About eight years ago I attended a twelve-week ‘Alpha Course’ a Christian outreach programme designed by the preacher Nicky Gumbel of the Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, London. There was lots of publicity at the time and there were courses springing up all over the place, as churches throughout Great Britain discovered that good results came from taking a new approach with an old message.
I decided to attend all 12 weeks to see what the entire experience would be like. The people behind the Alpha Course had spent almost £4 million on the project and this was going to be their big effort before the Millenium came and they reached the symbolic juncture of Christ’s 2,000th birthday. It was important they got it right.
The advertising campaign was good yet very simple, and addressed the disatisfaction that almost everyone feels when their material affluence is not helping them with their spiritual needs. “Is there more to life than this?” was the general lead-in theme, displayed from many billboards. The next pitch was to the curiosity of those who found themselves nagged by spiritual needs: “The Alpha Course. Come and Explore the Meaning of Life”
Since within ISKCON we also invite those with spiritual questions to come and check us, I decided to see how the Alpha Course would bring me through a logical progression of ideas to accept the Christian path. Perhaps there were techniques they’d developed which we could learn. I gave them 12 weeks to prove themselves. Some things I discovered were good and reassuring, some were disappointing. Here’s a few points I can remember:
1. Advertising – good, with great coverage, ad-agency designed hooks, prominent placement, and sufficiently non-Christian to make people feel at ease.
2. Alpha Course – the name is unthreatening, as is the notion of ‘exploring the meaning of life.’
3. Weekly meetings began with a meal at a six-person table. Tablecloth, candles, flowers. Each table had a host, and your table then became your regular spot each week. Every week, I found my chair was left empty – even on the week I couldn’t make it, nobody sat there. Nice personal touch. Vegetarian option always available (this is an example of Christians really making an effort) and absolutely no philosophical or theological conversation at the meal time, only light conversation about family, job, and so on.
4. Having the meal before as opposed to after – as we do – had certain benefits. Like getting people there on time in the evening. 7.00 as it happened.
5. Lecture – each week a visiting speaker gave a 20-30 minute talk on a variety of themes. Concluding with a prayer or song/music. Rather generic songs/prayers at first then progressing, as the weeks went by, to a lot more devotional. The subject matter of the first few talks was my first major disappointment. Rather than go for a logical approach and address ‘spiritual hunger’ or ‘the existence of the soul’ as we would, the first talk was on the relevance of the crucifixion. Yes, I do realise that its the very heart of Christian theology, but it could have waited a week or three.
6. Hot drinks – nice touch after the half-hour talk was the tea break. Its Britain after all.
7. Questions and Answers / Discussion – This was organised well. Two important principles. Firstly, you don’t get to ask your questions of the visiting speaker. Why should they risk everything by having you spout atheistic nonsense at their speaker? The 20 in attendance were split into two groups in separate rooms and a facilitator invited questions. Questions ranged from innocent enquiries to downright insults (which did not provoke even the bat of an eyelid from the facilitator) Rather neatly, questions were offered up to the rest of the group to answer and a vigorous discussion ensued. The main principle – I discovered much later – was that all doubts are to be invited at this point.
8. Punctuality – 40 minutes discussion only, then the meeting finished promptly.
9. A Workbook – a simple but attractive workbook was provided for all participants with bulletpoints of each of the sessions. Space for notes, a few cartoons, and the theology in an abbreviated form.
10. Follow-up – Brilliant! I missed one of the sessions, and a tape of the talk was promptly put through my letter box. Impressive.
11. Weekend Away – After six weeks, halfway through the course, there was a weekend at a local large house (in some parts of the country you can stay overnight) where longer sessions and more meals, prayers and songs, deeper discussions, short films, all formed part of a deeper experience.
12. After the course – There was the regular home-based small group to join where you get to join a group of people in your age range.
13. Even more follow-up – In my case, although I was as receptive – quite genuine – as I could be, they knew that I was the local Hare Krishna man so the follow-up was by no means exhaustive. But they did try.