It’s been going since 1977 and has reached 26 million people worldwide who have participated in its unique series of interactive sessions where people get to explore faith in Jesus in a friendly, open and welcoming environment.
That is Alpha, the hugely successful and highly relational evangelistic course that traditionally starts each session wth people sharing dinner.
It doesn’t sound like a model that would translate well to the internet environment but when Covid struck the world last year and lockdowns cut out face-to-face gatherings, going online was the only way to keep Alpha going.
And what a blessing that decision proved to be. Alpha Australia reports that the roaring success of its online courses has helped it record a year of surging growth last year, as people rushed to seek answers in a world where they no longer feel in control
According to the 2021 Alpha Australia IMPACT Report, 65 538 people took part in 3 452 courses in 2020, a 14% increase on the previous year. But the big surprise was the whopping 50 000 who participated in the new online version of Alpha, reports Eternity News.
Melinda Dwight, national director of Alpha Australia, said she didn’t believe Alpha would work online, without the sharing of food or people being able to be together, and she was humbled to be proved wrong.
South Africa success story
Gateway News was not able to get Alpha Online data from Alpha South Africa at the time of going to press but according to Cape Town pastor Lex Lozides the online version of the course which they started running in April last year exceeded his expectations in nine unexpected ways.
In a video which is displayed on the Alpha South Africa website, Pastor Lex says that to his surprise more people signed up for Alpha Online than he expected and they were able to set it up faster than with the normal Alpha.
He said the brevity of the evening — at only an hour and 15 minutes max — leaves people wanting more. Other surprises were that people were far more open, earlier on than in normal Alphas and there was a lower drop off rate than usual.
Amazingly, he said their participating groups were genuinely connecting and forming authentic loving relationships. What is more, people were giving their lives to Christ earlier in the course.
Another bonus was that Alpha Online is cost effective to run. And unexpectedly they were joined by people from other parts of South Africa and the world, which shows that Alpha Online provides an opportunity to invite your non-Christian friend who has moved to another city or country.
He says the positive experience has left him open to running online Alphas in the future whether they are under lockdown or not.
Alpha Australia’s Melinda Dwight says: “The introduction of Alpha Online has led to the inclusion of people previously unable or unwilling to physically go to a church. In this way, Alpha continues to overcome barriers to faith.”
“You’ve got people with young kids who can’t go out – this means that they can both do it. People who are disabled, people who find it hard to drive at night – it’s just really reaching a different audience online, which has been amazing.”
Having an online course available makes it easy for people to invite their friends and family to do it together, she says, citing a church in Melbourne that has started running Alpha globally in Mandarin.
“They’re in their home so it’s easy to express things straight away. You don’t have to build up trust as quickly. And they can turn their video off or their audio off – they are totally empowered … they’re thinking, ‘What have I got to lose? I’ll try that for an hour. I’ll have a chat about who Jesus is; that will be interesting!’ And people say, ‘Oh, I think Jesus was an alien.’ And, rather than going ‘You’re wrong!’ everyone goes, ‘Oh, that’s interesting! What does everybody else think?’ So it’s supposed to be like a good dinner party.”
The relational aspect remains a key ingredient even in Alpha Online, with participants in the same area connecting during the week at cafes and parks and then going to church together on Sundays and having coffee afterwards, says Dwight.
“Many people who have been on Alpha Online have never been to church, but at least if they’ve got some friends to sit with, that helps. So it’s the personal connection as well.”
Dwight says an important driver of growth happened five or so years ago when Alpha moved to work solely with churches rather than individuals. This slowed progress in scale but meant there was a natural progression for new believers in the church after the course.
She explains that Alpha bridges denominational differences by consulting widely with theological experts to ensure the language is appropriate in different contexts and that the jokes will fly in Australia.
“Catholics, Baptists, Anglicans, and Pentecostals are the bigger denominations that we work with. So you don’t really think of Hillsong Church and the Catholics having a huge amount in common, but in Alpha, they come together,” she says.
With 49% of Australians saying they never have a spiritual conversation, but 70% of Australians surveyed privately saying they pray, according to Dwight, she deduces there is a strong desire to find a safe place where every question is respected and every story valid.
Yet Dwight confesses that Alpha’s bold vision to reach 100 000 participants in 2021 will require a miracle. Currently, the figure is sitting at 53 000. The biggest obstacle to reaching this goal is finding churches that are interested in evangelism, she says.
“If you can get 20% of a denomination that is interested in evangelism and operating it, that’s a game-changer,” she said.
“Globally, the figures are between 16 and 20% per cent. And I thought that would be easier [to find outward-looking churches], and it’s harder than I thought.”
A disappointing number of churches are more interested in maintenance than evangelism – they just want to get back to normal after Covid and get their people back in the room. And yet other churches declare: “this is the greatest season of evangelism we’ve ever had” and are looking at church planting.
“So they’re coming out on mission saying ‘Let’s plant churches. What are we going to do? How are we going to reach people? How are we going to have a digital church plant? What is that going to look like? How are we going to connect?’ So we want to help everyone help bridge those gaps.”
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