Adam Rutherford’s interview with Nicky Gumbel
NG: I think what tends to happen is the course is representative of the area. So, for instance, most people who live in Islington are probably what you've just described as de-churched. But in China, most of the people who come on the course might be atheist. At a conference we did in Singapore, most of them described themselves as 'free-thinkers' beforehand. In different parts of the world there are different backgrounds. When we looked at the analysis of our own course here I think it was pretty representative of what the population at large is. I think 75% of the population of this country are probably still de-churched. It's the younger end, the 25%, the merging generation, who have no church background at all.
AR: So the 'un-churched'?
NG: Yes, if you turn that category de-churched in to the un-churched, I would say the make-up of Alpha here is probably like that: 75% are un-churched.
AR: What do you think the aspect of un-churched people is, if we can use that term? What is missing, or what are the questions that they don't have answers to, which Alpha attempts to address?
NG: It's very interesting because the un-churched are the new people coming in. The younger end tend to be the un-churched, the ones who've got no baggage at all. And in a sense they come at it with a great advantage, in some ways.
AR: What sort of baggage are you talking about?
NG: Well, experience of thinking of Christianity as boring, for example, because they've got no experience at all of Christianity. If you've had an experience where you've been at school or you've been involved in services and you've thought, 'That's so dull,' yes, you've got some information but also it's something that may have put you off, whereas if you haven't got that experience at all you come to it with completely fresh eyes. So there's a mixture of people, and there are advantages and disadvantages in both of those.
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Filed under: * Anglican - Episcopal
Church of England (CoE)
* Christian Life / Church Life
Evangelism and Church Growth
Religion & Culture
* International News & Commentary
England / UK
Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:52 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]
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1. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:
There ought to be more questions about Alpha than there appear to be. For example, two years after a specific course experience, what percentage of participants are actively growing disciples of Christ?
Barna highlights that after one year something like 80% of those making a declaration for Christ (in whatever context) are stalled in their faith and completely uninvolved with a church of any sort.
Based at what I’ve seen at our church—deeply involved in Alpha for over a decade—it’s not all that effective. During the course I attended (out of curiosity) some years ago, participants in our small group were strongly agreed that any religion could lead to salvation. Two of us objected and cited clear biblical evidence to the contrary; after the session we were quietly reprimanded by the group leader, who told us not to be so “intimidating” again.
The people running Alpha are uninterested in following up to determine the course’s success rate in producing actively growing Christian disciples. I’m also getting somewhat annoyed by the numerous Alpha infomercials included in sermons, especially in light of the course’s apparently limited effectiveness in launching people on a path of lifelong discipleship.
There have been thousands of people attending Alpha at our church over the years. Obviously the vast majority never became members at our church, and probably not at any other church either. So what’s the point?
In business we pay close attention to the return on our marketing investment. As evangelists we are ‘marketing’ Christ, and He’s a great ‘product’ to be offering. Unfortunately, leadership within Alpha nationwide seem completely disinterested in examining the single best metric for evaluating the effectiveness of what they’re doing.
Given the time, effort, and money involved ... you’d think somebody would wish to find out how well it’s actually working, beyond counting how many people attend the course.
August 31, 10:06 am | [comment link]
2. Henry Greville wrote:
ALPHA courses are seldom followed up by comparable energy and excitement about ongoing “discipling.”
August 31, 10:24 am | [comment link]
3. Pb wrote:
#2 Nor do most churches. TEC generally attempts to support folks on a journey which they have never begun.
August 31, 10:28 am | [comment link]
4. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:
To put it bluntly, if our church promoted Bible Study Fellowship—for all its quirkiness, one of the best discipleship formations that exists—with one-quarter the energy they put into Alpha infomercials at sermon time then I suspect the level of growth would improve over what it is at present.
“Houston—we have a problem.” Ours is an active ACNA church with ASA approaching 1000, yet participation in Sunday adult education amongst members is but a few dozen. In one course on reaching out to those of other faiths, taught by a friend, he observed that the Hindu literature consisted largely of ancient myths. One participant commented, “You mean just like the Bible, no?”
