Questions of Meaning

with Nicky Gumbel

Our lives are rarely predictable or at all in our control. Sometimes what happens to us or around us can reshape our entire trajectory. Nicky Gumbel is someone whose life was dramatically changed. He thought he was going to be a very fancy lawyer… just like everyone else in his family, but that’s not what happened. Nicky became one of the pioneers of the Alpha Course where 30 million people have been introduced to Christian faith around the world.




Nicky Gumbel

Nicky Gumbel serves as Chairman of the Alpha International Board and is Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in London, one of the largest Church of England churches in the United Kingdom, holding 11 Sunday services on five sites. Together with his wife Pippa, they pioneered Alpha, an introduction to the Christian faith run by all the major Christian denominations in 169 countries. After attending Hill House and Eton College, Nicky read law at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1973-1975 (M.A. Cantab) and practiced as a barrister from 1977-1983. In 1983, he went to Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, to read theology (M.A. Oxon) and train for ordination in the Church of England. In 1986, Nicky joined HTB as curate, and in 2005 became Vicar of HTB in succession to Bishop Sandy Millar.Nicky Gumbel has written several best-selling books including Questions of Life, The Jesus Lifestyle, Searching Issues and A Life Worth Living. He is the author of the free Bible reading app Bible in One Year.

Show Notes

Nicky Gumbel was Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton or HTB.

Kate is speaking at Nicky’s Leadership conference May 6-7, 2024 in London, England.

Emil J. Gumbel was a mathematician and pacifist who wrote against the Nazi and Hitler movement. Find the collection of his Political Papers of Anti-Nazi Scholar in Weimar and Exile from 1914-1966.

Learn more about the difference between barristers and solicitors.

Whether you live in England, Canada, or USA you can find an Alpha Course near you!

Finding suitable people to become clergy, properly training, and providing for them is a problem for the Church of England. The proposed solution, first trialled by Holy Trinity Brompton, is called the Caleb Stream. It is an effort to recruit and then ordain “retired City workers, teachers and policemen” and provide them with one year’s training before putting them in charge of parishes.

Find a blessing for whatever day you are having in The Lives We Actually Have.

Discussion Questions

  1. Kate talks with Nicky about the distinction between superficial “resume virtues” and “deep questions of purpose.” What are the deep questions about purpose and calling that shape your life?
  1. Describing the power of small groups and vulnerability, Nicky quotes Proverbs 20:5: “A person’s thoughts are like water in a deep well, but someone with insight can draw them out.” Think of a community where you’ve been able to be vulnerable. Who draws water from your deep well?
  1. Nicky describes the church that should be more like a hospital than a museum. How would you describe your experience of the church? What metaphors help you imagine the Church’s role and its future?


Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. At least that’s what it says on a lot of cross-stitched pillows at many people’s homes that I enjoy and love, mostly in my adorable Mennonite church life. But isn’t there some truth in there? We imagine our lives are going to follow a certain path. Go to a certain school, marry the perfect person. Never, as a follow-up, be annoyed by that perfect person. Have very well-behaved, reasonable amounts of children. Get a job that pays well and also simultaneously magically gives you a sense of purpose. Never lose anyone before their time—whatever that means. Whatever that means. Retire at a young age and then vacation surrounded by your children and grandchildren who always get along. And then, and then, and the,n and then. We just have these plans that feel like they are supposed to continue to add up to something. But then our lives are rarely predictable or at all in our control. And sometimes what happens to us, or around us, can reshape our entire trajectory. Today I’m speaking with someone whose life was changed dramatically. He thought he was going to be a very fancy lawyer, just like everyone else in his family. But that’s not what happened. Today. I’m speaking with him about this thing he is so good at, which is staying open to the things we didn’t expect to happen and how age isn’t necessarily the limiter, we might assume. Perhaps there are new opportunities, or new ventures, or some just different form of ourselves that might open up in the last third of our lives. Okay, but before I introduce him, we’re going to take a quick break to tell you about some of the sponsors of our show. We are so grateful for you, listeners, and companies like these, who make all of this possible. We’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.

Kate: I am here today with the world’s most likable man. This is Nicky Gumbel. He has done a million things, and he’s a man with an incredible legacy. He developed the Alpha course, which has influenced, I think, is it 30 million lives? I believe that’s right. With an app that’s also used by 2 million people. He was the pastor of Holy Trinity Brompton, which he led for 46 years alongside of his lovely wife, Pippa. And I can’t believe he let me come to his home so I can be nosy and look through all that stuff. Nicky, thank you for letting me do this!

Nicky Gumbel: That’s the nicest introduction I’ve ever had. Can we record that and play it every morning?

