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.