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Alpha: A Force to Be Reckoned With in the Catholic World? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 02 October 2009 07:52
I can't believe that I'm blogging at 7:52 am on a day that I'm due to travel. Usually my wake-up call on a travel day is at 2:45 am, I leave the house at 4:30 and take off about 6:00 am. I should be over the Dakotas by now. But the miracle of a 1pm direct flight changes everything. So I'm sipping a home made a "slim" Hazelnut latte and nibbling a home made wholewheat scone while I type. Such luxury!

Every once in a while, I like to check on the status of the spread of the Alpha course. Alpha is the nearly ubiquitous "low cringe factor" 10 week evangelization course that emerged out of charismatically oriented (and Toronto Blessing linked) Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Brompton (London) in 1992 and rapidly became a phenomenon.

How much of a phenomenon?

As of June, 2009, 13 million people had attended 42,530 Alpha courses in 163 countries. 2.5 million in the Uk alone. (To compare, it is helpful to know that about 8 million people have attended some form of Cursillo in the past 60 years. The only similar event that I am aware of that has outpaced Alpha would be the Life in the Spirit seminar which has had 60 million participants since the late 60's.)

1500 delegates from 100 countries attended the Alpha International Gathering in London in June.

25 of those delegates were Catholic bishops and archbishops. Because there is a whole track called "Alpha in a Catholic context." And there are now national Alpha offices all over the Catholic world: Belgium, Austria, France, East Timor, the Philippines, Spain, Poland, and Latin America. The Ireland office just opened in March, 2009.

The Alpha movement, as a whole, is so big that it is developing into an international network that contains some of the characteristics that we traditionally associate with a denomination. In parts of the Catholic world, Alpha functions much like a movement.

The spread of the Alpha course among Catholics in France is especially impressive. Sponsored by the French bishops, there are about 450 courses running in the country. 6,000 priests and lay leaders have been trained to run the course. I've seen stats that say that 1/5 of the parishes in Paris are using the Alpha course to evangelize their own and their neighbors. In French Catholicism, Alpha is a true force to be reckoned with.

Are there problems with Alpha's theology and ecclesiology? Sure. I outlined a number of them in this Siena Scribe article "When Evangelical is Not Enough" some years ago.

Is Alpha effective as an evangelizing tool? The answer seems to be unequivocally yes" - with the accompanying caveat that it is simultaneously a formation in "basic" Christianity and therefore, the basic proclamation of Christ is "framed" in an understanding of salvation and the Church that is seriously defective from a Catholic point of view.

So why are Catholics embracing it? Because they know that the overwhelming majority of our people - active or not - have never been evangelized, that the initial proclamation of Christ and challenge to follow him has not taken place.

We don't seem to know how to do that ourselves and Alpha works. (And in my experience, overwhelmed pastors just love stuff that works.) And Alpha comes in an attractive, well tested plug and play package. And has a formidable global marketing arm behind it. (FYI, a very effective and truly Catholic equivalent of Alpha is in the final stages of development in the diocese of Corpus Christi.)

And my point is?

Simply that there are significant forces at work in the Church that we aren't discussing or even aware of around St. Blog's. Beyond our tight culture war categories of "traditionalist" "neo-con", "liberal" and whatever. Like the Alpha course. Which is being held right now in thousands of Catholic parishes around the world with the support of their local bishops.

Because they are offering something that we find so difficult to do for our own. Proclaim Christ and invite people to intentional discipleship.

If we don't evangelize our own, someone else will do it for us. Sometimes in our own parish halls.

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