Alpha, the popular outreach to seekers and skeptics, has always had a shared meal as an essential element of its relational model. Breaking bread at a table has a remarkable way of also breaking down barriers, generating easy and lighthearted conversation, and providing a safe and comfortable setting for what otherwise can be an intimidating or awkward gathering.
Prior to Covid, the notion of an online version of Alpha seemed inappropriate, insufficient, inhospitable. Alpha with no meal? Inconceivable!
As with many other rules of thumb these days, that prevailing wisdom is now outdated. Alpha works just fine in a videoconferencing session -- and is arguably even better in several important ways.
1. No housecleaning!
No meal prep!For a host who invites acquaintances into their home, all of a sudden the unavoidable self-imposed social pressure of making the living and dining rooms clean and uncluttered is gone. Likewise, there is no need to stress about getting a good meal to the table on time.
2. No childcare!
How many true seekers have found that the expense and hassle of finding a babysitter is a real, practical impediment to attending Alpha? And, how many semi-serious seekers have found it a convenient excuse to decline an invitation? More on-the-fence people are saying yes to an invitation.
After a few weeks of meeting in person, sometimes people neglect or forget to write their names on a nametag while sitting around the table asking and responding to questions. It is embarrassing for hosts, table leaders and seekers to be sharing deep thoughts and experiences, and then have to ask, “can you remind me of your name?” On a videoconference, everyone’s name is already on the screen next to their face, all the time. Goodbye, awkward moments! In fact, in a videoconference, more people begin to refer to each other by name, saying “As Jordan just said…” Frequent use of first names within a group has a powerful impact on group formation and intimacy building.
4. I can ask my Mom
While quarantined in their parents’ house, many 20-something attendees are finding it easy to invite their mother and/or father (or siblings, or housemants) to attend along with them online on a single laptop or TV screen.
5. I can invite my sister in California
Many people who have completed the Alpha course want to invite a family member or close friend to also attend. But, oftentimes that other person lives far away, and they need a little more hand-holding before attending an Alpha group on their own. “If you would go with me, I guess I would go, but I feel weird going by myself. If you lived near me, we could go together.” With Alpha online with videoconferencing, Alpha alumni and their loved one can attend together.
6. Fun > Food
The role of the meal has been substituted by other activities that could really only be done online. For example, some groups have had pet fashion shows. Pets, of course, are deeply personal relationships, but almost never would have been welcome at an Alpha meeting in someone’s home or in a church building. The ability to share and show off a ‘family member’ in a fun setting goes a long way.
7. Go deeper, faster
Alpha founder Nicky Gumbel, who himself was a deep skeptic of doing Alpha online, has found that by week 5 there is deep intimacy and vulnerability among a group -- a state formerly not reached until around week 9 of the 11-week course. The neutral ground of a videoconference screen where all the ‘table mates’ are visible seems to dissolve an emotional or psychological barrier. Church halls and even the confines of a friendly Christian household, despite the powerful social solvent of a shared meal, somehow inhibit the free flow of questions and challenging conversations.
Alpha got its start in 1990, and for thirty years, whenever the notion of online groups came up, it was quickly and decisively shut down. Alpha was successful because of the depth of relationships that its in-person, meal-enabled model fostered. There was no reason to mess with that success.
In the time of Covid, Alpha leaders have had their own road conversion experience.