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Alpha courses: a global franchise with slick packaging and dubious contents? by Graeme J. Davidson, June 2003

Thrown out of an Alpha course for questioning its theology

I was thrown out of an Alpha course
Listen, learn, discuss and discover. And ask anything. Alpha is a place where no question is too simple or too hostile”, is what the promotional material on the Alphacourses.org site claims.

My experience was otherwise. I was thrown out of an Alpha course for questioning its basic theology. I had gone to the course in good faith and with an open mind, and acted according to what the promotional material said. I even posted a huge Alpha advertisement outside my house. Yet the reason the course leader gave was, “You're upsetting others on the course who aren’t able to cope.” In other words my questions were too difficult and hostile for this Alpha group.

Answer to flagging church attendance?
Since former self-confessed atheist and lawyer the Rev Nicky Gumbel took over the Alpha courses at Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London, UK in 1990 and stamped them with his marketing style, Alpha quickly spread. According to a Crosswalk report, the British research organization, Christian Research estimates over 3.8 million people worldwide attended an Alpha course by the end of 2001. That would indicate that there are over 5 million who have attended at this stage. There are now 26,000 churches, involving most mainline denominations, running Alpha courses in 52 languages and 132 countries and the number is growing. Is this the answer to flagging church attendance and galloping secularisation? Is it the modern day equivalent of John Wesley’s 18th Century revival campaigns?

There are plenty who answer ‘yes’ and sing the praises of the well-crafted basic 10-week, 15-session course that aims to introduce the Christian message to the wider public through dinners, teaching presentations and discussion groups on questions like, ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘How can I resist evil?’

Typical of the promotional comments on the official Alphacourse.org site are those of taxi driver Bearne Keane, “I say to passengers, 'Go along and try it. It doesn't cost you anything. It is like ten evenings out at the theatre'!" Peter is quoted on the Australian Alpha site as saying, “Alpha explains a lot of things and I get to listen to people talking about a lot of different topics and the group are lovely people.”

There have been plenty of positive press articles, like the one featured in the December 28, 1998 New York Times headed Crash Course in Christianity Is Winning Over Churches and the Wayward or this one that appeared in the Cincinnati Post on 18 November, 1998: Church leaders praise innovative Alpha course. The Alpha web site proudly features selected quotes from the media in the same way that entertainment promoters select review quotes to bolster sales.

New Zealand Director of Alpha, Ray Muller, in the June 2003 Alpha New Zealand Update confidently states, “After seven years of Alpha in New Zealand it has become recognised as a proven means of introducing people to the basic questions of faith. Using the recipe, Alpha works!”

How the Alpha recipe works
How does the recipe work? And how effective is it? Alpha is about Christian evangelism, an outward rather than inward looking Church, yet has the look and feel of a global franchise. It uses standard branding, course material, leader training, as well as modern marketing and advertising techniques. Like a commercial enterprise, promotional material emphasises the benefits of courses. Through selected personal testimony and media quotes it encourages people to join a course. It also trains and networks with those who are already committed on how to invite others and make them welcome. In this Alpha is very successful.

Not the methods of the apostles
Nevertheless, unlike the apostles, who used every opportunity to evangelise, Alpha evangelism is restricted to those who attend the controlled environment of an Alpha course. Alpha web sites contain no free course material. Nor is there anything for those who are seeking immediate answers to questions or those who are reticent about exposing their true doubts and concerns in front of their friends and neighbours at an Alpha group. Anyone who is interested has to go to a course, which are usually held at a local church, school or college if you are a student, or, if you are a prison inmate and the prison authorities have approved the course, at your penitentiary.

Unlike the New Testament that records how some people were argumentive, disappointed, angered or disbelieving of what they heard, don’t expect to find accounts in the Alpha promotions of the numerous people who didn’t benefit from an Alpha course, were angered, disbelieving, found the courses inappropriate, or who were put off Christianity.

Nor will you find stories of those who left their local church because Alpha dominated to the point where it had taken on a cult status and its resources and spiritual leaders quoted like a fifth gospel. Nor are there personal testimonies from those who avoid Alpha churches. There are several of these Alpha refugees in our local congregation. Nor will you learn of churches that tried Alpha, but despite careful preparation, found that people weren't interested or found the courses wanting for their needs. That happened to our congregation.

