Basic course in Christianity takes churches by storm
A good friend invited Liz Carnucci to a church program called Alpha, a sort of Christianity 101 course turned global religious phenomenon.
With her corporate management job, Carnucci was too busy. And why attend church anyway?
But over the next year, she wrestled with nagging questions about Christianity left unanswered from childhood when her family attended church sporadically.
Carnucci decided to give Alpha a try. The course offers an informal setting to ask the most basic questions about Christianity — without feeling like the only kid in class who doesn’t get it. In a day when masses of Americans weren’t raised on Sunday school, Alpha has tapped into a religious void — or, as proponents describe it, a hunger.
“I never disbelieved, I just didn’t know enough. I knew there was an Old Testament and a New Testament. That was about it,” Carnucci said.
The course’s goal is simple: Bring people into the Christian fold.
It appears to be working.
Carnucci joined about 4,000 Charleston-area residents who’ve gone through Alpha programs since their arrival here in 1997. One church saw its Alpha attendance soar this spring from 150 to 300.
In 1996, 202 Alpha courses ran in the U.S. This year, churches were planning 7,077 — as of March. Across the globe, courses are being held in nations as diverse as Russia, India and Kenya.
The first night Carnucci went, the topic was “Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?”
“If this is what the rest is like,” the 38-year-old thought, “I’m in for the ride of my life.”
Over the weeks, she found herself talking more personally to God with prayers far different from the stilted dinner blessings she’d learned as a kid. She got what Jesus meant to Christians.
At the time, she struggled to control her life, from a demanding career to deciding whether to start a family. One exhausted day in a Charlotte hotel room, she broke down in tears.
She asked God to take over. But would he answer?
WELCOME TO THE FOLD
It’s a perfect spring evening in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village when 150 people who could be relaxing this Monday file into St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
Inside the church are no fancy dresses, no power ties, no clergy in robes. Just throngs of people with lots of questions — and doubts. Did Jesus really exist? What is the Holy Spirit? Does it even matter?
They gather first for dinner around banquet tables where talk turns to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The Rev. Alan Kilpatrick makes the rounds with a mischievous smile, spiky hair and faded denim jacket and jeans.
Kilpatrick heads to the front of what looks more like an auditorium than a sanctuary. He notes this is their last meeting before a wrap-up dinner.
“Maybe you’ve found a new relationship with God,” Kilpatrick says. “If so, invite your friends next time. Join St. Andrew’s. Join a small group. Let us know how to reach you.”
Before him stretches a sea of people, black and white, polished and punk, doubters and believers.
They stand and pray. A guitar kicks in and a woman’s voice rises. Some raise their hands and sing lyrics projected onto a giant screen. “Your blood was shed for me…”
Others stand in awkward silence, hands stuffed into pockets.
After a few songs, Kilpatrick recites a line from “Braveheart,” another Mel Gibson movie. “Every man dies, but not every man really lives.”
He describes his earlier life’s battle with addiction.
“Invest your life in God,” he urges. “The question this evening is: How can I make the most of the rest of my life?”
God redeems people. “It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish with God,” he says.
Soon it’s time to break up into groups of 10 to 12. One group gathers in a downstairs classroom to talk with one-time strangers about issues many don’t discuss with family and friends.
At first, there were long, awkward silences. No more.
Mike Hughes, this group’s leader, greets everyone as they sit in a big circle. “The last question was a great question. What do you want to do with the rest of your life? It kind of smacks you between the eyes.”
Melanie Wilborn agrees. Coming to Alpha has changed her.
“He has been trying to get me for a long time,” she says of God. “This time he’s broken me and put me back together in a completely different way.”
Hockey player Brian Callahan admits a friend dragged him here. He’s not ready to jump in with both feet but admits he actually enjoyed coming.
They go around to Chris Albrecht. He thought he was a Christian before Alpha. “Now I’m not sure I’m there yet. I’m trying to clean up my act.”
Hughes jumps back in. “You don’t have to be all cleaned up to come to the Lord.”
Around the world, Alpha groups meet in churches, coffee shops and prisons. It’s offered by major Christian denominations from Baptist to Roman Catholic, although most local churches using Alpha are Episcopal.
At the recent St. Andrew’s session, a Lutheran pastor came to check it out. Two Baptist churches have come through, not to mention such big parishes as Mount Pleasant Presbyterian and Christ Our King Catholic Church.
In Alpha, they found an evangelical tool to reach folks not quite ready to plunge into joining a church. Many Alpha attendees have never gone to church before. Others were turned off when they did.
“You have a lot of people nowadays who don’t have a background in Sunday school. They might not own a Bible, don’t know the story of Joshua,” says Billy Hornsby, Seacoast Christian Community’s missions pastor.
Alpha groups meet once a week, usually for 11 weeks. Weekly topics range from “Who is Jesus?” to “How can I resist evil?” To these questions, group leaders are trained to listen calmly to people’s ideas, no matter how inflammatory, derogatory or far-fetched from their own notions.
Yet, Alpha does have its detractors.
Some churches find Alpha too charismatic with its focus on the Holy Spirit and teachings about faith healing and spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and receiving “words of knowledge,” or supernatural revelations.
