A Life Worth Living

John BighamJohn Bigham, an old dog trying to learn new tricks, pastors in Ajax, Ontario with the help, encouragement, and organization of Lucie and with the long-suffering patience and ever-growing enthusiasm of the St. Andrew's congregation.

It brought tears to my eyes as I typed up the list of sessions on the "graduation bookmark" that my best organiser and I give out to participants at the end of many courses we lead. Line by line, week by week, video session after video session, questions and discussion and more questions, the joy and purpose behind knowing Jesus stood out clearer than ever as the topics fell into line.

Knowing Jesus gives me

  • A new heart
  • A new purpose
  • A new attitude
  • New responsibilities
  • New friendships
  • New confidence
  • New ambitions
  • New resources
  • New generosity
  • …A Life Worth Living!

If you've run the Alpha course and ended up when it was over not knowing what to do with all the enthusiasm and the emerging potential for a small group or three; if you've watched Nicky Gumbel on the Alpha tapes lead people to Jesus, to an acceptance of biblical authority, to a new understanding of the place of the Holy Spirit in Christian life, and to a new desire to live to God's glory in the Church community; if you're part of a congregation that is stuck in a mould of sameness and same-old, then the Alpha follow-up course A Life Worth Living may be a natural for you.

First in an ecumenical setting in the Junction community of West Toronto and now among mostly Presbyterians in Ajax, we've been involved with using the popular Alpha resources to try to enliven the faith of the congregations we've served. And Alpha has served that need well in terms of overcoming some of the long-simmering questions even old-timers have had and of increasing biblical literacy, or at least the desire to know the Bible better. But then come the questions, "What do we do now?" "How can we stay together as a group and continue meeting to grow even closer together?" "We love the meals together and the brief worship time and want a way to keep this going."

It turns out that Alpha and Nicky have a ready-made solution in the form of the Beta course, A Life Worth Living. A nine-week look at Paul's letter to the Philippians, its format is modelled after the Alpha course that it's intended to be a follow-up to: a 45-minute video featuring an exposition in Nicky Gumbel's "logico/narrative" (if I can coin that phrase) style, followed by an hour of facilitated discussion about the content of the video. Somewhat less didactic than Alpha, it lays out an engaging hypothesis each evening to draw participants deeper into a more active and participatory expression of their faith. In character with the congregation of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB — the congregation that spawned the Alpha course) the course style is gentle yet authoritative persuasiveness. The course helps participants look more closely at their lives and what they're doing here on earth and how knowing Jesus through biblical study and the revelation of the Spirit can, indeed, transform their lives into lives worth living.

We piggy-back A Life Worth Living on the subsequent Alpha course, usually starting on the Alpha course's second night. That means that by upping the food quantities and the number of places set for dinner, the two groups can easily eat together and participate in the worship time. It also offers us an opportunity to encourage those who are in A Life Worth Living but weren't able — or ready — to attend the Alpha weekend to come out to the next course's weekend, with the all benefits that can bring.

With the present popularity of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, it's probably worth offering a brief comparison. Rick's book, coming from a Southern Baptist persuasion and a California mega-church, requires an ability on the part of participants to accept some of what he says as Rick's own conviction. On balance, I myself had to jettison less of Nicky's content. The Purpose Driven Life is more work; with 40 chapters to cover in 40 days, there's no doubt this requires a greater time commitment from participants if they're going to have meaningful engagement with what Rick's saying. I believe that most participants get overwhelmed with the pace of Rick's progress; the substantive life-changing questions he raises come with such rapid fire, day after day, that there's no time to integrate them or even deal with them in depth in the weekly studies.

A Life Worth Living, on the other hand, only focuses on one major aspect of transformation each evening and gives people a chance to deal with that single question for a whole week before introducing another one. You may have problems with Warren's proclivity for cherry-picking a good deal of the nearly 1000 Scripture quotations he uses; with its focus on a single book; this isn't an issue for A Life Worth Living. Despite all these Scripture references, The Purpose Driven Life is a book study, not a Bible study; A Life Worth Living is first and foremost an honest-to-goodness Bible study using the HTB model: what's it say, what's it mean, so what?

You may or may not consider it an advantage that Warren uses fifteen different Scripture translations; like the Alpha course, A Life Worth Living draws primarily from the New International Version. We have found that the conclusion of The Purpose Driven Life is a very challenging exercise that few participants are willing or able to engage in, and so, in terms of residual guilt, A Life Worth Living is a gentler and more pastoral affair.

Comparing the two courses from a leader's perspective, The Purpose Driven Life requires considerably more preparation time than A Life Worth Living unless you're willing to go with the suggested questions at the back of Rick's book. While A Life Worth Living requires more preparation by the leader than Alpha does, it still lends itself to those two very simple questions Alpha leaders are encouraged to stick to: "How did you feel about what Nicky said?" and "What do you think about what Nicky said?" In this respect, the Alpha leader training tapes can be used directly for Life Worth Living leaders, although they are probably also quite suitable for leaders of The Purpose Driven Life.

We've found, having run The Purpose Driven Life for two "terms" now, that it has tended to create a greater desire than A Life Worth Living for a group to carry on together. Both courses could be used as a follow-up to Alpha, but if your Alpha group and small group leaders were comfortable with the way the Alpha course worked, and especially if you're reaching outside the walls of the church, then I believe A Life Worth Living is probably the more appropriate choice. It will bring about ongoing Christian growth, and, after it's over, it may even bring tears to your eyes as you realize what knowing Jesus has given to those who took this course.