Andrew Hutchinson is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Riverview, New Brunswick.
We have just completed our second "Alpha Weekend" here at Bethel church. And, like our first, it has been the highlight of the week course. Our Alpha program is deepening the spiritual life of our congregation. It is a place where we can feel free to talk honestly about the spiritual dimensions of our lives. We have seen God at work in people's lives in a way I would not have thought possible just a few months ago, and we have shared our faith naturally and honestly.
I have tried to understand why this particular program is having such an impact on our congregation and on those we have invited to participate with us.
Part of the reason is certainly the solid character of the information that is given in the video talks by Rev. Nicky Gumbel. He presents a well-grounded understanding of the Christian faith without apology, in a positive, winsome way. But, that is only one part of the puzzle.
Equally important is the atmosphere in which the material is presented. Our weekly Alpha meeting begins with the supper meal. Eating together draws us together in a frank, unforced way. As we enjoy being in each other's company, the atmosphere dispels the unspoken expectations that often accompany "religious" gatherings. The small groups that meet following the talks build on the fellowship of the meal. They are designed to open the way for truly honest discussion and the opportunity to work through how we really feel about spiritual things.
That context doesn't happen all by itself. As the minister here at Bethel, when I first began to talk about the Alpha program, I found several people who had been looking for some way to share their faith in a natural and attractive way. They became excited about the possibilities Alpha offered. In Alpha, they recognized a quality opportunity to meet real spiritual needs and they committed their best to this program. We were careful to set non-threatening, honest fellowship as our highest priority, and guests have regularly comment on the quality of acceptance they experience at Alpha. Nicky Gumbel says that it is the relationships that keep people coming to Alpha. We have found that to be true and its effect has rippled throughout our congregation.
As significant as the materials and relationships are, there is perhaps an even more important element at work in Alpha. We have found that, to an extent not evident in our congregation to this point, Alpha has provided for a personal experience of the presence of God. We are no longer merely talking about God and his mercy, we are experiencing him. The response of many who have taken Alpha has been: "Yes, I learned something and that was very helpful. But the real difference is that I am beginning to experience what I only believed before." Sometimes it is an overwhelming sense of God's love or peace; sometimes it is an assurance that God's grace is actually "for me personally," or that "my own sins are forgiven."
The one common theme that runs through this growing awareness of God's presence is that God has uniquely tailored an experience of himself that fits the need of each individual like a glove.
One example that comes to mind is of two guests at Alpha who barely knew each other. The topic that evening was about God's desire to heal his people. After the evening wound down, I was sitting chatting with a couple. One of the other guests came over and hesitantly said that she wasn't sure what it meant, but that the name of the woman I was chatting with had come repeatedly to her mind. Although she really didn't see any point, she felt that she should at least mention it to her. I invited the two women to talk and then to pray together.
I left them chatting and thought no more about the incident until, more than a month later, I learned how God had been at work in their lives. They had very little natural affinity for one another and their circumstances of life were quite different. Yet, as a result of their praying together at Alpha, these two women began to meet together regularly over lunch to support, encourage and pray with one another. They have become a healing source of strength for one another in Christ. By the Spirit's prompting, God has blessed both women with just what they needed, and one of them is now a helper in our present Alpha course.
Through Alpha it has become increasingly clear to me just how deep is our need and our desire to encounter God for ourselves. Here at Bethel, Alpha is providing us with a program that has enabled God's Holy Spirit to work, not only in our own lives, but increasingly in the lives of family, friends, and co-workers. We are deeply grateful to God. He has blessed us through Alpha. He may have blessing in store for you as well.