Neither will you find published information from the Alpha organisers about those who are critical of the underlying theology or a reasoned response from Alpha's spiritual leaders to those criticisms. It’s a typical marketing approach of ignoring the negative because a response will give recognition to the criticism and confuse prospective clients. This is in sharp contrast to the New Testament accounts of how Jesus and the Apostles argued and reasoned with those who disagreed with them.

Christian version of McDonalds
The success of the Alpha packaging has been likened to a Christian version of the McDonalds fast food chain. Everyone gets similar fare, with minor local variations that fulfill a popular need. There is a very limited diet that isn’t nutritiously satisfactory for the long term – and may not be all that healthy either. Perhaps that’s because it’s only a brief introduction to the faith, hence the title ‘Alpha’ from the first letter of the Greek alphabet.

What happens in the aftermath of an Alpha course worries many. Unless a congregation has in place ways of absorbing Alpha ‘graduates’ the enthusiasm generated during the course wanes and the graduates can become disillusioned or leave the Church feeling more cynical than before. ‘I enjoyed Alpha. It was great to examine questions with others. However, my job and going to the local Church soon brought out all the old doubts and boredom has set in again. It makes me feel like I was sort of conned’, was how one scientist felt several years after attending two Alpha courses. Alpha organisers are aware of this and encourage follow-up cell groups, other courses and the training of Alpha graduates as discussion group leaders for future courses.

Web resources
For a short critical analysis of the principles, strategies and methods of Alpha go to Evaluating Alpha by Gordan A. Lewis. This article is a reprint from the British Christian Research Institute.

In the February 1998 edition of Christianity Today, Timothy C. Morgan, explains Alpha and some of the debate at that time in The Alpha-Brits Are Coming A British course for non-Christians aims to transform North American evangelistic outreach. A later article in the same magazine in October 1999 describes how Prison Alpha Helps Women Recover Their Lost Hopes while LaTonya Taylor reports in another feature during November 2001, that Alpha was the fastest growing Adult course in the USA, but that its adaptability was generating both praise and concern: Adaptable Alpha Course Draws Praise and Worry.

Many are concerned about Alpha’s strong evangelical and Pentecostal/charismatic bias, especially its association with the Toronto Blessing.

MainStream reproduces an article from the Times of May 11, 1996 entitled Woman Leads Church Boycott In Row Over Evangelical Pig-Snorting. The article states that, ‘Angie Golding, 50, claims she was denied confirmation unless she signed up for the Alpha course, which she says is a "brainwashing" exercise where participants speak in tongues, make animal noises and then fall over.’

Dusty Peterson and Elizabeth McDonald in an article headed The Powers behind the Alpha Courses and republished in August 2002 in Better than Rubies, argue that Alpha is closely linked to the Toronto Blessing, but that this is often not revealed in Alpha publicity.

In an article published in Personal Freedom Outreach entitled, The Alpha Course: Final Answer or Fatal Attraction, G. Richard Fisher examines the association with the Toronto Blessing and other issues associated with Alpha in some detail.

The Deception in the Church website also carries an article and links that look at the question of Alpha’s association with the Toronto Blessing and other issues under the heading: The Dangers of the Alpha Course.

An article in Oak Tree by William J. Cork looks at the question, Is"Alpha for Catholics"? and argues that it has an individualist Christianity, a Congregationalist ecclesiology, an evangelical perspective on the sacraments, and a charismatic agenda. He concludes, 'Alpha does not fulfill the expectations for Catholic catechesis and evangelization, and presents what Catholics must see as an impoverished and distorted Gospel. It is not "basic Christianity," but is Charismatic Protestantism'.

A number of people have analysed and made critical comments on the Alpha Course resource material, especially the videos and book, Questions of Life written by Nicky Gumbel.

Jonathan Bayes, Pastor of the Independent Evangelical Church, Stockton-on-Tees in Teesside in the UK has produced, Questioning 'Questions Of Life':A Theological Assessment of the Alpha Course in Diakrisis.

Writing in Bible Training Ministries, K. B. Napier comments: The Alpha Course Analysis Part 1. A Critical Evaluation (Based on 'Questions of Life' Chapters 1-3).

In the Theologian, Wendy B. Howard, Editor of Despatch Magazine, who attended an Alpha conference at St. Matthews, Sherwood Anglican Church Brisbane, Australia during 1998, analyses the content of the conference in an article entitled The Alpha Course — Friend Or Foe?

The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association argues that in a feature titled A critique of the Alpha course's attitude towards homosexuality that the Alpha course takes a misinformed view of homosexuality.

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© Graeme Davidson 2003