As a person who many years ago led a couple of Alpha courses, I watched Channel 4’s documentary Revelations: How to Find God (Sunday, June 28th, 7pm) with great interest.
In the introductory spiel, the voice-over informed us that; ‘Alpha is the world’s most successful scheme to convert agnostics to Christianity…. Churches everywhere buy the study pack and off they go…. It sounds impossible, but over ten Tuesday evenings and a weekend away, the Alpha Course routinely transforms unbelievers into Christians’. According to the programme, the course, (described as originating with Nicky Gumbel), has had around two million takers in Britain so far and approximately one in eight of them have ‘found God’.
We are shown bits of talks and bits of small-group discussions. We hear the various (usual) kinds of doubts that the group members have and some of the answers being given. We even see a dissatisfied customer announce it’s not for her and walking out. In short, we get the general idea of what being involved in an Alpha Course can be like. But as in the real-life version, we get an emphasis on the ‘weekend away’.
On the ‘weekend away’, which focuses on the Holy Spirit, the vicar leading proceedings, tries to encourage the group to speak in tongues, as per the Alpha’s leaders’ instruction manual. ‘Just launch out as the music is playing’ he says, bursting spontaneously into tongues himself, as a twee ‘worship song’ fades in. One of the group promptly walks out, saying afterwards; ‘It was a repulsion I felt. If I’m gonna find a way, that’s not gonna be it.’ He adds that he felt fear and insecurity about what was going on around him. ‘That fear puts you on edge’, he says. Towards the end of the meeting, a young woman also leaves, feeling uncomfortable. Although the people are ‘very nice’, she says, ‘they’re too nice’ and adds that she’s been put off ‘organised religion’. The two who drop out stay out and don’t return to subsequent meetings. One of the group however, finds the tongues attractive and the music ‘very good’.
At the communion service towards the end of the weekend, one communicant jokes; ‘First drink of the day’. He later admits that he took part in the sacrament ‘for all the wrong reasons’, adding ‘I wanted to participate’. But he wishes he hadn’t bothered. ‘I’m no closer to becoming a Christian he says’, though he seems impressed by the decency and sincerity of the Christians who have been running the whole affair. The vicar again encourages people to speak in tongues as he spontaneously does himself. Meanwhile, the silky voice-over continues; ‘So much is put on the tongues… it’s a giant gamble for Alpha’, and it goes on to tell us that although Alpha tries to make tongues an ‘everyday’ kind of thing, ‘it isn’t’.
Before making brief comment about the Alpha Course itself, I’d like to correct four inaccurate claims which the documentary opened with. Firstly, the founder of Alpha was not Nicky Gumbel but Sandy Millar, one time vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton. Secondly, no conversions are ‘routine’… every single one is a miracle. Thirdly, Alpha converts no-one; it is God who converts people and fourthly, people don’t ‘find God’; God is not lost! Rather, it is God who finds us.
As far as the actual Alpha Course goes, I have no argument with much of it. It makes clear what the Gospel is, why Jesus died, why we can trust the bible and so on. And, in the setting of a friendly supper and get together, trying to address the concerns and doubts which people have is a good thing. It fills in a huge gap in ‘normal’ church services, where people don’t usually get the opportunity to question what’s being said – or to be able to walk away without embarrassment.
The biggest problem I have with Alpha is the notorious ‘Holy Spirit’ weekend – the ‘weekend away’. I must admit that when, as a leader of such groups, I came across the instruction that we should try and get people to launch out into speaking in tongues, my stomach turned over. I promptly adapted things in an attempt to avoid the excesses and unscriptural nonsense which occur in Alpha Courses at this juncture. And indeed, the documentary seemed to make clear that more people were turned off by the emphasis on tongues than attracted. As already mentioned, I don’t mind people walking out of such meetings if they feel uncomfortable. But their discomfort should be due to the scandal of the Cross and not the pressure of being made to attempt strange, nonsensical speech.
As a young man of around 19, I was once spoken to by a Christian who sat too close to me on a sofa, put his hand on my knee and asked me if I’d ‘found the Lord Jesus yet’. That incident put me off Christianity for the next 15 years. I was reminded of the experience by one of the programme’s closing comments, made not, I felt, in a complimentary way. This was that Alpha is about ‘structured niceness’. The Alpha programme could do with sorting this out. But even more importantly, it should stop the practice of trying to get non-Christians to speak in tongues and take part in the Lord’s Supper.