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The Alpha Course—an Evaluation

by William J. Cork, D.Min.

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  • Description:
    One of the fastest growing evangelization programs in Evangelical and Charismatic Protestant circles these days is the "Alpha Course," developed over 20 years ago at a charismatic Anglican parish in London, Holy Trinity Brompton, and currently directed by Nicky Gumbel. It has been promoted to Catholics in the United States for six years by ChristLife Catholic Evangelization Services in Baltimore, which claims that "hundreds of Catholic parishes" are now using it. The purpose of this paper is to describe the process and content of the "Alpha Course", and to evaluate whether "Alpha", either in its original form or in the "Alpha for Catholics" model, should be recommended to Catholic parishes looking for evangelization tools.
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Oak Tree, Unknown

What Is Alpha?

Alpha presents itself as "a basic introductory course to the Christian faith." According to the ChristLife website, it

The program consists of ten weekly meetings including a meal, a talk, and small group reflection; there is also a retreat and a celebration dinner, which serves as the introduction for the next cycle of the course.

Outline of the Alpha Course

Alpha Dinner: Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?

1. Who Is Jesus
2. Did Jesus Die?
3. How Can I Be Sure of My Faith?
4. Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
5. Why and How Do I Pray?
6. How Does God Guide Us?

WEEKEND RETREAT

Who Is the Holy Spirit?
What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
How Can I Be Filled with the Spirit?
(followed by prayer for "the gift of tongues")
How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?
(followed by a "Communion" service)

7. How Can I Resist Evil?
8. Why and How Should We Tell Others?
9. Does God Heal Today? (small group time replaced by a "practical healing session.")
10. What About the Church?

Alpha Dinner: Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?2

Alpha claims that there are currently 5000 courses being offered around the world. The Alpha webpage lists over 60 sites in the counties covered by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, sponsored by churches of diverse background: Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Vineyard, Disciples, Foursquare, and three Catholic parishes.3

The Houston Catholic parishes hosting Alpha use "Alpha for Catholics," as developed by ChristLife and a Catholic Alpha Office in the UK. This is not a Catholic adaptation of the Protestant program, but is the Protestant program with Catholic teaching presented afterwards as a supplement. As the British office says, "Catholic Alpha uses the Alpha course as it stands, but recognizes that for Catholics, and those wishing to become Catholics, much more teaching is needed after Alpha. Courses such as Exploring the Catholic Church and Drink from the Wells of the Church may be used as the first step in the sharing of specifically Catholic teaching." 4

The basic thrust of Alpha is to communicate the essentials of the Christian faith, with its understanding of God the Father, of Jesus Christ—his incarnation, death and resurrection—and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the historic faith expressed in the ancient creeds. Alpha is, therefore, compatible with Catholic teaching, but does not address the role of the Catholic Church in the proclamation of the gospel or in its teaching on the sacraments. In addition, the current teaching is deficient with respect to Catholic ecclesiology.5

The question of the sacraments receives a fuller response further on. "On the question of sacraments, Alpha is seriously deficient from a Catholic point of view. Only Baptism and the Eucharist are recognized explicitly." They quote Nicky Gumbel as saying, "Teaching on the sacraments is limited, in the sense that we only teach on Alpha what all the major denominations and traditions are agreed about."6

This has led to criticism that "the Catholic bits are just ‘tacked on’ to a Protestant message." The Catholic advocates of Alpha reject this characterization. "What some see as the tacking on of Catholic convictions as an after-thought can be seen by others as preaching the basic Gospel kerygma followed by an introduction to the fullness of Christian faith."7 They urge us to see that this is a "polished and refined"8 program that has been tested, and is successful. Rather than taking what someone else has developed and making it into something else, "Is it not wiser, more Christian, and more ecumenical to accept gratefully the grace of God in Alpha from our Anglican brothers and sisters and supplement it with full Catholic teaching?"9

Despite that attempt at a response, the question remains: Can Catholic evangelization really be done in such a way that certain items distinctive to Catholicism can be somehow detached from what Evangelical Protestants believe to be "the basic Christian truths"?

We must also look at the specific content of the Alpha program itself. As we have seen, ChristLife claims that in its presentation of these "basic Christian truths," "Alpha is compatible with Catholic teaching." The UK Catholic Alpha Office says, "Catholics who have read the Alpha material have found it to be remarkably free from anything, which we might object to." Are these claims valid?

