Archive: Evangelism in a new era

Archive: Evangelism in a new era

Archive: Evangelism in a new era

By Nicky Gumbel
2001
Good News

I have never been a natural evangelist. I have never found it easy to talk to my friends about Jesus Christ. Some people are completely natural evangelists; they find it the easiest thing in the world. … I’ve been looking for ways in which ordinary people like me, who aren’t naturally gifted evangelists, can communicate their faith with friends, family, and colleagues without feeling fearful or risking insensitivity. …

The Alpha course began in our church, Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London, in order to present the basic principles of faith to new Christians. It is a 10-week informal course offered to explore the basic meanings of the Christian faith. What we discovered was chat most of the people taking the course were not committed Christians, but people who were merely curious about the faith.

When Alpha first started growing I thought, “How could something that started in Central London work elsewhere?” Alpha currently runs in more than 100 countries: in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and many others.

While at an Alpha conference in Zimbabwe, I discovered that Alpha was not only running among the English-speaking white Zimbabweans but also among the Shona-speaking people in their own language. Zimbabwe has a population of just over 10 million people: there are 80,000 whites in Zimbabwe but 90 percent of the black population speak Shona. While I was at the conference l met Edward Ngamuda who had originally done Alpha in English but then thought that he would like to run the course in Shona. A couple who had come to Christ on Alpha asked him to come and run the course with the 900 people who worked on their farm. Thirty people came on the first course and 50 came on the second.

I asked him whether these people were Christians when they came on the course. “No,” he replied, “we had a Muslim, a witch doctor, and a polygamist come.” I asked how the polygamist happened to be there and was told that his first wife came on the first course, and that she had brought him and the other two wives on the next one! Edward assured me that Alpha worked better in Shona than it did in English. It was then that I began to realize that this course, which started in London, could operate in different countries and cultures. Why is this?

Evangelism is a process. Conversion may take place in a moment but it is part of a process. Jesus used the expression “born again” (John 3:3) for the beginning of a spiritual life, and the New Testament speaks about becoming a child of God. While the birth of a child may be one event, there is a much longer process before and afterwards. The Bible uses many other images to represent spiritual growth: some are taken from agriculture, others from the ideas of building or journeying. All these involve a process.

Alpha is a 10-week course involving a total of 15 talks which include a weekend and a celebration party at the end. We do not expect people to respond to the gospel after the first week (although some do). We recognize that people need time to think, watch, listen, and to talk through their questions and difficulties. Each person is beginning at a different stage.

Some are already Christians but will often say in retrospect that at the start of the course they were Christians “without any real experience of God.” Others are at the point of new birth when they begin Alpha. Some have already given their lives to Christ at the party at the end of the previous course, others at a special event before the beginning of Alpha. Still others come to faith through the witness of their family or a friend. Many are still a long way off when they begin Alpha.

Some are convinced atheists, some are New Agers, some are adherents to other religions or cults. Many are living in lifestyles which are far from Christian. … We welcome them all. Some will complete the whole course and still not be Christians at the end; … others will give their lives to Christ somewhere on the course. For nearly all of them, Alpha will enable them to take a step forward in their relationship with God.

The fact that there is a process spread over 15 sessions enables us to give longer to aspects of the Christian faith than one would be able to in one evangelistic talk. For example, in 1994 I saw a man standing at the back of the room who looked very suspicious and worried. When I introduced myself he said, “I don’t want to be here, I’ve been dragged along.” I said, “Great! Let me introduce you to 11 other people who don’t want to be here,” and I took him to meet my small group. At the end of the evening I heard him chatting to someone else in the group.

“Are you coming back next week?”

The other man replied, “Yes, I’ll be here.”

To which the first man said, “Well, if you’re coming back next week, I’ll come back next week.”

Six weeks later he said to me, “This course is like a jigsaw puzzle. Every time I come back another piece fits into place. And I’m beginning to get the picture.”

Furthermore, the fact that Alpha is a process enables trust to develop. There is a great deal of cynicism, skepticism, and distrust about the Christian church. I had no idea of the extent of this until I spoke to someone who said that for the first three weeks of the course he had not eaten the food in case it was drugged. That was an extreme case of distrust, but many people wonder if the church is after their money, their mind, or something else.

The whole person. Evangelism involves an appeal to the whole person: mind, heart, conscience, and will. Each talk is designed to appeal to all four, although in some of the talks the emphasis will be on just one.

We appeal to the mind because we believe that Christianity is based in history: on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). We seek to persuade with every argument we can muster, just as Paul did on so many occasions (e.g. Acts 18:4). We try to teach only what we can establish from the Bible and we point people to the biblical text. We do not expect anyone to take a “blind leap” of faith. Rather, we hope they will take a step of faith based on reasonable grounds.

