A conversation with Nicky Gumbel, who still loves to introduce people to Jesus

Nicky Gumbel is enjoying a slightly more relaxed pace of life since moving on from the senior role at Holy Trinity Brompton Church.

So many churches host the Alpha Course, both locally and all over the world. And most of us have at least heard the name of its champion, Nicky Gumbel.

So it is a pleasure to have a local leader who knows the movement well interview him following his transition out of the senior leadership role at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB Church, in London, the home of Alpha).

And to see that he remains full of enthusiasm and creativity about inviting everyone to explore faith in Jesus.

Jason Ballard knows Nicky better than most, having spent several years with Alpha Canada, which is based in New Westminster. He helped to create and host the Alpha Youth series and  still serves as an expert for the ‘Life on Purpose’ series.

Jason, now Lead Pastor with The Way Church Vancouver and Executive Director of Canadian Church Leaders Network (CCLN), spoke with NIcky Gumbel March 11.

I will admit to being a fan of Nicky Gumbel myself. I like to boast that I have met him twice – once when he served me communion at Holy Trinity Brompton Church and the other time at a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, during the 2010 Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization. I believe these meetings lasted, together, at least 30 seconds.

And that makes me part of a very large worldwide congregation – made up of those who have benefited from Nicky’s lifelong dedication to sharing the gospel, without having had any significant contact with him. (But I will use his first name; he is that kind of person.)

About Alpha

This image of Jason Ballard, right, with Ben Woodman – also from Metro Vancouver – as they filmed the Alpha Youth Series, is on the ‘About’ page of the main Alpha site.

Here is a brief description, from the Alpha site, about the movement:

Alpha began at a church called Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in London in 1977; it was taken by Nicky Gumbel in 1990 and repositioned as a course for those outside the congregation.

The number of people attending Alpha at HTB grew quickly into the hundreds and attracted the attention of other churches across denominations seeking to find an effective tool for evangelism.

Now, all over the world, millions of people have tried Alpha and it has been translated into 112 different languages. The Alpha Talks have been repackaged for today’s audience in the Alpha Film Series and the Alpha Youth Series – created to reach a younger generation with the Gospel.

Even as times have changed, the Alpha Course has continued to be used by the church as an effective tool to reach the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . . .

The Alpha Course is created to outline the core principles of the Christian faith that all denominations agree on. We believe that what unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us. The Alpha Course is an effective form of evangelism when run by and through the local church.

HTB is an Anglican church, but Alpha is widely used by Christians of all backgrounds, including Catholics.

Conversion, early lessons

Jason Ballard interviewed Nicky Gumbel March 11 on Zoom.

Jason began by asking Nicky about how he found himself in pastoral ministry – and the route was not a typical one. His father was a German Jew, and both parents were secular. As a teenager, he became “a very argumentative atheist.”

Through friends, during his first year at university he read the Bible: “I had an encounter with the person I was reading about in the New Testament, and that encounter totally transformed my life.” (Nicky and Archbishop Justin Welby were in the same network at Cambridge University.)

He described a couple of key insights from that time, and shortly afterwards:

I soon, unconsciously at least, worked out that the greatest Injustice in the world was for someone never to have heard the good news about Jesus – and the greatest act of love was to introduce someone to Jesus, so that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 50 years, to use every opportunity to tell people. 

Initially I was practicing as a barrister and in my spare time I was doing ministry in the local church, and trying to introduce barristers in my Chambers – very unsuccessfully I have to say – but I wanted everyone to know about Jesus. Then I ended up at HTB, eventually, on the staff there, and then I took on Alpha in October 1990.

Up to that time I’d always been looking for ways to introduce people to Jesus and been very unsuccessful in it really – trying questionnaires on the street that started with first question, “What did you have for breakfast,” last question “Would you like to give your life to Jesus?”

It wasn’t very successful and I didn’t feel comfortable with it either. Going up to people cold in the street, for someone like me who’s an introvert, was not very easy. But what I found with Alpha is [that] people like me, who are introverts and not natural evangelists, can be part of a small group and can in a very natural way introduce people to faith.

