One of the fastest growing evangelization programs in Evangelical and
Charismatic Protestant circles these days is the "Alpha
Course," developed over 20 years ago at a charismatic Anglican parish
in London, Holy Trinity Brompton, and
currently directed by Nicky Gumbel. It has
been promoted to Catholics in the United States for six years by
ChristLife Catholic Evangelization
Services in Baltimore, which claims that "hundreds of Catholic
parishes" are now using it. The purpose of this paper is to describe
the process and content of the Alpha Course, and to evaluate
whether Alpha, either in its original form or in the "Alpha
for Catholics" model, should be recommended to Catholic parishes
looking for evangelization tools.
What Is Alpha?
Alpha presents itself as "a basic introductory course to the
Christian faith." According to the ChristLife
- provides a clear and non-threatening way to
bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people from all walks of life
- helps lead people to a personal relationship
with Jesus Christ, within the context of the parish
- is ecumenical in that it covers the basic
Christian truths shared by all traditions
- may be the most effective form of direct
evangelization in common use today.
The program consists of ten weekly meetings including a meal, a
talk, and small group reflection; there is also a retreat and a
celebration dinner, which serves as the introduction for the next
cycle of the course.
Outline of the Alpha Course
Alpha Dinner: Christianity:
Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?
1. Who Is Jesus
2. Did Jesus Die?
3. How Can I Be Sure of My Faith?
4. Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
5. Why and How Do I Pray?
6. How Does God Guide Us?
Who Is the Holy Spirit?
What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
How Can I Be Filled with the Spirit?
(followed by prayer for "the gift of tongues")
How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?
(followed by a "Communion" service)
7. How Can I Resist Evil?
8. Why and How Should We Tell Others?
9. Does God Heal Today? (small group time replaced by a
"practical healing session.")
10. What About the Church?
Dinner: Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?
Alpha claims that there are currently 5000 courses being
offered around the world. The Alpha webpage lists over 60 sites
in the counties covered by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, sponsored
by churches of diverse background: Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian,
Presbyterian, Baptist, Vineyard, Disciples, Foursquare, and three
The Houston Catholic parishes hosting Alpha use "Alpha
for Catholics," as developed by ChristLife
and a Catholic Alpha Office in the UK. This is not a Catholic
adaptation of the Protestant program, but is the Protestant program
with Catholic teaching presented afterwards as a supplement. As
the British office says, "Catholic Alpha uses the Alpha
course as it stands, but recognizes that for Catholics,
and those wishing to become Catholics, much more teaching is needed
after Alpha. Courses such as Exploring the Catholic Church
and Drink from the Wells of the Church may be used as the first
step in the sharing of specifically Catholic teaching." 
The basic thrust of Alpha is to communicate the essentials
of the Christian faith, with its understanding of God the Father, of
Jesus Christ¡Xhis incarnation, death and resurrection¡Xand the gift of
the Holy Spirit. It is the historic faith expressed in the ancient
creeds. Alpha is, therefore, compatible with Catholic teaching,
but does not address the role of the Catholic Church in the
proclamation of the gospel or in its teaching on the sacraments. In
addition, the current teaching is deficient with respect to Catholic
The question of the sacraments receives a fuller response further
on. "On the question of sacraments, Alpha is seriously
deficient from a Catholic point of view. Only Baptism and the
Eucharist are recognized explicitly." They quote Nicky
Gumbel as saying, "Teaching on the
sacraments is limited, in the sense that we only teach on Alpha
what all the major denominations and traditions are agreed about."
This has led to criticism that "the Catholic bits [are] just
¡¥tacked on¡¦ to a Protestant message." The Catholic advocates of
Alpha reject this characterization. "What some see as the tacking
on of Catholic convictions as an after-thought can be seen by others
as preaching the basic Gospel kerygma
followed by an introduction to the fullness of Christian faith."
