders are most comfortable saying ‘come and see’ / ‘try Alpha’, tend towards a ‘progressive voice’ and are least comfortable teaching anything that might be considered a ‘hard truth’ or an overreach in terms of certainty.

The seminar finished with gathering more quantifiable data via a survey which 55 of the 63 completed. The results for each question are shown in both bar charts and scatter graphs below:

The first set of four questions asked respondents

A) In terms of making disciples in your church how significant is: (where 10 is highest)

  1. seeing the Kingdom come on earth as in heaven      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  2. fleeing the wrath to come / escaping hell                  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  3. preparing people for heaven / eternity                      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  4. enabling life in all its fullness now                              1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Very few thought that fleeing wrath and hell was a significant motivating factor and eternity generally was only of middling importance. There was a significant number of participants (44) who scored Kingdom Come 8 and above, but the biggest concentration of those (22) scored it 8. By contrast 48 participants scored Life in all its fulness 8 and above, but 41 of these scored it 9+ and the highest category scored was for life in all its fulness was 10 out of 10. 

Kingdom Theology has obvious links to Wimber, but as I explored the responses with participants it became clear that ‘Kingdom Come’ also reflects two diverse more recent influences. The one is realised eschatology of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church with their strapline ‘On Earth as in Heaven’.[3] This influence has been mediated both through Bill Johnson’s teaching which a few network churches have directly promoted, but also indirectly through Bethel Music whose hymnody is sung throughout the network.[4]  The second is the influence on the network of NT Wright’s theology of a new creation which counters a shift from the ‘materiality of creedal Christian hope’.[5]  A clear example of how this has been mediated into the network is through Pete Hughes, who addressed this in his key note address at the leader’s gathering the seminar was based at. In his 2020 book All Things New (which has a commendation by Nicky Gumbel) he argues that: 

The epic ending to the biblical story puts to rest the idea the ultimate goal of the Christian life is to leave one’s body behind and ascend to the divine realm to enjoy disembodied bliss….[this has] everything to do with Greek philosophy…… it somehow infiltrated Christian teaching and robbed people of the spectacular ending of our narrative. 

He continues that he finds it tragic that so many people inside and outside the church: 

Believe the Christian story can be distilled down to God making a way for those with correct beliefs, or immaculate behaviour to escape this present world in order to enjoy a blissful one in the next. 

Rather than escaping to where God is, the narrative for Hughes, following NT Wright, is of God descending to us and making all things new.[6]

Hughes is however explicit in his theology of judgement in the afterlife, even if, like John Stott, he interprets hell through the lens of conditional immortality (it burns you up, not burns you forever). In fact reading his book you can’t help but think that his theology of judgement should be an enormous motivation for evangelism, and clearly taught by anyone who followed his line so that people could avoid this tragedy of judgement, separation from God and loss of a glorious eternity in the ‘new heaven and new earth’ at all costs possible. Given that we saw last week that some in the network clearly teach a doctrine of eternal hell more consistent with evangelical forbearers you would expect judgement to be at least as clearly taught across the network as Hughes makes it here, if espoused theology (what you teach) keeps pace with normative theology (what you think you base your beliefs on). In that case Hughes’ book would be the base line unless a generation or two of ‘preaching the positives’ has made people on average more agnostic about judgement than he is perhaps even tending towards a tacit universalism (no judgement/everyone gets saved regardless). This is explored in semi-structured interviews discussed in the next few blogs.

So back to the survey: it’s worth remembering what we have already established that in many network churches only a very limited portion of scripture is read week by week. As we saw in the comparison between HTB and All Souls Langham Place, this may often just mean a short gospel reading or a few versus from epistles chosen at the whim of whoever was preaching that day. So the biblical diet of a network church may include far less verses about judgement to chew on than a middle of the road parish church following the lectionary readings which include Psalms, Old Testament and the entirety of the new Testament Canon including Jesus’ own high bar teachings as well as collects and other set prayers that orientate us in a Godward direction (how many people would pray the prayer that changed John Wesley: ‘that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name’ unless it was taught them in the collect for purity?)

So, despite Pete Hughes’ best efforts to get people thinking about the whole biblical narrative, in response to the survey questions it was clear that most of the teaching is aimed at the here and now. Indeed this tendency was the reason for Hughes writing the book: In the introduction he laments:

‘inspirational teaching’ that has no sense of biblically rooted trajectory, activist motivation that leads towards ‘spiritual exhaustion and apathy’ and importing ‘alternative language from the culture such as ‘human flourishing,’ ‘the common good,’ and ‘the transformation of society,’ without qualifying these terms on biblical grounds, so that the surrounding culture begins to redefine how the church understands the kingdom’.

Pete Hughes on Contemporary Christian teaching

The survey only measured peoples’ impressions, but they were all in leadership in the churches so were an informed sample set.

When asked about eternity only five felt that hell (conditional or everlasting) had been mentioned more than 5 times in the past year, and a majority believed that heaven had been mentioned less than 10 times in that same time period. Just 13 out of 55 thought that the hope of heaven had been mentioned more than 20 times, but in a 52 week year with often several worship services per week 20 mentions is not a very high result.

