“I guess I came mainly because I don’t go to church, and I wanted to understand the Bible better,“ he says. At this second meeting of the St. Peter’s group, church members invite Geiger to enjoy a free meal with them and join a small group discussion.
“Welcome to Alpha, again,“ Father Larry Minter announces to the crowd of 65. “I hope you brought your questions.“
The group of men and women gather around tables still strewn with remnants of coconut pie, as the “Why Did Jesus Die?“ lesson begins. Alpha course (alphacourse.org) teacher Nicky Gumbel, a clergyman at Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London (htb.org.uk), begins to speak from a video playing on a large TV screen placed at the front of the fellowship hall.
“I find it so hard to admit that I do anything wrong,“ Gumbel says. Geiger identifies with the speaker: “Basically, I think I’m a good person, just like he was saying.“
Gumbel continues talking to both the audience in the cathedral on the screen and those gathered at St. Peter’s. “When people say, ‘I lead a good life,’ it depends, doesn’t it, with whom we’re comparing ourselves?“
Over the last 20 years, the Alpha course—a 15-session study of the validity and relevance of the Christian faith—has reached millions of people like Geiger. The course introduces the basics of the Christian faith through a shared meal, a large group session and a highly interactive small group discussion in which participants are encouraged to “ask anything.“
Five out of nine people in Alpha leader Mike Underwood’s small group at Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, Calif. (crossroadschurch.com), aren’t Christians. Two have never opened a Bible. But they’re asking questions about Christianity and blind faith, Underwood says. “We’re having some great discussions.“ He has learned that questions—not answers—are key to an Alpha course. “
As a leader, I have to step back and just let the discussion run. The key is getting everyone involved and making sure they know they can bring any question to the table and not be judged.“
A four-time Alpha small group leader, Gabriela de la Rosa agrees with Underwood. The free exchange of ideas and lack of judgment enables group bonding and community, she says, after leading her group’s third Alpha session at Crossroads Christian. “I believe in the safety of Alpha, which enables people to come to Christ. They have a lot of freedom to ask questions and be themselves, which is really what Christ allows us to do when we come to Him.“
The curriculum that Gumbel has reworked, and in a sense reinvented, not only tackles today’s tough cultural questions from seekers, skeptics and churchgoers wanting to learn more, it answers who Jesus is, why He died and questions about a secure faith, Bible reading, prayer, the Holy Spirit and God’s guidance.
Last year, more than 30,000 people in the United States found answers to these questions and indicated they experienced a personal life change through Alpha.
The course is running in 152 countries in 54 languages and braille with more than 7 million worldwide participants. In North America alone, nearly 1.5 million people have participated in the program over the last 10 years.
Since coming to the United States in 1996—the same year the Bishop of London appointed Gumbel Alpha chaplain—Alpha has grown exponentially. The number of U.S. churches hosting the course has increased from 200 the first year to more than 7,500 in 2005. Alpha USA (alphausa.org) now offers dozens of training conferences throughout the country each year, and has 15 offices from coast to coast. In May 2004, former Vineyard USA National Director Todd Hunter joined Alpha USA as its president, excited about the marriage of spiritual formation and evangelism that Alpha brings, he says on his blog (toddhunter.org). He calls the Alpha course “the most holistic approach to evangelization available in local churches.“
And the course has quickly spread beyond churches to include 395 youth courses, 69 prison groups, 10 military courses, 10 workplace courses and 172 campus courses.
At Harvard University, arguably some of the toughest soil for the Gospel in America, student participation in Campus Crusade for Christ has more than doubled in six years from 70 to 150, with much of the growth stemming from Alpha, according to Campus Crusade staffer Pat McLeod. McLeod told Christianity Today magazine that the community aspect of the course made it extremely appealing to students—even skeptical Ivy Leaguers.
To cultivate community, the Alpha course relies on the best of small group practices: solid biblical instruction, friendly gatherings, free meals and intimate group bonding opportunities.
Ironically, Alpha began in a country now highly unchurched. The course originated in London in 1976 as a sort of Christianity 101, designed for new Christians. Nicky Gumbel took over the course at Holy Trinity Brompton in 1990.
