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: Crash Course – Alpha courses offer basics of Christian faith

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: Crash Course – Alpha courses offer basics of Christian faith

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: Crash Course – Alpha courses offer basics of Christian faith

Archive: Why does God allow suffering

Archive: Why does God allow suffering

By Nicky Gumbel
November/December 2001
Good News

Glenn Chambers, a young New Yorker, had a lifelong dream to work for God in Ecuador. At the airport on the day of departure, he wanted to send a note to his mother, but he didn’t have time to buy a card. He noticed a piece of paper on the terminal floor and picked it up. It turned out to be an advertisement with the word “Why?” written across it. He scribbled his note around the word “Why?” That night, his airplane exploded into the 14,000-foot Colombian peak, El Tablazo. When his mother received the note after the news of his death, the question burned up at her from the page: “Why?”

The issue of suffering is the most frequently raised objection to the Christian faith. We are constantly confronted by suffering. “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation,” writes theologian John Stott in The Cross of Christ. “Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair.”

First, we see suffering on a global scale. There are natural disasters: earthquakes, famines, and floods. The suffering that results is often pervasive and arbitrary. The two world wars focused our attention on global suffering in an acute form.

Second, we see community tragedies. Almost daily we read or hear of a plane crashing, a ship sinking, or some other disaster affecting the lives of hundreds of people.

Third, suffering at an individual level affects us all to a greater or lesser extent: bereavement, sickness, handicaps, broken relationships, unhappy marriages, involuntary singleness, depression, loneliness, abject poverty, persecution, rejection, unemployment, injustice, fierce temptation, and disappointment. Suffering can come in an endless variety of forms, and no human being is immune from it.

It is worth noting that suffering is not a problem for all religions. It is an acute problem for the Judeo-Christian tradition because we believe that God is both good and all powerful. C. S. Lewis stared the opposing argument succinctly: “If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”

Theologians and philosophers have wrestled for centuries with the problem of suffering, and no one has ever come up with a simple and complete solution. The Bible is primarily a practical book, and it never addresses this issue systematically in a philosophical way. What we see are a number of approaches to the problem, all the way through from Genesis to Revelation. There seems to be four main overlapping insights, and we shall look at each of them in rum.

1 . Human freedom. Suffering is not part of God’s original created order (Genesis 1-2). There was no suffering in the world before humanity rebelled against God. There will be no suffering when God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21). There will be no more crying and no more pain. Suffering only entered the world because Adam and Eve sinned. It is, therefore, an alien intrusion into God’s world. If all suffering is a result of sin, directly or indirectly, why did God allow sin to enter the world?

He did so because he loves us and wanted to give us free will. Love is not love if it is forced; it can only be love if there is a real choice. God gave human beings the choice and the freedom to love or not to love. Given this freedom, men and women from the beginning have chosen to break God’s laws. The result has been suffering.

Again, as C. S. Lewis puts it: “It would, no doubt, have been possible for God to remove by miracle the results of the first sin ever committed by a human being; but this would not have been much good unless He was prepared to remove the results of the second sin, and of the third, and so on forever. If the miracles ceased, then sooner or later we might have reached our present lamentable situation: if they did not, then a world, thus continually underpropped and corrected by Divine interference, would have been a world in which nothing important ever depended on human choice, and in which choice itself would soon cease from the certainty that one of the apparent alternatives before you would lead to no results and was therefore not really an alternative.”

Suffering as a result of our own sin. Some of the suffering we endure is the result of our own sin. At times, suffering is the inevitable consequence of breaking God’s law. There are physical laws of nature; for example, a hand put in the fire gets burned. In this context, pain acts as an early warning system when we exercise wrong choices. There are also moral laws. God made a world built on moral foundations, and there is a natural connection between sin and its consequences. If a person abuses drugs, addiction may be the consequence. A person who drinks excessively may eventually suffer from alcoholism. If someone drinks and drives a car recklessly and injures himself, his injuries are partially the result of his sin. In a similar way, selfishness, greed, lust, arrogance, and bad temper often lead to broken relationships and unhappiness of one sort or another.

Suffering as the result of others’ sin. Job’s friends thought his suffering must be the result of his sin – but they were wrong (Job 42:7, 8). Jesus expressly repudiates the automatic link between sin and suffering (John 9:1-3). He also points out that natural disasters are not necessarily a form of punishment from God (Luke 13: 1-5). The apostle Peter draws a distinction between suffering as a result of our own sin (“a beating for doing wrong,” I Peter 2:20) and suffering that has no connection with our sin (“unjust suffering,” vs. 19,) or suffering “for doing good” (vs. 20).

Much of the suffering in the world is the result of other people’s sin. This is true of many global and community disasters. So much suffering is caused by war, which is always the result of human sin, even if the sin is on both sides. Much of the starvation in the world is caused by the unequal distribution of the world’s resources, civil war, or some other human sin.

Likewise, individual suffering is often caused by the sin of others – murder, adultery, theft, sexual abuse, unloving parents, reckless or drunken driving, slander, unkindness, or selfishness of one kind or another.

Suffering as a result of a fallen world. It is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin that “thorns and thistles” entered the world (Genesis 3:18). Ever since that time “the creation was subjected to frustration”(Romans 8:20). Natural disasters are a result of this disorder in creation. Human freedom does not always answer the question of why a particular individual or nation suffers so much, but it does help explain the origin of suffering. All suffering is the result of sin, either directly as a result of my own sin or the result of someone else’s sin, or indirectly, as a result of living in a fallen world.