Evaluation of Alpha

An evaluation of Alpha materials reveals that Alpha does not offer simply "basic Christian truths" common to all, but presents specific teachings on the Church, the Sacraments, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that constitute the theology of the Charismatic Protestantism which gave birth to Alpha.

An Individualistic Christianity. Alpha presents a gospel which is reduced to "me and Jesus," and the Church becomes merely a gathering of people who have come to faith in Christ. The order of the Course speaks volumes. First the individual believes in Jesus, then he reads the Bible, prays, is filled with the Holy Spirit, is encouraged to speak in tongues, is given Communion, told to resist evil, learns about and experiences faith healing — and only then does the Alpha Course mention the Church!

A Congregationalist Ecclesiology. Gumbel presents the Church as a "three-tier structure of celebration, congregation, and cell." The "celebration" is the Sunday gathering. What he calls the "congregation" is a more intimate setting in which it is "possible to know most people and be known by most. It is a place where lasting Christian friendships can be made. It is also a place where the gifts and ministries of the Spirit can be exercised in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, where people are free to risk making mistakes. The congregation is a place where individuals can learn, for example, to give talks, lead worship, pray for the sick, develop the gift of prophecy, and pray out loud." The third level, or "cell," is "the small group." The universal Church in this schema is simply the sum total of congregations and individuals who claim the name of Christian.10

An Evangelical Perspective on the Sacraments. In its effort to present only what "all agree on," Alpha leaves out five sacraments. And what it says about the remaining two is still problematic. In Questions of Life, Baptism is mentioned in only one small paragraph which emphasizes that it is "a visible mark of being a member of the church." "It signifies [emphasis added] cleansing from sin (1 Corinthians 6:11), dying and rising with Christ to a new life (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12), and the living water that the Holy Spirit brings to our lives (1 Corinthians 12:13)."11 The Eucharist is presented in Reformed terms as a reminder of a past event, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. It is also said to be an anticipation of heaven, a reminder of the unity of the Christians gathered, and a "look up" to Jesus, who is present "by His Spirit." Gumbel specifically rejects a sacrificial understanding of Eucharist in his discussion of the "priesthood of all believers." Christian leaders may be called "priests," but "not a sacrificing priest."12

Significantly, "Holy Communion" is separated entirely from Church membership. Alpha is said to be evangelization of the unchurched, and Catholics are told to consider it as "precatechumenate," yet the weekend retreat (held about halfway through the course), is to conclude with "Communion" (and this before either the Church or Sacraments are ever mentioned in the course).13 The process is described by Nicky Gumbel:

After the break we sing a song of praise. We have an offering which covers the cost of those who could not afford to pay for all or part of the weekend. … I then explain the communion service (along the lines of Questions of Life, pages 228-229). This is a good opportunity to teach about the central service of the Christian faith. We then invite anyone who knows and loves Jesus Christ to receive Communion, should they wish, regardless of their denomination or background. We pass round the bread and drink, asking those who do not wish to receive it for some reason to pass it on to their neighbor. Many comment on the beautiful simplicity and unity in this, and some experience God’s love for the first time as they relax and receive Communion.14

A Charismatic Agenda. If we compare the amount of space given to different topics, we see that Alpha is not interested in giving "common Christian teaching" but is in fact advancing a specific theological agenda. Contrasting the one small paragraph on Baptism, and the two pages on "Holy Communion," with the eight pages on "speaking in tongues"15 and sixteen pages on "healing,"16 we get a truer sense of what Alpha is about. Though Gumbel says not all have to speak in tongues, he encourages people to ask for it, and then to start speaking, starting with a limited vocabulary and developing the "prayer" "language."17 The extensive chapter on healing presents the distinctive claims of the "signs and wonders" school of thought associated with John Wimber. Recall that these chapters precede mention of the Church (understood in a congregationalist way) or the sacraments (reduced to two, and understood in an Evangelical way). Recall as well that Catholics are told that "denominational distinctives" must be left out of Alpha, which only wants to present "common Christian teaching." Clearly the claim is false.

