Alpha grabs attention
A course on Christianity revitalizes churches and draws newcomers in US
BOSTON — "my friends that did go to church - they had something I didn't spiritually," says 16-year-old Brandi Porter. "I thought, 'Why not try?' "
So when Brandi got a phone call inviting her to attend a church just opening its doors in Austin, Texas, she signed up the whole family. The Porters visited St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in December 1997 and began its Alpha course the next month.
"It has changed our lives," says Delia Porter. "There was a time when our main concerns were to go to work, make a few dollars, and come home and play. Now our focus is on what we can do, who we can help. And we've been asked to help plant a new church in Austin spinning off of St. Barnabas," which has thrived.
Alpha - "a practical introduction to the Christian faith" designed for non-churchgoers and new Christians - made the difference.
"As new Christians, we had lots of questions," says John Porter, an engineer at Motorola. "If you haven't been to church in a long time, it can be very intimidating to walk in. This is a more informal atmosphere, and you're able to ask questions and get answers."
The Porters' experience and enthusiasm are so widely shared that this course - which began at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) church in London - has sprouted into a force for renewal and evangelism reaching 90 countries.
Some 650,000 have taken it in England alone. But what has surprised even its originators is how it crosses denominations and cultures. In the United States, 48 denominations are represented in the 2,000 churches that have given Alpha courses. Materials have been translated into 24 languages.
It seems to appeal to all generations. Rev. Jeff Black, pastor at St. Barnabas, recalls his astonishment when first coming across Alpha. On a 1995 preaching visit to Sheffield, England, he saw 80 medical-school students rush across the street to church on a Monday night. "Nobody goes to church in England," he says, "but this place was packed with twentysomethings excitedly talking about their ideas about the faith in response to this talk."
He has since found it effective with older generations. After introducing it at his own church, he became an Alpha regional adviser, "planting" it in other churches. "The place where it worked absolutely the best was in tiny, rural churches with very old people ... in little towns like Chillicothe, Missouri," he says. "When they heard that biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and the ringing assurance of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, they recognized the ancient content. They totally loved it."
The secret of its success is twofold: the content and the method of presentation. Each of 10 weekly sessions starts with a light meal, followed by a talk (video or live) on one of 15 subjects central to Christian faith (see box). Then participants join in small-group discussions.
"No question is too simple, or too hostile," says the Rev. Nicky Gumbel of HTB, who is credited with revamping Alpha in 1993 for non-churchgoers, unleashing its potential for evangelism. (A former lawyer who once wrote an essay "proving" God didn't exist, Mr. Gumbel knows where agnostics are coming from. He wrote the book containing the course curriculum, "Questions of Life." He's also the engaging presenter of the 15 video talks.)
Participants call the Alpha experience nonthreatening. "The first night, people were genuinely interested in knowing my story," says Lisa Boeke, who attended at Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville, Minn. Ms. Boeke, a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual, grew up in a church but without any real Bible study. She wandered, but after Alpha, now plans to join the church. "My eyes have been opened in a different way.... What amazes me is that it was always there and I never knew it. I was always looking for these answers."
Sandy Millar, vicar at HTB, explains in an introductory video that making the gospel accessible is the point. What happened too often in the past, he says, was that "we retained the ancient packaging and in some respects actually altered the gospel." What was needed, he adds, was to "retain the gospel and find a package by which the gospel could be understood" by people today.
Tom Gilligan, professor of economics at the University of Southern California, says, "The appeal is that it provides a lot of information in a very compact format ... and the small groups are a really strong feature." Dr. Gilligan runs Alpha at La Canada Presbyterian Church in La Canada, Calif., where longtime members are just as eager as newcomers.
"People can go to church for years and get pieces of the puzzle," says the Rev. Larry Showalter of Ruggles Baptist Church in Boston. "But they don't put them together. Alpha helps do that."
