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Monday, February 18, 2008

Alpha Course - Deborah, Anthony & Susans' Experience

Thanks to Josh Kutchinsky (Hampstead Humanists) for the link to this BHA article and to Richard (HASSERS blogger) for raising the subject.

Alpha Course - Anthony Burn and Deborah Hyde's Experience

The idea of attending the Alpha Course, one of the fastest growing and most successful Christian gateway programmes in Britain, originated with Deborah Hyde, a member of the Central Group (affiliated to BHA), who suggested that the both of us attend the next Alpha Course where it all began; the Holy Trinity Brompton church in South Kensington, hosted by the man who started it all; Nicky Gumbel. The course lasted ten weeks, plus one weekend retreat.

The People
The people were predominantly young, middle-class, attractive professionals who had a background of cultural Christianity and who was now looking to make a greater commitment and involvement with Christianity and the church, and Alpha was the kind of gateway programme for them to ease themselves back into the faith without being beaten over the head from the get-go.

My summary of the delegates would be that they were soft targets - people who had their crazy years (as crazy as it gets in Kensington!) and now wanted to return to a spiritual certainty and comfort free of too much guilt or theological heavy-lifting.


The guest speakers were charismatic individuals who were clearly comfortable speaking to large audiences and who were a line up of the usual suspects from the reformed ex-con to the believing former sceptic. In our group they were all young people, the oldest person being in their late 30’s, most reflecting the trend of being educated, middle-class, professional people. Our group was also a nice, uncontroversial, relatively normal bunch of people.

Challenging statements or questions made by myself or Deborah were accepted and discussed.
We did encounter some fundamentalist-type thinking among delegates however, such as the idea of mitochondrial Adam and Eve (more accurately though of as the "last shared ancestor theory"), which just goes to show (as if we needed confirmation) that people only look as far as it suits them and no further. It was in one of these discussions that a delegate mentioned how much science was proving that the Bible was right regarding the order in which the universe was created which agrees with Genesis and they had even discovered Eve (about which I do know).
Deborah led the charge in response to these assertions which reportedly led to hurt, confusion and angst for the delegate and precipitated ongoing discussion between the Deborah and the delegate sent Deborah the following: I asked Jesus ... "how much do you love me?" Jesus replied, "I love you this much" and he stretched his arms out on the cross and died. Deborah has promised to send the delegate some photocopies from Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins.
While our group was almost soporific in its pleasantness and eagerness to please (and a reflection of the leaders themselves being relatively recent Alpha graduates who were the same nice, pleasant, predominantly middle class people as the majority of the attendees).

There were whispers by the third week that there was a “militant atheist” in one of the groups who was asking some very challenging questions which precipitated some significant glances amongst our leaders. Whoever the militant atheist was they had obviously had their fill by the third or four sessions and did not return, a fairly common phenomenon I would imagine
as the sessions moved from the fundamental questions to the narrow questions of applied faith by the latter stages of the course. There were groups significantly more fire and brimstone than ours because we had the misfortune to be grouped with the sweetest bunch of people and that we overheard others from time to time, expounding on the morals regarding "shagging everything in sight" and homosexuality. Whether this comment was made by leaders or delegates we could not ascertain but Deborah and I agreed afterwards that we would have liked to have been involved with those discussions and those groups.

Structure
The structure of the evening classes was as follows: - Dinner, normally two options, with fruit to follow, before the evening began at 7pm sharp. - Each class began with a live band singing and playing Christian hymns which the attendees were expected to sing-a-long to. - This was followed by the introductory speech by Nicky Gambel where he outlined the theme of the evening and read from the Alpha Course manual and the bible. - There was occasionally a guest speaker who was usually an Alpha convert with a personal life story to match the theme of the evening. - The speeches combined usually lasted just over an hour and then we were split off into our smaller discussion groups to discuss the theme of the evening amongst ourselves and our appointed discussion group leaders. - Following the conclusion of the discussion groups some of the attendees would go to the pub.

Throughout the atmosphere was one of preaching to the near-converted and the tone was fairly relaxed by the end of the ten weeks as discussion moved to how you could commit to Alpha after the course ended via the different leadership and study-group programmes on offer for those graduating from the course.

The hard-sell was left to the retreat and to the last session where we were asked to fill in questionnaires on how we found the course and whether our beliefs had shifted during the course.

