An Alpha Course

1 Peter 3:15 "Always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you."

In the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, a basic Christianity course, called the Alpha Course, has been running for a few years. As a non-believer, I thought it would be interesting to go on one of these courses, to see what evangelism at the grass roots level was like. Naturally, from the moment of initial inquiry onwards, I was entirely upfront about the fact that I was a non-believer and that I was hoping to write up my experiences for my atheist Web page. I was assured that non-believers were very welcome,and several people said that they were pleased to see a non-believer present.

The course took place in a church in Bradford, England. The first meeting was an introductory supper.

About 32 people took part. Every other participant that I spoke to seemed to be a committed Christian, which surprised me a little. ( I did not speak to everybody). It was led by a young, articulate curate in the Church of England. Assisting him were a few helpers, to greet people and ,later, to facilitate group discussions.

The first hour was taken up with a light supper of cheese, wine, fruit biscuits etc.

We then had a short introductory talk about the format of the course. The course consists of ten evening meetings, plus a one day weekend outing to a local venue. Each meeting will comprise a meal, then a talk by the curate, followed by group discussions in two or three groups. it was emphasised that questions could be asked at any time, about any aspect of Christianity. No question was to be regarded as too hostile or too simple.

There then followed a short testimonial by two people who had been on previous Alpha courses. They said that they had been a little sceptical about the value of Alpha as an evangelical tool, but, after having gone on the course, had found that it was a very effective method of evangelism.

After that, we had a talk by the course leader on the subject of 'Christianity - Boring, Irrelevant or Untrue?' I give the gist of his talk. I have put a few comments in brackets.

Some people say that Christianity is about events which happened 2,000 years ago in a place 2,000 miles away, but Christianity is not irrelevant and is not just ancient history in a book.

Many people have searched for something in their lives. The only true satisfaction is to be found in a personal relationship with God. No human relationship is going to satisfy you, as we were created to have a relationship with God. It is only by having a personal knowledge of God - a knowledge from the heart and not from the intellect that we can find this. (The Greek word for this kind of knowledge is gnosis. It is interesting that Gnosticism has made such an impact into Christianity in the last 30 years.)

Tolstoy searched all his life for satisfaction in his life. He tried many things and in the end went back to the simple Christianity of the Russian peasants on his estates.

Is Christianity untrue? Thomas Arnold examined the evidence for the resurrection and found it very powerful. There is a great deal of evidence for the truth of Christianity but we would have to go on the course to find out. If Christianity is true, then , as C.S.Lewis pointed out, it is supremely important. (This sounds like Pascal's Wager.)

Many people think that Christianity is untrue because they have never examined the evidence for themselves. They just think it is superstition, but have no idea of what they are dismissing so casually. If they examined the evidence with an open mind, they would reach a different conclusion.

All of us are sinners and need forgiveness. Only Christ offers forgiveness. He died on the cross for us as a substitutionary atonement.

After the talk, there was some general discussion. We were invited to sign up for the main course. Each of us was given a booklet 'Why Jesus?'. This was written by Nickey Gumbel. It uses the (in)famous argument by C.S.Lewis that Jesus was either Lord, liar or lunatic. The Revd. Gumbel, a former barrister, also stated that even non-believers have a high opinion of Jesus's moral teachings, which is probably a sign that Mr. Gumbel does not talk to many sceptics.

Are evangelical courses aimed at answering the questions of sceptics?

After the meeting,I had a short email exchange with a sponsor of the course.

I pointed out that I had discussed my Islam pages with a few people at the meeting. None suggested that I approach Islam with an open mind, but all stressed that I had to approach Christianity with an open mind.

I was told that the course was designed for people searching for Jesus with open minds, and not for people who did not believe that Christianity was untrue.

I expressed the opinion that the people on the course would be unable to answer any Biblical questions that I might have and that evangelical courses are not aimed at informed sceptics. They are aimed at uninformed sceptics or doubting believers.

Here is the response from the organiser of the Bradford course.

