What happens when your friend invites you along to a group to discuss the big questions of life, and you find yourself on a course designed to welcome you into the Christian faith?
And what happens when each week only raises more questions and concerns?
I had previously spoken to Stacey over the summer about her past encounters with Christianity, and how she has tried to make sense of the world and her place within it. If you haven’t yet read our conversation, you can check it out here. At the time, she was going along to the Alpha course, but it was not what she had expected, and it left much to be desired as a sales pitch for Christianity.
After Stacey had finished the sessions, I sat down with her as she reflected on her experience; the new people she met, the ideas that she encountered for the first time, and the uncomfortable questions that it raised.
So, to begin with, what is the Alpha course?
The course itself is ten sessions, and you basically watch a film for about half an hour on a particular question or a topic, and then you sit and have a forty-five minute discussion with a group of people that you haven’t met before. And one or two people lead it. It seems to be an evangelistic tool; a way to explore the Christian faith and introduce the gospel to a potentially new audience – or possibly people from the Church that are wavering in their faith – with a particular focus on the life of Jesus and his message of love.
The films themselves were from the perspective of this young guy and girl who travel around the world, and on their travels they talked about various things. I noticed that it seemed to be quite non-threatening, very non-controversial language, and quite persuasive in how they package certain aspects of Christianity. There seemed to be a huge focus on making Christianity relevant to the twenty-first century; more so than anything else I’ve listened to or read about to do with the Christian faith.
Having been through all of the course now, in my own, words, I’d say it’s: ‘How to be a Christian, and what the main Christian beliefs are.’
Is that how it was sold to you?
It was sold to me as a chance to discuss the big questions in life. On reflection, I think that I probably should have asked what the big questions in life were, because to me, the questions are not centered around any faith in particular. One of them would be, ‘Is there more to life?’ or, ‘Is there a creator?’ But some of the other big questions that I would prefer to focus on would be, ‘How do we solve climate change? How do we live a more sustainable life?’ Those are the big questions to me. But when the person offered me the chance to do the Alpha course, I just said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ I didn’t think about what her big questions might be, or what someone else’s big questions might be. So it was different to what I expected.
How were you feeling as you went to the first group meeting?
I wasn’t really feeling anything on a big scale; I think I was slightly apprehensive. I was nervous about meeting a whole load of new people, particularly on Zoom, with all the Zoom etiquette that March and April 2020 inflicted upon us. I was very trusting of the person that had introduced me to Alpha, so I didn’t think that she would put me in a position that was going to be negative or stressful; I thought that it would be a nice thing to do. The mundane everydayness of regular life was out the window in lockdown, and so I thought: I like to think about the big questions, so now is as good a time as any.
What were your first impressions of the group when you met them on Zoom?
They seemed incredibly lovely, incredibly welcoming. I was going along with two of my other friends: the friend that invited me and another one of my friends. I was WhatsApping them before, asking, ‘Is everyone ready to join at the exact same time?’ because I really didn’t want to be the first one to join the Zoom call. But it happened that I was - damn my quick internet! But they were exceptionally lovely straight away, and I immediately felt a sense of feeling comforted and welcome, which was nice. The rest of the people seemed quite open and friendly, obviously they were equally as nervous because they were meeting a load of new people on Zoom.
First of all we went around the group and we said our names and a little bit about our background. And I was really surprised that quite a large proportion of the group were already Christians. I would say the majority of them already had quite a strong faith – or seemed to from their opening statements – which made me feel a little bit awkward, because I said that I don’t know how I feel, that I don’t particularly subscribe to a faith, and I’m not looking to. I thought I might as well be honest from the beginning.
It may not be possible to say, but how do you think you might have been perceived by the group?
I think they viewed me as quite a skeptical person. For a while they got confused, because they knew I was a teacher and I think for quite a while they thought I was a science teacher rather than geography.
I don’t know, perhaps because I was so skeptical and picked apart the evidence that I didn’t think was particularly empirical. To begin with I think I was seen as someone who had a bit of a hardened heart, but as we went on that became very sympathetic and the leaders took on a slight perspective that I needed to be saved. And I think they took the fact that I had come to Alpha as me subconsciously wanting to be saved. Even though all of the people were lovely, as we came towards the end of the course, it almost – a tiny bit – felt like they thought I didn’t mean, or I didn’t understand what I was saying. And they were surprised that I didn’t feel any particular urgency to make any decisions. I wasn’t really going along with the neat eight-to-ten week course that obviously has been designed in order to try and get people to Christianity by that point.
Looking then at the content of the course, what kind of things were they teaching and what was your reaction?