They urge us to see that this is a "polished and refined" program
that has been tested, and is successful. Rather than taking what
someone else has developed and making it into something else, "Is it
not wiser, more Christian, and more ecumenical to accept gratefully
the grace of God in Alpha from our Anglican brothers and
sisters and supplement it with full Catholic teaching?"
Despite that attempt at a response, the question remains: Can
Catholic evangelization really be done in such a way that certain
items distinctive to Catholicism can be somehow detached from what
Evangelical Protestants believe to be "the basic Christian truths"?
We must also look at the specific content of the Alpha
program itself. As we have seen, ChristLife
claims that in its presentation of these "basic Christian truths," "Alpha
is compatible with Catholic teaching." The UK Catholic Alpha
Office says, "Catholics who have read the Alpha material have
found it to be remarkably free from anything, which we might object
to." Are these claims valid?
Evaluation of Alpha
An evaluation of Alpha materials reveals that Alpha
does not offer simply "basic Christian truths" common to all, but
presents specific teachings on the Church, the Sacraments, and the
gifts of the Holy Spirit that constitute the theology of the
Charismatic Protestantism which gave birth to Alpha.
An Individualistic Christianity. Alpha
presents a gospel which is reduced to "me and Jesus," and the Church
becomes merely a gathering of people who have come to faith in Christ.
The order of the Course speaks volumes. First the individual believes
in Jesus, then he reads the Bible, prays, is filled with the Holy
Spirit, is encouraged to speak in tongues, is given Communion, told to
resist evil, learns about and experiences faith healing ¡X and only
then does the Alpha Course mention the Church!
A Congregationalist Ecclesiology.
Gumbel presents the Church as a
"three-tier structure of celebration, congregation, and cell." The
"celebration" is the Sunday gathering. What he calls the
"congregation" is a more intimate setting in which it is "possible to
know most people and be known by most. It is a place where lasting
Christian friendships can be made. It is also a place where the gifts
and ministries of the Spirit can be exercised in an atmosphere of love
and acceptance, where people are free to risk making mistakes. The
congregation is a place where individuals can learn, for example, to
give talks, lead worship, pray for the sick, develop the gift of
prophecy, and pray out loud." The third level, or "cell," is "the
small group." The universal Church in this schema is simply the sum
total of congregations and individuals who claim the name of
An Evangelical Perspective on the Sacraments. In its
effort to present only what "all agree on," Alpha leaves out
five sacraments. And what it says about the remaining two is still
problematic. In Questions of Life, Baptism is mentioned in only
one small paragraph which emphasizes that it is "a visible mark of
being a member of the church." "It signifies [emphasis added]
cleansing from sin (1 Corinthians 6:11), dying and rising with Christ
to a new life (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12), and the living water
that the Holy Spirit brings to our lives (1 Corinthians 12:13)."
The Eucharist is presented in Reformed terms as a reminder of a past
event, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. It is also said to be an
anticipation of heaven, a reminder of the unity of the Christians
gathered, and a "look up" to Jesus, who is present "by His Spirit."
Gumbel specifically rejects a sacrificial
understanding of Eucharist in his discussion of the "priesthood of all
believers." Christian leaders may be called "priests," but "not a
Significantly, "Holy Communion" is separated entirely from Church
membership. Alpha is said to be evangelization of the
unchurched, and Catholics are told to
consider it as "precatechumenate," yet the
weekend retreat (held about halfway through the course), is to
conclude with "Communion" (and this before either the Church or
Sacraments are ever mentioned in the course). The process is
described by Nicky Gumbel:
After the break we sing a song of praise. We have an offering which
covers the cost of those who could not afford to pay for all or part
of the weekend. ¡K I then explain the communion service (along the
lines of Questions of Life, pages 228-229). This is a good
opportunity to teach about the central service of the Christian faith.
We then invite anyone who knows and loves Jesus Christ to receive
Communion, should they wish, regardless of their denomination or
background. We pass round the bread and drink, asking those who do not
wish to receive it for some reason to pass it on to their neighbor.
