Andrew Atherstone’s latest book, Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand (Hodder & Stoughton), is newly published. I had the chance to ask him how, as a historian, he approached the project.
IP: Why do you think we need a history of the Alpha course?
AA: Alpha is a phenomenon! In the thirty years since its global launch in 1993, over 28 million people have attended the course worldwide, and its impact upon the Church of England has been enormous. Not only have many come to Christian faith through Alpha, but it has decisively shaped modern evangelistic strategies and theologies. Nicky Gumbel is a Christian leader of global significance and deserves to be studied alongside other major modern evangelists like Billy Graham and Luis Palau. Anyone who wants to understand Anglicanism today, or the relationship between charismatic renewal and contemporary culture, needs to engage seriously with Alpha and its impact.
Repackaging Christianity is published to coincide with Nicky Gumbel handing over the baton as vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), after 46 years connected with the congregation. It doubles as a history of the remarkable transformation of HTB since the 1960s, from Prayer Book evensong to charismatic powerhouse, now the centre of a rapidly growing church revitalization network. Next spring 2023 will be the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Gumbel’s most famous book, Questions of Life, and of the global launch of Alpha – so now is a very good moment to pause and reflect on Alpha’s expansion and significance.
IP: There have been quite a few studies of Alpha as a phenomenon. Why do we need another one—what does yours offer?
AA: Alpha has certainly attracted lots of attention, including several doctorates and monographs. The best are Stephen Hunt’s The Alpha Enterprise (2004) and James Heard’s Inside Alpha (2009). But they are sociological and ethnographic critiques. My book is completely different – it’s the first ever history of Alpha – there’s nothing else like it on the market. I’m particularly interested in Alpha’s evolution over the decades. It’s a mix of narrative storytelling and analysis, built around several core themes, including experience of the Holy Spirit, social activism, and Alpha’s ecumenical embrace of Rome. It’s filled with an abundance of new material – like, for example, the first full account of Nicky Gumbel’s conversion.
IP: How have you gone about your research—what information did you have access to?
AA: Alpha International have an amazing archive, never available to a researcher before, to which they granted me privileged access. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, my bedroom was turned into a temporary archive store, piled high with boxes – stretching my wife’s remarkable patience! – and I worked through them systematically, file by file, day after day. I was also granted access to several bundles and boxes of archives from Nicky Gumbel’s attic. I read through every edition of Alpha News (1993–2011) and every surviving edition of HTB’s in-house monthly newspaper (1992–2011), a wonderful treasure trove. I also spent many happy days at Kensington Central Library working through parish magazines, plus other collections off the beaten track – like Cardinal Basil Hume’s Alpha file in the Westminster Diocesan Archives, and correspondence stored in a Roman Catholic convent in Austria, faxed to me by a friendly nun. As a researcher there are few activities which I enjoy more than a deep dive into archives that no one else has mined before! All supplemented by interviews with leading participants. I’ve found it a fascinating subject, and hopefully readers will too.
IP: That is a remarkable level of access. So does it mean that you are an ‘Alpha insider’ who is offering us a PR job on the course?
AA: No, I’m not a member of the HTB network, and have never attended their popular Focus summer holidays, or Alpha conferences, or the giant HTB leadership conferences at the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve interviewed Nicky and Pippa Gumbel via Zoom, but have never met them in person. So hopefully that gives me some critical distance to the subject.
On the other hand, I’m not detached either. I’m a fan of evangelism, I believe in the Holy Spirit, I want to see conversion and revival. In many ways I swim in the same theological waters as Alpha, broadly speaking, and like evangelical clergy the world over I’ve been an enthusiastic Alpha adopter and adapter. I remember my first exposure to Alpha as a ministry apprentice in the mid-1990s, watching Nicky Gumbel on video, and during my curacy in a New Wine church we ran Alpha and Christianity Explored in alternate terms, a fruitful combination. So hopefully that personal closeness to the subject also benefits me as a historian, by making me alert to nuances and insights that other historians might miss.
I like to think my personal relationship to the project is the best of both worlds – neither too close nor too distant! But it’s a difficult tightrope to tread. My main ambition has been to write a book which is fair both to Alpha and to its many critics, who I quote fully throughout. It’s not a hagiography, or a hatchet-job. I’ve done my best to lay aside my personal prejudices, and to write a stimulating, even-handed analysis based on the archival evidence.