Kate: Well, I stalked you, because you’ve been a huge part of my spiritual growing up. Your course, the Alpha course, was such a big deal in Canada. And I think, honestly, it’s one of the only reasons my parents had friendships in their 40s? ‘Cause they had reasons to invite people over and work through a curriculum that you developed.

Nicky: Oh, I didn’t know that, Kate, that is absolutely amazing.

Kate: But it is funny because it was all it’s I’m so used to your face, but on VHS. We just put in tape after tape, which I can’t wait to tell you about. But before you were, the man that all Canadians watched in church basements, you were a very reluctant convert, to Christianity, weren’t you.

Nicky: Yes. Yeah. So, my father was a refugee. He was from, fled the Nazis. he’s Jewish. My mother took me for a walk when I was 14, my sister’s 18 months older, and she said to us, your father is German and Jewish, and you are never to speak to him about it. And I never did. I knew absolutely nothing about my father. He was 49 when he got married, 52 when I was born. And he only ever spoke about anything that happened to him after he got married. So he would not—I had no idea where he went to school, University, anything to do with it. But, a few years ago I was contacted by the Judaica museum in Berlin, and they said, “What do you know, about your a father?” I said, I know absolutely nothing. What do you know? And they they sent me a file, and they sent me my family tree.

Kate: Oh, my gosh!

Nicky: And I discovered my great-grandfather was Moses. My, my great-great-grandfather was Abraham, not THE Abraham. And I discovered, but I discovered also the concentration camps in which they died. And I realized why, why my father couldn’t talk. I think he was traumatized. I mean, now,  we’d say he was suffering from post-traumatic stress. I think it’s an interesting thing, that there are lots of books that have been written about Christians who resisted Hitler: Bonhoeffer, and so on. I think now there’s much more interest in Jews who resisted Hitler. And so that’s where, you know, there’s a book about my father’s first cousin, Emil Gumbel, who was one of the, he was thrown out of his university, in, very early, in the early 1930s because he was Jewish. And this, the book starts with Einstein’s speech to a thousand students who’d gathered, and Einstein saying why Professor Gamble should not be thrown at the university. And then Einstein got him out to, to where he became a professor in France. And then he got it. And then eventually, when Hitler invaded France, he stayed fully 24 hours ahead of him. And then he got to Germany and then got into America. So it’s… I’m really fascinated, now, as you can see, by my family. And seeing, just trying to discover why my father was like he was. I found his war records. He joined the British Army as a private in 1942. Full colonel in 1945. What did he do? All I know is, now I’ve discovered he interrogated Nazi war criminals. But, you know, I just, I would just love one hour with my dad to say, where he could talk. Just come and tell me, what was it like? And you know, now I found photograph albums of him before and seeing a life that that I never, never, knew, never knew about him.

Kate: Yes. To have someone that you love so much be an outline of… You know, they are only an outline of what you think you know, then you want to know the wholeness of them.

Nicky: I want to know so much, I have such respect for him and everything he said and, and told me, although he had so few words, he was a man of absolute integrity. Somebody, his brother-in-law, said to us when we were two, I was about, I don’t know, I was just a child. He said, you know, you realize your father and I were in—I can’t remember MI5 or MI6—and my father got up, walked out of the room, slammed the door. In other words, we signed the Official Secrets Act. We do not talk about that. So anyway, that was my dad. He was, he was he was an agnostic. I discovered actually, one thing I’ve discovered quite recently is his baptism certificate. So they were all baptized because they thought that that’d would be a way to avoid persecution. He wasn’t in any way churchgoer. My mother was not a churchgoer either. So I didn’t have a kind of Christian upbringing.

Kate: Yeah. And what path did they set you on vocationally? Did you have one of those, like, you may choose one of five?

Nicky: No. You may choose one of one.

Kate: Oh, congratulations. Yeah. It’s very clear.

Nicky: You may choose one of one.

Kate: Good for you.

Nicky: You are to be a barrister. You are not to be a solicitor.

Kate: And tell me the difference for non-, for non-fancy audiences.

Nicky: A solicitor, so things have changed now, but a barrister is basically attorney. You know the one in court. And the solicitor was more like the one who did the paperwork behind the scenes.

Kate: And the barrister, do you get to wig level?

Nicky: Yeah. Yeah, that’s that’s the wig.

Kate: Thank you. That is what was important to me to know, thank you.

Nicky: The wig and the robe. And that, that’s what my father was. He was he was a barrister in Germany. And then he became a barrister in England. My mother was a barrister. They met, they met on opposite sides of a case.

Kate: That’s a fun, sexy story.

