Alpha Leader’s New Role

Alpha Leader’s New Role

Alpha Leader’s New Role

Since 2005, the Rev. Nicky Gumbel has been the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London – the largest congregation in the Church of England. He is also the popular leader of the Alpha course currently being utilized in 30,000 churches of all denominations – including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Pentecostal – in 130 countries.

Gumbel, 66, announced his retirement from the congregation that he and his wife Pippa have been part of for 46 years. “I believe the best is yet to come – for you, for the church, for all of us,” he said in his farewell sermon. He said that he and Pippa will continue their work with Alpha and – in association with new HTB leader, the Rev. Canon Archie Coates – encouraging and resourcing the more than 125 church congregations that HTB has planted through its partnership with dioceses across the Church of England and the Church in Wales. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood,” he preached in his sermon from Acts 20:28. “This is not our church. This is God’s church.” 

Good News Media Service. Photo: The Rev. Nicky Gumbel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, in 2003. Photo by Steve Beard.  

Archive: Evangelism with the Never-Churched

Archive: Evangelism with the Never-Churched

Archive: Evangelism with the Never-Churched

By Jack Jackson –

Last Christmas season, my family walked through the downtown community where we live. In one of the store windows we passed were a small set of woodcarvings that included a baby, two adults right next to the baby, three kingly-looking persons nearby, and a scattering of cows, donkeys, and ducks. I still am not sure of the significance of the ducks, but we were looking at a crèche.

One of my children’s friends pointed out the Nativity scene. He said it was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Cows never hang out with ducks, much less people, he said.

“What is this?” he asked.

My wife responded by saying it was the Nativity scene.

“What is that?” came the response.

“It is the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable.”

To which our friend said, “Never heard of it.”

It is not necessary to recap the growth trends of people leaving Christian places of worship. Recent polls suggesting that 20 percent of U.S. citizens have no connection to any religious tradition surprise few. Most of us also know that there are people in our communities, like my child’s friend, with virtually no awareness of the basics of the Christian gospel. And yet evangelistic and missional practices in many churches seem to assume an awareness of the Christian story that clouds effective evangelism.

While “unchurched” was the term to describe the majority of people outside of the church a generation ago, a term that better describes people not part of a church is “never-churched.” This term reflects the reality that new generations did not grow up as part of a community of faith, and in turn never became part of a church to leave. Evangelistic ministry that brings never-churched people into the Christian faith and initiates them into the reign of God is different than in the past.

Seen as a Journey. Evangelism is a journey, not a moment. Over the past century, evangelism came to be seen as a quick process where people heard the gospel and were expected to make an instant response of conversion and faith. Churches today that effectively incorporate never-churched populations realize discipleship, and in turn evangelism, takes time.

Servant evangelism has grown in importance in recent years, and will continue to do so, because it acknowledges that many never-churched people truly see the church as first and foremost out for itself. Servant evangelism is a practice that seeks to serve individuals and communities regardless of their ultimate response to the gospel, while at the same time inviting people to faith or into a community of faith. Servant evangelism links practices that serve (such as handing out free water bottles at a community event or cleaning up a neighborhood after a storm) with the reasons why people serve (living out the gospel through a local church), and an invitation (to faith and/or to a local community of faith).

Yet servant evangelism exemplifies the reality of evangelism as a journey. Most people don’t respond to the gospel story the first time, but rather must hear the story multiple times before knowing enough to even “awaken” to the idea that faith is important. Evangelism in never-churched populations that assumes instant conversion to be normative is destined to feel hollow to those who hear the message. The normative path toward repentance and faith is one that meanders through the ups and downs of life for a season, facing questions and doubts, and that in time draws people to a place where they can make real, life-changing turnings towards Christ.

Clearly Relational. Evangelism in never-churched populations looks more like a series of coffee-shop conversations that builds a friendship between people, and ultimately invites them into friendship with God, as opposed to a streetcorner evangelist announcing that Hell is the destination for all who don’t profess Christ.

Churches are encouraging the relational aspects of evangelism in a number of ways. Some offer a simple Q and A time with the preacher after the sermon. Others establish an online forum for those more comfortable in a digital environment. Other churches find that never-churched people will often help serve at community work projects such as Habitat for Humanity; the door is open for church volunteers to have conversations with those outside the church while they work together to help others. Still other churches design a small group ministry that is as much for those who don’t believe as for those who do, so that never-churched persons can address their questions and doubts, which are often much different from those of long time Christians.

