What has the emerging church to do with the Alpha Course?
I asked the question in a post about the future of the European church regarding the sustainability of the Holy Trinity Brompton model of church-planting: 'Will its Alpha course theology – a powerful fusion of classic evangelical certitude and charismatic fervour – remain forever impervious to postmodern or post-evangelical critique?' Josh Rowley added a comment in which he suggested that Alpha in the US was 'more a passing fad than something sustainable', and added: 'I would add that its theology seems to be warmed-over, garden-variety evangelicalism—blissfully unaware of the critique of its hermeneutics, ecclesiology, eschatology, missiology, and soteriology that has been offered by missional and emergent thinkers.'
Some half-hearted research has produced statistics for worldwide and US growth of the Alpha Course, which perhaps suggest that growth in the US has reached a plateau but that globally the Course is still massively popular.
The AlphaFriends website has the following worldwide growth statistics. Notice that the figures for 2009 are only for the first six months, suggesting a huge jump for this year:
I got these figures for the US from another source:
This raises the question: What is it exactly that has made the Alpha Course impervious to postmodern or post-evangelical critique? I have had this conversation quite often but I can't say that I have any very profound insights into the mystery. My guess is that four main factors have given it a measure of immunity the debilitating swine flu of postmodern suspicion.
i) Success breeds success. The Alpha Course instils confidence, and if churches do something like this confidently and with conviction, it is more likely to work. One thing the church in the UK at least has lacked in recent decades is confidence. The PR for the Alpha Course has also been pretty good. I should add that we hosted a number of Alpha Courses when we were living in the Hague, and for all my reservations about its theological content, I fully acknowledge the potential it has to stimulate or reinvigorate faith.
ii) Not all churches use the Alpha DVD, but it seems to me that watching Nicky Gumbel on screen, with his reassuring and undemonstrative upper middle class manner, creates enough social distance for people not to feel manipulated by the presentation. It would be very interesting to consider how such a peculiarly English style is interpreted under very different cultural conditions around the world. And of course, not every part of the world is as cynical and jaded as the postmodern West.
iii) I should think that in most cases the discussion part of the evening is open enough for people to feel that they can say what they think. I'm sure participating Christians are often too quick to give the right answer, but the course does a reasonably good job of nurturing genuine enquiry. At least in the short term that presumably heads off much of the post-evangelical complaint about a lack of intellectual integrity. There is also a very powerful experiential part to it that compensates for the heady apologetics, though it remains firmly within the modern evangelical-charismatic paradigm.
iv) The biggest factor is probably the relational-social component. The Course generates a form of open spiritual community around the meals and discussions that appeals both to believers and seekers. I suspect a big part of its success comes from the fact that it offers a more exciting and authentic experience of meaningful community for Christians than they find in the normal routine of church life. I imagine a lot of people suffer from post-Alpha depression as a result.
These considerations go some way towards explaining the continuing popularity of the Alpha Course – and that may be enough to account for the fact that it appears to be, in Josh's words, 'blissfully unaware of the critique of its hermeneutics, ecclesiology, eschatology, missiology, and soteriology that has been offered by missional and emergent thinkers'. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
We should keep in mind, however, that the emerging or postmodern church phenomenon is largely a reaction against the modern evangelical-charismatic movement. It is driven and defined for the most part by people (like me) who have spent 10 or 20 years in this world and have got tired of its contradictions and constraints, and so on. This means that the emerging church is probably not a good entry point into the faith – it has evolved to deal with a quite different set of issues.
The Alpha Course, by contrast, makes an excellent entry point because it carries conviction, it knows what it believes. The question is: What will happen to the Alpha generation in 10 or 20 years time? Will the Alpha worldview still hold water once the initial excitement of faith has worn off? Or will the same cracks appear? There is clearly an important discussion to be had regarding how these two perspectives on the life and mind of faith relate to each other, understand each other.
It may be that the emerging church needs the Alpha Course more than it realizes; but equally the emerging church is raising questions that in the long run the Alpha Course cannot afford to ignore.