Nicky: Because, yeah, what happens is, there’s one things I love about law, you get to, you fight each other in court, and then you go out to lunch together. And, so that’s what happened. They were on opposite sides of case, and then they had lunch. She was she was actually a junior pupil. And, he was leading on the other side. Anyway, that’s how they got married.

Kate: I love that.

Nicky: So, my father’s a barrister, my mother’s a barrister. My sister’s, actually, now a very distinguished barrister. My son and daughter both qualified as, I think there’s somewhere in there you’ll see a picture of my daughter in her wig. So my grandfathers on both sides were my barristers, my uncle was a barrister. I mean, you just had to do it. It was no, there was no choice. And my father would have been absolutely horrified if I… I did practice as a barrister for two years, but he would have been horrified if I did anything else.

Kate: Yeah. I can’t relate to you at all. I’m a historian. My dad’s a historian, my son wants to be a historian. So, um…

Nicky: Okay, well, you know then. What about your mum? Was she? Sorry.

Kate: She was a singer, but she loved historical songs?

Nicky: That’s why you sing so well!

Kate: Yeah, well, the only times I’ve actually been to Europe is when she was doing singing tours. I’ve seen that woman stalked by a peacock in an outdoor garden.

Nicky: Oh, so you grew up singing.

Kate: I did.

Nicky: Yeah, you’ve got an amazing voice because you, no, you have! I heard in the beginning.

Kate: I now need to emotionally turn the tables by insisting that you wear the wig for the rest of the interview. Some people have befores and afters in their lives that are, you know, related to diagnoses or difficult moments or… but sometimes we have spiritual befores and afters where we just can’t we just can’t go back. It sounds like you had one of those in that season.

Nicky: Yes. At 18 I was at Cambridge University studying, I was studying economics at the time, I switched to law, then, afterwards. But I… was very happy. I mean, I was having a great time. You know, Cambridge University is a fun place to be. I was actually commuting to London and I was in the sort of party scene I was just having, having, having a great life, and I certainly didn’t feel there was anything missing. But I think, looking back, there was a void. I would say now it was a spiritual hunger. I would never have said I got a spiritual hunger. I was very alienated by church. I had some experience of church and always like the worst, most boring experience that you could ever imagine. I found Christians weird, there was, you know, weird smiles and all that kind of thing, I found very offputting. But two of my closest friends came back from an event they’d been at, 11:00 at night, and they told me they had become Christians. And literally, I was horrified. I mean, they’re the most lovely people you could imagine. How could they, how could they have done it? And what was going to happen to them now? And so I thought, I’ve got to help them and I thought, what can I read? And I, the only thing I could find was an old Bible that I’d had for, for R.E. at school. And I thought…

Kate: R.E. that’s Religious Education?

Nicky: Religious Education. Yeah. So I thought, I better read this. So I started at the New Testament and I started reading Matthew, Mark, Luke. Halfway through John, 3:00 in the morning, I fell asleep and I just kept reading and now I look back and think, it was like the person I was reading about emerged. And… I encountered Jesus. It was like it was an extraordinary moment. But, my first thought was, this is true, but I can’t face the miserable life. If I followed you, this is like, like all that stuff that I’ve experienced, that I associate with religion. And I thought, well, what I could do is really have a great life, and then on my deathbed, I’ll become a Christian because it’s true. And I thought, there’s no integrity. I’m just going to have a miserable life. So, so I just said, so I said, “Okay.” I was like, literally, that was it. I said, “Okay, I’ll say yes.”

Kate: To this horrible life, with you, Lord.

Nicky: To this horrible life, yeah, to this horrible life.

Kate: I like that so much. Oh my gosh.

Nicky: This miserable life I’m going to have. No fun, everything, that dreary sort of… It’s true but I thought, “Aw, it’s true, oh no!”

Kate: That reminds me of something my dad said early on, because I was one of those kids, who had been a Christian through her adolescence, and my both my parents had become Christians later in life. And my dad was like, “If anyone tries to tell you that being a Christian is a lot of fun, they’re lying to you. The other stuff is great too.” And I was like, “Thanks, dad.”

Nicky: That was your dad? So how did, what happened for them?

Kate: My mom is the only person I’ve ever known who converted because of a tract. Someone handed her a three-fold piece of paper, and she was going through a student center that was like, “Sinners in the eyes of God. Me? Well, I suppose…” And like, that was it.

Nicky: No.

Kate: Yeah. It was very sudden.

Nicky: So 100 million tracts found one person.

Kate: One very successful Karen, Karen Jensen Bowler in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Yeah.

Nicky: And your dad was…?

Kate: My dad read, my dad was a bit wild, and then he read Augustine and he was like, well, I guess that’s probably right.