An Anglican Criticism

As mentioned out the outset, Alpha was developed by a parish of the Church of England, Holy Trinity Brompton in London. From Anglicanism, it has spread to other Christian groups. Yet one of the first detailed criticisms of the course came from an Anglican source—an M.A. dissertation written by Rev. Mark Ireland, Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Lichfield, in the year 2000. Ireland questioned the 426 parishes in the diocese about the evangelization programs they were using, and then his Bishop followed up with a letter to the parishes which used Alpha, asking if they had any concerns. "The main theological areas of concern centred on lack of teaching on the sacraments, social ethics and the resurrection, and the perceived over-emphasis on tongues, physical healing and substitutionary atonement." These issues were then raised in a meeting between Ireland and the Area Bishop of Shrewsbury with Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton.18

The greatest concern voiced by the Anglicans who replied was the lack of adequate teaching on the sacraments. The Area Bishop of Stafford commented, "…there is a danger I believe that a fairly minimalist understanding of the Eucharist in the Alpha material I have seen (but not used) is somewhat restrictive of one of the greatest well-springs of Christian spirituality and experience. And it was (is) the memorial that the Lord gave of His Passion (as St. Paul says!)." Gumbel and Millar gave no ground on the objection. Gumbel ducked the question by noting that Alpha is used "by both Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army, whose understanding of the sacraments differs totally," and that "we should rejoice" in this. "What is written about baptism and holy communion in Questions of Life has been carefully scripted to enable as far as possible Roman Catholics, Baptists and the Salvation Army to all feel comfortable using it." And Millar emphasized that those who want to add their own teachings, are free to do so afterwards.19

Another concern was the emphasis on tongues—and this, Ireland says, was raised by clergy at charismatic churches. Again, Millar and Gumbel rejected the criticism and said they were trying to steer a middle course between the Pentecostals who insist on tongues and others who reject it.20

In the discussion of these and other issues, Ireland comments,

…I am struck by how in our discussion they were both rather defensive: they had an answer prepared for every point and did not give any ground—either no change was necessary, or they had already made slight amendments here and there, or the problem identified was the fault of the user. … This reflection is crystallised for me in the fact that after our meeting I came away with a sheaf of notes and a list of actions to follow up, whereas Gumbel and Millar left with no notes and no actions to follow up. They were very keen to encourage and support us in making Alpha work at local level, but the core product was clearly non-negotiable.21

Gumbel was especially resistant to the idea of local adaptation, speaking of the need for uniformity and consistency, citing a market example: "If I went to McDonalds in Moscow and was given a ham sandwich, I would say that’s not on." Ireland observes that a couple of years earlier Pete Ward had published an article entitled, "Alpha—the McDonaldization of Religion?" "Gumbel will have been aware of this critique," he says, "yet he still chose to cite McDonalds in support of the need for uniformity in Alpha wherever it is offered." While this can be beneficial, providing an accessible tool for those without the ability to develop their own program, "The downside of this approach is that it teaches people how to use a product rather than how to do evangelism. This reinforces dependence on the source of the product … and is a classic feature of the behaviour of multi-national corporations." Ireland refers to Ward’s critique that "Alpha offers people ‘the illusion of religion’, in that membership of a local church and regular Sunday worship are simply not like Alpha." This is akin to what some have referred to as the "Disneyfication" of religion.22

Ireland suggests that the individualistic emphasis is one of the most serious sins of Alpha—and one of the most pervasive. "It is perhaps significant that the logo on the front cover of all the Alpha materials is of an individual wrestling alone with a big question. There is something quite individualist about Alpha which resonates with our culture, but loses something of the corporate nature of faith …."23

And these questions are given oversimplified and incomplete answers, which he notes Martyn Percy criticized as a sort of "‘Join-the-dots’ Christianity." Percy comments that Alpha’s "basics" "turn out to be a largely inerrant Bible, a homely and powerful Holy Spirit, and an evangelical atonement theory, and not the Trinity, baptism, communion or community." Alpha, he says, is "a package, not a pilgrimage," and is "salvation by copyright."24

Ireland is not wholly negative on either Alpha in particular or "process evangelism" courses in general. Over 61% of the parishes in his diocese use some form of such a course, resulting in "1,377 people having come to Christian faith, commitment or confirmation." Courses such as these have been tools enabling parishes to see their ministry as one of evangelization, and to recover ancient practices of catechesis. "In a society where for the majority of people conversion is a journey or a gradual process, every church needs a nurturing group where enquirers are able to belong before they are asked to believe, to ask whatever for them are the big questions about life, and to explore the Christian faith." The effectiveness lies, he says, not in the particular brand, but in the idea of process and journey, and all published courses have similar effectiveness rates. With any such tool, adaptation, balance, constant improvement, and follow-up courses which go deeper are necessities.25

Alpha and Evangelization in light of the General Directory for Catechesis

But let us now look at the other question which is fundamental to the "Alpha for Catholics" approach. We are told to accept Alpha "as is" and to leave Catholic "distinctives" for a "supplemental course." Is this methodology legitimate, when we look at the guiding documents for Catholic evangelization and catechesis? What can we affirm in the approach of Alpha, and what should concern us?

