Making waves with hard-sell

Religion may be a personal choice, but Alpha has been making waves in Britain with its bold approach. The 15-week course in Christianity for unbelievers is advertised on billboards. It opts for dialogue rather than preaching. Some of its converts are politicians and celebrities; and its premises are in a wealthy London area. But its propounder Nicky Gumbel says Alpha works because it lets people come to their own conclusions.
The Straits Times (Singapore), Jan. 4, 2003
By Samuel Lee

Secular wags in the press dubbed it the ‘Coca Cola of Christianity’ and its director ‘God’s own ad man’.

They were referring to a 15-week introductory course to Christianity, named Alpha – after the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and symbolising the start of a spiritual journey – a London-based movement of Anglican origin which has been making waves with its hard-sell.

Alpha is advertised on some 3,000 public buses and 75 stations of the London Underground, and across Britain on at least 1,500 billboards.

And it has attracted celebrity converts, including ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, Page Three topless pin-up-turned-1980s popster Samantha Fox, one-time permanent private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, Mr Michael Allison, and former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Jonathan Aitken, who was jailed for perjury in 1999.

Before Reverend Nicky Gumbel, 47, took over the reins in 1990, Alpha was seen, at best, as a refresher course for backsliding parishoners, with the aim of drawing them back to church.

But the barrister-turned-clergyman repackaged Alpha into a softer sell by making it a more open-ended ‘what’s the meaning of life’ spiritual exploration based on his best-selling 1993 book called Questions of Life. The target was the demographic of younger free-thinkers, atheists and agnostics.

In town recently for his third visit, to attend the two-day South East Asia Alpha Conference, God’s ad man summed up his sales pitch.

‘What happens is, people come for a meal, they have a talk, they have a coffee, they have a small group where they can discuss big questions with people like themselves.’

As a result of his combination of advertising hard-sell and theological soft-soap, attendances have rocketed from a measly 100-odd in 1992 to more than 15,000 last year.

In Singapore, more than 500 courses with an estimated total turnout of 25,000 have been conducted in churches, homes, prisons, halfway houses, business offices and junior colleges since 1994, says Mr Terry Wong, national director of Alpha Singapore.

In Britain, Rev Gumbel’s starry congregation has attracted much media attention, which he dismisses with some disdain: ‘The British media is obsessed by celebrity. Of the 1.4 million who have done the course in the UK, maybe five were famous.’

It is not just the showbiz glamour but the irresistible whiff of monied glories that draws scrutiny. Alpha’s international headquarters – Holy Trinity Brompton or HTB church – is located in trendy Knightsbridge in central West London, a stone’s throw from Harrod’s flagship store.

HTB is Britain’s richest parish, with an annual income estimated at �5.5 million (S$9.6 million) and a carpark crammed with Aston Martins, BMWs and Porsches.

Some have mocked it as a ‘gins and Jags’ church, labelling Alpha as little more than Chicken Soup For The Religious Soul and a meat market for well-heeled single young professionals and the nouveau riche.

‘But we’re in the centre of London,’ Rev Gumbel protests, regarding the show of wealth, before adding: ‘We just tell them the attractions of Christianity, then it’s up to them whether to join or not.’

As for the pile-up of luxury cars, he explains that HTB’s carparks are let out to local businesses to defray church expenses, and that those smart cars ‘have nothing to do with us’.

Whatever brickbats naysayers lob at him, there is no denying that his changes have succeeded in boosting attendances and uniting believers from Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and other denominational churches and affiliated organisations. Today, an estimated 3.8 million people have attended Alpha in 135 countries.

Held over 15 weeks with the aid of a manual, each session starts off with a free dinner, followed by a talk.

The course kicks off by asking whether Christianity is boring, untrue and irrelevant, before delving into subjects such as who Jesus is and how God and the Church fit in today’s society.

Rev Gumbel, who is married with three children, explains that the ‘big questions’ deal with the purpose of human existence: ‘What we are doing here, where we are heading, what happens when we die, and issues about guilt and forgiveness.’

In a clear and mellifluous baritone of someone accustomed to public speaking, he adds: ‘We call it an opportunity to explore. That means no one has to come. We don’t try and persuade anyone.’

Mid-way through the course, coordinators and participants go away for a weekend retreat where everyone is encouraged to seek a personal encounter with the Holy Ghost, the third person in the Trinity. This is a common practice with Charismatic Christians, who believe that if you are filled by the Spirit, you will start speaking in tongues.

But Rev Gumbel insists: ‘There is absolutely no pressure at any point for anyone to do anything. At the end of the day, maybe they decide that it’s not for them, or for them at that moment of their lives.’

Its low-key, unthreatening, not pressurising and non-confrontational approach works, and so well that even non-believers find it approachable.

As he adds: ‘I’ve got people going, ‘I’m not a Christian but I enjoyed it and want to help out in the next Alpha’, and it’s wonderful if someone who is not a Christian can come along and go ‘Oh that’s okay. I can do the course and not become one’.’

The church is so relaxed that if you want to take a smoke break at HTB, you will be shown not the door, but where you can light up.

This approach, as opposed to a castigating lecture on the health hazards of smoking, and giving participants space to breathe and think for themselves without badgering them with follow-up phone calls, may explain why Alpha is such a hit, even with those who decide eventually not to convert.

Being so non-judgmental, Rev Gumbel feels, has helped Alpha achieve credibility and international success.

Ironically, Alpha’s laissez-faire attitude is also why critics see it as feel-good spirituality for the me-generation.

This may be a little unfair, for Alpha also seeks to make good with social rehabilitation programmes.

For example, it has been available in prisons since 1994. An inmate at Exeter Prison asked his chaplin to invite Rev Gumbel to visit.

He did, and with a team in tow, transformed some hardcore prisoners in two weeks. Since then, Alpha has been running in more than 120 of Britain’s 158 prisons, and others in South Africa, Singapore and the United States.

Alpha’s prison programme even won a fan in President George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas. He ordered a trial programme to be implemented at Halbert State Prison in Burnet, an hour north-west of Austin.

Alpha’s outreach does not stop at prison walls.

Rev Gumbel says: ‘Anyone who’s done the course while in prison, like the one running in Kaki Bukit, can be met at the prison gates when they are released, by a church or an organisation which is running it.

‘They would help the person find a job and a place to live, and provide support, encouragement and friendship.’

Alpha has also achieved another miraculous feat by bringing some semblance of unity to the divided Christian world, in particular the age-old schism between the Church Of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

‘I think it’s because we concentrate on the things we agree on, the things that are right at the heart, the core or basic beliefs. People have different ways of expressing their faith and we may not agree about everything.

‘But what we have found with the Catholics is that what unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us.’


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 6, 2003.
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