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‘Alpha course’ reaches Britons, immigrants

EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press’ London bureau, in tandem with Tim Ellsworth, editor of BP Sports and director of news and media relations at Union University, will be providing coverage of London Olympics. Baptist Press will publish features about Christian athletes in the Olympics, recap results of their competition and cover initiatives to share the Gospel during the Summer Games and within the U.K.’s cultural milieu.

LONDON (BP) — In the heart of a bustling borough of London, Doug and Marcy Shaw are trying to warm things up at a chilly Baptist church. He’s coaxing the heaters to work, and she’s making tea. And they’re both warming up their Polish language skills — because the neighbors are coming.

“There’s a good-sized Polish neighborhood around here, and if we could get into it, that would be a very good thing,” Doug Shaw said. Both are fluent Polish speakers after working as church planters in Poland for nine years with the International Mission Board.

The first step toward that is tonight’s Alpha course, an informal gathering of individuals interested in hearing more about Christianity and talking frankly about the meaning of life.

The Shaws are using a Polish version of the Alpha course to help seekers explore basic questions about the Christian faith. The Alpha course originated at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, a vibrant Anglican church about 10 miles to the east of this Baptist church.

The course philosophy is simple. Invite seekers and skeptics alike into a relaxed environment, enjoy a meal together, listen to a talk about a basic life question, and have a small group discussion while sipping hot coffee or tea.

The course handles such entry-level questions as “Who is Jesus?” “Why did Jesus die?” “Why and how should I read the Bible?” and “Is there more to life than this?” It is geared toward individuals from outside of the church and who have little or no knowledge of the Bible.

Tonight at Greenford Baptist Church, the topic is prayer. The Polish nonbelievers are kind but pretty quiet.

“They’re reserved, introverted as a rule,” Marcy Shaw said. “You have to earn a right to share over time — establish your bona fides. It’s a long-term process, but we’ve seen people saved. You just have to be patient.”

A previous Alpha class that Doug and Marcy worked with at a different church grew and developed into a functioning house church after the 10-week course ended.

“The people just didn’t want to stop meeting,” Marcy Shaw said.

Part of the attraction of the Alpha course is its emphasis on relationships within a small group that will come back together each week.

Individuals who have professed faith in Christ as a result of attending an Alpha course often say they would not otherwise have visited a church or worship service — that they came because they were invited by a friend or acquaintance.

The 10-week course originally began in the 1970s as a refresher Bible course at Holy Trinity Brompton, the church known locally as “HTB.” In 1990, Anglican curate Nicky Gumble at HTB reinvented the course, tailoring it to be more accessible and inviting to those from outside the church. Gumble himself had been an avowed atheist and had come to faith as a first-year college student when he read through the New Testament in an attempt to find fault with Christianity.

In the 20 years since Gumble created the new format and approach, it has grown phenomenally and been embraced across denominations by more than 8,000 churches in the United Kingdom.

Savvy marketing has made it recognizable even in the secular setting of Great Britain with simple billboards asking, “Is there more to life?”

Even outdoor adventure-seeker Bear Grylls, host of the Discovery Channel television show “Man vs. Wild,” promotes Alpha. He is a Christian and an international advocate for the course.

The course indeed has spread internationally in the last decade. There are now Alpha courses in 164 countries, including the United States, and in 112 languages.

Not only has it spread geographically, it has also been tailored for different contexts, which include Youth Alpha, Student Alpha for use on campuses, Seniors Alpha, Alpha for (the Armed) Forces, and even an Alpha Course in a Catholic Context.

Alpha for Prisons is registered in 80 percent of the U.K. prisons and is running in prisons in 74 countries, including the U.S.

In an article written during the first decade of Alpha’s existence and discussing the decline of organized religion in England, The Economist suggested that the Alpha Course was a “miraculous-sounding cure.” The article quoted Clifford Longely, a commentary writer for London newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in saying “The reconversion of England is now almost believable.”

For the Shaws, the Alpha course offers a structured opportunity to engage Polish speakers in the neighborhood and to begin spiritual discussions.

“The Lord had paved the way before we came. Doug had some contacts and their church was getting ready to run an Alpha course,” Marcy Shaw said. “It was wildly successful. We started a home church out of it in a Polish home.”
Elaine Gaston, who lived in London with her family in the mid-90s, is a writer for Woman’s Missionary Union. For more information, visit Alpha.org.uk, Alphafriends.org or AlphaUSA.org. To download a copy of the WMU International Mission Study on London in which this article appears, visit http://www.newsfromeurasia.com/?p=629. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

    About the Author

  • Elaine Gaston