The Alpha course was created by Revd. Charles Marnham in 1977, whilst he was a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton. However, it was Revd. Nicky Gumbel, also a curate at Holy trinity, who in 1990 developed it into the format we know today and Nicky Gumbel is still involved with Alpha.
At that time, it was a local course, but by the mid 1990’s more that 2,500 courses were being held. Today, according to the uk.alpha.org website, more than 29 million people have tried Alpha, across 169 countries and it has been translated into 112 different languages. Not only that, whilst its origins lie in the Church of England, it has been used in the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and other Protestant churches. Alpha, as they say, has a pedigree.
Alpha was first held at St John’s during Dick Fields’ time and I can remember attending it. That course was smaller than last year’s and held in a house rather than the hall. However, the format was the same.
The talks are often given in the form of video’s. Currently, the Alpha series is available in four different formats, Alpha with Nicky Gumbel, Alpha Youth Film Series, Alpha TV, and Alpha Films series, which was added last year.
Alpha course meetings have the same basic format. They first start out with a meal. People will sit, chat and enjoy food. After the meal is over, everyone will listen to a talk, usually a video from one of the series mentioned above. Once the talk is over, everyone will break into groups and discuss the talk and its subject.
The Alpha Course starting at St John’s later this year will be the second during David’s tenure here at St John’s, the first being held last year. This gave me the opportunity to talk to people who were involved in last year’s course, both those who attended the course and those who led it.
Peter had stopped going to church for some time. Although he hadn’t lost his faith he needed help to grow in it and feel able to attend church again. He was handed information about Alpha at church one day. He looked into it, and decided that it might be what he needed and so signed up for the course at St John’s.
Peter really enjoyed the course, particularly the social aspects of it and the fact that he could have conversations about faith that might not be possible without the easy going and friendly atmosphere of Alpha. It gave a fresh and less formal environment and he found it easy to relate to the presenters of each video. Attending the course made Peter re-evaluate his life and has given him more optimism.
Of the course, he says, “I would like to say that the end goal is exploring one’s faith and exploring God, but I would suggest that people who are slightly tempted would come almost for a social and see where it leads from there.” That is very much the idea behind Alpha. To encourage people to come to the course and see where it leads them.
After the course was over, Peter revisited some of the course videos that are available on the Alpha website. He also attends one of the post-Alpha Bible study groups and is attending church more often. He helps with refreshments after the morning service once a month.
Stefania was on a bus when she saw an Alpha advert outside a church, which asked the question ‘Why are we here?’ This was something she had been asking herself and so, like Peter, she looked into Alpha and then emailed St John’s, asking to join last year’s course.
Stefania is not from a religious family, but has been interested in finding out more about faith. She has read the Bible and found she needed help to understand it. She tried going to church, but wasn’t ready for it. What she needed was someone to help her to understand the Bible and Christianity.
Stefania says that attending Alpha was the best decision she has ever made. Since attending she has read more of the Bible and more books about the Bible than at any time before. Like Peter, she enjoyed the format and the opportunity to socialise over the meal at the beginning of each meeting. Stefania looked forward to going to Alpha each Wednesday evening and was quite sad when the course ended. Since then, she has also been attending one of the post-Alpha Bible study groups
Stefania doesn’t attend church at present, in part because she feels she is at a very early stage in her journey and needs to read and discover more for herself. She has attended the Café-style service and finds that easier because it is less formal and allows her to engage with others in discussions about the Bible and faith.
Of Alpha, Stefania says, “For me it definitely turned my life around. It made me more positive. Even the way I deal with issues, or anxieties or problems. I feel more at peace than I used to. I used to be quite an angry person, but I’m more relaxed, more at ease, more in the knowledge just to trust God and to have faith.”
Moriah and Sally's Stories
Moriah and Sally were both involved with leading last year’s course, at St John’s. They were asked to help with two of the discussion groups. Both were interested in helping others to understand and talk about faith and Christianity. They were also open to the opportunity of learning themselves.
After the video, those attending would gather in groups of about six people and, with the help of facilitators like Sally and Moriah, they would discuss what they had seen. There was no teaching, in the traditional sense, just open and frank discussion. Even so, facilitating a discussion group can be daunting because of the responsibilities and expectations of the role, but as Sally said, “You have to remember you are learning as much as anyone else. We are all learning all the time in our walk with Christ. So, there was some pressure, but it was enjoyable. I liked it.”
Moriah found it really encouraging. “In our group, we had the whole range, people who had grown up going to church, people who didn’t believe in it at all and were just interested in spirituality. I think that so often in church we don’t give room for doubt and questions and discussion. Faith can handle that, like Christianity can handle the questions. I found it really refreshing to have discussions like ‘did this really happen’ or ‘is this really true’ and to hear all the different opinions and come to your own conclusion.”
Both Moriah and Sally found that being facilitators for Alpha discussion groups also helped them to learn more and strengthen their own faith.
Alpha has helped all of those I spoke with and has touched the lives of many others. There is no pressure on people attending Alpha to go to church, just discuss, listen and learn.
With Alpha, the seed is planted, but how it grows will only be seen in the fullness of time. From our perspective, as a church, we can only look to provide the kind of open and welcoming environment that would encourage those who attend Alpha to take the step of joining a church. How we do that is a discussion we, at St John’s, should be having
The next Alpha course at St John’s starts on Wednesday 20th September at 7.30pm. More information is available on the church website.
My thanks go to David Britton, Hong-Yoke Hepburn, Sally Tackie, Moriah Hendrix, Peter Rowe and Stefania Graziola for their help with this article.