Secondly, we appeal to the heart. Our message does not simply require an assent of the intellect to a series of propositions, but rather it calls people to a love-relationship with Jesus Christ. John Stott has written: “There is a place for emotion in spiritual experience. The Holy Spirit’s … ministry is not limited to illuminating our minds and teaching us about Christ. He also pours God’s love into our hearts. Similarly, he bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children, for he causes us to say ‘Abba, father’ and to exclaim with gratitude, ‘How great is the love the father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ … I think it was Bishop Handley Maule at the end of the last century who gave this good advice: ‘Beware equally of an undevotional theology (i.e. mind without heart) and of an untheological devotion (i.e. heart without mind).’”

Graham Cray, principal of Ridley Hall Theological College in Cambridge, England, has spoken with great insight about the culture of the 1990s, which is in the process of shifting from an Enlightenment culture to a new and coming one. In the Enlightenment, reason reigned supreme and explanation led to experience. In the present transitional culture with its “pick-and-mix” worldview, in which the New Age movement is a potent strand, experiences lead to explanation.

I have found on Alpha that those from an essentially Enlightenment background feel at home with the parts of the course which appeal to the mind, but often have difficulty in experiencing the Holy Spirit. Others coming from the New Age movement find that rational and historical explanations leave them cold, but at the weekend away they are on more familiar territory in experiencing the Spirit. Previously they will have been seeking experiences which have then left them discontented and only in experiencing a relationship with God through Jesus Christ do they find their hunger is satisfied.

The gospel involves both the rational and the experiential and it has an impact upon both those from an Enlightenment background who need to experience God and those who have sought experiences but who need to understand the truth about God.

Third, we seek to appeal to the conscience. Paul writes, “By setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). We know that every person has a conscience. Deep down we all have a sense of right and wrong. The Holy Spirit, often working through people’s conscience, convinces them about sin. Their consciences therefore are on our side. Throughout the course we are appealing to this side in urging people to repent and turn to Christ.

Fourth, we seek to appeal to the will. We recognize, of course, that no one can come to God unless he calls them. As Jesus said, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). On the other hand, Jesus went on to say in the very next verse, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). In other words, he called for a decision.

There is a difference between an appeal to the will and the wrong form of pressure. We try to avoid all forms of pressure on Alpha. We do not endlessly exhort anyone to respond, or chase people down if they do not come back: it is up to them to decide. Over the period of 10 weeks, as we pray and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work, giving people the opportunity to respond, we are, in effect, making a continuous appeal to their wills.

Dynamic and effective. On the day of Pentecost such was the power with which Peter preached that the people were “cut to the heart” and 3,000 were converted (Acts 2:37-41). The remarkable events continued: “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles …. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:43-47).

Remarkable healings followed (Acts 3:1-10). People were astonished and came running to find out what had happened (3:11). Peter and John preached the gospel with great boldness: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say” (Acts 4:13-14). The authorities had no idea what to do because “all the people were praising God for what had happened. For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old” (Acts 4:21-22).

Far from dwindling away through the period covered by the book of Acts, this spiritual dynamic continued. Even in the last chapter we read of Paul praying for Publius’ father: “His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured” (Acts 28:8-9). All the way through we see the dynamic effect of the coming of the kingdom of God accompanied by conversions, miraculous signs, healings, visions, tongues, prophecy, raising the dead, and casting out evil spirits. The same God is at work today among us. Evangelism can still be dynamic and effective.

The fullness of the Spirit. Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). On the Day of Pentecost the promise of Jesus was fulfilled and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4).

However, it did not end there. Later we read of Peter being “filled with the Spirit” again (Acts 4:8). Still later the disciples (including Peter) were filled again (Acts 4:31). The filling of the Holy Spirit is not a onetime experience. Paul urges the Christians of Ephesus “to be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) and the emphasis is on continuing to be filled.

I think that there can be little doubt that the greatest evangelist of our century has been Billy Graham (b. 1918). In his authorized biography, John Pollock tells how Billy Graham visited Hildenborough Hall and heard Stephen Olford speak on the subject “Be not drunk, but be filled with the Spirit.” Billy Graham asked to see Olford privately and Olford expounded the fullness of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. “At the close of the second day they prayed, ‘like Jacob of old laying hold of God,’” recalls Olford, “crying, ‘Lord, I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me,’ until we came to a place of rest and praising,” and Graham said, “This is a turning point in my life. This will revolutionize my ministry.”

… Those who come to Christ on the course know that a radical change has occurred in their lives because they have been filled with the Holy Spirit. This experience of God gives them the stimulus and power to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and see, firsthand, the expansion of the kingdom of God.

Nicky Gumbel studied law at Cambridge and theology at Oxford, practiced as a lawyer, and is now ordained and on the staff of Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. He is the author of the curriculum of the Alpha Course. He is also the author of Why Jesus?, Questions of Life, Why Christmas? Searching Issues and numerous other books. This article is excerpted from his book, Telling Others. © 1994 Cook Communications Ministries, Telling Others by Nicky Gumbel. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

 

Archive: The Alpha Revolution

Archive: The Alpha Revolution

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 published in 2000, Kathleen K. Rutledge was a contributing writer for Good News.

Archive: Evangelism in a new era

Archive: Praise the Lord and pass the lasagna

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.

Archive: Evangelism in a new era

Archive: The Alpha Revolution (2000)

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.