Espoused Theology: Eternal Issues
The findings of the Action Research exercise and survey discussed in previous posts were readily acknowledged and corroborated by most of the interviewees in response to question 9:
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?Interview Question 9
When focused in on talking about hell interviewees were almost unanimously at their least fluent. A default mode of preaching the positives quickly came out ‘I was always taught to preach good news,’ [CLH] and this was explained in various ways both from the minister’s intentions ‘because we’re trying to engage in what can feel like hopeless society we want to preach hope’ [CLL], and from what was perceived of the general public’s receptivity, ‘People don’t believe in hell… church perhaps used to come across as fire and brimstone caricature but we want to be seen as a place welcoming, loving, fun, building community, helping people…’
This was followed by question 10:
‘What do you think we lose by not speaking about hell? Is this a pragmatic or a theological decision for you?’Interview Question 10
This seemed to evoke the greatest reflexivity from participants, with several interviewees seeming to go on an intellectual or emotional journey in their response. For example:
I speak quite a lot about heaven. Less so about Hell but I do talk about it. I think we have got a little caught up on life now rather than the life to come. I think as a church we are always over balancing in one direction or another and we now need to tip back a bit towards the life to come. I think we lose a lot. I think we are a bit afraid to talk about it. The discussions with Steve Chalke, Andrew Wilson, Rob Bell over the last decade shaped that somewhat. Maybe more people are closet universalists than they would admit? Also, along with the word sin, hell has become a dirty word and we need to recapture it.[CLU]
Another, who had begun with the ‘I preach the positives’ line, then began to reflect that his wife had been converted when she had felt convicted of sin, ‘and, come to think of it, so had I.’ He finished the interview saying that he might preach about hell next Sunday, which was one of the early indications I had that simply articulating these sort of questions in the network had some potential to change the findings I was trying to elucidate. [CPH]
Others however had a much clearer espoused theology of eternity. CPM responded: ‘For me it is for both theological and pragmatic reasons that I so speak about hell and judgement’ which he went on to illustrate with reference to his latest sermon on Daniel 5 (he was teaching an expositional series through the book). He had strong alliances with conservative evangelical friends and was in a preaching group with them. While at HTB he had tried, with some success, to shift the culture back to a more expositional sermon series approach, rather than the more ad hoc week by week worship experience approach noted in the previous chapter.
We do talk about hell but not very much and that is partly because most of our teaching is to Christians for whom the teaching on hell is not as relevant as for the non-Christian-but for sure the lack of awareness of hell undermines evangelism or the need for it.[CLQ]
Underlying Theologies: Sin/Grace/Kingdom Come
The need for strong application in teaching was at the forefront of most interviewees’ thinking. As seen in Chapter Two John Collins following Stott had trained ministers to take care of three things in preaching 1) careful, biblical exposition, 2) practical illustrations and 3) praying for the unction to bring it alive. In interviews he expressed regret that more young ministers now don’t preach ‘for conversion’ as modelled by Stott. Many interviewees felt that their role was to place the emphasis on felt needs of people trying to work out how to live now – to be now-orientated rather than future-orientated as that is what people ‘feel they need.’ Several of these circled back to saying that when you get your eschatology / view of the future right that’s what ‘makes sense of the now,’. But there was a clear sense that a more gentle invitation to ‘try Alpha’ replaced a push for a crisis of conversion moment.
One recent staffer at HTB expressed a frustration about the focus on felt-needs:
At HTB I heard ‘fullness of life a lot’. It frustrated me, sometimes we sell the honey of the earth, rather than the requirement of salt to know Christ. We can be seeker friendly so much that we’re not necessarily developing sacrificial understanding. It’s easy to have a lack of fear of God/awesomeness of God. We’re not [supposed to be] surrounded by a nice bubble, but by a love that helps us endure. If we set the bar really low to gather as many as we can, if we attract by being different [to expectations], but oversell too much, we lose our identity in consumerism. We don’t have to bend always to culture.[CLJ]
As discussed above many of those focusing on present needs hoped that they were promoting a ‘Kingdom Come’ theology rather than simply spiritual consumerism. For some it corresponded to a Bethel Church type of realised eschatology and for others a theological system derived from NT Wright.
Pete Hughes has been a key exponent of developing a biblical framework/system over decade of talks and podcasts recently summarised in All Things New (2020).The key ideas in All Things New are reflected in the HTB vision for the ‘transformation of society.’ Hughes talks of us joining in a ‘re-creation’ of the earth through the power of the Spirit which has the effect of unpicking ‘de-creation’ [where ‘de-creation’ is ‘the artist formerly know as “sin”‘].
One of the questions the book throws up is how that transformation takes place. Can society simply be helped into the Kingdom, or even help themselves out of a ‘de-creation’ spiral? (as per a form of liberal theology). Or are we beyond saving ourselves and others? Does a radical new birth need to take place in individuals to make that possible. To put it another way, how dire are the straights that humans find themselves in?
