Discipleship Goals:

In response to national church decline described as ‘the market is distancing itself from us’, Sandy Millar’s aim has been to change the ‘model’ to win back the market but not change the ‘message’. [1] 

To try and evaluate whether it is possible to change the model without even subconsciously changing the message, this section considers the responses to two of the central interview questions and how the ministers were framing their ministry to achieve this. 

  1. If someone came to our church for five years I would like them to…. 
  2. When someone in our church is on their deathbed, I would like them to…

One typical set of responses was framed in terms of activities and assurance: 

a) Be saved! Be serving and involved. Be involved in prayer at the church. Be giving. Know their gifts and be using them for God’s glory. Be a disciple who makes disciples

b) Be saved! Know that they are going to heaven because of their faith in Christ. Have an opportunity to repent of anything that might be outstanding. Have the peace of Jesus. Have the right medical care and be free of pain [CLO]

The language of ‘having a purpose’ was common. Financial giving and bringing others to church were two key markers mentioned. Another mentioned filling in a legacy form(!) to b) alongside being mourned for their fruitful service [CLP]. Several simply reduced both responses down to ‘know that God loves them.’ [eg CLF/CLK]. 

I want this to be head and heart… want them to believe it, but I would love them to experience it. I meet some very broken people, who have had a terrible life, one of them died last year… I want them to know God as their heavenly Father… [CLK]

A common theme was the importance of an encounter with the Spirit in knowing that love.  

Know they’re loved, God loves them, he has a plan for their life, there is a purpose for which they were created – expressed through church and the place that God has placed them. I want it all really… to be a passionate worshiper – in spirit and truth, biblically literate – have an understanding of the grand narrative of the bible. 

I’d want to say, “this is just the dawning of the day, the life we know I believe is just a small taste of what is to come in terms of eternal life”. I feel, well, I believe, that we can have a foretaste of heaven when we encounter the Holy Spirit, and know something of the future Kingdom of God within us now when we encounter the Spirit – obviously that’s something that I believe but that I wrestle with this myself everyday, and I think actually it is so important that we encounter the Holy Spirit now so that he enlivens what is to come. “This is just the beginning: see you in heaven”. [CLL]

[CLL] is touching on why the worship ‘event’ is so important in HTB. Three times he repeats the phrase ‘encounter the Holy Spirit’, which progressively ‘gives us a foretaste of heaven’, ‘know something of the Kingdom’ and ‘enlivens what is to come’. Asked what he would like for someone on their deathbed to know he finds himself honestly articulating his own doubts (‘I wrestle with this everyday’) whilst also reaching for these ‘encounters’ or experiences of the Spirit as the place on which to put his and their confidence. These encounters are what he sees as a ‘small taste’ or ‘a foretaste’ of eternity. It is the experience of the Spirit encountered in the worship event that was the reason for the confidence that he had. It is obviously important not to overread a proto-creedal statement into a spontaneous answer in an interview, but it is at least interesting to note that these encounters with the Spirit, rather than a historical reference to Jesus, the empty tomb of the resurrection, or even a doctrine of assurance were what he reached for.  

Whereas for CLL the experience seems to fuel the belief, for CLK the experience serves to confirm the belief. This may be personality driven, but it may actually also be a very different way of doing theology. This is one of the outcomes of HTB demanding a high level of conformity on its marketable aspects such as brand Alpha or how you speak of leadership, but avoiding doing the same for its theology. 

One of the prominent leaders among the interviewees leads a church which has deliberately recast the Gospel message away from biblical language into terms that resonate with the culture. He answered:

I want them to be free… that’s about it really.  Freedom means providing an environment to teach and understand what Jesus has done for them, to live with a sense of purpose and destiny in a light-hearted way.. 

To die well, die free… without regret and without guilt.  [CLE]

His church has four values ‘that set our behaviours’. These are each equivalent to the ‘audacity, generosity, unity, and humility’ values at HTB, but more simply summarised with the phrases: ‘Aim High, Give It Away, Enjoy It Together, Bow the Knee’. The aspiration he explains, is that if people are gripped by God’s love in worship and spiritual encounter, they will become who they need to be without too much cajoling from the leadership. They will be free. Another high-profile church planter [CLF] makes it even simpler: ‘We only have one value, “love.”’ It’s worth noting in passing that these 4 or 1 values never speak directly about the place of the Bible or the Cross in shaping the church/network.