Many comment on the beautiful simplicity and unity in this, and some
experience God¡¦s love for the first time as they relax and receive
A Charismatic Agenda. If we compare the amount of
space given to different topics, we see that Alpha is not
interested in giving "common Christian teaching" but is in fact
advancing a specific theological agenda. Contrasting the one small
paragraph on Baptism, and the two pages on "Holy Communion," with the
eight pages on "speaking in tongues" and sixteen
pages on "healing," we get a truer sense of what Alpha is
about. Though Gumbel says not all have to
speak in tongues, he encourages people to ask for it, and then to
start speaking, starting with a limited vocabulary and developing the
"prayer" "language." The extensive chapter on healing presents the
distinctive claims of the "signs and wonders" school of thought
associated with John Wimber. Recall that
these chapters precede mention of the Church (understood in a
congregationalist way) or the sacraments
(reduced to two, and understood in an Evangelical way). Recall as well
that Catholics are told that "denominational
distinctives" must be left out of Alpha, which only
wants to present "common Christian teaching." Clearly the claim is
An Anglican Criticism
As mentioned out the outset, Alpha was developed by a parish
of the Church of England, Holy Trinity Brompton
in London. From Anglicanism, it has spread to other Christian groups.
Yet one of the first detailed criticisms of the course came from an
Anglican source¡Xan M.A. dissertation written by Rev. Mark Ireland,
Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Lichfield,
in the year 2000. Ireland questioned the 426 parishes in the diocese
about the evangelization programs they were using, and then his Bishop
followed up with a letter to the parishes which used Alpha,
asking if they had any concerns. "The main theological areas of
concern centred on lack of teaching on the
sacraments, social ethics and the resurrection, and the perceived
over-emphasis on tongues, physical healing and
substitutionary atonement." These issues were then raised in a
meeting between Ireland and the Area Bishop of Shrewsbury with Sandy
Millar and Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity
The greatest concern voiced by the Anglicans who replied was the
lack of adequate teaching on the sacraments. The Area Bishop of
Stafford commented, "¡Kthere is a danger I believe that a fairly
minimalist understanding of the Eucharist in the Alpha material
I have seen (but not used) is somewhat restrictive of one of the
greatest well-springs of Christian spirituality and experience. And it
was (is) the memorial that the Lord gave of His Passion (as St.
Paul says!)." Gumbel and Millar gave no
ground on the objection. Gumbel ducked the
question by noting that Alpha is used "by both Roman Catholics
and the Salvation Army, whose understanding of the sacraments differs
totally," and that "we should rejoice" in this. "What is written about
baptism and holy communion in Questions of Life has been
carefully scripted to enable as far as possible Roman Catholics,
Baptists and the Salvation Army to all feel comfortable using it." And
Millar emphasized that those who want to add their own teachings, are
free to do so afterwards.
Another concern was the emphasis on tongues¡Xand this, Ireland says,
was raised by clergy at charismatic churches. Again, Millar and
Gumbel rejected the criticism and said
they were trying to steer a middle course between the Pentecostals who
insist on tongues and others who reject it.
In the discussion of these and other issues, Ireland comments,
¡KI am struck by how in our discussion they were both rather
defensive: they had an answer prepared for every point and did not
give any ground¡Xeither no change was necessary, or they had already
made slight amendments here and there, or the problem identified was
the fault of the user. ¡K This reflection is
crystallised for me in the fact that after our meeting I came
away with a sheaf of notes and a list of actions to follow up, whereas
Gumbel and Millar left with no notes and
no actions to follow up. They were very keen to encourage and support
us in making Alpha work at local level, but the core product
was clearly non-negotiable.
Gumbel was especially resistant to the
idea of local adaptation, speaking of the need for uniformity and
consistency, citing a market example: "If I went to McDonalds in
Moscow and was given a ham sandwich, I would say that¡¦s not on."
