His Alpha course, which he runs in his home, draws an average of 45 people each week, and includes people who are Atheist, Agnostic, Muslim, Mormon, and more. Impressed by the non-judgmental atmosphere, many invite their friends to join in. White likes to start each week by saying, "I don't judge you, you don't judge me. Let's all go on a spiritual journey." His goal, he says, is "to create a safe place to go on that spiritual journey."
How does he know he's done his job? "If they're cussing, smoking, and coming with a beer in hand, that means they're being themselves," White explains. While he knows that's a tough environment for many evangelical churches to create, he emphasizes that's the kind of environment that meets these people on the fringe, people who may never attend a church or hear the gospel.
Nicky Gumbel, creator of Alpha, often shares how relevant Alpha is to millennials. In fact, the average age of people attending Alpha at his church in London, Holy Trinity Brompton, is 27. People in their twenties are often grappling with faith issues, and Alpha has created a safe place for that.
This environment works well for believers, too—especially people who feel on the fringe of the church. People who are trying to sort through what they believe or new to the faith often aren't sure where to turn for guidance. Alpha groups allow believers to wrestle through their beliefs, experience community, and express their questions and doubts in a safe environment.
Sarah Kaczmarek, Director of Youth Ministry and Evangelization at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, has seen young adults respond well to Alpha small groups for these very reasons. She appreciates how the non-threatening format of the groups frees people to explore faith and discover it for themselves. "A lot of our folks have been Catholics their whole lives, but they've never engaged with the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus." She believes Alpha works so well because it holds out something "for them to discover or experience for themselves instead of telling them," which is critical for the spiritual formation of youth and young adults.
Questions Without Answers?
Many wonder, though, when—if ever—Alpha guests' questions will get answered. If you can't correct someone who believes Jesus came to earth on a UFO (a real belief shared in Bill White's Alpha group), how will people ever learn the truth?
Mike Shintani explains how this works out practically: "People aren't ready to listen until they've been heard. So we spend 90 percent of our time listening." But wrong beliefs do end up getting sorted out. Many times someone else at the table, another guest, will push back, share what they think the Bible says, or otherwise clear up the issue. Other times, a later Alpha video will clear up false ideas. Leaders also need to realize, though, that not everything will get sorted out during Alpha. Instead, they'll need to trust the Holy Spirit to sort it out later on for that person, and that's hard for a lot of leaders.
That's why Shintani suggests carefully choosing leaders for Alpha small groups. In fact, they may not be your usual small-group leaders. People who want to get through curriculum, immediately apply God's truth, or arrive at answers may not be well-suited. Shintani has "found that the best Alpha leaders are people with the gift of hospitality, people who can create a fun environment, just like if they were around their own kitchen table." He also looks for people who are natural shepherds and are more interested in listening to others than talking.