Nicky: Wow, he read Augustine? Because he was a historian. He wanted the he wanted the history.

Kate: He thought that makes sense as a worldview. And similarly, this probably won’t be a lot of fun. A view he may or may not share to this day.

Nicky: Is he not enjoying it very much.

Kate: Some sermons really are not our best. Are they?

Nicky: No, there are, there are, but on the other hand, I would say that instantly I found it was the opposite to what I thought. It was like instantly, I found that Jesus was like, Jesus said that I came that you might have life and have it in all its fullness. And it was like the void that I wasn’t conscious of having was filled, and the spiritual hunger that I wasn’t aware that I had was gone. And it was like, this is amazing! You know, I’m, I was an atheist yesterday, so if I tell all my atheist friends it’s true, they’ll all believe! Here we go! Knock on the door. Hey, guys! Hey, George. I was wrong, it’s true.

Kate: That’s amazing. I’m sure it was very well-received.

Nicky: So I thought George would, “Oh, okay! Okay. Okay. I was wrong, too!” Thank you for telling me. Because we all believed you when you argued the other case. But now, of course we’re going to believe you.

Kate: That’s amazing. We’ll be right back.

Kate: When you started developing, because I know your church had this desire to create, had been working on a curriculum like a, like a thinking through different big questions that we all have about how to live. And that sounds like that became a very early passion project for you.

Nicky: Yeah, I was, well, when I first inherited Alpha, as it was called, as is called, it was, of course, for people who are already Christians. And that’s… I didn’t want to take it on really, because I thought I’m more interested in, I just thought…

Kate: Week one: isn’t it great? Week two: it’s still pretty good.

Nicky: Yeah, I was I was just more interested in, you know, I’d always had this passion to, from that moment, really, to tell people. I just thought, you know, the most loving thing that I can do with my life is to tell other people, because this is so good, why wouldn’t anyone not want to want to experience it? So that was like what I want to do. So taking on a course for people who are already, Christian, you know, they’re already Christian, so why bother? It’s like,  they’re there already. But on the very first course I ran, this guy turned up, a young guy called Kyle Matthews, about 25 years old, brought by a friend, Eric, who was on the course. And I’m bringing my friend, who’s not a Christian, not interested in church, but heard there’s some very attractive young women on this course, and he’s come to have a look around during the talk. He’s gonna have a look around during the talk, and then he’s going to leave before the small groups. So during the coffee break, I introduced him to one of the women on the course and he’s changed his mind, said he would stay, and he stayed for the whole course. He, he encountered Jesus, his life was changed. And then he married Pippa’s, my wife Pippa’s younger sister. Said, so he’s now my brother-in-law. So Matthew, that was the first one. That was October 1990. And then on the next course he brought his sister, and he brought lots of people to the carols service. And I had a whole group of people outside the church, and all of them, we had a 25-year reunion of that group. All of them in a span of 25 have had a huge impact. And so that was when we realized, okay, we could adapt this course and make it a course for people outside of the church. So we had to change it. The small groups were studies and the people outside the church they wanted Bible study. So we we turned them into a discussion group. And then the, the discussions became amazing. It’s like people come for a meal, so there’s, that’s community. They hear a talk that hopefully that are relevant to their lives. And then you go into a discussion group and what it really is, those groups are amazing because it’s a, I suppose it’s a it’s a sort of a bit like AA, the people are very open, they’re very vulnerable. But it’s a place where people can discuss what’s really going on in their lives. And everyone has so much going on in their lives. And the host, the way we train our hosts is there’s a verse in Proverbs which says, in the heart of every human being is a deep well, and the wise person draws it out. So the task of the host is to draw out from the deep well. I mean, you know that because you do brilliant interviews, you are drawing out from the deep well that is in every human heart. And that, so, and then there’s the fascinating discussion, for example, week three, which we’ve just had in the course that, Pippa and I are now in our hundredth small group in a row. And we love them all. But, so week three, the question that, that the host would ask is, has anybody here ever needed to forgive someone? And you didn’t have to be a Christian to answer that question. But then people start to talk, you know, from, you know, “Oh, I just had a row with my mom. I’m gonna have to forgive her after this” to, “I’ve come out of an abusive marriage, and I’m finding it really hard to forgive my ex-husband.” And then the connection through that vulnerability. And then the next question, if you have time for it, is has anybody here ever needed to ask for forgiveness? And then, you know, the guy, the successful guy says, yeah, I you know, “I was an alcoholic and I did some terrible things. And I had to yeah, I had a lot of people I had to ask for forgiveness from.” And this suddenly this guy who everyone looked at as so successful has shared his vulnerabilities. And as you know, we try to impress people with our strengths, but we actually connect through vulnerability. And so you get this unbelievable closeness in the group and you discover all of them had mental health issues. Not one of them in that group was not dealing with a mental health issue. And you just think, we looked around the first night you and it looked amazing. We had no idea they were addicts, and having mental health issues through relationships they were going through. But this, this…when we start to open up and be honest, you get this incredible connection.

