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Alpha Male

He’s the man behind the world’s most popular and successful evangelistic course, and yet he thinks he’s been a ‘pretty poor steward’ of it so far. Editor Martin Saunders talks in-depth with Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel about the bigger picture of evangelism.

He’s the man behind the world’s most popular and successful evangelistic course, and yet he thinks he’s been a ‘pretty poor steward’ of it so far. Editor Martin Saunders talks in-depth with Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel about the bigger picture of evangelism.

 YW This month we are focusing on the topic of evangelism, something you’ve been thinking about for decades. Do you think the spiritual climate has changed over the years?

 NG I’ve never known a time when there’s been a greater spiritual openness than there is at the moment. I gauge everything on my experience, of course. I sit in a small group on Alpha - this is my 69th course in a row that I’ve been in a full group. I try and have a group of 27 year-olds, which is the average age of people coming on Alpha and I just sort of listen to them. I don’t say anything but I listen and I am astonished at their openness, and just by the sheer numbers of people still coming. People are searching for meaning and purpose. There’s a void, there’s a spiritual hunger that I think is greater than anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

 YW In your experience - are people still asking the classic apologetics questions?

 NG I find that the apologetics stuff is very important, but really it’s for Christians and it’s to reassure Christians that there are answers to these questions. I don’t think on the whole it’s what wins people over who are unconvinced. We go through these questions in weeks one and two at Alpha - it’s almost inevitable, talking about suffering, and other religions and so on. And people need to get those off their chest, but they start to think through the answers to those things afterwards in my experience.

 I think people are longing for community. It’s the experience of community, the experience of a small group, that really captures them. God just produces this thing through community that seems to be extraordinarily effective at reaching people in this generation. They are longing for transcendence, and worship is a little taste of that. They’re longing for some meaning, some purpose in their life.


 The weekend is still the turning point for most people; the experience of the Holy Spirit is what makes people really begin to question things and experience things. So, it’s a strange thing Alpha because, as you know, I didn’t invent it, I just happened to come upon it and find that it worked and still works. And it’s very different from when I was searching and encountered Jesus 40 years ago. The approach has completely changed. Somehow this seems to work.

 YW It’s interesting what you said there about the impact of the weekend away. Why do you think the Holy Spirit is so central to Alpha – when charismatic stuff is the thing most likely to scare people away?

 NG Well charismatic stuff I’m sure would scare people off, but I don’t think the Holy Spirit scares people off. The Holy Spirit has always been the key to evangelism. It was the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The experience of the Holy Spirit coming on Cornelius and his household was what convinced the apostles that this was for everyone, and I think the same is true today. Of course it has to be accompanied by the proclamation of Jesus. Jesus has to be proclaimed and that’s why the course always centres on ‘Who was Jesus’ and ‘Why did he die?’ Everything is about Jesus, it’s just proclaiming Jesus and then giving people the opportunity to experience Jesus, and the way that people experience Jesus is through the Holy Spirit.

 It’s pretty simple really and pretty basic. But I think that if you read the book of Acts, that’s the pattern. They preach Jesus and pray for people to be filled with the Spirit. And that’s how lives were changed.

 YWI’ve heard you say before that you feel you have been a pretty poor steward of Alpha because there are so many people left unreached. I’m not going mad am I? You did say that?

 NG Yes, I did. 22.5 million people have done Alpha. But that is just a drop in the ocean. In business terms you’d think of it as research and development. It kind of works, but how do you roll it out? How do you get it out to all the people around the world where there’s such a spiritual hunger? So that’s what we’re thinking about. We’ve got this project called ‘Alpha Innovation,’ where we’re working on 37 different projects. But, basically the question is: how do you get what works here to work elsewhere ?

 YW Alpha is evidently top of your agenda as a church. How high up do you think evangelism should be on a youth worker’s to do list? Obviously there’s the pressure on them from the church leader - to ‘tend the flock’ as it were.

 NG I think tending the flock is very important. I think that’s probably what we have prioritised here – looking after the flock. But, we try and create an environment where people are confident to invite their friends, rather than pressurising people to evangelise, which I don’t ever think works. I think we need to create an environment where people are confident and can say, ‘Come and see’. I don’t think we’ve been totally successful in it, but that’s what we are trying to do.

 We have a youth service which Tim Hughes leads and we’re trying to create an environment of worship, talk and community where young people could say to a friend who was interested, ‘Come and see.’ Likewise we do an alternative carol service at Christmas that is very contemporary and people can say to their friends ‘Come and see’. That’s really the whole thing about Alpha - ‘Come and see’ - and creating a culture that people can invite their friends into.

