Anglican Samizdat

January 15, 2010

Alpha backlash

Filed under: Alpha — David @ 3:40 pm
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Ruth Gledhill reports on an article about Alpha written by a 16 year old schoolgirl. The full article is here:

I know I am not alone when I say the posters, business cards and general publicity boom of the Alpha course around school is alarming. Posters stating “Is this it? (tick the appropriate box)” give off an image suggesting open discussion, not full on evangelism, which is in reality, what the Alpha Course is really about.

I am not stating that the Alpha course in the school is a 10 week quick conversion recipe, yet my one experience certainly confirms that, though many regular attendees have told me it is not so, but this is definitely the case outside school: A quarter of a million agnostics have “found God” through the course in England, with 2 million people having attended in the UK and 13 million worldwide across 112 countries. Figures like these bring to my attention, not the happy, warm informal “discussion” group, but the very well organised evangelical goal of the course.

The Alpha course started in the 1970s as a small Christian discussion group but took off worldwide in the 90s under Nick Gumbel. By the time Nick Gumbel was done with it, it was run like a major corporation, using advertising, and a whole range of well-known psychological tactics. The course is run with military precision, and is finely targeted. There are courses for children, soldiers, prisoners, adults etc. so that every group is exposed to what works best for them.

The cost of advertising alone must run into millions. Besides the posters we see around school, there are banners on the sides of buses, big displays in the underground, and many billboards, some quite enormous ones like the one on the Hammersmith flyover in London! So one can only conclude that this is not about a simple “discussion” group. Firstly this is very much about aggressively promoting the Christian faith, and secondly about promoting an image and tone which the course does not fulfil, in fact does the complete opposite.

The running of the course, how liberal/extreme it is, is up to the people running it. However one thing the courses do have in common are the well-known psychological tools used: people are split off into small groups, easier to control and creating a sense of a close-knit family, and are expected to talk about quite personal aspects of their lives which has the effect of creating an increased sense of trust in the group. The discussion groups are often structured like a traditional family with a man and a woman as ‘leaders’. Free food is provided generating the association of comfort with religion. Music is frequently used, as sounds are a well- known stimulus for mood change. Each course contains enough devoted Christians dispersed amongst the agnostics that when half the room starts to do something, many of the rest will do the same, for example praying.

Then the best tactic comes around week 7 or 8 of the 10 week course : the weekend away, I assume the trip to Iona at Easter is this part of the course. Take a bunch of people away for a weekend where they will be trapped, a totally captive audience, with little to do other than what you organise for them. It sounds cynical, but the trip to Iona will be a “pilgrimage” as advertised, with increasing pressure on the agnostics to do as the Christians do, which is praising the Lord.

There is also a cult element in the course, as at some point, participants are urged to allow the holy spirit to fill them up by speaking in tongues (glossolalia) and one woman claimed to have “dropped to the ground making grunting animal noises”.

I feel an institution like the Alpha Course has no place in a school, especially its advertising. So next Friday, before you go to the course, just think about what the course represents. You are supporting an institution that has a “90% success rate of conversion”, largely due to sophisticated psychological techniques designed to manipulate you.

I’ve been involved in Alpha courses for some years, so I have found recent negative responses to Alpha such as the series in the Guardian and now this one from a schoolgirl instructive. Some observations about this article:

Posters stating “Is this it? (tick the appropriate box)” give off an image suggesting open discussion, not full on evangelism, which is in reality, what the Alpha Course is really about.
It is true that Alpha is about evangelism; it is also true that it encourages open discussion. Discussion takes place after the Nicky Gumbel talk and one thing that is drummed into the group leaders is that they must let discussion between the participants take its own course; this can be intensely frustrating for opinionated leaders, since their job is to keep quiet and encourage others to speak.

A quarter of a million agnostics have “found God” through the course in England, with 2 million people having attended in the UK and 13 million worldwide across 112 countries. Figures like these bring to my attention, not the happy, warm informal “discussion” group, but the very well organised evangelical goal of the course.
Alpha is well-organised and part of the organisation is “warm informal “discussion” group[s]”. The surprising part is, letting people find out for themselves whether the Gospel is true or not often leads them to the conclusion that it is.

By the time Nick Gumbel was done with it, it was run like a major corporation, using advertising, and a whole range of well-known psychological tactics.
There are some aspects of the national Alpha organisations that make it appear a little like a major corporation and this is something that I do not find endearing either. However, having as a callow youth been sucked into Amway presentations a few times, I am persuaded that, in comparison, psychological tactics are almost entirely absent from Alpha.

The course is run with military precision.
If the young lady lived near Toronto I would dispel this impression by inviting her to a course run at St. Hilda’s.

However one thing the courses do have in common are the well-known psychological tools used: people are split off into small groups, easier to control and creating a sense of a close-knit family
The small groups are formed to allow each person to have his or her say. As I mentioned above, the leader exerts very little control over the discussion.

Music is frequently used, as sounds are a well- known stimulus for mood change.
I often supply live music at our Alpha course; the mood does sometimes change – people may throw food, for example.

Then the best tactic comes around week 7 or 8 of the 10 week course : the weekend away….. where they will be trapped
We normally have our weekend away in the church hall; even if we did go away, people would not have to hand in their car keys and cell phones on arrival; the notion of an Anglican derived course trapping people is rather laughable.

There is also a cult element in the course, as at some point, participants are urged to allow the holy spirit to fill them up by speaking in tongues
The very same “cult element” that jump-started the early church.

Something one would not glean from this 16 year-old’s article is that the main appeal of Alpha is to reason, not emotion; that is one of the things that I find so satisfying about it. By the time I was a teenager I had realised there were a few nagging questions which really needed an answer: does existence have a purpose; why am I here; what happens when I die. Alpha seeks to provide answers – I may not have listened when I was a teenager, but I wish I had had the option of listening.

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2 Comments

  1. well, IS “this” it? is the only question and the only reason people are invited to (and decide to) come out to an Alpha Course whose purpose is (only) to give people the opportunity to “explore the Christian faith in a relaxed and (completely) non-pressurized setting!”- no last names, phone numbers asked or expected- no follow up contact-nada- come and go as you like. (what a concept- is this church?-maybe this is the reason for such an enormously positive track record around the world)
    (and the the food fights are great!)

    Gord Clark
    (Alpha Course Coordinator, St. Hilda’s)
    PS- come along for a looksee- next course intro Wed Jan 27 7pm St Hilda’s -1258 Rebecca St Oakville- 416-991-8499 for questions
    (and yes free dinner included!!)

    Comment by Gord Clark — January 15, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

  2. The gospel, if faithfully presented, will always be offensive to some – although the presenter and venue should not be offensive. To try and eliminate all offence is a fool’s errand.

    Comment by Warren — January 15, 2010 @ 5:31 pm


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