The Alpha course is no stranger to millions. First founded in 1977 at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), Nicky and Pippa Gumbel further developed its materials and began their work as Alpha course pioneers from 1990. Nicky would eventually become Vicar at HTB for some 46 years before retiring in July 2022.
As of the Gumbels’ sharing at Cornerstone Community Church on 14 November 2022, they have personally impacted 97 Alpha courses at HTB. The Gumbels are also responsible for The Bible In One Year (fun fact: the Thir.st team uses this fantastic resource every morning!).
Many millions of lives have been touched by God through the Gumbels’ passion and work for the gospel. We are privileged to share here some of their reflections on faith, culture and evangelism from their dialogue, which was organised by FOPx.
Everyone on the planet is searching for these three things
NICKY: Culture changes all the time. There’s such an acceleration right now in culture; the culture of this year is so different from five years ago. It’s just so rapid.
But there are certain things that never change. They never changed historically. And they never changed geographically. We’ve done conferences in a huge number of countries in the world. And wherever you go, people are searching for three things.
Number one, they are searching for purpose. You can make all the money you like, you can be as successful as you like in your career. You can have a good marriage and children, but people are still going to be asking: “What’s the ultimate purpose of my life?”
Is it just, you’re born, you live, you die – end of story? Or is there something more to life?
And can my life really make a difference? Do I have a purpose? Of course, ultimately, your purpose is found in a relationship with God through Jesus. That’s what the Alpha course is about – encountering God through Jesus Christ.
The second thing people have been searching for throughout time and throughout the world is love.
Everyone wants to experience love. And the good news is, you are loved.
How do you know you’re loved? Well, St. Paul says, the Son of God, Jesus, loved me and gave Himself for me.
If you had been the only person on the planet, Jesus would have died for you.
That’s how much He loves you. That’s the gospel. That’s the Good News.
If you had been the only person on the planet, Jesus would have died for you.
How do you know He loves you? You experience His love through the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul writes, the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
That is why when people come on Holy Spirit weekend, they can experience the fact that they’re loved by God.
The third thing everyone is looking for, is to belong.
There’s so much loneliness in the world. People think of loneliness as maybe an old person in a tower block living on their own. But actually, there are more young people who are lonely than old people, and they can be lonely in a crowd. You can be amongst a whole group of friends, and be the loneliest person on the planet!
People come on Alpha – 10 people in a group – and in the beginning of the course they’re complete strangers. Different walks of life, different nationalities.
By the end of the course, they say: “I’ve only known you for 10 weeks. But I feel closer to you than to the people I’ve known for 20 years.”
Why? Because they have experienced church. They don’t realise it’s church, but the church is the greatest community on Earth where you can really belong. It’s where you can have community because you know that you’re loved. And if you know that you’re loved, you can be vulnerable.
If you don’t know that you’re loved, you’re always trying to impress people. We try and impress people with our strengths, but we connect with people through our vulnerabilities – that’s when we start to be honest.
This is the church: where we love one another; we accept one another; we’re there for each other. If one suffers, we all suffer together. This is the community where people can begin to experience this sense of belonging.
So, everyone on the planet is looking for those three things, for purpose, for love and for belonging.
Finding the balance between winsome and wearisome witness…
PIPPA: Nobody wants to be pressurised. You always want people to want to hear from you.
I think it’s about friendship. If you love well, that’s the best thing you can do. Be a good friend to somebody; and things will come up.
It’s also about “come and see”, the invitation you make from time to time. When there’s a good event on at church or something fun that you think they might like say: “Come and see. Why don’t you come and have a look at this?
“You may not agree, you may not like it – and that’s absolutely fine.”
Give people permission not to feel that they have to commit themselves to it – that if they come once, they’ve got to come back.
Because people want to take their time. They want to think about it. They want to ponder it.
People are frightened of getting caught up in something they can’t get out of. So I think we want to make it really, really easy for people and be a good friend.
And praying like mad is always the best thing that you can do. The worst thing you can do is jam it down their throats.
… in 3 easy steps
NICKY: Some people are natural evangelists. Billy Graham was a natural evangelist, he spoke to millions of people around the world.
There are some people, who standing at a bus stop will immediately turn to the person next to them – and lead them to Christ before the bus arrives!
But that’s not me. I’m not a natural evangelist. Nevertheless, there are three things we can all do.
First of all, you have a story. Tell your testimony. The apostle Paul, he tells his story three times in the book of Acts, and each time it’s exactly the same.
This is how I was, I used to go around persecuting Christians. I was on the road to Damascus, I encountered Jesus. And here I am now telling everyone about the good news.
So think of your story in three parts. Before, I was an atheist, I was a free-thinker, I was whatever – then I encountered Jesus. And this is the difference Jesus makes.
And be concrete about the difference: He’s given me peace, I sleep better… Whatever it is, use a language that will relate to the person.
Second thing is, as Pip says, “come and see”.
We never try and persuade anybody who doesn’t want to do Alpha to do Alpha. But we give people an opportunity to come and see.
That’s what Andrew did to his brother Peter. He just said, come and see. Same with Phillip to Nathaniel, come and see.
Come and meet Jesus. Everyone can do that. Don’t tell people “there’s a 10-week course” — they’re never going to come on a 10-week course!
Tell them, come and see – we’re just doing the first night. We have some food, come and see. If you enjoy the first night, come back. Just come and see.
The third thing is as the apostle Peter says, always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you, but do it with gentleness and respect.
So just be prepared, if the occasion arises to answer the question with gentleness and respect.
In other words, don’t be argumentative, don’t be confrontational, don’t be rude. Do it with gentleness and respect. Honour people.
If you do these three things throughout your life, you will have lots of opportunities to lead people to Christ.
This is the first of a two-part article on evangelism that has been adapted from the Gumbels’ sharing at the Alpha x FOPx Open Meeting. Stay on your toes for the next one!
- When was the last time you shared the gospel?
- Based on the article, what are some factors that hold you back from being an effective witness for Christ?
- Pray and ask the Lord to help you in fulfilling the Great Commission.