Ireland observes that a couple of years earlier Pete Ward had
published an article entitled, "Alpha¡Xthe
McDonaldization of Religion?" "Gumbel
will have been aware of this critique," he says, "yet he still chose
to cite McDonalds in support of the need for uniformity in Alpha
wherever it is offered." While this can be beneficial, providing an
accessible tool for those without the ability to develop their own
program, "The downside of this approach is that it teaches people how
to use a product rather than how to do evangelism. This reinforces
dependence on the source of the product ¡K [and] is a classic feature
of the behaviour of multi-national
corporations." Ireland refers to Ward¡¦s critique that "Alpha
offers people ¡¥the illusion of religion¡¦, in that membership of a
local church and regular Sunday worship are simply not like Alpha."
This is akin to what some have referred to as the "Disneyfication"
Ireland suggests that the individualistic emphasis is one of the
most serious sins of Alpha¡Xand one of the most pervasive. "It
is perhaps significant that the logo on the front cover of all the
Alpha materials is of an individual wrestling alone with a
big question. There is something quite individualist about Alpha
which resonates with our culture, but loses something of the corporate
nature of faith ¡K."
And these questions are given oversimplified and incomplete
answers, which he notes Martyn Percy
criticized as a sort of "¡¥Join-the-dots¡¦ Christianity." Percy comments
that Alpha¡¦s "basics" "turn out to be a largely inerrant Bible,
a homely and powerful Holy Spirit, and an evangelical atonement
theory, and not the Trinity, baptism, communion or community."
Alpha, he says, is "a package, not a pilgrimage," and is
"salvation by copyright."
Ireland is not wholly negative on either Alpha in particular
or "process evangelism" courses in general. Over 61% of the parishes
in his diocese use some form of such a course, resulting in "1,377
people having come to Christian faith, commitment or confirmation."
Courses such as these have been tools enabling parishes to see their
ministry as one of evangelization, and to recover ancient practices of
catechesis. "In a society where for the majority of people conversion
is a journey or a gradual process, every church needs a nurturing
group where enquirers are able to belong before they are asked to
believe, to ask whatever for them are the big questions about life,
and to explore the Christian faith." The effectiveness lies, he says,
not in the particular brand, but in the idea of process and journey,
and all published courses have similar effectiveness rates. With any
such tool, adaptation, balance, constant improvement, and follow-up
courses which go deeper are necessities.
Alpha and Evangelization in light of the General
Directory for Catechesis
But let us now look at the other question which is fundamental to
the "Alpha for Catholics" approach. We are told to accept
Alpha "as is" and to leave Catholic "distinctives"
for a "supplemental course." Is this methodology legitimate, when we
look at the guiding documents for Catholic evangelization and
catechesis? What can we affirm in the approach of Alpha, and
what should concern us?
The General Directory for Catechesis says, "It is the task
of catechesis to show who Jesus Christ is, his life and ministry, and
to present the Christian faith as the following of his person¡K. The
fact that Jesus Christ is the fullness of Revelation is the foundation
for the ¡¥Christocentricity¡¦ of catechesis:
the mystery of Christ, in the revealed message, is not another element
alongside others, it is rather the center from which all other
elements are structured and illumined." GDC 41. If Alpha does
anything well, it is this; and this is perhaps one of the reasons for
its popularity. It is meant to introduce an inquirer to the person of
We can affirm as well Alpha¡¦s desire to include a number of
elements that the Vatican 2 decree
Ad Gentes saw as vital to
evangelization: "Christian witness, dialogue and presence in charity (GDC
11-12)," and "the proclamation of the Gospel and the call to
conversion (GDC 13)." Catholic Alpha acknowledges that from
this must follow more detailed catechesis through the
catechumenate and initiation into the
Catholic community. The GDC speaks of "essential moments" in the
process of evangelization, and we can affirm that an initial
proclamation to non-believers and the unchurched
is going to be distinct from the catechesis of those already
introduced to Christ, and for which it lays the foundation. GDC 47
Primary proclamation (the responsibility of all Christians)
implies "a going-out, a haste, a message," while catechesis
"starts with the condition indicated by Jesus himself: ¡¥whosoever
believes,¡¦ whosoever converts, whosoever decides. Both activities are
essential and mutually complementary: go and welcome, proclaim and
educate, call and incorporate." Alpha could be seen as an
attempt to accomplish the first. But though primary proclamation and
catechesis are distinct, we cannot rigidly separate them, and that is
what Alpha seems to suggest by saying that "distinctives"
must be left to a "supplementary" program. There must be some content,
which provides the basis for the decision to follow Christ; thus the
GDC speaks of a "kerygmatic catechesis" or
a "pre-catechesis," which paves the way for "a solid option of faith."
