When Nicky Gumbel began teaching the Alpha course in 1990, originally intended for new Christians, the Oxford educated barrister-turned-Anglican-priest soon discovered that many students were not Christians at all. They were, however, spiritually curious.
After mulling over how to meet their needs, Gumbel and leaders from his parish, Holy Trinity Brompton, where the Alpha course began in 1977, restructured and reworked the course curriculum so that non-Christians would be able to understand the basics of Christianity.
The revised course, as spelled out in Gumbel's book Questions of Life, does not begin with well-known theological categories and issues of doctrine. Its starting point is instead the experience of many nonbelievers that Christianity seems "boring, untrue, and irrelevant."
The impact on attendance was explosive. "Every talk is aimed at somebody who is outside the church," Gumbel says. "When we did that, we found that the numbers just rocketed." Holy Trinity's most recently concluded Alpha course drew 1,200 people, one of the largest groups ever, for the course's celebration dinner, an event that functions both as course climax and kickoff for the next round of instruction.
Alpha's full impact is no longer focused solely at Holy Trinity Brompton, a Church of England parish that is one of the most influential evangelical and charismatic congregations in Europe. Starting in 1993, Gumbel and Holy Trinity leaders released Alpha materials to churches throughout the United Kingdom first, and then to the rest of Europe, North America, and worldwide.
Global growth rates for the number of Alpha courses and attendees initially stunned Gumbel. "It was an amazement to us that it would work in any other church outside our own," ...