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," he says. In 1991, four Alpha courses drew 600 people. In 1997, an estimated 500,000 attended courses around the world. Gumbel and Alistair Hanna, a former corporate consultant and now head of Alpha North America, believe that by the year 2001 some 50,000 Alpha courses could be held yearly in the United States and Canada.

"I like to say that the biggest denomination in America is the unchurched," Hanna says. "There are 86 million of them. We don't need to poach from each other. We can actually go out and find people who don't go to church at all." Hanna envisions an Alpha course for every 5,000 residents of North America. But he says, "We won't be as good as McDonald's and say we've got an Alpha course within four minutes of you." An infectious enthusiasm, entrepreneurial spirit, and a bold plan for growth are all trademarks among Alpha's top leaders.

Article continues below

But not everyone is cheering Alpha onward. Some church leaders have found Alpha teachings too charismatic, too experience-driven, and too negative about traditional churches. Martyn Percy, director of the Lincoln Theological Institute for the Study of Religion and Society of the University of Sheffield, England, has commented about Alpha that it is "a package rather than a pilgrimage." In a recent essay, he said, "It is a confident but narrow expression of Christianity, which stresses the personal experience of the Spirit over the Spirit in the church."

The ten-week Alpha course bears some theological similarity to the bestsellers Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis, and Basic Christianity, by John Stott. But Alpha is significantly different, and it is its distinctives that have drawn criticism. For example, there is a strong emphasis on class attendees inviting the Holy Spirit to fill them. Gumbel says individuals are not required to speak in tongues, but it is very common for Alpha attendees to do so.

CHURCH-BASED EVANGELISM: Since Alpha is designed to be run in local churches, the program makes extensive use of promotional endorsements from prominent church leaders as well as emotional testimonials on how Alpha has transformed lives.

The Alpha program calls for congregations to rethink their approach to evangelism. Instead of offering church-based community events or services that might expose nonbelievers to a congregation, Alpha instructs leaders on how to use an invite-your-friends model to stimulate interest in Christian doctrine.

"We don't try to get people who are not interested," Gumbel says. "The reason they have an interest is not because they have an interest suddenly in Christianity, but because of what happened to their friend on the previous course."

The Alpha system at first blush seems overly simplistic. The acronym stands for: A—Anyone interested in finding out more about the Christian faith; L—Learning and Laughter; P—Pasta (eating together gives people the chance to know each other); H—Helping one another (small groups are used for discussion of issues raised during the lectures); A—Ask anything. No question is seen as too simple or too hostile.

However, Alpha, in the hands of skilled church leaders, has succeeded in many cases in turning faithful churchgoers from an inward focus on church work to an outward focus on evangelistic outreach through relationships, networking, and invitations to Alpha events. In Gumbel's words, Alpha stimulates a "virtuous circle" that spreads outward, allowing churches regularly to break into new networks of unchurched, unevangelized people.

Article continues below

During the past six months, Alpha North America has held leadership-training conferences in Vancouver, British Columbia; and Overland Park, Kansas; among other places. In 1998, similar two-day events are scheduled at other venues around the United States. (Information is available from 1-888-949-2574).

Many people first experience the Alpha course as a series of videotapes featuring the telegenic Gumbel. But for a good half of the 450 people who attended an Alpha leaders conference in the suburbs of Kansas City in January, their first glimpse of the self-effacing, humorous speaker was in person.

The two-day Alpha conference trains people to run an Alpha course. In some ways the conference resembled Alpha's signature Holy Spirit weekend, featuring contemporary worship music; back-to-back talks by "the two Nickys"—Gumbel and his lifelong friend, Nicky Lee, also an Anglican priest; dramatic testimonies by Alpha converts; and charismatic prayer sessions during which some people speak in tongues or fall prostrate on a carpeted floor.

Gumbel described Alpha's approach as a conscious effort to touch both minds and hearts with the gospel. Each plenary session included testimonies from people who became Christians or had their faith deepened through involvement with Alpha.

Keith Prestridge of Overland Park gave a brief talk on the first evening, striding toward the platform in a black leather jacket. Prestridge talked about leading a "punk rock, acid jazz" band known as the Screaming Beagles. Prestridge followed the ultraviolent philosophy of a character in Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange until he dropped in one morning during worship at a Vineyard Fellowship service. Prestridge offered a pugilist's description of Alpha's Holy Spirit weekend: "They laid hands on me, and I knew release, you know? I know those of you who have felt the Spirit know what it's like. It's like being in a good fight and suddenly being knocked out."

