The New Centre of British Evangelicalism
Here’s how it works. People become Christians on Alpha, which usually introduces them not just to the gospel, but also to a particular form of middle-class, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelicalism (which is increasingly representative of the sorts of churches they will find in their area, whether they are Anglican or not, including mine). If they’re young, they go to Soul Survivor (teenagers) or Momentum (students and 20s), led by fellow Anglican, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelical Mike Pilavachi. If they’re not, they go on HTB’s marriage course, recently trailered enthusiastically by the Guardian, or perhaps their parenting course. If they’re involved in worship leading, they connect with Worship Central somehow, either through a conference or through their online resources, and this gradually influences their corporate singing times in an HTB-ish direction (partly because several of the UK’s leading Christian songwriters are based there). If they want to go deeper in prayer, they link up with Pete Greig’s 24-7 prayer, now also based there. If they want to go deeper in the scriptures, they can download the hugely popular Bible in One Year app for free, and use that. If they’re involved in leadership, of any sort, they can go to the Leadership Conference at the Albert Hall, where they will hear from Cardinals and Archbishops, business leaders and former Prime Ministers, as well as Megachurch pastors of the Warren/Hybels sort. If they feel called to lead a church themselves, they can get trained at rapidly growing St Mellitus College - recently the subject of an extremely positive op-ed in the Telegraph - and then go church planting. I doubt there’s a church in the world whose programmes, conferences and courses are more widespread than HTB’s.
So here’s what I mean by the “centre” of British evangelicalism. I don’t mean the “centre” as in the centre of a wheel, whereby all spokes flow in and out of HTB. There are sizeable pockets of evangelicalism, especially in the black church and in more confessionally wired and Reformed-leaning circles, in which Alpha isn’t used and the rest of HTB’s courses and conferences makes very little impact. I mean “centre” as in the centre circle of a football pitch: the reasonably large, obvious bit in the middle, as far away from all extremes as you can get, from which it is possible to influence most of the game, and which, if you want to play with everyone else, you have to interact with on a regular basis. In that sense, I think, HTB is clearly in the centre, and far more central than any other institutions or individuals I’m aware of. (While Tom Wright, probably the most influential individual in the British church, affects the way huge numbers of British Christians think about scripture, he has far less impact on their practice - corporate worship, church planting, prayer, church leadership, evangelism, and so on - than HTB. If you wanted to push the football field analogy, he’s more like the fourth official: the one everyone looks to after they’ve made their decisions, to see what he thinks they should have done).
I should probably make a few declarations of interest at this point. I am a huge, huge HTB fan. My godfather and his wife developed and actually named the Alpha course when they were curates with Nicky in the early 1990s; we have run dozens of Alpha courses as a church, and my wife and I met on one. My brother-in-law works for them in Brompton. I’ve spoken at Worship Central events both in the UK and overseas, and have deliberately modelled aspects of the courses I run on the example I saw there from Tim Hughes, Al Gordon and others. In the last few days, I’ve plugged their Bible-reading app, linked to their leadership conference resources, sung their songs and publicly championed their courses. So I’m not saying any of this as an impartial observer, let alone a critic. Far from it.
But I do think it’s worth thinking through three corollaries of HTB’s increasing centrality, both for individual churches (like mine) and for evangelicalism as a whole.