2. God works through suffering. Suffering is never good in itself, but God is able to use it for good in a number of different ways.

First, suffering can be used by God to draw us to Christ. C. S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world … No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to a final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”

This has proved true time and again in Christian experience. We meet those who have only begun to think about God as a result of suffering the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, or some other pain in their lives.

Second, God uses suffering to bring us to Christian maturity. Even Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). God uses suffering to build our characters. One image used by the New Testament is that of the discipline of children. The writer of Hebrews says that “our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). He points out that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ).

Peter uses a completely different image: that of a metal worker refining silver and gold. He writes that his readers may all “have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (I Peter 1:6). He goes on to explain why God allows this: “These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (I Peter 1:7).

Our temptation would be to say to God, ‘‘I’m quite happy as I am. Please leave me alone.” But, as C. S. Lewis points out, that would be to want God to love us less:

“Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble; he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life – the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child – he will take endless trouble – and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.”

Third, God often uses suffering to bring about his good purposes. Paul tells us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We see an example of this in the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). He suffered from rejection by his close family and separation from those he loved. He was forcibly removed to Egypt, away from his father, whom he did not see again for twenty years. In Egypt, he was unjustly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. For 13 years, he faced trials, temptations, and testing. At the age of 30, he was made ruler over Egypt and was in a position to save the lives not only of his family, but also of all God’s people. Towards the end of his life, he was able to speak of his suffering to his brothers, saying, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

It is not always easy to see at the time what God is doing. Earlier on in his life, Joseph would not have been able to see it so clearly. Often we cannot work out what is going on or why we are suffering in the way we are.

3. God provides a future. Anglican Bishop Gavin Reid of Maidstone, England, tells of a boy in his congregation who shattered his back falling down the stairs at the age of one. For years, he had been in and out of the hospital. When Gavin interviewed him in church, the boy remarked that “God is fair.”

Gavin stopped him and asked, “How old are you?”

The boy replied, “Seventeen.”

“How many years have you spent in the hospital?”

The boy answered, “Thirteen years.”

He was asked, “Do you think that is fair!”

He replied, “God’s got all of eternity to make it up to me.”

God has indeed all eternity to make it up to us, and the New Testament is full of promises about how wonderful heaven will be. All creation will be restored. Jesus will return to earth to establish a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). There will be no more crying, for there will be no more pain and suffering. We will change our frail, decaying, mortal bodies for a body like that of Jesus’ glorious resurrected body. We shall be reunited with all those who have died “in Christ,” and we shall spend eternity together in the presence of the Lord. As Martin Luther once said, “I would not give one moment of heaven for all the joys and riches of the world, even if it lasted for thousands and thousands of years.”

We live in a materialistic world that has almost entirely lost its eternal perspective. We need to take a long-term view and understand the suffering of this life in the context of eternity. This is not “pie in the sky when you die.” As the theologian Alister McGrath points out in his book, Suffering: “If the Christian hope of heaven is an illusion, based upon lies, then it must be abandoned as misleading and deceitful. But if it is true, it must be embraced and allowed to transfigure our entire understanding of the place of suffering in life.”

4. God is involved in our suffering. We must be prepared to acknowledge that there is no simple definitive answer to the “Why?” of suffering. Instead, we may approach the problem from a different perspective: God is a God who suffers alongside us.

This fourth insight is perhaps the most important of all. I once heard John Stott say, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the Cross.” God is not a God who is immune from suffering. He is not looking on as an impassive observer, far removed from the suffering world. We see that throughout the Bible and, supremely, we see it in the Cross. He is, in Tertullian’s phrase, “the crucified God.” God was “in Christ,” reconciling the world to himself (II Corinthians 5: 19). He became one of us; he suffered in all the ways in which we suffer. He does not just know about suffering – he has suffered himself. He knows what we are feeling when we suffer.

In 1967, a beautiful athletic teenager named Joni Eareckson had a terrible diving accident at Chesapeake Bay that left her a quadriplegic. Gradually, after the bitterness, anger, rebellion, and despair, she came to trust the sovereignty of God. She built a new life of painting (using her mouth to hold the paintbrush) and public speaking. One night, three years after the accident, she realized that Jesus empathized with her completely. It had not occurred to her before that on the cross Jesus was in a pain similar to hers, unable to move, also paralyzed.

The knowledge of Christ’s suffering removes what Jurgen Moltmann has called the “suffering in suffering.” We are not alone in our pain. When we suffer, he suffers with us.

How do we respond to suffering?

In the midst of suffering, we need to hold on to our hope. This life is always a mixture of battle and blessing, and in times of battle, we need to remember that the battles do not last forever, and often blessing is just around the corner. Whether it is or not, we can be sure that one day we will go to be with the Lord forever. Meanwhile, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Him (Hebrews 12:2), knowing that he is more than able to sympathize with us because He has suffered more than we ever will.

When we see others suffering, we are called to show compassion. In the face of great suffering, attempts to rationalize can be counterproductive. Usually, the most positive thing that we can do is to put an arm around the person and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12: 15).

We are right to resist suffering because, as we have seen, it is an alien intrusion into God’s world. Jesus fought against suffering wherever he came across it. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He saw his ministry in terms of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and releasing the oppressed. We are called to follow in his steps.

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 Brampton 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? Telling Others and numerous other books. This article is adapted from his book, Searching Issues. Reprinted with permission of the author.


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

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.