The Alpha Course Examined
At the end of March 1999, subsequent to having been involved in the publicity, administration and teaching on both adult and youth Alpha courses, my vicar at St Thomas, Sheldon, asked me to explain why I was uncomfortable with the Alpha course. I explained that my discomfort had nothing to do with the style of delivery of the course, (which I actually believed was excellent and had much to commend it), rather it was the theological content that was the cause. Having more recently read David Wells book, God in the Wasteland, I have been forced to ask whether the style and method of the course actually panders so much to the culture of there being a ‘smorgasboard of religion’ for people to investigate and take their pick from’ that it needs to be examined closely too. But that is the topic of another discussion. I hope that this short essay will explain where my concerns with the course content lies.
According to its internet site, "Alpha is a 15 session practical introduction to the Christian faith. It is aimed specifically at those who don't normally go to church". It is therefore from the point of view of the man or woman who is ignorant of the faith rather than from the point of view of those who are already Christians, that the course will be assessed.
Anyone involved in Christian ministry in this country and indeed throughout the world cannot ignore the massive impact that Alpha is having and no doubt will continue to have in the future. Ostensibly Alpha has been extraordinarily effective. Over 500,000 people completed the course by 1997. No doubt many more by now. The course is being run in countries as diverse as Namibia and Finland. Both the Alpha internet site and Alpha news contain many commendations from diverse theological positions. The Archbishop of Canterbury says "It is superb. I commend it wholeheartedly”. Roman Catholic cardinals also give it high praise. '4The course does not contain anything that is contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine" says Bishop Ambrose Griffiths OSB, (Hexham and Newcastle) Another commentator WD Scholes in A is for Alpha, B is for Berean" says that " The course also appears to contain a number of criteria that ought to keep the Evangelical constituency happy. The cross is mentioned, the Bible is used and apologetics are employed to convey the Christian message in a credible manner"
It is clear that there are many things about Alpha which are praiseworthy. It is remarkably well produced and the quality of the resources are exceptional. It is easily transferable and so reaches people far beyond Brompton. The quality and availability of the resources provide church leaders with a ready made evangelistic course so that it does not require a great deal of work to get the course going. That Alpha has encouraged so many churches and so many individuals to start doing evangelism must be a cause of much rejoicing.
Another aspect of the whole of the Alpha course is the intense zeal with which people long for others to become Christians. There can be no doubting the godly commitment of those organising the Alpha initiative, to reach those who have never known Christ.
Perhaps the most significant contribution that Alpha has made is the emphasis it places on the value of relationships. The practice of guests returning to the same group each week, sharing a friendly meal together on neutral ground ensures that people are put at ease and better able to hear a talk and ask questions at the end. This is where Alpha is at its strongest. "Learning about the Christian faith and having a lot of fun together" says Gumbel is what it is about. "It’s all friendship based. There is no knocking on doors. It is friends bringing friends," he says. A number of other evangelistic courses have adopted the emphasis on friendly, supper party based evangelism, and have acknowledged their debt to Alpha in this.
There can be no doubting the remarkable ability of the course to draw in non-Christians but the question does remain as to what they are taught during the course. It is right to always be seeking current ways to convey the gospel to the contemporary society, however the gospel message is unchanging. So as Scholes wisely points out we must cut through the packaging to examine what Alpha conveys.
First because we should examine everything.
The New Testament does call on us not to judge and it is important to think hard about the planks in our own eyes, however it does also call us to be discerning in what we say and do and there are strong warnings aimed especially at those who are teachers. We are responsible for what we say. After Paul and Silas had preached in the Jewish synagogue we are told that the Bereans.. 'examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true' and they are commended for this practice. (Acts 17,11) If the Bereans examined even the apostle's teaching, how much more should we examine contemporary teaching?
Given that so many people are likely to come into contact with the course, is it not fair to suggest that Alpha's undoubted popularity renders scrutiny obligatory? WD Scholes points out that 'Evangelism at it’s core has a biblical message and it is therefore imperative that we convey the biblical message'.
The basis of the examination will be the apostolic gospel revealed in the scriptures. It is not enough to rely on the accolades of others or on the fact that the course works'. Theology rather that pragmatism must be the basis of whether something is good. So the question we must ask of any initiative is not 'Does it work?' but 'Does it honour Christ?' only those things that are consonant with the word of God can be honoring to him.We should be unashamed to engage in the Berean habit of testing everything from scripture, and it is in this manner that I humbly asses Alpha.
It should be pointed out that at no stage is it suggested that the organisers of Alpha do not believe biblical truths. What is being assessed is not what is believed by individuals but what is taught through the course, and whether or not this is a clearly communicated Biblical gospel.