Despite the language differences and different ways of doing theology there was overall a high degree of commonality between the responses at least in terms of what a convert might look and be like. Within the network there is a clear picture of what an Alpha graduate can and should be. Measurable behaviours stem from these values. Loving is seen through active service, attendance and giving, all beginning and fuelled with a love that has come from an experience of the Holy Spirit. The Instagram feeds and websites of each church have photos give a clear operant theology of expected discipleship – typically a paradigm of youthful, smiling, content-looking, obviously-loving people.

Nevertheless, image driven ‘branded’ church and soundbite aspirations like ‘be free’ ‘know you’re loved’ are open to interpretation and misinterpretation. For one of the classic evangelicals, who had a much clearer sense of his own normative theology stemming from his evangelical heritage, this can go too far. He explained:  

‘I sometimes feel more at home in the [conservative evangelical non-denominational] church over the road than I do in the local HTB resource church as I do not always recognise the gospel in what is taught there’ [CLA] 

This then begs the question if there is sufficient reflexivity on whether ‘changing the model’ runs the risk of ‘changing the message’?

One planter had a vision for ‘health’ for his congregation, by which he meant they should be ‘free, secure and have a purpose’. But seeker-friendly attractional terminology like this differs markedly from older language of discipleship, obedience, and death to self. Can it really mean the same thing? Does it intend to?

However, perhaps even more interesting is how eclectic the responses were to these questions, suggesting that answers on true discipleship are much less scripted in HTB circles than we might expect to find. In a movement where entry into the church community is entirely choreographed, scripted and packaged through the Alpha video film series, discipleship is left far more open to choice/chance. [nb. entry into church life which might be called ‘conversion’ is confusingly called ‘discipleship’ by Church Growth guru MacGavan (see previous post) and deeper discipleship is what MacGavan calls ‘perfecting’ – the thing he argues we should waste too much time on].

Disparate choices are evidently being made within the network as to what such deeper discipleship could/should look like (if it should be aimed at at all). As one planter put it: 

‘I don’t like telling people what to do and so I think our danger is that we’re a bit wooly.’ [CLF]

Prioritising ‘entry into church life/’conversion’ over ‘discipleship/perfecting’ reflects the prominence of Alpha and the priority of a church network led by an evangelist. It would be applauded by MacGavan as an effective prioritisation of church growth principles over wasted time on growing Christlikeness,[2] but does it also suggest the network may have lost sight of some of the longer-term discipleship priorities still evident when Gumbel wrote Challenge Lifestyles?

With a category like ‘freedom’ the obvious question is free from what? In the planter’s response it is clear that freedom from guilt and regret are crucial, clearly, but what about deeper theological categories like freedom from sin (original or otherwise), flesh, the world and the devil? Debate rage in the church at the moment that all stem from this lack of clarity. Does God want me to be ‘free to be me’ (understood in a Disney princess sort of way), or free from the tyranny of my carnal nature?

In Chapter Five we will consider John Wesley and George Whitefield’s discipleship goals and motivations and discover that one of the driving motivations for these potential ‘spiritual ancestors’ of the HTB network was a fundamental aim of rescuing people from the eternal consequences of sin – what they clearly called ‘hell’. So, next week’s post considers if that ‘eternal issue’ is still key for HTB network? Or have practitioners found that ‘following the market’ and ‘preaching the positives’ can easily end up in a blend of ‘hopeivism’[3] and ‘agnostic universalism’. If more recent graduates from HTB’s training college are often emerging as ‘hopeivists’ does ‘Hopeivism’ then become their Formal Theology, replacing older traditions described earlier in this thesis such as Wimber and Stott who shaped the current leaders? And would this explain a change in operant theology as well. For if it is only in this age that we can make a difference, the focus of ministry should surely be ‘a life worth living now’.

[1] Monica Furlong, 2000, 274

[2] See Chapter 3 for more. 

[3] Term used by Dr Chris Tilling, Graduate Tutor and Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at St Mellitus College, and his personal position since St Mellitus was founded. see Chris Tilling: Universalism: A brief note on my position (2006) http://blog.christilling.de/2006/08/universalism-brief-note-on-my-position_05.html [accessed 21.2.2022]