Kate: That’s so powerful to hear. Because the, I mean, the way that we’re organized, like socially organized now, it’s we have like this, we all are professional televangelists on social media. We have a beautiful curated version of our lives. And then we have the couple people that we call who kind of know our stories, and we might have this stuff that we don’t want to change kind of on lock already and are not likely to be challenged. And then we might, if we are in distress, ask a therapist or reach out to somebody. But it can be very atomized, and it’s structured in the way that we manage just our everyday vulnerability. And their description of curating kinds of interdependence around really meaningful questions is really beautiful. And very, like, careful.

Nicky: Yeah. It’s a sort of balance between the community of eating together that there is some input. We’re not just sitting down, sitting around.

Kate: Oh, my parents did a version where it was, pasta, pond scum, and prayer. They were like, pasta because it was cheaper. They could make it. Pond scum, I think, was their like, punch recipe? And then they were like, look, we’re gonna have something spiritual. I don’t want to—truth in advertising. But that was one of the only ways they could manage hospitality. And then they could have, you know, students or friends over. And they ran, I think, six different Alpha groups? With six very different communities near the university. And they found that each group had different kinds of worries, but everyone kind of had their own personality of what they wanted to work through.

Nicky: That’s what I find amazing, that it’s running in the prisons, and in the prisons, people are so open right away. And that it’s sort of going into the prisons. Now, one of the reasons I love doing what I’m doing is because when I was a barrister I was going into prisons and, you know, trying to help people get off their criminal offenses, and that is not, that that is not a solution, actually. It’s not a long term solution anyway. And now, to be able to go in there and see the way that they… It made me realize, going to the prison now, why Jesus loved to spend his time with tax collectors and sinners. Because the Pharisees, the upright people were like, we don’t really need you. But in, the tax collectors and sinners were, oh, Jesus, help me. And in the prisons, it’s very much like that. It’s like, oh, Jesus, help me, I need help. You know, I recognize I need help. And but yet it can run also in parliament or in in universities or whatever. And because it’s the same, the needs are the same. Everyone searching for love, everyone searching for purpose, everyone searching to belong. And so the needs are the same in Korea, Africa, Latin America, Asia. It’s the same all over the world. And the message is the same.

Kate: I think right now one of the main concerns, if they ever want to like, wade into spiritual questions, is that everything very quickly feels like it’s going to fall off the rails into culture wars or really, really tender topics. And then sometimes they never even really get to have some of their sort of bread and butter issues dealt with. I think one of the things that struck me, because I had read the Alpha curriculum like 30 years ago when I was but a child, and then now as an adult. I think it might be an, it is a nice time to let people have like, what is the, what do I think about my, my place in the in the meaning of life? What would what it mean for me to live a life of purpose? What do I think about…? Do I think the supernatural breaks in, or not so much? Or some of these, it might, it just sounds like it’s a maybe a reassuring time to feel like they’re allowed to talk about the basics. Just no one feels like there’s ever basics anymore. I guess that’s why.

Nicky: I think they can talk about anything. I mean, I think that’s the idea, is that nothing there’s nothing off the table. We’re not trying to control, you know, the conversation, the conversation can be any way that the the guests want to talk to each other. The conversation, not around the host, it’s the guests connecting with each other, talking amongst themselves about very, the kind of issues is quite hard to talk about anywhere else. I mean, where else do you get to talk about forgiveness as a subject? Where else do you get to talk about the meaning of life? And it’s a place where you experience love. I mean, you experience it first of all, coming in because of the hospitality, but supremely, you experience it because the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me. And it’s, the message at the heart of Christianity, as you know, is love. It’s that God so loved the world and that, for people to know that they’re loved is so important and, and then to experience love. And that’s the role of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we have a weekend or day on the Holy Spirit, because the love of God, God’s love for us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, Paul writes in Romans five verse five, and that experience is the life-changing moment. So, I mean, I’ve read over the years thousands of questionnaires, and this is.. “Were you a Christian when you start the course?” “No.” “How would you describe yourself now?” “Christian.” “When and how did the change occur?” “On the Alpha weekend when I experienced the Holy Spirit, the love of God.” It’s basically the, experience and people are looking for experience. I mean, some people it’s all about head knowledge. They want truth, but that, you know, that’s, that’s? Who is Jesus. We go through the evidence, but there’s also a deep hunger for more than that for for experience. And you get both. You get, you get the truth, Jesus, said I’m the way, the truth and the life. But but also we experience his love through the Holy Spirit. And that’s the life-changing moment.