The critical question is this; Is the message of Alpha the message of the Bible? I hope to answer the question by looking at four main areas: the character of God, the nature of sin, the cross of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The material in book, booklet and on tape presents one overriding message about the character of God: God is love. What could be wrong with that after all the apostle John himself writes God is love (1 John 4: 16)?. Nothing is wrong unless it is the one character of God that is so strongly emphasized that other aspects of his character are drastically diminished. This seems to be the case with the Alpha course.
Alpha introduces God through the existence of the Lord Jesus, which is perfectly biblical “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” John 14.9. “No one can come to the Father except through me” John 14.6. However there is nothing about Him being our creator and all that the Bible unpacks from that great truth, namely that he is the great King and sovereign over all that he has created.
Chris Hand in his book 'Falling short, The Alpha course examined' reminds us of the Athenian attitude to God when Paul preached to them in Acts 17; “The Athenians were crucially ignorant of God just as we are today. They did not know how high and lofty he was. They did not know how much they owed to him as their creator. Surrounded as they were by evidences of his goodness and kindness, they did not know how profoundly ungrateful and therefore rebellious they were to him as their great and mighty creator. In Alpha God is simply introduced to us as the one who can help us rather than the self existent eternally glorious maker of heaven and earth'.
Alongside the absence of God being our creator is a failure to teach God's holiness. This is extraordinary given the fact that 'God is holy' is taught far more often in scripture than "God is love'. Indeed the adjective used most frequently in scripture to describe God is 'holy'. The God of the Bible is a God of holiness whose love is all the more remarkable in that it is bestowed upon wicked sinners. Indeed when we remove the holiness of God, we undermine the love of God.
The scriptures warn us that 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God' (Heb 10:31) Would our friends on the Alpha course know this from the material they are presented with? I fear they wouldn’t. I have friends who respond by suggesting that while the course is weak on this, it is made up for in the follow up courses to Alpha. It is my concern that while that may be the case, (I have not been involved in any follow up courses to comment) Alpha is intended to be a presentation of the gospel that will bring people to faith. It can therefore be assumed that the Alpha material posits that people are best brought to faith without God’s holiness and sovereign rule over the world being taught.
The consequences of such a diminished definition of the character of God are enormous, Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Alpha's treatment of sin. Alpha is clear to begin with on what is at the heart of sin when it states that the 'root cause of sin is a broken relationship with God'. The consequences of sin are spelt out in terms of the pollution, the power, the penalty and partition of sin. But then as the argument in the course is followed, sin is presented as being ‘the mess we make of our own lives'. The problem of sin is explained as 'the rubbish that clutters up our lives and clutters up our world' and as 'pollution of the soul'.
For all it’s biblical use of words, Alpha fails to define sin biblically. It does so by concentrating on the consequences of sin rather than on what sin actually is. To define the root cause of sin as ‘broken relationship’ does not identify why the relationship is broken or who has done the breaking. Man without God is the subject of God's wrath. We are not slightly displeasing to him, with the occasional foible; rather by nature 'We are objects of wrath' (Eph 2:3) because we have offended against God and broken his holy law. The root cause of sin is ‘our rejection’ of our relationship with him as our creator and rightful ruler. It is that rejection of Him, for which we are culpable, and which deserves his rightful justice, rather than its result. Alpha allows me too easily to distance myself from the culpability of rejecting God as holy King over his creation.
Chris Hand writes succinctly of the consequences of failing to teach that God is holy. “The consequences of sin are true enough. But it is all man centered. They are the consequences for us. Surely the fact that we have offended against God is sufficient reason to worry about sin. Alpha's emphasis does not go anything like far enough. Christ in Alpha, comes forward to deal with too small a problem”.
Ultimately then, sin according to Alpha is more of a problem for us than it is for God. In scripture it is quite the opposite. In Alpha the problem is perceived in very man centered terms. This would explain why the course says very little indeed about God's anger or wrath against human rebellion and very little about future judgment, ‘when his righteous judgment will be revealed' (Rom 2:5). We are told that we will all be the subject of the judgment of God but we are never told how awful that day will be. Omitting that eternal perspective leads the course to present sin as a problem for the here and now and turns it into something that requires only a therapeutic cure. As we shall see the misunderstanding of sin inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the cross. If the diagnosis is inaccurate then the cure will be ineffective. My Alpha friends admit the lack of teaching on these aspects of sin and God’s judgement but once again suggest they are best kept till a follow up course.
