Phillip Meagher knew Peoria Heights Congregational needed help.

When Meagher was hired in 1997, the 94-year-old United Church of Christ congregation in central Illinois was shrinking. Only four adults had joined in 1996, and older members were dying off rapidly. Meagher decided to use the increasingly popular relational evangelism program, the Alpha Course, in premarital counseling. He hoped couples who married at the church would become members.

Peoria Heights Congregational is not alone. The Alpha Course is "the fastest-growing adult education program in the country," according to church analyst Lyle Schaller.

More than 3,300 churches in the United States are using the 15-session curriculum, which came to the States from London's Holy Trinity Brompton church in 1996 (ct, Feb. 9, 1998).

Meagher is among many church leaders who find that Alpha's lay-led, relational format fits many contexts. But this adaptability has drawbacks, too, some observers say. Gordon Lewis, a senior professor of theology and philosophy at Denver Seminary, applauds Alpha's methods and much of its content. Yet he wishes Alpha emphasized salvation through grace alone, and the Bible as the only inerrant Word of God.

"I am concerned that the Catholics could add tradition, the Mormons could add the Book of Mormon, the Christian Scientists could add Mary Baker Eddy, and the Seventh-day Adventists could add Ellen G. White," Lewis says.

"We advise people to tailor Alpha in minor ways to their local needs," says Alistair Hanna, executive director of Alpha North America. "Alpha is a tool adapted to the job that you're trying to accomplish."

Alpha has worked as a church-growth tool. A recent Presbyterian Church (USA) study found that 58 percent of churches using the ...

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