Holy Trinity Brompton and the New Form of British Evangelicalism

Holy Trinity Brompton

Holy Trinity Brompton

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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, The Blogosphere, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Holy Trinity Brompton and the New Form of British Evangelicalism

  1. Chris E says:

    I’d say that there are a number of problems implicit in the original article that aren’t unpacked at all – for instance, he parallels HTBs not taking a stance on certain issues with that of many local churches – but I’m not sure this holds, unless being shrill is now the only way to make a stance. Whilst not particularly vocal, they are usually fairly clear about what they hold to – outside certain parts of the CofE which have other issues.

    Secondly, take this paragraph:

    “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”

    Have we really forgotten that the medium is – at least – part of the message ? What is the impact if Christianity becomes associated with a particular segment of middle-class living that is largely out of the reach of the vast majority of people in this country – especially at a time when it looks like we are in for a long period of inequality and economic hardship? Effectively we’d have been given a pass by the media for associating with – and implicitly endorsing – a certain segment of the establishment.

    • I agree with both of these points. Also, doctrinal or theological ambiguity often takes effort and purpose to maintain, especially when the issues in question are prominent in public and Christian discourse and you are one of the biggest players in the evangelical world. Such ambiguity is seldom purely accidental.

      Your second point is a very important one. Conspicuous middle-classness isn’t a new problem for Anglican evangelicalism (Alister Chapman has an interesting discussion of John Stott’s struggles and concerns in this area here). However, I detect rather less discomfort around this fact in some quarters than in others. Also, when the church is far more alert to the need to package itself for the discerning religious consumer and to put its best face forward, the middle-classness of our churches can cease to be something that we feel profound unease about and starts to become a selling point. The smiling faces of a middle-class congregation in their safe and shallow diversity is welcoming and reassuringly cosmopolitan, yet assures us that we will be kept at a comfortable difference from the troubling and guilt-inducing face of poverty or social marginalization.

  2. Alastair – really helpful post. I attempted to post a comment on the original piece, but I’m not convinced it registered, so forgive me for repeating here – it’s relevant to your comments too…

    ‘Andrew – fascinating post. I recently read Oliver Barclay’s “Evangelicalism in Britain, 1935-95: A Personal Sketch” (recommended – very helpful). I was repeatedly struck by the realisation that many of the “recent” trends in British evangelicalism actually went back at least to the 1930s. For example, you say, “There was a time when self-identification would primarily be a function of denominational affiliation, but for most evangelicals this is no longer true”. This goes back a long way – think of Keswick and IVF/UCCF.’

  3. I’d rather lack geniality than be bland in my faith, doctrine and witness. I’d rather have Christian maturity than respectability.

  4. Dennis says:

    Alastair – Thank you for your work in this short article and in your many other posts. Your writings are always helpful and challenging to me, so it’s an honor to finally leave a comment.

    I’m cautious to jump with you so quickly from this church’s practices to descriptors like capitalism, consumer driven, markets, etc. Firstly, these terms are too vague and aren’t really helpful in determining the actual relationship.

    One difference might be that these church members aren’t just simply consuming but taking the church’s teaching and programs and making them their own and creating and producing new things. For example, Andrew Wilson’s long involvement in the Alpha Course. And Andrew Wilson seems very smart and thoughtful and does not seem to epitomize a consumer mindset.

    You write, “As this occurs [the move toward consumer driven church structures], 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.”

    I agree with everything but the last: in my experience with similar programs in America, there are institutional authorities. Every sustainable organization has ways of disciplining and dispelling errors and misbehaving members. I don’t know know what the new institutional authorities are, nor what they consider errors and misbehaving members, and I agree with your concern that it is probably both less than ideal and less than biblical, but I don’t think describing the situation as market place driven and members as mere consumers is quite correct.

    • Chris E says:

      “I’m cautious to jump with you so quickly from this church’s practices to descriptors like capitalism, consumer driven, markets, etc. ”

      As a general principle I’d agree – however in this particular case, they are fairly open about their influences – you’d just need to check out the speakers at their leadership conference, the number of times Nicky Gumbel name checks Willow Creek et al, and various fairly direct references in the books he has written. The language adopted is generally is that of sales and marketing textbooks.

      As to your other point – other than in cases of sexual sin, parachurch organisations have a history of disciplining leaders only when their brand suffers and their supporters start to leave them.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dennis, and for the helpful pushback. You raise some important points and questions.

      Perhaps it would be helpful for me to make a few clarifying statements at this point, in order to make clear where I am coming from here.

