Both the burger chain and the Alpha course have achieved success through franchising, have ambitions to spread throughout the world, have a clear brand identity and have aimed for consistency by simplifying the menu, according to Pete Ward, Dr George Carey's adviser in youth ministry. Borrowing a phrase from the American social historian George Ritzer, who wrote about the "McDonaldization of society", Mr Ward says that Alpha is responsible for the "McDonaldization" of religion.
In an academic paper published this week in the Evangelical journal Anvil, Mr Ward, a lecturer at King's College London, writes: "In short, Alpha has done for evangelism what McDonald's has done for fast food... Convenience, speed of service, fast food, Alpha shares a great deal in common with McDonald's."
While insisting that the analogy is not entirely negative, Mr Ward lists "a number of points for concern", among them that "Christian theology is, to say the least, complex and varied. Alpha tends to flatten this reality. Just as the Big Mac and fries are filling, they are also uniform and bland and, on their own, hardly a wholesome diet. The same could be said of Alpha, if it leads no further than its own version of the faith."
The Alpha course for non-churchgoers began at Holy Trinity Brompton, in Knightsbridge, London, Britain's wealthiest parish, in 1991. In September it was launched nationwide with a pounds 1m advertising campaign. The number of Alpha courses worldwide has grown from four in 1991 to more than 10,500 last year. The Archbishop of Canterbury is known to be a strong supporter of the course, which he has described as "one of the most significant areas of growth during the Decade of Evangelism (the 1990s)".
Mr Ward also notes in his paper that "McDonaldization" is characterised by the exercise of control, something he detects in Alpha. "With worship material, training manuals, cookbooks, and all the other resources made available through the central Alpha organisation, a pattern of not only enabling the local church to do evangelism can be seen to be taking shape, but also a pattern of control," he writes.
He also says that Alpha offers non-churchgoers an experience of the faith that has a measure of unreality. "Membership of a local church, regular Sunday worship and so on, are simply not like Alpha," he writes.
Holy Trinity, Brompton said last night that its members felt Mr Ward's paper was "misconceived". A spokesman said: "There is a certain suggestion that people prefer Alpha to church, but we only encourage them to do the course once. It is nothing more than an introduction into the Christian faith, after which people can go to a church of their choice. We have no influence over that choice and we wouldn't want to."