Hughes is clear that this reversal needs a work of grace. The gospel. He paints a vivid description of ‘disastrous consequences of sin’, which he calls ‘de-creation and the distortion of the image.’ Hughes’ book is careful to set the cross of Christ as the turning point that enables ‘re-creation’ through both ‘reversing disorder and restoration of right order.’ ‘The cross is both the place of judgement and the perfect act of worship that reverses the disobedience and idolatry of sinful humanity.’ So sin is a massive problem, despite the positive vision in All Things New.
But where Hughes has tried to be systematic in owning this framework, others have been most focused on helping people into an entry level understanding of the gospel that does not necessarily fully identify the predicament their normative theologies would say human beings find ourselves in.
So is the concept of sin in HTB/Alpha circles is under-espoused and under-developed?
One of the conservative critiques of Alpha is that although the talk ‘Why did Jesus die?’ refers to our sins 33 times, its does not deal with Sin is a fundamental category that we need to be saved and rescued from. (In other words while Alpha is clear that we all have shortcomings and make mistakes (our sins) it is less clear that we have a Sinful Nature (Sin) we need rescuing from and have a proclivity to which means we cannot save ourselves) So, I was particularly interested in responses regarding sin/grace that confirmed or challenged this diagnostic.
I had had a particularly useful response from Nicky Gumbel with regards to this question. When asked, “What is the essence of the need people have and how do you see/describe sin and grace”. His immediate answer was orientated to the individuals he so clearly has a concern for:
I think we make a mess of our lives without Jesus. We are intended to live a life in relationship with Him. When we drift away we make a mess of our lives and other people’s lives. People desperately need to know that. I see that at the gym where I play squash…”Nicky Gumbel
I pushed the answer with a follow on question as to whether the nature of sin is it mainly about the things ‘I do or don’t do’ or a ‘core identity’ I need saving from? His reply fit with classic evangelicalism (his ‘normative theology’) but shows how much the pragmatic has been a filter for his mode of communication (‘espoused theology’):
Theologically it is the latter. But you need to work out theology and then how connect. You can have perfect theology but no way of connecting.Nicky Gumbel
When I pushed further, and repeated the conservative challenge to the Alpha talk, his response was a clearer still reemphasis of the classic position:
I would say the theology is in here – the essence of sin is a rebellion against God with the result we are cut off from him, ignoring God – far from Him and our lives in a mess. Full consequences are the pollution, the power, the penalty, the partition… [headings from the talk]. That’s the theology of sin.Nicky Gumbel
But his central point was about connection. Recalling John Collins’ sermon tutelage, the filter he said is, ‘you have to ask whether it is good news?’ While he was happy to reassert that ‘you need a theological accurate description of sin – not about individual acts etc’ it has to be connected with their understanding of what that means in practice. ‘You have to convey that message and not just be theologically accurate – through concepts they relate to in their own lives, in language they can understand.’ If it’s not good news, it’s not the Gospel.
As I continued the research however, it is not hard to see how the packaging can become the main thing. So what have the older leaders at HTB passed on to the next generation?
One planter, when asked about sin, said that “the ultra-conservative position just makes me feel bad” [CLH]. For him sin was individual acts of rebellion against God, but he preferred to talk about grace as it “gets under his skin”. Another planter confessed, “I’ve just got a pretty immature view of sin I imagine: S-I-N ‘I at the centre’”. [CLL]. CLH mused that he would like to hear what Sandy and Nicky had to say on this, wondering if it was part of a pendulum swing through history, and suggested a swing from an emphasis on a transcendent God to immanent God was part of a shift away from talking about judgement, eternity and sin. He noted that he didn’t talk much about judgement (or sexuality) because it was culturally ‘very explosive’.
CLQ, who had one of the most charismatic theologies, highlighted that ‘sins flow out of the sinful nature.’ He noted that ‘we are impacted by the materialistic worldview that focuses on getting all you want from life now and has no awareness of eternity and heaven or hell. This waters down our willingness to suffer or resist the attraction of the pleasures of the world and seriously undermines our understanding of God as judge.’
Several interviewees echoed the comments of CLD (in the introduction) that the experience of the Spirit was at the heart of conversion for them and others, and that the Spirit would convict of sin where necessary, so they didn’t need to teach the sort of legalism they, or others, may have grown up with. The overall sense was that in terms of espoused theology though sin should be mentioned (in terms similar to Gumbel above), it was most important to get people into that encounter of love with the Spirit that ultimately alone could change people.