First, contemporary evangelicalism is increasingly becoming aligned by shared conferences, courses and choruses, rather than confessions, creeds or catechisms. There was a time when self-identification would primarily be a function of denominational affiliation, but for most evangelicals this is no longer true; the immensely broad reach of events like New Wine, Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest and HTB’s Leadership Conference, let alone that of Alpha or “Here I Am To Worship”, crosses so many institutional boundaries that it makes many of those boundaries look somewhat arcane. Fuelled no doubt by mass media, cheap travel and increased disposable income, it has become far, far easier for Christians from different ecclesiological contexts to interact with each other, and many of them have discovered that they have more in common than their grandparents would have realised: they sing, pray, evangelise and organise meetings in very similar ways, despite the theological differences their forefathers debated or even separated over. If you wanted to split the evangelical churches in my town into like-minded groups, you’d get a more accurate picture if you divided them by the evangelistic course they use (Alpha for most, Christianity Explored for those who find Alpha too floaty, individualistic or charismatic, and nothing at all for the churches that aren’t that fussed about preaching the gospel) than by the denominational family they come from (Anglican / Baptist / Methodist / Free). The increasing centrality of HTB is obviously more a result than a cause of this realignment, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Second, this apparently trivial practical reality has huge theological implications. In previous generations, the issues which marked out churches as different from each other were rooted in post-Reformation disagreements over the nature, identity and right ordering of the church: polity, sacramental theology, liturgy and of course baptism. Those were the sorts of things denominations, and local churches, really needed to agree on, so they were clarified and articulated. But they are not the things that conference hosts, or course developers, or songwriters need to agree on. You can happily pitch up at the HTB Leadership Conference without having any idea how the people there approach church government or baptism, because the conference has no elders and no baptisms. But the conference does have to make decisions (say) about who gets to speak, and on what, and how corporate worship is to happen - so there has to be a theological position on gender roles, or the way to expound scripture, or the use of charismatic gifts, or whatever. Spring Harvest is neither Presbyterian nor congregational, but it is emphatically egalitarian; Alpha is neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but it is clearly charismatic; and so on. Consequently, the things over which one must agree to run a course or a conference, even when they are relatively trivial, can appear to be much more important things to define than things like sacraments or soteriology, when in reality the opposite is usually true. If we’re running a conference together, we can agree to disagree on baptism, and church polity, but not on whether women can teach men or whether we should have ministry times. This elevates the perceived importance of the latter.
Third, the centrality of HTB also reflects decreasing levels of doctrinal clarity in British evangelicalism as a whole. Perhaps it’s the breadth of Alpha’s appeal, perhaps it’s the elevation of Justin Welby, perhaps it’s the genial personalities and inspirational styles of the key leaders (Nicky Gumbel’s tweets resemble, and even quote, Joyce Meyer an awful lot of the time), or perhaps it’s something else entirely - but it seems to me that externally, HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church? (Egalitarianism, as mentioned above, is probably the exception that proves the rule). Most evangelicals will wonder why it matters: if someone has a good course, or runs a good conference, what difference does it make what they think about penal substitution, hell, gender roles or gay marriage? This, of course, is exactly the point I’m making - that the centrality of HTB reflects the lack of doctrinal clarity in evangelicalism - but if you’re stuck for an answer, ask anyone who still uses the Nooma videos.
As such, HTB represents British evangelicalism’s friendly face: biblical but not dogmatic, evangelistic but not ranty, activist but not politicised, Anglican but not really, centred rather than boundaried. Hard not to like, right? And certainly more likely to unite evangelicals, and to get favourable write-ups from cultural gatekeepers in the Telegraph or the Guardian, than the hardline confessional types. As such, if HTB represents the new centre of British evangelicalism, then nearly everybody wins. If the abiding perception of a Christian in the UK becomes an articulate, genial, charitable, charismatic, missional London professional with a year-round golf tan, then journalists may be slightly less condescending, and the rest of us may seem slightly less ridiculous, than has historically been the case - and we can all get on with what we’re really here for.
No doubt some will have their grumbles. That’s what always happens, not least in the UK, where tall poppy syndrome is unusually acute. For my part, the chief concern (if that word is not too strong) surrounds some of the theological influences which wash through HTB, although I’d be the first to admit that they haven’t come to any public expression yet. (The most we might say so far is that HTB has maintained a deliberate silence on some contemporary debates - and of which local church could we not say that?) Other than a mild theological concern, though, I think the increasing centrality of HTB is great news, and should be celebrated.
All those in favour?