Alpha; not the Omega but possibly a Gamma….

Alpha finished, officially, on Wednesday evening, and it remains to work out what I’ve learned from this. What I’ve actually GOT out of it is a whole set of new friends who share the same geekish interest as me (namely religion, spirituality, biblical history, studying scripture and all the stuff which surrounds that) and who are equally excited by exchanging ideas; they’re missional and full of fire, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. It may also have contributed (and probably did) to the abrupt ending of my marathon and severe depression 13 days ago.

It probably actually did that through the expected channel, which is that eventually the love and fellowship of the helpers combines with other factors to produce a moment of spiritual uplift and movement within the guests. Not, for me, when it’s expected, which is on the Spirit weekend (last weekend) as by the time I got to that I’d already been flying for a week. I went on two Alphas before this recognising that Alpha could sometimes do this, and hoping for a boost to my own conscious contact with God as a result (I was already well on the downward slope into depression when I went to the first, and hoped for a lifeline).

But that isn’t why I went this time; I went to help, and judging by the amount of extra input various people are wanting from me at the moment, I seem to have “done exactly what it said on the tin” and a bit more besides (looking back at my “Alpha, Beta test” post), and so did it. Unfortunately, for me this was despite the content for the most part rather than because of it.

I’ve resurrected this comment from someone attending a previous Alpha I went on; I didn’t get anything quite this pointed this time, but this sums a lot of it up:-

“Their whole attitude was ‘Why don’t you believe, you poor sick deluded person’ and ‘If you don’t believe by the end of this you’re going to hell and we can’t help you. This is your last chance’ “. She said she felt welcomed and well-fed but terminally embarrassed.

Other comments I’ve got from Alpha attenders (and I’m not going to say which comes from which Alpha course; some of these are from people attending courses in other towns and cities):-

“They all seem ‘holier than thou’ and ‘we’ve got it, you haven’t’. They’re all in on this joke, and I can’t seem to get it. Smug bastards. You’re a smug bastard too!”

“I’ve been a Christian for 40 years. I know all this stuff, and it doesn’t work for me any more – I want new answers, not the old stuff. And they say they’re Christians but used to be like me. So I’m not a Christian? I’m out of here!”

“They’re praying for me. That’s intrusive”.

“I hate the music. They’re trying to get me to join in and sing things I don’t believe in. Oh, it’s heartfelt and some of it’s actually not bad, but I feel excluded”

“I believe there’s a God, or at least something huge and difficult to understand, which I want to get closer to, and I believe that Jesus was a great inspirational leader and I try to follow what he told us to do. But they’re telling me I can’t believe that, I have to believe he was God squeezed into a human package or that he was a madman or a liar. And I can’t do that.”

“The first four talks were a load of complete rubbish. Most of their facts were wrong and I could drive a lorry through the holes in their reasoning. I didn’t go to any more. They’re obviously basing the whole thing on lies”

Of the set, the first and the last two are possibly the most damning for Alpha as it stands.

I don’t think this can be solved by praying harder for the Holy Spirit to come and transform people; this is good, indeed this should always happen, but if by that time someone is so thoroughly alienated by the process, they are far less likely to be able to receive the Spirit even if it comes knocking. Most people’s first experience is actually a small, fairly fragile thing and needs nurturing gently before it can burst into flame; mine was nothing remotely like small or fragile, but the vast majority of people I’ve shared experience with (and there have been a lot) do not have such an experience at any time during their lives.

Jesus did not allow his sheep to be snatched from the Father’s hand (Joh. 10:27-29); we might at least aspire to the same.

My first and most urgent suggestion is that we ditch Penal Substitutionary Atonement and it’s nice, simple, “convict of sin, believe Jesus was God, believe he died for our sins, pray to follow him, receive the Spirit, bang, it’s done” formula. Unfortunately, that wrecks the whole thesis of Alpha and the trajectory of the talks. What we want is acknowledgement of God, in some conception which works for people at the moment, following Jesus, in some conception which works for people at the moment and a radical act of reorientation toward God-through-Jesus, accompanied by a personal experience of God-through-Jesus. Me, I’m not even bothered if it’s God-through-Jesus, God-through-the-Holy-Spirit or just “wow, dad, you’re really there/here!”. I suggest that if you have that, you have at least a beginning Christian and we can present a few more developed theologies later for inspection.

