Three Weeks into the Alpha Course

As I mentioned, I’ve started an exploration of the world’s major religions. I’m starting with Christianity by taking an Alpha Course at a local church.

The course is ten weeks, and each session is structured in the same way. You show up at 6:30pm and they cook you dinner. That’s followed by a video featuring Alpha Course inventor Nicky Gumbel, and then a group discussion. The course is free, though they ask you to donate $5 for dinner.

I could do without the dinner. The food’s pretty good, but the whole dinner, video and discussion takes nearly three hours, and I’m precious about my free time. The dinner also requires a lot of small talk, which isn’t a strength.

The course seems to be seeded with a lot of Christians who have already taken the course or are otherwise just kicking around. The first week, we sat next to Ruth, who’s been coming to the church since it opened in 1959. She asked when Julie and I were married. We said “1997”, and she said “oh, me too.”

We were thinking that Ruth’s elevator wasn’t going to the top floor any more. However, it turns out that she was a widow and remarried. Good for her.

The videos are essentially lectures on a particular topic (“Why did Jesus Die?”, “Why and How Do I Pray?” and so forth). Gumbel is a remarkable orator and storyteller. He never seems to stutter or stumble, and has a gift for simplifying puzzling topics. I couldn’t find any of the Alpha videos online, but here’s Gumbel’s scholarly response to The Da Vinci Code. He does an admirable job of debunking the book’s claims.

I was most looking forward to the group discussion, as I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to ask questions about the faith. Unfortunately, the group facilitation is pretty poor. Clearly the group leader is inexperienced, and so there are constant long, awkward pauses. I know somone else who took an Alpha course elsewhere, and she had similar bad experiences with the facilitation.

I guess I asked a pretty tricky question, because nobody had a satisfactory answer. My question was, essentially, “if God is eternal, omnipotent and omniscient, and Jesus was both God and man on Earth, how was his dying on the cross truly a sacrifice?” Eventually the church pastor stepped in with an answer about how we can’t fully understand the nature of God, which seemed like something of a cop out.

So, while it’s far from perfect, the course is giving me the kind of hands-on introduction to a religion that I was looking for. We’ll see if I last for the ten weeks.

UPDATE: While looking for Alpha course videos online, I discovered this wacky Alpha course viral video contest. The winner is a pretty great little animation that vaguely evokes the Game of Life.

31 comments

  1. Too bad the meeting wasn’t run well. I get the impression that the Alpha Course is designed more for Christians wanting to rediscover their religion than for the simply curious to find out what’s going on, but you’d think there would be an effort to make the discussion at least interesting, or preferably inspiring.

    Sounds like a good gospel choir church might do a better job of that, though.

  2. I wonder if that might have any impact on your findings? Scientifically speaking (and I’m no scientist!) it’s probably better that they don’t know; however, if they knew it may help to kickstart some of the discussion and get you to the answers you’re looking for more quickly? Then again, you might get uninvited.

  3. The priest is obviously not a theologist.
    Nevertheless, christianity is based on lots of loose ends which gets explained by “mysticism”. Boring. 🙂

  4. Darren,
    I’m not sure if Alpha is something that is aligned with the Catholic church or not, but as a former Catholic student who had to sit in on wayyyy too many hours of Christian Ed., I think the Catholic philosophy on your question can be summed up to the fact that Jesus was both God and Man, and it could have be easy for God (The Father) and Jesus (the Son) to just avoid the crucifixion.

    But according to the Church, Jesus died on the Cross for Man’s Original Sin (Genesis). He didn’t have to, but chose to in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies.

    There’s a whole lot more that that, of course…. Congrats on getting a better understanding of the Christian faith though. Even though I was in Catholic education for a good 13 years of my youthful life, Christian Ed was a big pile of BS that really wasn’t interesting or challenging until Grade 10, where I had a ex-monk of a teacher that explained the differences between Catholic Dogma vs Tradition and got us to really look at the failings of the Church through history.

    Hopefully you and Julie will find some better group facilitators in the other religions….

  5. “we can’t fully understand the nature of God”

    Haha that sounds an awful lot like the same answer I got from a priest a while back.

    I was asked to do a reading at a Funeral. Unlike many previous readings, this one went from straight forward to what was to me nonsensical. Thinking I had stumbled onto some 2000 year old analogy and seeking explanation, I asked the priest… his response: “It’s a mystery, we aren’t supposed to understand”.

  6. Darren, that the course leader wasn’t great isn’t surprising. Alpha’s a great little package (I’ve led about a dozen of them), but it really relies on the individual facilitator to drive it home… while also making sure the facilitator isn’t actually central to the training. It’s a weird mix.