Centered on Listening. Churches that acknowledge and build evangelistic ministries around the first two traits are then ready to incorporate the critical next three traits of evangelism, the first of which is listening. In never-churched populations, listening requires the most emphasis. Many people imagine an evangelist as one who only proclaims the gospel, but it is important to listen first.

Churches today are listening in a variety of unique ways. Some churches set up tables at community events that specifically ask, “How has the church hurt you?” And the church people at the tables simply listen to stories and apologize. They don’t argue and they don’t defend, they simply apologize for how the church has hurt people. Other churches invite guest speakers, not always Christians, to speak at special events on contemporary issues, providing a forum through which church leaders can hear the questions and concerns of never-churched persons. Most importantly, churches are building into small groups and pastoral responsibility an environment for never-churched people to tell their stories before hearing the story of Christ. By listening, evangelists will learn the thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams of those evangelized, allowing the evangelist to articulate the gospel in pointed ways appropriate to those persons and their specific concerns.

Deliberate Articulation. Listening is never the end of Christian evangelism. Listening must be accompanied by a specific articulation of the gospel and an invitation to life in Christ. Churches that articulate the gospel to never-churched populations do two things very well.

First, they make no assumptions about what others know of the gospel and their commitment to God in Christ. The lack of biblical knowledge and awareness is well documented in contemporary Western culture. Yet Christians who journey with others in their life, build relationships, and listen to other’s stories, know which basic aspects of the gospel must be articulated with specific people, and can over time articulate Christian hope, repentance, and faith. Second, these churches clearly identify the gospel’s uniqueness, even as they acknowledge the church’s failings. Critical to evangelism of never-churched populations is a clear and specific articulation of the revelation of God in Christ.

Blossoming from this articulation is the invitation to this gospel story.

Intentional Invitation. Invitation to repentance and faith has been part of evangelism for many years, but in never-churched populations, the invitation to awakening and sanctification is critical as well. John Wesley understood the first phase of discipleship as a gradual awakening from the “natural state” to a place of awareness that God might be real and that Christ was perhaps the unique representation of God on earth. If someone was in the “natural state,” then the invitation and subsequent response to the gospel represented an awakening. People were then invited to repentance and faith, and finally to an ever-deepening relationship of love in sanctification. Still today, the invitation is not to experience instantaneous conversion, but to take the next step on a journey of faith.

One tool that many churches find helpful for invitation is The Alpha Course. Alpha is a short course on Christianity that helps people intentionally engage the Christian story in a relational community where their questions can be addressed and where they are invited to awaken, repent, and believe, and then grow in holiness. While many churches tweak Alpha to fit into their own theological spectrum, its emphasis on a natural and personal invitation to Christ is effective for many churches.

Conclusion. These five traits of evangelism with the never-churched today build on methods that were central to early Methodist evangelism. Spiritual maturation from ignorance to awakening, through an evangelical conversion from repentance to faith, to the culmination of Christian discipleship, namely sanctification, was clearly seen as a journey. Wesley, of course, never believed justification to be the endpoint of Christian discipleship, but rather a precursor to sanctification. Some early Methodists were only “awakened” for a few weeks before repenting. But some spent years struggling with faith, sharing their questions and fears, all within a relational community that listened, and then proclaimed the gospel and invited them to life in Christ.

When evangelism is seen as a journey lived in relationships, never-churched persons can address their questions, hear the gospel articulated, and then respond to the invitation to take the next step in faith.

Jack Jackson is the E. Stanley Jones Assistant Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology. This article originally appeared in the Circut Rider and is reprinted by permission.

Archive: Evangelism with the Never-Churched

Archive: Crash Course – Alpha courses offer basics of Christian faith

Archive: Crash Course – Alpha courses offer basics of Christian faith

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.

Low-key approach. 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.

Lives transformed. 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.”

‘Too charismatic’? 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.’”

When this article was published, Mary Jacobs was a staff writer for The United Methodist Reporter. Reprinted by permission of The United Methodist Reporter.

Archive: Evangelism with the Never-Churched

Archive: Alpha sweeping the globe

Archive: Alpha sweeping the globe

July/August 2002
Good News

More than 3.8 million people thought to have completed the Alpha course around the world in the last six years, according to a report released by a London-based British research organization, Christian Research.