I am borrowing much of Schole’s argument in what follows. (W.D Scholes : A is for Alpha, B is for Berean, The Churchman Vol 112 No 4 1998 pp 294-312). Alpha gets off to a good start. After seeking to establish “Who is Jesus?” the session “Why did Jesus die?” tells us that ‘the cross lies at the heart of the Christian faith’ (Alpha Manual page 10). We are told that the cross achieved justification, redemption, atonement and reconciliation and scripture references are provided. Indeed there is a reasonable foundation to build on if one wanted to further investigate the Cross. However the penal substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement is given very little weight – that Christ died not simply in our place but took upon himself the wrath of God against sin. It is skimmed over in the course. This is hardly surprising given that there is an incorrect view of the disease of sin in Alpha, the cure of the cross is similarly misrepresented. We are left with a hollow view of why Jesus had to die at all. Thus the cross ends up being little more than a visual aid, which proves that God is self-sacrificial and loving. The death of Jesus is presented as being an act of love yet without any connection with the reality of God's holy anger. This is a far cry from the biblical teaching on the atonement.
The second major weakness in this area is that for all it's claims that ‘the cross lies at the heart of the Christian faith', the cross is in reality not central to Alpha. After talk two, which deals with the cross, it is barely mentioned in subsequent sessions. One could be forgiven for thinking on examination of the course as a whole that the centrality of the cross and Jesus Christ’s work of atonement had been usurped. This is extraordinary not only because the cross is at the heart of the Christian faith, but also that Alpha is aimed at those who know little or nothing about the Christian faith. This is a far cry from Paul's desire to 'Preach Christ and him crucified' (1Cor 1:23).
Moreover this inconsistency is indicative of another problem with Alpha. This is that it assumes too much too quickly and leaves the gospel behind in it's zeal to teach on Christian living. The suggestion, that I have been given, that the follow up courses are the place to fill in the gaps is once again put forward by my Alpha friends who suggest that the rest of the Alpha course is used to teach about the practicalities of Christian living. This seems to imply a shift away from a thorough presentation of the gospel in evangelistic courses and a desire instead to teach ‘lifestyle’ as the evangelistic method. Surely it is assuming a great deal to think that the gospel of grace through the work of Christ can be left behind after week three. (such that the third session is entitled 'How can I be sure of my faith?) The emphasis of Alpha hardly mirrors the emphasis of Scripture.
Given that the cross is clearly not the centre of Alpha, something else must have taken its place. The talks that do come in the middle and that occupy the largest part of the time spent on the course, concern the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Nicky Gumbel says that he is addressing an imbalance in Trinitarian teaching that has been going on for centuries, and so is obliged to make up for lost time in Alpha by emphasizing the subject of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if people’s first contact with Christianity, an evangelistic course, is the place to try to make up for a perceived imbalance in the churches teaching?. I would suggest that too much of the limited time in what is an evangelistic course is spent on the subject of the Holy Spirit.
In the talk 'How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?', the fullness of the spirit is presented as a subsequent experience to conversion. This previously would have been called the 'baptism in the Spirit'. The name has changed but the understanding has not. The double phased experience is argued from Paul's 'double experience' on the Damascus road and later with Ananias (Acts 9), from the Samaritans (Acts 8) and from the Ephesians (Acts 19). These arguments have already been refuted decisively. cf Showing the Spirit, DA Carson, Keep in step with the Spirit, JI Packer, Baptism and Fullness, John Stott. Wayne Grudem himself asserts that ‘these are not really convincing examples to prove the Pentecostal doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit…’(Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Michigan 1994) page 773ff. There is scant evidence in scripture to suggest anything other than that the believer receives all of the Holy Spirit when he or she repents, puts their trust in Jesus and is justified. ‘Be being filled with the spirit..’ in Ephesians 4:17 is an ongoing command which acknowledges variation in filling among Christians but not a requirement to seek a second filling. The teaching ‘Every Christian has the Holy Spirit, but not every Christian is filled with the Spirit' (Alpha manual, HTB Publishing, page 33) is at odds with Biblical teaching.