The Kansas Alpha conference attracted a cross-denominational group, including seven members of the Salvation Army. Maj. Ron Gorton of the Salvation Army in Kansas City, Kansas, says he became acquainted with Alpha because Salvationists in England have operated courses.

Article continues below

Gorton says he and other Salvationists are discussing whether the Alpha course will meet their needs as they make changes in the Army's substance-abuse recovery program. "The things that God is teaching through this course are very similar to what he has been teaching us through our drug-and-alcohol program," Gorton says. "God has taught us that we need to break down this barrier of 'us and you.' "

Most testimonies at the Alpha conference focused on experiences at its Holy Spirit weekends. Hairdresser Mark Walker of Rogersville, Missouri, spoke about being delivered from two decades of drug addiction.

"After 21 years of drug abuse, three rehabilitation centers, two mental institutions, and two passes through jail, I decided I needed to change my life," he says. Walker missed a few of the first Alpha sessions, but then he went on the weekend retreat. "Late in the evening I laid in the back of my pickup truck and asked God to fill me with the Holy Spirit," he says.

BAPTISTS ADJUST ALPHA: Alpha courses have been held in about 50 countries. Although many have been held in Anglican, Vineyard, or independent charismatic churches, Alpha is gaining a foothold internationally among Roman Catholics, Baptists, and other faith groups.

One of the most expensive neighborhoods in Canada is the west side of Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver itself is one of the most secular cities in North America, and church growth, when it happens, is slow.

But Sally Start, a member of Vancouver's Dunbar Heights Baptist Church, began inviting a handful of her neighbors to join her in watching the Alpha videos a couple of years ago. Two of those neighbors have since joined the church and are now helping her run Alpha, which has since moved into the church with the leadership's blessing. About 20 new people have expressed interest in taking the next Alpha course. That is a hefty proportion for a church of only 50 people.

One of Dunbar Heights' newer members is 43-year-old Don Macdonald, an accountant who, barely a year ago, was a self-described atheist. His wife had been a long-time member of the church.

"Sally challenged me" to take the course, he says. By the time he finished, "I just couldn't believe there wasn't a God." From there, salvation through Christ resulted. "My heart finally convinced me."

"Our experience has been that none of [the participants], by the time they finish the course, are able to say anything other than Christianity is true," says Start. Not all of them make Christian commitments within the course, and of those who do, not all stay at Dunbar Heights. Some find that church too conservative and go elsewhere. "We're making a difference from a kingdom perspective, and that's what we keep focusing on," Start says.

Article continues below

Alpha's openness to questions allows people to experience learning about the Christian faith in a way that is not threatening.

Some have had "toxic" religious experiences in the past, says Start. They need to be able to say what they think and be accepted for who they are. Others have a "refreshing na•vetŽ" about the Christian faith. They do not carry the same "inhibitions" as people who have been raised in the church.

One of the young women helping to lead the Alpha course was having trouble conceiving. A bout with cancer and surgery made it less likely that she would become pregnant. The Alpha group prayed for her, and just before Christmas she gave birth to a baby boy. Start says, "I'm not sure if outside Alpha we would have prayed."

Start and her pastor, Darcy Van Horn, are cautious about Alpha's teaching on the Holy Spirit. "There seems to be more of a stress on the gift of tongues than I think is biblically warranted," says Van Horn.

"I'm a little leery of people who are not yet saved being pressed to be filled with the Spirit." Repentance is necessary before that should take place, he says. Van Horn is not bothered enough by the Holy Spirit teaching to dismiss Alpha altogether, however. "We have at times worked around that a little bit," he admits. Other pastors have done the same thing, despite Gumbel's emphasis on the importance of not modifying the curriculum.

In a society where faith is viewed as a private matter, Van Horn is pleased to provide a means for Christians to express what they believe. "One of my goals is to see people in the church equipped to share the gospel where they are," he says. "Not everyone is comfortable with that. Alpha gives them a practical way to fulfill their responsibility to evangelize."

EXPERIENCE OVER REASON? The Alpha approach has been faulted for pushing an experience-driven approach to evangelism that sidesteps intellectual difficulties. Yet Peter Horton, Rick Richardson, and a team from the interdenominational Church of the Resurrection in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, have found Alpha useful in reaching Generation X, young adults in their twenties and early thirties.

"Anything you do with Generation X needs to be relational," says Horton. "You have to show them that Christianity applies to things that they are struggling with and is relevant for them."

Article continues below

The Alpha structure is built to encourage relationships. "You bring your friends to Alpha and you start with a meal, which builds relationships," Horton says. Paula Karrasch, a recent college graduate, took part in Alpha a year ago. Karrasch says, "The meal forced me to talk to people. I couldn't hide. I had to relate to people."