IP: The Alpha course (and the ministry of HTB) have not been without its critics, both outside and particularly within the Church. What have been the main criticisms of Alpha? Are they fair?
AA: Alpha has been fiercely assailed from many different angles, often in colourful language. Many focus on Alpha’s theological content. It has been lambasted as fundamentalist, because strong on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the trustworthiness of the Bible, and substitutionary atonement. It has been derided as liberal, for being obsessed with God’s love and too quiet about God’s wrath. Some think it is too Christocentric, not properly Trinitarian. Others think it is not Christocentric enough. The Holy Spirit weekend always provokes strong reactions, especially Alpha’s teaching about miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. But Pentecostals complain that there’s not nearly enough about tongues. Roman Catholics don’t like the fact that Alpha avoids the sacraments and the church and the Virgin Mary. Traditionalist Protestants don’t like the fact that Alpha works with Catholics, and dismiss it as an ecumenical sell-out.
A second group of critics focus on Alpha’s evangelistic style. Some object to Nicky Gumbel’s softly-softly approach, too much smiling, too much laughter. They want Alpha to be more direct and to work harder, in the words of one Reformed Baptist, at “smoking out sinners from their refuges of unbelief and sinful pride” and at striking fear into their hearts. Others are suspicious of Alpha’s laidback, friendly welcome, as if it must be a façade, perhaps a form of cultish “love-bombing”. Perhaps the strongest reactions have been against Alpha’s teaching on sex and sexuality, accusing HTB of puritanism and homophobia. Others complain that HTB is much too quiet, even silent, on the subject and should be speaking out more boldly.
A third group of critics focus on Alpha’s middle-class culture. Can a former barrister, educated at Eton and Cambridge, really reach the masses via Kensington dinner parties? Some say Alpha is too high-brow, only for university graduates. Others dismiss it as patronisingly simplistic, not for real thinkers. Some object to HTB’s wealth and influence, as if they are trying to turn the Church of England into an Alpha empire, not extend the kingdom of God. Others react against the glossy advertising – why so trendy, why so young, why do all the models have perfect teeth? And isn’t it immoral to spend large sums of money on advertising anyway, when the cash could be given away to people in need?
In Repackaging Christianity, I lay out all these criticisms in detail, and many more besides. Are they fair? Well, they certainly can’t all be right! Furthermore, Alpha has continually evolved and matured over the decades in response to the oceans of “feedback” – it is a different course in the 2020s to what it was in the 1990s. But I deliberately leave space for readers to come to their own conclusions. My book lays out the evidence and controversies, but it’s not didactic, and it’s not pushing a particular party line. There is plenty of room for lively debate about Alpha’s strengths and weaknesses.
IP: You’ve previously published Archbishop Justin Welby’s biography, Risktaker and Reconciler (2014), and of course Justin is well-connected with HTB. Do your two studies overlap at all? Are they related to one another?
AA: Yes, there is a close symbiosis between the two books. Justin Welby was baptised at HTB as an infant, and married there by Sandy Millar in 1979. He was a member of HTB during his time in the oil industry in the mid-1980s and experienced his call to ordination while listening to an HTB sermon. The Archbishop has been a lifelong friend of Nicky Gumbel, a year apart at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. One of the many interesting documents I uncovered in the archives is a handwritten letter from Welby to Gumbel in May 1993 celebrating Alpha’s global launch – what I like to call Alpha’s very first archiepiscopal endorsement!
It’s my contention that we can’t understand the theological priorities and strategies of Lambeth Palace under its present occupant without understanding HTB and Alpha. They occupy the same worldview and often work in tandem. Many of the emphases Archbishop Justin has brought to the Church of England – for example, a focus on church planting, evangelism, prayer, spiritual renewal, and recruiting young people – have been learned directly from HTB.
IP: I was intrigued that the phrase “global flows” keeps recurring in your book. Why do you use that phrase, and what does that mean?