The General Directory for Catechesis says, "It is the task of catechesis to show who Jesus Christ is, his life and ministry, and to present the Christian faith as the following of his person…. The fact that Jesus Christ is the fullness of Revelation is the foundation for the ‘Christocentricity’ of catechesis: the mystery of Christ, in the revealed message, is not another element alongside others, it is rather the center from which all other elements are structured and illumined." GDC 41. If Alpha does anything well, it is this; and this is perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity. It is meant to introduce an inquirer to the person of Jesus Christ.

We can affirm as well Alpha’s desire to include a number of elements that the Vatican 2 decree Ad Gentes saw as vital to evangelization: "Christian witness, dialogue and presence in charity (GDC 11-12)," and "the proclamation of the Gospel and the call to conversion (GDC 13)." Catholic Alpha acknowledges that from this must follow more detailed catechesis through the catechumenate and initiation into the Catholic community. The GDC speaks of "essential moments" in the process of evangelization, and we can affirm that an initial proclamation to non-believers and the unchurched is going to be distinct from the catechesis of those already introduced to Christ, and for which it lays the foundation. GDC 47

Primary proclamation (the responsibility of all Christians) implies "a going-out, a haste, a message," while catechesis "starts with the condition indicated by Jesus himself: ‘whosoever believes,’ whosoever converts, whosoever decides. Both activities are essential and mutually complementary: go and welcome, proclaim and educate, call and incorporate." Alpha could be seen as an attempt to accomplish the first. But though primary proclamation and catechesis are distinct, we cannot rigidly separate them, and that is what Alpha seems to suggest by saying that "distinctives" must be left to a "supplementary" program. There must be some content, which provides the basis for the decision to follow Christ; thus the GDC speaks of a "kerygmatic catechesis" or a "pre-catechesis," which paves the way for "a solid option of faith." GDC 61-62. We are to have "a single program of evangelization which is both missionary and catechumenal." GDC 277

The object of catechesis is communion with Jesus Christ. Again, we can affirm the central emphasis of Alpha. "‘The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ.’ All evangelizing activity is understood as promoting communion with Jesus Christ. Starting with the ‘initial’ conversion of a person to the Lord, catechesis seeks to solidify and mature this first adherence." GDC 80

However, the GDC insists that his initiatory catechesis must be "a comprehensive and systematic formation in the faith." We are to aim for "a ‘complete Christian initiation,’ which promotes an authentic following of Christ, focused on his Person." It is "essential" and "common," but not in the sense of being minimalist; for the GDC this means that we catechize "without entering into disputed questions nor transforming itself into a form of theological investigation." GDC 67-68. "…Catechesis starts out with a simple proposition of the integral structure of the Christian message, and proceeds to explain it in a manner adapted to the capacity of those being catechized." GDC 112. The guide to this structure is the Apostles’ Creed. GDC 115.

And the GDC rejects an individualistic piety, for "Communion with Jesus Christ, by its own dynamic, leads the disciple to unite himself with everything with which Jesus Christ himself was profoundly united: with God his Father, who sent him into the world, and with the Holy Spirit, who impelled his mission; with the Church, his body, for which he gave himself up, with mankind and with his brothers whose lot he wished to share." GDC 81

The Church is thus not something that can be discussed as an afterthought to the Gospel message, but is the essential agent in the proclamation of the Gospel. "Catechesis is an essentially ecclesial act." GDC 78. Christ founded the Church on the apostles, to whom he gave the Holy Spirit, sending them to preach the good news to the entire world. The Church through all ages bears the fullness of the divine Word, in Scripture and Tradition, guided by the Spirit speaking through the Magisterium. As the "universal sacrament of salvation," the Church not only preaches the Gospel, but communicates God’s gifts in the sacraments. GDC 42-46.