Propaganda
Alpha is a well-oiled machine that had a successful series of cinema ads and print advertisements with a professional model and Alpha convert as its front-piece (sex sells even for Christians). It also has its own Alpha magazine which a perusal of a few back issues revealed a constant stream of uplifting conversion and redemption stories where troubled sinners found God and inner peace through Alpha. The magazines were also at pains to highlight the diversity of backgrounds of those ‘saved’, a diversity not reflected in the community at Holy Trinity Brompton though it may be reflected in the community as a whole which includes the international churches.

Programme
The programme was pretty much a course of “Anglican lite” dogma honed down into easily digestible morsels for the audience to swallow, with an emphasis on the individuals relationship with God, the non-Churchliness of Church and a big emphasis on the community of Alpha, the instant friends, instant support, instant community of believers in a world of “empty materialism and lonely atomisation”. Though the theology was simplistic and lacked depth or real insight it was reasonably consistent and in line with non-denominational Christian teaching.

The only time the programme really becomes unstuck is in the first week where the arguments put forward by Nicky Gumbel to prove that God exists and Jesus was the son of God via the “historical record” was embarrassingly na├»ve and disingenuous and provoked some squirming from the leaders in the groups afterwards when I put the heat on the arguments that had been put forward
(resulting in the mystery of faith comments by our German friends).

None of the subsequent weeks were as blatantly unsound as that first week and it makes you wonder if it was a case of getting the hardest bit to swallow out of the way first so that those that returned the following week were the ones most likely to absorb and commit to the course after the ten weeks.

The talks were structured around the Alpha course manual, an ABC style booklet complete with illustrations and blurbs. The themes and topics included: “Who is Jesus?” “Why did Jesus die?” “How can I be sure of my faith?” “How can I resist evil?” “Why and how should we tell others?” “Does God heal today?” “What about the Church?” “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?”

Each one of the seats provided at the start of the session contained a bible and the manual with each Gumbel talk including passages from the bible (almost exclusively from the New Testament, particularly the gospels). The manual contained the usual quotes from CS Lewis (outlining the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument) and the ‘Atheists for Christ’ outfit for the ‘religion as guardian or morality and civil obedience’ argument was trotted out.

Nicky Gumbel
the founder of Alpha is a tall, lanky character who the leaders speak of affectionately but who has a patriarchal air for me, the sort of character who is pleasant enough until directly challenged on issues around sexuality and faith. He is certainly earnest and quintessentially English, lacking on the surface anyway, the slick patter of the evangelical used car salesmen of the US Pentecostal and Baptist movements.

Retreat
An important part of the course is the weekend retreat which occurs halfway through the course and is in a camp in Eastbourne. Deborah and I could not attend due to prior arrangements which was unfortunate because of anecdotes afterwards of people speaking in tongues and falling down with the holy spirit, a phenomenon consistent with the three weekend talks advertised beforehand in the Alpha manual; “Who is the holy spirit”, “What does the holy spirit do?”, “How can I be filled with the holy spirit?”. The relevant section in the manual even directly refers to the Pentecost and Jesus becoming full up with the spirit. All of this leads to a strong suspicion that of a Pentecostal, evangelical experience much more intense than the weekly sessions. Those in the group that attended the weekend described it as “intense”, “exhausting” and “all consuming”. One of the believers in the group was disturbed by the experience and rolled her eyes at me when described it. However two of the leaders said the weekend was instrumental in their full conversion by the end of the course so it obviously had an effect.

My personal presentation
I presented myself in a sceptical but enquiring manner. At no time during the discussions did I admit to being an atheist or a humanist but I gave them little encouragement to think that I was going to convert. I said I was there because I had questions and because I wanted to gain understanding as to how and why people with faith believe, a true enough assertion.
Their response to me was that I asked “good questions” some of which they had asked themselves, one leader admitting to me that he had struggled with the question of an omnipresent God damning his creation to hell in advance and was still struggling with it. However it was not until the end after I filled in the questionnaire did they seem to regard me as beyond the pale.

Follow-up groups and questions
At the end of the last small group discussion a questionnaire was handed out that asked us to rate various aspects of the course and the small group discussions and also to ask our current theological persuasion as contrasted with what we came in with.

I was completely honest and wrote down “atheist” on both counts, whereas Deborah put down “agnostic” on both counts.
We were given details of follow up groups and I put my name down for a home group that has regular pizza nights. So far I have not attended one of these home groups. There was also a final dinner held for attendees were invited to bring friends and family to an Alpha dinner. The ‘last supper’ had a band, tablecloths and really nice food in an obvious attempt to present Alpha in the best possible light to prospective guests.