AA: Alpha has travelled a remarkable distance around the world, translated into 112 languages and adopted in 169 countries. My analysis aims to draw out those international linkages, and especially the mechanisms by which Alpha has migrated from one context to another. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a continual flow of charismatic personnel across the Atlantic, connecting HTB with John Wimber’s Vineyard in California, the ‘Toronto Blessing’ in Canada, and the ‘Pensacola Outpouring’ in Florida. In 1997, the leaders of Alpha’s prison ministry visited South America to witness the Pentecostal revival taking place in Los Olmos maximum security prison near Buenos Aires, and returned home celebrating, ‘if that can happen in Argentina, then we are going to pray it happens here’. Alpha’s worldwide expansion has been driven by strategic infrastructure and by charismatic tourism. But I also argue that HTB’s location in central London – a vibrant capital city and global transportation hub – gives it natural advantages for dissemination. At an Alpha prayer event at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2003, Bishop Richard Chartres declared: “This is a world city, a world crossroads. Whatever we do here reverberates for good or for ill throughout the entire globe.”
The language of “global flows” is a deliberate nod to the theoretical framework proposed by the famous Indian-American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, about the ways in which ideas flow across cultural boundaries in a globalized world. That’s a theme we address more fully in Transatlantic Charismatic Renewal, c.1950-2000, edited with my friends Mark Hutchinson and John Maiden, published last year in Brill’s Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, which grew out of a conference on charismatic history at Wycliffe Hall.
IP: Why have you chosen the provocative title “Repackaging Christianity”?
AA: That phrase is borrowed directly from Nicky Gumbel, who argues in Telling Others (1997) that Christians don’t have liberty “to tamper with the apostolic message”, but that we must always ensure its “cultural packaging” is not a stumbling block. In other words, the New Testament gospel never changes, but the way we present it must continually change to attract our culture – which for Alpha has meant a special focus on the under 35s. The German theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote something similar: “The gospel must be preached afresh and told in new ways to each generation, since every generation has its own unique questions. The gospel must constantly be forwarded to a new address, because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of address.”
This provokes a fistful of questions, of course, about the relationship between gospel and packaging. How is our understanding of the gospel culturally determined? To what extent is Alpha itself a cultural phenomenon? My book pays particular attention to the ways in which Alpha has been shaped by its immediate surroundings. For example, how did Britain in the 1990s – the era of Tony Blair and ‘Cool Britannia’ – influence Alpha’s original branding? And how has Alpha reinvented itself to keep pace with our swiftly changing culture in the 2020s?
IP: But is Christianity really a “brand” we can market? Doesn’t that language fundamentally compromise the integrity of the gospel?
AA: Angela Tilby wrote recently, in her typically provocative Church Times column, that “Discipling is not a matter of business … those who try to sell Jesus end up betraying him” (Church Times, 19 August). Alpha are not trying to sell Jesus, of course, but they are trying to sell books and DVDs about Jesus, in the same way that the Church Times is trying to sell newspapers. We need to be much less squeamish about these dynamics in church life – they are an unavoidable aspect of all human societies and all religious traditions. Ideas cannot simply be downloaded from brain to brain, they are always transmitted and amplified through manufactured products.
Over the last decade, evangelical historiography has been going through a “business turn.” In other words, historians are now paying better attention not just to theological ideas and personalities, but also to how those ideas are disseminated through the creation of cultural products. One of the reasons for evangelicalism’s global success has been its close relationship with entrepreneurial business, and a wave of recent scholarship has begun exploring the connections. On the nineteenth century, for example, see Joseph Stubenrauch’s ground-breaking The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain (2016). From the other side of the Atlantic, excellent recent volumes include Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (2015), Darren Grem’s The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (2016), and Daniel Vaca’s Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America (2019).
My study of Alpha is a contribution to that wider conversation, from a British perspective. Two central chapters are entitled “Building a Brand” and “Marketing the Gospel”. HTB and Alpha International are major business operations – they both turn over about £12 million annually, all reinvested in the ministry. There is a vast array of Alpha products on the market, supported by high-powered advertising campaigns, endorsed by celebrities, ensuring Alpha’s global status as a brand leader in evangelism. As the most fruitful evangelists in every generation have discovered – whether George Whitefield, Billy Graham, or Nicky Gumbel – distilling the gospel message is only half the task. Reaching the masses always requires effective marketing, from the humble church flier to the glossy cinema commercial. The Holy Spirit is always sovereign in conversion, but the Holy Spirit seldom operates without human means.
IP: Thanks for answering my questions—and thank you for this fascinating account of such an important phenomenon in the Church today.