Andrew Wilson has a fascinating post on his blog on the subject of the ‘new centre of British evangelicalism.’ Within it he argues that, while there are parts of British evangelicalism that are not within the ambit of its direct influence, Holy Trinity Brompton has become by far the most significant player within the UK evangelical world. Andrew defines the ‘centre’ that HTB represents as ‘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.’
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.
Andrew’s discussion of the character, reach, and effect of HTB’s influence is perceptive and stimulating. He makes a number of interesting observations along the way. One of the most important of these is that ‘contemporary evangelicalism is increasingly becoming aligned by shared conferences, courses and choruses, rather than confessions, creeds or catechisms.’ One of the effects of these new means of alignment has been to downplay the significance of many of the traditional faultlines between ecclesially defined Christian groups—issues of church practice, sacraments, liturgy, and polity—and to accentuate other faultlines in their place, the sort of faultlines that are thrown up by the new means of alignment, things such as the faultlines between egalitarians and complementarians or between different positions on the charismatic gifts:
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.
In perhaps the most important paragraph in the post, Andrew observes the manner in which HTB’s centrality ‘reflects decreasing levels of doctrinal clarity in British evangelicalism as a whole.’
[I]t 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…
Considering the scale of HTB’s influence upon British evangelicalism and its doctrine, I wonder whether Andrew might be rather understating the degree to which HTB is a cause of evangelicalism’s lack of doctrinal clarity, rather than primarily a reflection of it.
The entire post is well worth a read. Andrew’s assessment of HTB, while containing a note of caution, is largely favourable.
I would be much less sanguine about the scale of HTB’s influence than Andrew seems to be, on account of many of the characteristics that he describes. My concerns are far too broad to be laid wholly at HTB’s door, although HTB does exemplify a number of the developments and trends that evoke some of my deepest reservations about much contemporary evangelicalism.
HTB often strikes me as an example of a highly successful ecclesial adaptation to contemporary capitalism. Implicit within its approach are new models of the Church, the world, and the Christian. The Christian is now the religious consumer, to whom the Church must cater. The Alpha Course (whose approach has been imitated by many others) is a polished and franchised showcasing of Christian faith in a manner that minimizes the creative involvement of the local church. It provides a technique of evangelism and discipleship along with a vision of Christianity in which the distinct voice and authority of the local church are downplayed in favour of a predictable, uniform, and airbrushed product. The danger is that evangelism becomes the implementation of a standard series of marketing scripts, rather than the practice of a distinct voice of local witness.
When the marketplace becomes the implicit metaphor framing the relationship between the Church and society, notions such as Church membership and authority will become more problematic. As this occurs, the weight of Christian affiliation and identity will tend to shift away from the local church, where we are subject to pastoral leadership, towards the parachurch, where we have freedom to connect and explore without coming under any institutional authority. Christianity comes to be experienced as a brand that we buy into. In the marketplace, the customer is king and accommodation to the consumer will often be the order of the day. The marketplace framing will also tend to sit uncomfortably alongside the various biblical frames that highlight antitheses or antagonisms between the Church and the world.
Among the most significant signs of a church more adapted to the marketplace will be a careful chamfering of the hard edges of the faith, a studied inoffensiveness, and a desire to avoid positions that might polarize its core market. For a consumer-driven church doctrinal vagueness is a feature, not a bug. An intentional degree of doctrinal vagueness or lack of specificity has the benefit of allowing many different parties to see in you what they would like to see (I have previously discussed the way that advertising can shape the presentation of Christian faith here). This lack of specificity will also tend to involve a downplaying of the particularity of our churches’ histories.
Much good has been accomplished through HTB and, no doubt, its ministries will continue to have a huge and positive impact in many ways for decades to come. Nevertheless, I believe that it is important to question some of the trends that it represents and to consider what they might mean for our understanding of the Christian faith within contemporary Britain.