All entries for Sunday 27 February 2005

February 27, 2005

Christianity as a Commodity: The Alpha Course

I'm interested to know if anyone here has had any experience with the Christian Alpha Course: it's something I have a lot of opinions about and could write a small book on it – in fact I have but I'm not going to repeat it all here (unless there's a lot of interest for some odd reason). I'm going to try and be a little more objective here – I'll also try and keep it fairly short and post a follow up article in a few days if it generates any interest or debate.

For those that have no idea what I'm talking about the Alpha Course is basically what you get when you cross preaching Christianity with fantastic marketing. It's an attempt to sell to you what really boils down to a life-changing experience. If that sounds good, note that I'm not suggesting this change is in any way a good thing.

If you find yourself intrigued and decide to research the Alpha Course online you'll find very little detail on what it actually is. There's sites with great slogans like "An opportunity to explore the meaning of life" that make it sound really interesting, and you find out that the average Alpha evening consists of free food (good if you're ever really stuck for cash) followed by a talk on an aspect of Christianity followed by a chance to discuss said aspect. That's pretty much all you'll find, other than some wishy-washy testimonials like "It made me understand that God knew me as an individual and knew what I was going through". There's not much substance to it.

This is all part of the marketing, make it seem intriguing and pull people in, impress them with nice food and then, then it gets a bit bizarre. They decide to engage in 10–15 minutes of Christian worship: songs and prayer. I think you can guess why that wasn't mentioned in the publicity. You can either join in or not, and just look like a numpty, as another odd facet of the Alpha Course is that they are packed with people who are already committed Christians (I'm sure when I attended the number of people involved with the organisation of the course approximated that of the number of guests). Hence people will see half the room doing something and join in, singing words of praise to a god they may or may not have any belief in: again, part of the canny marketing strategy.

Then come the talks – these are actually relatively inoffensive, although inevitably one-sided, but at times give the illusion of truth by attempting to address some of the common issues ("We know what Jesus did was real as it's mentioned in this Roman emperor's biography as well": well done, you've found one corroborating source for the bible – considering all the things he apparently did, it's a bit odd there aren’t more, no?)

Following this is the group discussion, though the leaders are only responsible for directing the conversation and won't actually jump in to defend their faith. It's perfectly possible for a strong enough atheist personality to dominate these talks and convince everyone that the entire contents of the talk was incorrect and flawed, but this is totally irrelevant as the following weeks talk is always delivered upon the assumption that you have accepted as fact the previous weeks one (eg. Week 2: the bible is the infallible word of God. Week 3: we know all this stuff about Jesus is true as the bible said so and we established that as true last week.) The talks serve the purpose of giving the illusion of choice; the idea that you can make your own opinions heard makes you think that any acceptance of the ideas presented comes from you thinking and going over the issues, as opposed to just accepting them as given. But in actuality the discussions are completely pointless to you, as the next week will simply assume you have accepted the ideas anyway. Here you get a sort of positive re-inforcement: you realise in week 3 or 4 that if you don’t accept the bible as being one-hundred percent true, you may as well not be there, as any other arguments will build upon this. If you’ve any interest in the subject matter it’s easy to just let yourself accept this in order to see the arguments in their proper context, but in doing so you also help convince yourself of its truth.

Around week 7 or 8 of the 10 week course the piece de la resistance of the marketing occurs: the weekend away. If you thought it was tough to find out anything about Alpha in general, try searching for information on the weekend away! I kid you not dear readers, but when I attended the course I was unable to obtain even an address for where we going! The most specific it got was ‘somewhere in Great Malvern’ despite asking a number of the group organisers. It seems this information, along with all others on the weekend, was heavily guarded. But through either curiosity or stupidity I did get on that coach to be driven to an unknown location with a bunch of people I barely knew. It is a genius method of marketing: take a bunch of people away for a weekend where they will be trapped, a totally captive audience, with little to do other than what you organise for them. It might sound like I’m a bit cynical and over the top here but think about it: the weekend is just the usual talks, discussion and worship. There’s no reason this couldn’t be done at the regular venue – this along with the inability for anyone to give me an address for the trip so I could say, look up the nearest train station in advance, leads me to think that it’s there solely to ensure there’s no escape for the people involved
This in mind, the worship quota is upped for the weekend, and whole notion of giving your life to Jesus and getting ‘saved’ is raised, with people going up to the front of the chapel and praying in a sort of ‘Christianity pledge’, with people collapsing and doing the (pretty amusing) speaking in tongues thing, just like any good cult. These things occurring of course, after the preacher has mentioned that they might. I imagine the result would be somewhat different if he didn’t.

It’s at that point you really see what the Alpha Course truly is: it’s not an invitation to explore the meaning of life, but a slickly marketed Christian conversion course. The objective of Alpha is not to educate people about Christianity, but to convert as many people as possible their particular brand of this religion. By the time it’s been pared down enough to just the people left at the weekend, the success rate is pretty high, around 90%. As more people go to the front of the stage to be ‘saved’ you become made to feel increasingly awkward stood at the back, perhaps even a little tempted to just give in and go for it anyways, made all the more acute by the preacher singling you out: the combination of direct and peer pressure make for an extremely uncomfortable situation. I stuck around for the remaining few weeks after the weekend as I figured I may as well finish it off so I could at least write about it with some authority and it wouldn’t be a total waste of my time, but by that time there were only a couple of us sceptics left and we were left to feel increasingly marginalised and singled out as the last attempts to convert us were made. From the Alpha course people are then moved into becoming regular church goers at churches with similar beliefs to those taught at Alpha, and absorbed into Cell groups, and I’ll talk more about Alpha’s particular ‘brand’ of Christianity in the follow up article.

Alpha is ingenious at what it does, but be warned it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

February 2005

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