Posted for Sherry W.
Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here.
Just a reminder for my readers: NONE of the staff or teachers of the Catherine of Siena Institute have ever been or are currently part of the “Independent Christian” movement! Nor have any of our posters on ID ever been part of it (as far as I know).
I am writing about this movement as a journalist, not an apologist. I am describing the second largest, fastest growing, and most missionary-minded Christian community in the world today because we have to recognize their existence in order to deal with them.
As a journalist, my job is to try and help you grasp the nature and significance of the movement. Since Independent Christianity is complicated to describe, I will spend most of my time describing and secondarily exploring some of the implications for the Catholic Church. I will not be spending my time in a detailed analysis and rebuttal of their many theological problems, not because I agree with their stance but because it would require another 20,000 words to do so and this is long enough as it is!
Meanwhile, a spontaneous spiritual fire swept the globe in 1994 -1995. It was called the Toronto Blessing because the first well-known manifestations took place in January of 1994 in a small Vineyard church near the Toronto airport.
The Toronto Blessing was associated with dramatic scenes of hundreds being “slain in the Spirit” or experiencing “holy laughter” when prayed over. The blessing seemed to be transferable and could be passed on through what they termed “impartation”. An individual who had been prayed for and had received the “anointing” passed the blessing on to others by praying for them in person, usually through the laying on of hands.
Within months, the Vineyard Church had become a spectacular international draw. Toronto Life Magazine billed the Toronto Blessing as the top tourist attraction in 1994. By September, 1995, 20,000 Christian leaders and 200,000 first-time visitors had come from virtually every country and denomination to experience the blessing and bring it home. (See Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship)
In May, 1994, the Toronto blessing reached London and Holy Trinity Brompton (read the Mystery Worshiper’s impression of HTB here), the charismatic Anglican parish that birthed the popular Alpha course. A strange phone call pulled Sandy Miller, then vicar of Holy Trinity, out of a very serious meeting. The church secretary reported that all the staff had been slain in the Spirit and couldn’t get off the floor. Eleanor Mumford, who had "received" the blessing in the US, was invited to speak at all the Sunday services about the experience and many present were affected.
Although Holy Trinity Brompton could not be characterized as an Independent movement congregation, its leadership had strong ties to both John Wimber, until his death in 1997, and to Fuller seminary, which strongly promoted the Alpha course in the US. It is very characteristic of the New Apostolic Reformation that traditional denominational ties are much less important than a shared passion for evangelization and openness to the present action of the Holy Spirit.
After this event, the Alpha course, a 15 week introduction to Christianity, took off in a big way. In 1991, only 900 attended; in 1996 there were 250,000. An important part of the course is a weekend away where participants pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit and are encouraged to speak in tongues.
8 million people have been through Alpha over the past 20 years. In mid 2006, there were 31,763 Alpha courses running in 164 nations. Alpha has been adapted for the workshop, the armed forces, schools, prisons, campuses, and youth versions and has been translated into 64 languages. The course is being used by nearly all Christian communions – including the Catholic church. 1.6 million have attended in the US alone as of 2006, 2 million in the UK out of a total population of 60 million.
In September 2006, a 60-second Alpha commercial was shown in cinemas nationwide. Alpha postcards were placed in every multiplex cinema foyer in the UK and a full page advertisement in the October edition of Cosmopolitan magazine came out on September 16. There were also posters on the sides and backs of over 2000 buses throughout the UK.
Catholic dioceses all over the world are using Alpha with the support of local bishops. Go here for what the Alpha people say about running an Alpha course in a Catholic context. Note there are national Alpha offices in a number of overwhelmingly Catholic countries such as France (take a look at this article about the beginning of French Alpha, which is now running in 2/3 of the Catholic dioceses in the country.) And check out the Alpha national offices in Ireland, Austria, Poland, and Spain. Information about the Spanish language version of Alpha is here. A good deal of the positive signs about the resurgence of Christianity in Europe being reported lately are Alpha-related or influenced.
Nicky Gumbel, who heads up the Alpha movement, met Pope John Paul II in 2004, and met with Pope Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. He says the present Pope already knew about Alpha because he had previously met with Alpha leaders from Germany.
In August of last year, Gumbel began his Canadian visit in Quebec City with a positive meeting with Canada's Roman Catholic Primate, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. "His love for Christ came through," Gumbel said. "His passion for evangelization, for unity, for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is all so obvious in his life and his ministry. I felt so refreshed being with him."
From a Catholic perspective, Alpha is a mixed bag. What Alpha does very well is present the basic kerygma and challenge participants to a conscious discipleship which is life-changing. Another reason for its popularity is that it is designed to be highly accessible to the unchurched of no religious background, a factor very important in the UK, its birthplace. The majority of churches that use the Alpha course grow. Alpha is designed to take the initiative to reach out rather than wait for the unchurched to come to us. And it seems to be attractive to young adults.
Which is why Catholic leaders often approve its use (see this list of approving letters from various US bishops and other Catholic leaders).
From a teaching perspective, there are serious content problems with Alpha which I have outlined in the Siena Scribe article “When Evangelical is Not Enough.”
Catholic leaders are often aware of Alpha’s doctrinal deficiencies but regard it as a necessary trade-off. Alpha is pre-packaged, polished, effective, and heavily supported. Pastors and staff are very busy and don’t know how to go about evangelizing so it is much easier and very attractive to go with a tested “plug and play” program. The assumption is that doctrinal issues will be, ideally, dealt with later in a post-Alpha follow-up teaching such as the DVDs produced by Catholic Faith Exploration which were specifically developed by the Archdiocese of Westminister as a Catholic answer to Alpha.
Back to the development of Independent Christianity:
By 1996, a consensus was developing among many evangelical leaders that a new sort of global Christianity was emerging. That year, Peter Wagner convened the first National Symposium on Post-Denominational Church at Fuller. One of the participants later wrote, “The consensus of the panelists was that there are still apostles and prophets in the Church, and there is an emerging Apostolic Movement that will revolutionize the 21st Century Church” (Prophetic Destiny and the Apostolic Reformation, Bill Hamon, p.18).
I will return to the subject of apostles in my next post.