Sitting on the central aisle in a non-descript nave which is modestly decorated with neutral colours and a collection of crucifixes I listen to a middle aged, slightly balding man strum away at an acoustic guitar. The gentleman was sweetly lost in the moment as he led the morning hymn aided by a projector, a few zealous singers and the obliged mutters of the remaining congregation. The Shoreditch Baptist Church’s hymns were not to my taste, the congregation and the general mood was similar to the diverse congregation and placid hymns of Victoria Park Baptist Church and in contrast to the more joyous less structured hymns of the predominantly Ghanaian congregation of the Open Doors Baptist Church. Some Baptists know how to boogie and get their gospel groove on while others prefer to sway to Christian pop anthems. Housed in a modest building, the Shoreditch Baptists are planning to move to a larger church in the New Year but their temporary building had an understated charm. My favourite feature is the high antenna placed above the entrance with a crucifix positioned on top, this understated adornment had a tokenistic quality in its feeble attempt to compete with the city's skyline and rise to the heavens. The building and music may not have brought out the Holy Spirit within me but it did get my mind working (not all churches have achieved this). I didn’t find God but I did have an epiphany (maybe for Christians all epiphanies are sent by God) but I imagine their God would not have approved of my epiphany. I realised that for me to personally find God the superficial reception of worship does matter. It’s a general preconception that obtaining a religious or spiritual experience is rising above the material world and experiencing a bigger state of consciousness, yet surely our environment does matter or we would have never created church.
I don’t like modern Christian hymns! I cannot think of anything more off putting to becoming a Christian with the exception of more serious deterrents such as religious sectarianism, institutionalised homophobia and general right wing rhetoric. Besides the key disgraces of Christianity peppered throughout history my modern pet hate is the pop tinged Christian hymns that take a lyrical inspiration from The Bible and apply it to the melody of a below par Beatles song. My dislike is merely a superficial prejudice that has no moral agenda but I could attempt to create one such is my hatred. I do like hymns. After leaving many Pentecostal services I have been ecstatic with joy at the singing and the dancing of the service which has even led me to buy gospel music and read the Redemption Hymnal in solitude. The passion I have for Pentecostal hymns by comparison to Baptist pop anthems is purely cultural. Caribbean Pentecostalists are my favourite singers; the music seems sparser lending itself to more varied rhythm and experimental vocal range similar to genres of Reggae, Soul and the Blues. In comparison to my passion for the Redemption Hymnal I have fostered a hatred for Christian pop hymns influenced by mass culture's stadium pop market of Take That, West life and reality TV stars. In conclusion the material worlds of my musical tastes have an enormous influence on how close I feel to God and it also produces a lot of guilt. Guilt as the congregation of Shoreditch Baptist Church was no less welcoming than the Pentecostal congregations I had visited. Forward and friendly with smiling faces from a wide variety of East End society I felt like I would love to contribute more to the celebrations but I could not get my Godly groove on. Luckily the service seemed to address our superficial barriers towards God with its advocacy of The Alpha Course.
The entire service was dedicated to the selling of The Alpha Course as a tool to recruit new members to the church, to renew interest in lapsed church members and to cultivate the Holy Spirit in its current congregation. This week's Bible readings and Sunday sermon were put on hold, so guest speakers from Victoria Park Baptist Church could sing the praises of The Alpha Course. So what is The Alpha Course? Personally I feel its Christianity’s attempt to rebrand itself away from the material criticism I previously mentioned. Like all so called progressive Christian movements it’s interested in modernising Christianity so it paradoxically remains the same but also relevant to the everyday. I think it’s important I differentiate how the speakers described the Alpha course, how Alpha sells itself, and then provide my own humble opinion but before all that let’s have some facts from Wikipedia.
