While I will be exploring some of the risks of Alpha and critiques from a Catholic perspective in a subsequent post or posts, first I would like to discuss my experience with it and what I perceive as some of its benefits. Subsequently, I will try to link the discussion back to the personal ordinariates for Catholics of Anglican tradition and how Alpha may or may not work for us.
Back in the 1990s, when I was a member of a seeker-friendly Baptist Church that played a marvelous role in deepening my Christian faith, I participated in several Alpha courses.
Alpha required a lot of preparation. First we planned to offer a free hot meal and time for people to gather around the table in groups of 10 to 12 in the parish hall. A whole team was involved in food preparation, decorating the room, offering welcome and hospitality.
Over ten weeks, after a delicious supper, we would watch a video during which Nicky Gumbel would teach on a particular subject. Here are the topics:
Alpha Dinner: Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?
1. Who Is Jesus
2. Did Jesus Die?
3. How Can I Be Sure of My Faith?
4. Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
5. Why and How Do I Pray?
6. How Does God Guide Us?
Who Is the Holy Spirit?
What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
How Can I Be Filled with the Spirit?
(followed by prayer for “the gift of tongues”)
How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?
(followed by a “Communion” service)7. How Can I Resist Evil?
8. Why and How Should We Tell Others?
9. Does God Heal Today? (small group time replaced by a “practical healing session.”)
10. What About the Church?
After the video, which was shown in the main room, the people around each table left for separate Sunday school rooms to discuss the video we had just seen.
Prior to running Alpha, facilitators had taken a course, also on video, on how to lead the discussion. Facilitators were encouraged not to teach, but to ask questions, to encourage conversation, and allow people to express their opinions without jumping in to correct people who might say erroneous or negative things. There were at least two trained facilitators in each group, with one taking the lead and the other helping out, but mostly quietly interceding in prayer. The point of the facilitators training was to let the videos do the teaching, and to encourage discussion so that eventually, when some key teachings began to register, participants would experience this as their own discovery rather than something they were force-fed. Another key ingredient were a team of intercessors who kept the participants and leaders of the course in their prayers all week.
One of the really good things about Alpha is that at key times there are opportunities opened up for participants to invite Jesus Christ into their hearts. Some people who have never known a personal relationship with Christ or even that it is possible may experience a powerful conversion after praying to Jesus and inviting him into their lives. Others find a deepening of their faith, or a refreshing of the faith they have known since childhood.
During the Holy Spirit weekend, there are opportunities for people to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way. I have never attended an Alpha where anything weird or strange has happened—-it’s not like the Toronto Blessing is going to break out —but I have seen evidence of good fruit in people whose faith-lives have improved by several increments and who, after participating, have become much more confident in praying with and for others and in sharing the Gospel.
How many of us are comfortable with sharing the simple Good News of Jesus Christ with others? How many of us are comfortable spontaneously offering to pray for people on the spot when someone shares a need? We do not have to be priests or religious or have a Master’s Degree in Divinity to share the message of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Alpha helps participants gain that confidence.
The other thing Alpha does is it raises of up potential leaders in parishes. The training is easy and straightforward, and people who undergo it and lead a course as a facilitator discover their capabilities. Consequently, they might be willing to take on other leadership roles. For many people who have never been in a position of leadership before and hesitate to volunteer because of that, the training and experience Alpha offers is invaluable.
That last Alpha course I was involved in at the Baptist church was so wonderful we did not want to stop meeting once it ended, so we continued to meet for prayer and fellowship. We practiced praying for each other and some of us then began visiting the sick and praying for them. The experiences of God’s love and grace during this time were palpable.
In my next post, I will discuss how Alpha worked in our much smaller parish of Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, then of the Traditional Anglican Communion, now part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.