What has been the influence of the Alpha Course?

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.

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31 thoughts on “What has been the influence of the Alpha Course?”

  1. One point worth mentioning is that in the early days of Alpha (according to Nicky Gumbel) they considered charging for the alpha course, or its material. At this point the Holy Spirit withdrew. Since then it has been completely free to attend and is funded by the church.

  2. Andrew maintains this is not a hagiography, yet other than outlining other’s criticisms I hear no constructive criticism in this interview.

    Whilst I am an alpha supporter and have run many courses my fears for the course can be summarised thus:

    It is far better with the dechurched than the unchurched.

    It creates consumer Christian’s rather than disciples.

    It’s success is questionable in a period of uk church decline.

    It may be a contributing factor to the retreat of the kingdom into fewer, larger churches which mask a decline in the health of the uk church.

    I’d happily read a book that corrected me in these opinions.
    Will this book answer any of these questions?

    • No David – it won’t. There are two certain indicators in this article that it will not:
      – the completely bizarre list of criticisms of Alpha – the author lists them as if his duty in a post-truth world is to make sure everyone’s complaint is mentioned – even though more than half of the criticisms are from people whose criticisms amount to not wanting the course to be Christian. What better proof that the author has no compass of his own – no wonder Alpha and Nicky Gumbel were willing to give him access.
      – the author casually mentions Nicky Gumbel’s lifelong association with Justin Welby – crediting Justin Welby’s achievements to Nicky’s influence. Is this the same Justin Welby who has divided world Anglicanism – and torn biblical orthodoxy to shreds? It can’t be surely. If the author cannot manage to size up Justin Welby let me assure you – as someone who has been actively seeking to call Nicky Gumbel to account over years – he hasn’t got the capacity to size up Nicky Gumbel!

      Here’s the best way I can think of to sum up Nicky Gumbel in a few words. He is the Rick Warren of UK and international Christendom. He and Rick Warren are friends – they plan to work together in the next decade on global projects – they have achieved similar results both locally and internationally by distorting the truth in exactly the same way. Their method is to present Christianity as if it exists to serve people’s need – our need to be saved and live our best life is God instead of God. We learned in a passage which was the subject of a recent Ian Paul article – Luke 14:17-33 – that unless one’s faith is of a nature that leads one to have ALREADY turned from ALL idols IN ORDER to be saved – that one is not a disciple of Jesus. Therefore Alpha – in allowing people to continue to make their life destiny an idol – is not a Christian course. (I am not saying that people open to God don’t benefit from it – I am only saying how Alpha’s content reveals its aims).

      Sin is introduced in the Alpha course without being connected to God’s holiness, the consequences of sin are not linked with God’s justice. Mercy is not mentioned, the course instead focuses on ‘the love of God’ – this word love only meaning whatever the primary character attributes of God being absent from the Alpha course leave it to mean. Alpha is relationship with God without all the icky stuff about lifelong indebtedness (this being necessary for faith to no longer be centred on God and his glory) instead of the gospel being a testimony of the glory of God – and whether or not anyone repents.

      Alpha is Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life” – the title of the book revealing exactly the same self-actualisation idol that Alpha preserves.

      The era of preachers standing in front of churches telling people that if they don’t give money God won’t have enough cash to extend the kingdom is over. However – as can be seen by Nicky and Rick Warren continuing to fly below the radar (although Rick’s being welcomed in the Southern Baptist Convention are pretty much now over) – the era in which the church itself is sold to people as a product is still very much in swing.
One New York pastor Jon Tyson has grasped how the current church age works – he is a friend of Nicky’s – speaking at this year’s Focus and New Wine. He is offering a course on male formation which is rapidly growing in popularity. He attributes its growing popularity to the hand of God – I replied in agreement – as long as by hand of God he meant Maradona hand of God. Instead of God being offered as a product to people – men are offered an intensive on male formation (whatever that actually is separate to the cross – consider me a very suspicious complementarian). You spend time with a couple of very ‘successful’ men – and some pseudo biblical concepts – and return home a man. For the course to work it must have enough a few ideas which flow from Jesus the man – but not enough for it to be seen to be what it is – church being made into a product. It offers the chance to acquire manhood consistent with one’s existing ideas about manhood – a man gets to spend his hard earned money being more of a man. Instead of having to pursue the vastly more challenging but authentic path to maturity which is real relationship with God and service to others in the diversity of the relationships which are church.

