Alpha Can Help Revitalize Your Church

I’m not sure I could overstate how much Alpha has impacted the revitalization of our church. In the more than 25 years that we have continuously offered the Alpha course, hundreds of people from all walks of life have taken it and entered the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ. We have mostly had multi-generational groups take it. However, we have also run targeted Alpha courses for young adults, seniors, teens, working women, couples, and men, as well as offering it in both men’s and women’s prisons.

I still recall the conversation that started it all more than two decades ago: a young woman who was new to our church asked if she could start a ministry called Alpha. She and her husband had recently relocated to the United States from the UK. In her lovely British accent, she described this new ministry to those outside the church that was having such an impact on the staid Church of England. I had to admire her boldness as a newcomer, having recently left another church in our community because the pastor would NOT let her introduce this new ministry. Normally I would have encouraged her to worship with us for a few months and see if we were a good fit for her family and her new program. But there was something about her enthusiasm that captured my interest. Once she showed me that Alpha’s teaching was in line with biblical orthodoxy, assured me that it would cost us nothing, and agreed to take full responsibility for leading it, I said yes. Roselle (her name) was true to her word; she did give strong, godly, prayerful, and persistent leadership to Alpha until a career change took her and her husband out of our area.

In four blogs, I want to share how Alpha benefited—and continues to bless—our church in four ways: first, as a tool for evangelism; second, as a discipleship ministry; third, as a way to build community; and fourth, as a path for developing leaders in the church. (For information about running an Alpha course at your church, visit

Alpha began at an Anglican church in London in 1977 originally as a way to disciple new believers. In 1990, young Anglican priest Nicky Gumbel assumed Alpha leadership and quickly recognized its evangelistic potential. Its apologetic approach has been likened to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as a way to reach unchurched people. In the nearly 35 years since then, the Alpha Course has been taught in 112 languages to 30 million people around the world. Alpha states that the course is “an effective form of evangelism when run by and through the local church. By focusing on the fundamentals of Christianity, it opens the door for Alpha to be used in almost any context so that everyone has the opportunity to engage in discussion and be transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Distinctives About Alpha

  1. Evangelism as a process more than an event. Alpha recognizes that evangelism is a process of engaging in dialogue with those who are outside the church. Just as Jesus engaged in dialogue with the lost sheep of Israel by asking and answering questions, so Alpha creates an environment in which guests are encouraged to ask questions and express opinions about the deepest questions of life. It is more dialogical than doctrinaire. It is in the process of dialogue with the gospel message that outsiders are won to faith.
  • Catholicity. Part of Alpha’s effectiveness is its focus on the central doctrines of the Christian faith. It teaches the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the authenticity and authority of the Bible, the nature of the church, and other doctrines.  It was designed to outline the core principles of the faith that all Christian denominations agree on: “We believe that what unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us.” This catholicity has enabled Alpha to appeal to Protestant denominations around the world, as well as to the Roman Catholic Church. Our congregational church, located in largely Catholic Massachusetts, found this acceptance by Rome to be an advantage. The Catholic Church’s stamp of approval enabled hundreds of lapsed Catholics to come through the doors of our church, take Alpha, find Jesus Christ as savior and Lord, with many staying on to become faithful members.
  • Trust.  Alpha emphasizes creating an atmosphere of acceptance and trust. A 2008 book by two InterVarsity staffers titled I Once Was Lost (Don Everts and Doug Schaupp)reveals that “trusting a Christian” is the first of five “thresholds” that post-modern non-believers typically must pass through on the journey to faith. In this age when the Church and Christians are suspect, trust is a precious commodity in evangelism. Alpha is successful in large part because it creates that foundational environment of trust. It does this by having church members invite unchurched family and friends with whom trust already exists. Further, the whole Alpha experience is structured, not as teachers lecturing learners, but as hosts welcoming guests. The church covers the costs, so the course including the meal is free to the public. Because a meal is an indispensable part of the course, friendships are built over dinner during the 10 weeks that Alpha meets. Because the material is taught by Nicky Gumbel via video, and not live by a local pastor, participants feel free to disagree and express opinions they might otherwise be reluctant to voice. Further, there is no obligation for visitors to continue the course; if they drop out, there is no follow-up to check on their whereabouts. This permissive, no-strings-attached atmosphere helps build the human trust necessary to take the step of trusting God. Most important of all is the trust that the leaders must have in the power of the Holy Spirit to use the biblical content of the course to soften hearts to believe.
  • Weekend retreat. One of the most important aspects of the Alpha Course is the retreat that comes after week 7 of the course. By this time, trust among the group members has become strong enough that the invitation to a day-long or, better, a weekend-long time together is appealing. The weekend provides the unhurried time and space needed for participants to reflect and process what they have been learning. Opportunities are given on the weekend for people to commit their lives to Christ as savior and to receive the filling of the Holy Spirit.
  • Prayer. Without question, prayer is the key to an effective Alpha ministry. A prayer team is organized before Alpha is launched to undergird the whole process. Also, the Alpha team meets immediately before each session to pray specifically for the participants and the leaders. It would be unwise to offer Alpha unless a church is committed to pray for the ministry.

Suggestions for Launching Alpha

  1. Start with church leaders. An easy and convenient way to introduce Alpha is to have church leaders take the course in a nearby church that is offering it. This way they get to experience it firsthand without all the work of doing it yourself.  That said, these leaders must understand that it is not a course for believers like themselves but for those who are outside the faith or are lapsed in their faith.
  2. Stick to the recipe. Alpha is a flexible program that adapts well to many different demographics and settings, but it is wise to stick closely to the thoroughly vetted Alpha formula. We found out the hard way that, for example, eliminating the meal or the weekend away, or having the pastor teach instead of using the videos, or offering it in homes instead of a neutral setting greatly diminished its effectiveness. My advice is Trust the process and stick to the recipe.
  3. Stay the course. Alpha is not just another new program to be “one and done.” It must become part of the culture of a church, and that takes time. Our first Alpha course started with one host and three guests. There were years when we struggled to keep offering it, thinking it had run its course. But as we prayed and kept encouraging people to pray for and invite their unsaved friends, God kept using Alpha and we kept offering it, usually twice a year. After 25 years Alpha still hasn’t run its course at our church.  
  4. Don’t start without an Alpha director. The pastor must fully support Alpha, but in my view, it’s unwise for the pastor to lead it. My role in Alpha was to meet regularly with the director, fully resource the program, pray with the Alpha team on meeting nights, greet the guests as they arrived, have dinner with them, trust the Holy Spirit and the team, then go home. I occasionally was a small-group host, but I was never the face of Alpha at our church.
  5. Get training before you launch. As you consider Alpha, talk to pastors whose churches have successfully run the course. Study the material. Take the course along with your leaders if it is offered locally. Get Alpha training. Pray for God’s timing and an Alpha director. If you have tried Alpha and it failed, try to understand why and try again.

Alpha is not a magic bullet, but God has been faithfully using it for 35 years all around the world. In my next blogs I will share how—in addition to being an evangelism ministry—Alpha helped us disciple new believers, enfold them into the Christian community, and develop them as leaders in the church. I am so thankful for that conversation with Roselle many years ago; it has shaped the whole trajectory of our church.

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