  7. It’s too bad you’ve had a poor facilitator but it happens. They usually ask anyone who’s taken Alpha before (who is re-registering) if they would be willing to facilitate, so there are no qualifications required. You may not get all your answers and may not be a Christian, but if you were to re-register, they might ask you to facilitate. I think the purpose of the facilitator is just to keep things on topic but the idea is for it to be a discussion between attendees. When I took Alpha, I was a new Christian (I now consider myself a recovering Christian!) and that was one thing that drove me nuts about it. I thought they were great topics but I wanted someone to give me a definitive answer presenting the Church’s opinion to my questions rather than a bunch of others in my discussion group just talking about the question.

    What I really want to know is, how can God be omnipotent and omniscient, but humans can still have free will to make their own decisions? Nobody had a good answer for that one and it’s the question that kept me from fully committing to Christianity.

  8. I’m finding ALPHA very stimulating on an intellectual level, and the debate is very challenging, however I feel that my association with it ends there.

    The Christians usually outnumber the non-Christians by around 10:1, so it’s easy to feel pressurised, and even like you’re going to a diet-cult seminar.

    Also, some of the more self-absorbed Christians, (and yes, there are a few), will snear at whenever a non-Christian asks a question that doubts their faith, as if you’re some sort of heretic, and also, when they do answer your questions, it’s with the same type of generalities you’d expect from a fortune teller with some Tarot cards.

  9. I’ll see you on Tuesday at Alpha Darren. I am the guy with short hair who is interested in Buddhism. I like your comments in discussion. Did God lead me to your site? For the next several weeks while I am in Alpha, I am willing to explore the possibility.

    But isn’t that agnostic to explore possibility.

    What I am confused about is what faith is? To me, faith is saying, “I am not sure whether God exists or not, but I will just say that I know for sure, out of respect for this powerful being that could quite possibly exist.”

    So I assert that saying, “I have faith in God,” really acknowledges that God is not for certain.

    Shaun.

  10. Per the Bible, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1, NIV).

    Faith is not faith if it does not require us to believe. But a lot of Christians will tell you that at the end of the day, it will come from personal experience ie. you pray and believe and when your prayer is answered, your faith rises up.

  11. I have a rather poor opinion of Alpha now. I have never gone, but my wife is going now. Even though it advertises itself as a program for seekers, it looks pretty loose with info to back themselves up. It’s a lot more about light and fluffy stuff, like general salvation questions, what does the Holy Spirit do, etc. But once someone asks a question that’s about history or about tricky theology, no one leading the course is able to handle it well. They simply don’t have the training.

    Anywho, I agree with Carlos for the most part; I went to a Catholic highschool too, and most of the explanations were just handwaving. That’s great that he had a teacher that was able to probe some hard questions without resorting to “it’s a mystery”. I heard that line countless times, and it pissed me off.

    Anyway, Alpha originated from the Anglicans, but its mindset is relatively general. It seems to have been coopted largely by the evangelicals here in North America, so that gives the program a non-denominational, wishy-washy Protestant stance. I don’t know if that will apply to you, since spin would really depend on who’s hosting the program.

  12. When I went on an Alpha course, I was verbally abused, my Bible was taken from me, and I was ordered not to read from it.

    I guess some questions are just too hard to answer.

    Still, it was fun trying to see how people claimed that God the Son was on the cross when he said ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’, bearing in mind that there is only one God, and God the Son said ‘I and the Father are one’

  13. I would suggest that you go to Alpha with an open mind. If you are reading the Bible, read the Gospels – you may not understand all initially but continue reading and don’t give up – that is part of the searching. Sometimes, the Bible may speak to you in your situation and it then becomes alive and applicable. Christianity is about a relationship with God and not an intellectual exercise/subject. God is always looking to restore the relationship with man that was broken.

    Some parts of the Bible may seem contradictory initially like Jesus’ claim at the cross about being forsaken by God. But he is both God and human – is this possible? With God, everything is possible and nothing is too difficult.

  14. I hope you will give me the liberty to speak bluntly. If you are basing your opinion of the Christian faith as a whole on a singular experience attending a one Alpha Course, then you are clearly not serious in your investigation. I also find it obvious from your beginning comments that you began your “case” with cynicism. May I also say that I find it very unadmirable that you so freely post your verdict when it is virtually unfounded and poorly researched. Please don’t get me wrong. This is a free country. You are more then entitled to your personal opinion. But when that opinion is reached with very little consideration and then slapped on a web page for thousand to read – that’s a different story. There are others out there that are truly faith-searching and your “report” could mislead them. Believe it or not, I’m not a ranting ogre. I just wish you would re-think your strategy.