In the course of this, we need to ditch Lewis’ trilemma. It turns off too many people who might otherwise stick there to the end – I’ve even heard people say that as Jesus was plainly not God, because that’s impossible, the message they got was that the man they’d been following was obviously a madman, therefore all the people saying these things were madmen. And “I’m out of here” followed… Incarnation is a very subtle and advanced piece of theology, and in my eyes entirely unsuitable for presentation to a beginner. After all, the early church spent the first three hundred years or more arguing about how this could be the case and having schisms, anathmatisations, riots and even wars about the idea. Let’s avoid having any of these within the Alpha rooms, no?

Alternative Alpha

Let’s avoid claiming that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. Some of us may think so, but there’s such strong modern biblical scholarship to indicate a large redactive, non-eyewitness content and a date later than most of the apostles had already died for even the earliest written form that we have any access to that we are going to get bogged down in another long and subtle argument.

Let’s not use leaps of inference from the early documents at all, in fact. What we can demonstrate clearly enough to satisfy all but the most sceptical modern scholarship is that Jesus lived, taught, inspired and gained a respectable following, died by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and that within 10-30 years had a following large enough to be thought by the Romans to be a source of civil unrest as far afield as Rome itself. In the process we can set up the historical context of 1st century Palestine with some both politically and in terms of religion. We can end by pointing out that this apparently insignificant Galilean itinerant preacher produced a movement which is alive and well 2000 years later and is worldwide. (talk 1)

We can then look at the evidence and show what his followers thought about Jesus, and for this we can use Paul and the gospel writers without even having to look at historical-critical scholarship. We can show why they found him inspirational; maybe then we can start looking at some pictures they had of what the reason for the crucifixion actually was (and, no, we don’t mention PSA even then; it took over 1000 years to develop even something vaguely like that atonement theory and another 300 to articulate it in something like modern form). I think it would be good to admit that there were actually several different kerygmas used in the gospels and in Paul, in fact. (talks 2&3)

We can then look at what Jesus actually taught, using historical-critical scholarship to extract the undisputed teachings, i.e. those which liberal and conservative alike ascribe to Jesus. My very strong suggestion is that we hang this round the Kingdom statements. (talk 4)

Then we can look at the mystical/spiritual elements in Paul, John and Acts (and I’d like us to link back to the Kingdom statements here, which are to me clearly mystical). We will end up with the Spirit and the formulae used (no, not just the PSA one!). This is probably a good time for several personal testimonies, making sure they are “this is my experience” rather than “this is what you must believe”. Variation would be good here. (talks 5,6&7)

Then we can look at how churches can be organised, introducing small-group churches, home churches, internet communities and lay networks as alternatives to the institutional church, presenting a lot of possibilities for getting involved. This should definitely point out social programmes which can be included as part of a developing spirituality (talk 8)

Finally, we can get together and decide what groups want to do next, individually and collectively. This could be an add-on to talk 8, or be talk 9.

Adjusted Alpha

I don’t think this is as promising a possibility, but it would also be possible to take the existing material, improve the way we react to people, making sure all helpers are well trained not to do any of the things mentioned above which alienate people and to include in at least the early talks two viewpoints, one of which should be a stripped down “liberal” one.

It would probably then be best to split each course into two streams, giving guests the option of going “conservative” or “liberal/radical/progressive”. Maybe these could even be on split nights, so someone could actually attend both.

They might well come together again at some point, probably the Spirit weekend.

I propose this rather cautiously, as I think I know who is going to be asked to do the liberal/radical/progressive side if this course is followed.

Living the Questions

It would be worth exploring Living the Questions as a Progressive Christian alternative to Alpha which, from what I’ve seen, does not have many of the drawbacks I’ve identified above. However, I know too little about it at the moment to be able to assess whether it would be a viable alternative, an add-on or a follow-up (it would certainly do the last of those).


Journey is a Radical Christian programme of spiritual development originated by Rev. Dr. John Vincent. I have not actually been through a Journey experience (albeit I have been on a journey of my own for 45 years now) but have talked at length with John Vincent about it and read the literature, and I think it has great promise as a follow-up to Alpha. However, I am sceptical that it could be an alternative.


The question is always “What do we do next”, and we’re going to be meeting elsewhere on Wednesday evenings for a bit to talk more informally; out of this I hope something will arise. What I’d like to see from a future Alpha is the ability to move more or less straight on to a Living the Questions or a Journey.



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