So Alpha is not a place where we share our faith but it’s a place where we provide an environment where people can explore faith for themselves.

Stepping back

Jason asked Nicky how he is enjoying life after stepping back from the senior role at HTB. Very much indeed, apparently: “I get now to do all the things that I was longing to do.”

He has been at HTB for 48 years, 38 as pastor – first as curate (assistant), then as vicar (senior). Though still on staff as a curate, his schedule is more relaxed. He and his wife Pippa have been able to return to their old home, and spend time with their 10 grandchildren.

They have been able to travel where they like, at their own pace. And to “really focus on Alpha.” He said that some of his travel is related to a new film series they’ll be working on from June onwards – “and I think you’ve been kindly helping with that.”

Nicky still enjoys Alpha groups as much as ever: “Pippa and I are on our 101st small group now.”

Church planting

Holy Trinity Brompton has been very active in church planting.

He also loves to visit churches planted by Holy Trinity Brompton.

Over the years, when I’ve felt the need for a bit of encouragement, I’ve gone to the HTB website to look at their new church plants. There are always more than the last time I looked. But it must be a while since my last time on the site because I remember the number being in the twenties or thirties.

Now it’s 180, “children and grandchildren!” And they are increasingly outside of the London area.

I will quote a section of the interview in which Jason asked Nicky how they could keep thriving at HTB while at the same time continually sending out members to plant churches.

JB: I’d love to spend a little bit of time talking about church planting through HTB. I’ve been in the orbit of HTB, working with Alpha, so I’m 15 years into being around. I’ve been able to watch again and again and again HTB sending such good people – all of your all your best staff – they’re going to go plant here – and I remember this moment of visiting and getting to know some of the younger staff and what was so impactful was how much resource and intentionality was given to preparing leaders to plant because it’s such a decision that has to be made.

I know that the first church plant was 1985, and that probably felt like a big push. Now, if you look at all the grandchildren of these churches, there’s multiple churches planted every year – but that was seeded a long time ago with a lot of intentionality. . . .

NG: Well, I believe that as individuals and as churches we need to have a big front door and a big back door. . . . In terms of our individual lives we need a big front door in the sense that we’re receiving the Holy Spirit constantly. We need to be refilled, but then we need to be evangelizing – that’s the back door if you like.

It’s no good just being filled and filled and filled. Jesus said you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses, so the purpose of receiving the Holy Spirit is in order to be a witness to Jesus, so you need that big front door, the big receiving, otherwise you become like the Dead Sea if you’re just receiving and receiving and receiving. You get saltier and saltier and saltier, but eventually you die – and I think the same is true of churches.

It doesn’t have to be Alpha, if you’ve got a better way. I always say if we find a better way than Alpha we will go for the better way. But for us at the moment Alpha is the most effective way we’ve found to reach people outside the church. 

. . . [I]f you have a big front door you also need a big back door and the big back door is church planting – and that is sending out your your best leaders. Generally speaking, this is our model for church planting – we look for, we call it vicar, but let’s say a pastor, an assistant pastor, worship leader, administrator, youth worker. So you have those five places and then about 30 people – 30 to 50 people, depending where it is. Now if you send your best each time, what does that mean? It means someone else has got to take those positions

If you don’t keep sending people out you’re going to have the same people all the time and there’s no room for the new people to grow, but when you send the people out you really miss them and you feel that, oh my goodness we’ve lost our amazing worship leader, we’ve lost our youth worker, we’ve lost some of our best leaders – because it’s only the best leaders who will go on the church plant

The Fringe won’t go on a church plant. It’s the committee people who go and the givers who go and so you lose leaders, you lose money, you lose all those things – but, what you do is you create space for other people to grow into that and also it keeps you younger, because with HCB Alpha 18 to 35 you’ve got young people coming in. But then, the people going out to plant, they’re going to be people a little bit further on their journey, a little bit older. They’re going to take leadership in the next church and they’re going to run Alpha and have young people coming in.

So you get a flow of young people coming into the church, you have a healthy church and instead of being like the Dead Sea – just water coming in, water coming in – you have water coming in and water coming [out].

