5 reasons for Alpha's success

As Alpha pioneer Nicky Gumbel retires, we examine the secrets to this course’s success.

Alpha is a global phenomenon – one of the most famous brands in Christian evangelisation. Created in London at Holy Trinity Brompton and launched globally by Nicky Gumbel in 1993, an estimated 28 million people have attended the course, including celebrities like adventurer Bear Grylls. It has attracted huge attention in the world’s media, from serious journals like The Economist and The New York Times to fashion magazines like Elle and Fabulous. Approximately 50,000 Australians attend Alpha every year, more than any other nationality outside Britain and North America. But what is the secret of Alpha’s success in reaching so many people with the message of Jesus Christ?

1) Connect with today’s culture

Alpha’s core principle is that the apostolic gospel never changes, but the way it is presented needs to change in every generation to reach today’s culture. Gumbel noticed that young people often react against dogmatic preaching but enjoy exploring faith. Therefore, he dropped the older style of “crisis evangelism,” where an itinerant revivalist urges instantaneous conversion upon a huge crowd in a football stadium. Alpha instead pioneers “process evangelism,” built around food, friendship, laughter and discussion. It is dinner before doctrine, in a relaxed environment, allowing every participant to explore the Christian faith at their own pace.

Gumbel also noticed a second cultural trend: that young people want to experience God but are often left cold by intellectual or historical arguments. Alpha is designed to appeal “to the whole person.” “God is not meant only to be understood in our minds,” Gumbel declares, “but also experienced in our hearts and lives.” Experiential Christianity, mediated by the Holy Spirit, is one of Alpha’s chief selling points. The Alpha Holy Spirit weekend has been highly controversial, but it is also a prime reason for its popularity.

2) Build Christian unity

Alpha consistently emphasises Christian unity. Questions of Life, the core Alpha text, insists that because the Holy Spirit lives in every Christian,
no matter their culture or denomination, it is “a nonsense” and “a tragedy” for the church to be fractured into competing groups. “We need to follow the words of Jesus and cut out our petty squabbles and our judgementalism,” Gumbel exhorts. “We need to forget the past, drop the labels and unite around the person of Jesus Christ.” One of Alpha’s golden rules is never to criticise another Christian church or leader.

Alpha was born within charismatic Anglicanism, but it aims to focus on the core truths of Christianity. The doctrinal content has evolved over the years to soften any sharp edges that might offend different denominations. For example, in the early 2000s the Roman Catholic bishops in France urged Gumbel to revise some of his strong Protestant statements. As a result, the Alpha materials are now peppered with quotations from cardinals and popes, and the course is widely used by Catholic communities across the world from Colombia to Poland to Japan.

3) Aim for excellence

Church events often have an embarrassing reputation for tasteless food, lame music, amateurish artwork and out-of-date tech. Alpha aims to reverse that stereotype and the standard of hospitality is key. A typical Alpha evening includes good wine, tablecloths, flower decorations, jazz music and low-level lighting. “We expect people to feel offended by the Gospel,” one Alpha champion explains, “but we don’t want them to be offended by anything else.” Gumbel’s gospel presentations are carefully polished, every word chosen with care.

In its annual campaigns, Alpha has employed some of the best designers and marketing executives in the business. If the most successful secular companies know the value of excellence, why shouldn’t the church also? Alpha has often utilised advertising space on billboards, buses, taxis, train stations and cinema screens, not to promote Alpha for Alpha’s sake but to make it easier for Christians to invite their friends.

4) Keep innovating

Popular culture and technology change rapidly, so Alpha continually invests in keeping pace. Gumbel’s Alpha talks travelled the world first as audio cassettes, then videos, then DVDs, but, in a multimedia age, monologues no longer appeal to a young audience. The Alpha Innovation project in 2016 redesigned the whole package, with the Alpha Film Series shot on location around the globe, from the mountains of Vancouver to the beaches of Normandy, via the bustling streets of Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London. Each session is constantly dynamic, with multiple voices and creative visuals. The Film Series is now available in 53 languages, part of Alpha’s global translation strategy, “Project Pentecost.”

Embracing the digital revolution, Alpha is now more attractive, accessible and affordable than ever before, free to download anywhere on the planet. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many ran Alpha on Zoom or watched on YouTube and then met for discussion on Facebook or WhatsApp. The future is ripe with digital possibilities, reaching new global audiences.

5) Pray, pray, pray

God is the great evangelist. Without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, all our missionary plans and programs are worthless. Gumbel’s mentor Sandy Millar once quipped that every church should invest in excellent PR – not public relations but “Prayer for Revival.” Alpha invests not only in the best professional marketing techniques but also, much more significantly, in dedicated prayer. Questions of Life describes prayer as “the most important activity of our lives.” The three keys to revival according to Gumbel, echoing Billy Graham, are “prayer, prayer and prayer.”

Every Alpha initiative is soaked in prayer,
seeking God’s direction and blessing. That’s the reason for any long-lasting spiritual fruit from Alpha’s testimony to Christ. The secular press often pronounces Christianity’s demise: that the church is “on its knees.” But Alpha has taken that phrase and adopts it as its own – only when “on its knees” in prayer will the church be able to play its full part in God’s sovereign purposes.

Repackaging Christianity

Andrew Atherstone’s new book, Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand, is out now with Hodder & Stoughton and is available at Koorong early 2023.