The Alpha and the Omega… the Alpha Course Explains – by Adrian Brookes
‘I’d been a policeman for 17 years,’ says Garry Hamilton, ‘a detective sergeant for 12 or 13 of those years. I’d become very emotionless. I could go to rapes, murders, serious crimes, and I didn’t bat an eyelid. It didn’t concern me. But the Alpha course introduced me to a love for Christ. I discovered why I had joined the police force in the first place… because I have a compassion for other people. It was a fabulous experience.’
Garry, 38, from Fremantle, Western Australia, has none of the gruff demeanour you might expect from a long-time detective—from the first words you feel you’re connecting with the heart. Yet he openly admits this is only a recent thing, and tells how God has changed him in his six months as a Christian.
‘I felt very stressed inside me,’ he says. ‘Some police will have a bit of a drink, and I suppose they use that as an unwinding tool—but I found my personal relationships were tense as well. I couldn’t do anything to relax and unwind. It culminated on one occasion when I punched a wall in my house and actually broke a bone in my hand.
Garry enrolled in Alpha at Perth Christian Life Centre, Canning Vale. ‘As I progressed through the Alpha course it dawned on me that I was receiving the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and it was almost like a weight being lifted off me. I could feel myself relaxing. I found myself more at peace within myself. My family relationships have improved tremendously.’
Garry is one of many people world-wide whose lives have been turned around through Alpha. Since its beginnings in the mid-1970s at a London Anglican church, Alpha has spread to some 110 countries. In Australia there is an Alpha national office in Hunters Hill, Sydney, run by national director Mona Carter.
‘I’ve been involved in evangelism since I was a teenager,’ says Mona. This, she will allow, is over 30 years. ‘I’ve done open air meetings, “explosion evangelism,” door-knocks… and I’ve never come across one evangelistic tool that has gone across the world and the denominations in a way this has—which speaks to me that God’s got hold of it.’
The essence of the Alpha course is to maintain a non-threatening environment. Run by local churches, it is aimed at anyone who wants to know more about Christianity, but is wary of being pressured. The course runs as a group that meets weekly—usually away from the church in a home or community centre—to learn about and discuss all aspects of Christianity. It encourages questions—indeed, its now-familiar logo is a man staggering under the burden of a life-sized question mark.
‘I remember one guy saying he just couldn’t get over the fact he was able to do the course without being judged,’ says Mona. ‘And I think that speaks heaps. There are people who have grown up in the church who for the first time have felt they can ask questions. It filled in the gaps where they haven’t felt they could ask questions before.’
The spread of Alpha is all the more remarkable in that it was, until 1993, confined to one London church: Holy Trinity in Brompton, an Anglican church known as ‘HTB’ in the Alpha world. Originally designed as a four-week orientation course for new Christians in the church, by the early 1990s it was attracting a significant number of non-Christians. The potential of this was realised, and the format changed accordingly. In 1993 HTB invited other churches to a conference explaining the course—and attracted 1000 ministers from all over the UK. It was the start of what Time magazine recently called the ‘Alpha miracle,’ a phenomenon that now circles the globe.
Nicky Gumbel, who has run Alpha from HTB since 1990, said in a recent Australian press conference, ‘We feel like observers, really, because we’re just watching something astonishing happening.’
The first question when Alpha goes into a new country, Gumbel says, is how it should be adapted to that country’s needs. The answer that has come back in almost every case is: don’t adapt it at all. ‘That has been what’s happened pretty well in each country,’ says Gumbel. ‘In Zimbabwe? We’ll run it exactly as it is. And again in Moscow they run it in exactly the same way, they haven’t changed it one bit. Same through the denominations.’
So what gives this format its universal appeal? ‘I think there are a lot of people out there who do not go to church and wouldn’t call themselves Christians, but who, at some point in their life… are struggling with the issue of meaning,’ says Gumbel. ‘What is the meaning of my life? What’s the purpose? What’s the point? What happens when I die?… So it’s obviously in a Christian context, but it’s the opportunity to explore those questions where it’s very unpressurised, very low-key… all we’re concerned to do is give people that opportunity. What they make of it is entirely up to them, and there’s no pressure to decide one way or the other.’
Cherrybrook Baptist Church in Sydney, which Mona Carter attends, was one of the first churches in Australia to introduce Alpha. Firstly, in 1994, they trained the church leaders in the Alpha course, and from the start it had, she says, the touch of God on it; ‘Then, because of what was happening in our church, there were other churches around about that wanted to know more, and that’s really how it spread.’
In 1982 a weekend away was introduced into the course. It concentrated on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and, according to Nicky Gumbel, it changed the nature of Alpha. Participants agree (see sidebar). For Garry Hamilton, ‘It was a fabulous experience. It just had so much meaning for me on that weekend away. It was really the high point of the course, and I think it was that weekend away that really reinforced my coming to God.’
Garry’s wife Jacqui has also accepted Christ and done the course, and they are bringing up their three children as Christians. In talking about the time before his salvation, Garry really does seem to be talking about a former life.
‘I mentioned that being a policeman for 17 years I felt hard and cynical,’ he says. ‘The Alpha course seemed to reinforce that I have a compassion for people… Since I stepped through the doors of the church I’ve unlocked so much emotion that at times I just can’t stop crying, and I’ve got absolutely no idea why I’ve become so emotional. It’s not through any crisis in my life, or hardship. I think when the tears flow, it’s tears of happiness—that’s the best way I can describe it. That’s an experience that’s blown me away a little bit, and I’ve had to come to grips with it because it’s just so foreign to me.’