Conclusion
Deborah and I came to the conclusion that Alpha isn’t interested in the hard sell or converting atheists or genuine searchers. They don't pester the unwilling, and their brand of Christianity is on the surface bland and various shades of vanilla. This is consistent with our heartfelt sense of Alpha – that it operates from a soft target theory for people that want to buckle down and be good Christians without too many of the trappings of an established church.
Regrettably, given how successful Alpha has been (there were hundreds of people just in our one course) it's just not that hard to convert a lot of people.
Alarm from representatives of the Church of England is perfectly understandable, not only is Alpha and courses like it growing at a exponential rate while their own pews continue to empty, but Alpha is replacing the relative tolerance, non -dogmatism and intellectual tradition of the established church with a much more simplistic, theological lightweight with disturbing pentecostal, evangelical overtones.

The above are the views of BHA Members Anthony Burn and Deborah Hyde, based upon their personal experiences. These views are not necessarily the views of the BHA and should not be construed as such.

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Alpha Course - Susan Buckingham's Experience
Four years ago I attended a full Alpha course, so Thought you might like to hear an atheist's view of it.

Reasons for attending: -
Three dear friends had attended courses; all three changed , closing their minds to discussion on that particular subject. - I had recently joined the local BHA group and had read the text of a talk given by one of the members on the Alpha course.However, he had attended only the first session and read the book. - It would not be fair to criticise or comment on something I knew very little about. - I had recently renewed acquaintance with a colleague/friend whom I had not seen for at least ten years and who was just about to go on a course.

She, J, belongs to a local evangelical, somewhat happy-clappy community, but is far more open to discussion on belief than three above mentioned friends.

Course structure:

The package consists of ten, 3-hour evening sessions plus a Sunday, all day social gathering. Videos are provided for each session and a set of books and leaflets. The presenter on the video is the Rev Nicky Gumbel, of Trinity Church, Brompton a good-looking, charismatic, well-rehearsed speaker with considerable acting talent. The course is free, although a contribution of £1 is asked for the book iirc.
There is no pressure put on people they say and that is mostly true - there is no need, as they all seemed to me to be convinced before they started.
Each evening begins with a social twenty minutes, followed by a sit-down meal, provided, cooked and cleared up afterwards by those who have previously attended courses and are keen for others to do likekwise. There is a five-minute intro/welcome and a prayer; the video and then discussion groups of about 8-10 people per group. Break up at 10:0 p.m. The group leaders meet once during the week. The day out is just chat, maybe an organised walk and a restaurant meal, for which we paid, followed by video and short talk, but not group discussions. My views : J was always evangelical with a very strong belief that God runs just about everything. She is a genuine, kind and thoroughly nice person. I mentioned my interest and she suggested I join her. I made it absolutely clear that I was (still am of course!) an atheist and that I wanted to see what went on and was the Pastor, John, prepared to have someone who would like to put an opposing point of view. She checked with John and assured me that this was fine.
The 30 or so people who attended, mostly local, were all lovely and did not resent my sceptical presence at all!
The first discussion group turned out to be simply agreement with everything said in the video. I waited in vain for any differing view, so made some very mild preliminary comment, which was countered with, 'But what about Noah?' I was just about to say, 'Surely you cannot believe that ....' when the meeting had to break up. At the start of the next meeting, John came up and asked if he could have a word. He tactfully mentioned that he hoped I wouldn't mind being in a smaller discussion group with him, his wife and J. 'What you mean is I'm a disruptive influence!' I said. He said no, no, no, this was not the case! From then on, I must say I did enjoy the discussions (three against one!), pointing out the mistakes in the videos and so on. John challenged me to read St John's Gospel. Well, I went one better, borrowed the N/T from the Library (audio of course) and listened to the whole thing!! The three were impressed but couldn't understand how it had not changed my life. Well, for a start I said that the St Paul's letter where every other word is 'circumcision' made me laugh out loud!

Conclusion:
There were one or two there who had more open-minded views but unfortunately I was not able to join their groups. However,
generally speaking the course only re-affirmed their entrenched opinions.
They all said they would pray for me!

The main link from Google is: http://alpha.org/organisation/origins/index.htm
Note: to be fair to the course, it is certainly not to draw people into a cult but the friends I mentioned, intelligent women all, developed an added anxiety about saying anything against God. So it's an area of conversation that never comes up.
The above are the views of BHA Member Susan Buckingham, based upon her personal experience. These views are not necessarily the views of the BHA and should not be construed as such.

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