The participants in the course are also divided into small groups from the beginning and attend a weekend get-together. "The purpose of the small group is to build community and relationship," says Horton. "It's meant to be a place where people can be open and ask questions."

Horton stresses the importance of authenticity and relevance in relating to Generation X. "Our personal stories of our relationships with Jesus are really important in showing them who Jesus is. I'm myself, being authentic and real. I think Generation X really wants to hear my story so they can see if it really works for me."

"Rick told a lot of stories from his own life," says Karrasch. "I could see he wasn't this perfect, crystal clear Christian." They also watched a Mr. Bean video in which British comedian Rowan Atkinson falls asleep repeatedly throughout an Anglican church service. "It related to me as I didn't know what was happening in church. I could identify with Mr. Bean."

Alpha uses both apologetics and personal stories to communicate its evangelistic message. "Generally, Generation Xers are not interested in apologetics," says Horton, "but are very interested in personal stories or narrative." Horton believes that the stories bypass the "cynicism of Generation X."

Horton says, "It's not proof that they want, but experience. Typically, they're not asking me to prove that Christ died. They're more interested in what impact Christ will have on their lives.

"One of the principles of Alpha is that evangelism involves the whole person, the head, the heart, and the will," says Horton. Accordingly, the Alpha course allows participants to encounter God in many different ways. "It's an opportunity for them to explore Christianity and see whether it can address their needs."

QUESTIONS OF GUMBEL: More church leaders and scholars have questioned the Alpha program as it has gained a higher profile, and many of the criticisms have been focused on Alpha audio- and videocassettes. Gumbel says the definitive Alpha curriculum is his book Questions of Life, and all ten Alpha teachings have been further revised and revideotaped.

Article continues below

Nevertheless, a lengthy critique of Questions of Life has been published in the January 1998 Episcopal Evangelical Journal. In his review, Roger Steer, a British author, faults Gumbel for downplaying the sacrificial nature of Christian living, for selectively quoting Scripture, and for portraying established churches as "dreary and uninspiring."

Steer in part focuses on Gumbel's selective scriptural quotation concerning speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:5, Paul says, "I would like everyone of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy" (NIV). However, in Questions of Life, Gumbel says, "Not every Christian speaks in tongues. Yet Paul says, 'I would like everyone of you to speak in tongues,' suggesting that it is not only for a special class of Christians. It is open to all Christians. … If you would like to receive it, there is no reason why you should not." Steer asserts that Gumbel is wrongly suggesting that it is normative for speaking in tongues to accompany infilling of the Holy Spirit.

During a lengthy interview, Gumbel discussed Alpha criticism, saying, "We haven't got everything perfect. Alpha is alive. It's not fixed. That's why we revideoed [the Alpha lectures], because we were trying to respond to criticisms." He says when there is another printing of Questions of Life he usually makes editorial changes, based on suggestions from church leaders.

Gumbel says Alpha materials avoid using the word charismatic because "we don't regard it as charismatic; it's just what we see as Trinitarian." Some leaders believe Alpha has too much about speaking in tongues, Gumbel says, while others say there is not enough. But Alpha's aim, he says, is to hold together the theological streams represented by its teaching on the sacraments, justification by faith, and infilling of the Holy Spirit.

Because Alpha's home base has been in the United Kingdom, church leaders there have the most experience with the course program. And to date, their enthusiasm is not flagging.

For 1998, they plan the unprecedented initiative of inviting every unchurched person in the United Kingdom to an Alpha course in October. Gumbel says, "There is an Alpha course within striking distance of everyone in the U.K. and within walking distance of most." The effort has the potential to transform many of the nation's churches into hothouses for evangelistic outreach. "That's the vision," Gumbel says. "We hardly dare even mention it. We're trying to keep our heads down. The higher the profile the more people are out there trying to knock it."

Article continues below

Meanwhile, Alpha North America's Alistair Hanna is searching for 5,000 church leaders to attend one of the ten training conferences this year. He says Alpha is not a "magic bullet."

"It's a lot of work," Hanna says. "It takes sustained effort and faith. One of the things that quite often happens is after you've worked your way through your church, the next [Alpha] could be very small." Hanna says one pastor had only seven people show up for his third Alpha course. "He realized that this wasn't going to do anything for anybody if he didn't get people out, having friends bringing friends."

With reports from Doug LeBlanc, Overland Park, Kansas; Debra Fieguth, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; and Mary Cagney, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.