I swim in the Serpentine every morning in Hyde Park; it’s a beautiful lake. Some people say it’s full of duck poo but um, ah – that is actually true [shared laughter] . . . But it is actually clean, it’s safe to swim in because there’s water coming in at the Italian fountains and water going out, underground, into the Thames under Victoria – and so that it’s that flow of water that keeps it clean . . .

Podcast overview

The 54-minute interview is a pleasure to watch. Here is the CCLN introduction:

In this episode, Jason sits down with the pioneer of the Alpha Course and former Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in London, Nicky Gumbel. Nicky shares about his journey of transitioning leadership at HTB after nearly two decades in the senior role, emphasizing the importance of healthy succession and not taking changes made by new leaders personally.

Their church, HTB, is helping to train pastors in England through a new initiative called the Caleb and Peter streams. Their vision is to see tens of thousands of pastors equipped, coming from less educated and affluent backgrounds, or who have retired from previous careers and are in the later seasons of life.

Later in the conversation, Nicky shares a profound vision for the future of the Church: that the bible would be translated and the gospel shared to 99.6 percent of the world by the 17th of April, 2033 [the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus’s resurrection].

Nicky’s joy for evangelism and seeing as many people as possible come to know and follow Jesus is a beautiful gift to the global church. We hope this conversation stirs your imagination for what God can do in your own context as you seek to spread the good news of Jesus with others.

Jason and Nicky are both charmers, but with plenty of depth. Go here.to watch on YouTube, or here for other links.

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2 comments for “A conversation with Nicky Gumbel, who still loves to introduce people to Jesus

  1. This is the most wonderful resource we’ve got today for sharing the gospel.

    Our church group just finished up an Alpha course with a diverse group of people who, over the course of 10 weeks, became friends and are now either open to becoming Christians via baptism or want to explore further what that would mean. What was really impressive was the way that God reached for each of these people, meeting them where they were and guiding them on their own faith journey (with Nicky Gumbel’s help!).

  2. 1 The Alpha course is a main contributor to ecumenicalism. Nicky Gumbel: “Differences between Protestants and Catholics are totally insignificant compared to the things that unite us”; “ultimately, unity is not doctrinal, it’s relational”; “I’ve come to love the [Roman] Catholic church.”

    2 Most professional interview partners in the series have a Catholic background:

    · Christoph Schönborn (Austrian Dominican friar and theologian; Cardinal of the Catholic Church; Archbishop of Vienna). He approves ss marriages and reinstated (!) a man living in a registered ss partnership to a pastoral council).

    · C.S. Lewis (“Purgatory is a real place”; “of course I pray for the dead”; rejected biblical inerrancy; he denied the literal Adam and Eve; theistic evolutionist; Tao is the highest morality; considered members of other religions as brothers in Christ; ‘Christianized’ white witchcraft).

    · Francis Collins (man comes from evolution; interpreting the Bible in a ultra-literal way is wrong; supports genetic enhancement of healthy people; God is okay with aborted fetal tissue research).

    · Luigi Gioia (Benedictine monk; also invited to HTB Leadership Conference; teaches on Purgatory and Contemplative Prayer).

    · Ranerio Cantalamessa (Catholic cardinal, personal preacher to three popes); several books published under the label of ‘Alpha’; six (!!) interviews in the Alpha series (Sessions #8, 10, 11 and 15).

    3 Their hall-of-fame of martyrs includes:
    · Joan of Arc (a patron saint of France, Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion).
    · Saint Philip the Apostle (stories and feasts added to the Bible!!).
    · Vladimir Bogoyavlensky (Bishop, Russian Orthodox Church).

    4 Direct quotes from Pope Francis and his book. The Pope himself appears in session #16, which is often excluded by churches.

    5 Specific production of a Catholic Alpha format. The first Alpha Conference for Catholics was held in 1996.

    6 Alpha appointed a Roman Catholic bishop, Michael Byrnes, to its Board of Directors.

    7 Comment in the series: “Encourage others to start to speak in another language – tell him/her you will do so yourself”; “Everyone can receive the gift of speaking in tongues.”

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