GDC 61-62. We are to have "a single program of evangelization which is
both missionary and catechumenal." GDC 277
The object of catechesis is communion with Jesus Christ. Again, we
can affirm the central emphasis of Alpha. "¡¥The definitive aim
of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in
communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ.¡¦ All evangelizing activity
is understood as promoting communion with Jesus Christ. Starting with
the ¡¥initial¡¦ conversion of a person to the Lord, catechesis seeks to
solidify and mature this first adherence." GDC 80
However, the GDC insists that his initiatory catechesis must be "a
comprehensive and systematic formation in the faith." We are to aim
for "a ¡¥complete Christian initiation,¡¦ which promotes an authentic
following of Christ, focused on his Person." It is "essential" and
"common," but not in the sense of being minimalist; for the GDC this
means that we catechize "without entering into disputed questions nor
transforming itself into a form of theological investigation." GDC
67-68. "¡KCatechesis starts out with a simple proposition of the
integral structure of the Christian message, and proceeds to explain
it in a manner adapted to the capacity of those being catechized." GDC
112. The guide to this structure is the Apostles¡¦ Creed. GDC 115.
And the GDC rejects an individualistic piety, for "Communion with
Jesus Christ, by its own dynamic, leads the disciple to unite himself
with everything with which Jesus Christ himself was profoundly united:
with God his Father, who sent him into the world, and with the Holy
Spirit, who impelled his mission; with the Church, his body, for which
he gave himself up, with mankind and with his brothers whose lot he
wished to share." GDC 81
The Church is thus not something that can be discussed as an
afterthought to the Gospel message, but is the essential agent in the
proclamation of the Gospel. "Catechesis is an essentially ecclesial
act." GDC 78. Christ founded the Church on the apostles, to whom he
gave the Holy Spirit, sending them to preach the good news to the
entire world. The Church through all ages bears the fullness of the
divine Word, in Scripture and Tradition, guided by the Spirit speaking
through the Magisterium. As the "universal
sacrament of salvation," the Church not only preaches the Gospel, but
communicates God¡¦s gifts in the sacraments. GDC 42-46.
Citing Paul VI¡¦s
the GDC warns of "the risk of impoverishing ¡K or even of distorting"
evangelization. It "must develop its ¡¥totality¡¦ and completely
incorporate its intrinsic bipolarity: witness and proclamation, word
and sacrament, interior change and social transformation. Those who
evangelize have a ¡¥global vision¡¦ of evangelization ¡K." GDC 46 "A
fundamental principle of catechesis ¡K is that of safeguarding the
integrity of the message and avoiding any partial or distorted
presentation: ¡¥In order that the sacrificial offering of his or her
faith should be perfect, the person who becomes a disciple of Christ
has the right to receive "the words of faith," not in mutilated,
falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor
and vigor.¡¦" GDC 111
We can apply this principle to the sacraments, of which the GDC
says, "They form ¡¥an organic whole in which each particular sacrament
has its own vital place.¡¦ In this whole, the Holy Eucharist occupies a
unique place to which all of the other sacraments are ordained. The
Eucharist is to be presented as the ¡¥sacrament of sacraments.¡¦" GDC
Despite the commendable intent of Alpha to evangelize the
unchurched by facilitating an initial
encounter with Jesus Christ, we must conclude that even with a
Catholic supplement, it remains deficient, and cannot be recommended
for Catholic use. Alpha does not fulfill the expectations for
Catholic catechesis and evangelization, and presents what Catholics
must see as an impoverished and distorted Gospel. It is not "basic
Christianity," but is Charismatic Protestantism. To tack Catholic
elements to be tacked onto the end, especially issues of Church and
Sacrament, denies the integral nature of Christian revelation.