      Nicky Gumbel is extremely clever. As clever as the devil himself. He’s fooled everyone. To explain just how clever consider this – he continues to be admired by many evangelicals around the world – being credited for Alpha and its achievements – he’s considered to be an evangelical – while Justin Welby – his lifelong friend – past member of HTB – implementer according to the Andrew Atherstone of ideas he learned at HTB – tears world Anglicanism apart. One is the saviour of the church – and the other the destroyer of it – yet they share the same beliefs. That’s how good Nicky Gumbel is. He’s just left HTB – and at what point in time? At a time when his shallow and false Christianity’s inability to make disciples will be revealed in a post Covid HTB.
      If this is my last post here (if reaching the conclusions I have about the author of this book are reason for my no longer being able to comment here) – or if revealing Nicky Gumbel to be who he is has required too many words – let me say – thank you for what I have been able to express and learn here.

        • Ian – while I agree with your criticisms, I actually found this post quite helpful. I never investigated Alpha carefully, but always had a `hunch’ that it was something that should be treated with extreme caution.

          The posts of Joe S and Philip Benjamin seem to support this, but on the other hand, Geoff came to faith through an Alpha course. He therefore now knows that Jesus will never let him out of his hand, that he is saved, that he is going to heaven when he passes from this life to the next. The Holy Spirit worked through the Alpha course to bring him to salvation – and this has to be taken very seriously.

          Many years ago, I found the book `The Forgotten Spurgeon’ by Ian Murray very useful – where he contrasts the ministry of Spurgeon to the approach of Moody/Sankey. I don’t think there is anything new under the sun – and in the criticisms of Alpha, I see the same criticisms that Murray was making of the Moody/Sankey approach.

          On the one hand, the Spurgeon style comes across as much more my cup of tea; on the other hand, we have to take very seriously the fact that people came to faith via the Moody/Sankey route – the Holy Spirit used it to engender faith which transformed peoples lives.

          • Hi Jock,

            Glad you found the post helpful.

            For those unfamiliar with the comparison between Spurgeon and Moody/Sankey – and having just Googled it myself in order to find out – and correct me if I am wrong Jock – the difference was that supposedly according to SOME critics of Moody/Sankey’s their approach was inappropriately emotive – and therefore manipulative. While others thought the criticism was unjustified (including Spurgeon?) – they believed that their appealing to people’s full humanity – through for example the use of music – was appropriate.

            You will note that in my criticism of Nicky Gumbel and Alpha I have not aligned myself with ANY of the criticisms listed in the article. Except with the criticism that Alpha does not give focus to the wrath of God or deliver people from their pride (however I don’t align with the beliefs that underly that criticism – those who make it tend to believe that the wrath of God should be presented in contrast with the love of God – instead of as part of it).

            The aims of HTB are no different to Alpha – at the end of almost every sermon they finish by relating the sermon to their vision – which is “to play our part in the evangelisation of the nation, the revitalisation of the church and the transformation of society”. Which sounds right because evangelism is most definitely part of the responsibilities of the Christian and the church. However it’s not an appropriate summary of the aims of any church. When Stephen in Acts 6 and 7 is preaching his last sermon before being stoned he knows that his hearers will not repent – they won’t be transformed – they will not be revitalised – they will not be evangelised – they have no intention to repent. If they will not why is he bothering? And why allow himself to be stoned if he could instead be evangelising those who will listen? Because social transformation doesn’t summarise the aim of the early church. The early believers’ goal was that God’s kingdom would come – this included both people turning to God AND also God’s holiness and justice being applied to those committed to defying him. The early believers were as committed to welcoming God’s holiness and justice as they were his mercy and grace. They knew that NO-ONE ever gets to see or experience God’s SAVING mercy and grace – without first being reconciled to his holiness and justice.

