Renewal Through Alpha

Issa A. Saliba is the minister of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Maple ON.

Here are some bizarre explanations given on accident forms to an insurance company:

"Driving home I collided with a tree that wasn't there."

"The other car collided with mine without giving warning of his intentions." "The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him."

"I've been driving my car for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident."

"The pedestrian had no idea which way to go, so I ran over him."

"I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and then headed to the embankment."

With these and similar stories, the Reverend Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity, Brompton, London, England, illustrates his point; in this case to show how hard it is for us to admit we do wrong. Reverend Gumbel, who was in the service of the law (as a barrister), has become as advocate of grace. His testimony shines through much of his presentation, as he stands tall, handsome, with a full head of hair and utter sincerity, addressing his live congregation and a world-wide video audience. His talk is further enhanced by precise diction and a distinctly English accent, which easily grabs one's attention for some 40 minutes, nearly twice the length of an average sermon. The talks intended as a "practical introduction to the Christian faith," appeal to "non-churchgoers and to those who have recently become Christians." They include "Who is Jesus?" "Why did Jesus die?", "Why and how should I read the Bible?", "Why and how do I pray?", "What about the Holy Spirit?", and "How can I overcome evil?" These and other topics, in all ten, constitute the now famous Alpha program.

The showing of each video is preceded by a light meal and short time of praise, and is followed by discussion in small groups. A leader's and a participant's booklet is provided to guide the discussion. It is quite alright if the discussion becomes a time of faith-sharing with one another; in fact that is encouraged.

Part of the course is the "Holy Spirit weekend," a spiritual retreat focussing on the Holy Spirit. This weekend can be done at your local church or, to enrich the fellowship, in a retreat-like setting.

We have used the Alpha program to introduce people to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Session hired a person, the Reverend Ralph Bradley, to coordinate the program, but a person from outside need not be brought in. The minister or a trained lay person in the congregation can direct it.

At the General Assembly last June, I spoke on our experience with Alpha during the "Open Space" allotted for discussing new ideas or programs. More than 50 Commissioners attended, some sharing their experience in the Alpha program. We were delighted by the Moderator's visit to the group, his interest in the Alpha program and his encouraging words to me afterwards. It was clear that Alpha is going to become very popular in our churches.

At St. Andrew's, Maple, several people gave testimony of how their faith was awakened through the Alpha program. Said one about the effect it had on his faith, "I was able to write with ink what I had written in pencil years ago." A member brought a relative who was suffering from a chronic disease. He felt the warm fellowship Alpha generates, and after one presentation accepted Christ as his Saviour. At the last session of the program, in a gesture of gratitude to the participants, he catered from his own restaurant a delicious Italian supper.

One of our elders who attended Alpha is a Corrections Officer at the West Toronto Corrections Centre. He took the idea to the Chaplaincy Committee and reported back: "The program was approved and will have some 400 inmates in the first class." This is quite in harmony with the intentions of the program as has been demonstrated in many prisons in England and elsewhere.

After we ran the program the first time, inquiries were received, mainly, but not exclusively, from churches within our denomination. Several churches, three within our Presbytery of Oak Ridges, have started the Alpha Course as a result of observing it at St. Andrew's, Maple. It is our hope that the Alpha material will become available through our Presbytery for preview or use by all churches in our area. The Alpha course has now been adopted in thousands of churches world-wide.

Alpha is certainly worth using in our churches. All the resources, including the comprehensive 159-page book, "How to Run the Alpha Course" are available from Beacon Distributing, P.O. Box 98, 55 Woodslee Avenue, Paris ON, N3L 3E5, phone number 1-800-263-2664.