In this church, enthusiastic participation in the Alpha club is pretty well a pre-requisite for any possibility of nomination as a candidate for Parish Council. Yet in my almost eleven years here there has not been a single comment from the ‘pulpit’ supporting “life” issues. They appear to be scared of such things because this is a wealthy suburban county in which it’s not uncommon to give 16-year-old girls a boob job as a birthday present.
“Learn to be content” ? Not here. Not in this church. Not in this county. The church’s tag line is “Making disciples who make disciples ... ” Maybe not, eh. And this is alleged to be one of the “leading” churches in ACNA. If it is, we have a huge problem.
Our church is prayerful, open to the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate our individual victories, but where it matters—in creating disciples who apply Christ’s model to their marriages, child-rearing, businesses, and leisure activities… Hamartia (falling way short of the mark) most decidedly prevails.
Alpha has done absolutely nothing to change that.
August 31, 11:33 am | [comment link]
5. Franz wrote:
I’m glad to know that others are skeptical about Alpha. It was introduced with great fanfare at a parish at my family and I were members. I went through the course, and found it lacking. Now I can probably attribute some of that to my (many) failings as a Christian, but it did strike me as a program that was designed to “close the deal,” by getting someone to some sort of conversion experience, without really cultivating something deeper.
August 31, 12:18 pm | [comment link]
6. New Reformation Advocate wrote:
Thanks for sharing your frustration. I’m glad you have such a passion for fostering real discipleship, but as I think this interview with Nicky Gumbel makes clear, Alpha just wasn’t designed for maturing disciples, but rather for introducing people to the basics of the Christian faith. Other tools are needed for helping new converts to make that crucial transition from being believers to being real followers of Christ, deeply committed to seeking full maturity in Christ. Personally, I like to use the DISCIPLE Bible study program (a multi-year discipleship course marketed by Abingdon Press) as the best follow up to Alpha that I’ve yet come across.
If it’s any consolation, look at how Willow Creek Community Church has tried to re-invent itself in recent years. They actually did the kind research you’ve called for, and they hired a group that took a long, hard look at whether they were actually accomplishing their goal of turning unchurched people into fully devoted followers of Christ. They weren’t succeeding, despite very strenuous efforts.
Bottom line: Too often many of us expect one tool (like Alpha) to do too much. I saw that when I was deeply involved in Cursillo years ago. Even though Cursill was designed as training in evangelism for those who are already believers, in many TEC dioceses, many people tried to turn Cursillo into an evangelistic weekend, out of frustration with the lack of anything else to do that.
My point is that we need a full toolbox, stocked with all the tools needed to do all the jobs the Church of Jesus Christ is called to do.
And if you don’t mind, it sounds like you’re talking about Christ Church, Overland Park. Am I right? If so, you’re correct that when even thriving flagship parishes like yours struggle with turning a motto into reality, like “Disciples Making Disciples” (the motto of my former Diocese of Albany), we have a serious problem that cries out for being taken seriously and seriously addressed.
August 31, 4:33 pm | [comment link]
7. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:
My disappointment is not with Alpha per se but with a focus on Alpha that in practice largely pre-empts effective follow-up and disciple-making. And with the widespread institutional unwillingness to apply rigorous evaluation to the results thereof.
I spent over a decade in the fruit tree nursery business in a harsh climate. It was far better to get two feet of growth, most of which lived, than to get six feet of growth, most of which froze back to nothing.
Given the “wicked times” in which we live ... Alpha (alone) is not making “good use” of our days. Most of its growth freezes back.
August 31, 4:57 pm | [comment link]
8. Hal wrote:
I’m curious about people’s thoughts regarding Alpha vs. Christianity Explored. Having done both, I prefer the latter because it focuses people specifically on the life of Jesus and directs them to a particular book (the Gospel of Mark) that is easy to read and offers a nice introduction to the faith. I don’t know whether there are any statistics out there as to which is more effective, but Christianity Explored struck me as more organized than Alpha , which tended to feel a bit scatterbrained. It also seemed more comfortable offering orthodox answers, whereas my experience with Alpha was similar to Bart’s in that leaders seemed comfortable allowing the group to reach an unorthodox consensus (e.g., all religions are equally valid) without even a hint of pushback.