            The only thing change needed to make God exist to meet the needs of men is to make the goal of Christians and the church the saving of souls instead of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

            You say Jock of Geoff that “ He therefore now knows that Jesus will never let him out of his hand”. This isn’t the message of Romans 8 when it says that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The passage is saying that nothing external to God and the believer has the power to undermine the relationship of the believer with God. However the free choice of the believer does. That this is so is revealed in passages such as Romans 11:22, Hebrews 10:29-31, 2 Peter 2:20, and Hebrews 6:4-6. In Romans 11:22 Paul speaks as if the Romans only need to continue as they are (they are in his judgement living in a saved state) – and yet at the same time he speaks about their being cut off if they don’t continue. It’s important that no-one believe that one is saved separate from one’s ongoing repentance. That’s the message of the passage which Ian wrote about recently – Luke 14:25-33 (and earlier from verse 17) – that the only people Jesus considers disciples are those whose faith has led them to have ALREADY turned from ALL idols IN ORDER to be saved. That’s why the issues with the Alpha course are so serious – it allows people to believe their standing with God need not be proven by any behaviour in themselves – and it preserves the tendency of the sinful nature to think of God as a servant to our needs.

            Again I hope that my wanting to clarify the meaning of your post Jock and correct the theology you express about our standing before God are not considered inappropriate causes on which to dedicate words.

          • @Philip

            “When Stephen in Acts 6 and 7 is preaching his last sermon before being stoned he knows that his hearers will not repent – they won’t be transformed – they will not be revitalised – they will not be evangelised – they have no intention to repent. If they will not why is he bothering?”

            Stephen certainly didn’t “know” that, and I don’t see anything that implies he thought it either. He can’t have known that, because we do know that at least one person present did “repent”.

            Not at that moment, of course, but God did bring the increase. God did answer Stephen’s prayer.

          • Hi Kyle,

            I don’t think the following words of Stephen reflect his belief that his hearers will respond on this occasion in a way they never have before:

            Acts 7:51-53 ESV
            You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you ALWAYS resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

            After reading your post Kyle I wasn’t able to determine if your disagreement was only with the example I provided – or the principle I was seeking to prove. This lack of clarity has an unhelpful impact on discussions. And so does any post which is only able to be understood by those fortunate enough to be in the know.

          • Philip – Ian is absolutely right – if your posts were much shorter and more to the point, more people might read them.

            I simply skimmed very quickly through your post, but my attention was taken spectacularly when I misread what you wrote about Jon Tyson, `men are offered an intensive on male fornication’ – and I thought to myself: if I really wanted to know about that, I would ask George Best rather than some American pastor.

            But when I re-read it with some care – `men are offered an intensive on male formation’ – yes – I fully understood what you were saying – it looks like something ridiculous (because it is something ridiculous) and something from a different planet.

      • Fair comment.
        But it has a culture. The alpha brand is linked to a style and culture.
        Often the medium is the message, the way in which we come to faith informs the future shape/expectations of that faith.

    • It is far better with the dechurched than the unchurched.

      I agree. The unchurched would happily dispense with the habits of participation – the worship style, the prayer format, the ways of exploring and discussing religious ideas – all the parts they have no affinity for because “Why would they? It’s not their culture.” There is a novelty factor when the unchurched encounter evangelical culture for the first time but that soon wears off. And it should be no surprise that the dechurched find it easy to settle back into church life once they have resolved the issues of unbelief that led them drift away in the first place.

      I don’t know of any “introduction to Christianity” course that can bridge this cultural divide. Evangelicals are very attached to their ways of doing things. It isn’t a particularly open to experience environment. Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable channel almost gets there but it is just a podcast – another form of “consumer product”.

      • Joe S – I had to look up the terms ‘unchurched’ and ‘dechurched’ to find out what they meant.

        I want to pick you up on one thing: a person can be dechurched not because of any unbelief, but because, even though they are serious about their faith, they enter an environment where all the churches are not their cup of tea and look a little bit weird.

        I guess that by `look a little bit weird’ I mean get an intuitive feeling that there might be more than a whiff of the `culture of control’ that you mention.