Kate: Yeah. I had a really weird church growing up, and I hesitate to be as specific as I will be right now. Because they were so weird, but it was a church of people who didn’t really belong in other churches and kind of just ended up there. We were this sort of like grab bag. So you have people who have been, Mormons and still really liked Mormonism, but just kind of weren’t really that into it anymore. We’re going to this church and, and, and one of the older ladies made my, like, graduation prom dress because I, our family couldn’t afford, like, nice, nice things. And they were so attentive to all of the particularities of, “Are you okay? How’s your mom? What’s going on with your…” And but I think it was mostly the fact that they didn’t agree on very much. Like now, when I asked them, did you really agree with so and so about, you know, this view of salvation, or that bit about the… And they have a real sense that like they were united by a core set of of beliefs, but like the rest of it was really a mishmash. When I look back on what an ideal church looks like to me, I think about them all the time because they tolerated each other. Yes, over like 50 years they tolerated like, disagreements with this, like shared love. And they were so concrete in their love. And I just, I mean, my pastor was the first, he, he had a difficult divorce, and, and they had so much grace. And I think he was the only divorced pastor in the, you know, 100 miles. And, and there was so much love and, like, shrugging at just the right time. And every time I felt like it kept getting reborn into different kinds of forgiveness for each other. We had some difficult deaths and difficult arguments. But it’s still my favorite version of, what if we just kept doing this?

Nicky: Yeah, beautiful. It’s beautiful, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think, you know, we want the church to be perfect, but it’s actually, because I’m a member of it, it’s, it’s become imperfect and it’s… And we’re, you know, I’m, I’m a broken, flawed human being, and we are, that’s what we are. We’re, we’re a group of broken people, and it’s more like a hospital than a museum. And it’s it’s, it’s a place where you can find community and healing and other people who are also struggling with the same issues that you’re struggling with at the heart is, what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. And if we focus on the things that unite us and getting that message out and serving the community. Churches are in trouble when they become inward-looking. It’s like, like everything. Nations become in trouble. They don’t become great by looking inwards, they become great by looking outwards. People become great, not by looking inwards, but by looking outwards. We don’t like people who who are sort of egotistical and focused on themselves. We love people who are like you are, you’re like focused outwards. It’s the same were true with church. Church is not meant to be focused inwards. It’s meant to be focused outwards on the needs of the people around the hungry, the homeless, the poor, and the people, the lost. You know, it’s that’s what makes a church great. And the way to do that is not my focus on the things that you disagree about. You know, we have conferences, the made up of Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Salvation Army. We could at the conference say, okay, people on that side, people who believe in infant baptism, people on this side, people who think only adult baptism. And then, we really want unity at this conference—let’s try and get a compromise position somewhere between infant and adult baptism. Let’s see…

Kate: 12-year-olds!

Nicky: Well, let’s see if we can all agree. An age, yes, yes. Where, where. And you can change your beliefs and you can do it, and we’ll find this place in the middle that will will, you know, what a waste of time. You know, the fact is, we agree about so many things. The fact that we disagree about, you know, the time of your baptism. Honestly, does that matter? So, but if you if you focus on the things that you disagree about, you get disunity. If you focus on outside, looking outwards, then you have to be united because no one’s going to be interested if you’re fighting each other.

Kate: Yes, that’s right.

Nicky: A friend of mine said to me, who’s not a Christian. He said, you Catholics, you Protestants, you look exactly the same to me. You both got these church buildings. You both, you both do something with bread and wine. You both say these prayers, do the Lord’s Prayer.

Kate: We have important distinctions I’d like to lay out now! I mean, we’re so committed, yeah.

Nicky: So he said, you know, he said that you look exactly the same to me. He said, whatever it is you disagree about and have no idea what it is, but it’s got nothing to do with my life. But while you’re fighting each other, I’m not interested. And I think that’s that’s, you know, why? Why are we fighting for each other about things that are totally irrelevant to the people out there. They don’t care whether it’s that we believe in infant baptism, or adult baptism or whatever. They have needs. They’ve got struggles in their lives and they’re desperately needy. And we have a message of hope for the world. That’s, let’s get out, get the message out. And there are people there, and there’s so many… I still believe the greatest need is, is, is to know about Jesus. But there are a whole lot of other very big needs. There’s there’s hunger, there’s homelessness, there’s war, there’s the refugees. There are people in prison. Yeah, there’s so much else to get on with. Let’s get on with that.