The organization also found that 742,000 people have done the Alpha course in the United States-nearly half a million of them in the last two years.

The report emphasizes that the figures can only be described as “estimates” and concluded, “The total worldwide Alpha attendance to the end of 2001 is estimated at 3.8 million people, of whom just over a million attended in the single year 2001.”

The report singled out the growth in the United States for special mention, concluding, “The growth of Alpha in the United States is phenomenal” and that, “It is growing faster than in the UK.” It also concluded that churches running Alpha in the United States “are holding more courses per year as time has passed.”

There are now more than 4,225 churches registered as running Alpha in the United States compared with just 2,300 at the end of 2000. They are from a wide variety of denominations, including Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Baptist, United Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Independent, Vineyard, Pentecostal, and many others.

The research also found that not only is Alpha spreading to more and more churches across the country, but that those churches which are already running the course are doing so more often. As well as running it three times a year, they are running courses for youth and students, as well as daytime courses.

The research estimated that 301,000 people have completed Alpha in Canada and 250,000 in South Africa.

Gen-Xers attracted to Alpha. Thousands of young people in their 20s and early 30s are attending Alpha courses all over the United Kingdom, the Christian Research survey revealed.

The survey shows that an estimated 22,000 people under the age of 35 attended Alpha courses in the UK in the fall of 2001. At the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, London, where the course began, around 2,000 people under the age of 35 – more than 75 percent of those taking part – have completed an Alpha course during the past year.

The results came at the same time as another survey revealed that the largest percentage of churchgoers in Britain are currently aged 65-74.

Commenting on the figures, Alpha speaker Nicky Gumbel said, “The church has often struggled to reach people in their 20s and 30s. Yet we have been astonished by the large numbers in those age groups that have been coming to Alpha.

“For the past four terms, we on our own course have done a graph of the age range and each term it has looked very much the same. What this shows is the potential that Alpha has to reach people in those age groups.

“We have learned a great deal over the last few years about how to reach those groups and one of our key aims now is to pass on that information at the Alpha conferences and training events which we are now organizing across the world.”

Thirty-four percent of the United Kingdom’s population is now aged from 15 to 34 and 20 percent from 25 to 34.

Christian Research surveyed 1,022 churches running Alpha courses and concluded that the average age of those attending Alpha is currently 41. Meanwhile, a survey of 100,000 churchgoers in England conducted by The Churches Information for Mission (CIM) on one particular Sunday – April 29, 2000 – showed that the 25-34 age group represented only eight percent of churchgoers that day. By far the largest percentage of churchgoers were aged between 55 and 74, with the most between 65 and 74.

Adapted from Alpha News. This news article appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Good News.



Archive: Evangelism with the Never-Churched

Archive: Throwing a Lifeline to Church Dropouts

Archive: Throwing a Lifeline to Church Dropouts

By Richard Ostling
July/August 2001
Good News

During a lifetime cut off from organized religion, Aubrey “Mac” McCray had gone through three failed marriages and three desperate tries with Alcoholics Anonymous before he reached sobriety. An A.A. friend invited the retired auto worker to visit the Vineyard Community Church in the Cincinnati suburbs, and there he reached a turning point.

McCray heard about a course just starting at Vineyard for those who know little about the faith or aren’t sure what to believe. It’s called Alpha and could be described as Christianity 101. An insider jokes it might just as well be called “Agnostics Anonymous.”

At the tenth and final Alpha session, “the tears just came rolling out like a flood broke loose,” McCray recalls. “I couldn’t stop. It’s just hard to describe.” Alpha “softened my heart,” he says.

As a result, this Easter was McCray’s first as a baptized member at the Vineyard. “It changed my life,” he says.

McCray was one of 16 people who testified to Alpha’s effectiveness in March when the Vineyard held a two-day conference promoting the program to U.S. clergy and lay leaders. The projected attendance at 42 such presentations scheduled around the country this year is 16,000.

Thanks to Alpha, housewife Sandy Ventura also celebrated her first Easter since baptism, at the Covenant Fellowship in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. She says that before taking the classes she believed in God but, “I didn’t have a relationship with him.”

Now, she says, it is “like a whole new life beginning for me. “

Most responses are less dramatic. But Alpha has undoubtedly cut a swath in the eight years since the concept spread beyond Holy Trinity Brampton church in London, which had quietly run Alpha courses since 1977.

