Two million or more world wide have `done Alpha'.
Will it stick? . A good supper, a talk, a group discussion and a `Holy Spirit weekend' - that's the popular format for the Christian outreach craze that is sweeping Britain and spreading worldwide. It is a `relaxed and non-threatening' introduction to the Christian faith and, according to the British TV series, is a success in `changing lives'. The Alpha course has been fulsomely praised by such luminaries as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop Basil Hume and church leaders from across the Christian spectrum.
The course is running in some 7000 United Kingdom locations and in thousands more worldwide. A million pound plus bill-board campaign to advertise Alpha in the United Kingdom is under way, and there has been wide media exposure. In its London-based `home church' (the Anglican Holy Trinity Brompton - HTB) up to one thousand young - the average age of participants is twenty-five - and old and from every walk of life enroll for each eleven-week course. Many have little past exposure to Christianity. In view of the decline of religion in Britain (fewer than ten percent visit church), its undoubted success is a surprise.
Participants are exposed to the basics of the Christian faith, with such topics as Who is Jesus?, Prayer, Healing, the Church. Each talk is followed by opportunity for small groups of a dozen or so - one-third of whom are `veterans' of the course - to discuss the current topic, individuals openly expressing opinions and doubts. The format, developed over twenty years, has proven to be a huge success. The Alpha News features accounts of individuals who have `found God' or had their dying faith invigorated.
Understandably, Alpha has its critics. Some evangelicals are concerned about the `loose theology'. In contrast it has been castigated for `too high a view of the Bible'! Others are worried that Roman Catholicism is broadly accepted as a legitimate expression of the Gospel. Indeed the course has been sponsored in Catholic churches and run by the local priest - often in co-operation with Protestants and to the chagrin of some evangelicals.
Also criticized is the strong charismatic flavor of the course, especially in its `Holy Spirit week-end'. The HTB has long been associated with the `Toronto Blessing' and was the focus of media attention when congregants were falling down, quaking, barking like dogs, tongues-speaking, laughing uncontrollably in the aisles etc - supposedly manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
`Converts' from each Alpha course are directed to `the church of their choice'. Of concern to many is that no distinction is made as to that church's theology.
Undoubtedly, Alpha is raising the religious consciousness of many who never gave much thought to religion. Jesus Christ is being talked about without embarrassment in offices and banks and building sites - and in churches! Legitimate questions, however, must be asked. A gentle easing into faith may be one acceptable approach to proclaiming the Gospel message. Yet the Christian faith is extremely demanding. Jesus requires total allegiance to him and to the revealed will of God - even to death. He said his message would divide!
It can, too, be legitimately asked if the person and message of Jesus is, in Alpha, accurately presented. We ought to ask with the crowd on the first Christian Pentecost What must we do to be saved? The answer of the truly Spirit-filled apostle Peter: `Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'.
Repentance - change - isn't an easy option. It certainly involves acceptance of the sacrifice of Jesus for our sin. Sin - that's not often defined. According to John, the `apostle of love' it is `transgression of the Law [of God)' (I John 3:4). He adds, `This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments'.
Now that's hard. For any who would be a disciple of Jesus it means, for example, marriage - and not co-habitation or `free' sex or a same-sex relationship. It means faithfulness within marriage. It means an end to the idolatry of consumerism and to tax dodging. It means that there is one God who has revealed one weekly day to worship Him - and that's not Sunday. It means that a Christian abandons the pagan holidays of Christmas and Easter and saints days and mass - and observes God's festivals. This is the message the first inquirers about Jesus heard and were expected to embrace.
Salvation, of course, can't be earned by any degree of commandment keeping. We are reconciled to a holy God only through His love and mercy and grace. But, as the apostle Paul wrote: `Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!' The `Holy Spirit' - the focus of Alpha - will be given you only if you are in submission to God and His commandments (Acts 5:32).
Alpha To Omega
True Christianity is not a soft option that ignores tough fundamental Bible teaching, as does the Alpha course. It is not a devalued `all for nothing' faith. Embark on an Alpha course and you may - perhaps - hear a basic introduction to Christianity. But the end - the "Alpha and the Omega" - requires the total dedication to God of every aspect of your life.
If you have `graduated' from an Alpha course, it's time to take stock. Open your Bible. Check out what you were taught there with the Scriptures.
You may now claim Jesus as your Lord - but that is not enough. He said: "Not everyone who says to me `Lord, Lord' shall enter the kingdom of Heaven". And to your religious teachers: "In vain [uselessly] do you worship, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men". Have you just learned `the commandments of men' - human tradition?
Another Bible author, Jude, urged his readers to `contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints'. Any subsequent teaching that conflicts with Scripture - which defines and records that faith for us - is mere human tradition. Like Sunday worship. Or Christmas and Easter and All Saints Day. Or the pagan `immortal soul' concept. Or going to heaven when you die - or to hell.
If an encounter with Jesus through the Scriptures in an Alpha course has `changed your life' - that's great! That's what Christianity is about. Now you need to move on. Study the Scriptures with an open mind.
And do what they teach.
To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.
For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Volume 5 No. 6, November/December 2001. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.
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