Rev. Dr. Douglas McQuaig is the Minister of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Streetsville, Ontario.
"Alpha is a simple concept of evangelism to seeking non-Christians." — Alpha Course materials.
"Alpha is my Church's alternative to 'seeker-sensitive' worship services." — Rev. Neil Mittelstaedt, Pastor, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Mississauga, ON.
"Alpha is an opportunity to discover or re-affirm an authentic Christian faith and build strong friendships with others involved in the same pursuit." — Rev. Dr. Douglas McQuaig, Pastor.
"Alpha" originated in Holy Trinity (Brompton) Anglican Church in London, England, as an evangelistic tool to reach the non-churched community. Alpha quickly outgrew Holy Trinity Church with people coming from all over England to take this practical and relevant course. In 1993, Nicky Gumbel published a book, Questions of Life, with a study guide that covered the material and made it more readily accessible to other churches for their use. In 1994, the videotaped teaching sessions were added and it now became possible for local churches around the world to hold Alpha. Since that time, Alpha has spread around the world with thousands of churches using this course.
There are fifteen sessions in the course of study. At St. Andrew's, we divided these sessions into four components.
1. An Invitational Banquet
Session One: "Christianity, Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?" is an introductory session that offers people an opportunity to hear Nicky Gumbel and find out what Alpha is all about. We hold this introductory session as an invitational banquet. Some former participants in Alpha share their experience of the course. The introductory video is then played and opportunity is given at the close of the evening for people to sign up for the next series to start in about two week's time.
Other churches have held this introductory session as a wine and cheese party or an evening of fellowship in a person's home.
2. Ten Weekly Sessions
The ten weekly study sessions deal with such topics as: Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus Die? How can I be sure of my Faith? Why and How should I read the Bible? How does God guide? What about the Church? The format for these weekly sessions is:
- 7:00 pm — Dinner
7:40 pm — Announcements
7:45 pm — Praise and Worship
8:00 pm — Videotaped talk by Nicky Gumbel
8:40 pm — Small Group Discussion
9:30 pm — Prayer and Ministry
9:45 pm – Departure
Alpha is much more than just another course of study. The content is important, but it is the process that makes it work. The process elements include:
- home-based small groups
- the fellowship of a meal shared
- videotaped teaching sessions
- group discussion
- prayer and ministry
All our Alpha sessions are now home-based with 12-16 people in each group. The informality and warmth of a home setting make it much easier to invite people from outside of the church and also provide a positive and caring environment for people to explore and ask questions.
Dinner gives people an important opportunity to get to know each other and share what is going on in their lives. It also makes Alpha a special "night out" for the participants in what is often a very busy schedule.
Dinner is provided each week by a hospitality team that prepares the food, brings it to the host home, serves the meal and cleans up afterward. We have not had any problem finding sufficient volunteers to enable us to offer several groups at the same time. This frees all of the participants, leaders and hosts to give their full attention to each other and the course of study.
The teacher and developer of the course is the Rev. Nicky Gumbel. Our people have all responded enthusiastically to Nicky's style and approach. Typically British, his approach is low-key and often quite humorous.
There are several benefits to having the teaching session on videotape. First of all, there is no limit to the number of groups you can have. All you need is a TV and VCR, a host and one or two discussion leaders. Another benefit is that the teaching is the same in all of the groups, maintaining a high calibre of instruction for all participants. Thirdly, with the same instruction being given in all groups, other and former Alpha participants can readily share their common experiences with each other.
Discussion is facilitated by group leaders who encourage and affirm all questions. Participants' manuals provide subject outlines and leaders' guides propose several approaches for discussion purposes. A videotaped training program for Alpha facilitators is also available.
As the weeks pass during the course, relationships deepen and opportunities arise for prayer and ministry with each other in the group. Invariably, participants come to the end of the course with a deep commitment to each other and a sense that they have been truly loved and accepted.
3. A Weekend Retreat
Three sessions on the Holy Spirit are designed to be covered at a weekend retreat. They include: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do? and How can I be filled with the Spirit? The weekend retreat is held at week six or seven of the course.
Our experience has been that a weekend retreat — Friday night through to Sunday afternoon — provides the right balance between study time, ministry time, social time and worship and often results in a significant change in the dynamic of the weekly sessions. Relationships are strengthened and people are even more open to asking questions as they explore the meaning of the Christian faith.
Although highly recommended as a weekend retreat, the subject matter on the Holy Spirit can be covered by adding three weekly sessions to the course instead.
4. A Celebration Banquet
The final session, "How can I make the most of the rest of my life?" is held in conjunction with a closing banquet during which time people have an opportunity to share what Alpha has meant to them. This celebration event brings closure to Alpha while also encouraging its participants to go on into areas of service in the church, into leadership in Alpha, or into one of the emerging small-group ministries that are being offered in the church.
