Rev. Nicky Gumbel, right, of Holy Trinity, Brompton, England – home of the Alpha program – is pictured at a conference with Elaine Young, Alpha regional co-ordinator in Nova Scotia, her spouse, Rev. Peter Young and delegate Robert Wood.
AS ATTENDANCE s attendance in many churches declines, a controversial evangelism program is bringing new life to others.
The Alpha program is growing exponentially, attracting the churched, people on the fringes of society, and “the unchurched”. The growth has been attributed to the simplicity and accessibility of program resources used by the program hosts in parishes.
The program is a 10-week introduction to Christianity using Alpha-designed videotapes followed by group discussion and a shared meal. It is designed to be a practical, flexible teaching model suitable for any denomination or group.
Alpha originated in England from the Anglican parish of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and continues to be led by Rev. Nicky Gumbel, a priest of the parish.
The first official Alpha training conference was held in 1996 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street in Toronto, with 700 participants from a variety of denominations.
It was the largest conference on evangelism organized by a parish in Canada. It was also, perhaps, the most controversial. As many people were apparently moved to outward expressions of the Spirit, speaking in tongues or falling down, some members of St. Paul’s were disturbed by the manifestations.
It created a sharp division in the congregation about the program. In 1992, the church suspended Alpha amid concerns about the way it was introduced and its apparent close ties to the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship.
Alpha’s critics in Canada and the United Kingdom have expressed concerns that the program is not as theologically holistic as it should be, is too simplistic in its approach, lacks connection with denominational roots or social action and is exclusionary.
Despite its detractors, Alpha has taken off in other parishes across the country. According to Alpha’s figures, the program has grown from four registered courses in 1991 to 10,500 around the globe. Sally Start, administrator for Alpha Canada, and Elaine Young, Nova Scotia-based regional co-ordinator, both believe Alpha’s success is due to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Ms. Young became involved in Alpha after someone in her parish learned about the program through a British newspaper. Her interest piqued, she wrote to request the video series. People in the parish who watched the videos were excited.
“It answered questions people were afraid to ask,” said Ms. Young. The parish started its first course in 1996 and now offers 29 courses annually.
The Alpha movement in Nova Scotia is ecumenically based, Ms. Young said. “We’ve broken down a lot of denominational walls.” The program has been very successful in the province’s predominantly rural population; there were 75 registered courses from 1998 to 1999.
More than 200 parish leaders are expected to attend a regional training conference in June. Conference participants watch the videos, develop teaching methods for parish groups together and, since prayer is an important part of Alpha, pray together before each session.
Why is this movement mushrooming in Nova Scotia? Ms. Young attributes it to the non-threatening approach of the program. “It’s easy to understand, and the average person can receive and respond (to this information). It has brought our church much more to life, and there are now four home groups that have grown out of the course.” She added that in the 10 years she and her husband, an Anglican priest, have been in ministry there, “We’ve never seen anything like this (revitalization).”
The goal of Alpha originally was to reach the unchurched, or churchgoers who had “lapsed” in their faith. Most people involved in Alpha, however, are regular church attendees, or are at least marginally involved in a church, said Ms. Young.
“I guess you could say we’re working from the inside out. We need our people to be familiar with and able to share their enthusiasm for the faith. I think it’s a tool for bringing new life to the church, and we’re reaching younger people in the 30 to 50 age group. It’s been a terrific tool for ecumenism as well.” Alpha Canada set up shop in May 1998, and more than 800 programs have been registered thus far.
Nationwide, the number of people registered in courses seems to double each year, said Ms. Start.
“I think Alpha’s been successful because it’s got a very low ‘cringe’ factor, is culturally relevant, and is a very friendly form of evangelism. People feel confident in coming out because they know they won’t be pressured, and they can have a great meal. Comments we get from participants indicate many feel they have never been that well taken care of, and that they felt loved. Participants witness Christianity in practice.”
Is Alpha one of the keys to revitalizing the Canadian church? “I hope it helps,” said Ms. Start.
“People are spiritually hungry, and are looking for spiritual truths,” she said.
Deborah Luchuk is a freelance writer living near Toronto.