      First, and most importantly, I don’t want to minimize or dismiss the genuine good that has been done by HTB and its various ministries.

      Second, there are many thoughtful and godly Christians whom I greatly admire and respect whose perspective on and favoured relationship to HTB and its ministries differs significantly from my own, Andrew Wilson being one example. I do not believe that these persons have just given in to the zeitgeist or the prevailing social forces. Nor, for that matter, do I believe that they associate with HTB in an uncritical manner, or that they don’t also recognize many of the issues that I raise. I suspect that many of them chose to work with a system that they know is less than ideal for prudential reasons, appreciating and making the most of its strengths, while aware of and trying to minimize the effect of its weaknesses. Although my reservations may be greater than theirs and I can’t follow them, I can respect where such people are coming from. For instance, interacting with HTB and its ministries provides one with a context within which you can both work with and influence people from a much broader range of the ecclesial spectrum. I can definitely see why this is regarded as a benefit by many.

      Third, while I believe that HTB and its ministries are an especially noteworthy, pronounced, and significant accommodation to the logic of the contemporary capitalist marketplace, they aren’t a complete capitulation to it. Nor do the new models of Christian faith that I identified find pure expression within it. My observations in the post were primarily about the dangerous tendencies of these new ways of doing ministry and the sort of direction in which they are leading us. In focusing upon the implicit model of the church of the capitalist marketplace, I am trying to highlight a model towards we are being conformed, while recognize that we are still some way from that destination. I am convinced that HTB is leading the way here in many respects, though.

      In response to your comments, you write: ‘One difference might be that these church members aren’t just simply consuming but taking the church’s teaching and programs and making them their own and creating and producing new things.’ I think that it is essential to recognize just how standardized a product the Alpha Course is, for instance. Despite the various criticisms of the Alpha Course as an example of the McDonaldization of religion, Nicky Gumbel has been very strongly resistant to the idea of local adaptation and has explicitly compared such adaptation to being served a ham sandwich at a McDonalds somewhere else in the world.

      Regarding your point about institutional authorities, I think that your point may be true when it comes to those who act in its name (an example here is the strong resistance to local adaptation of the Alpha Course ‘franchise’). Such groups can even be highly authoritarian in their desire for consistency and uniformity in certain areas, much as businesses within the capitalistic marketplace have internal operations that can be highly authoritarian and hierarchical. However, for the person attending a conference or taking a programme, what it means to be a ‘member’ or to ‘come under the authority’ of an institution is far less clear. Much as my eating at McDonalds doesn’t subject me to their authority structure in much of a meaningful fashion, so the manner that we relate to such ministries is very different from the way that we relate to the pastoral leadership of the local church.

      • Dennis says:

        Thank you for your response and clarification. They help me to think about this topic further. I am indeed surprised to hear how resistant Nicky Gumbel is to local adaptation.

        I agree that institutional authority is much less clear in these situations, but I think it is probably not that analogous with eating at McDonalds (which is the consumer example par excellence). But my thoughts are incomplete and stuttering and unclear, so I look forward to more of your writings on this subject.

      • Thanks for the comments again, Dennis. You provided some important pushback, challenging me to clarify a number of things that weren’t clear enough within the post itself. All of our thoughts lack the clarity and completeness that we might like, which is exactly why this sort of mutually sharpening interaction is so important.

  5. Joel says:

    Just interested, in what ways (if any) do you think Christianity Explored shares Alpha’s issues?

    • I would have a number of similar concerns about Christianity Explored. While I am happier with its content, with its deeper roots in the scriptural text, and with its rather more robust theological stance on certain key issues, I think that we need to be a lot more cautious and critical about the form and means of evangelism that it, the Alpha Course, and other similar courses represent.

      I think that evangelicalism in general tends to be rather naive about the significance of the media that we use. In many quarters there seems to be a tendency to think that all that matters are the ideas that we communicate and a failure to recognize that how we communicate and our cultural products and practices powerfully shape both us and the messages that they mediate.

  6. Paul Baxter says:

    wondering if you’ve ever seen the film Heavens Above (with Peter Sellers). Strikes me as a lovely antidote to some of what you are discussing.It takes place in a CofE setting, in a very upscale and conservative parish. The local vicar retires is, by accidental circumstances, replaced by another minister who has been laboring in prison ministry. The new vicar, just as a natural expression of his faith, starts leading people in a radically gospel-centric way, causing much dismay and confusion. You might find it worth a blog post all on its own.

  7. I lead a Bible study for incarcerated women. I consider it nothing remarkable. I love to teach the Scriptures and the Lord needs us to go where people are hungry for His Word.