Catholic Evangelization Services.
How to Run the Alpha Course: A Handbook for Alpha Directors,
Leaders, and Helpers (Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources,
1997), p. 47, 101 [on prayer for tongues during retreat], 104 [on
Communion during the retreat and the healing session].
Evangelisation Services/Catholic Alpha Office (UK).
http://www.catholicalphaoffice.org (hereafter noted in the text
simply as UK Catholic Alpha Office).
Alpha for Catholics: Questions and
Answers (Ellicott City, MD. ChristLife
Catholic Evangelization Services, n.d.),
Ibid., p. 12.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 12.
Ibid., p. 6.
Questions of Life: A Practical Introduction to the Christian Faith
(Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1996),pp. 219-221.
Ibid., p. 219.
Ibid., pp. 228-229.
How to Run the Alpha Course, p.
Ibid., p. 104.
Questions of Life, pp. 155-163.
Ibid., pp. 199-215.
Ibid., p. 163.
Mark Ireland, "A Study of the
Effectiveness of Process Evangelism Courses in the Diocese of
Lichfield, with Special Reference to
Alpha" (MA dissertation. University of Sheffield at Cliff College,
2000), p. 2. Note: This dissertation is available on-line at
http://www.evangelism.uk.net/papers/lichfield_alpha1.htm, in the
form of a ZIP-file. Page numbers correspond to the printed copy I made
after "un-zipping" it into Microsoft Word. Pagination could therefore
differ in other formats.
Ibid., pp. 17-18.
Ibid., p. 19.
Ibid., p. 32.
Ibid., p. 32-33. References are to Pete
Ward, "Alpha¡Xthe McDonaldization of
Religion?" Anvil 15(November 4, 1998): 279-286.
Ibid., p. 35.
Percy, "¡¥Join-the-dots¡¦ Christianity," Reviews in Religion and
Theology (3/1997), p. 15; cited in Ireland, "Study," p. 36.
Ireland, "Study," pp. 39-40. For another
critique of Alpha, see Stephen Hunt, Anyone for Alpha?:
Evangelism in a Post-Christian Society (London:
Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2001).
Alpha for Catholics: Questions and Answers. Ellicott City,
MD. ChristLife Catholic Evangelization
Services/Catholic Alpha Office (UK).
ChristLife Catholic Evangelization
Gumbel, Nicky. The Alpha Course
Manual. London: HTB Publications, 1999. Reprint edition. Colorado
Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1999.
Gumbel, Nicky. How to Run the Alpha
Course: A Handbook for Alpha Directors, Leaders, and Helpers.
Colorado Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1997.
Gumbel, Nicky. Questions of Life: A
Practical Introduction to the Christian Faith. Colorado Springs:
Cook Ministry Resources, 1996.
Gumbel, Nicky. Telling Others: A
Practical Approach to Sharing the Christian Faith. Colorado
Springs: Cook Ministry Resources, 1994.
Gumbel, Nicky and Sandy Millar,
"Response to Mark Ireland¡¦s Dissertation." 20 November 2001.
Hunt, Stephen. Anyone for Alpha?: Evangelism in a
Post-Christian Society. London: Darton,
Longman and Todd Ltd., 2001.
Ireland, Mark. "A Study of the Effectiveness of Process Evangelism
Courses in the Diocese of Lichfield, with
Special Reference to Alpha." MA dissertation. University of
Sheffield at Cliff College, 2000.