To date, 27 million people have gone through Alpha in at least 169 countries and 110 languages. In the U.S. alone, three million people have experienced Alpha. Crossing gender, cultural, denominational, and racial divides, Alpha is reaching people all over the world with the gospel. What makes this 10-week course so popular?
No matter where you attend Alpha—from a homeless tent community in Chicago to a church building in South Korea, it always involves three things: a meal, a talk on one aspect of Christianity, and small-group discussion time. Some people initially come just for the food. Others are focused on learning more about Christianity through the talks. But, as Mike Shintani, Alpha Director at Willow Creek Community Church, puts it, "the magic happens in the small groups."
Each week, group leaders—often called table hosts—are given three or four questions to start the conversation. As they sip coffee or enjoy a dessert after the video or live teaching, group members are given permission to debate, disagree, challenge, agree, or otherwise respond to the teaching. The group discussion focuses on letting people share what they believe and why.
But there's a major difference between Alpha small groups and the average group in our churches: any and all answers are acceptable, and the leader is trained never to correct anyone—ever.
Shintani explains that one thing he "fell in love with about the groups is that it's not the leader's responsibility to teach anybody. It's not the teacher's responsibility to correct or train. The leader's sole responsibility is to facilitate. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in the group. It's the Holy Spirit who moves people along in their journey." That's enough to make many small-group leaders squirm.
But Linnea Smith, Chicago Regional Director for Alpha USA, explains why this aspect of the small groups is key to the Alpha experience. Six years ago, Smith started questioning her faith. Though her life looked successful by every standard, she felt empty, so she looked to the church for answers. While attending Park Community Church in Chicago, she heard about Alpha. It was "advertised as the place to ask your questions." She was immediately intrigued.
Her experience with Alpha, though, was far beyond a place to ask her questions. "The small group discussion time really blew me away," she explains. "I felt loved and accepted by people for the first time in my life in terms of folks who were outside my family and didn't have any reason to love and accept me. That experience was just incredible."
Smith had grown up in the church, and she thought she knew the gospel. But she admits, "It wasn't until I was really honest with myself that I realized I didn't act on my beliefs. Having the space in the Alpha group to process that and not be judged and not be criticized and be able to consider the truth presented was really powerful."
Her experience isn't unique. The structure of Alpha's small groups lends to honest, vulnerable sharing that creates a radically safe environment to ask questions, share thoughts, and consider the claims of Christianity.
On the Fringe
That's why Bill White, co-pastor of City Church in Long Beach, California, decided to use Alpha to plant his church. "It's not a class. It's not a Bible study. It's an invitation into a spiritual journey," he says. And that works well for his neighborhood, which is extremely diverse—culturally, racially, socioeconomically, and spiritually.
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.
Willow Creek learned this the hard way. Shintani shares, "We originally thought our best Alpha leaders would be our strong evangelists, people who love to talk about God, Jesus, and why Jesus died for you. In Alpha, that actually harms what we're trying to accomplish."
Kaczmarek agrees. Leaders who want to be the "oracle of knowledge," whom people look to for every answer, will hurt Alpha small groups. The key is "hospitality, welcome, bringing people in, and meeting them where they are," she explains. The teaching is the time to explain what Christians believe. The small groups are the time to listen and discuss, not to persuade or defend. Rather than teachers, the leaders serve as tour guides, as Linnea Smith explains—people who are themselves on a spiritual journey.
And there's no need for the spiritual journey to end when the 10 weeks of Alpha end. Many small groups continue to meet or stay in touch in some way. "They do this journey for 10-11 weeks, and then what's really cool is they've found their first Christian community," Shintani shared. "They may not even be Christians yet, but they tend to stick together. They often start attending church together and serving together. It's been beautiful for me to see Alpha groups that still stick together 3 years later. It's more than just learning the basics of faith. It's an experience that connects them with community."
One of the unique things about Alpha is how easily it can be replicated in any context. With videos, group questions, and even tips for running the course all available online, leaders around the world are taking Alpha and creatively making it work in their context. From megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church to prisons in Zambia, leaders are using Alpha to help people experience real community that opens them up to the gospel message, life change, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com.