Six years ago, when I was living in Edmonton, there was a huge campaign for the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity series out of the UK. I attempted to attend. I blogged about my adventure here: Since then I’ve been curious about better organized implementations of the Alpha course.

Recently I moved to Vancouver, and while exploring my new neighbourhood I stumbled upon a megachurch. I had been curious about the building because I was regularly annoyed by the reflection of their illuminated cross on my computer screen. However, I didn’t realize it was a church, because the cross is rather weird. The bottom segment has 3 lines which are joined together at the bottom, which makes it look more like a trident or distorted “W”.

Churches are rare in Vancouver so I just assumed it was some weird brand logo. But when I wandered over there I found that it was a megachurch. I later learned that they don’t like to call themselves a megachurch, but I don’t know a better way to describe a church that seats 1800 people with four English services every Sunday (plus additional Chinese services) and about a dozen pastors. The building is always busy, with a variety of classes most evenings, a cafeteria that seems to always be open, and child care.

For the fall, one of those courses was the Alpha Course, so I signed up to attend. The course finished in December. I took notes but hesitated to blog about it because they say that Alpha course discussions are supposed to be confidential. However I have decided it should be OK to blog about my experience as long as I don’t include any personal details from anyone else.

This was much better organized than my initial attempt at the Alpha Course. They only had 10 weeks for the course, while the Alpha Course is supposed to be 15 weeks, so some sessions were cut, and one was a double feature. The official Alpha outline includes a retreat, but they didn’t have one. Each evening followed the basic Alpha pattern of food-talk-discussion.

The food was free for anyone taking Alpha for the first time. They said I counted as a first-timer in spite of my previous attempt 6 years ago. Every meal was excellent. By far the best church-meal I’ve ever had. It was typically a meat dish, 2 or three hot sides, a salad, a bun, and desert. All of it was delicious.

The talk part consists of viewing the videos. I’m planning to blog about each video (including the ones I missed, because I can watch them online) after I finish talking about my experience in the course.

The discussion part consists of small group discussions with the people at your table. Alpha is supposed to be a friendship building exercise, so you are assigned to a table when you arrive and ideally go to the same table every week. Of course, most people that attend don’t come every week, and attendance dropped off noticeably as the course went on, so some tables were combined. But my table was relatively stable.

For confidentiality reasons I’m not going to use any real names. I’m also not going to invent pseudonyms because that just confuses me. I made general acronyms based on people’s roles.

The regulars at my table were:

  • The table leader (TL), who was the person assigned to lead the discussions at our table. If Alpha had a picture of a perfect table leader, she would be on it. She was friendly and welcoming and not at all pushy. She chose her words carefully, and actively considered that other people at the table might have different opinions. She tried to word questions so that they would be applicable to non-believers, even when that was effectively impossible, because although Alpha is supposed to cater to non-believers, a lot of their questions assume you believe.
  • The Alpha Course leader (AL), who was leading the whole group, also frequently sat at our table. He was pretty much the opposite of the table leader. He regularly said things that shocked or insulted me, and although I made no effort to hide my feelings he never seemed to register my discomfort. He went on rants about what “atheists” and “evolutionists” do and believe without the slightest consideration that I might identify with either label.
  • The table leader’s husband (TLH) was taking a different course at the church at the same time, so he wasn’t there for the videos or most of the discussion. However, he did eat dinner with us and sometimes joined the discussion when his class was over. He is a very intelligent man with a big interest in theology, which made him very interesting to talk to.
  • A young man (YM) who was a friend of the table leader. He was very quiet and didn’t participate much in the discussions, so I probably won’t say much about him.
  • A very friendly young woman (YW) who regularly attends the church. I think she said she attends the Alpha course to make friends. She is absolutely someone I could see being friends with, but I have a feeling she meant Christian friends.
  • Me.

I went in intending to be completely honest about being an atheist. And I feel that I was, although I’m not sure that my table mates would agree. I answered all questions honestly, and I did challenge and argue with them on some points, so it should have been pretty obvious I wasn’t a believer. The problem is that, like many religious people, they don’t seem to equate “non-believer” with “atheist”, which is why AL felt comfortable going on those rants without considering my feelings. I also don’t know if I ever directly told them that I don’t believe in God, but I didn’t really get the opportunity. No one ever actually asked me what I believe, which seems strange, but for the first couple sessions the Alpha discussion questions seem to actively avoid asking, and the later ones seem to just assume that they’ve already converted you.

Anyway, that’s the general overview of the course. I will post about the first session next week.