The Alpha Story: A Global Mission
Tricia Neill tells us the story of how The Alpha Course became a global phenomenon.
For much of my early life God had no relevance at all. I worked hard but partied even harder. When I was in my mid-30s I was leading a team setting up a new division spearheading exhibitions around the world for Rupert Murdoch’s News International group.
One weekend I was playing tennis with friends when I was introduced to someone who mentioned a course she had done called Alpha at a church called Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church in the heart of London, and she invited me along. That was 1993.
Alpha, she explained, is an 11-week course – one evening a week – which is an opportunity to explore the meaning of life. It involves a meal in a small group of 12, a talk on some aspects of the Christian faith, followed by discussion.
I accepted out of politeness but, at the end of the evening, I told my friend that I did not want to come back.
Then something strange happened. I met a neighbour who was going through a difficult time and I suddenly heard myself say: “Maybe you should go on the Alpha course.” I was even more surprised to hear myself say: “If you want to go, I will go with you!”
I did the course and it was a life-changing experience for me. I became a Christian on 13 February 1993 and my life has never been the same since.
Dream Big, Start Small
I started to help on subsequent courses and met the Reverend Nicky Gumbel, who was running Alpha at the church.
In April 1994, I accepted an invitation to work alongside Nicky and the Reverend Sandy Millar, who was the vicar at HTB, to help with the running of HTB and support the growth of Alpha around the world. At this time there were about 200 Alphas running – mostly in the UK – and, in the days before email and the Internet, it was a massive challenge, particularly because there was only me – at the beginning!
Pushing Through the Challenges
So how did we achieve it? First, we had lunch with all the Christian press in the UK telling them the story of what was happening through Alpha. The resulting articles created interest from churches all over the world.
Then, we worked with members of HTB who had done Alpha in London and moved to other countries. They began to encourage their home churches to run Alpha. We provided the materials for local courses and worked with them to set up training conferences in their regions or countries to help other church leaders run Alpha.
We also set up a network of ‘Alpha Advisers’ – people who were running a really good Alpha course and had a passion to help others run great courses. Some of these international advisers later formed national Alpha offices in various countries.
Next, we set up a newspaper called Alpha News, which we published three times a year and sent free of charge to everyone involved in the growth of Alpha.
Finally, we filmed Alpha talks to make it easier for churches to run the course. Partnering with publishers and distributors around the world ensured the resources were easily accessible to any church, anywhere.
Up until 2001, the HTB congregation funded the entire operation, but we wanted to make it possible for other donors to come and partner with us. So we set up a new charity called Alpha International with a board of trustees to take responsibility for global growth and the funding of this mission.
The Transformation of Society
Alpha’s vision from the start has been: to play our part in the evangelisation of the nations, the revitalisation of the church and the transformation of society. The course is now running in 34,000 churches of all major denominations in more than 100 countries. An estimated 26 million people have done the course.
Alpha has an audacious global goal for the next five years to double the number of churches running Alpha from 34,000 to 68,000 by the end of 2022. At the same time, the church at HTB has grown into a multi-site church with 10 Sunday services running at four sites. HTB has also planted more than 20 churches in London and another 12 in university cities around the UK, as well as one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Just Getting Started
In 2005, Reverend Sandy Millar stood down as vicar at HTB and said to me: “Most church leaders have a big vision but don’t know how to implement it.” He asked me to write a book to help church leaders learn effective steps to achieving their vision.
The book From Vision to Action was published in 2006 and draws on my experiences in the business world and from my time at HTB. It includes ideas and principles on what leadership structures to put in place, how to cast the vision, how to build an effective team, working together and how to keep going.
This has been such an exciting journey, but it is not over yet. Recently at HTB, we also launched a new charity, the Church Revitalisation Trust (CRT), to support the growth of our church-planting ministry. I am so grateful to God for allowing me the privilege of playing a part in all that He is doing. And He is just getting started.
This article has been adapted from Champions 2018.
Tricia Neill is President of Alpha International, a Christian charity that publishes and promotes ministries for use in the local church. She is also President and sits on the board of the Church Revitalisation Trust, a charity set up by HTB in 2017 as a catalyst for a momentum of church planting in the UK.