The first one started with, ‘Is there more to life?’ That was the central question that they started to unpick. But after about eight minutes of that video, it very much went to: the answer is God, Jesus, the Holy Trinity. And then each week from that point on was centered around the Christian faith, which you can’t blame them for; it’s a Christian course. I just hadn’t realized quite how Christian the course was. So there were things like: what role the Bible plays in our life, what Jesus taught about forgiveness and love, what the main doctrines of the Christian faith are. I was actually surprised that this was a discussion about faith, but it looked like there had been quite a concerted effort into getting evidence together, almost preempting what questions people might argue about, or what kinds of things they might not accept.
It seemed quite systematic in its approach; looking back at it now, I can see that: by week four this is how you’re meant to feel, by week eight this is how you’re meant to feel. And there was a huge focus on positivity. It was about love and friendship and faith in Jesus; kind of a celebration that by the end of this course your whole life perspective will have changed if you accept Jesus into your life. Almost to the point – and this is a little bit of an overstatement – that most of my problems could be solved, or I would at least feel comfort about them if I gave my life to Jesus. That was kind of the underlying message throughout the whole course.
I wasn’t really going along with the neat eight-to-ten week course that obviously has been designed in order to try and get people to Christianity by that point.
Each video was basically about a part of Christianity, and then the second half would be about how a particular person had converted or practically found that. And all of the people that they talked about had been through something that we would see as life-altering or a really terrible thing, from either the death of a loved one all the way through to homelessness, drug addiction, a man that had medically died – his heart had stopped beating and they were going to pronounce death, and then he was prayed for and came back to life – someone that had been involved in the Rwanda genocide, people that had been in prison; things that are very difficult for me in my life to understand.
And they also all seemed to be people that were way more cynical of God than I am, people that were vehemently against the faith, and that if they saw Christians would be quite disrespectful to them quite openly.
And I really struggled with that, because I couldn’t relate to any of them. There were people that had been through desperate things, were hugely cynical and had come to God through the Alpha course. And there were also a lot of people that were already Christian and had been for potentially a long time. Both those groups of people were very passionate about their beliefs, and I was in the middle and didn’t really have anything to relate to.
As that was the kind of response that I’d imagine quite a few people would have, why do you think they included those examples in the videos?
I think they included them – I mean, I don’t know their motivations – to say: look what the power of Jesus can do for these quite desperate situations, and so imagine what joy Jesus can bring in your life. One of the cases was a man that was involved in the Rwanda genocide. He obviously went to prison, and then he did the Alpha course there. When he came out, the Holy Spirit was so within him that he went to find the family members of the people that he’d killed, and they were also Christian and they forgave him. And actually they all then lived together in this same village and became quite good friends. So I think the reason to include such significant stories is to say: look how much power the Holy Spirit has.
What do you make of that story and the teachings in Alpha around it?
I feel like, depending on how susceptible you were, and depending on how much you’d experienced of the world, some of the things that they talked about I could see having some pretty negative ramifications in the real world. The idea of forgiveness in that case is excellent, but it opened up a discussion about forgiving people: who you forgive, and when, and why. And it could come to the point that you’re then inviting people back into your life that are pretty dangerous for you, either emotionally or physically. To what extent do we go down this line of trusting everyone around us and trusting that they’re filled with the Holy Spirit and God’s love? Because, actually, that’s not the real world.
There was another story that came up in the videos, and then a real world example in the discussion about relying on God for practical things like food and shelter and money, and the power of prayer to provide those things. To me, prayer has always seemed a little bit sketchy in that, I don’t think there’s any harm at all in off-loading your worries, but I don’t think that you should be genuinely month on month relying on something that you have faith in to get you money to pay your rent, or get you access to food. If you took that too far you could end up in a pretty desperate situation.
I’m aware that on an Alpha course, there’s typically a ‘Holy Spirit day away’ which will take place about two thirds of the way through, how did that play out?
I felt a little bit short-changed, because apparently it would normally be at least a day away – if not a night as well – somewhere lovely, with lots of meals. But instead it was a three-and-a-half hour Zoom call on a Saturday morning. I’d not scrolled down far enough on one of the emails, so it was actually a surprise to me; I found out about it the night before. This goes without saying, but it was a bit too long. For anything on Zoom. And the Zoom-ness of it meant that it was even more intense than it would have been.
The leaders were lovely and they were very aware that it was long and intense, but although they said you can get up and move and do whatever you want at any point, you couldn’t really. It was: watch a video, discussion, watch a video, discussion, and then a Bible passage. So there was no real time that you could walk away, think about things, or just do practical things like get a drink. I got a little emotional during it, and I found it very stressful and outside of my comfort zone. It was the first time that my own impression of the course, and potentially the religion, became a bit cult-like. By this point you were supposed to be very much on board the Christianity faith train, and this was like your conversion day.