- a rolling program of evangelism and spiritual growth
Alpha is designed as a continuous program for evangelism and spiritual growth. People are asked to commit to a specified time-frame for start-up and conclusion. The conclusion of one series provides an excellent opportunity for inviting people to participate in the next series that is soon to start.
Alpha at St. Andrew's
There were two key needs that we had identified in St. Andrew's that made Alpha interesting. The first was to provide people with an opportunity to reconnect in an exciting way with their faith. The second was to re-establish a sense of community within our congregation since almost one-half of our worshipping congregation each Sunday are newcomers. With these needs in mind, we launched Alpha in February.
Fifty people enrolled in our first series with the majority of participants being core members of the congregation interested in knowing what Alpha was all about. Two groups met on Monday night at the church; one group met Wednesday afternoon at the church; and one group met Saturday night in a member's home. We discovered that the home-based group developed a greater degree of intimacy and loyalty and appeared to have a lot more fun. Lesson learned: if at all possible, have all the groups home-based.
In our first series we also had a "mini-retreat" at a local estate. We met on Friday night and all day Saturday. In our two subsequent series we have held weekend retreats and found them much more relaxed and effective. Lesson learned: if at all possible, encourage people to commit to a full weekend away.
The experience of Alpha whetted people's appetite for small-group study and ministry. The result has been the launching of two small-group ministries for Alpha alumni/ae.
Following our first Alpha, the question arose, "What now?" Many of the Alpha alumni/ae wanted to continue to study and have fellowship. The result was that two Alpha Plus groups were established to run concurrently with the next Alpha series. The study material we used was Nicky's book on Philippians, A Life Worth Living. Lesson learned: the process of Alpha can be used effectively in any small-group study or ministry.
A very pleasant, unexpected development in Alpha Plus was the desire on the part of its participants to go on a weekend retreat like Alpha. We held it at the same time and place as the Alpha retreat but had a separate study on discovering one's gifts for ministry. Lesson learned: weekend retreats provide excellent opportunities for people to make significant advances in their personal faith and life.
The conclusion of our second Alpha and our first Alpha Plus posed a new challenge. The people who had just completed Alpha wanted to continue and so did the people who had just completed Alpha Plus. We then launched Home Base as an ongoing small-group study and ministry.
We are now in the midst of our third edition of Alpha with an enrolment of twenty-eight. Many of our current participants are not formally connected to St. Andrew's and the influence of this ministry is beginning to extend beyond our own congregation. Over one hundred people have taken Alpha in St. Andrew's since its inception.
"Alpha" is a Greek word meaning, "the beginning." At St. Andrew's, Alpha has been just that! For some, it has been a beginning in their life of faith in Jesus Christ. One woman attended Alpha at the invitation of a co-worker even though she did not live in our area. As a result of Alpha, she committed her life to Christ, found a Presbyterian church in her area and became a member there. People were so impressed by her enthusiasm and spiritual hunger that they asked her about her background. She told them about Alpha at St. Andrew's and her new church wants to find out how to run Alpha too.
One man attended Alpha to get his wife off his back. He enjoyed the fellowship and discussion so much he signed up for Alpha Plus. It was on the Alpha Plus weekend retreat that he decided to commit his life to Christ after fourteen years of "fighting it." For others, it has been a beginning in a renewed adventure of faith and service. Following our first Alpha series, two couples immediately stepped forward to serve as co-ordinators of this ministry. One of our Alpha leaders asked for prayer at our second Weekend Retreat. She has suffered from a chronic and often debilitating disease. Following anointing and prayer, she felt great. Three months later, her doctor confirmed that there were no signs of the disease in her system. For our church as a whole, it has been a beginning in expanding our ministry to meet the needs of newcomers and long-time members alike. On Palm Sunday, we received thirty new members into St. Andrew's — eighteen of whom are Alpha alumni/ae. It's just the beginning!
In addition to continuing to run Alpha for newcomers and an ever-broadening base of our congregation's membership, we are excited about expanding our Alpha ministries to launch many other small group ministries. Our tentative plan for this summer is to offer a Family Alpha with a children's program running concurrently to allow parents to enrol in Alpha while having their children participate in a Vacation Bible School-type program. A videotaped series on marriage and the family is also being considered. Where we had no small-group ministries and limited opportunities for study and fellowship before, Alpha-based ministries are continuing to emerge as effective vehicles for discovering the life-changing message of Christ in positive and caring communities of faith. It's just the beginning!
If anyone else is interested in offering Alpha in their church, there is one lesson that we have learned from our experience: Follow the directions! The Alpha Course program comes with training resources and a well-developed process. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Many people have revised Alpha to hold the sessions at the church, to drop the weekly dinners, to not hold a weekend retreat. The end result is a course of study not unlike most others. Our experience has been that the process is what makes it really work. In fact, we have learned that the same process can be applied to other small-group ministries to make them really come alive.