The autumn has come and yet again we have embarked upon another Alpha course – if my records are correct, then this must be the 30th such course in which I have been involved. Last Monday some ten ‘punters’ turned up – not as many we have sometimes had, but nonetheless a welcome number. Of the ten, three appear to be Christians who have brought along their partners. The remaining seven are searching for ‘the meaning of life’.
Alpha is an amazing phenomenon. Started in 1977 by Charles Marnham, a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, initially it was a course for church members on the basics of the Christian faith. Subsequently developed into a ten week course by John Irvine, another curate at Holy Trinity, it became more focussed on non-churchgoers. In 1990 Nicky Gumbel, then also a curate at Holy Trinity, took over the running course, and oversaw its revision and expansion. And what an expansion! More than two million people went on an Alpha Course last year – a 29 per cent increase on the previous year.
A report by Christian Research revealed that 2.3 million people attended an Alpha Course in 163 countries in 2011, nearly a third more than in 2010. A total of 19.6 million guests have now attended Alpha globally since the course started in 1993. Alpha has grown in every region of the world, but most particularly in Asia/Pacific where 31% more people attended courses in 2011. For instance, the number of courses in India has almost doubled from 11,323 in 2010 to 20,075 in 2011. The research also revealed that Egypt doubled the number of guests from 5,040 in 2010 to 10,206 in 2011; the numbers attending Alpha in Ukraine grew from 1,140 guests in 2010 to 6,300 in 2011; and in Nigeria the number of courses grew from four in 2010 to 65 in 2011.
Today there is not just the basic Alpha course, but also Student Alpha, Youth Alpha, Alpha in the Workplace, Alpha for Seniors, Alpha for Forces, Alpha for Prisons, and Alpha for ESOL.
Alpha has not been without its critics. Some have criticised Alpha for its undoubted charismatic emphasis – and yet, although not encouraged by Nicky Gumbel, the reality is that the course can be taught from a non-charismatic perspective (this is particularly true if the videos are not used). Others, particularly those within the Reformed wing of evangelicalism, have complained that Alpha does not adequately define sin – although I am not convinced of this, the reality is that there is space for those running the course to talk in greater depth about the nature of sin. While others of a more liberal persuasion have argued that Alpha is too narrow-minded – according to one critic it “leads people into a self-centred religion which is not the same as the genuine Christian discipleship”.
Personally, I am grateful to God for Alpha – for Alpha has been the means for an increasing number of people in Chelmsford finding faith in Christ. True, the course is not perfect – here in Chelmsford, for instance, we have changed the outline in one crucial respect: because I believe that the resurrection of Jesus deserves a session of its own (as distinct from being covered on the same evening as the person of Jesus), we have put together two later sessions on Christian discipleship – which in turn has resulted in our guests having more time to focus on the specifically evangelistic aspects of the Alpha course.
Furthermore, although there are other good courses available such as the ‘Y’ course and ‘Christianity Explored’, in one crucial respect Alpha wins hands down. Alpha has a major recognition factor which no other course has. Indeed, according to an Ipsos Mori poll conducted in the autumn of 2011, 25% of British adults recognise Alpha. Even more significantly, according to an Ipsos Mori poll in 2010, ‘nearly four million Britons, who have not done the course, expressed some degree of interest in it’. As a result, when we advertise an Alpha course on our church web-site, there are always takers. Indeed, of the current ten people attending our Alpha course, six had no connection with our church – they came because they discovered we were running an Alpha course.
I believe that God is at work through Alpha – and so, I am more than happy to be involved in Alpha courses. Indeed, I would say, ‘Thank God for Alpha!’