More Alpha

Some more thoughts about “beyond Alpha”

This follows on from “not the Omega” and the Alpha postscript.

I referenced deindividuation and personal suasion as two factors which I thought may be at work in Alpha; that should not be taken to indicate that I do not think the Holy Spirit works through Alpha, just that those are factors to be taken into account and may, indeed, be among the methods which the Holy Spirit uses to produce the result of personal experience.

The acknowledgement that these factors do exist does, I think, mean that a programme should be in place to follow on from Alpha and work on the basis of any personal experience to produce an individual centred on God through Jesus aided by the Spirit (rather than the dangers of centring on the group or on the individual who prayed with them when they experienced the Spirit).

In fact, though, I think some follow on is essential in any event. There are parts of Alpha which deal to some extent with this, primarily Session 13 “What about the Church”, but to some extent in Session 14 “How can I make the most of the rest of my life” and even Session 11 “Why and how should I tell others”.  I could argue that Session 5 “Why and how should I read the Bible” and Session 4 “Why and how do I pray” also have a role to play, as they are the two sections dealing with personal as opposed to communal practice. Nothing in the course at present seems to me to bring all these threads together. Perhaps that should really be the job of Session 14.

At that point, I suppose much depends on what groups and programmes the church running the Alpha course has to offer (or could refer people to, if we’re feeling ecumenical!). Just worship services is not, I submit, going to be enough. I’ve seen Alpha courses follow on with a “First Steps” programme of introduction to Bible Study and then morph the resulting groups into cell groups, which seems an option.  

In any event, I think substantial consideration should be given to continuing the discussion groups created during Alpha as something approaching cell groups, if not actually as cell groups. This would, I think, capitalise on any group-centring or individual-centring which may have occurred; it will then take work in the cell group to delink those centrings. If persistence is too low to make a sensible sized cell group out of a discussion group, they could be combined or, possibly, tacked on to an existing group.

In any event, though, I’d want to see a stress on developing an individual spiritual programme, a personal praxis, in order to refocus on a personal relationship with God rather than one mediated by the group or another individual and, of course, because that is desirable. Either a portion of each cell group meeting could be devoted to discussing how individual praxis was developing (and talking through any issues which arose) or every third or fourth meeting could focus on this entirely; I suggest the first of these, as otherwise people might decide to skip the relevant sessions.

The “Journey” approach of Rev. Dr. John Vincent might well provide a good template for such follow-on groups, though it is possible they may go in unanticipated directions. So might the Emmaus Course material (probably concentrating on the “Growth” sections).

It occurs to me, though, that it would be possible to capitalise further on any individual centrings which arise by taking a leaf out of the book of 12 Step programmes, and encouraging a system of “sponsoring”. In this model, anyone who wished to follow on from Alpha would be encouraged to form a link with one of the helpers, who would then be responsible for supporting them, taking them through something akin to the 12 Steps and encouraging and assisting them into attendance at core services and membership of other groups within the church, including, of course, some form of service (an important concept within 12 Step and one which any missional, social gospel or radical church would be encouraging in any event.  I hope any church would be doing this, actually).

Clearly, in the light of my reservations earlier in this post and in the “postscript” post I link to above, one of the primary objectives of a sponsor would be to get the individual to develop their own praxis. I think it would also be worth considering that this “sponsorship” should be time-limited, both to encourage de-centring and to reassure individuals that this sponsoring was not a lifetime commitment, although I note that for many forms of personal praxis it is very desirable to have a Spiritual Director on a permanent basis. Perhaps, therefore, there should be an objective eventually to hand over to one of a group of people specialising in spiritual direction within the church?

It does seem to me that the assumption of the Alpha course is that a “one size fits all” personal transformation will be the result; a kind of standardised “born again” major transformational, paradigm changing experience. Most of the people I’ve met who are involved with Alpha are able to testify to such an experience, after all, so why should they assume anyone would be different? However I think from my own observations that many people are different; for one reason or another they are not susceptible to having such an abrupt paradigm change.

I anticipate, therefore, that there will be significant numbers who feel something as a result of going through Alpha, but nothing which they can identify as “born again”. I would like to think that their needs are being met; there may have been the start of an awakening which, if carefully nurtured, could blossom into something much greater. My suggestions above are designed to add an element of care for them.

Above all, I do not want to see people leave Alpha having not had an experience they could call “born again” feeling that they are failures, that they are excluded or, at the worst, that they are damned. I will therefore add one last element – everyone who leaves an Alpha course should have the opportunity of a one-to-one meeting to glean from them what their experience has actually been like, where they are now, to counsel them as to ways forward and to assure them of a continued welcome and support if they are still seeking. I say “opportunity”; I would prefer this to be a default, which someone could opt out of if they felt very strongly, but would otherwise be the norm.

Lastly, anyone with experience in sales will realise that these suggestions will also help in establishing persistence and in giving feedback to improve future Alpha courses. It may be impious to regard Alpha as a sales exercise, but it’s realistic. Granted, what is being “sold” is arguably a free gift (or, according to some theologies, a benefit already paid for), but what else is evangelism than sales?

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