Citing Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, the GDC warns of "the risk of impoverishing … or even of distorting" evangelization. It "must develop its ‘totality’ and completely incorporate its intrinsic bipolarity: witness and proclamation, word and sacrament, interior change and social transformation. Those who evangelize have a ‘global vision’ of evangelization …." GDC 46 "A fundamental principle of catechesis … is that of safeguarding the integrity of the message and avoiding any partial or distorted presentation: ‘In order that the sacrificial offering of his or her faith should be perfect, the person who becomes a disciple of Christ has the right to receive "the words of faith," not in mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor and vigor.’" GDC 111

We can apply this principle to the sacraments, of which the GDC says, "They form ‘an organic whole in which each particular sacrament has its own vital place.’ In this whole, the Holy Eucharist occupies a unique place to which all of the other sacraments are ordained. The Eucharist is to be presented as the ‘sacrament of sacraments.’" GDC 115

Conclusion

Despite the commendable intent of Alpha to evangelize the unchurched by facilitating an initial encounter with Jesus Christ, we must conclude that even with a Catholic supplement, it remains deficient, and cannot be recommended for Catholic use. 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. To tack Catholic elements to be tacked onto the end, especially issues of Church and Sacrament, denies the integral nature of Christian revelation.

Notes

  1. ChristLife Catholic Evangelization Services. http://www.christlife.org.
  2. Nicky Gumbel, How to Run the Alpha Course: A Handbook for Alpha Directors, Leaders, and Helpers (Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1997), p. 47, 101 on prayer for tongues during retreat, 104 on Communion during the retreat and the healing session.
  3. Alpha UK. http://alphacourse.org.
  4. Catholic Evangelisation Services/Catholic Alpha Office (UK)--hereafter noted in the text simply as UK Catholic Alpha Office.
  5. Alpha for Catholics: Questions and Answers (Ellicott City, MD. ChristLife Catholic Evangelization Services, n.d.), p. 6.
  6. Ibid., p. 12.
  7. Ibid., p. 11.
  8. Ibid., p. 12.
  9. Ibid., p. 6.
  10. Gumbel, Questions of Life: A Practical Introduction to the Christian Faith (Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1996), pp. 219-221.
  11. Ibid., p. 219.
  12. Ibid., pp. 228-229.
  13. How to Run the Alpha Course, p. 50.
  14. Ibid., p. 104.
  15. Questions of Life, pp. 155-163.
  16. Ibid., pp. 199-215.
  17. Ibid., p. 163.
  18. Mark Ireland, "A Study of the Effectiveness of Process Evangelism Courses in the Diocese of Lichfield, with Special Reference to Alpha" (MA dissertation. University of Sheffield at Cliff College, 2000), p. 2. Note: This dissertation is available on-line at http://www.evangelism.uk.net/papers/lichfield_alpha1.htm, in the form of a ZIP-file. Page numbers correspond to the printed copy I made after "un-zipping" it into Microsoft Word. Pagination could therefore differ in other formats.
  19. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
  20. Ibid., p. 19.
  21. Ibid., p. 32.
  22. Ibid., p. 32-33. References are to Pete Ward, "Alpha—the McDonaldization of Religion?" Anvil 15(November 4, 1998): 279-286.
  23. Ibid., p. 35.
  24. Martyn Percy, "‘Join-the-dots’ Christianity," Reviews in Religion and Theology (3/1997), p. 15; cited in Ireland, "Study," p. 36.
  25. Ireland, "Study," pp. 39-40. For another critique of Alpha, see Stephen Hunt,  Anyone for Alpha?: Evangelism in a Post-Christian Society (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2001).

References

Alpha UK. http://alphacourse.org.

Alpha USA. http://www.alphausa.org.

Alpha for Catholics: Questions and Answers. Ellicott City, MD. ChristLife Catholic Evangelization Services, n.d.

Catholic Evangelisation Services/Catholic Alpha Office (UK).

ChristLife Catholic Evangelization Services. http://www.christlife.org.

Gumbel, Nicky. The Alpha Course Manual. London: HTB Publications, 1999. Reprint edition. Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1999.

Gumbel, Nicky. How to Run the Alpha Course: A Handbook for Alpha Directors, Leaders, and Helpers. Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1997.

Gumbel, Nicky. Questions of Life: A Practical Introduction to the Christian Faith. Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1996.

Gumbel, Nicky. Telling Others: A Practical Approach to Sharing the Christian Faith. Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1994.

Gumbel, Nicky and Sandy Millar, "Response to Mark Ireland’s Dissertation." 20 November 2001. http://www.evangelism.uk.net/papers/alpha_reply1.htm.

Hunt, Stephen.  Anyone for Alpha?: Evangelism in a Post-Christian Society. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2001.

Ireland, Mark. "A Study of the Effectiveness of Process Evangelism Courses in the Diocese of Lichfield, with Special Reference to Alpha." MA dissertation. University of Sheffield at Cliff College, 2000.

© Copyright 2007, William J. Cork. All Rights Reserved

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