During the 1990s, the then-new Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, declared it the Anglican Decade of Evangelism.  The jewel in the crown of this decade was a new programme called the Alpha Course.

I remember receiving a call from a lady at our church in the mid-1990s.  ‘Won’t you come join us?  It will be a wonderful evening and you can make new friends.’   It was tempting to ask, ‘Aren’t you a bit old to be taken in by this?’  I was still a bit vexed that fripperies like the Toronto Blessing had been all over the news in Britain just a couple of years before in 1994.  It looked absurd and, as I told Spouse Mouse then, it would contribute to the downfall of the Church.  Well, most people in Britain now think that any Christian is a hysterical, Bible-brandishing loony who has lost his intellectual capacity to reason. 

But this weird and wonderful  new initiative of the Anglican Church persisted and Alpha was the result.  Alpha became a household word nearly 20 years ago, but it was around long before that.  It started at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in London in 1979 by the Revd Charles Marnham as an introduction to Christianity for enquirers.  It would be held in a ‘relaxed and informal setting’.  In 1990, Marnham’s colleague, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, a former barrister who discovered Jesus and sought ordination, took over the Alpha Course at HTB.  Gumbel’s way with words, befitting an attorney who argues cases in court before a judge, was a star turn.  The church was soon drawing middle-class people from all over London.  Many had good-paying jobs with long hours in the City.  Others were lost and trying to cope with personal issues.  Some had no faith at all but felt the need to know more about Christianity. 

So, what happened that made it so successful? 

It was while leading his second Alpha course that Nicky made a discovery, which transformed the church’s whole approach to the course and gave it a new dynamic. As he looked around the 13 members of his ‘small group’, he realized to his surprise that apart from the three Christian helpers, all the other 10 members of the group were non-churchgoers.  

“They had all the normal objections: ‘What about other religions?’; ‘What about suffering?’, and so on – and we had a stormy first six weeks,” he said. Then they went away on the weekend and all 10 announced their Christian conversion together.

The experience transformed Nicky’s thinking about Alpha. He realized how this simple course in basic Christianity could become a powerful medium for evangelism. He quickly worked to give the course the kind of ‘feel’ that would be particularly attractive to non-churchgoers.

At HTB, attendees meet in the evenings at church for dinner, then hear a talk about the designated topic.  They then break out into small groups for further discussion, asking questions or expanding on how particular New Testament passages or stories impact their personal lives. 

In smaller parishes, Alpha is held at someone’s home.  A potluck dinner is shared, then the talk and discussion follow.  Nicky was careful to make it clear that:

… no question should be treated as too trivial, threatening or illogical. Every question would be addressed courteously and thoughtfully – and none would ever be ‘pestered’ if they chose not to continue with the course.

Nicky Gumbel explains: “It’s all friendship-based. There’s no knocking on doors – it’s friends bringing friends.”

And this is how it came to be marketed in churches. By the time the Millenium approached, the Alpha Course had spread from Britain to other countries in the English-speaking world.  By the end of 2001, total worldwide Alpha attendance had reached 3.8 million people.  

I’ve seen three documentaries — each with several episodes — on the Alpha Course.  No Biblical inerrancy is affirmed and no Church history is presented, but there is much which is experiential and emotional.  This is what concerns me and those who have delved deeper into the course. 

A number of prominent church organisations and clergy heartily endorse the Alpha Course. Among them are Rick Warren, the Salvation Army, the Revd J I Packer of Regent College and evangelist Luis Palau. And Alpha can be adapted for any church, including Catholic parishes. Surely that’s a good thing, you say.  Don’t forget that good people can sometimes get subsumed by the wrong thing in the right package.      

Those taking Alpha are strongly encourage to commit not only to weekly attendance over several weeks but to a weekend retreat near the end of the course. Sometimes this retreat is described as the ‘Holy Spirit Weekend’. Attendees are encouraged to welcome the Holy Spirit into their hearts and lives through a charismatic experience.  Ideally, everyone has one of these experiences before the weekend is over.  It is seen as a sign of conversion and being born again.  If this sounds a bit like the Toronto Blessing, you would not be wrong.

