Running Alpha Online is here to stay. In a matter of weeks, 190 online courses across the country have been registered with digital gatherings quickly becoming the norm. Whilst online Alpha has been explored in the past, the sudden surge in interest in Australia indicates that people are more than ready to adapt. “There is no going back. Alpha Online will remain an option even when we can meet in groups again,” says Philippa Fielding, Alpha Australia Church Relationship Lead.
For some churches, attendance in services has surged since going online. There is still speculation regarding the trend, but anecdotal evidence suggests that people are enjoying some anonymity in gathering online and the forum is logistically easier for many who may be experiencing illness, distance or a lack of transport options. There also seems to be a greater appetite in society for asking the big questions of faith and life and the forum is more welcoming of those who might be experiencing growing uncertainty or anxiety.
Giving support to observations, McCrindle has recently researched the emotional state of Australians. “The unfolding situation around COVID-19 is creating a sense of uncertainty among Australians. Two in five (39%) feel extremely or very uncertain … while another 52% feel somewhat or slightly uncertain. In this context of change and uncertainty Australians are feeling anxious (45%), frustrated (37%) and vulnerable (29%). There is still a sense of optimism, however, with more than a quarter (27%) feeling hopeful.” You can find the full McCrindle report here.
Google Trends indicates that questions such as ‘What is the point?’, ‘Why and I here?’ and ‘Is this it?’ have all been at their highest for the last 12 month period in March and April this year, potentially correlating with the declaration of the pandemic by the WHO.
Offering Alpha is a natural step for people who want to ask their questions in a safe environment. Surprisingly, “Alpha Online is proving to be an easier forum for some introverts,” says Philippa. Some don’t turn on their videos. They choose to maintain the conversation through audio only. For those churches who are now part way through their courses, it has become evident that there “doesn’t seem to be as much pressure online.” Alpha Online has also seen an increase in participation of people with transportation challenges and single parents, who ordinarily face the difficulty of finding care for children in order to be able to go out of an evening.
The personal invitation has also been made easier in the online setting. Inviting a friend has always been a central focus of Alpha. The physical distancing requirements and isolation have shifted our focus to broader connections. Some Alpha participants from a Victorian Baptist Church have invited their friends living in Iran and China to join an Australian-based Alpha. And other Australian courses are crossing state borders, with participants not constrained by geography. As our globalised world helps us to forge relationships not bound by borders, so Alpha Online is enabling those relationships to delve into these big questions together.
Many churches are running small Alpha gatherings on the Zoom platform using a paid account, which allows for break out rooms and longer meetings. However, others are choosing to use a free Zoom account, and having guests login together for 45 minutes after watching the Alpha Film Series independently through Vimeo. Some churches, confident in using the online platform, are hosting Alpha and including other church groups, who then breakout separately for discussion. A Victorian church, never having previously run Alpha, is offering Alpha every night of the week. Others are starting up new Alphas each week. The tradition of running Alpha once or twice per year consecutively no longer needs to be adhered to. Creativity and ‘giving it a go’ have been hallmarks of those who have leapt into the opportunity.
These trends are not unique to Australia. All over the world Alpha has been utilised as a safe forum during this crisis. Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of Alpha in London, is currently running its biggest Alpha cohort in history. 1100 people are gathering weekly. It is also hosting 1500 couples in the online Marriage Course. “This is a good thing since some couples are under greater pressure in the crisis,” says Philippa.
The essential elements of Alpha are being reprioritised. Food together is not an option; the ‘Weekend Away’ is being handled differently by different groups as leaders share their stories and ideas with one another; but prayer ministry remains vitally important and is often being organised through breakout rooms with smaller gatherings of people. Training is offered for churches who are keen to learn how to make the most of Alpha Online. As people have been led in prayer in the training context, “there has been a sense of the Holy Spirit there with us online.” Prayer remains a priority throughout Alpha, with The Prayer Course online being recommended as a potential follow up course at the close of Alpha.
Whilst the online forum provides an insurmountable challenge for some to participate, for many, it is exactly what is needed at this time, and a gathering that many have been waiting for.
For more information and resources, go to the link below:
Devotions recommended by the Alpha team
Bible in One Year https://www.bibleinoneyear.org/
Lectio 365: https://www.24-7prayer.com/dailydevotional
Bridgetown Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/bridgetown-audio-podcast/id84246334