Equally alarming is the statement that 'We now live in the age of the Spirit',(Qusetions of Life, Nicky Gumbel (Kingsway 1993) page 115) as if we hadn't been in the age of the Spirit since Christ ascended and left his Holy Spirit. Moreover Scholes points out that to use such language in today's spiritual environment is dangerous, not least because of the New age conviction that we are in 'the age of the spirit'. Yet far from concerned about this Gumbel seems to think it is an advantage. He writes that 'those coming from the New Age movement find that rational and historical explanations leave them cold, but at the weekend they are on more familiar territory in experiencing the Holy Spirit. As Scholes points out Gumbel's reasoning suggests that there are two equally valid ways of becoming a Christian; one is to be persuaded by rational and historical explanations, and the other is by experiencing the Holy Spirit. To think thus is to ignore the fact that it is always the apostles priority to present rational and historical explanations to all sorts of people (Acts 2:22-41, 8:26-38, 17:16-33) wherever they proclaimed the gospel. It is the Holy Spirit who then applies these words to people’s hearts and convicts them of their sin. This appears to be yet another way that the apostolic gospel is bypassed in an effort to make things as accessible as possible.
Given the zeal with which Alpha wishes to teach guests about the Holy Spirit, there is one area which is conspicuous by it's absence; that is Jesus teaching on the Holy Spirit in the gospels, particularly the farewell discourse in John 14 - 17. Why is this teaching overlooked? Obviously these chapters are not the only ones which inform our doctrine of the Holy Spirit but surely they are significant ones. These chapters teach us that there is an indissoluble connection between the word of God and the Spirit of God, a connection which runs right through Scripture. That connection is that they both point to Christ. For the Spirit, another 'Counsellor' John 14:16-17) 'will guide you (the disciples) into all truth' and He (the Spirit) will bring glory to me (Jesus) by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. (John 16:13-14). Given what Jesus teaches about His Holy Spirit we should expect Him to point towards Jesus and His words and not to himself.
This being the case why are we told that 'For many the decisive moment is the Saturday evening of the weekend? For Alpha the decisive moment is not the preaching of Christ and Him crucified, but when the Holy Spirit is ‘invoked’. But if, as the Holy Scriptures teach us the Holy Spirit comes at conversion, this is quite extraordinary. Surely the moment when the guest repents and believes must be the decisive moment. However this would explain why so much emphasis is put on the weekend when the Spirit comes. On the Alpha leaders tapes there is a peculiar mystique about giving the talk 'How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?' Both Sandy Millar when talking of his conversion and Nicky Gumbel when talking of his giving this talk give a consistent message, that the Holy Spirit weekend is the highlight of Alpha.
Yet isn't this teaching both to demean the Holy Spirit and to misunderstand his work? We cannot control the Holy Spirit in the way that Alpha implies; for like the wind which blows wherever it wishes (John 3:8) the Holy Spirit moves wherever he wishes and without human control. The Spirit is sovereign and He will work as he chooses and as God has promised, namely when the word of God is preached. Ironically Alpha ends up limiting the Spirit, the very thing which it accuses others of doing when it claims 'For a long time in the church the person and work of the Holy Spirit has been ignored, misunderstood and resisted'. (Telling Others, The Alpha Initiative, Nicky Gumbel (Kingsway 1994) page 12.) Moreover if the Spirit's longing is to point to Christ and to bring Him the glory then isn't it strange that Christ is so infrequently mentioned?
The lack of focus on Jesus is seen very clearly in the testimonies people give, testimonies which Alpha quotes with approval in it's literature. The first of the five main testimonies in Telling Others is particularly revealing. It reads:
'The one thing that stuck in my mind was how the work of the Holy Spirit was described as of paramount importance. I knew in my heart I had to have this power in my life at any cost so I found out where the church was enrolled on the course and focused on the weekend. I felt like a dying man waiting for a life saving operation. Never mind the weeks of pre-med, I just had to get into the operating theatre... I looked at the order of play and saw that the third session (which I identified as the main one) was at 4.30pm and simply hung on like a marathon runner weaving his way up the final straight with nothing but the finishing tape as the focus of his attention. I'll never forget that session. I felt as though I was being torn in two. Halfway through I couldn't stand it any more. The prize was so near but we were getting there so slowly! I literally wanted to scream out "Do it now! Do it now! I couldn't hold out any longer. I'm not exaggerating when I say I was in agony. Then God came and then came the relief.
This is deeply troubling. This personregards the talks on 'who is Jesus?' and 'Why did he die? as pre-med. The focus of his attention is specifically identified as being not the Lord Jesus, not the Cross, not even The Holy Spirit, but the third session 'How can I be filled with the Spirit?' Sadly such a testimony is repeated again and again. This is hardly surprising as guests are made expectant of variously; 'physical heat sometimes accompanies the filling of the Spirit and people experience it in their hands or some other part of their bodies. The experience is described as 'glowing all over', liquid heat, burning in my arms when I was not hot. Still another said 'I didn't want to come to the weekend and I did. But I would call myself a Christian now. I would say that I felt the Holy Spirit. I was feeling I was loved. It was really a tremendous overwhelming feeling of love'. Again what is conspicuous by its absence in so many of these testimonies is any mention of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice on the Cross which is the heart of the Biblical gospel.
