Nicky Gumbel is an Anglican priest and author. Alongside his wife Pippa, he leads HTB church in London. We talked to him about the Alpha Course and church planting.
THE Alpha Course gives people a secure environment to ask their questions in. How do you go about making church accessible to people?
What we’re trying to do is throw the invitation open to everyone, because Jesus invited everyone to come to Him. We try and provide an atmosphere which is low-key, unpressurised, based on respect for people, regardless of their lifestyle and beliefs, and help them to explore.
We’ve got Alpha tomorrow night. We’ve just finished a course; for the first time ever, no-one dropped out of our small group, which is amazing. I’ve done 79 small groups in a row and I can’t remember a case where no-one’s dropped out. Now we’re starting with another group of 20 people. We’re right back at the beginning again: they have all their questions, they’re atheists, and they’ve got all their objections. But it takes time. As they start to talk, get to know each other, things begin to change. Then if they come on the weekend away and experience the Holy Spirit, that’s really the key moment.
You have to welcome them, help them realise that you really love them. Love is the key to the whole thing. Most people don’t really experience that in their workplace, for example. If they come into an atmosphere of encouragement and love, they begin to open up. They hear the gospel and I think most people are very open to the gospel, actually. It’s just often come to them in a way that perhaps hasn’t been very loving in the past, and they’ve been put off.
But now there’s a whole generation that knows absolutely nothing about the gospel. You must be encountering that all the time. They’ve never experienced ‘boring church’. We had a young woman in our group last time, and she had never been in a church until 3rd January. It was the first time she’d ever walked in a church, and she thought it was amazing.
In your experience, how do you release the younger generation?
The average age on Alpha is 27, so 75% of guests are aged between 18-25. People coming into Alpha tend to be young, and that keeps the church young, because there’s a constant stream of young people coming into the church.
I’ve been here 25 years, I was 21 when I joined HTB. A lot of my friends, we’re all still around, but because of church planting, that pushes people out. We do a lot of church planting and I think that keeps the congregation young as well, as you’re always sending out the leaders to plant churches.
We’ve found church planting can be quite difficult. What have you found to be the key ingredients in terms of church planting?
Church planting for us is a bit different, because we have three extra things we have to do. We can’t do it unless the bishop is behind it, unless we get a church building, and unless we have an ordained leader in the Anglican Church. We can’t plant a church without an ordained leader. Much of our church planting is about trying to line up those three things: a bishop, a building and a minister. Then, another unusual feature is, when we get a building, it tends to be a big building. You can’t just send five people, because they’ll rattle around in it. So we have to send 50 people.
We planted a church in Brighton in 2009. My son was one of the people who went, he is the associate vicar there. About 50 people went there. That was a huge great building; it was known as the cathedral of Brighton. We were there last Sunday, because it was my granddaughter’s baptism, and the place is packed. That’s amazing, to see it like that. Then they sent 50 people to plant a church in Hastings.
But the issues are slightly different. For us, it’s so based around whether you can get a bishop, a building and the right person to do it. We don’t tend to have too many problems finding the people. But as you can imagine, there are advantages and disadvantages in being Church of England.
It’s all about leadership. If you get the right leaders, the people will follow.
Would HTB church call themselves egalitarian?
We’re trying to be, but like everyone, it takes a long time for change to happen in practice. You can see that in the legal profession. At the bottom of the bar, the young barristers, there are equal men and women, but if you look at the top, there are very few high court judges who are women. There are some, but it just takes time to work its way through the system. If you look at the clergy at HTB, we’ve only got about four who are women. It takes time.
Our theology is that we believe that in Christ, there’s neither male nor female. We treat men and women equally, and we try and treat them equally in terms of leadership. The Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, so if you can accept that, you’re not in a position to restrict them at any other level.
If you just put women who are not trained into those positions, it can become counter-productive. We have a theological college for men and women, we also have a leadership college. If you look at our preaching programme, it is predominately male. But that’s not by design, that’s just how it is at the moment. Pippa and I lead together. I spoke yesterday and Pip did part of the talk.
Our theology is tempered by experience, we think our theology is formed straight out of the bible, but of course it’s also tempered by experience. When you see a woman, who clearly has leadership gifts, then you have to ask the question, what is our theology? Are we saying she can’t lead?
How can we see the gospel being more fruitful in terms of lives changed?
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who has faith. That’s what changes people’s lives. Preaching the gospel, in the power of the spirit.
You have to have the spirit, otherwise it’s just an intellectual thing. That’s what we try and do with Alpha: an exposition of the gospel, and then the opportunity for people to experience the Holy Spirit on the weekend away. We find that is often the turning point for people, when they experience the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit enables people to repent, put their faith in Jesus. That’s the life-changing moment. When we do the testimonies at church, it’s nearly always the weekend, that’s when they experience the life-changing moment.
Did you have to create some sort of link between people who came on the course and regular church life? Or did it happen naturally?
Some people stay and some don’t, in practice. I mean, some people don’t even survive the course, they drop out after week one or week two or week five. Some people just do the course and then they never join the church, or they join another church, which is equally good, we don’t mind which church they join.
But a percentage do join our church. We did have bridges, like the Beta Course, but that didn’t sound very good, so we described it as Alpha 2, then we thought, actually, we’re just building all these hurdles for people to get over before they join the church. So now we have smaller ‘connect groups’. We try and get them into those kind of groups, then coming on Sunday.
What are some new things that are being developed with HTB?
Well, we’re doing this campaign with Bear Grylls. He is going to front the campaign. It’s a global campaign, because Bear has a global profile. We’ve done inviting the nation on Alpha, now we’re going to do inviting the globe. Around 150 countries have signed up for it. It goes with the new Alpha film series, our film series will be out in September, so in September we’re going to launch that. We use social media, we use billboards, cinema adverts, and we encourage people to come on an Alpha course. About 7000 churches in the UK are using it now, and they can do it in whatever church. You can do it in the Jesus Fellowship church, in the Baptist church, in the Salvation Army, wherever. Having 7000 churches all with the same message, it’s all about unity.
What are some of the challenges that the Church faces at the moment?
There’s a huge challenge, because culture is changing so fast. I think, initially, the beliefs went, but people held onto the values. But then they started to question why they had those values and now the values have gone as well. So the culture is very different. That’s a challenge but also an opportunity. I think people are desperate. People don’t know how to live their lives.
I talked yesterday in church about connectivity. I call my talks “the connectivity code”. Jesus gives us the code for connecting, that’s what we’re created for. Connection with God and with other people. People are settling now for this very superficial level of connectivity, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and all the rest of it. But actually, there’s a hunger in the human heart for a deeper level of connectivity. Everybody has that, but it’s finding a language in a very fast-changing culture, to address that.
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