Is Alpha Backwards?

The Alpha CourseAnd so I found myself on one typically damp and overcast English afternoon, standing on a busy street in southeast Oxford inviting people to come to an ‘Alpha Launch Party’ – step one on the Alpha Course. Aside from the internal moral deliberation/dilemma – is it wrong to invite people to a “free meal” and then hit them sideways with the gospel? – I enthusiastically and creatively tried to grab people’s attention and, with a smile, invite them to the meal.

I was brand new to the city. I was brand new to these people. The experience was actually fairly fun, probably in no small part because everything was so new to me.

Some people came to that launch party. Some even came because I handed them a flyer (much to my astonishment – yeah, that led to repentance). And after our meal and chit-chat a few left and a few signed up for the forthcoming Alpha course. We had our beginning.

Over the next few weeks we did the Alpha thing: food, talk, questions. As a basic format it’s great. It’s informal (helped because we held it in a home – not an awkward church hall), it’s relaxed, and it’s inviting. Alpha has known tremendous success as a programme and is continuing to work well in many places. But it didn’t work stonkingly well for us this time.

For a start, we had students. Now, I’m a student currently so I’d like to think I can see it both ways. The reality is students aren’t like normal people. We don’t hold normal schedules and working out how we prioritise tasks is as perplexing as wondering why the number 1 ranked test cricket side in the world suddenly forgot how to play cricket. So asking students to turn up at 7:30pm every Thursday was never going to work; let alone get them away for an entire weekend.

But one big question about my Alpha experience emerged after a period of reflection and contrast. As you may know, I started rowing last term and have had an absolute blast so far. I’m a bit gutted I came to love this sport so late in life (yeah – I’m only 28, but that feels ancient compared to these freshers). The group of lads I row with are great. Highly committed, motivated and a lot of fun.

There are four of us from good old Wycliffe that currently row for Queen’s. Inspired by Mr. Gwyn-Thomas (remember that name) – who made quite a splash with Queen’s Rowing last year (no pun intended) – we have got stuck in and had a blast. We’re making friends and looking to tell people about Jesus. Naturally a rowing movie, pizza and beer are on the agenda here.

And here is the contrast with Alpha. With Alpha I spent one day getting trying to get to know some people and then 3 months talking about Jesus. With my rowing buddies I’ve spent 3 months getting to know them and we’re going to put on just one day to talk about Jesus. Sure, Jesus comes up in conversation at the boathouse sometimes – but He isn’t introduced through a topic for the evening with bullet points to direct the conversation.

Getting Alongside

My friend Carl Beech has a few good things to say about running an outreach course (be it Alpha, Christianity Explored etc.). One of the key tips – noted especially so for men – is to do stuff that you’re good at. Get alongside people. Keep it real. Carl rides bikes up and down stupidly large mountains in foreign lands. But it works. People talk, they open up.

Now I’m far from a competent rower. But I’m learning all the time and giving it my all in every training session. That builds trust, friendship and opportunities.

It’s well worth asking the question: what are we inviting people to? A friendship with Jesus that manifests itself in programmes without friendship? Or do we seek to build real relationships, genuine friendships and then invite our friends to know our best friend? Life is relationships. We reflect God be being made for relationships. Let’s keep this in mind as we build our programmes.

Alpha is a fantastic course but for God’s sake, make it work for your friends rather than stuffing your friends into your programme. Let’s make sure our evangelistic efforts mirror the relationship that’s transformed our lives in the first place.

And finally, please pray that we have an opportunity over the beer and pizza coming up to show Jesus to our rowing friends well. It’s part of the wider Oxford University Mission Week coming up. Thanks! For more see