    Ironically, I am not allowed to teach Bible in the evangelical Protestant school where I teach another subject, though I hold a Master of Divinity and have been teaching and writing on different books of the Bible for 20 years.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alice. I apologize if I am missing something, but I am not sure that I understand how it relates to this particular post. Were you intending to comment on a different one?

      • In the movie Heavens Above the vicar is replaced by a priest who had been doing prison ministry. That is not a comfortable ministry, but it shapes one in ways that The Alpha Course and other programs of formation at HTB do not. I wonder, are there members of HTB who work with prisoners?

      • Ah, sorry; as your comment wasn’t a reply to Paul’s, I didn’t twig on the connection.

        The Alpha Course is used in prisons. However, I very strongly agree with you about the importance of such things as prison ministry for shaping our conception of ministry more generally.

      • Not a problem. I’m following this because I’m very interesting in the direction of British Evangelical Anglicans. I agree that moderate Evangelicals have considerable influence. More than they may recognize. I hope it is positive. I’m not a fan of the lower worship style and the tendency toward theological reductionism.

  8. Phil says:

    The phrase “lack of doctrinal clarity” is loaded with editorial overtones. There’s a difference between recognising that there are multiple doctrinal positions to hold on a given topic (all of them with strengths and weaknesses), and being doctrinally weak.

    If anything, it is the reverse: understanding and recognising the strengths of other theological views and allowing conversations to occur without laying down a firm statement of belief across the non-core doctrinal issues is a very positive move for evangelicalism and very much in line with the movement’s ambition

    • Thanks for the comment, Phil.

      Most of us recognize the existence of many different positions on various doctrinal issues among committed Christians. However, we also recognize the importance of many of these issues and the need to press ourselves and others towards greater faithfulness through challenging conversation. This requires taking stands and actively addressing specific doctrinal issues of importance, or at least ensuring that they remain very visible on the table of discussion. The doctrinal and ethical issues that Andrew brings forward as examples—penal substitution, hell, predestination, and gay marriage—are hardly issues of little significance. The idea that a church can just step back from such debates strikes me as naïve.

      Of course, even while we are participating in such debates, it is quite possible to recognize our interlocutors as brothers and sisters in Christ and to work with them in various ways across our differences. Even were we to agree that issues such as penal substitution, hell, and predestination are ‘non-core doctrinal issues,’ I think that most of us would recognize that they are issues upon which differences are very significant and where it is important to take a stand, even if we don’t allow that stand to prevent us from working with people on different sides of the divides.

      The ‘allow conversations to occur’ approach sounds good on paper. However, usually what it means is precisely the opposite. Conversations about significant differences come to be discouraged as ‘divisive’. The ‘allow conversations to occur’ approach also tends to mean that the church stops participating in these conversations itself. It is an approach that tends to institutionalize agnosticism or indifference to doctrinal matters of significance and often leads to the censure of any who would believe and practice otherwise.

    • “..penal substitution, hell, predestination, and gay marriage…” I would add women priests, which I believe touches on Christology. And I agree that these are not secondary issues for people seeking to be faithful to the Received Tradition.

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  10. Miles Nash says:

    I like to listen to different sermons from reformed churches all over the world, something that has become easy to do now in the age of the internet. One thing I noticed a couple years ago is how many churches, when expositing the book of Romans, will skip over the second half of the first chapter, as well as most or all of chapter 2. I began to realize that it is no coincidence.

    The insane part about it is that this section of scripture discusses the suppressing of the truth, and ironically this part of scripture itself is being suppressed.
    Now when I check out a church’s online audio library, it is one of the first things I look for and if it’s missing I know to move on.

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  13. Tom Farnham says:

    HTB is not the benign entity it would have you think. Down in the seaside town of Hastings HTB have this year forcibly taken over the Holy Trinity church against the wishes of many of the congregation (but with the behind the scenes conniving of some on the PCC and the Bishop). Both a new priest and plants have been brought in at enormous expense despite the congregation being previously told there was no money for a replacement priest when the old parish priest retired. The Sunday sung Eucharist a previously well-attended service was moved from its 10.30 slot to 9.00 – a time most of the congregation can’t attend. Instead HTB have replaced the main service with their own and a drop in coffee chat which the new vicar even pronounced in the local paper as non-religious. Of course it is the usual mix of ex bankers who have found Jesus to help their consciences and the vulnerable that fall for this faith light option. Make no mistake though a viable church has been taken over and if HTB succeeds in Hastings God help the rest of us.

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