Others contend Alpha is too superficial, too pre-packaged.
With its books, course formats and videos, the Alpha kit that churches buy offers a mass-market appeal for hurried people used to shopping at one mega-store.
That is part of what’s made it so successful. Churches can jump in without creating it from the ground up.
“It’s Alpha-in-a-box,” jokes Gary D. Heinz, who oversees a booming Alpha program at Seacoast.
Churches rely on word of mouth to bring in new people.
Carnucci attended Alpha at St. Andrew’s because a friend invited her to join. Today, she leads a small group and laughs that she’s become an “Alpha-holic” because she’s spreading word of Alpha’s potential impact. “I just have to give back if it can help others,” she said.
The Alpha USA umbrella offers more modern marketing.
For sale are 8-foot banners to hang outside that read “Alpha is Coming!” or “Alpha is Here!” Buttons beckon, “Ask me about Alpha.” There are books, music, posters and even a cookbook for people who want to host Alpha groups but aren’t used to preparing big dinners.
According to Time magazine’s Europe edition, Alpha generates $8.3 million a year.
That’s a long way from its origins at an Anglican church in London. Its explosion began after 1990 when ex-atheist turned Anglican priest Nicky Gumbel began to teach the current version with a likeable brand of laid-back, self-effacing evangelism.
Most churches show Gumbel’s videotapes during each meeting, although some, like St. Andrew’s, use their own pastors to speak. As St. Andrew’s Rector Steve Wood puts it, “Lives are changed.”
So are churches. Local churches say they don’t track how many Alpha attendees join their flocks, but they’re certain it’s helped them grow.
That’s appealing to any pastor interested in reaching out. Take Senior Pastor Mike Castronis, who welcomed his staff at James Island Presbyterian one day about six weeks ago to their routine staff meeting.
“I have the neatest thing to tell you,” the music minister told him.
She described a friend who’d become a Christian through Alpha. Like Castronis once had, this person had fallen away from the faith for years. The staff went online and checked out Alpha USA’s Web site. Castronis ordered the guideline book, “Questions of Life.”
“I sense in a lot of people’s lives these days that there’s something missing,” Castronis says. “There’s a lot of hunger, a lot of people looking. We as churches need to reach out to them.”
He hopes to bring Alpha to his church this fall. It likely would be the first on James Island and one of the few local Presbyterian churches offering it.
But first the church’s board must approve it. Alpha concepts such as speaking in tongues and faith healings aren’t part of the usual Presbyterian mold. To Castronis, though, that’s a positive.
“If we’re just getting together to tell each other that we’re right about everything, how are we ever going to grow?” he asks.
Two of the largest local churches, St. Andrew’s Episcopal and Seacoast, have created the area’s largest Alpha programs.
St. Andrew’s started in 1997 and has seen about 1,500 people take Alpha. Seacoast started a few years later and has welcomed about 1,200.
Drive down busy Longpoint Road in Mount Pleasant and you’ll often see the large Alpha banner outside Seacoast, a consciously hip nondenominational church that draws huge crowds. Seacoast now offers Alpha at three of its local campuses and plans to launch it soon downtown and in Summerville.
At its main campus, the church drew about 150 people to each session held in its annex. When it moved to the main auditorium a few months ago, almost 300 attended.
“People want to make friends, be in a low-key environment where there’s not a lot of pressure and get their questions answered,” says Seacoast’s Heinz. “I’ve found people have carried these questions with them, maybe since college when they started exploring.”
Unlike new member groups for specific churches, Alpha aims to let people stick in one toe.
But therein lies a tough balance.
Churches invite people to explore their faiths in general, so Alpha generally avoids issues about which denominations don’t agree. For example, Christians differ about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, so Alpha’s curriculum doesn’t tackle them, Wood says.
But individual churches do have their own views, and want to increase their congregations. Those who lead Alpha must balance selling the Christian church and selling their church.
“The whole design is to come in and explore your faith. But we do want you to wind up at St. Andrew’s,” says Ann Welch, connection coordinator. “It can be a tension.”
At St. Michael’s Episcopal downtown, the Rev. Peet Dickinson sees a larger mission. It’s a chance to buck stereotypes about Christians.
“My priority is to bring people into the Christian faith,” says Dickinson, assistant to the rector. “If they choose to join St. Michael’s, too, then great. But we don’t use it as a recruiting tool for St. Michael’s. We use it as a de-mystifying tool.”
For Carnucci, it all came down to the day she prayed, exhausted, in a Charlotte hotel room for God to take over her life.
Alpha had helped her to build a relationship with God, helped her to sit quietly in prayer and to live with an open dialogue with him. She began attending St. Andrew’s contemporary music service and found that, instead of feeling bored, she left rejuvenated.
Then came the night more than a year ago when she prayed for God to take over.
The next morning, she showered before a work meeting. She felt oddly relaxed. “I realized that 36 years of worrying were gone.”
It was no mountaintop revelation, no burning bush. “But it changed my life.”
ON THE WEB:
ALPHA U.S. OFFICE: www.alphana.org
ALPHA WORLD OFFICE: www.alpha.org.uk