By Mary Jacobs, The United Methodist Reporter
Jim Charlton was serving on the evangelism committee at Wheatland Salem Church in Naperville, Illinois, when he first heard of the Alpha course. While the United Methodist congregation was evangelistically minded, it was searching for an effective method to mobilize the congregation for evangelism. So Mr. Charlton and his pastor decided to check out a conference about the Alpha course.
“About 45 minutes into it, we realized this … was what we were looking for,” he recalled. The church began offering Alpha in early 1999, and still offers it today. At least 1,000 people — average ages 30-35 — have taken the course at Wheatland Salem over the years.
“We experienced a renewal because of Alpha,” said Mr. Charlton. Not only did the course bring new folks into the church, “we saw people who were pew sitters . . . come to Alpha, and suddenly they’d get involved.”
“It’s a great outreach tool,” said Kim Neace, who now leads Alpha as Wheatland Salem’s coordinator of outreach.
Like Wheatland Salem, many United Methodist churches around the U.S. — as well as churches of virtually every denomination — have similarly discovered the Alpha course, a ready-made, 10-week non-denominational curriculum in the basics of Christianity. Currently, about 500 United Methodist churches — more than any other denomination — are offering Alpha.
Each week, participants — “guests” is the term Alpha leaders prefer — come for a meal, followed by a video presentation and small group discussions. The program also includes a daylong or weekend retreat.
What makes the course unique, leaders say, is the low-key, non-judgmental approach. Guests are encouraged to ask questions. There’s no pressure to make a faith commitment or join a church.
“One of the key ingredients to Alpha’s success has been in making guests feel relaxed, accepted, and open to the gospel message,” said Gerard Long, president of Alpha USA.
The Alpha course was first developed in an Anglican church, Holy Trinity Brompton in London, in the late 1970s, as an introductory Bible study for new church members. Over the years, Alpha morphed into a “crash course” in the basic principles of the faith, and spread around the world.
Today, churches of every major denomination in all 50 states and 169 countries host Alpha courses; they’re also offered in prisons, homes, schools, coffeehouses, and businesses. Since its inception, Alpha course leaders say, more than 19 million people have taken the course worldwide. Some 3 million have taken the course in the United States.
Alpha’s curriculum is centered on a series of video lectures by the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, an Oxford-educated lawyer who later became a minister at Holy Trinity Brompton. He combines humor, personal reflections, and passages from a variety of theological sources to address questions like “Why does God allow suffering?” “Why and how do I pray?” and “Is Christianity irrelevant?”
Mr. Long, who left a career in finance to lead the Alpha program in the U.S., says the organization has set a goal to reach 18 million in the U.S. by 2020. In 2007, after a period of declining numbers, Alpha’s U.S. organization put regional teams in place to help support Alpha programs at local churches and promote growth. That has paid off with growth of about 20-25 percent in overall participation every year since 2007.
Among United Methodist churches, the number hosting Alpha courses peaked at 765 in 2002, decreased to about 400 in 2004, and, with 500 currently hosting Alpha courses, is now steadily increasing.
One church that has succeeded in sustaining its Alpha program is the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Some 7,500 people have taken the course since the church began offering Alpha about 11 years ago, according to Jeff Kirby, minister of adult discipleship and men’s ministry.
Resurrection’s secret: When visitors turn up at Christmas and Easter at the church, they learn about the Alpha course.
“It’s an easy invite,” said Mr. Kirby. “Alpha introduces people to the essentials of the Christian faith without holding a Bible over their heads and telling them, ‘You gotta believe right now.’”
In the course, guests feel safe asking questions — any questions, no matter how simple or challenging.
“It starts at a pre-suppositional level,” Mr. Kirby said. “We’re exploring the meaning of life, and questions like ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”
All Alpha gatherings begin with a meal and casual conversation, and that’s key.
“For many, they have a sense of belonging before they begin believing,” Mr. Kirby said.
Like other Alpha leaders, Mr. Kirby eagerly shares the numbers of guests who have taken the church’s Alpha course, but doesn’t have firm numbers as to how many actually ended up joining the church.
“I’d say the majority do,” he said, adding that many people who were already part of the church became more involved after attending Alpha.
