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Alpha: is it all there is?

27 September 2013

Formational learning must be a priority, argues Nicholas Henshall

THE Alpha course has made a huge and positive impact on churches worldwide. Independents and Roman Catholics alike use Alpha, and it has become the course of choice for many Anglican communities as they seek to engage effectively with evangelism in a post-Christendom culture.

My experience, however - in the parish and in conversation with others - has begun to raise two questions: is it really enough? And is its dominance leading to distortions in doctrine?

On the first question: I lead a large, growing church. More and more newcomers have joined us, having been through Alpha once, twice, or even three times in other Christian communities. They have come asking "Was that it?"

A consistent comment from such people is that the church in which they were exploring had nothing further to offer. There might be house groups, or a "growing leaders" course, but in terms of formational learning, it was more of the same: "Apha-bites", as one person characterised the continuing teaching. There was little in the way of in-depth learning, although plenty of training opportunities for specific pieces of ministry.

This is not a failure of Alpha, but of communities to put in place formational learning. Demanding preaching, seminar-style biblical teaching, and contexts in which people can ask genuine questions should be a basic part of the life of any Christian community that is equipping disciples. It is this continued learning for which Alpha was intended to prepare people. The lack of it means that Alpha is unable to do its job properly.

Alpha is a little course for beginners (to paraphrase St Benedict), not the whole process of formation in the way of Christ. At my church, we insist on a minimum 18-month process for adult initiation. People new to Christian faith come with so little already in place that it probably needs to be longer (I have colleagues insisting on three years).

Although there may be useful material in the wide range of courses available, a great deal of research suggests that the most effective approaches are locally developed programmes, tailored to context. Alpha can certainly be part of this, but only a small part, the first steps.

IN TERMS of doctrine, precisely because Alpha has become such a dominant tool, its limited theological repertoire is beginning to reshape the lens through which many people read the scriptures.

There are traditions where Alpha is placed in a much broader context of continuing teaching, theological rigour, and sacramental practice. But where this is not the case, particular issues are emerging about the way scripture is read and taught.

It must be emphasised that this is not the fault of Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), and those who developed the Alpha course. They were seeking to equip the Church with a user-friendly tool to begin a process. But where Alpha has become the whole of the process, the impact on doctrine has become serious.

For example, Alpha gives a privileged position to the 17th-century doctrine of substitutionary atonement, without mentioning any of the other classic approaches. It also embodies a post-Enlightenment approach to the interpretation of scripture, which easily leads those new to faith to develop a superficial approach to text and interpretation. The understanding of scripture as a deep sea in which we learn to swim does not find much purchase here.

Again, this was clearly not the intention of those who wrote Alpha. Indeed, it is often the result of the ignorance of unformed leaders, who themselves have never gone deeper or encountered the bigger room into which scripture and tradition invite us.

The consequence of this in some communities is a Christianity that is beginning to lose its foundations in what the scriptures actually say - a process that will ultimately lead to a way of believing that is at best unorthodox, and at worst sub-Christian.

THIS is important because, in Christian formation, we are not seeking to equip people with simple certainties, but to form them in a way of faith deep enough to reckon with the huge challenges that living faith faces in our culture.

Again, these issues are not necessarily problems with Alpha as such. Their significance is related to Alpha's dominance in the market, and the fact that, for many, what is meant to be a short introduction for beginners has become the whole of their formation in the way of Christ.

HTB has done much to address this through wider provision itself, particularly through its School of Theology. This is now imitated in various centres, including some cathedrals. We launch a Harrogate School of Theology this autumn.

These regional initiatives provide helpful resources. But formational learning needs to be embedded in the life of every Christian community, if we are to do more than survive on starvation rations.

Here, weekly lectio divina notes for groups and individuals, alongside a high-octane Sunday teaching session over breakfast (an excellent use of time between services), and well-led teaching opportunities through the week are now fundamental. House groups do have a part to play, but serve best in extending the learning that people are engaged in rather than as the key point of delivery.

As Richard Foster says at the beginning of his classic Celebration of Discipline (Hodder & Stoughton, 1978, 1998), "superficiality is the curse of our age . . . The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people."

Alpha is a great tool for helping people take the first steps in faith. But if people stop there, it might be better if they had not set out at all. And churches that think that Alpha is enough are not even beginning to equip people for the challenges of adult discipleship.

However we do it, in our current missionary context, each Christian community must make an absolute priority of continuing formational learning to equip the saints.

The Revd Nicholas Henshall is Acting Archdeacon of Richmond, and Vicar of Christ Church, High Harrogate, in the diocese of Ripon & Leeds.

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