        I’m ‘dechurched’ – I moved to a different location and simply couldn’t find a suitable church. It was nothing to do with any unbelief on my part – throughout I’ve been reasonably diligent about prayer, reading Scripture and trying to find good supporting material to read alongside Scripture – but I simply don’t fancy any of the churches I’ve seen around here. Before making the decision not to go to church, I did have a serious time of prayer, thinking things through with the bible in one hand and asking the Lord for guidance – and came to the prayerful conclusion that the churches around here wouldn’t be helping me in my Spiritual life – and that my Spiritual life would be enhanced by avoiding those in the vicinity. Dechurching myself had nothing at all to do with unbelief.

        Very importantly for me – I have a young son – and if I were to start going to a church, he would be involved by implication – and I’m strongly protective of any weird influences – so if there is anything in a church that looks a little bit weird or ever so slightly insane I’m staying away. Right now, he seems to be a very happy young boy and I want it to stay that way.

        Because of this consideration, the arguments along the lines of ‘oh you have a duty before God to join in with the best church in your area and be a Christian influence for good’ don’t work; I have an even greater duty before God to protect my son from all weird influences – and do my best to ensure that he remains a happy boy, full of fun – and that he isn’t `got at’ by the `culture of control’.

        I don’t know so much about the Alpha course – so I can’t really make any comment on it. I’m only pointing out that `dechurched’ doesn’t necessarily mean any sort of unbelief as you seem to be suggesting.

        • Jock I want to pick you up on one thing: a person can be dechurched not because of any unbelief

          I took dechurched to mean those who drifted away from the faith for a multiplicity of reasons but then reconsider aspects of their move towards either non-attendance or unbelief. So stepping away from a church for the reasons you stated also makes sense.

          But when a dechurched person decides to attend an Alpha course, they kinda know what’s coming on week 2 to 6 – the narrowing of permitted responses to certain faith statements, treating the Bible as an operating manual and all the more minor features that are associated with the evangelical style of worship (in the case of Alpha that includes the charismatic stuff that is sprung on people in the final session). Whether they accept everything or only parts of it, they can still easily participate in a culture that is familiar to them.

          Everyone sits somewhere on a conviction ‘axis’ between Belief and Unbelief but also a familiarity axis between Churched and Unchurched. There are now lots of people today who have never really been to church. They are at the far Unchurched end of the familiarity axis. Sure, they have attended a few weddings and funerals but that’s about it. Alpha is far less focussed on addressing that cultural alienation (indifference?) Compliance is expected on both in terms of belief (which makes sense) and how everyone participates in church life.

          • Joe S – yes – that makes sense.

            As a footnote – I do find this charismatic stuff deeply troubling. I know that there are fine Christians, who have come to know and love the Lord, who are saved – and who do adopt the charismatic stuff to some extent. So I’m not prepared to `write it off’. Wherever people have been convicted of their sins, repented and been brought to faith, this has to be taken very seriously.

            At the same time – I take all the charismatic stuff with extreme caution and avoid it myself.

          • Hi Jock,

            No-one experiences RELATIONSHIP with God (a different thing to receiving and believing ideas about God) without a constant ongoing miracle occurring. All ongoing relationship with God is charismatic in that it is Spirit to spirit – not Mind to mind. Our mind can only think things about God – it cannot experience RELATIONSHIP with God. (We are mind/intellectual, heart/emotional, will/volitional, body/physical, conscience/moral, and spirit/relational). Romans 8:16 reveals that we have a spirit and that God TESTIFIES to the spirit of believers (a different thing to teaching – the Spirit is the presence of Jesus – not just his truth – but also his way and his life – Spirit to spirit we are able to experience his leading, power and presence. God isn’t data – his presence BECOMES words to us – just as when we find ourselves able to describe someone with whom we are in close relationship).

            Someone can make a decision with their will to give their life to God – although when it excludes submitting to the Holy Spirit it amounts to us agreeing to serve God our way instead of his way – this being Pharisaism (John 5:39). Such a decision may see us forgiven – since this is a summary of the situation of the disciples before the resurrection – they were surely forgiven – except Judas – however they had yet to comprehend their need to depend on him – they did not yet understand that his life needed to REPLACE their life. They hadn’t yet understood that the only way in which they would be able to glorify God is if he glorified himself through them. So we can know various truths about God intellectually. However EXPERIENCING relationship with God then becomes either impossible or limited. And we will not experience God glorifying himself through us.

