"I don’t think you could improve on the Alpha videos," said group member Jim Hanes. "They were very practical and humorous—never boring. They applied to everyday life. There was no homework; we just sat and enjoyed listening to the lectures. People were free to disagree and no one took offence."
In the small town of Russell, Ontario, another experiment with the Alpha program took on an ecumenical format. The cooperative effort of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and United churches was attended by 93 people—some church-goers and some not. Instead of a meal, the participants enjoyed small group discussions over dessert and coffee in a church setting. "You break barriers over food," admitted United Church attendee, Marg Chaloner. She also appreciated the open discussions: "Even if I didn’t agree e all the time, it brought me off my high horse and it forced me to listen."
"This was a very positive experience for our church," said Keith Brown, minister at St. Andrew’s/ St. Paul’s United Church. "Alpha is a resource that trains people to articulate their faith and it enables others to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ."
"This isn’t a ‘church’ thing," explained discussion leader Ruth Cullen who attends Brown’s church. "This is about Christ--not church."
Alpha is, indeed, about Jesus Christ--not churches, not denominations, not dogma. It is this central Christology which has made it the fastest growing evangelism-outreach program in the world. By avoiding denominational dogma and encouraging flexibility and dialogue, this 10-week introduction to the Christian faith has been adapted and used by most denominations. Since its inception 17 years ago by Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London, England, it has been used by Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, House churches and the Salvation Army. In 1996, 1/4 million people went to Alpha. Although it was designed for non-church-goers, many attend to learn more about their faith. In the first quarter of 1997 over 5,000 courses were officially held worldwide and over 26,000 church leaders had attended Alpha training conferences. Many of them are linked up to Alpha’s website or receiving Alpha News.
The Alpha videos and accompanying books deal with simple questions asked by anyone seeking spiritual answers in Christianity (see sidebar). Yet, in this fast-paced, converter-happy world, where few people commit themselves to an evening at the ball game, never mind church; it’s hard to understand why a course, based on ten weeks of 40-minute lectures and a weekend retreat, could be so successful. The secret of this "spiritual franchise" movement seems to be based on a number of winning characteristics.
Much of it is rooted in the mastery of the video presentations by Nicky Gumbel who was once a lawyer and atheist who became an Anglican priest after his conversion. Using many of his courtroom and debating skills Gumbel spent three years working on the orthodox Christian material adding personal testimonies and practical anecdotes which bring the struggles of faith to life in a practical way. A sense of camaraderie is quickly established with the viewers who think of him as a mentor in the faith.
Gumbel also provides opportunities throughout the course for viewers to commit their lives to Christ. It is not unusual for attendees to become Christians or renew their faith as a result of the course. The non-threatening approach to discussion and the pure logic of the presentations, give these commitments substance. Viewers are encouraged to consider the claims of Christ with integrity and thought, rather than respond with an emotional conversion that fades before dawn.
After years of shaping and experimenting, Alpha is now fairly structured and provides a clear format that is easy to follow or adapt. The order of the talks are important with a retreat in the middle allowing for more time and attention to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Leaders and helpers are trained through accompanying videos, which focus on the need for prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit at every session. Small group leaders are encouraged to be "hosts/hostesses" who are not trying to persuade, facilitate or manipulate, but instead create an safe, confidential environment for sharing. Prayer and Bible reading are encouraged but they are to be simple, non-threatening and non-academic.
By using videos rather than a real-life presentations, group members feel free to openly disagree with Gumbel’s statements. Group discussion quickly becomes real, honest and free-flowing. Although church leaders are encouraged to change or adapt the material, most chose to use the videos as they are, while putting it in the context of their denomination. Discussion groups are usually no more than 12 and include a leader and helper. For both church-goers and the non-church, this aspect of Alpha release s opportunity for spiritual questions and fears. It becomes a support group that usually overflows into the other aspects of Church and secular life.
Though not all churches have the resources to organize the recommended meal, most find a simple way to "share over food" This fosters relationships that build safe roots for small group discussion. Alpha is "friendship-based." The final dinner is an opportunity for attendees to introduce new friends to the course. Leaders and others are encouraged to share their own experiences through Alpha and Gumbel gives his personal testimony.
Another important aspect of Alpha, for many, has been the worship time. Holy Trinity Brompton began with a rock band to provide a "non-church" atmosphere; others have simply used their own worship teams with the songs of their own denomination. However it is done, this time to focus informally on God and worship prepares the attendees for the videos.
Though clear guidelines are given around worship, meals, video and discussion, adjustments to the Alpha course are encouraged. Thus Alpha can be adapted to large or small congregations, rural or urban settings.
According to Tom Bandy, director of congregational missions and evangelism for The United Church of Canada, Alpha meets three important needs for evangelism in the mainstream context. "United Church folk desire more concreteness in their faith, more transformational experiences aimed at the heart, and more opportunities for public commitment--an open declaration of their faith." Bandy added that Alpha links up well with small groups which are becoming more and more prevalent in "successful" United Churches. Bandy endorsed the Toronto Alpha conference in June of 1996 which brought in 600 more ministers than the expected 200. He will also be encouraging the United Church audio and visual resources to purchase the program. He said that videos may need to be "customized to the United Church." He recommends using United Church hymns and our statement of faith. Also he has two cautionary notes: First, the lecture format might be improved by United Church ministers using drama or more interactive presentations of the material. Secondly, some have felt the material to be too traditional and narrow in the vision of marriage, family and lifestyles. "Most United Church people are more broad-minded and it jars them a bit," warned Bandy. Though renewal/reform groups may welcome this traditional moral perspective.
Perhaps what makes Alpha so attractive to United Church congregations is that it comes out of a mainline liturgical Christian denomination while allowing for flexibility of dogma. As Bandy points out it meets the criteria for most "cutting-edge" church programs. But some are convinced that this structure or winning formula still doesn’t explain its rapid growth and its ready acceptance by so many.
Alpha seems to met needs of both seekers and those who want to brush up on the basics. As in the early church, questions by seekers give believers an opportunity to share their faith and challenge them to express it in new ways. Alpha encourages this interdependent growth of faith.
Even though they were all church-goers during the ten-week Alpha experiment at Wall Street United Church, Alan Bennett says the experience was powerful and worthwhile. "We all grew in our faith," he admits. "In fact, I really think it’s an anointed program." Many would agree.
Alpha course content
If you would be interested in joining an Alpha course in the Eastern Ontario area, visit www.ncf.ca/alpha.