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
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
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
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
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
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
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