 All young people have loads of friends at school who are not church-goers and it’s important to have something that they can invite them to. It’s very hard for them to do sort of cold evangelism - people don’t know what they’re talking about. But if you say ‘Come and see’, this is what church is, this is fun, there’s community and there are some amazing people. There’s great music, we have interesting discussions. I think people are searching for that.

 YW But the critique of that would be that it’s ‘Come to us’ rather than going to them…

 NG Well I think you need both. In a sense all those young people are going to them because 95 per cent of their time they’re in school or university, they are right among them. And they won’t come and see unless they like them. They have to be making friends, they have to be living it out. There has to be something in their lives so that people say ‘Wow.’ People are looking for authentic lives. They’re looking for people who have got some purpose, some meaning and some joy, people who don’t gossip. There’s something very attractive about a young person who lives that kind of life. So they are going to them. Every day of their lives they are out there. But then they also need to be able to say, ‘Come and see.’

 It’s very difficult for people to understand what we’re talking about unless we can show them something. Of course it’s good for them to be able to explain things to people if they can explain what they believe and why they believe, but that has to be done very sensitively. I mean, it always has been, but it’s hard in today’s culture to do it. Obviously we should equip young people with knowing the answers to these questions. Apologetics is important so people know that we do have something to say on all these subjects and that there is a reason for the hope that we have. Coming back to the question you asked earlier about apologetics, I think for young people it’s very important that they know the reasons, so it’s not purely an emotional thing, but that’s probably not going to be the way that they convince their friends.

 YW You’ve been through the teenage years as a parent. Speaking as a dad, would you say that’s a good stage to be exploring faith?

 NG I was someone who had no faith growing up and I came to faith at the age of 18 and there was a very stark difference. I think with our children, there was never a time when they didn’t have a faith, right from the earliest time. We always treated them as part of the Christian community and we were very blessed in the sense that they’ve always been part of that community. I think what was key for them was the community and the friends that they had growing up - the other children and then the other teenagers… and they all helped each other and supported each other through those years. I think it’s because they had such strong friendships. Their friendships within the youth group here were stronger than their friends at school even. Now my eldest son is 33, I’ve got two sons and a daughter, and all of their friendships are still the friends that they had in the community growing up.

 YW That’s quite significant then isn’t it? Perhaps what we should try to do long-term is to build those attractional communities. NG I think it’s the friendships. That’s the key thing, the friendships that sustain them. There was no way that any of them would drift off because all their friends would have got round them - not in a pushy way at all - and supported them.

 YW Do you think evangelism is enough of a priority for the average church?

 NG If churches are not outward looking they tend to die. They may take a long time dying, but they’re on the road to death. So, every church should, of course, be outward looking. That’s the key to all the other things. If a church is outward looking, it has to be united, because no one’s going to come to a disunited church. If a church is outward looking, it has to be spirit filled, because you’re never going to reach out without the Holy Spirit. I think if you make this the aim - to be Spirit filled - sooner or later you’ll dry up. If you make unity your aim, you just end up disunited because you’re focusing on the things that you’re discussing. But if you make evangelisation your priority then you have to be united and you need the Holy Spirit and all these other things. And you have to be caring for the poor and involved in issues of justice because no one’s ever going to listen to you if you’re not doing those things.

 YW What’s the balance between these things, do you think? There’s a lot of great work happening in the Church today around social justice. But do you feel that we have lost the imperative for evangelism and speaking out?

 NG I think that all these things are part of love: it’s about loving people. Loving people means that we will be concerned about the appalling things going on in the world, and hunger, homelessness and diseases. If we’re not concerned about these things then that’s a lack of love. We can’t let two million children die every year of starvation and 27 million people live in slavery. It’s not acceptable and it’s good that the Church has woken up to these needs and is at the forefront of the campaigns to end poverty and to end slavery.

 I think that’s all part of love and I don’t think our evangelism would be very effective if we’re not involved in that. I don’t see them as separate; I see them as part of the same thing. But of course, if you love people, you want more than anything that they’ll have a faith. It’s how we go about sharing our faith that has to change. And it has to be done sensitively otherwise it’s off putting. We alienate people from faith if it’s not done in a sensitive, loving way. The key to all these things is love. If it’s done in a loving way then we won’t alienate people. It will be done sensitively and people won’t just be seen as targets, they’ll be seen as human beings.

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