Evangelism in a Post-Christian Era
Category: Evangelism & Mission
A friend began to read The Alpha Enterprise but, frustrated by what he perceived to be Hunt's negative tone, decided against giving it thorough attention. He missed out.
The Alpha Enterprise is a thorough and critical sociological assessment of Alpha, an evangelistic programme which genuinely needs no introduction (a MORI poll conducted in 2001 found that 8 million adults across the UK could identify Alpha as a Christian course and recognize its logo). Those who have a strong personal commitment to Alpha may, therefore, struggle with its style and tone but this is not a book which those closest to Alpha should pass-by.
Stephen Hunt, Reader in Sociology at the University of the West of England, presents a thorough and revealing sociological enquiry (based on a national survey of Alpha courses) into both the Alpha course and the wider Alpha culture. The Alpha Enterprise will no doubt make a significant contribution to our understanding of evangelicalism and religion more broadly in modern Britain but Hunt's research also has the potential to contribute positively to the reflections of those who live with a life-dominating commitment to seeing the Gospel re-creating individual, community, nation and globe.
The overarching picture which Hunt provides is of an evangelistic phenomenon which, in his Foreword, Martyn Percy describes as a "creature of its culture". Percy continues: "Its features chime almost too perfectly with post-modern culture: a stress on relationships; a definite nod to the therapeutic; dogma presented with a distinctly 'light' touch; a course to try, but not necessarily a long-term commitment… Alpha is arguably the first example of 'mass branding' for Christianity" (p.xiii)
The Alpha Enterprise is replete with data and sociological reflection on everything from Alpha's pre-history (which dates back to 1969) to the dishes that tend to find their way onto the menu at an Alpha course. Of particular interest is Hunt's response to the key question, 'Is Alpha Winning Converts?'
How has Alpha faired in terms of converts? I have argued throughout this volume that the evidence suggests Alpha appeals mostly to those within the church, revitalizing some churches, dividing others. I believe that very few converts are being made. (p.251)
Hunt supports his conclusion with reference to research data on the church background of participants at the time of their Alpha course which indicates that just under 60% were already in the church running the course. Likewise, just over 50% explained their reason for starting an Alpha course as being for the spiritual development of a presently existent Christian faith. Of the 837 Alpha attendees surveyed by Hunt, 47 claimed to have 'become a Christian as a result of taking Alpha'. In truth, the point which Hunt seems keen to make is not that Alpha is failing as an evangelism tool. Rather, his agenda seems to be to undermine the suggestion that Alpha, as an evangelistic tool, should be lauded uncritically and to suggest that Alpha's contribution to Christian mission be understood more broadly as a tool for catechism and renewal as well as evangelism.
The Alpha Enterprise is a fascinating look below the surface of a phenomenon which Hunt fairly describes as having "impacted UK churches and thousands worldwide on an impressive scale". For those with responsibility for planning and implementing evangelistic strategy for local churches, The Alpha Enterprise will repay studious reflection leading to a fuller understanding of Alpha's limitations and to greater wisdom and dexterity in running Alpha on the ground.
Andy Partington, August 2005
Andy Partington is a former tutor at London School of Theology where he taught Evangelism and Public Speaking and served as Director of Training. In 2006 he left LST to take up a pastorate at Trinity Union Church, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.Order from St Andrew's Bookshops
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