Alpha as a Discipleship Tool

Jesus’ model of discipleship involved both teaching and on-the-job training in ministry. The content of his teaching centered on the meaning of the Kingdom of God; his training of his disciples immersed them in actual ministry to others in His name, with the power and authority of His Kingdom. In my experience, much of the modern church’s approach to discipleship heavily favors the teaching but sadly neglects the ministry component. I believe the Alpha Course does both.

While it is now widely regarded as an evangelistic ministry to those outside the church, Alpha was originally conceived as a discipleship tool for new believers within the church. In the more than 20 years that our church has been offering Alpha, the course has proven to be the best discipleship ministry we have ever undertaken. By its very nature, Alpha does both tasks needed to disciple people: it teaches the guests Biblical content, and it engages them in actual ministry. Let me show how this happens.

The Biblical Content of Alpha

Here are the topics covered during the 10 weeks of Alpha:

  • Week One: Who Is Jesus?
  • Week Two: Why Did Jesus Die?
  • Week Three: How Can I Be Sure of My Faith?
  • Week Four: How And Why Do I Pray?
  • Week Five: How And Why Should I Read the Bible?
  • Week Six: How Does God Guide Us?
  • Week Seven: How Can I Resist Evil?
  • The Weekend Away: The Person, Ministry, and Filling of the Holy Spirit.
  • Week Eight: How and Why Should We Tell Others?
  • Week Nine: Does God Heal Today?
  • Week Ten: What about the Church?

This comprehensive curriculum covers Christology, Atonement, Assurance, Prayer, the Authority of the Bible, Divine Guidance, Evil and Temptation, Personal Evangelism, Divine Healing, and the doctrine of the Church. The weekend away, a one-or two-day retreat two-thirds of the way through the course, teaches a biblical, orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit and His ministry. The content is clearly explained by engaging spokespeople in high-quality media presentations.

The Practical Ministry Experience of Alpha

During the 10 weeks of Alpha, a strong bonding develops in the small group, and members typically want to continue meeting when the program ends. People are left thinking, “What’s next?” Individuals cannot repeat the Alpha course as guests, but typically, two next steps are offered for continuing to grow spiritually as disciples. One option is to serve as helpers on the next Alpha course. The other is to continue meeting together in a so-called a Beta group. A Beta group is a weekly Bible study in which members explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Both of these options involve hands-on training opportunities for putting new faith to work.

Serving as Alpha Helpers. Alumni of one Alpha course make enthusiastic volunteers for the next course. With the zeal of new Christians, they are eager to assist their friends and family to find Christ. New believers, once trained, can serve as helpers alongside the small group hosts (leaders). Being a helper on Alpha is actually one of the best ways for people to step into a leadership role for the first time. As helpers, they pray for the group members, provide a welcoming, accepting atmosphere, share their Alpha experiences, and do whatever might make the group experience better. In short, they get to participate in evangelizing members of the next course. Not many discipleship courses offer new believers an opportunity to engage in outreach ministry in a safe, structured environment. Alpha does. Helpers also get to view the teaching videos again, thus reinforcing and deepening their knowledge.

Alpha graduates who do not feel ready or able to be helpers can join the support team that works behind the scenes to run Alpha. This may include setting up tables, preparing the meals, cleaning up afterward, or assisting with technical tasks. All of these become discipleship opportunities as they perform seemingly mundane tasks in the name of Christ so that new guests can become new believers. Instead of just studying about evangelism, they actually get to witness the miracle of new birth in Christ, and be part of it.

Continuing as a Beta Group. New believers from the previous course, or those who feel connected but are still seeking, can choose the second option: forming or joining what we called Beta groups. If a church has enough hosts to lead the Alpha groups, a host can regather his or her Alpha group members into a Beta group. This follow-up option is not actually part of the Alpha program; instead, a church can choose its own teaching material for these groups. The deep level of trust and community that arose during Alpha helps sustain these discipleship groups. 

Our church learned that offering Beta groups at the same time and location as Alpha worked very well, especially since the participants had already set aside that meeting time. We also found that Beta groups are eager to take on a service ministry for the benefit of the new Alpha participants, such as room setup, meal preparation, technical support, cleanup, and of course prayer.

Inviting Others to Alpha. Alpha fosters a strong inviting culture in a church. Jesus’ disciple Andrew should be the patron saint of Alpha. Just as he extended his come-and-see invitation to his brother Peter, so churches offering Alpha are challenged to invite family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to check out the Alpha course. This is another facet of the “doers, not just hearers” aspect of discipleship. 

It is an amazing experience for church members to witness people outside the church whom they have invited actually hearing the gospel, believing, turning away from a former life, and receiving Christ. We found that, as a result of Alpha, people who were unchurched or from churches that were not preaching the gospel would start attending and/or joining our church—and inviting people from their networks to come and see. Thus the Alpha course becomes an organic, grassroots method of discipleship by (1) teaching basic, universal biblical truths and principles and (2) giving people a vehicle, training, and oversight for putting their new faith into action.           

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