Book Review: Repackaging Christianity

Disclosure – I was sent a copy of this book for review. I hope that didn’t cloud my thoughts.

Repackaging Christianity Book Review

Cards on the table – my wife and I spent 18 months or so as part of HTB, she worked for Alpha for almost three years, we attended two Focus weeks (one of which, notably, had a storm, and I was very grateful to Nicky Gumbel for helping me cart our stuff from a tent to a chalet – the first megachurch leader I’ve encountered in the rain doing something practical), and we led an Alpha table that became a housegroup. So I’m not coming to this history book neutrally – and that is ok, based on Atherstone’s helpful unpacking of his own relationship with Alpha in an interview for Ian Paul’s blog. That makes this an interesting book to review.

In some ways, this is a deeply encouraging book to read. Tracing the story of Alpha and HTB’s development and growth (For they are intimately intertwined, no matter how some might want them to be distinct) Atherstone draws on his skills as a historian, training as a Church of England Priest, and deep access to HTB/Alpha archives to narrate the history fairly and firmly. Alpha is a complex phenomenon – and it’s explosion is linked with the charismatic influence on the Church of England, largely focusing on the ministry of John Wimber (indeed, this highlights the only error I’m aware of in the book: Wimber didn’t found the Vineyard, he joined a small movement of churches called the Vineyard led by Ken Gulliksen – see Bill Jackson’s Quest for the Radical Middle) and to some extent the impact of the Toronto Blessing. With that in mind, the encouragement is more likely to resonate with those of us on the charismatic end of things – though I would encourage more cautious readers to note that the fervour and fanfare of charismaticism has been channeled evangelistically by the Alpha course, into 112 languages and169 countries, I believe. So the encouragements here come from the revitalization of a church, the fervour for mission, and the genuine belief that God changes lives today.

For those who think Alpha > HTB > Nicky Gumbel, the role of Sandy Millar is foregrounded in a way that is generally very encouraging. Millar’s energy for mission is contagious, even off the pages of this book. Atherstone quotes: “He lamented, however, that most Anglicans were oriented ‘towards maintenance rather than mission’ and had become ‘keepers of an aquarium, rather than the fishers of men’… His own sense of urgency in evangelism was palpable. ‘True Christian faith has never been able to stop taking opportunities to talk about Jesus!’ he exclaimed“. Millar’s passion was joined with conviction – and also clarity around that – on some of the implciations of the Gospel for the lives of Christians. Notable in Repackaging Christianity is a forensic, fair and ultimately quite discouraging examination of the HTB/Alpha position on homosexuality as a crystalisation of an approach to scripture and culture. Andrew Wilson wrote a blog post a few years ago that sums up the fundamental dissonance of the position that, in this book, Atherstone shows HTB/Alpha as having taken. The consistently conservative position taken by Millar in the 80s and 90s was echoed by Gumbel – including in print, as Wilson notes – but quietly retired as culture shifts. It is a mark of Atherstone’s role as a historian that he presents this process, with quotations and context, to show the strangeness of this position here as a softening in a way that is unhelpful. This topic is followed by a shorter examination of abortion, which again earlier was on the radar, but has since been relegated. The theological justification for this is not forthcoming in this book (as it is a history), but as a good work of history it leaves the question open and unanswered.

Gumbel’s motivating factor, though, is clearly to see the world encounter Jesus – and this is at the heart of the Alpha course. Criticised from different sides, it is undeniable that Alpha makes much of Jesus and the need for every individual to respond to Him. In this, one can see (And Atherstone makes fairly explicit) the links to Gumbel’s own conversion, and classic evangelical doctrine and practice. Atherstone writes “At heart, Nicky Gumbel is a theologian of the Love of God… In A Life Worth Living, for example, he argued that God’s love, seen supremely in the cross of Christ, is the central theme of the New Testament and indeed of the whole Bible“. Amen! This joining of the idea of love with the message of the cross and the grand sweep of Scripture is a hallmark of faithful Christian teaching – and I hope and pray that Alpha long continues to make that the main thing. One danger of this, though, is a sort of doctrinal minimalism leading to a minimalism regarding unity, in a sort of naive ‘we are all the same’ approach: Atherstone again demonstrates the flaws, history and possibility of the HTB/Alpha approach to church unity, in a way that clearly demonstrates the inconsistency and possibility of the approach, including the somewhat strange suggestion attributed to Millar that ‘Growing numbers of congregations branded themselves as an ‘Alpha Church'”, which raises interesting doctrinal questions about ecclesiology in an age of connected capitalism.

This last point, ‘connected capitalism’ sums up one of the things that Atherstone draws out well. This history recounts the well known mythos and high points – Ellie Mumford’s visit, Leadership Conferences, publishing phenomenon – but also points to some less well known things. I, for one, didn’t know that at one point HTB/Alpha were planning on buying and renovating Battersea Power Station to create a new campus with facilities of all kinds. The title of the book echoes something Gumbel is known for saying around keeping the apostolic message but repackaging the cultural wrapper – Atherstone carefully exposes the way in which Alpha’s ‘success’ is down in no small part to the geographical/economic location of HTB in London. Yet readers shouldn’t see this as a business venture, at least not entirely. The book closes (Before some useful appendices and tables of figures, including showing the explosive growth of Alpha) in part with these words:

Nicky Gumbel’s retirement from the leadership of HTB in 2022, aged 67, marks a major moment of transition and the opening of the next, unwritten, chapter in Alpha’s story. Always looking for new and creative ways to propagate the Christian gospel, Gumbel’s energies have already begun to turn to the evangelistic potential of the year 2033, to be celebrated by churches worldwide as the 2000th anniversary of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how Alpha can help to maximize the anniversary’s impact. By 2033, Alpha itself will have been a significant player in the global Christian marketplace for four decades, if it continues to innovate, a story yet to be told“.

By dint of being a history, Repackaging Christianity is an interesting book to review. Atherstone has done a great service to the wider church by collecting and explaining so much HTB/Alpha history – it should become a standard reference work for folk thinking about Alpha theologically, historically, and culturally. For church leaders, this book doesn’t offer a list of ten things to do to emulate HTB/Alpha – it emphasises the importance of God acting in the person and power of the Holy Spirit, and arguably provides a caution to be clear about things that are contentious and to have clarity around unity. For outsiders looking in, it balances criticism from all sides with the words of those actually involved in Alpha. If this review has piqued your interest, then I’d definitely recommend getting hold of a copy. The hardback I read was nicely put together, apart from having a glued rather than sewn binding – but I think I’d probably want the eBook for easier reference and quotation.

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