At a recent Alpha session at Ruggles on "Does God heal today?" the group worshiped together in song, and then individuals prayed specifically for those who wished it. Alpha embraces God's healing works as "miraculous," but something every Christian is called to do on a regular basis. Guidelines are given for how to pray.
Many say the emphasis in the weekend retreat on experiencing God has been the turning point for them. "For most who go to the weekend, I think it's their first experience with intimacy with God," says Mr. Black. "That carries with it the news 'He actually knows, loves, and is interested in me.' That's the faith issue for most human beings: It's not, 'Do I think God exists?' but 'Does God know I exist?' "
He's found Alpha's impact on people is subtle until the weekend. Afterward, "people will tell you, 'I've been struggling with porno on the Internet,' or 'I was thinking of leaving my wife,' but 'after this thing, I want a new life. What do I need to do to stay in a relationship with God that will be loving and alive for me?' "
Yet the weekend focus on the Holy Spirit has also produced perhaps the most common criticism of Alpha - that it is "too charismatic." The emphasis on being filled with the Spirit includes speaking in tongues.
Donald Cox, associate professor of evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., says Alpha is an effective form of evangelism, but that the presentation on the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues - which he says "very much reflects charismatic theology" - is "the one chapter it would be hard for a Southern Baptist to use."
"Alpha is nothing more nor less than simple New Testament Christianity for beginners," insists the Rev. Dave Housholder, who teaches the course at Hosanna! Lutheran. "If it is in the book of Acts, you'll probably see it at Alpha."
Gilligan says, "Religions vary in the way they emphasize things .... [For example,] healing is not something all churches or Christians embrace, but many do.... I like the course for that reason: It pushes the edges of Christianity. And it does it in ways that are very consistent with the Bible."
Others criticize the Alpha presentation as being too simple. "It gives a view of Christianity that is very clean, very crisp, very definitive.... But when one omits complexity or ambiguity consciously, I think that's avoiding some of the harder issues," says George Gillis, professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "It claims to have dealt with all the historical evidence.... It tends to present things as if the theology were complete right from the beginning and known to everyone. I just don't think that's true."
Effort has gone into making Alpha acceptable to many denominations. The materials were sent to 44 theologians of various faiths for comment, and some adaptations were made.
Marketing 'the good news'
Alistair Hanna, head of Alpha North America in New York, has an ambitious marketing strategy to get 50,000 churches, or nearly 20 percent of the 310,000 in the US, doing Alpha. "Once we get good national coverage, we'd like to do what we call an Alpha Initiative, a national advertising program with each church delivering personal invitations in their area." (An initiative in England last year using 1,800 billboards doubled course attendance.)
Alpha conferences are being held in US cities where at least 20 churches join as sponsors. This year, 20 conferences are scheduled, plus two on doing Alpha in prisons; the aim for 2000 is 48. There is also a Youth Alpha, and Hanna has plans for Alpha on college campuses.
Nobody knows yet how many non-churchgoers have come actively into the faith. What is clear is that Alpha can have a significant impact on churches themselves. It tends to revive the faith of core members, make active many on the "fringe" who come only on Christmas and Easter, and build leadership skills.
At Ruggles Baptist, which has a young congregation, Alpha "has helped us come together as a group," says Brenda Birmann. "It's helped our church become more servant-oriented," says Francine Saron. "The course revitalized my faith and inspired me to want to share it - to be excited and think of it as a privilege and not a duty."
Simon Grist, a computer programmer who has seen his own growth as head of small group discussion, says, "Alpha has shown that the church has a heart for evangelism."
What is Alpha?
*A basic course on Christianity for non-churchgoers or new Christians.
*10 weekly sessions in an informal setting with a meal, a talk on a subject central to the faith, and group discussion led by lay church members; a weekend retreat.
*Talks on such topics as: Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus die? Why and how should I read the Bible? Why and how do I pray? How does God guide us? How can I overcome evil? Does God heal today?
*Evangelism tool used by a range of denominations.
*Since 1993, 12,000 courses in 90 countries, with 1.1 million attendees, including about 200,000 in the US.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society