Betting is hardly the most Biblical of endeavours. But all the same it’s a fair bet that at least some of you reading this issue of Culture magazine came into the Church and the Body of Christ through the Alpha Course.
Perhaps you saw a billboard advertising it. Perhaps you were persuaded to attend by a friend or relative. Perhaps it was sheer curiosity that got you onto an Alpha Course. Perhaps it was the quiet, insistent urging of the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps it was simply the lure of a free dinner – and I can attest that the dinners at CityHill are particularly excellent.
But it’s no coincidence that the Alpha Course now runs in some 169 countries. And along the way it has not only drawn millions of new Christians into the Church, but also led to stirrings in the hearts of countless other Christians who might have either backslidden or found themselves practising a tepid, insipid sort of faith.
As it is written in Revelation 3:16: “So because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
In 2006 I certainly fell into this category. Despite having been baptised almost 20 years ago by Eric Tocknell, the founder of CityHill, the World had called me with a siren song and I had proactively immersed myself in sin and debauchery, becoming suffused with arrogance and pride.
Friends suggested I try an Alpha Course – which of course is essentially geared as an introduction to Christianity – and once more my faith was reignited, even if my journey ahead was arduous.
I’m hardly alone. Just in Britain some 1.2-million people have attended an Alpha Course, while globally the figure is estimated at around 20 million. High-profile attendees have included everyone from Bear Grylls to former glamour model Samantha Fox to Spice Girl Geri Haliwell.
And of course the chief architect and presenter of the Alpha Course is Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in London – and a man of great and calming presence.
Nicky was born to a German-Jewish father and a non-practising Anglican mother, and only came to Christianity in his twenties. As he told the UK-based Independent newspaper, “My parents were a little bit worried. My mother said it’s fine to become a Christian, as long as it doesn’t change my life.”
But like many of us, Nicky’s path into the Church wasn’t straight and true. He first trained as a lawyer before becoming a priest – something made all the more remarkable by the fact that at school, in his case the prestigious Eton, he was an active atheist.
“My degree was then in economics, and I really had nothing to do. So I read the New Testament,” Nicky told the Independent. “And I could not believe what I was reading. I was so struck by it, by the story of Jesus. His character, His words, His parables. It just had the ring of truth.”
Now the Alpha Course had first been established back in 1977, but it was Nicky who developed it into its current format of courses run over 10 weeks, with a wonderfully informal dinner kicking off proceedings. And it’s my experience – and that of countless other Alpha attendees – that it’s during these dinners that interpersonal relationships are forged. In fact, many of us so enjoy this camaraderie as well as of course the simple, God-breathed wisdom of the Alpha Course that the same group goes on to form a LifeGroup.
What’s doubly reassuring is that Nicky is no celestial being, instead confessing that he himself sometimes experiences the odd doubt.
“There are no easy answers,” he says. “You can look at it from the point of view of God giving us freedom. He gave us the freedom to love, but also not to love. He also suffered for us, on the cross, and suffered alongside us.”
Nicky tells the Independent that perhaps the greatest challenge to his faith was in 1996, when he was playing squash with his best friend, Nick Hawkins.
“He was 42 years old, a father of six, and he just dropped dead on the squash court. That was a very, very difficult moment. I remember going for a walk at four in the morning, and I chose to go on believing. I said to God, I choose to go on believing in You.”
And all of us will experience moments similar to that. The great theologian and author CS Lewis certainly did on the death of his beloved wife Joy.
Yet as it is so beautifully written in Psalm 37: 5-7: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him and He will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.”