Alpha to The Rescue

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Can God be squared with evidence of 250 million-year-old dinosaurs, should you rely on yourself rather than seek help from above, and the big one--what is the meaning of life? Interesting theological questions, but somehow not the sort of concerns normally associated with career fast-trackers enjoying a night out in London's fashionable Knightsbridge. Yet last week, a crowd of 800 male and female mostly twenty-somethings crammed into a church near Harrods to argue such cosmic subjects. Many came straight from banking or brokerage jobs in the City, and most will return weekly until the 15-session course is over.

Called the Alpha course, the sessions are surprising because the Christian Church in Britain, as in many parts of Western Europe, has been in a seemingly endless decline since the l960s. Only 8% of the British population will be found at church on a Sunday, a day now synonymous with shopping, not praying. So depressed are membership figures that the Church of England no longer releases them. Its leader George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent months arguing for a few prayers at London's Millennium Dome year-end celebration, recently remarked that Britain had " something of an allergy to religion."

All this makes the quiet revolution fanning out from this one corner of the Church of England something of a small miracle. Yet the miracle formula church leaders are hoping will reverse this religious decline sounds quite old-hat. It's a 10-week introduction to the basics of the Christian faith--what is new or revolutionary in that? Quite a lot, it turns out, when the course is written, organized and presented by Nicky Gumbel. Gumbel, 44, an Old Etonian and ex-barrister, arrived in 1986 as a curate at Holy Trinity Brompton, an evangelical Anglican church minutes from Harrods. HTB, as the church is known, already offered a Bible study course but Gumbel rewrote and revamped it in 1990 to appeal to nonbelievers, lapsed churchgoers, or anyone searching for the meaning of life.

So many people were searching, and so appealing did they find Gumbel's recipe, that the five Alpha courses available at HTB in 1992 have now swelled to more than 13,000 around the world. They are not confined to the Anglican Church. The 7,000 courses running in Britain, 2,000 in the U.S., 160 in Germany and 129 in Russia are offered by churches of denominations ranging from Catholic to Lutheran. So far, 1.5 million people worldwide have taken the course, with another 250,000 currently enrolled. " This is a significant movement," says Annabel Miller, assistant editor of the London-based Catholic weekly, the Tablet. " It's having an amazing success in the Catholic Church."

One reason for that success is Alpha's slick marketing and hugely efficient business operation, with an annual turnover of $8.3 million. A 100-member full-time staff runs the project from offices in HTB's grounds, keeping tabs on Alpha websites, on courses held in most of Britain's prisons and more than half its universities, and on the Alpha books, videos, audio tapes, a newspaper and 50 international Alpha conferences for church leaders organized every year by HTB.

Modern business practices help, but in the end it is the style, content and general atmosphere that sells the Alpha course. Martin Bennett, 36, who works in a film production company, admits he went grudgingly, suspecting a hidden agenda. " It turned out to be fun, interesting and not too intense, and I didn't feel at all pressured," he says.

In September, a new year of Alpha courses in Britain was preceded by a $1.6 million advertising campaign, but word of mouth seems to have brought many of the 600 to enroll at HTB on the first evening. Some 20% will probably drop out, but that Wednesday, after a meal together, the 600 newcomers plus 200 Alpha helpers heard Gumbel give his relaxed, often humorous talk and a lawyer-like case for the existence of Christ. The evening ended in some 50 small groups allotted roughly by age, kicking around ideas.

Those who worry Alpha is some sort of cult are usually convinced after finding a warm welcome with no pressure to remain. But there are critics who feel Alpha, with its disapproval of divorce and abortion, is too morally fundamentalist. Others are uneasy at the charismatic side of HTB, where members of the congregation may suddenly speak in tongues, faint, laugh, or endlessly shake on receiving the Holy Spirit through a special blessing--experiences which are not normally associated with staid Anglicanism.

The biggest selling point is that many claim Alpha has changed their lives, and appear genuinely happier for the experience. And they are going to church. The Church of England, which Carey says is " one generation away from extinction," is desperate to fill pews. If Gumbel and his followers can do it, then even the doubters might be glad to let them get on with it.