For Newtownabbey man David Dickinson, it’s the simplicity of the Alpha Course that makes it so appealing. Created in the 1970s, it has been successful around the world in leading people to Christ.
“There are no smoke and mirrors, there’s nothing hidden - it’s all done in a very public way, a very low key way, and I think people are really drawn to that,” says the 29-year-old, who is head of the course here in Ulster, and oversees “everything from fundraising, advertising and training, to resourcing churches and helping them get equipped to run the course.”
Today there are more than 55,000 courses worldwide in 169 countries, and Alpha is supported by all the major denominations.
It was actually formed originally as a means of helping new Christians learn more about the faith, but in 1990 former barrister Nicky Gumbel adapted it to make it inclusive for those who were not Christians, or hadn’t been to church in a long time.
It soon became established as a popular way for people to explore Christianity and all the issues related to it in an informal way.
As such, it continues to attract a wide range of participants with a variety of viewpoints, and some of the topics explored include questions such as why did Jesus die, how can God guide us, and does God heal today? It takes place over about 10 weeks, and includes a weekend away in the middle.
“It’s main aim is to allow people of any background to explore what faith is all about, and the Christian faith specifically,” says David.
“It’s based on the premise that any question is welcome and any opinion is valid, there’s nothing that you can say that’s too silly, too out there or too strange.”
David himself did the course too, and really only acquired his job at the helm of the Northern Ireland operation by chance - or was it God’s will?
“We are supported by a board, four resource churches and about 20 key volunteers and advisers dotted around the country,” he says, explaining the local structure of the course.
Married to Joy and a Christian since his teenage years, David’s own church is Carnmoney Presbyterian, and he says he can’t remember a time when God wasn’t a part of his life.
“I’m not one of those people who had a ‘flashing light’ moment,” he smiles, when I ask him when he became a Christian.
“I made a decision when I was about 14, when it became much more clear to me, and I told friends I was a Christian and that sort of thing. I had grown up in a Christian home; my dad had been a Presbyterian minister as were my three uncles and grandad, so I had kind of always been around the church and was quite comfortable it, and with discussions about faith and so on.
“I went away to a camp in Dublin when I was about 13 or 14, and that was when I think I really started to let faith take hold of my life in that sense, and get an understanding of what a relationship with Jesus meant.”
It was towards the end of his university degree in Law that the opportunity to take on a full time role with the Alpha Course arose - although initially, he brushed it off.
“I was thinking that it was either something in law or in management that I wanted to do,” he says.
However just a few weeks later, a job description of the role ‘dropped’ into his inbox.
“I thought, ‘what are they playing at!’” he laughs.
“I didn’t really think any more of it and then I got a real compulsion during the 24 hours before the application had to be in that I needed to apply. It entailed writing a vision for how you thought the Alpha Course could impact Northern Ireland.”
And even when David got the job, he says he wrestled with his feelings “for quite some time” as to whether taking it was the right thing to do, and that he and his father had “some very long discussions about calling”.
The passion in David’s voice for Alpha makes it clear that accepting the leadership role was indeed the right thing for him to do.
“It’s an incredible thing when you sit down on week one with 10 strangers who don’t know each other, and some of them don’t like each other, and very often they have polar opposite opinions or experiences, and then 10 weeks later they’re the best of mates,” he smiles.
David explains that those who take part in the course only have to commit to it for its eight to 10 week duration; each week sees “food and fellowship”, and a talk on a core topic, followed by small groups of around 10 people being formed, in which everyone will discuss what they thought or felt about that evening’s topic.
“It’s pretty organic in the sense that it’s not bolted down tight and really discussions most nights go wherever the guests take them,” he says. So if somebody has been thinking about something else for some time, it may be an opportunity to ask questions or make comment about it.”
I ask him why he thinks it has been so successful in giving people the answers they have been seeking?
“I think the big answer really is because God’s in it,” he says candidly. I also think there is a real and genuine desire in the world to ask questions about Christianity and find out if it really is all it’s meant to be.”
David also feels that the whilst many people are “OK that they may not be going to church”, there remains within them a “desire for more, and for a deep relationship - and as Christians we believe that the only fulfilling relationship is with Jesus.
“So yes I think there is a real genuine desire to ask questions, and Alpha provides a really great platform (for that). Also, the dynamics of small groups and the relational way in which the course is done means people really connect, and it’s not a case of ‘we (the Alpha leaders) are going to talk to you and that’s it, there’s no comeback’. People are allowed to say what they really think and feel.”
Some Alpha courses take place in settings other than the church, which David also feels makes it more ‘accessible’ to non-church goers.
“They are run in so many venues now, from pubs to golf clubs and youth centres, and so I think people find it quite easy to access or invite other people who they may struggle to invite to church on a Sunday.
“It’s pretty easy to say - ‘do you want to come to Alpha? It’s in the pub.’