August 31, 8:32 pm | [comment link]
9. Albany+ wrote:
Alpha answers the questions that some people ask. I have seen it work well in “closing the deal” for those who have been struggling with one thing or another Nicky takes on.
What sometimes isn’t dealt with honestly is how it is being used for parish growth in many places and so there is a motive beyond conversion. The other things is the problem of “fit.” You take an English evangelical priest who won’t wear a collar and try to get someone to use it in an Anglo-Catholic parish or diocese and act like everything is normal. In other words, it asks a lot of many folks who use it to turn themselves into a pretzel to absorb its cultural flavor.
It needs to be said also that there are seeker folks who want the core content of the talks without the “moment of decision” push. In fact, it would be more effective in conversion for many if it was less pushy.
Contrary, however, to some of the comments here, I do think that for many having core secular ideas and prejudices challenged by Nicky’s talks is enough to begin a relationship where none previously was occurring. I do consider that meaningful - -even if it’s a lifetime of just not being so sure anymore about the secular critiques.
Having said all that, it sure worked in Nicky’s place. But my sense is that they invested heavily in the suggested studies and cell groups later and had the people to do it. The program asks a lot of a marginal parish.
August 31, 9:44 pm | [comment link]
10. Ross Gill wrote:
As someone who has used both ALPHA and Christianity Explored I believe each can be useful tool. I don’t see them as anything more than that, however, and from the interview it would appear Nicky Gumbel doesn’t see ALPHA as anything more either.
I think too, as with any tool like ALPHA, results won’t always be what we would might hope or even expect them to be. Jesus didn’t have a 100% success rate with people so we can hardly expect things to be different for us. We can provide the opportunities for people to ‘come and see’ and then to learn and grow but even as we do we maybe need to keep in mind the Parable of the Sower.
While we are on the topic of ALPHA, people might want to check out the ALPHA Friends site. A parishioner who helps lead the ALPHA course at the nearby prison for women was invited to the International ALPHA Conference at Holy Trinity, Brompton. Among the speakers was the Bishop of Durham. His address can be found at http://www.alphafriends.org/audio/jesus-and-tomorrows-world-bishop-tom-wright
August 31, 11:14 pm | [comment link]
11. libraryjim wrote:
You take an English evangelical priest who won’t wear a collar and try to get someone to use it in an Anglo-Catholic parish or diocese and act like everything is normal
My main criticism precisely! I am one of those Anglo-Catholics who strongly appreciates the Evangelical and Charismatic streams of Christianity, but for Alpha to totally ignore the sacramental aspects of the faith is a very strong omission, IMO, and one that weakens Alpha for use in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. Ironic since Nicky Gumble is an Anglican minister.
Secondly, it is being used incorrectly. Like all fad movements, it is seen as the be-all, end-all program for church growth. Some churches have invented a follow-up called ‘Beta’, but, again IMO, this totally misses the point. If a congregation does not have a discipleship program or strong adult Christian ed program, this is not going to work as a substitute.
Thirdly, to require Alpha for membership in a church is totally on the wrong track. Alpha as a newcomers/inquirers class is one thing, but to “make” mature Christians sit through the basics again (and again and again) makes for a boring class. Shoot, I was quoting along with Gumble on many of his examples, and heard many of his ‘original’ personal examples decades ago from other ministers (plagiarism in the name of Jesus?). I was even giving the punch lines to his jokes BEFORE he finished his lead up. The moderators of our group were good, but again, totally focused on presenting Jesus to those who didn’t know Him, not for more mature Christians already committed in a walk with Him. A pre-membership interview would have been nice to discern who needed Alpha and who didn’t.
Jim Elliott <><
September 1, 1:18 pm | [comment link]
12. Pb wrote:
If Alpha only works in 20% becoming active in a church, this says something also about what is being oftered after Alpha. And I wonder what the retention rate is for infant baptism alone.
September 1, 2:41 pm | [comment link]