Archive: The Alpha Revolution

By Kathleen K. Rutledge
January/February 2000
Good News

The light from the window was soft that morning, as we gathered our chairs into a circle in the church’s library. The dark wood of decades-old bookshelves and the golden light of several lamps made the atmosphere warm, rich, and appealing. But there was something more, something unique, and something quite curious.

Around the circle, sitting comfortably and sipping on cups of hot coffee and tea, were eight women. Eight women from very different worlds. One worked on a local horse farm. Her coarse blond hair was pulled back, exposing a strong, tan face, weathered by the sun. Another was a fulltime mom, looking as tired as most moms do at the end of the week. Yet another was a student, decked out in wrinkled jeans and tennis shoes. The differences between us were clear. Our ages were diverse and our backgrounds were varied.

And yet on that cool Saturday morning last November, we left our worlds to come together for the one purpose of discovering the living God through the down-to-earth, truth-filled course called Alpha.

“I remember what it was like,” Sharon began softly, breaking the ice for all of us by opening her fragile heart. “Coming here so hostile and then finding our that Jesus is real. And then coming to accept him … “ her words trailed off. Her eyes filled with tears.

Sharon had first attended Alpha, a 10-week course dealing with basic issues of life and faith, a year ago. A horse woman by trade, she didn’t know Christ, nor did she particularly want to know him. She had only come to Alpha at the invitation of a friend. But after participating in the course for several months, something broke inside of her. God came in, and she has never been the same. As she told her story, her rough exterior gave way to a tender, sensitive heart that bore the marks of radical grace and transformation that only God can give. She is not alone.

Across the globe – in 100 nations, more than 11,000 churches, and every state in the union – curious seekers are being transformed into faithful followers of Christ, and committed believers are falling in love with Jesus all over again. It is a fresh outpouring of the Spirit so desperately needed in our troubled era. Lives are being changed. The church is being transformed. And Christ is being proclaimed. It is the Alpha Revolution.

More than a million people

The Alpha course was designed by the Rev. Charles Marnham in 1977 to present the basic principles of the faith to new Christians at Holy Trinity Brompton, an evangelical Anglican church in London. But when Nicky Gumbel, an Oxford-educated lawyer-turned minister, began teaching the course in 1990 he made a startling discovery. It turned out that 10 out of the 13 members of the Alpha group were not committed Christians at all, but people who were merely curious about the faith.

Gumbel, a former atheist who turned to Christ after reading the New Testament in an attempt to disprove it, reworked the content and structure of the course to present the fundamental issues of the faith in a way that would be both appealing and relevant to the unchurched person.

The course was organized into a 10-week format, with participants meeting once a week to share a meal together, listen to a Scripture-based talk on basic concepts of the faith, and discuss the issues freely – without judgement or criticism from other members of the group. No question was seen as too rude or too simple, and no pressure was put upon participants to attend, let alone pray.

Starting with the common belief among many non-Christians that Christianity is “boring, untrue, and irrelevant,” the revised Alpha course drew participants into an intellectual and experiential encounter with the faith. It addressed such questions as: Who is Jesus?, Why does God allow suffering?, How and why should I pray?, How can I resist evil?, and How can I make the most of the rest of my life? Halfway through the course, a weekend retreat was held that helped participants understand and experience the person and role of the Holy Spirit.

Because it was based in the local church, Alpha was then able to usher new converts into the established believing community. New believers were encouraged in active participation, continued personal growth, and sharing their experiences with others.

That was the new Alpha formula.

At first, the response was minimal. In 1993, there were only four courses running in all of England. But then Alpha took off. By 1997 there were more than 520 courses in London alone, with half-a-million people participating in Alpha worldwide. Today, over a million people in some 100 countries have taken the 10-week crash course in Christianity.

In England, where there has been a drastic decline in church attendance for the past 30 years, Alpha has proven to be an effective force for revitalization. It has definitely become the most potent tool for evangelization to emerge from the Anglican Church since John Wesley preached on his father’s tombstone.

Clifford Longley, one of Great Britain’s most respected religious correspondents, put it this way in his column for London’s Daily Telegraph, “… Alpha is an unqualified triumph. The reconversion of England, so oversold by evangelicals so often, is suddenly almost believable.”

When faced with such comments and asked about Alpha’s key to success, both Gumbel and Sandy Millar, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, are quick to set the record straight. “It is not Alpha, but the Holy Spirit that converts souls,” says Gumbel.

This move of the Spirit, reminiscent of the rapid growth of the early church, when nonbelievers from every tribe and nation were added, is again reaching out across social and spiritual boundaries to change lives. Believers and nonbelievers, from every denomination and walk of life, are being transformed by the power of God. And Alpha, once a parishioners-only course in an upper-class British church, is taking root in the very heart and soul of America.

