Archive: Praise the Lord and pass the lasagna

By Steve Beard
September/October 2000
Good News

In what must be one of the most audacious and ambitious plans ever hatched by a local congregation, the parishioners of Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London have invited the entire nation of England to a dinner party. With all of the bells and whistles of an engaging nation-wide media campaign, this lively congregation may have come up with a way to revive a spiritually-barren nation.

Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) is well-known around the world for developing Alpha, a ten-week course that emphasizes sharing a meal, small group fellowship, thoughtful presentations on the key issues of life, and experiencing God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The course probes questions such as Who is Jesus?, Why did Jesus die?, How can I be sure of my faith? and Why should I read the Bible?

The Revs. Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel from HTB have been circumnavigating the globe in the last several years teaching people how to run the winsome and popular course. It is now found in more than 110 different nations – breaking every language, socioeconomic, and cultural barrier.

Londoners have been flocking to the church for years to take the course and make thoughtful decisions about the Christian faith in an atmosphere developed for seekers. Polls show that 3.6 million people in the United Kingdom have now been on an Alpha course or know someone who has. It is as popular among the well-educated and wealthy as it is among the prison population. Alpha is found behind bars in more than 120 of the 158 prisons in the country.

The vision behind the dinner party initiative is to join forces with churches all over the country and invite everyone to an Alpha dinner party, and subsequently to an Alpha course starting soon at a church near them. At each of the dinner parties during the last week of September, Nicky Gumbel’s 30-minute talk, “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?,’’ will be delivered – either live or on video. In nine major regions of the country, including Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Gumbel will deliver the talk in person at large venues following the dinner parties.

“The campaign comes amid a rate of decline in church attendance figures which has alarmed Christian leaders,” reports The Times. “Last year attendance figures fell to 7.5 percent of the population. If the trend continues, by 2016 only one person in 100 will be a regular churchgoer.” The Times rightfully described the Church as “bleeding to death.”

“It is paradoxical that while church numbers are falling there is an incredible spiritual hunger out there,” responds Gumbel, the Oxford trained attorney and clergyman. “People realize that materialism doesn’t give them a point to life and want the Church to provide something more.”

The Alpha program is the most explosive spiritual export from Great Britain since John Wesley sent Francis Asbury to stir the fires of revival in the colonies. Many of the most vibrant and growing United Methodist churches – from Philadelphia to Chicago to Kansas City – are utilizing the Alpha course to reach those outside the church.

  • Alpha utilizes a meal and small groups to create an informal atmosphere to engage the eternal issues that really matter. “Alpha is the most effective and poignant means of evangelism using small groups that I know,” says Dr. Rob Frost, national evangelist for the Methodist Church in Great Britain. “It is John Wesley’s class meeting rediscovered.”
  • Alpha engages both the heart and the mind. My postmodern generation will not be reached solely by intellectual evidence, but neither will it suffer fools gladly. In the small groups, questions are encouraged. The talks are filled with apologetics yet Alpha leaders realize that if the Holy Spirit does not show up, people will be smarter but not changed.
  • Alpha recognizes that each individual must make his or her decision about Jesus at their own timing. Therefore, no one is pressured. The wooing and rhythm of the Holy Spirit is honored. “I believe that Alpha may well be God’s instrument for salvation for many in this generation, just as Billy Graham was for so many in the previous one,” observes Dr. I. Howard Marshall, professor of New Testament exegesis at the University of Aberdeen.

From the beginning, the heart cry of Methodism has been the desire to join evangelical theology with evangelistic practice. God has clearly anointed Alpha to help reignite the passion for evangelism in the local church. How many years will it take before we are confident enough in the power of the Holy Spirit to invite our nation to dinner?

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

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