Developing the proposal: Second interviews

This post continues a series exploring discipleship goals in the HTB and explains the process behind the second round of interviews for the thesis. The results of these will be explained in the coming weeks.

The original semi-structured interviews and this seminar then led me to develop the main research proposal further. The interview questions were reconfigured to keep the initial focus on telling their story, establishing their vision for individuals and community, and importantly exploring success, motivation and inspirations. But there was also now a clear aim to try and see any theological patterns in how the planters would articulate goals for church members.

It included the ‘complete the sentences’ as in the previous post, and then asked how they were shaping their ministry to achieve that. Two questions focused in on whether the operant theology of eternity (both sung and taught) was in fact limited particularly with regards to speaking about judgement and  exploring the motivations behind any under-emphases.[1] Then there were two direct questions on the eternal issue, and a final theological one to clarify preferred language with regards to sin and grace.  

  • In a previous survey of HTB network staff/clergy I found that teaching on ‘life in all its fullness’ or ‘kingdom come’ was far more common than on eternity: Why do you think we are speaking less about heaven/hell? 
  • What do you think we lose by not speaking about hell? Is this a pragmatic or a theological decision for you? 
  • And finally: How do you understand sin, and how do you understand grace? 

The original six were re-interviewed with a focus on the additional questions, and 14 other planters/ HTB network church leaders are also surveyed.[2] I also asked the same questions of the three most recent vicars of HTB – Millar, Gumbel and Collins. These 23 respondents thus provided a much broader data sample from within the network. 12 of my additional 14 interviewees would be in the ‘younger evangelical’ age category. 11 of the additional had worked at HTB itself at some point prior to planting/revitalising a church of their own. 8 of these at time of writing were leading a church/plant with more than 200 people, 4 were leading ‘larger’ evangelical/charismatic Anglican churches.[3] 3 had finished their first ‘solo’ ministry more prematurely than planned, one leaving the network entirely. 13 of the 14 were white and 13 were male. The British class system is hard to assess but most were broadly middle-class, although the group was more varied than the upper-middle class senior clergy at HTB.[4] One respondent spent most of a 75 minute interview processing their own pain relating to their work and only got through 4 out of 11 questions, but the others gave comprehensive answers.

Having already considered responses regarding vision, motivation and success/failure the focus here is on inspirations (what may be perceived as normative theologies), operant and espoused theologies regarding discipleship goals, and what can be deduced regarding underlying theologies concerning eternity, judgement, kingdom come, sin and grace. A wide range of responses will be seen suggesting a diffuse movement with competing trajectories underneath a culturally homogenous veneer:

The network is not defined by a doctrinal position or theological statement but rather held together by:  

  1. Shared background and allegiances. Most of the network (at that time) had a personal connection to HTB, although the pace of planting out of church plants means that this will not be the case for long.[5]
  2. Five commitments: 1) Use of Alpha and Alpha related products, 2) attending leaders’ retreats, 3) staff team attendance at HTB network gatherings, 4) attending the leadership conference and 5) coming as a church to the Focus Holiday Week, (some of these were not available during pandemic, but participation in the government subsidised ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ campaign mentioned in previous posts was another key marker).
  3. A shared vision of evangelising the nation, revitalising the church and transforming society. 
  4. Common values aligned with HTB. HTB’s ’s values are currently listed as ‘audacity, unity, generosity, humility, tenacity’.[6]
  5. An experience of the Spirit.[7]

This is partly explained by Ward’s ‘Branded Church’ concept explored in Chapter Three that shows how hard it is for prominent megachurches to take defined theological positions. But it also leaves something of a theological vacuum and thus it will be seen that it is often involvement in other networks or churches that has had a dominant theological influence on those surveyed, with those, for example,  who have spent time in churches that have focused more on expositional bible teaching much more likely to hold a classical evangelical position. 

[1] Packiam helpfully summarises NT Wright on this, showing that, for Wright, judgement is a corollary to Christian hope not a contradiction of it, despite his discomfort with how espoused theologies of judgement have often been a ‘distortion of the traditional view’. p.82

[2] Some of the 14 were interviewed remotely by video call for practical purposes – particularly COVID-19.

[3] Defined by CPAS as having a Usual Sunday Attendance of 350+ 

[4] Many senior leaders in the HTB network are public school and Oxbridge graduates – including several old Etonians such as Millar and Gumbel (as well as Justin Welby). But note the recent attempt at culture shift at HTB and rapidly increasing diversity in leadership development not least via the 2019 ‘Peter Stream’ for those exploring ordination at their theological college: ‘The Peter Stream seeks to see the Church benefit from a range of women and men who have sensed a call to ordained church leadership but have felt themselves excluded. The scheme aims to raise leaders from underrepresented backgrounds, particularly in relation to educational, social or minority ethnic categories.’

[5] CLH noted that many younger people in his church have no idea why he keeps referring to Sandy Millar. 

[6] [accessed 25.1.21]

[7] Being ‘led by the Spirit’ is one of the very few theological statements on the CRT website, along with ‘see the Kingdom grow’. [accessed 10.6.21].