The Alpha Course was founded in the 80s and fully formed in the early 90s at the Holy Trinity Church Brompton, Rev Charles Marnham, Rev John Irvine, Rev Nicky Gumbel and Rev Sandy Millar all played pivotal roles in developing and revising a 10 weekly session course to evangelise non-believers. By 2008 over 33,500 courses were offered in 163 countries by Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, New Church Movement and Orthodox churches, even Roman Catholic Churches. The course aim was to find a universal way of teaching about God that did not exclude any Christian doctrine but brought them all together. Despite not including Baptism or Communion The Alpha Course does not discourage these forms of worship. The courses 10 weekly structure are based around an “Alpha Meal,” held in the evening from which group's discuss various issues surrounding Christianity. Each week has a topic, talk and perhaps a DVD viewing. Sample titles from Alpha Course are
How Can I fill myself with Holy Spirit?
How Can I Resist Evil?
Why and How Should I tell Others?
The titles are predictably vague and all-encompassing but not your regular light evening dinner conversation. The Alpha Course has developed into a brand and now specialises in certain target groups offering courses for Youth Alpha, Student Alpha, Senior Alpha, Alpha in the Workplace, Alpha in the Forces, Alpha in Prisons. Alpha has drawn criticism from far right evangelical groups claiming it’s not clear enough in its definitions of sin and disapproval from less evangelical Christians upset by the Charismatic slant of the course which advocates speaking in tongues and healing through prayer. Regardless of the criticism the Alpha course is unquestionably successful. I don’t want to personally criticise a course I have not taken part in but I was interested in the disparity between the flashy website and our guest's pitch.
The three guests were all very friendly, articulate and passionate in their praise of the Alpha Course but they did not have perfect teeth, dressed like they were in a catalogue, or in aged their twenties unlike the below advertisement.
Our guest speakers provided a lot more information and did not seem to forget to mention God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit and Christianity which is oddly absent from the above video. Rebranding often means to target a product at a younger market. When targeting one of the oldest texts in the world you think it would be wise not to leave out The Holy Trinity? Or at least include Jesus Christ. But these words bring up past associations that Alpha does not want to colour its young audience’s minds. Instead of the crucifixtion hanging above your head in an old nave the advert's church is presented like a late night canteen styled as a high class night club. At least the flashy advert informed you of the Alpha structure of a free dinner and discussion as well as indicating that an informal conversation about the bigger questions of life can be as placid and boring as the most trivial table talk. Predictably the advert misses the personal stories that the visiting advocates chose to share. The church's guests all talked on the key experiences they have gained from doing the Alpha Course. One middle age gentleman spoke of the joy he felt when he convinced and bared witnessed to a non-believer's spiritual awakening and another young lady from Italy talked about how the weekly meal provided a structure and community when moving to an unknown and uncaring London. A sense of togetherness was clearly the key attribute of the Alpha Course’s success, a success I attribute to the dinner table.
The Alpha Course takes two key timeless features of human life which have been the foundation of society long before Christianity, the contemplation of our existence and people coming together to sit down for a good meal. Add a Christian agenda to this old paradigm and advertise the course as a new and modern lifestyle choice and you have the unintentionally ironic Alpha Course. I am not criticising its content but merely the structured style of its presentation. Naturally sceptical I have concerns that the so called informal structure that consists of first timers, regular members and then organisers arguably forms a hierarchal dynamic in an unassuming environment. I am not interested in criticising the inner workings of the Alpha Course but I am interested in how the course reflects how self-conscious Christianity has become.
The incredibly warm and welcoming Reverend Georgina said it was important that non-believers "do not perceive us Christians as geeks,” and another guest talker said she regretted evangelising with a microphone outside a supermarket because she appeared like a nutter (her words) and that she was now grateful for the Alpha course as it gave her the opportunity to evangelise through a more socially acceptable forum. I like geeks and I like nutters much more than I like people in adverts with shiny teeth as I feel a geek and a nutter carry more truth and sincerity. I am not going to condemn the Alpha course as mass culture's answer to Christianity. After all Christianity strives to be the mass culture of the lord however people do not want to belong to a mass culture. People like to pride themselves on their difference. I have a feeling that like the hymns from Shoreditch Baptist church the Alpha course would leave me numb and unable to move closer to God. Christianity will continue to rebrand itself in a hope to reach a greater audience but I am not interested in that God, instead the God I seek is romantically hidden in the fragmented sub cultures of our consumer led society. Not to be found on a supermarket shelf but outside being rejoiced by a nutter and a Geek in the store's car park.