Beginning Christianity

The Alpha course on the basics of faith takes hold in Triangle churches

Staff WriterOctober 22, 2009 

At a small group meeting devoted to the subject of prayer, members shared their fumbling attempts to perform that most basic of Christian rites.

One man said he was so eager to impress his fiancée he prayed for "everything but the kitchen sink."

Another recounted a prayer before a meal, when he thanked God for letting those present "eat in peace."

Such confessions of inadequacy are not unusual at an introduction to Christianity class called Alpha. The 10-week course helps people learn the rudiments of their faith in a relaxed and friendly setting that begins with a meal and ends with a small group discussion.

In the Triangle, some 20 churches now offer Alpha classes and more are signing on. This past summer, 17 Triangle churches from seven denominations were so excited by Alpha they pooled their resources to advertise the course on cable TV.

The TV spot, which included Alpha spokesman Bear Grylls, the daredevil host of the Discovery Channel's adventure show "Man vs. Wild," is part of a campaign to raise Alpha's visibility.

For many Alpha enthusiasts, the course -- begun in London more than 40 years ago and imported to the United States in 1995 -- is the perfect faith booster for Christians whose practice might have worn thin. Now leaders want to make it more of a household name. This year, the Grylls TV spots aired in 30 cities across the United States. Next year, they will air in 60. Meanwhile, leaders of Alpha gathered this week in Orlando for the national Alpha conference.

"Alpha is the best tool I've found for people to experience God's love," said the Rev. Jonathan Jeffries, pastor of Creedmoor United Methodist Church. "I would recommend it to any church."

At Raleigh's Edenton Street United Methodist Church, which runs one of the region's biggest Alpha classes, 125 people, mostly church members, are taking the class this fall, with another, similar-sized group scheduled to take it in the spring.

Alpha classes are also being offered at Triangle Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, charismatic and nondenominational churches. All are free.

The classes begin with an evening meal, followed by 10 minutes of worship through song, a video on the evening's topic and a small group discussion. The video, led by British evangelist Nicky Gumbel, is not academic but devotional.

Class topics include "Who is Jesus?" "Why did he die?" "Why and How Should I Pray?" and "Why and How Should I Read the Bible?"

Spread around the world

Alpha graduates say the combination of the teaching and sharing produces a renewed conviction of faith.

Brian Kirkpatrick, a 38-year-old Alpha group leader at Edenton Methodist, said the group discussions finally wore him down to the point where he allowed God in.

"I was fearful of letting my guard down and becoming vulnerable," said Kirkpatrick, an estimator for a construction company who lives in Raleigh. When he finally let go, Kirkpatrick said, "They couldn't get me to be quiet."

Alpha got its start in the late 1970s at Holy Trinity Brompton, in central London. It has since grown into a phenomenon, now offered in 163 countries and in 80 languages.

The course owes its success to a careful avoidance of divisive theological and social issues, according to its champions. For example, there is no mention of whether Christians should be baptized as infants or adults, an issue that separates many denominations. Nor is the topic of homosexuality mentioned, another issue ripping denominations apart.

A resource made available to participants allows them to explore controversial questions such as "Is Jesus the Only Way to God?" and "Is There Anything Wrong with Sex before Marriage?" to which it offers conservative evangelical responses.

And although these issues aren't broached on the pre-taped videos, people can talk about their concerns during the small group meetings.

"This is the unique thing about Alpha," said Ann Sherwin, who runs the Alpha program at White Plains United Methodist Church in Cary. "People can ask questions without being ostracized or judged. We want people to talk about what they think. We don't give answers."

Renewing faith

Participants are a diverse bunch in race, gender, income and age (there's a teen curriculum as well). But most have some familiarity with church. At Edenton, for example, Kirkpatrick estimates that 90 percent are church members. Of those, about half are new members, typically recently wed couples.

Susan Maddux, who is taking the class at Edenton, said she's been a Christian all her life, but added, "It's nice to have that foundation rediscovered."

Unlike some other Bible studies she's taken, the Alpha course was less intimidating.

"There's no homework," she said. "And there's no pressure to talk. You're not going to be called on."

At last week's session on prayer, small group participants stood up at the end of their sessions, held hands and offered a simple plea. "Help us, God," they said, "grow in our relationship with you."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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