Thursday, December 17, 2009

Critiques of the Alpha course

The Alpha Course is one of the most insidious phenomena of evangelism - and it's interesting to note that it has been criticised from inside Christianity as well, because there are still Christians out there with brains and integrity.

The theology propounded by the Alpha Course is not mainstream; it was developed by the same kind of people who 'discovered' the Toronto Blessing. It has been criticised by both evangelicals and liberals.

The course's homophobic stance has been widely criticised, and there is an analysis of it by the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.

It's also deeply manipulative of vulnerable people, being run in prisons, workplaces, schools, colleges and military establishments:
"It was like to talking to a politician of the opposite persuasion. They were all very nice people, but I came out feeling exactly as I did when I went in," said Jill, who asked that her name be changed.

Among her problems with Alpha was her feeling that other faiths were not given equal status.

"I felt it was biased against other religions, whereas I believe all roads lead to one God," she said.

There was also an element of "therapy" about the style of the course, she said.

"It plays huge mind games with people. You have to be a strong personality to resist, but I did. They were working on me all the time. They said they would pray for me.

"I think they tend to prey on who is vulnerable. The whole thing for people is about being accepted and feeling like they belong.

"It's friendship I want, not spirituality."
It also uses sales techniques to manipulate people:
Debbie Herring, a former Alpha course leader in Sheffield, told the BBC that the techniques she was expected to use were similar to those of door-to-door salesmen.

“It became clear very early on that what Alpha was really about was high-pressure selling of a very narrow evangelical agenda, which dismisses and denies whole swathes of Christian teaching and tradition,” she said.
The course is also mis-sold as an opportunity to explore the meaning of life (which you would expect to offer a genuine philosophical discussion of the various ideas on offer):
It’s at that point you really see what the Alpha Course truly is: it’s not an invitation to explore the meaning of life, but a slickly marketed Christian conversion course. The objective of Alpha is not to educate people about Christianity, but to convert as many people as possible their particular brand of this religion.
The whole thing makes me sick, quite frankly.


Makarios said...

My experience has been that Alpha causes deep divisons in the churches where it is offered, with the folks who have completed the course high-hatting those who haven't, and whom they seem to regard as second-class Christians who haven't quite "gotten it." For some people, the Alpha course effectively becomes their religion, and the Alpha community becomes their church, as they go through the course over and over again.

As an aside, I wonder if anyone has ever rated the Alpha course against the Boyd Cult Scale or a similar instrument.

Yewtree said...

That's very interesting, Makarios.

I think it's reflective of people's tendency to want to live in something smaller of their own devising.

When one considers the incredible breadth and richness of the Christian tradition, it makes the Alpha course look as much of a parody of it as this summary.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

That's right. It is a course that people take over and over again, and is a badge of identity.

The Church Mouse said...

It is true that Alpha causes some arguments, but not as many as you make out. The course is used by all major Christian denominations, including the Anglican Church, Catholic Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church and others.

It originated in a Church of England church (Holy Trinity Brompton), not some radical fringe group of Christians.

Alpha has been accused of 'teaching' many things which it does not. However, the content of the course is available for anyone to see (including the talks, which are available to view on-line), so there really is no excuse for saying it teaches homophobia or anything like that - it simply is not covered in the course at all. The issues tend to come when participants on the course ask these questions, and the leaders of those discussion groups try to answer them. In some churches, you'll get very liberal answers, and in others you'll get a conservative one. That should not be a criticism of Alpha, however.

nella said...

The Alpha course is merely a way to God, not the only way and nor does it ever claim to be. In the very first talk Nicky Gumbel mentions that it is ONE evangelical tool, and there are many others. There is only one aim of the Alpha course and that is to Bring people into a relationship with God.

Anyone who has seen all of the Nicky Gumbel’s talks will see that there is nothing 'pushy', or deceptive. Also if you watch the training video which all leaders and helpers are supposed to watch before running the course, Nicky Gumbel emphasizes that at no time must any guest on the course feel forced or judged, and no guest should be allowed to repeat the course- this is a rule. If some churches or groups deviate from this, then it is them that should be blamed and not the Alpha course and it’s vision. Also the Alpha course should not become some “identity”, or “religion” or claim any credit for any miracles which may happen during the course, it is just a tool to help people understand Christianity and the importance of having a relationship with Jesus Christ.

We have run 26 Alpha courses from our Catholic church over the past 10 years and on each course we have seen lives changed, people being healed physically and spiritually. We have seen people who started the course as broken-hearted, lost, lonely people and after the 10 weeks we have seen them transformed- filled with Joy and peace- not because of the Alpha course, but because they made a decision to allow God to work in their lives, what they learnt in Alpha just showed them how. This is what is so fulfilling and ‘addictive’ about running the Alpha course, seeing people’s lives being transformed, seeing people’s lives changed right in front of you, seeing the joy on people’s faces, joy they never new existed- and all we had to do, is be available and willing to let God use us to lead them to him.

Yewtree said...

Hi Nella - thanks for your perspective on this.

I believe that people's lives are transformed by participation in community; but if you want to call it God working in their lives, then that is your prerogative.

I think your use of the Alpha course is successful because you have an established community and rich tradition to support your new members' individual spiritual journeys.

And of course it's fulfilling and addictive to see people being transformed in the way you describe; I am just concerned that the Alpha course is not liberating them into a deeper understanding of themselves in relation to the community and the universe, but giving them an over-simplistic view of life (which is a relief for many people).