  15. Renee: Wow, way to demonstrate Christian tolerance and compassion there. I suspect you’re a hit-and-run troll and aren’t going to continue this debate, but let me ask a few questions in case you come back:

    * Where do I indicate that I’m “basing [my] opinion of the Christian faith as a whole on a singular experience attending a one Alpha Course”? Where do I indicate that I, say, have never been to church, read the Bible, talked to other Christians, read about Christianity, and so forth? Because I’ve actually done all of those things.

    * Where’s the cynicism you’re referring to?

    * I’ve written exclusively from my personal experience here. How, then, are my comments ‘virtually unfounded’?

  16. I have just finished my third Alpha class. The question about, “if God is eternal, omnipotent and omniscient, and Jesus was both God and man on Earth, how was his dying on the cross truly a sacrifice?”, was answered this way for us, “The punishment for sin is death, therefore because we are all sinners we will all die. To save face and offer away that us sinners could avoid this fate, GOD sacrificed his only son/himself.” We continued to discuss this until it was time to leave. So the rule “The punishment for sin is death.” can be bent becasue Jesus will take the fall for us.

    Barb S

  17. There is some good discussion on this blog.

    I run Alpha courses for my church (www.bournemouthfamilychurch.org) and I love the questions. For me that is the point of Alpha, to let people ask those questions that no-one has answered for them and we try hard to give everyone a good reasoned answer, even if they don’t always agree with the position.

    I would have loved your question, especially if it was posed to some of the junior group leaders . . . I like to watch them squirm for a while.

    However, if we can’t answer it there and then, we promise to get back to them after we dig through some of the exerts.

    Three things we like to tell our Alpha guests. 1)Asking questions is the key to understanding. 2) If you didn’t understand what we were saying, Ask! 3) Silence means agreement (In groups.) The last one gets them going!

    I hope you enjoyed your Alpha and that you did get some good answers in the end Darren.

    For me though, the greatest thing that convinces me that the message of Alpha is true isn’t all the good apologetic answers we can find, it’s the lives of the 20 or so on my team and the truth working out in their lives.

    Regards

    Steve

  18. I had a hard time with the “my God, my God…” question at one point also. The best answer I have found to date is very different from anything that has been forwarded here…

    Back in the day, the bible we have now did not exist. Verses were not numbered and chapters were not named, per se. Bibles were memorized by the leaders of the Jewish faith, and a large portion of the populace was illiterate. When Jesus said this, he was telling the onlookers to remember the chapter of the old testament that started that way, i.e. Psalms 22, the whole thing. Read it and you will understand how prophecy works a little better. Keep in mind, that Psalms was written between 1500 to 500 years before Christ’s birth.

    I would urge you to keep a very open mind. I am a science geek that had a very hard time gathering the faith to believe in God initially. After years of research my brain believed because the Bible does not contradict science, contrary to popular belief. It took some divine intervention to jumpstart my faith.

    I wish you health and good road ahead.

  19. I was doing some more research on alpha for my own reasons…..of which I don’t really care for the program, Im curious though, what do you think of the information in the alpha program? The response to your question about Jesus and His life how could He be a sacrifice then if He was God and man is simple…. He was God as a man, with the same fears temptations as we have,The sacrifice was that he remained sinless untill the time of His crucifiction, It had to be that way to save us sure He could have summond 10,000 angels to save Him but He had to die for us, being the ultimate sacrifice God Himself in the flesh. I have more to say but Id like you to ask more remember HE had to do this in order to SAVE US. untill next time, Joanne

  20. Alpha is just an introduction to the Christian faith and expecting anything beyond that may lead to your disappointment. I have taken the course and feel it provided the foundation for my later acceptance of Christ as my savior. There is much more at work here than just the class you attend or the talk you hear. In a well run course there are prayer teams that pray for the attendees. This brings the Holy Spirit into action to do His work. I am confident that this is what lead me to my faith and am now a supporter, leader and active facilitator for the course.
    I know I am writing this well after the course has ended and did you actually complete the course? I would be interested in your views how a year later.

