Some 100,000 people are expected to make commitments to Christ this year through the widely popular Alpha Course.
|Gerard Long, executive director of Alpha USA, speaks at McLean Presbyterian Church in Virginia, Oct. 20, 2010.|
Over a decade after being introduced to the United States, the course is again being picked up by churches across the country as more people seek answers to questions about God and the meaning of life.
"It's starting to explode across the country now. People are starting to understand it," said Gerard Long, executive director of Alpha USA, in an interview this week.
The Alpha Course is a practical introduction to the Christian faith where participants meet once a week for 10 weeks to explore God's existence, their purpose, and who Jesus is. The program touts a friendly and relaxed setting and is designed for those outside the church.
When Alpha first made its way to the states in 1997 from London, the course was hugely popular as it was seen as "the new church program on the block," Long explained. But Alpha was being utilized as a 101 discipleship class for members in the church and once all the congregants went through it, churches dropped the course and moved on to the next program.
They were "missing entirely the heart of Alpha," Long, 52, said. "It's for those who are lost, who are headed to the wrong place of eternity."
After the initial surge, the popularity of Alpha dropped dramatically. It was only in the last two years that churches began to "get it" and utilize Alpha regularly throughout the year to draw the unchurched.
"In the last two years, we've doubled in size," the U.K. native said. "We're encouraging churches to really have a fresh look at how they're doing church."
It's been seven years now since Long packed his bags and moved his family out from London to the United States. He was a senior executive at HSBC, one of the world's largest banks, at the time. He left the job in 2006 to join Alpha USA.
Frankly, it was an easy decision for him to leave HSBC, he said. The long-time Christian always held his career lightly and was prepared to go wherever God led him.
While he's excited about the growth of Alpha, he's concerned about the state of Christianity in America.
"When I was in London, I saw tragedies, really heartbreaking – churches closing and becoming Buddhist temples, mosques, flats and theaters. Absolutely tragic. Now 50 percent of Europe is atheist. It's awful really when you see what's happened," he lamented.
"I come to America and I see the same signs. I heard last week there's going to be more foreclosures of churches this year than ever in the church history of America," said Long.
"The church here is in really a tipping point. It can either go the way of Europe or [there's] just a little window to stop it."
The trajectory of U.S. Christianity can be reversed, he said confidently. But the church must get back to Jesus' model – the mission model of "going."
"The church in the West is largely a 'come' model whereas the model that Jesus gave was a 'go' model," he said.
And Alpha has helped churches to easily adopt the "go" model as they reach out to those who don't know Jesus Christ and meet them where they're at.
"When you boil it all down, it comes back to God's plan. He just loves us so much, wants a relationship with us and wants through us to reach the world. He came to seek out and save what was lost," Long stressed.
"Really, the core of Christianity is very simple and what's so tragic is we make it so complex and religious. That puts people off," he lamented. "We stop knowing how to just relate to people who are outside the church. Our language gets very religious and we get judgmental and bigoted and look down on people."
As a result, a whole generation of 16- to 29-year-olds hold a negative view of Christians, he pointed out. Only 16 percent have a positive view of the church. If it's evangelical Christianity, only 3 percent have a positive view, he noted.
"That's a whole generation being lost unless we do something about it."
With the bad economy, the natural disasters and tragedies in people's lives, Long recognized that young people don't see a lot of hope when they look forward.
But in the midst of the turmoil, Long offered: "Christianity is the only worldview that addresses these three questions – Where did we come from? Why is it such a mess in the world? And where are we going?"
"We can give good, sensible, logical, reasonable answers to that," said Long, who recently wrote a modern-day parable titled The Breakthrough for Christians to use as a practical evangelism tool.
The Alpha Course isn't about in-your-face evangelism. Instead, it's a practical and gentle way of introducing Jesus into someone's life, Long indicated.
"We say to folks 'at the end of the day, the claims of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus are profound. Just for the sake that this might be true, surely it's worth spending 10 weeks to investigate.'"
"You'd be a fool not to, just from pure logic. We don't put pressure on people. But, at least investigate."
Since its founding in central London in the 1970s, more than 15 million people in 169 countries have taken the Alpha Course, including more than 2 million people in the U.S. Currently more than 100 denominations, along with Catholic churches, are running the Alpha Course.