One Life Changed. That is Kim Tabscott’s story. She is one of more than 120,000 Americans that have been swept up in the move of God through Alpha since it came to the United States in 1996.

As a full-time factory worker and full-time mother in the sleepy town of Versailles, Kentucky, Tabscott had started wondering about the meaning of life. She was feeling restless, and began to question her relationship with God.

“I was at the point in my life where I was really feeling that something big was missing,” she said.

She had attended church with her grandparents when she was a child, but had rarely gone in her adult life. “I always believed in God, but as a teenager I tried not to. It was easier that way,” she said.

Then one day, as she was looking for information about the pre-school at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Versailles, she came across an advertisement in the church bulletin for an Alpha course. The advertisement promised that the 10-week course would deal with questions about the meaning of life. Tabscott knew that she had to go.

There were times, she said, when she would finish a 12-hour shift at a nearby factory and drive straight to the church because she was compelled by the significance of the issues discussed. What she didn’t know is that Alpha would change her life.

It wasn’t the animated, inspiring talks given by Gumbel on video. It wasn’t the food, the new friends, or the sense of belonging. It wasn’t even the retreat, with sweet times of fellowship and prayer. It was a combination of all of these, and the piercing, powerful work of God in her heart that led her to salvation.

Tabscott committed her life to Jesus Christ at the altar of St. John’s Episcopal Church and several weeks later had a profound experience with the Holy Spirit that left her in awe of God, humbled by grace, and forever changed.

She immediately joined the church and has actively served the body for the past 18 months, leading the church’s fourth Alpha course last fall and reaching out to others in the community of Versailles, who – much like she had once been – are searching for the meaning of life.

Her story is real and miraculous, bur not unique. God appears to be meeting people through Alpha everyday, drawing them to himself, to revival, and to service. The Alpha revolution is stirring in thousands of cities, in every state, and in every denomination – even United Methodism.

John Wesley’s Class Meeting rediscovered. Washington Crossing United Methodist Church near Philadelphia began running the Alpha course more than a year ago. A large, white-collar church in the suburbs, Washington Crossing is a vibrant, renewal-oriented worship community for a congregation of roughly 600. But Mike Sullivan, associate pastor at Washington Crossing, believes Alpha has added something to the church that is drawing non-believers like never before.

Out of 122 people who have completed the Alpha course in the past year, 70 were from outside the church, Sullivan explained. Through the insightful teachings of Alpha and the warm, friendly atmosphere, 24 of those people made first time professions of faith or clarified their profession of faith. Two of them were Jewish.

‘‘I’ve always had a love of God, but I felt that I wasn’t complete, like there was a hole in my heart,” said Shelly Gibson, a single-mom, raised in the Jewish tradition. She came to Christ last year through Alpha. “The Jewish people believe in Jesus, but they don’t think he’s the Messiah … I believe he is the Messiah. I just believe. I believe in Jesus. I feel like I crossed a bridge. I feel that was the missing piece that makes me whole.”

Gibson and her teenage son, who also came to faith in Christ through involvement at Washington Crossing, are now full-fledged followers of Jesus and active members of the church.

As remarkable as it may seem, stories like Gibson’s – stories of awakening and regeneration – are happening throughout the church.

“I’ve seen people on the fringe jumping in with both feet, and coming back to serve the church in other capacities,” Sullivan testifies.

Jim Charlton, director of evangelism at Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church in Chicago, has seen similar transformations. He agrees with Sullivan that Alpha has been a God-send.

“It’s an evangelistic tool for the community and the congregation,” Charlton said. “It presents the basics of Christianity in a very straightforward way, in a user-friendly format.”

Steve Bennett, a marketing consultant for a large telecommunications corporation in Chicago, had been a churchgoer all his life before attending Alpha. Through the course, questions were answered that he didn’t even know he needed to ask.

“I feel I’ve been a Christian all my life,” Bennett said. “But I think the Alpha course really has helped me relearn the basics of the Bible and relearn the basics of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit and what that means.”

One of the most personally fulfilling features of Alpha, said Bennett, is its emphasis on friendship. “I’ve enjoyed the relationships with my team,” he said. “I believe it’s the start of a long-term relationship with that group.”

In many ways, with its strong emphasis on friendship, active involvement in the local church, the process of evangelism, and the attempt to appeal to both “head and heart,” Alpha has been compared to John Wesley’s class meetings.

Wesley’s concept of class meetings or small groups who met weekly to fellowship and seek God together through confession, prayer, and the study of God’s Word, developed out of his efforts to assist others in their journey to salvation.

