Tracing Alpha’s Story

Review by Charlie Clauss

In the latter half of the 20th century, Christianity faced a variety of challenges. Two world wars had delivered severe blows to the hubris of those who thought modern progress would lead inevitably to the perfection of humanity and its societies. Thinkers such as H. Richard Niebuhr had carved out a place for a traditional view that saw humanity as needing salvation from sin. They created a neo-orthodoxy that for a time held sway, especially in North America mainline churches. By the early part of the 1960s, however, that influence was waning.

In Repackaging Christianity, Andrew Atherstone narrates the birth of the evangelistic program known as Alpha in the setting of Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB). In under 30 years (Alpha began in 1977, but its current form dates to 1993), just under 29 million people across the globe have participated in an Alpha program. With extensive access to archives, Atherstone tells in detail the factors that led to Alpha’s growth and evolution.

Several early threads are woven together in the Alpha tapestry. Atherstone shows how the history of Alpha is inseparable from that of HTB. By the 1950s and early ’60s, HTB, founded in 1829, was a traditional Anglican parish with a strong choral music program, staid Sunday worship, and a connection to the upper economic stratum in surrounding neighborhoods. There were signs of renewal, including a strong healing ministry.

Another thread involved events at a nearby parish. A ministry called the Kitchen was connecting with youth and students. Its worship music group, Cloud, was developing a classical/folk/light rock sound. After criticism that they were acting like a church, members of the Kitchen choose to join St. Paul’s, Onslow Square. The Kitchen and Cloud reinforced St. Paul’s existing youth ministry, as well as pushing toward a less formal style. All this joined the mix in which Alpha would be born when St. Paul’s and HTB merged in 1976.

The Kitchen and Cloud were both influenced by the Jesus People revolution happening in the United States. Festivals featuring both music and speakers were happening in the U.K., patterned on those from the U.S. The main import was John Wimber, who founded the Vineyard movement. Wimber was a frequent visitor to HTB, and it would not be too much of a stretch to call HTB a Vineyard church.

In her book When God Talks Back, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann uses her five-year field study of Vineyard churches to describe Wimber’s movement as a form of Christianity that highly values a direct experience of God in both worship and prayer. Its foundations are rooted in the counterculture, especially along the West Coast of the United States. Wimber’s interaction with HTB places this experience-oriented Christianity deep within HTB and, by extension, Alpha. Only one individual will have more of an effect on HTB, and Alpha, than John Wimber: Nicky Gumbel.

That Gumbel is the central figure in Alpha is not to denigrate the parts played by several other individuals, but from the moment Gumbel receives the reins of Alpha (1990), his influence and importance are unmatched. He takes what was a course intended for new Christians and turns it into a vehicle for evangelism. Gumbel’s focus, attention to detail, and passion for evangelism all contribute to Alpha’s growth in the three decades he is in charge. Like Billy Graham, Gumbel does not let anything dilute the evangelistic content or aim of Alpha.

Most of Repackaging Christianity covers the growth of Alpha under Gumbel’s leadership. There are numerous stories of conversions; miracles; famous people who attend Alpha; reactions, pro and con, from Christians and non-Christians; the global reach of Alpha, Gumbel’s books; and more stories of what an Alpha course is like. Archbishop Justin Welby shows up several times as a friend of Alpha. Three details make this an important book for people interested in the continued growth of Christianity in the 21st century.

First, Alpha is embraced by many Roman Catholics. Like C.S. Lewis’s description of Mere Christianity, Alpha provides an entry for people coming to Christianity. Lewis spoke of his work as a hallway of Christianity, with meals in each room along the hallway. Likewise, Catholics have used Alpha as an introduction into a stripped-down Christianity, and then offered further courses to introduce converts to the specifics of their church. This unofficial partnership between a Protestant Alpha and Roman Catholicism reveals a core strength of Alpha’s narrow evangelistic focus and its ecumenical potential.

Second, Nicky Gumbel was willing to adapt and change Alpha. Early on, Alpha did not have much to say about the active Christian life. Discipleship was not covered in any systematic way, and it does not appear in Atherstone’s index. Subjects such as human sexuality were present, but Gumbel tended to avoid them as distraction from the main presentation of the gospel.

But as Alpha received more criticism for not covering questions of social transformation, he began to address these topics. Often, he would change an example in a talk or one of his books from a traditional individual conversion story to an example with more community or societal implications. Prison ministry provided Alpha the perfect connection between the quest to convert the individual and the place of Christians in justice.

Third, the emphases of Wimber and Alpha are a direct response to what Ross Douthat in Bad Religion calls accommodationists, who claim that Christianity must be changed to make it more palatable to modern people, by eliminating the supernatural and moral teaching that contradicts the broad cultural drift in libertine directions. Alpha highlights the direct action of God in the lives of Christians. Both skeptics and traditionalist Christians attack Alpha for this. Christians who attack Alpha are open to the charge of sour grapes. The charge of being happy-clappy seems a spiteful response to the life and vitality Alpha creates through the Holy Spirit.

Repackaging Christianity provides a historic foundation upon which to follow the future of Alpha as it continues to work on a global stage. With Nicky Gumbel’s retirement, that future could be very open-ended. Whatever that future, Alpha has provided a powerful platform for a particular style of Christianity that desires a more intimate experience of God, and desires to see both individuals and societies changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Charlie Clauss is a member of the Church of the Messiah, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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