Alpha Ten Years On

Next month I will lead my 10th Alpha Course. Like many churches throughout the country, preparations are well in hand for this 10-week introduction to the Christian Faith, which is supported by all the mainstream Christian denominations and was described recently in the “Daily Telegraph” as being “an unqualified triumph”.

Those who attend the Alpha Course are invited to a meal each week after which comes a simple DVD presentation that deals with the basics of Christianity. These include subjects such as “Who is Jesus?”, “Why did Jesus die?”, “Why and how should I read the Bible?” and “What about the Church?” The evening then concludes with group discussion.

Posters, magazine adverts, banners, personal invitation cards and even beer-mats have been purchased to promote our Alpha Course this year. The weekly food menu has been prepared, the projector and DVDs have been checked thoroughly. Group leaders have been trained and, most important of all, every member of the church has been invited to pray for it.

Some people say to me, “After 10 Alpha Courses aren’t you getting a bit fed up with it?”

They do have a point, I mean, the only film I have seen more than 10 times is the 1964 classic “Zulu” telling the true story of how in 1879, against all the odds, 139 Welsh infantrymen defended a British hospital at Rorke’s Drift against 4,000 Zulu warriors. In fact, I’ve seen it so often I think I could act Michael Caine’s part myself.

In the same way I know the Alpha Course nearly word for word but I persevere, knowing that God is in this thing and lives will be transformed. It led I Howard Marshall, Aberdeen University’s professor of New Testament exegesis, to say, “Alpha may well be God’s instrument for salvation for many people in this generation, just as Billy Graham was for many in the previous one”.

Latest figures show that in 2007, 1.5 million people attended an Alpha Course and more could be reached if more church leaders took it seriously. The sad thing is that Alpha is not without its opponents even within the church.

It has been described as “Christianity for the middle class” and only for those suffering from the “young, happy, shiny people syndrome”. Many would say that its theology is too conservative and narrow etc etc.

The beauty of the course for me is that people are invited to disagree with everything they hear if they so wish. This happened to me on one course a few years ago when one lady, a self-confessed atheist sat in my group.

She disagreed with everything on the first night and continued to do so for the whole course. After the 10 weeks, she left veering toward agnosticism and I left heading for a dark room, suffering from mental exhaustion.

It was an interesting exercise for me because as a minister I am in the most part surrounded by believers but here I was meeting weekly with an atheist who questioned everything I stood for.

Bob Diamond, a newspaper reporter, wrote: “Alpha is a ‘try-it-and-see’. No-one forces you to go. If it isn’t for you, then you simply don’t turn up. It’s no brow beating, demonic worship. And those who suggest it is are ignorant of the facts.”

The adventurer and TV presenter Bear Grylls said this in an interview about Alpha: “The Church shouldn’t treat Christianity like an image to be polished and sold, where we can never show any of the mess or struggles in our lives because we think it will put people off. Church should be more like a hospital where people are all a bit damaged and are muddling their way through together.

“It’s OK to be a bit dirty and bloody, not all perfect and healed. Christianity is about discovering that in the business and struggles of life we are not alone and that this Jesus is actually beside us.

“Alpha helps with that, because it allows people to find that backbone that we all need in our lives. It just gives a very informal, non-threatening ‘space’ for friends to come and take a step towards finding a faith of their own. I feel 100 per cent comfortable recommending it as I know no one is ever judged or Bible-bashed! People tend to just work through their own stuff and at least at the end can make an informed decision for or against faith.”

Last year I stood next to a young woman in her early 30s as she gave her Christian testimony to the church. She described how she came to faith in Jesus Christ by doing the Alpha Course and how Jesus Christ had turned her life around. Conducting that woman’s baptism was one of the most moving occasions in my ministry so far.

This is no isolated case. The accumulative effect of doing Alpha for 10 years means that we now have new local preachers in the circuit, new church stewards, pastoral visitors and members and it has left everyone in no doubt that the Alpha Course must play a key role in the outreach ministry of our church for many years to come and that it will be supported practically, financially and prayerfully.

It is, of course, not the be-all and end-all of church growth but in my experience it does play a big part and complements well all the other areas of church life and discipleship.

I ask for your prayers for all the churches, of whatever denomination, leading Alpha Courses in a few weeks’ time.

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