Jonathan Dent is the Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Nelson, British Columbia.
My first introduction to the Alpha course was a conversation with an evangelical Anglican minister in Montreal which gave me very favourable impressions of the course. This came from a person I trusted and I found that the course is indeed something to get excited about.
The course brings hope to the local congregation on two fronts. First, it provides a helpful answer to the question, "How can we possibly introduce people to Christianity?" The Alpha course provides a sound teaching about the basics of the faith and leads people into open discussion in small groups. I'm a big believer in small groups mainly because it was Jesus' method. His small group changed the world.
Clichés aside, it provides a place to bring non-believing friends and also those who might be churchgoers but probably are not committed Christians. Alpha provides a venue for seeking a relationship with Jesus, learning about the Holy Spirit and trusting the Father through his Word, the Scriptures.
The second thing Alpha is doing at First Church is providing a place in the local congregation for reinforcing or laying (for the first time in some cases) a foundation of Christian theology and apologetics. Many believers have found few places to ask basic spiritual questions. This is particularly true of those who have been quite shy to join a small group Bible study (or the like) in the past. It's been good to experience a course where the speaker is easy to listen to, knowledgeable, humorous and where there is a good meal, helpful worship music and a mandatory dumb joke.
Our experience began with an agreement to acquire the videos and to begin to organize the Alpha course. Finding a suitable administrator and small group leaders is key. The food organization, the music leadership, and the organization of the dinner where people are invited to the course as well as finishing the previous course are all essential considerations that we handled fairly well. It is way too much for one person to take on. It seems more like a team of a dozen people or so is required. (So please note that our congregation has an official membership of about 80 persons with 70 or so regularly attending. We had about 30 on the first ten-week course and about 20 on the second.) I do know of a Salvation Army couple who are leading every aspect of the program, but I think this would be quite burdensome. I enjoyed the course, as the minister who told the joke, led the large group and small group discussions on the Weekend, and simply attended a group, filling in where needed (if group leaders were away).
The makeup of the groups was as we had planned at Session before starting the course. We had hoped to introduce as many in the congregation as possible to the course before making it a major outreach to friends, and the community in general. We felt it important to experience the course firsthand before inviting friends and loved ones. It only seemed logical to proceed in this way. As it turned out, I think about 10% of the groups were non-believers/seekers.
We hope this will increase as a large proportion of the congregation has now taken the course.
Another benefit has been the interaction and training of leaders of these groups. Many have had little experience in leading small groups and ministering to people in the church in the midst of their spiritual questions and issues. Our leadership base, from what I saw, grew in both quality and quantity.
Also a great hunger for Bible study came out of the courses. A number of small groups were started as people wanted "to go on from Alpha." It was wonderful to hear comments of people longing in a greater way for God's Word. It was surprising how many long-time Christians had admitted to not ever having been in a Bible study, per se.
As for issues or possible difficulties, during the first course (Fall '97) we experienced a stretching conversation during the teaching on healing, which was supposed to be run after the Weekend but was run before it. Many felt uncomfortable and uneasy about the teaching around healing ministry and being open to hearing God for insights during healing prayer. During the second course (Winter '98) where we ran the topic in the proper slot, we experienced a wonderful healing prayer time and teaching.
The Alpha course does introduce people to the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a gentle and appropriate way. But I can see some who might be dead set against anything around John Wimber and/or Vineyard connections, as well as people who do not believe in conversation or teaching of any kind about speaking in tongues, might find portions of the course difficult or challenging. I found the teaching balanced and not "pushy" in these areas, but then my background and experience may be different than yours. I appreciate the Alpha approach to healing ministry and the Holy Spirit as biblical and balanced.
If you're not crazy about British accents or culture, the videos might irritate you, but you don't have to be a real Anglophile to appreciate them.
Communication with leaders and taking care of their questions and problems is also an important part of making sure the Alpha experience turns out to be all it is meant to be. So far, I am impressed. Of course the long term fruit of the ministry is what matters.
And with all programs, we must stress that it is not the focus on the program that makes it successful, but what Jesus himself does through the teaching, worshipping, small group ministry. I hope this gives you a taste of what we have been doing in our rural (some might consider it remote) city of 9000 in the Kootenays in the south-east corner of British Columbia.
God has a number of wonderful world-wide movements on the go right now, and I consider Alpha to be one of them.