            If we imagine that submission to the Spirit is one and the same with submission to the bible we have no way to explain what Jesus considers the Pharisees to have failed to do in John 5:39).

            The bible says that God wishes to renew the fallen minds of followers of Jesus. If this occurred by our minds receiving new data – new ideas – to replace old ones – we would be in trouble – since our minds are fallen – this giving us no guarantee that the new ideas we received were no less fallen than the ideas the new ideas were intended to replace. The only way for our minds to be renewed then is if there is a separate means of relating to God which is independent of our minds – yet informs and when necessary contradicts our minds.
The various ‘charismatic’ gifts listed in scripture such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, the gift of miracles, the gift of healing – these all have something in common (with the exception of tongues) – they are gifts that arise from hearing God. None of the first followers of Jesus could raise the dead – of course! But they could listen – they could hear God say “I am going to do this” and they cooperated.

            As a guide to what we should expect to experience as Christians consider the fact that Jesus – at the moment of his death – immediately experiences alienation from his father when the sin of the world is placed upon him (while not actually being alienated from God). This means that he EXPERIENCED the presence of the father. As a guide to what our experience can be as Christians consider that HIS intimacy with the Father – and therefore his experience of the Father – is ours because of the cross.

          • I should have said that even speaking in tongues is listening – since God often reveals to the person praying in tongues the meaning and purpose of their prayer in the Spirit.

          • Philip – I am in a relationship with Jesus – thank you for asking.

            The main problem with the Charismata is that in some (perhaps many) cases the gifts come not from the Holy Spirit – and if it isn’t the Holy Spirit there is only one alternative – so that the person experiencing the gift is in a relationship, but not with Jesus.

            We see in Revelation 13 the full extent to which the Evil One imitates Christ (horns like a lamb – speaking with the gentle beguiling tongue of the dragon – i.e. the soft-spoken Serpent of Genesis, who deceived Eve) – so we have to be very careful.

            A personal anecdote: I had an uncle, who died at a ripe old age (he was over 90), who had not darkened the doors of a church for over 60 years. He had joined up with the Pentecostalist church in his village, where he was baptised. He was absolutely fervent about it, a leading light of the fellowship, he spoke in tongues.

            At some point, he came face to face with the horrific understanding that his ‘speaking in tongues’ had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. So although he was a Christian, he never darkened the doors of a church again, as a result of this experience with the Charismatic tendency.

            I didn’t get full information from him – he quit church at least 10 years before I was born. He didn’t really like to talk about it and, by the time I was old enough to ask, it was part of pre-history.

            I did get some impressions from him and it suffices to say, he came to understand what he had been sucked into – and had the good sense to run a mile.

          • Hi Jock,

            I was laying out principles for how believers are able to experience relationship with God. And how people’s either incomplete or wrong understanding can lead to their having an impoverished experience. If the ideas I present don’t apply to you that’s fine. They do however remain important in responding to your last post (as you will see if you keep reading).

            You talk about the need to be extremely careful about whether someone’s gift is from God or from the devil. However the focus of bible teaching isn’t on whether the gifts themselves are or are not from God – but instead on whether the attitudes, words spoken, and actions of people – the SPIRIT inhabiting the gift – is or is not from God. When it comes to gifts we should respond to ‘supernatural’ gifts as we do ‘natural’ gifts (supernatural and natural being inappropriate words since the bible doesn’t divide gifts into these two groups – and also because things of God present in creation are not ‘supernatural’ – creation is more than just the material). But for the sake of illustration imagine someone has the gift of administration (a listed gift in scripture) – at one moment that gift can be used for good – and the next minute not for good – this doesn’t lead us to conclude that the gift is from the devil. There is no reason to turn against charismatic gifts any more than one would turn against the gift of administration if a person or people use(s) them irresponsibly.