Roughly three million people in many Christian denominations worldwide have now attended, including nearly 500,000 in the United States, where work began in 1996. Both those totals have doubled the past two years. Now, some 17,000 congregations participate.

No one is more astonished by this surge than the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, 45, Alpha’s wiry leader and curate of Holy Trinity, located in the fashionable Knightsbridge section of the British capital.

“None of this was really planned. All the way along, it has been responding to a demand out there,” he says.

Public interest, if not demand, was sparked in Britain when a spiritual takeoff on the “Survivor” show, hosted by Sir David Frost, hit commercial television this summer.

The series tracked 10 Londoners week by week as they respond to Alpha sessions at Holy Trinity and reconsider Christianity.

In England, where worship attendance is low and getting lower, Alpha has “revolutionized many churches and made many new Christians,” Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey told a Billy Graham evangelism conference last August.

Similar enthusiasm is spreading among clergy in the United States, where the plan seems to fit all sorts of churches.

At an Alpha event in Cincinnati, Ohio, local Episcopal Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr. said, “The Alpha program is a marvelous gift to the church throughout the world.”

Baltimore’s Roman Catholic Cardinal William Keeler says he has heard “wonderful testimony” about results from Catholic sessions.

Top Evangelical Protestants – including Bill Bright, Tony Campolo, Charles Colson, and Pat Robertson – have added their endorsements.

A noted layman, pollster George Gallup Jr., told a Philadelphia meeting that through Alpha, “I have seen lives transformed, as mine has been.”

Less reverentially, the Financial Times calls Alpha “a slick global conversion machine.”

For all the hallelujahs, Alpha uses a wholly unremarkable format. People are simply invited to meet weekly to enjoy a friendly free meal, listen to Gumbel on video, or a live speaker chat about basic beliefs, then break into small discussion groups for a half hour.

Though everything is carefully designed to attract seekers and dropouts, Alpha presents an uncompromising conservative message.

On the subject of Easter, for instance, the course insists that Jesus rose physically from the dead, and rebuts one by one the objections to this belief-that miracles can’t happen, or Jesus wasn’t really killed, or somebody must have stolen the corpse, or the apostles were hallucinating when they met him alive again.

As for lifestyle, Alpha teaches that Christians shouldn’t marry outside the faith, sleep together before marriage or dabble in the occult. And the manual guiding discussion leaders on typical questions has a chapter that says homosexual activity “goes against God’s created order.”

What church people think will appeal to outsiders is usually wrong, observes Holy Trinity’s head priest, the Rev. J. A. K. “Sandy” Millar. He assigned Gumbel to run Alpha in 1990 and says his assistant reoriented the course toward people with no previous Christian involvement by reading thousands of questionnaires from Alpha attenders.

Gumbel was well suited to the task, as a thoroughgoing skeptic who converted to Christianity at Cambridge University after reading the New Testament straight through.

The Gumbel-era Alpha seeks to bring people’s doubts to the surface rather than suppressing them. The first session is boldly tided, “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant!”

Group leaders are directed to keep their opinions to themselves the first five weeks. Instead of the conventional Bible studies that Alpha formerly used, no-holds-barred discussions now draw out honest questions and problems.

Attendees are told they’re free to drop out at any time. Those who do are not hounded with follow-up calls.

The course materials give clear, logical answers to challenges against Christianity, reflecting the years both Gumbel and Millar spent as barristers before entering the clergy. But Millar says efforts to reach the mind aren’t sufficient. “The heart is important. The experience of God is important.”

U.S. plans

Alpha’s U.S. outreach is administered from New York City by Alistair Hanna and a staff of 19. Hanna, an Episcopalian, left a senior partnership with McKinsey management consultants in 1997 to become the unsalaried executive director.

His ambitious plan calls for expansion from the current 3,000 U.S. congregations offering Alpha courses to 20,000 within three years or so; then he foresees moving beyond church word-of-mouth to draw “the person in the street” through advertising. He wants to double the budget – currently$ 1.5 million – each year.

“There were plenty of naysayers” when the program was launched in the United States, but it has clearly caught on across church lines, he says.

The Alpha course has reached into 113 countries and 34 languages, says Tricia Neill, executive director at world headquarters in London. She is the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s company that operates trade shows.

The growth will continue, Neill predicts. “We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Richard Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine. Reprinted with permission of the  Associated Press.