Well, not so much, ‘don’t like’, as ‘don’t really believe in’, ‘am not sure what use it is, or what good it does’, even ‘am afraid it may be doing more harm than good’.
It’s not that I’ve never tried Alpha. We ran several courses of it in the parish, but the results were frankly disappointing and discouraging. I’m pretty sure we weren’t doing it right. For example, we never managed to get it established as a rolling programme, which would be constantly attracting and making new members who would then become involved in running later courses. We never had enough ‘passing trade’ of new inquirers coming by, whom we could invite. The existing members of the church – well, some of them came several times, it was almost as if they were a kind of Nicky Gumbel fan club – but they didn’t seem to want, or be able, to invite friends or neighbours to take part. You’ve got to ask, Why not? You would almost think they were so lacking in confidence in the product we were trying to sell, that they didn’t think anyone they knew would be interested in buying it. Or maybe, it was the marketing that they weren’t confident about? They were confident enough about the Christian faith, but maybe found the Alpha packaging a bit naff, embarrassing, something they didn’t really want to impose on their friends and neighbours?
Clearly Alpha is very popular in many many places, and presumably has been ‘successful’ in growing some churches numerically. (I haven’t seen any statistics about how many churches it has helped to grow, and how much, and in what way, and for how long.)
But I’m still left asking the questions: What sort of growth? And what sort of churches or Christians is Alpha producing?
Somewhere near the root of my unease is a question about what kind of a thing Christianity actually is. There’s something about Alpha which makes it feel as if Christianity is a set of ideas or beliefs we are invited or encouraged to take on board. Is it?
I would much rather we talked about the way of life that is involved in being a Christian: what we do because we are followers of the Way. This was one of the earliest ways that the disciples of Jesus described themselves: followers of the Way. So what does being a Christian involve doing?
First, it means we put our trust and faith in God, rather than in anything or anyone else. Then, we meet together with other believers day by day (week by week is a bit slack, but better than nothing) to take the bread and wine as Jesus told his friends to do, in remembrance of him, and to listen to the Word of God. Then, to do all we can to live ‘good’ lives, by imitating Jesus and growing more like him. Bearing in mind, all the time, that we never will be good: we are and will remain muddled, flawed, works-in-progress, always dependent on the Grace of God. Not much else to it, really. All the superstructure of Christian dogma and morality is well, superstructure, not the heart of the matter.
And now, this autumn, our local churches are working together to run an Alpha Course in the town. I can’t in all honesty offer to help run it, with all the doubts and questions I have. Perhaps it will be a wonderful success and will really grow the churches in our town both in numbers and in confidence in what they believe. A part of me hopes that all my misgivings will be proved wrong and confounded. But I’m not really expecting that to happen. Come on, God, prove me wrong.