A group of ten people approached Wesley in London, begging him for help. They desperately wanted to be assured of their faith and delivered from sin, but didn’t know where else to turn. The year was 1739.

Wesley established a weekly time for the group to meet with him and thus the first United Society was born. Of this group Wesley wrote, “such a society is no other than a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”

The society grew rapidly as commoners came together to sing, pray, and grow in God. The society eventually divided into classes – small groups of men and women, usually 12 in number, who met in homes. As the number of classes multiplied, Wesley standardized the structure of the classes and synchronized the content of each meeting.

In the same way, the structure and content of the Alpha course was standardized to cover the most significant questions of life in a context of fellowship and openness, under the guidance of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit.

Sullivan believes that the Holy Spirit is again pouring out his blessing upon the class meeting format, and calls the connection between Alpha and Wesley’s theology “a perfect fit.”

“I think Wesley would be delighted to see the Word of God going forth, people interacting with it, with the acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and with the fervor Alpha has for evangelism,” he said.

The Rev. Rob Frost, national evangelist for the Methodist Church in Britain, echoes Sullivan’s statements. “Alpha is the most effective and poignant means of evangelism using small groups that I know,” he says. “It is John Wesley’s class meeting rediscovered.”

As a matter of fact, more than 100 Methodist churches have implemented the Alpha course. A national Alpha conference tailored for United Methodism is also scheduled to be held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in February.

The Holy Spirit weekend. Half way through the course, participants are invited to attend a weekend retreat. Numerous people point to the weekend retreat as the time in which they became far more aware of God’s presence. It is often this weekend in which seekers make the decision to become disciples.

The three talks given on the retreat use Scripture to explain the person and work of the Holy Spirit and invite participants to pray for the fullness of the Spirit. The third talk, about the role of spiritual gifts in everyday life, is followed by a time when many participants pray for the infilling of the Spirit.

The Rev. Ronald Fearneyhough, senior pastor of Gracewood United Methodist Church in Gracewood, Georgia, began offering the course to his congregation a year ago. He appreciated the teaching on the Holy Spirit. “The important thing is not to miss the point that Alpha is being used to change lives,” Fearneyhough said.

His congregation’s first Alpha course, held last Spring, led to the conversion of several people, including two teenagers.

One of those teenagers was J.T. Newton, a 15-year-old-sophomore in high school. He watched the Alpha videos with the Gracewood youth group and came to faith in Christ. Prior to conversion, Newton had been involved in drugs and had given up on life. Although he admits it hasn’t been easy since conversion, he said that the teachings of Alpha have led him to prayer, Bible study, and service work.

“Now my life, it’s just better now,” he said.

Mark Daughtry, the former youth pastor at Gracewood UM Church, said the message of Alpha has also had an impact upon his life, despite the fact that he has been a follower of Christ for many years. “The message comes out in such a simple form it almost takes any loose ends you might have in your foundation and just cements ‘em up,” Daughtry said.

“It’s something that God is using,” added Fearneyhough. “It’s evident that churches all around the world are using it and finding it helpful. If you see God doing something out there don’t try and create another wheel.”

Amazing Grace. One of the facets of Alpha that is most remarkable is that it not only works in the sanitary settings, under a church steeple or in quiet living room, but also in the darkest places where only grace would venture.

Because of Alpha, more than 66,000 prisoners in Britain have heard the redeeming message of the gospel. Out of 161 prisons in the United Kingdom, 124 of them are running Alpha. At the same time, Alpha is intentional about teaching churches how to welcome these prisoners home.

College students on more than 60 campuses in Great Britain and a growing number in the United States are beginning to experience renewal through Alpha. Even inner city ministers, who often live and work in harsh, desperate worlds, are finding Alpha’s message to be potent and powerful. And church leaders in foreign countries are claiming that Alpha’s humble, loving approach to evangelism and personal growth is successful in helping them win people to Christ.

But that’s not why we, the small group of eight women with different lives and histories, gathered together that cool Saturday in November. We weren’t there because of the statistics. We weren’t there because of theology. We were there as people; people with real needs, real questions, and a real hunger to know the fullness of the living God.

In the stillness of that library, in the soft light of the morning, God made his grace known. God’s mercy was revealed in every word that Sharon spoke and even in her shy, vulnerable presence. That is the great miracle. When God’s love is poured out upon a human soul, it leaves it fragrant, clean, and new.

That is Sharon’s story. And that is the story of thousands of others who have found a living faith in Christ through Alpha. One soul at a time, God is using Alpha to change the world.

When this article was written in 2000, Kathleen K. Rutledge was a contributing writer for Good News.


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