When 10 not-yet-believers in a small group of 13 converted to Christianity during the Alpha course, Gumbel saw the light of possibility for the lessons. He determined to use Alpha to move people from outside the Church into a life with Christ.
That year, he edited the entire curriculum—everything from the welcome and atmosphere of the small groups to the food, seating, sound and the talks—to appeal to people unfamiliar with a church setting. The goal remains to make sure the course is understandable to people who are not Christians. This is done by keeping it simple and, primarily, that means keeping the lessons free of theological language.
“Some say the course isn’t theological enough, some say it’s too theological,” Gumbel told Outreach. “We’re trying to strike a balance.”
The former barrister-turned-priest has also stripped the Alpha curriculum of contentious areas of the Bible and Christianity. “By focusing only on the basic tenets of the faith, as outlined in Scripture, we really concentrate on what we agree on [the central tenets of the Christian faith] rather than on our differences [baptism methods, etc.],” he explains.
Lessons on Christ, prayer, the Bible, the Holy Spirit and the Church are “things every Christian believes in,” Gumbel says. “I think these topics are attractive to people outside the Church, too.”
The course is also attractive to a multitude of different churches and denominations from Catholic to Vineyard, from Episcopal to Methodist, and more. “There isn’t a single major denomination that’s not running it,” he says. “Alpha is growing because there’s a spiritual hunger in every heart.”
In the United States, mainline denominations hosted the bulk of Alpha courses in 2005. According to Alpha USA, Methodists host 1,623 courses, Episcopal (1,170), Lutheran (890) and Presbyterian (720) churches accounted for almost 60% of the total with non-denominational (540), Baptist (393), Assemblies of God (252), Vineyard Churches (229) and “other” (297), making up 23%.
Currently, Alpha USA is creating an ecumenical network of churches that “own” the vision for Alpha and will serve as a resource for other church leaders in their spheres of influence. Organizers hope the network will increase awareness of Alpha that up to now has come largely from word of mouth, mailings and conferences. They’re hoping for transformation of churches right along with the metamorphosis of individuals through the course.
The fact that Alpha has taken off so well in the United States came as a shock to Gumbel. He thought there would’ve already been a large supply of similar programs available in the States. “It never occurred to me that the U.S. would want Alpha,” he says.
Rev. Phil Jeansonne of Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kenner, La. (vcfkenner.com), thought the same thing.
“I’d never heard of Alpha,” Jeansonne says. But he did know of many other evangelism and small group programs that his church had tried without success. Admittedly, he wasn’t hopeful about another.
Jeansonne’s skepticism evaporated when he saw the results. “To see completely unchurched people over a period of weeks come into a relationship with Christ,” he says, “it’s everything I’ve always wanted to see in church all my life. Alpha doesn’t manipulate. You’re not making people do anything—I think that’s the beauty of it.”
When the Louisiana congregation ran its first Alpha course in 1998, overall worship attendance averaged about 250 adults. Ten courses later, Vineyard Christian Fellowship grew to 1,300. Before Hurricane Katrina struck in August, the church planned to dedicate a new building to accommodate its rapid growth. But the building reportedly has been severely damaged by the storm and subsequent flooding.
Jeansonne attributes the church’s growth not only to the new people the Alpha course brought, but also to the way the course shifted the church’s focus from “inside to outside.”
“It has changed us as a church,” he says. “Alpha offers a non-threatening place—warm and inviting—to come,” he says. “Our church has increasingly become just like Alpha.”
Carl Mascarella, Alpha pastor at Crossroads Christian Church, has seen the same transformation in his congregation, he says. Last summer, the church hosted its first Alpha course, and more than 1,500 people showed up. More than half were from the church, Mascarella says, which was exactly what he and Senior Pastor Barry McMurtrie had hoped for.
“We want as many people as possible in our congregation exposed to Alpha,” Mascarella says, “because after someone comes and participates, they feel confident in bringing a friend or family member here.”
He adds that Alpha also ‘microwaves the pew potatoes.’