The hymnody is also interesting. The question asked specifically, “what percentage of worship songs have mentioned hell (less likely) or judgement” (possible more likely). `Given that one of the most sung songs of the year was still Stuart Townend’s In Christ Alone, with its famously controversial line ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’, you might not expect this to draw a complete blank. A large majority of respondents (33/55) however thought that a reference to judgement came in less than 5% of the songs sung (a simple contrast could be made with the Psalter where 70 of 150 songs are laments, often invoking or appealing against judgement).[7]

Heaven featured significantly more prominently in the songs than in the sermons. 36 participants thought heaven featured in 20%+ of songs, with half of those thinking it was in 30%+. So, given an average playlist of at least 5 songs per service we could infer that heaven is likely to be mentioned in sung worship once in a majority of HTB network churches on most weeks, although not in the formal teaching. As noted most of the network churches feature informal services with little or no liturgy outside of the ‘Worship-Teaching-Ministry’ paradigm and one short bible passage to be preached on, so an analysis of song lyrics and teaching content is very informative about the overall public spiritual diet on offer.[8]

The third body of questions was also informative. They were asked why would an Alpha graduate come to your church?  (scale 1-10 where 10 is the highest motive)

  1. For personal healing (emotional/physical)?     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  2. For meaningful community?                             1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  3. For inspiring teaching?                                      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  4. To encounter God in worship?                         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  5. To be prepared for eternity?                            1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
  6. To be equipped for life & evangelism?             1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Meaningful community (47/55) and Worship (40/55) both scored high numbers of 8+ out of 10, with community scoring almost 4 times as many 10/10 ratings as any other category (21/55 scored 10/10).   Teaching came in third with 36/55 rating it 8+ as a reason that an Alpha graduate would come to their church. But interestingly they were less confident that the teaching would be considered to equip the graduates for life and evangelism (only 20/55 scoring 8+) and even less so to prepare for eternity (6/55). About half the respondents saw personal healing as a fairly strong reason to come to their services, but less significant than community and worship. 

The final section sought to tease out espoused and operant theologies 

Complete these sentences in 50 words or less: 

If someone came to our church for five years I would like them to…. 

When someone in our church is on their deathbed I would like them to…

While the first set of answers were quite activist in response: ‘be serving on a team’, ‘be sharing their faith’, ‘inviting people to Alpha’, the deathbed version of the question elicited more reflective theology with typical answers including ‘be assured of their faith’, ‘to know that they have been forgiven’, ‘to look back and have no regrets’.

The picture that began to emerge from these seminar interactions and questionnaires is of a network focused on marketing the positive implications of gospel in the present moment without too much thought of its eternal implications/judgment save for some orientation in hymns towards eternal Hope and a tendency to ‘preach positives’ and avoid tough issues. This may well be a wise strategy for church growth, what is less clear is whether it is a wise strategy for making disciples?

But the most striking thing about all the answers to each version of the question is how person-centred the responses are. In other words the gospel is espoused as something for the benefit of people rather than for the ‘glory of God’. It is this God-ward motivation which we will see clearly in the comparison chapter which looks at Evangelical Revivalist John Wesley and George Whitfield, whose deepest stated motivation was to form a holy people for a holy God.

Next week we dig deeper into these perceived tendencies from the seminar looking at the results of detailed semi-structured questionnaires with a wide range of key leaders in the network.

[1] See Townsend, A, Action Research: The Challeges of Understanding and Changing Practice 2012 for discussion of Action Research methodology. 

[2] I repeated the exercise as training for 40 student workers from the Fusion Network in November 2016 , (which included many HTB affiliated churches), and found I had very similar outcomes and resulting discussions.

[3] See Johnson, Bill. When Heaven Invades Earth. United States: Treasure House, 2003.

[4] See Tim Hughes interview Brian and Jenn Johnson from Bethel on Prophetic Worship at the 2013 HTB based Worship Central Conference

[5] For Wright see Wright, Tom. Simply Christian. United Kingdom: SPCK, 2011; Wright, Tom. The Resurrection of the Son of God. United Kingdom: SPCK, 2012. For how his teaching is mediated to congregations see Wright, N. T.. Surprised by Hope Participant’s Guide. United States: Zondervan, 2010. For an overview: Kuhrt, Stephen. Tom Wright for Everyone: Putting the Theology of N.T. Wright Into Practice in the Local Church. United Kingdom: SPCK, 2012. For how the evangelical church has shifted from a ‘materiality of credal hope’ see Packhiam, G Worship and the World to Come 2020, 90.

[6] It begs questions about whether this is in fact a very human centred theology, as humanities home becomes God’s home and place of orientation…

[7] see Worship Central’s Nick Drake Constructing a theology for Pentecostal – Charismatic worship using Calvin’s ‘Union with Christ’ for an attempt to ground and critique the notion of intimacy with God within charismatic worship by drawing on Calvin’s Union with Christ. 

[8] See again Hughes, 2020 (introduction) where he questions the benefits of: ‘inspirational teaching’ that has no sense of biblically rooted trajectory, activist motivation that leads towards ‘spiritual exhaustion and apathy’ and importing ‘alternative language from the culture such as ‘human flourishing,’ ‘the common good,’ and ‘the transformation of society,’ without qualifying these terms on biblical grounds, so that the surrounding culture begins to redefine how the church understands the kingdom’. cf Packiam (above) who, like Drake, is an insider worship leader/pastor/theologian who ‘has come to see worship as a theologically catechetical practice’, such that songs ‘must be evaluated for their content and impact.’ Packiam, 2002,7