on alpha

I’ve been chatting with Croz a few times about the whole Alpha phenomenon, and trying to articulate my thoughts about it, and so I sat down the other day in response to his questions and just hammered out some of them. I thought it might be useful to post it here to see what other people think. Notice there’s nothing in there about Nicky Gumbel’s choice of cardigans. Yes, I took the high road.

So here’s what I wrote to Croz. His questions are in italics:

here’s my thoughts…Bear in mind that none of them are absolutes. That is, they don’t (separately or together) mean that alpha is a bad thing, so much as they mean that alpha is, in my opinion, not the best way to do catechism, let alone create disciples. Many of these objections apply not just to Alpha but to what has historically come to be known as (capital e) Evangelical Christianity. Hope you’re ready for a long rant! This is actually a really helpful process for me to do too, to articulate some of my objections.

What are some of Alpha’s strengths? What does it do really well?
It’s hard because I think some of the things that people traditionally think Alpha does well, I would say are actually weaknesses; such is the subversive nature of the Kingdom of God. We think we’re right side up, but time and time again Jesus subverts that…Things like the fact that it’s convenient – yay, I can just play a video and then talk rather than doing the preparation and teaching myself – is an apparent strength but actually, I think, a weakness (for reasons I’ll soon expound).

I think its strengths are generic human/God strengths: getting people to meet together around a meal table to talk about issues of ultimate importance. So maybe something like human connection. But is that an Alpha thing or is that a human/God thing?

What are some of its weaknesses?
– Lack of attention to context/cookie cutter approach: This is particularly in reference to its theology, but also its method, in terms of the way the same videos are shipped out to Australia, Britain, the US and anywhere else in the world. To me, where you are matters. Your context (country, neighbourhood, social position, gender, economic situation, etc. etc.) makes a massive difference to the way you hear, let alone experience, digest, process, understand, etc. There simply is no generic version of “the truth” that you can ship out like a car off a production line, let alone enough to fill a 12 week series, let alone that will be understood exactly the same by all the different people you’re expecting to hear it.

We assume as humans that bigger is better, that the more people “reached” the better something is, that the more “successful” (in what /whose terms?) or “efficient” something is, the better it is. I think Jesus constantly undercuts and subverts this in favour of small, in favour of intimate, in favour of contextual, in favour of genuine; hence stories about seeds, and yeast, and so on to describe the nature of the Kingdom.

– Theology: Just because it’s mainstream doesn’t mean it’s correct. I have particular problems with:
* Penal substitution theory: While widely accepted amongst Evangelicals as “The Gospel” (capital t, capital g) it’s actually a massive misunderstanding of the nature of God. This, for me, is the biggest battle the church faces with respect to its theology. I’d like to see the church understand the excesses of this understanding of God, and redeem them.
* Dualism: The assumed split between the spiritual and the physical causes massive problems. This is classic modernism and classic Greek thought which has crept into Christianity (and much of the New Age and neo-pagan movements are based in it). At its worst it’s closer to superstition than religion. For Jesus and other Hebrews there is absolutely no sense in which the spiritual and the physical are separate. Misunderstanding this leads to massively skewed theology. For example, there is no separate “spiritual” realm into which we go to heaven. Heaven is always conceived as a physical place, just beyond the clouds. In fact, when Revelations talks about the “new heaven and a new earth” it’s the same deal – hence the new earth coming down out of heaven. The new earth is a clearly physical thing.
* Salvation: The whole problem, as we talked about, of just what constitutes salvation has huge implications for the way we see a Christian life, and the energy out of which that is done. There is little about the Kingdom (which, if you think about it, is all Jesus ever talked about), in Alpha, except as a place you go after you die. Yet Jesus said the Kingdom of God is among you, is close to you, is here. And salvation is about individual humans, with no relation to their social relationships or interrelatedness. What about the whole of creation which God is redeeming? What constitutes being a Christian for Alpha is an individual praying “the prayer”. This, to me, is not what it means to be a Christ-follower. When you say things like “Alpha got me over the line” I worry a bit because I don’t think there is a line. Or at least, there’s no “in” and “out” to God. That’s our way of excluding. What if the whole of life is God working for the redemption of everything (ie the Kingdom of God), whether people know it or not, whether they recognise or acknowledge it or not, whether they work for it or against it? What if the nature of life is such that every act for the Kingdom of God is an act of life, and every act against is an act of death? What if we all work both for and against it, in different measures at different times, and the idea is to work as much for it as possible because that’s what it looks like to have the best life? What if Jesus shows us what the way to real life looks like, and enables it in those of us who are so sick and confused with the way of death that we can’t otherwise work towards life? Do you see some of what it might look like not to have “ins” and “outs” or lines to cross?