Kate: I think, too, you and I have a very high tolerance. I mean, like, tolerance is the wrong word, but, I imagine when we both meet someone who’s very, very different from us theologically or spiritually, we both get a little excited.

Nicky: Yes, yes. Exactly, exactly. What can I learn? And what happens next? Yeah. What did I not see that you’ve seen? Because you’ve seen something that I’ve probably missed. Tell me.

Kate: In university, I was trained to be a historian, but you get to pick a subspecialty. And I immediately went to cultural anthropology because they’re professional observers. They’re wonderful at figuring out how to be in very different cultures. And be, you know, not just like all the regular ethical practices, but like, how do you learn to intellectually and emotionally immerse yourself.  And I just have found that, that training has probably helped me more than anything else, to stay very open when I’m around something I don’t understand. Yes. And then stay put a long, like, long enough to have at least a couple of good questions.

Nicky: Yes. Yeah, well, I think that’s what we’ve learned. I never thought Alpha would go beyond our own local church. And then I certainly never thought it would go beyond the Church of England. But then, you know, Baptists got interested, Catholics got interested. They are going to conferences and we go in and go, oh my goodness, there’s so much to learn from the Salvation Army. You know, there’s so much to learn from the Catholic Church. So much riches in the Orthodox Church as so much, you know, Pentecostals. Why I love, you know, Pentecostals so much, they’ve got great faith and they’re just… but they’re so different. And yet they’re all part of this diversity, this rich diversity of the body of Christ.

Kate: So your, your type—she said—majesterially, never retires. There is retirement. There’s just different seasons. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to think about what calling feels like as they think about… Often we have our life, we always think about in halves, but maybe really, it’s in thirds, right? There’s that first vocational, who am I going to be? How do I get all the means to even just try? And then the middle one, just doing it, grinding it out. There’s a lot of climbing, climbing, trying, trying. Then there’s the third at the end where there’s different kinds of roles. People are doing a lot of caregiving in different ways. Or maybe there’s a chance to think about a different way of service. I wonder what kind of advice you might give to people who are thinking about a different turn.

Nicky: Yeah, I think, I mean, it’s so interesting, I think about this more now as I, as I enter that. But it’s very interesting the way the demographics have changed in the world. So when the pension came out in the UK, you got a pension when you were 70 and life expectancy was 52. Now you get a pension at 66 and if you get there, life expectancy is 85. So you’ve got a 20-year period, which we didn’t think about before because you retired and died. If you if you were lucky you got to retire, usually you died before that. But now you’ve got this this period post-60, really? So the Guardian newspaper ran an article every week on life, kind of, life begins at 60. And so it’s all these people who have, “I was a teacher. I love teaching, but what I really like is magic.” Or the one this week was all “What I really love is woodwork. So, you know, age 60. I’m going to be a carpenter.” So I think this is a massive opportunity. It’s a massive opportunity for the Church of England, for example. So we started at our theological college, which we started with together with Bishop of London, a stream called the Caleb Stream, because Caleb, as you know, was still going strong at 85. So, what about people who have loved ministry all their life? But they’ve been, you know, they’ve been a banker or a lorry driver or they’ve been in the medical profession or in the Army. You know, in the Army yo  come out at like 55 or even younger. So you’ve got 30 years ahead of you. So what an opportunity if you, what you really love is ministry? Because some people it’d be something totally different, but. In the UK, there are 500,000 Anglicans who are in the age group 58 to 72. There are 12 million people in that age group. Sorry, 10 million people in that age group, of whom 500,000 are churchgoing Anglicans. How many of those would love to do ministry for the rest of their lives? So there’s 6000 churches in the UK, Church of England churches that need a Focal Minister. Look, you could have the, all of these people. Anyway, that’s the vision.

Kate: There really aren’t pastors for those churches?

Nicky: No. Well, they have, you have like eight, you have one pastor for 18 churches. What the research shows, if you have a Focal Minister, the church tends to grow. If you have no one, it declines slower than if you have one person for 18. So if you have no one, then everyone says, oh, we got to do it ourselves. But if you have one person, they say…

Kate: We’ll just wait.

Nicky: We’ll just wait. But they have to wait a long because it’s only coming once a month.

Kate: I do love that because there’s that… I do love the idea of like, giving people a sense of that their, that their story has a lot of chapters.

Nicky: Yes!

Kate: That they can be really surprised. Like, joyfully, spiritually surprised by what a new season would bring.

Nicky: Yeah.People say your most productive decade is 60 to 70.

Kate: Wow.

Nicky: And your second most productive is 70 to 80.

Kate: What? I’ve gotta get there. I’ve just gotta there.