Understand the Times explains the link between the two in ‘Alpha: Another Road to Rome?‘ 

… the effectiveness of the course was not realized until a few years later after the “Toronto Blessing” was transported to England from Canada in May of 1994. It was then that Church leaders of Holy Trinity Brompton received a dose of the “blessing” through Elli Mumford who had just returned from Toronto.  

On May 24, 1994, Elli Mumford met with several leaders of Holy Trinity Brompton. As Mumford prayed at this meet­ing, the “transferable blessing” from the Toronto Airport Vineyard was manifest.  Sandy Millar, the highly regarded vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, decided that Elli would preach the following Sunday morning. After giving her testi­mony about her ‘Toronto experience,’ Elli asked the congregation to stand while she prayed the Lord would bless and give them all He had.  Immediately people began to laugh hysterically, weep, shake, jerk, bark and roar.

So, it’s possible to ‘transfer’ a Charismatic blessing from one church and one person to another?  Hmm. 

Cephas Ministry, which has researched Alpha, asks ‘Is It the Final Answer or a Fatal Attraction?’:

Addressing Alpha Deficiencies, Alan Howe informs us: “Central to the Alpha Course is not the Christian gospel, but the so-called ‘Holy Spirit Weekend’ which is in fact a thinly-disguised opportunity for initiation into the Toronto Blessing experience … An unknown evangelistic tool had thus become a syncretistic mixture of orthodoxy and heresy.”

In Alpha Shake and Bake, [G. Richard] Fisher stated, a close look at the words of Nicky Gumbel, a former atheist, as quoted by the Christian Research Network Journal, show the real direction of the Alpha Course. Gumbel unashamedly is trying to move people into esoteric experiences, altered states of consciousness, self-hypnosis and mindless emotionalism and then tell his followers it is all of God. Gumbel uses “God’s words” to move people toward the ultimate end which is hysteria, loss of control and mindlessness.

And what happens if you cannot have this ‘experience’? As early as 1996, when Alpha was taking off nationwide in Britain, The Times (London) reported:

A woman has walked out of her church and is holding services in her living room, because she says she cannot bring herself to “snort like a pig and bark like a dog” on a Church of England course. Angie Golding, 50, claims she was denied confirmation unless she signed up for the Alpha course, which she says is a “brainwashing” exercise where participants speak in tongues, make animal noises and then fall over.

She has left the evangelical St Marks in Broadwater Down, Kent, with 14 members of the congregation and founded a church at home in Tunbridge Wells. She said: “I’ll be a fool for the Lord any day, but I won’t be a fool for man.”

Deception in the Church, in an article entitled ‘The Dangers of the Alpha Course’, points out:

The men who designed this course are laying error alongside truth, introducing error secretly (“pareisaxousinin” in Greek) the result of which will ruin the faith of the believer in the end …

Perhaps the preachers and evangelists who have endorsed this course need to take a longer look at their Bibles. Jesus NEVER laid hands on his disciples, the result of which were “manifestations” of uncontrollable laughter, mayhem, shaking, animal noises, vomitting, or any of the other demonic disorder of the Toronto and Brownsville “things”

In the documentaries I’ve seen, not everyone has a charismatic experience.  Sometimes, one or two people leave the course at the weekend when things get too weird.  They also tend not to return to church. Even for those who stay the course, as it were, only half or slightly more than half decide to seek baptism or church membership.  Those who walk away say that Alpha has been a useful experience and has helped them gain a better perspective on their lives. 

Those who walk away with nothing understandably think that Alpha is presenting the true God, the true Bible, the true Church, the true Jesus.   It’s a crying shame. 

Tomorrow: Alpha’s brand of Jesus 

For more information, see:

Millions take Alpha Course

Alpha: Another Road to Rome?

The Alpha Course: Is It the Final Answer or a Fatal Attraction?

The Dangers of the Alpha Course