ALPHA COURSE (Religious Movement)

The Alpha Course is a tool of evangelism first developed at an Anglican church, Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, England in the late 1970s and later used by churches from every Christian denomination in 132 countries worldwide. It has been translated into fifty languages. Alpha is run largely by lay people meeting in churches, homes, on university campuses, in prisons and occasionally, even in workplaces. Each week for ten weeks, participants gather for an informal evening meal, listen to a talk and participate in a small group discussion. Newcomers are introduced to ideas central to conservative Protestant theology; namely, the authority of the Bible as the primary source of knowledge about God, the nature of Christ’s mission as expiation for human sin, and the availability of salvation for those who repent and have faith. The fifteen talks on which the course is based are summarized in the topic, Questions of Life (1993), written by curate Nicky Gumbel, who has led the course since the early 1990s. Christian doctrine which varies according to competing ecclesial traditions is not included. Most notably, there is no material on the sacraments, such as Baptism and the Eucharist, which figure prominently in Christian theology, but which are major points of disagreement amongst the denominations. Alpha for Catholics, meanwhile, is augmented with additions from the Roman Catholic catechism.

The Alpha Course was run for over a decade at Holy Trinity Church as a class for church members, before curate Nicky Gumbel decided the goal of the course should be religious conversion, rather than merely education. According to Alpha Course legend, this resulted from Gumbel’s experience of the conversion en masse, of all the members of a small group he led in the early 1990s. The course was redesigned in content and format to make it more appealing to the un-churched. By 2002 it was estimated that 500,000 non-church members had taken the course. The number of converts is difficult to assess, in that no such records are kept. Meanwhile, as Alpha spread to more than 24,000 other registered locations throughout the world, Gumbel, the rector’s assistant educated at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, became somewhat of an international celebrity. A separate organization Alpha International, with its own director, was formed in 2002. However, the course continued to be substantially funded and led by Holy Trinity Church.

Practical Christianity

About two-thirds of those who take the course self-identify as Christians at the start, leading observers to conclude that Alpha is a revival movement, rather than a tool of conversion perse. Course organizers dispute this, asserting that newcomers are Christian in name only. This stems from a belief which prevails in the Evangelical wing of Protestantism, though not uniquely confined to it, that Christian identity is an existential decision, often expressed as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Being a Christian in more than a nominal way involves a significant level of commitment, expressed by regular engagement in practices of both corporate worship and personal piety. Consistent with this perspective, the main emphasis of Alpha is praxis rather than dogma. The focus of the course is to make Christian practices accessible to those who have had little religious experience, a status which increasingly typifies post-war Britons and most other western Europeans. Participants are given the opportunity to sing easily-mastered contemporary hymns, to read the bible, to formulate simple prayers and to discuss the deeper questions of life.

Furthermore, a significant amount of effort goes into demonstrating the social benefits of Christian membership, through fellowship and hospitality. Working to overcome negative stereo-types thought to be held by secular people about church-goers and their social functions, Alpha volunteers take care to prepare a comfortable, non-institutional social space and to present good quality meals. Small group leaders are trained to be supportive and non-confrontational. The goal is to create an atmosphere in which any objection or question about the Christian faith can be raised. Rather than theological argument, social inclusiveness and friendship are seen as the key to conversion.

In Gumbel’s words, ‘Alpha is friendship-based’. New recruits usually arrive by word of mouth, at the recommendation of a friend or relative who has taken the course. At Holy Trinity, where the average age on Alpha is about twenty-seven, many on the courses are recent arrivals in London and eager for new social ties. Participants form attachments both for the people they meet and for the course itself, commonly returning on subsequent courses as volunteers or to repeat the course. Meanwhile, entire small groups, or fragments thereof, may choose to stay together beyond Alpha, evolving into new cells of church congregations, becoming home groups and pastorates.

Charismatic element

In addition to the weekly evening meetings, Alpha offers a weekend retreat, which organizers believe has an important role in religious conversion. The early conversions witnessed on the course seem to have occurred during this event. As well as an opportunity for increased social bonding, the weekend provides training on empowerment by the Holy Spirit, a member of the Trinity, thought to be God active in the world. During a dramatic service, the physical presence of the Spirit, as experienced by the Apostles in the biblical book of Acts, is invoked and invited into the gathering. Manifestations such as speaking or singing in ‘tongues’, bodily swaying or becoming paralysed, crying and laughing, sensations of wind and heat, are all variously interpreted to be signs of direct religious experience. Newcomers are invited to share in these ‘gifts’ as well as those of prophecy and healing, which are also demonstrated during the course. The current of Pentecostalism running through the congregation of Holy Trinity and the Alpha Course reflects the influence of John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Fellowship and also the Toronto Blessing, which has influenced other Anglican congregations.

Meanwhile, those congregations which may be averse to charismatic displays, chose either to modify the content on the Holy Spirit, or to eliminate the retreat altogether.

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