Nicky: But I don’t think it applies to everything. I don’t think this applies to sprinting, for example.

Kate: Yeah that’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s well, I think that’s lovely. Especially because, I mean, I think as we start to try to define ourselves by not the resume virtues. But by these deep questions of purpose, then what a nice time to say, well, I didn’t get a chance to sprint in this area. And now’s my, now’s my time. Who could I be if I…? Especially with service. I think one of the things we worry about a lot, especially since so many people in our listening community have people that they care for, or they have very emotionally expensive professions, that it is, that because we don’t talk a lot culturally about service, and the people who did are now growing old, that we really do need an opportunity to think about how we can learn from that and work it into our… I mean, everybody’s busy, but that’s not what I mean. But how do we know exactly how to plug into service in communities in a way that can carry, you know, help carry the load a little bit?

Nicky: Yeah. Well it helps carry the load, but also gives people purpose. And you know, you can play golf, well at least I couldn’t, but…

Kate: People.  People can play golf.

Nicky: People can play golf and do it four days a week or whatever. But is that really what you want to do for the rest of your life? Or is there something that you can do that makes a real difference to the people around you?

Kate: Nikki, you are kind and you are so funny and I am so grateful for your insanely deep love of God. It’s a beautiful thing to be around.

Nicky: Aw, well now it’s amazing to be with you, Kate. You’ve got a wonderful smile and a wonderful joy, and you’re an amazing writer, too.

Nicky: Well, there he is, folks. The world’s most likable man. I love his sense of curiosity to learn and change and adapt and just stay open to whatever God had in the next season. There’s a cracking open about him, like in the questions they ask, in Alpha courses that allow us a chance to be known, even if we’ve felt closed off or hurt by the church or wary of other Christians. There’s a cracking open in the work he’s doing to equip the older generation to lead. Not assuming people are done before they’re done, empowering people and their gifts for greater opportunities to serve others. I really love the idea of seeing with those kinds of eyes. Eyes wide open to being changed or being wrong. Eyes wide open to seeing possibility in myself and in others, eyes wide open to new relationships or new hobbies or new vocations. Eyes wide open to whatever God has for us. So to close, I thought I could bless us with one—it makes it sound like I’m just like, man, I’m just giving, just giving out the blessings here. But like, I just meant that I might read a blessing from the book that I wrote with Jessica Richie. It’s called The Lives We Actually Have, and it’s a blessing for the good that’s already come and gone. And the thought that maybe we might age into someone, something different. And as we change. There’s a grief there and also a permission. All right. Here it goes.

Kate: People like to say, “the best is yet to come” as some sort of guarantee. Could we say, perhaps lovingly or angrily, if we feel like it, sometimes the best isn’t ahead? We lose things. Jobs, abilities, people. Sometimes we have crescendo-ed. Sometimes the best has already come. Blessed are you who have finished humming the tune of parenthood because you didn’t have that baby, or they’ve grown up and out. You who are playing the closing notes of a parent’s life, or friends, or a child’s. You who are retiring or moving out of the home you loved, or from the place that made you you. Blessed are you who still have so much to sing about, new hobbies and loves and friends and hopes. You who wonder how best to spend your time, effort, resources and gifts. Exactly because they are in short supply. You who know to keep the end in mind. Blessed are we who see with such crisp clarity the gift that was and that is. And that might yet be. Knowing, really knowing that someday the last note will be sung. So let’s sing our songs about our beautiful, ridiculous lives. We will peak and crescendo and approach the finale hoping for a pretty damn good finish.

Kate: Well my loves. Hey also, I am getting the opportunity to speak at Nikki Gumbel’s annual leadership conference and it’s going to be in London, England on May 6th and 7th, 2024. So if you want to come join us, come on down. I’ll have a link to the details in the show notes. A big thank you to all the people who really make this possible at Everything Happens. Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment at Duke Divinity School, you are my theological home and I’m so grateful. And this podcast is a result of other people caring all the time. And those people are Jess Richie, my great love, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Iris Greene, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt, Sammie Filippi, and Katherine Smith. Thank you. And we do it all because of and for listeners like you. Yes. You, waiting for that doctor to call you back or trying to fall back asleep. Bless you. You are our absolute favorite and we are so grateful to get to make useful things for you. Let us know who you want to hear from this season. And please, please, please, please, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. That is like one of the most powerful engines and letting people know that people listen to this show. So thank you so much. And if you want, leave us a voicemail at (919) 322-8731. Okay, next week is very fun. I’m talking with the hilarious and thoughtful Rainn Wilson. Yes, Dwight Schrute himself. You will not want to miss it. Until then, this is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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