“We’ve watched members who have been in church for years attend Alpha Day (the session on the Holy Spirit), and they have a first-time encounter with God,” he says.
And for those members who do know Christ, Alpha can be a catalyst for personal evangelism.
“When you sit at a table and you’re involved in watching someone else change before your eyes week to week, it motivates you to want to do something and see more of those kinds of life transformations,” Mascarella says.
Bill Bohline, senior pastor of Hosanna Lutheran Church in Lakeville, Minn. (hosannalc.org), says the Alpha course put “a whole new set of front doors on the church.”
“Our congregation was healthy and growing before, but Alpha added rocket boosters to that,” Bohline says. In addition to bringing in new people, the course is deepening the faith of other believers in the church, he says, adding that Hosanna Lutheran’s Alpha course is primarily lay-driven and lay-led.
Seacoast Church in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. (seacoast.org/mountpleasant), has also seen exponential growth through Alpha. The multi-site church began running Alpha courses in 2001, with groups doubling and tripling each time.
“Once Alpha gets into your culture, people come by the hundreds because you have friends bringing friends,” says Gary Heinz, Alpha leader and assisting pastor at Seacoast.
When Alpha fails, proponents say it’s often because leadership is simply worn out. Alpha USA/Houston Director Scott Helma, a veteran Alpha admin-istrator at Houston’s St. John the Divine Episcopal Church (sjd.org), found many churches that persevered for two to three years and then stopped running Alpha courses. He discovered that the same course leaders were constantly serving and had burned out.
“Anyone who works in highly people-intensive businesses, especially church staff who work with volunteers, need to be refreshed every 30 days,” Helma says. In response to his findings, the Houston office created a monthly Connections gathering to refresh leaders throughout the area.
Mascarella stresses that Alpha’s success is directly proportional to how much training the leaders and helpers go through. “No matter how many Alphas a leader has done, they have to go through new on-site training at our church each time. One of the things I learned from Alpha is that you have to take training seriously.”
Another cause for failure stems from a change in the formula. Steve Wood, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C. (samp.cc), says that often churches experiencing difficulty or little success with Alpha have altered the critical components for the course’s atmosphere.
“The purpose of Alpha is not to make an argument and defense of the faith,” Wood says. “It is to provide a place for people to explore their questions.”
Dr. Tom MacMahon, minister at Midland Heights United Methodist Church in Fort Smith, Ark., and Northwest Arkansas conference director for Alpha, cautions other church leaders against changing any facet of the course.
“Don’t omit the meal or the weekend away or the teaching on the Holy Spirit,” he says. “When people change it and say, ‘It didn’t work for us,’ you just want to cry.”
Lay-leader Angela Fraire of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Louisville makes sure everything related to the Alpha course at the church goes by the book. She’s heavily invested in the program—the first of its kind she has seen in 18 years as a member of the congregation. She even put her home phone number on the radio, print and TV ads for the Alpha course, because she didn’t want potential callers to miss signing up due to the church’s part-time office hours.
“I got a lot of calls,” Fraire says. She registered several of the 100-plus callers for the course. While most of the group is from the church, a typical demographic for a first course, she estimates 10 to 12 unchurched people are there, as well. The goal to bring in new people was a difficult sell for the small congregation. But Fraire, Father Minter and others are hopeful.
“We’re hoping we get more people from outside the church,” says long-time member Rosie Taylor, 66. “I love my church because they welcome everyone.”
But even the church members at St. Peter’s are clearly deepening their faith at the study. The small group discussion turns to a reference Gumbel made to the correlation between the sacrificial lamb and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
“I didn’t know that,” Niki Blevins says. The young mother of two has been attending St. Peter’s for a year-and-a-half after a neighbor invited her. She says she was also talked into coming to Alpha, but that Gumbel’s talks have captivated her into returning.
“I’ve never heard anybody speak like that guy,” she says. The small group discussion turns to the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Newcomer Jim Geiger joins in readily.
“The whole story represents one thing—[God] will take you back,” Geiger says.
“What made the son come to his senses?” Father Minter asks.
Geiger responds immediately: “He got hungry.”
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