            The fact that all relational experience of God is charismatic reveals that there is no way in which we can exclude everything Spirit to spirit from faith. There is no possible line that can be drawn between our hearing from God Spirit to spirit as part of relationship with him and for example our hearing about others (prophecy). Or are we to imagine that God will never say to us about a person who is difficult to relate to “Be patient with this person because they have been hurt by others” – because this guidance in an issue of our character included his giving us insight into the situation of another person – that being a kind of prophecy? All charismatic gifts are of the same nature – they all involve hearing from God Spirit to spirit. When it comes to tongues if someone knew spiritually that there was no meaning to what they were doing I would expect that they would not continue – I don’t see why it would lead a person to conclude that what they were doing was demonic.

  3. Others are suspicious of Alpha’s laidback, friendly welcome, as if it must be a façade, perhaps a form of cultish “love-bombing”.

    With something like Alpha you don’t really hear from those walk away after the first few meetings. They politely make a quiet exit and perhaps only grumble about why they left to close friends. Their ‘indifferent’ perspective is eclipsed by those that stay.

    Alpha does employ cult tactics (“love-bombing” is a term borrowed from narcissistic abuse stories) and the individuals who are taken in by any type of manipulative system either become avid defenders of the cult or go on to be bitter defectors.

    HTB is not alone in this. Control is the central energising principle of many evangelical churches and organisations. Love always gets a mention in these churches but it is often a conditional/performative kind of love. Criticise the ‘brand’ or just see through the facade of a charismatic but narcissistic leader and their fake love is soon replaced with bullying or other forms of abuse.

    Perhaps this culture of control is the reason some evangelical franchise churches do so well in our post-Christian era – simply by filtering out a certain type of person – co-dependent, compliant, conformist (and yet more controlling narcissists) – who can tolerate a cult-like dynamic. The rest of the population, the ones who are still searching for ‘meaning’ and will give the Alpha course a go but drift away after week 2 or run for the hills after the big weekend away reveal (another manipulative tactic) of all the contentious stuff, don’t want to join a cult.

  4. The Alpha format of a free meal and uncoercive disxcussions at each table plus a presentation is excellent. A while ago the course itself was light on the need for repentance and its Trinity was skewed toward the Holy Spirit, but it was otherwise OK. I watched the most recent set of DVDs recently and found them almost unbearably smooth. I’d stick wtih the format and use differnt presentations. No copyright is infringed thereby.

  5. Around 20 years ago I used to receive the Alpha A5 format newspaper. The highlight of it for me was the testimonies of people whose lived had been changed by coming to Christ through an Alpha course.

  6. My wife and I were converted through the Alpha course in 1997 as adults.
    I find it most significant that generalised ad hom attacks, make no mention of life transformation conversions.
    It is beyond irony that the critics follow hot on the heals of last article!
    In my time, there were two follow-on courses. It’s as if God has no involvement in conversion, and conversion can only ever take place if the salami slicing of order of salvation is punctiliously adhered to.
    Clearly there is to be no joy on earth to the conversion of the lost.
    On a course in which I participated in leading of a husband a wife couple, the husband lasted 2 weeks and left he, as an balance driver, didn’t think Gumbel came across as having any experience of real life hardship. The curate have him David Watson’s My God is Real and through that and the curates personal follow through, he was converted, and strong in his faith till his death. His wife stayed on the course, was converted and remains faithful.
    Of those who have not remained, it seems that the parable of the seed/sower is apt.

    • Breaking my silence to say,
      Thanks for this link! It really, really is the essense of what we should be doing on this blog.
      Big tick.

  7. I vaguely remember watching a tv series presented by the late David Frost on the Alpha course. Although most of the participants that the programme followed seemed to enjoy it and found it helpful, I got the impression that few if any actually became Christians – there was a follow-up some time after the course ended. Though perhaps my memory is not accurate.

    Ive never attended myself, but if it gives the basic gospel as outlined in Stott’s Basic Christianity etc, then I dont see what the problem is. After all, is it not the Holy Spirit who convicts us of truth and reality, with the agreement of the individual? If the vessel through which He does that is imperfect, well nothing new there.



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