Steve Peterson had been attending Church of the Resurrection for years, but never met Mr. Kirby until the two happened to be seated together on a flight a year ago. Mr. Kirby invited him to try the Alpha course.
Mr. Peterson liked what he saw.
“You find out that a lot of people have the same questions you do,” he said. “It’s basically just a conversation with other people who are trying to find their way. There’s no rules, no homework, it’s really non-threatening.”
Mr. Peterson had been attending church fairly regularly, but he says he was “drifting a bit” by the time he encountered Alpha. He calls the course a “spark plug to get me engaged.” He has since taught two Alpha courses at the church.
Ron Smith had a similar experience. He’d attended Church of the Resurrection sporadically for about seven years when he first took an Alpha course shortly after retiring as a police captain in the Kansas City, Missouri, police force. Now he leads Alpha courses in two prisons.
After years in law enforcement, he says he’d become “very cynical about the offender population” and had no interest in volunteering in a prison. But now, by way of his Alpha involvement, he serves through a variety of faith-related programs at the Lansing Correctional Facility, the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. He is also helping lead a faith-based recidivism reduction program at the penitentiary.
“I can only attribute all this to the Holy Spirit,” he said. “You see some real, tangible benefits to people who are desperately in need of repairing their broken lives, mending their families, becoming responsible citizens. Alpha is a pathway to better things.”
Mr. Charlton, who is now director of course development for Alpha USA, echoes that. He’s seen broken marriages healed, drug addicts turned around, lukewarm church members turned into devoted and engaged Christians.
“Evangelism is not just a great responsibility,” said Mr. Kirby. “It is so exciting to watch God transform people’s lives.”
“When you introduce people to the real Jesus, and invite them in a way that’s accessible to them, and do that in an atmosphere of hospitality and acceptance . . . it’s amazing what happens,” Mr. Charlton said.
And that’s the genius of the Alpha course, according to Mr. Long.
“Young people want the opportunity to ask questions, not to be told, ‘This is the truth, you’d better believe it,’” he said. “That doesn’t work with this culture. In Alpha, there’s no problem if you disagree. That’s OK.”
While serving in Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon encouraged churches there to adopt the Alpha course as a way of reconnecting with their communities, with good results.
“Alpha is particularly great for churches wanting to reach young adults and young professionals,” Bishop Willimon said. “It’s real. You don’t feel like you’re getting a bunch of church talk.”
At the same time, he calls the Alpha course “unashamedly theological.”
“Alpha is about Jesus,” he said. “The most interesting things we have to say to the world tend to be theological. That, to me, commends Alpha.”
A few pastors in Alabama told Bishop Willimon they felt the Alpha course was “too charismatic” and put too much stress on the Holy Spirit. That’s a concern that other Alpha leaders report hearing from local pastors. But Bishop Willimon, who’s now professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School, doesn’t see that as a problem.
“As Wesleyans, it’s kind of hard to overstress the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Several of those interviewed for this story did say they learned about the Holy Spirit in Alpha in a way they hadn’t encountered before in church.
“We’re unapologetic for talking about the Holy Spirit,” said Mr. Kirby. “Speaking in tongues is touched on . . . but it’s not presented as a high bar of Christianity.”
‘Get up and go’
Peggy Lively sees the movement of the Holy Spirit in her experience with Alpha. Fifteen years ago, she says she was awakened in the middle of the night by a voice that told her: Get up and go. In the two years that followed, she pondered the words and what they meant. Then she heard about the Alpha course.
“I had a physiological reaction,” Ms. Lively recalled. “Immediately, I knew it was what I supposed to do.”
That was the beginning of the Alpha course at Trinity United Methodist in Arlington, Texas. After 13 years, the course has introduced the Christian faith to hundreds of people. Many participants ended up joining Trinity, but Ms. Lively cautions that the course’s ultimate purpose isn’t just to bring folks through the doors.
“It’s not really there just to bring new members to your church,” she said. “But many felt they belonged here and wanted to join.”
Participants aren’t required to talk or to share during the course. “Some will take the entire course and not say a word,” Ms. Lively said. “And then at the end of the course they’ll say, ‘It’s changed my life.’”
Mary Jacobs is a staff writer for The United Methodist Reporter. Reprinted by permission of The United Methodist Reporter.