This then reminds us of how central ‘Life in the Spirit’ becomes to the HTB network’s theology. It is an experience of the Spirit that a lot of hope is placed on. This is partly because that experience of the Spirit is seen as the clearest answer to immediate felt needs. It may also be because of a void of systematic or expositional theological teaching which would provoke more teaching on harder passages of Scripture than we have seen in the review so far. The message then is less about the cross saving us from sin, rebellion, the flesh, the world and the devil, and more about a life lived out in the fulness of the Spirit. Perhaps if sin / judgement was given more of an airing these might not be so mutually exclusive?
Much of the above can be helpfully contrasted with Hughes’ more systematic consideration of the biblical story. All Things New deliberately walks through each stage of the biblical story and hence faces the issues of de-creation, distortion of the image of God in humanity, and slavery to sin head on. Hughes also has a profound eschatology, considering the necessity of judgement, hell (as total destruction of evil after judgement) ‘throwing the serpent out of the garden city’ and the ‘marriage of heaven and earth.’ We will return to how helpful Hughes’ framework might be for the network in recovering a normative theology in Chapter Six.
The next Chapter will introduce John Wesley and George Whitefield in the Evangelical Revival [ER] as a historical mirror for examining the network in. Similarities will be noted between these ER practitioners and HTB network, not least their evangelical roots, revivalist experiences of the Spirit and orientation towards success including innovative marketing techniques. The aim is to show the discipleship goals Wesley and Whitefield held in common and the underlying theology that spurred them on, as key practitioners who have in various ways been seen as ‘normative’ models for Iwerne, Stott, Collins, and HTB. The contrast between this and the findings so far regarding the HTB network will help evaluate further if the HTB network has been successful over the past 40 years in changing the model but not the message.
Appendix One: Discipleship in the 21st Century: Seminar Questionnaire
A) In terms of making disciples in your church how significant is: (where 10 is highest)
- seeing the Kingdom come on earth 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- fleeing the wrath to come / escaping hell 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- preparing people for heaven / eternity 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- enabling life in all its fullness now 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
B) In your perception of the church you lead/go to over the past year …
- how often has hell featured in a sermon:
- 1-2 times
- 3-5 times
- 5-10 times
- 10-20 times
- 20+ times
- how often has heaven featured in a sermon
- 1-2 times
- 3-5 times
- 5-10 times
- 10-20 times
- 20+ times
- what percentage of worship songs have mentioned hell/judgement?
- What percentage of worship songs have mentioned heaven?
C) Why would an Alpha graduate come to your church? (scale 1-10 where 10 is the highest motive)
- For personal healing (emotional/physical)? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- For meaningful community? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- For inspiring teaching? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- To encounter God in worship? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- To be prepared for eternity? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- To be equipped for life & evangelism? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- Complete the sentence in 50 words or less:
If someone came to our church for five years I would like them to….
- Complete the sentence in 50 words or less:
When someone in our church is on their deathbed I would like them to…
Email address / contact details if you’d like further information.
Appendix Two: Semi-Structured Interviews (First Stage)
1. Can you briefly summarise the story of the first seven years of the church plant?
- what were your highlights
- what were your low lights?
2.. How might those on your staff team describe your main gifts for ministry?
(a) Are these different to when you began the plant?
3. What were the main factors that caused you to start the church plant?
- circumstantial opportunities – push/pull factors (e.g. invitation / encouragement, missional need)…
- personal motivations
4. Who or what kept you going in the initial stages?
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?
8. If you had the chance to rewind the clock and begin again would you?
9. If so what would you do differently?
Semi-Structured Interviews (Second Stage)
- Can you briefly summarise the story of your church plant so far?
what were your highlights; what were your low lights?
- Who or what kept you going in the initial stages?
- What did / do you most want to see happen in terms of: a) vision for individuals; b) vision for the surrounding community?
- Who or what do you turn to for inspiration? – in terms of models of ministry, bible resources etc…
- How would you define success in church planting?
- To what extent has success galvanised your work?
- When (if) you have had to how do you cope with failure?
- Complete the sentence:
- If someone came to your church for five years I would like them to….
- Complete the sentence:
- When someone in our church is on their deathbed I would like them to…
- How are you shaping your ministry to achieve that?
- 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?
[Questions 6-11 would also be the supplementary questions for the original 2015 interviews].
 A similar thing had occurred with a blog I published ‘Charismatics in Crisis’ on women in leadership in HTB and New Wine circles (2015) which led to a discussion with key people at HTB and seemed to accelerate recruitment of female ordinands.
 Hughes, Pete. All Things New: Joining God’s Story of Re-Creation. United Kingdom: David C Cook, 2020, 17-18. Note John Hughes, father to Pete and Tim Hughes, was at the 1963 ‘Night of Prayer’ with John Collins in Gillingham.
 Hughes All Things New 2020, 59-65
 Ibid. 173
 The questions used in the first round of questions with the initial six interviewees.
 The questions used with the additional 14 interviewees and the three Vicars of HTB. Questions 6-11 were also used as supplementary questions in follow on interviews with the original six church leaders.