You were indeed "upfront about the fact that [you were] an unbeliever"; but in fairness it should be noted that the extent of your research and knowledge was not clear and had I taken the call and got an inkling of your erudition I would have told you that it would be a format and pitched at a level that would probably not be of any help to you.

It's like you're pitching in at graduate level among a class of GCSE students -any sensible arrangement would suggest that you be among your peers -and I would still make that suggestion. With regard to the issues you wish to raise, this particular course is not a helpful format. If you wish to interact with the substance of Nicky Gumbel's arguments (on which the course is based) then you would be better doing so direct from the book on your pages and in dialogue with those who have the background.

Your assessment is basically correct when, in your last para., you say "not aimed at informed skeptics ..." because by and large we aren't dealing with such (there ain't that many around!). There probably are groups around that deal with your kinds of detailed objections as their meat and drink (and I could make enquiries to see if Bradford has any at the moment) but ours is a pilot of Alpha aimed at interested enquirers and consolidating Christians from inner city Bradford.

I think you met 'already-Christians' because, as a pilot course, that's who we are largely dealing with, as it happens. In addition, it's likely in the nature of things that you would meet people who are making it their job to try to be hospitable; ie the home team!

Your parenthetical comment on Gnosticism seems to betray a lack of appreciation of both historical Gnosticism and of historical Christian experience: it is simply not true that 'heart knowledge' is peculiarly Gnostic or recent to orthodox Christianity. The Wesleyan and other revivals are evidence of its orthodox provenance and a look at the writings of historic Christians such a Augustine and even Irenaeus will attest similarly.

As to your textual points, it's a case of I really don't have the time just now to do it justice; there's plenty of books and even websites around that deal with it ad nauseam -it's not as if any of it isn't stuff that scholars (both pro and anti-Christian) haven't been chewing over for years and centuries. I doubt that you or I are going to cover any new ground so I will leave off re-inventing the wheel for the time being. Perhaps I would be able to return to it some other time -I know your email address and have bookmarked your webpages. I also note that your webpages link to some that might well be as helpful; I'm not sure if I would have more to add (and I haven't the time to check just now) - perhaps you'd be better to interact with the authors of those pages?

I would have to say that when I talked with you about Islam I think my remarks were actually fairly non-committal (but then, I don't know who else you spoke to ...). - I was the one who had actually done a training course recently which involved listening to what educated Muslims had to say for themselves and I would have to say that I am trying to take what they say seriously ....

But, in any case, since you were already (as you pointed out earlier) dealing with Christians for the most part it is hardly "surprising" that they didn't commend Islam with open minds. I think that to expect that would be a little unfair, don't you think? The remark itself is in a context which reveals your own lack of open mind -and I don't berate you for that. It's simply a fact of human thinking that we have to have some a prioris in order to be able to tackle other areas of thought; I wouldn't expect you to be open minded in such matters and you shouldn't be surprised if I am not entirely so -nobody is: fact of life. -Done any study of postmodern philosophies?

I think it would be unfair to say those running the course couldn't answer ANY biblical questions; just not the kind you were throwing out.

In fairness to Simon Dowson I feel you put him in an invidious position: like asking a lawyer just as s/he strode into court to defend a case that s/he had no particular briefing about and no idea of the charges until they were read out against a well-prepared prosecution. As in a court of law, in order for a meaningful debate to take place at the level you were pitching it it is fair to give equal preparation. Simon had been preparing for a different situation than the one you opened up. I apologise that we did not pick up the clues in your messages to advise you better.

I can't really see that we can fulfill your aims in this particular course as it is currently set up. As I said above; collecting data and arguments for your web page is better done on a like-for-like basis.

Thank you for exposing us to the limits of what we are doing in Alpha - it will help us to be clearer about what we're doing and how we 'market' it. Thanks also for making us think about the best strategy we could evolve to deal with the more informed skeptics. One thing is clear: the ordinary bog-standard Alpha course isn't a help in such cases.

Comments to Steven Carr

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