The Alpha Course: For Life's Big Questions

Posted by Les Ellison  ·  Be the first to comment

Alpha is the place to share thoughts, ideas, hopes and fears in an exploration of the big questions about the meaning of life. Accessible and welcoming to people who don't go to church but have some questions about faith, Alpha Courses provide the no pressure, friendly environment where you can talk honestly about life's big questions.

Over 20 years Alpha has earned its place as the principle focus for people with big questions about life and faith to meet, eat and discuss what it’s all about. Basically designed as 10 evenings of dinner together with a chance to talk and watch thought provoking DVDs, more than 2.5million in the UK alone explore the big issues of what life is all about on an Alpha Course.


Not so much a course, more a meal with friends

The Alpha logo says it all. We’re all carrying big question marks around with us all the time. But what are the questions? That’s where Alpha starts – by asking you what are your questions? Alpha is not a set of dogmatic answers to be learned. It’s not really a course either; not in the boring and formal sense.

It’s an exploration of the words and issues that you put in front of your big question mark. There’s nothing of the classroom about Alpha courses. When you join an Alpha course you’re not a student or pupil or delegate or even a participant. Instead you’re a guest – as though you’d turned up at a friend’s house for dinner and a chat. Which, as you’ll soon find out for yourself, is the truth.

Each gathering of Alpha guests begins with a meal followed by an informal discussion of the big questions; why they’re so big and where you might look for help with them. Sometimes the host of your Alpha gathering leads, and sometimes there’s some DVD input from the man who thought it up in the first place, Nicky Gumbel. Most Alpha hosts gather their guests one evening a week for ten weeks and arrange an ‘away day’ when guests can get into deeper discussions about the questions.


Nicky Gumbel and the key to Alpha’s success

Originally a determined deist with a Jewish background, Nicky Gumbel started out as a barrister; so he knows a lot about tricky questions, difficult issues and how hard it is to connect with people in unfamiliar and formal settings – like a courtroom or a church. Finding his true calling in question marks that laying down the law couldn’t answer, he switched tracks to theology and took a post at the home of Alpha, Holy Trinity Brompton, London in 1986.

Nicky was concerned about why the church in general didn’t seem to be helping with the big questions of those outside its walls. He was invited to join a new project led by Charles Marnham. The theme of ‘Alpha’ had already been suggested by Charles' wife, Tricia, as the first point of contact for anyone with even the slightest interest in the big questions. Another man with a vision for questions, John Irvine, created a new pathway through the issues that was neither a short dead-end nor a tedious never-ending road.

With his background and experience, the new team member brought his knowledge of what it’s like to be on the outside and how difficult it can be to connect with questions of faith, especially when what goes on in church appears to be in a different culture with its own strange language. Under Nicky Gumbel's leadership, the ten week pattern developed by Charles Marnham and John Irvine was revised, expanded and massively resourced to become the Alpha course as it is today.


Down to earth, everyday words and language

Today, the Alpha course leaves behind the culture of church and enters the world of the everyday. The language is real and down to earth which is why it proves so popular around the world and across so many class and cultural divides. There’s always an Alpha Course running nearby in someone’s home, a local school, library, work place and yes, even in churches.

At its most basic, Alpha is simply a meal and a chat but there’s more if you want it. Often guests on an Alpha Course want to know more about the questions. Sometimes the weekly gathering isn’t enough and often they want something to take them beyond the span of the course. Others want to apply the no-nonsense approach to other areas of the their lives and relationships and many want to share their Alpha experience with family members, friends or workmates and want some help in how to do it.

Alpha Course resources cover everything you could possibly want in moving on with the big question mark. Most of the resources designed to help Alpha Course guests are short, simple and cheap to buy. Intended to liberally shared these are written with a wide range of ordinary readers in mind. Alpha resources connect past and present Alpha Course guests in a style and language that they’re comfortable and familiar with.


Material support for Alpha leaders and guests

Even if you haven’t been an Alpha guest, you’ll still find Alpha resources easy to get into, make sense of and work out. Resources that keep to Alpha’s big idea of simplicity and easy access address specific and general questions that spring from issues of life, faith and what it’s all about.

There are Alpha books, leaflets and DVD resources looking at issues that even long-time Christians and church goers find difficult to get their heads around. There’s Alpha books with titles like 'Why Jesus?', 'Why Easter?' and 'Why Christmas?' all in attractive modern covers with a user friendly layout. For an all-in-one look at these question, try 'Searching Issues' and a range of ' mini-books' written for Alpha by Nicky Gumbel.

Alpha resources are written to be helpful in real life, not just on the course. The Alpha Marriage Course, Marriage Preparation Course and Parenting Courses offer the same practical approach to the big questions specific to your relationship questions. For Alpha guests who want to take the big questions further, Alpha gives you Bibles and Bible resources put together along the same lines as the Alpha Course. The Alpha Bible in One Year takes you step by step through the whole Bible in manageable pieces with on-line support from Nicky Gumbel’s blog.


Courses, books and DVDs for every situation

If you’re looking to host a gathering of Alpha guests, there are resources to support in you in just about every situation. With Alpha resources from, there’s often a discount for orders on multiple copies of course materials. Click on the link and you'll find your way easily to all the specialist resources and supporting material for guests and leaders hosting Alpha Courses for:

  • Youth Alpha: For young people 11–18. Choose from 'Alpha-Tech', 'Alpha-Active' and 'Alpha-Lite' to suit your group and the time available.
  • Student Alpha: Specifically for university students and young adults. Cut down to seven weeks with a greater use of multimedia elements.
  • Senior Alpha: For people aged 75 and over. Courses can be run in homes for the elderly and is specially adapted for the needs of the elderly.
  • Alpha in the Workplace: Adapted to fit into an office lunch hour, using 20-minute 'Alpha Express' DVD presentations.
  • Alpha for Forces/Alpha for the Military: The standard Alpha with consideration for the logistical challenges of delivery in the Armed Forces.
  • Alpha for Prisons: 11-weeks of 2-hour sessions. Alpha in the US includes an  initiative to rehabilitate offenders by within a special prison unit.
  • Alpha in a Catholic Context: With information about follow-up resources, testimonies from priests and endorsements from Catholic Bishops.

If you think this article might be useful to someone thinking of joining Alpha as a guest, or leading Alpha as a host, then make sure they get to read it by e-mailing them a link to this page.

Quick Guide to : Alpha Courses and Resources

What is Alpha?

An Alpha course is a one evening a week get together over 10 weeks with a mean and chat about life and the question 'Is there more to it than this?' Questions covered in the course include:

  • Is there more to life than this?
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Why did Jesus die?
  • How can we have faith?
  • Why and how do I pray?
  • Why and how should I read the Bible?
  • How does God guide us?

Resources for guests and hosts of Alpha courses, and for anyone with an interest in or questions about life and faith help to address the big questions everyone finds difficult including:

  • Who is the Holy Spirit?
  • What does the Holy Spirit do?
  • How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
  • How can I resist evil?
  • Why and how should I tell others?
  • Does God heal today?
  • What about the church?
  • How can I make the most of my Life?

What will Alpha do for you?

  • Most of all, Alpha gives you a safe place to ask questions, express concerns and look for meaning.
5th April

April 5th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison

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