Why we’re thinking about using Alpha…
Well, it’s been quite a first week in my new Richmond life… Over the space of four days, I had goodbye parties in Portsmouth, Moving Day to a new flat, my birthday, and the first day in my new job. The first day included a surprise party (that I thought was going to be a parish meeting); and the first week included meeting parishioners at events, introducing myself at weekend Masses, getting the results of the parish “Engagement Survey” (more on this later), and the Run Alpha conference. Phew! So much to share with you, but right now, I want to focus on some thoughts about Alpha.
I am amazed at how God works… This conference took place during my first week, and to be honest, I very nearly didn’t go. Neither did I turn up to HTB with much enthusiasm on the Friday night, I was fairly tired. But, thanks to my newest mission buddy and dear friend, Collette (who blogs here – how we ended up in the same parish is a whole other incredible, Holy Spirit story), we found ourselves in HTB on Friday evening with people, it seemed, literally from every corner of the globe. When I heard there were people there from Australia, I felt quite a lot better about having come only from Richmond.
Let me first say that, as we start in this new parish, we know that our first and highest priority (after committed, constant intercessory prayer) is to introduce a core process of evangelisation and discipleship into parish life. We want this to be at the heart of everything – for every parishioner to go through it, for every new person who starts at our parish to go through it, and for our friends, colleagues and family members who don’t know Jesus to be invited to it.
I am going to be completely honest here and say that I was sceptical about using Alpha. I have never been sceptical about the method (intentional hospitality, great food, talk, small groups, weekend away) – because I can see this is a winning formula for evangelisation. But I have been doubtful about using the content of the talks because I don’t think they are exactly right for Catholics. I have heard the argument that this is the kerygma only, and that catechesis comes later. But I know that, as Catholics, there are some elements we can’t eliminate from the kerygma, such as, for example, that Christ founded the Church, and that the Word of God is transmitted through Sacred Tradition as well as Scripture. These are things that can’t just come after the kerygma has been heard. To respond to the Gospel means to say, ‘I believe in you Jesus, and that you have given all your authority to the Church.’ I would also have questions about the session on salvation, and whether a Catholic theology of salvation is conveyed. (At this stage, I am not sure so can’t comment.)
Having said all this… I went to HTB with an open heart and mind. I have been so blessed through the leadership conferences, I love the way they do hospitality (high-energy welcomes and going out of their way to find us seats as we stumbled in on Friday night is just typical-HTB), I have learnt so much from and truly admire Nicky and Pippa Gumbel who are utterly authentic, inspiring Christian disciples. So, as the worship vibrated round the building, I told the Lord, “I am open!”
Emerging from the 24 hours that followed, here is what I learnt:
1. Alpha is about leading people to an encounter with Jesus. Okay, we know that, but these words can fall out of our mouths without us really considering what they mean. Evangelisation – when we really consider what this means – is a reality that involves a lot more than teaching. It struck me that what works about Alpha is, in fact, everything else: the welcome that people receive as soon as they come in, the food that they are offered which should be the best we can provide, the friendships that build up from week to week, the opportunity that people have to talk about their own perspective on a question and to be listened to, the love and service extended to them by the team. All of this is about building the early thresholds – trust, curiosity… moving towards openness. And it’s the necessary foundation for what sounds like to me the most important part of the course, the Holy Spirit weekend.
2. In the early thresholds, listening and facilitating are more important than teaching. This goes against the grain of my catechetically trained mind. I am not sure I would have agreed with this a few years ago. But then I thought to myself, “Think of a friend who shares her views with you on something while you’re out for coffee. Do you jump down her throat and tell her she’s wrong? No, of course I don’t. I wait until she trusts me enough and wants to know my views before introducing a new perspective.” Of course, small group leaders know that not all opinions shared are true. But they know that their role is not to teach, but to foster openness and friendship through affirming and encouraging. (I am aware just how difficult this will be for some of us, but yet, my instinct is saying, “there’s something right about this.”)
3. It’s important to have a definite moment when a person is invited to make a decision to follow Christ. From hearing the testimonies this weekend (and there were some really great ones), this moment often comes at the Holy Spirit weekend. Often an experience of the Holy Spirit is spoken about, perhaps when someone is prayed with. I think as Catholics, the options open to us are much wider. Yes, prayer ministry is important and I think we should offer it. But we also have the power of Eucharistic Adoration. Our Tradition is so rich, and I think there are many opportunities we can create for people to encounter the Lord, as well as the “ministry times” they have at HTB. Not everyone will be ready to make a decision for Christ during Alpha. We also need to offer something afterwards for those who are still in the threshold of “openness”, but haven’t yet taken a step forward.
4. We know that the Holy Spirit will work. I love the realism that the speakers shared. Nicky Gumbel said that Alpha is perennially one of the most disappointing things he does. Church leaders around the room nodded their heads, because anyone who is engaged in evangelisation knows that disappointment is a feeling you soon get used to. Someone you have been praying for doesn’t show up again. You see something happen in a person’s life, but then something or someone pulls them away again. Oh, yes. Disappointment is something evangelists know well. And yet, our greatest reality and joy and hope is the certainty of the Holy Spirit at work. This is why I can barely wait to start, because I know that we will see conversions, encounters, transformations. God will work. It is what He does!
5. Catechesis comes after a person has “dropped their nets”. What I have often struggled with is knowing that many Catholic parishes have offered Alpha and then have not offered anything else. I wonder whether this is worse than not offering anything at all. How can we lead a person to a point of saying “yes, I want a relationship with Christ that gives meaning to my life”, and then leave them to their own devices? It is wrong, furthermore, if we don’t offer them the fullness of Catholic teaching after making this decision. That is why we are thinking seriously about follow-up and catechesis in the parish. I am not too worried about the kerygma slightly lacking, if I know for sure that full kerygmatic catechesis will follow.
So, in conclusion, not all my doubts are assuaged, but I am more convinced than before that this will be our starting-point. We have plans about how we will go about introducing Alpha, not least, through building an initial team… But more about this to follow 😉 To see more about Alpha, click here.