  21. Christians are constantly looking for ways to try and convince people of the truth of Jesus Christ. Sometimes those methods can be good and sometimes not. I’ved been a missionary for 25 years and pretty much can spot a poor sales pitch rather quickly. Alpha in my view is one of those. The questions you have about Jesus Christ are the common ones and the answers are in the Bible. Darren, its not that you don’t know, its that you don’t believe. Alpha attempts to try take a back door to your belief system by loving you up and getting you to let down your guard so that you can hopefully see how good Jesus Christ is through their acceptance and treatment of you. Eventually they will have a weekend away with you in which they hope that you have had let your guard down enough for them to lead you into a spiritual experience with the Holy Spirit. And through this experience you are convinced (not intellectually but experiencially) of the truth of Christ. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But just because it works sometimes doesn’t make the method right and there are several reasons why. If you’d like to know please ask.
    Chester

    1. Greetings!

      Are you affiliated with the Christians in Action project/church in Okinawa, Japan?

    2. Chester, I’d like to hear more on your view of alpha’s ‘method’ and any reasons why it could be right/wrong.

      -a

  22. I am interested in learning reasons why groups like Alpha would be wrong. The way Chester is describing Alpha groups is generalizing and stating they are all in a conspiracy to manipulate the lost into the kingdom of God. My real question is for Chester, for you, and for myself… Are you a missionary for God or for Satan?

  23. May I say in short as a truth finding christian every church should stay away from Alpha. One organisation controlling the way people get saved in a “”feel”” good atmospere – this should say it all. The bible says God calls His children and not by the carousing of man does. Jesus came to convict the sinner not to make him feel good. Clarity and truth from the bible (KJV) should be nothing less that sola scriptura which I do not belief Alpha portrays. Another fact is that Nicky Gumbel (founder of Alpha) was nicely involved with the Toronto Experience which I understand was far from being bible based lot of weird unfounded biblicaly experiences were had there. The truth is getting harder to find as so many churches are turning away from it and the best place to find it is in the bible yourself best to read John 3:3 from a good bible such as King James (only bible one can truly prove doctrine from) accompanied by the Amplified Bible to help you understand. Then all you need to do is follow Jesus example absolutely nothing else. If Jesus did not do so should you also not do it (Jesus was into simplicity). Check out Grace To You ministries John Macarthur truthful ministry.

  24. Alpha leader teaching encourages open discussion and questions as a way to get attendees to share how they think and feel about religion and/or God. I do understand the frustration of the original post person in that his question was not answered. My perspective overall with the course has been from believing that the question asked is more important than the answer given. The reason is that most questions are not seeking questions at all, but are really said in the form of a statement; usually in some anger, frustration that could be relating to a painful past experience with other Christians or from personal frustrations in their own life. What I encourage leaders to do is to pray for their guests during the whole course, asking God to reveal himself to them in a personal way that would be real to them. Alpha’s basic purpose is to lead individuals into a personal experience with God. Its the way to do this that frustrates both attendees and Alpha table leaders alike. The process is always awkward, messy, confusing and definitely frustrating for all. But the results in many Alpha courses have been truly amazing, especially for those who have later told stories how the course has impacted their life for the better. Is it the best way to present the reality of Christ? No. Its just one way. What I have appreciated about it most is that someone took the time to put together an avenue of minstry that can work in any church group. There are problems with running Alpha courses are there are with any program that is evangelistic in nature. If there is something better that a church can use I am all ears, but until I hear and see something that is practical and works I am sticking with leading Alpha courses.

  25. respected sir,
    greetings to you in the Jesus crist. i am pas tuphan
    have been working (ministry work) at baragadra and outside of
    baragadra
    i have taken bible training,teached som boys and girls to work in my
    Ministry field,whom had been working and thir names are given below-EVAN:LALTU SARDER, GANESH SABAR, SANTOSH SABAR, PADIP MANDAL, SAMIR DAS, LAKSHMI SARDAR, NEBADITA SABAR, MOUSUMI MANDAL, NEPALI SARDAR, BANDANA SABAR,APARNA SAREN, SUMIRA DAS,NABAKISHOR MAHATA, EVANCE RI.they are working personal evangelism,fasting prayer,gospel meeting inverious fields,villages,tracks distribution and hous visit,heeling ministry,
    They are also working at our Sunday schools.and somes time children feeding programme.in various fields and villages-bagjabra village-30 people,khudakanali-27 people,kharda-38 people, motgoda-20 people, kulapara-26 people,garputa 22 people,
    Doupur-18,bhuladanga-25 people,jaspara-15,luluk puta-18,sonardanga-28 people,choto sarenga-10,some of my workers give their labour in paddy fields,tracks, in 100work,
    As well as in the work of ministry.i have two Sunday school the children of my Sunday school are living below the proverly line.we are in prayer for them in nutrition programme.120 people are ready to take biptizem.if one person of 120 becom died who will be suffer for his blood.if you want to visit us,you can come to netaji international airport kolkata(dumdum).i will received you there.i am looking forward to your early reply

    PAS; BISWAS
    MOB-09564843572

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