Alpha turns 20, but with a lesser role for Nicky

By Stephen Cauchi

August 5 2019

Shorter videos, informal dining, and more emphasis on the local church: that’s the direction the Alpha Course is now taking in Australia, according to national director Melinda Dwight.

“Alpha used to be Nicky Gumbel talking and the videos went for about 50 minutes,” said Ms Dwight. “Now, it’s 30 minutes long and is more a magazine format, with Nicky Gumbel talking for about half the time. It’s more interactive with other leaders and other testimonies, other conversations.”

The evolving direction of Alpha, which is designed to explain the basics of the Christian faith to newcomers, comes as it reaches its 20th anniversary in Australia. Alpha was founded in 1977 at the Anglican Holy Trinity Brompton in London, and then transformed in the 1990s by the Revd Nicky Gumbel, then a curate at Holy Trinity.

Alpha Australia was formed in 1999 to serve local churches. It announced in May that the number of Australians who had attended the course had passed 500,000. Worldwide, around 26 million have attended Alpha.

The course currently is held over eight to 11 weeks. Participants are invited to share a meal, watch a presentation and then ask questions. About 1260 churches from most denominations hosted a course in 2018, said Alpha Australia.

Ms Dwight said that a key change in the past five years was that Alpha was being run through local churches. In the past – and still in the UK – it had been done through individual people who had done Alpha themselves.

“In Australia we used to have someone who would champion Alpha in the armed forces, Alpha in prisons, Alpha in universities.

“Now what we would do is primarily champion it to the Church, and then the Church can run it.”

Once churches had successfully run Alpha for the local community, said Ms Dwight, they could then consider running the course in a boardroom, university or prison.

The “individual” approach to Alpha is successful in places where branding is strong, she said. But in Australia, “to really gain traction it has to be run more than once. It needs to be something that is ongoing so people get confidence that it’s on, confidence they can come. And the best way to do that is through the Church.”

Eating and drinking while discussing theology has always been key to Alpha. That can be at a local café, pub or restaurant or at the church itself, although many may not feel comfortable at a parish hall, she said.

There’s also the option of meeting in homes, an option that seems to work in Tasmania but not in Melbourne, she said.

“It can be a bit daunting,” she said. “In Melbourne people are a little bit sceptical about going to a home they don’t know.”

Ms Dwight said that modern eating was more informal and Alpha’s choice of venues reflected that. Typical dining for Alpha might include noodle boxes, finger food or a communal table at a café.

“At the beginning Alpha was always about food and community. But the way people eat and gather together has changed. It’s not so much formal dining, it’s about connection.

“It’s been run in pubs very successfully … it’s all about feeling comfortable.”

Younger people have also been catered for with the Alpha Youth Series, aimed at high schoolers. Alpha Youth is more popular in Australia than the UK – a “fantastic” result, she said.

“We had 980 of those running last year,” she said. “While we still have the same video and content we stop every five to seven minutes and ask questions because of the attention span of young people – we want to engage them more quickly.”

Other Alpha resources that are coming out include courses on marriage and pre-marriage.

Alpha approached Anglicans both “bottom-up” through the local church and “top-down” through the bishop, said Ms Dwight. “We try and do both. You generally find in the local parish there’s many people that do Alpha.

“But nothing really gets traction without the approval of the bishops. Every diocese is different.

“We always go through the minister and get permission. Then we would help find the leaders, we would help them do the training.”

Part of this was visiting a parish where Alpha was being successfully used. “You also need a model to show people. Let’s go along and see how they do it.”  

Alpha doesn’t have a monopoly on Christian teaching courses. Its competitors include Exploring Christianity – founded by another London Anglican church, All Souls Langham Place – which also has a presence in Australia, including in Melbourne.

And churches may use evangelistic strategies that don’t include courses. “They might say our strategy is to run mothers’ groups. So they have lots and lots of those, or have lots of community care.”

But these strategies often didn’t work. One church which had 23 mothers’ groups couldn’t cite anyone who had joined the Sunday church service as a result, said Ms Dwight. “So all we did was say, look, Alpha has a parenting resource which is run the same way as Alpha. But you don’t have to be a married couple, you can be a single parent, foster parent – why don’t you just offer that to your groups and see,” she said.

Only then did the parents connect with the church. “It was the missing link.”

Nor is size an obstacle to completing Alpha. Small parishes often say they didn’t have the time or resources for Alpha, said Ms Dwight, but just two people with a laptop could do the course.

Smaller churches running Alpha typically did so once or twice a year with four to six guests attending, she said.

Even if only one guest decided to follow Jesus, “that changes the parish, it absolutely changes the person.”

She said that Alpha aimed to serve all denominations. “Alpha’s a free resource and we come and help people for free,” she said. “So if they’re not interested we just move on. There’s not really resistance, it’s more ‘this doesn’t suit us at this time’.”

The widespread appeal of Alpha was demonstrated by the fact that the theologically disparate Catholic and Hillsong Churches were the biggest growth areas for Alpha.

“Alpha is about the Gospel that we all agree on,” she said. “Every line in Alpha is carefully crafted.” The film series was recently edited, she said, as there was some language that “was not as inclusive as it could be”.

For example, the phrase “senior church leader” is used instead of “pastor”. “Every line is checked by various theologians around the world – how does this sound for the Catholic world, how does this sound for the Anglican world,” she said.

But while Alpha tries its best to be inclusive, it’s not possible to keep everyone happy.

The middle of the Alpha course, she said, was marked by a “Holy Spirit day” – an evening or a weekend away.

“Some sections of the Anglican diocese in Sydney find our emphasis on the Holy Spirit not quite to their taste,” she said.

“I think the emphasis on that type of experience of God is probably not part of their normal practice.”

However, there was little difference between the evangelical Anglican and Anglo-Catholic acceptance of Alpha, said Ms Dwight.

Evangelicals had always been a strong supporter of Alpha, while the Catholic embrace of the course had encouraged Anglo-Catholics.  

See Alpha.org for local courses.