Concerns With The Alpha Course—Updated
A 15-session course designed to introduce the Christian faith to unbelievers and new believers in a relaxed, informal and conversational setting is continuing to grow in popularity in churches throughout the world. Called the Alpha Course, this program originated at the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church in England, and was developed by HTB pastor Nicky Gumbel for use by churches in addition to his own. Over eight million people worldwide have participated in the Alpha Course at various churches since its inception in 1992, and millions more are being exposed to the Alpha Course through satellite television via the GOD Channel, a media outlet that reaches most of the world. According to the Winter 2006 issue of Alpha News, 127 denominations worldwide currently host Alpha courses. Here in the United States, the Alpha Course’s rising popularity among evangelical churches is being fueled by endorsements from some of the leading evangelicals in America—including megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Rick Warren.
Alpha is an acronym which explains the purpose and goal of the course. An informational booklet describes the Alpha Course as follows:
Anyone interested in ﬁnding out more about the Christian faith is welcome on the course.
Learning and laughter. It is possible to learn about the Christian faith and have fun at the same time.
Pasta and pie. Eating a meal together gives people an opportunity to get to know each other.
Helping one another. The small groups give you a chance to discuss issues raised in the talks.
Ask anything. Alpha is a place where no question is regarded as too simple or too hostile.
Typically, individuals desiring to learn about Christianity meet for several hours a week for ten weeks at a location (usually a local church) designated by a host church. Promotional materials for Alpha state:
"Alpha courses are held during the day or the evening. Each session starts with a light meal followed by a talk on a subject central to the Christian faith. Participants then discuss what they think and feel about the talk in pre-arranged small groups. Trained lay people from the church host each group, to provide welcome and gentle facilitation of the discussion. No question is treated as too simple or too hostile. In such a setting, participants experience Christian love and fellowship as they explore their own beliefs."
Topics for discussion, according to the introductory brochure, include (among others): “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?”; “Who is Jesus?”; “How can I be sure of my faith?”; “Why and how should I read the Bible?”; “How can I be ﬁlled with the Holy Spirit?”; “Why and how should I pray?”; “Does God heal today?”; “What about the church?”
The introductory brochure describes Alpha as a course “for everyone in every kind of church.” It states, “Alpha is being run by churches of every different denomination, including Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Salvation Army, Free Church and House Churches. Wherever the course is being held, all churches provide the same material, making alterations only to suit local culture.” The variety of Christian leaders who endorse Alpha, including many American Evangelicals, attests to its interdenominational emphasis. Note the names and comments of several endorsers:
• Bill Hybels (Southern Baptist): “We applaud the vision and work of Alpha to connect the unconnected to the life of the local church and to relationship with Jesus.” In October 2002, Alpha founder Nicky Gumbel spoke at four weekend services at Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church. After presenting a lecture to the Willow Creek audience, Gumbel joined Hybels for a question and answer service for any “seekers” in the audience. Hybels prayed for Gumbel, “God, I thank you for this man and for what he means, through the Alpha Course, to millions and millions of people all over the world.”
• Rick Warren (Southern Baptist): “It’s great to see how Alpha has been used to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ, who wouldn’t normally come to church. This resource is very complementary to helping seekers connect with The Purpose Driven Life.”
• Tony Campolo (American Baptist): “The Alpha course is intelligent, biblically based, and incredibly interesting … For the inquiring mind, there is nothing better around than the Alpha course.”
• Charles Colson (Prison Fellowship): “I rejoice at how God is using [Alpha] so powerfully to renew many churches both inside and outside prison walls.”
• Jack Hayford (Foursquare Pentecostal): “I see Alpha as a strategic tool, sensitively crafted to address today’s secularized seekers with satisfying answers to their spiritual hunger. I recommend Alpha to all pastors wanting to equip their people for new-millennium effectiveness in evangelism.”
• Desmond Tutu (former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa): ”We all have a God-shaped space within. Alpha opens the door to that space and is a starting point for the sharing, caring, praying community which is exemplary of the Church in action.”
• Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper (president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity): ”…John Paul II encouraged us as Christians, at the beginning of the new millennium, in the face of widespread apathy and Godforsakenness among men, not to relent in the task of the new evangelisation. The Alpha course sees itself as committed to exactly this task … Alpha courses, which came originally from an Anglican background, are also opportunities to strengthen ecumenical togetherness among Christians and a joint proclamation of faith in Christ in today’s world.”
• Rowan Williams (Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury): “What Alpha has to offer is a unique mixture of Christian content and Christian style. I recommend it … as a very special tool of evangelism.”
• Rebecca Manley Pippert (author; conference speaker): “Alpha is a strategic tool for Christians of all stripes—be they Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox … I recommend it highly!”
Here in the United States, Alpha has forged close official partnerships with several evangelical organizations including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Outreach Ministries and Prison Fellowship (Alpha News, Winter 2005).
Although the Alpha Course has become increasingly popular within the evangelical community, it remains rooted in its Anglican heritage and is still predominantly utilized within mainline Protestant, Episcopalian and even Roman Catholic churches. In fact, Alpha’s official website describes how Alpha courses can be conducted in a Catholic context. The website states:
"The course also serves as a refresher course for both practicing Catholics and those who have lapsed in their faith. From early on, Alpha has been run in Catholic parishes. 'Alpha for Catholics' involves the situating of the standard Alpha course within a Catholic parish or organization. Alpha is a very effective initial presentation of the core of the Gospel, “the Kerygma.” It is wholly compatible with Catholic teaching, but it does not address specific Catholic teachings and ecclesiology."
In October 2012, the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the (Roman Catholic) Synod of Bishops in Rome convened at the Vatican. This particular synod was significant because it served as the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and because it focused on launching the Roman Catholic Church's "Year of Faith"—an attempt at a "New Evangelization" approach by the Roman Catholic Church intended to reach out to a secular culture in new ways. During the synod, representatives of the Alpha Course-France addressed the cardinals and bishops. Archbishop Octavio Ruiz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, described the Alpha course as "a tool that God has put into our hands to do this New Evangelization" (Zenit, 10-22-12).
While it is certainly important for new believers to become more familiar with the Christian faith and for unbelievers to hear about Christ, the problem with the Alpha Course is not only what is taught at some Alpha Course gatherings but also what is not told to those participating in the course. Because Alpha is promoted predominantly by Anglican, Episcopal and mainline Protestant churches, those in attendance at courses hosted by these churches will certainly never be told that salvation is obtained by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone and that biblical separation from any other gospel or from false doctrine is a scriptural mandate. In contrast, Alpha promoter Richard F. Grein, Anglican bishop of New York, said, “This course’s beginning is oriented towards warming the faith of baptized people and then goes beyond that to the unbaptized.” Obviously in the eyes of Grein, baptism is the dividing line between those who are saved and those who are unsaved. As previously stated, those churches that host Alpha Courses include Anglican, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and many evangelical and charismatic churches, including ones involved in the Vineyard Fellowship. Certainly those who attend an Alpha Course at a charismatic or Pentecostal church such as a Vineyard Fellowship will not receive sound doctrine concerning the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. Alpha provides listeners and participants with a steady mixture of truth and error, sound doctrine and false doctrine. Certainly any Christian or non-Christian could not trust a curriculum that could be received and used in both a Roman Catholic church and an evangelical Protestant church.
Bible-believing churches should certainly strive to teach the Word of God to believers and preach the true gospel to unbelievers in a loving and conversational way in which they can clearly understand. Evangelism and discipleship are imperative aspects of local church outreach. But to utilize an ecumenically-oriented program such as the Alpha course which promotes an ecumenically-oriented, watered-down, user-friendly approach to teach Christianity to believers and unbelievers is an affront to the complete message of God’s Word which commands separation from false teaching and those who embrace it. Faithful, Bible-teaching churches should not associate with the Alpha course. When believers preach and teach God’s Word without compromise, God will reward such obedience and faithfulness.
— Matt Costella