In concluding this section two things stand out. First this isn't simply a case of Christians having different views on who the Holy Spirit is and what He does. It is that, but it is considerably more than that. For it seems that what is being presented is an entirely different view of conversion. More often than not Alpha seems to invite people to have an experience of God's love and the power of the Holy Spirit rather than calling for obedience to the message of the gospel. To suggest that these topics are best left to the follow up courses is to shy away from presenting the cost of discipleship in the gospel presentation itself. I fear that this is a ‘secret and shameful way’ 2 Corinthians 4:2 It is not setting forth the truth plainly. Scripture commands us to believe that Jesus is Lord which must lead to repentance from sin and a belief in the good news that 'Jesus came into the World to save sinners'. (1 Tim 1:15.) Then and only then will the regenerate person be justified before a Holy God, be filled with all of the Holy Spirit, and have absolute assurance of anger propitiated, sins forgiven, and of heaven ahead.
Needless to say that to be born again in this Biblical sense is a profoundly 'emotional experience'. It is not suggested for a moment that we must shun emotion or experience; rather it is insisted, as the scriptures insist, that there is content to what Christians believe and substance to our experience of God's grace.
The second thing to say is that Alpha may be guilty of the error of over-realized eschatology. It seems to have lost sight of the innumerable blessings of heaven and of that day in the future when the believer who has been sealed with the Holy Spirit will enjoy them. The direct result of an over-inflated view of what we can have now is that the glorious future in store for Christians is minimized. By bringing the 'not yet' into the 'now' Alpha promises far too much and is in danger of misleading people as to the nature of the Christian life. Like the Corinthians, those who buy into this will have too high a view of their present position such that Paul could say of them with heavy sarcasm, "Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich' (1Cor 4:8). Sadly it seems that Alpha panders to our society's desire for the instant and has lost sight of the need for believers to 'turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his son from heaven whom he raised from the dead - Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath' (1 Thess 1:9-10). The gospel of Christ is unashamedly future rather than present centered.
I am well aware that much of this analysis has pointed out areas where I think that Alpha is weak. I hope this is not perceived as 'nasty and petty' but rather born out of a desire to see the Biblical gospel clearly proclaimed.
In particular it would seem that Alpha is ‘man centered’ such that it preaches a gospel which appeals to people's felt needs, and is also 'now centered' such that it presents a gospel which focuses on the present rather than the future. The heart of the gospel, that Jesus Christ, crucified and raised is Lord, is displaced. In the light of this there are a number of tough questions to ask.
1. At what stage does a change in emphasis effectively mean that we are preaching another gospel?
2. Is it right to adopt the attitude that it better to do something than nothing when that something' may be distorting the biblical gospel? Sadly it would seem that many are taking this approach. I am not suggesting that another course will get the gospel exactly right but that where any course can be shown to be scripturally deficient action must be taken. The bible must be our guide.
3. We should also ask what is the interface between pragmatic considerations and theological convictions? So many endorse Alpha on the grounds that ‘It works'. An Alpha friend of mine writes:
“Neither should we necessarily reject it because it works. I believe the course has clearly been used by God in today’s world. If it is so far from the truth I find it difficult to understand why a huge resistance has not been witnessed.”
It is just this kind of pragmatic argument that threatens the authority of scripture for determining the content of our evangelistic courses. Popularity can never legitimize Alpha or anything else for that matter. (2Tim 4:3). Paul’s charge to Timothy is to ‘Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season (ie even when the truth will not be received well by all) correct rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.
4. Is it better to try to amend Alpha or use another evangelistic course?. Many churches have sought to adapt it but doing so not only does not respect the copyright of Alpha, but results in people who have come through an adapted Alpha believing they have been taught the same thing as an un-adapted one. This can only lead to further confusion. It is my conviction that there is so much that needs changing that it would be better to look elsewhere. Christianity Explored is a course based on Mark's Gospel that provides an excellent Biblical alternative. More details are available by clicking here: http://www.christianityexplored.com/.
5. Lastly, how are we to relate to those who run Alpha? This is pertinent to me having several friends who are involved in running Alpha courses. I hope that credit is given where it is due and that we will learn from all that is good in Alpha. At the same time we must speak the truth in love and remain committed to Biblical truth. It must be right to continue to think and asses all that we do with Scripture as our only judge. If this has encouraged you to think whether the gospel presented in Alpha is the gospel of Scripture then I thank God.