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New book analyses ‘Alpha’ phenomenon

The familiar Alpha logo
Adverts on the backs of buses, in taxis, on billboards and in newspapers for "Alpha courses", a popular introduction to the essentials of Christianity, are familiar to many people in Britain and further afield.

Alpha’s organisers claim that more than 8 million people worldwide have now attended one of their courses, and that more than 7000 churches in Britain and Ireland, and more than 30 000 around the world, have been signed up to run Alpha courses.

But according to Andrew Brookes, editor of The Alpha Phenomenon, a new book about the introductory course on Christianity, few churches see sustained growth as a result of Alpha alone.

"Most Alpha churches only run the course five and a half times, and not enough to get serious outreach. I think this is an area which needs much more attention," Brookes told Ecumenical News International.

The Alpha course was devised 30 years ago by the Rev. Charles Marnham, then an Anglican curate at Holy Trinity Church in London’s Brompton Road. The course ran for four weeks and was for people who wanted to know more about Christianity.

Alpha now takes the form of a series of talks addressing key issues related to the Christian faith; each session begins with a meal and the course ends with a special celebration supper.

Brookes puts conversion rates of those attending Alpha at between 15 and 25 percent, although this depends upon how conversion to Christianity is defined. Only about 10 percent of those participating have had no experience of church at some point in their lives.

"The course in itself is not sufficient to sustain outreach, which requires a raft of other strategies to produce sustained growth," says Brookes.These include greater lay participation through the development of what he calls pastorates, or groups of up to 30 people who meet once every two weeks for study and prayer, and to share a meal together.

As a sign of the interest in the course, Brookes points to the Alpha International Campus, now being built in West London at a cost of several million pounds, as the latest evolution of the educational initiative.

The campus, due to be completed within two years, will offer training and resources to the worldwide Christian community, and these will include expertise in broadcasting and communication skills. A worship centre will seat 1400 people.

Yet Alpha is often seen as controversial. Critics say it offers a comfortable, individualistic version of the Christian faith, and particularly attracts affluent and professional young people.

Brookes’ new book, with contributions by 15 theological and mission experts, seeks to analyse the Alpha phenomenon, to question assumptions made about the study course, and to provide pastoral suggestions to those interested in Christian mission. 

(c) Ecumenical News International

Photo : The familiar Alpha logo