– Assumption of ‘right belief, right result’: In other words, it assumes that so long as someone has been taught all the “correct” doctrines or beliefs or whatever, then all they must do is assent to those being true and one has the desired result (a very modernist assumption). It’s all so heady and little or nothing to do with action or experience. It has little or nothing to do with ongoing relationship or community. What about practices rather than truths? What about processing/reflecting on experiences rather than facts?

– Focus on personal rather than communal discernment and decisions: While Alpha would encourage you to join a church, there is a sense in which being a Christian is merely a personal decision, rather than a communal one. This individualism is something I think Jesus invites us to be healed of, and to repent from, in order to be whole. We are made for relationship – it is what we are as humans. Without others, my individual decisions mean very little. This is why Christian community is absolutely indispensable to me.

At its excess, this individualism (along with other aspects of Alpha) can (and often does) lead to a consumeristic version of Christianity (which is actually not Christianity at all) which says that it’s all about me and God and what God can give me (blessings, salvation, etc.)

If you were in charge of running it, how would you go about it?
If I was in charge of running it, I wouldn’t run alpha. That is, I would run something like inspiral (though I’m aware that inspiral’s a long way from perfect – which is why I need everyon
e’s help!) for the people who are part of inspiral. I would run something different (and contextual) for some other group of people (as I am about to do with 4 young people who have grown up in the church). All of them would, of course, have similarities, but they would be native to that context, and they would be organic and happen naturally rather than pre-fabricated or imposed. They would happen in their own time (rather than 12 weeks).

Do you think Alpha is a waste of time? Please explain.
I think it’s difficult to answer a “yes” or “no” to this question. It seems like I’ve gone really hard on Alpha here – because I think you’re well aware of some of the good things of Alpha, and because some of the things Alpha does really well are not specific to Alpha, and because the issues are complex, not simple. I would say it’s not a waste of time, but it’s not as good as it can be done. I would say let’s you and I (and anyone else who wants to!) work together to find the best way for us and for those around us.

I also have a theology that says that nothing is beyond redemption. God is big enough and strong enough to redeem anything and everything…hence, nothing is wasted. “Everything belongs” to quote Richard Rohr. So no…Alpha is not a waste of time. But again…could be better.

Why do you think Alpha has been so successful in helping so many people around the world discover Jesus?
I think there are heaps and heaps of factors that have made it so “successful”. Again, understand that I see the word “successful” in the world’s terms as I answer this – and that I think success in God’s terms looks very different. After all, how successful is getting yourself executed by the state after possibly as little as one year of public ministry? We follow someone who was an utter failure in the world’s eyes. How successful is most of your followers getting executed by state and religious authorities? How successful is small, is principled rather than pragmatic, is poor, is those who mourn, the persecuted? I think God has a different idea of success to us.

I think (unfortunately) many of the reasons for its “success” are tied up in its weaknesses: that its theology demands very little of people, that it can tend towards consumeristic religion, that it sells a formula for escaping hell rather than a demanding lifestyle that stands against almost everything we’re taught in the world. I’d also be interested to hear how “successful” it is. How many studies have been done on this? What constitutes “success” in Alpha? Getting the most people to pray the prayer? Is it quantity or quality? How are these measured? These are genuine questions, I’m geniunely curious. Certainly it seems like a lot of people have participated in an Alpha course, but I’m not sure whether that’s a good measure of “success” or not.

Having said all that, it has led some (probably many!) people to understand Jesus better, and in my more cynical moments I would say that I think that is a wonderful testament to the redeeming power of God! In my less cynical moments I’d say that it’s very possible that this can be, for some people, a way to move into the Kingdom of God. But I’d want them to go a whole lot deeper than Alpha of course.

What were some of your experiences that left you with an unfavourable overall perception of the course?
It hasn’t so much been experiences, as much as just reflecting on what it means to be most true to my understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ. You’ll notice the reasons above are principled reasons rather than “I had a bad experience” reasons. Maybe there’s a bit of something in me that doesn’t like having someone tell me what the truth is that I have to believe or I’m not a Christian? Maybe there’s something in that. But that’d be it. Truth be told I found it rather bland, and didn’t much like the kind of life it presented as normative for a Christian. If that’s good news…well, it just didn’t work as good news for me.

You’ll also notice that not many of these objections are about individual content disagreements, of which there are probably a few, but not huge deals (except for penal substitution, which I mentioned)…my objections are mostly about the way Alpha goes about catechism, versus my understanding of the gospel.

What do you think?

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