There were quite a lot of videos that included talks from Charlie Mackesy, and his video was probably the one that I resonated with the most, in that he hadn’t had some awful, desperate situation happen to him. He’d been invited along by a friend to an Alpha course, and he went on the day away. He said the things that I would be thinking; he tried to avoid all of the Christians because he didn’t want them to pray for him, and then when one of them asked if they could pray, he said no, and then got scared that he would get continually badgered, so he said yes. Then, whilst the prayer was happening, all he could think of was what the man had had for breakfast; he wasn’t involved in it in any way, and that was the only story that resonated with me.
Towards the end we did our Bible reading about the gifts that God gives you. Some people get humility, some people get organization, and because quite a few of us were teachers we talked about how God gives the gift of teaching to certain people. Sometimes I wish I could tell my classes that this is a god-given gift and they should be thrilled to be in the presence of it, but I don’t know if that would work!
I’d gone into the morning knowing that they were going to offer to pray for us, and I wasn’t going to let them. They’d said that you could say no, but throughout the morning, the call was so long that it felt like, ‘We’re going to keep you on Zoom until you agree to anything!’ So, I’m really disappointed in myself, but I didn’t say no. And then something really odd happened, which was that the boys and the girls went off into separate Zoom calls, which I just found incredibly odd; until that point it was very modern and twenty-first century.
I found the prayer bit rather interesting. It very much wasn’t paradigm-shifting and the earth certainly didn’t move whilst the prayer was going on, and, although it was lovely, I had a particularly generic prayer for me. I was actually the last girl that was prayed for, and I think it’s because I hadn’t given anything away that they could pray for. And then there was a few minutes of, I don’t think it’s meditation, but where no one’s talking but we’re still in prayer.
Apart from feeling awkward in the situation, I also thought, has God actually forsaken me? I felt a bit personally offended.
With every other girl, the leader said, ‘God’s putting into my mind an image of this,’ or, ‘I’ve suddenly remembered this verse,’ or, ‘I’ve remembered this song,’ or ‘This place’ or ‘These lyrics’. And she didn’t say anything for me. Apart from feeling awkward in the situation, I also thought, has God actually forsaken me? I felt a bit personally offended. But then, thinking about it, it’s because just before the prayers, the other girls in the group had revealed some reasonably personal information about themselves, which was what the lady then saw.
I’m not saying she was personally manipulating the situation to include those bits, but it goes back to the power of suggestion. If someone’s just said something specific, then it’s likely that you would then think of a song, or whatever that fitted that situation. I kind of took it to be another piece of evidence that either the Christian god is not real, or does not work in the way that we presume he does. Because if he really did know my heart, she would have had some images of whatever I was going through at the time, even if I hadn’t said it out loud.
You mentioned earlier that you were emotional throughout the day, what was happening there?
Partly it was that all of the videos we’d seen and all the other people on the Zoom call were Christian, and at various points we had discussions and it just seemed great to have such concrete faith in something. Sometimes I wish that I was less skeptical and could just be at peace with what I believe, and not question everything all the time. And this whole thing of inviting God into your life, well, I have tried several times, both when I was younger and by doing this Alpha course. I know that I might sound hugely against being involved in a religion, but just because you’re not for something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re against it.
It is a little bit upsetting to think that, when you’re on a Zoom call with loads of Christians who are talking about how wonderful their lives are, and that God gives them this faith, and they feel exceptionally loved by God; I don’t. And that is upsetting sometimes.
Reflecting on your experience as a whole, is there anything that you found particularly surprising that came out of the teaching or discussions?
Yes. There were a couple of bits that I’d never heard about before, and I did not realize these were part of the Christian faith; and the fact that they were in an Alpha course – which is kind of promotional material for God – suggests that they’re quite important parts of the Christian faith. And they scare me a little bit, and are what got me along the lines of thinking that it could be perceived as manipulative or cult-like. The first is tongues. And the second one links in, as both of them seem to be things that give a hierarchy to your relationship with God, and how good the quality of your relationship is; the second one is being tested by demons if your faith is strong. Or, is it being tested by the devil?
I don’t think Christians would necessarily put it that way, but it sounds like you’re describing the idea of spiritual warfare.
So, tongues was sold to me as a nonsensical language that is like a language of love when you don’t have enough words in your own language to explain how you’re feeling. And alongside this was the fact that sometimes God gives people the ability to speak other languages that they might not have had before; literally just starting to talk in it right now rather than learning it, which seemed a bit scary. I’m not sure I would want to experience it, or even witness it.