Alpha helps congregations reach seekers
Regular members also grow by taking the course
Please don’t refer to the Alpha course in basic Christianity as a Bible study. Alpha leaders interviewed by Metro Lutheran at area churches make clear that it’s more than that. They’re also unanimous in their praise for Alpha’s results within their congregations and in outreach.
“It has fired up our congregation,” says Pastor Per Nilsen, Alpha instructor at Prince of Peace Lutheran (ELCA), Burns-ville, Minnesota. “Alpha is the place where there’s the most energy, the most excitement, the most enthusiasm, the most traction.”
Says Kim Erickson, Alpha administrator at Hosanna! Lutheran (ELCA), Lakeville, Minnesota, “God is active during the course. We not only learn who God is, but we experience the love of God through praying with each other.”
Erickson adds, “We have a big God. God is an awesome, mighty sovereign ruler of the universe. Believers can always know more and experience more of God. Alpha is also for unbelievers who want to learn about the faith.”
Pastor Steve Gartland, Alpha director at Calvary Lutheran (ELCA), Golden Valley, Minnesota, agrees. “The missing element [in traditional Bible study] has been the combination of learning about God and learning to know God. We begin each session with a common meal that creates a sense of fellowship, warmth, hospitality and welcoming.”
Said Gartland, “This is my 20th anniversary year of ordination. I’ve seen more changed lives, more transformed marriages, in the last year and a half in Alpha than I’d seen in the past 18 years in ministry.”
Calvary, with 8,500 baptized members, has a staff of 35, including a pastoral staff of ten, full- and part-time. Gartland is responsible for Calvary’s small group ministry.
The Alpha course is non-denominational. Its ten-lesson format delves into such basic questions as “Who is God?”, “Why did Jesus die?”, “What is evil?” and “How does God guide us?” Built into the schedule is a weekend retreat, or in some cases a day away. The focus is on the Holy Spirit.
After the opening meal, there’s a 40-45 minute presentation by the instructor, after which the class breaks into smaller groups of 10-15, “allowing people to reflect on the material and ask tough questions,” Gartland says.
Prince of Peace’s Nilsen received a thank-you letter that said, in part, “The nicest thing about getting all of my questions answered was that [in Alpha] I didn’t even have to ask. I now know that God’s love for me is always there despite the difficulties we all face.” Prince of Peace has 9,300 baptized members and a staff of 50, including four pastors.
Alpha is a British import. It was initiated more than a de-cade ago at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Brompton Parish, central London, and has grown to encompass more than 15,000 churches worldwide, with over a million participants. Pastor Charles Marnham and Pastor Nicky Gumbel, Holy Trinity clergy members, are credited with Alpha’s inception and implementation. Gumbel wrote the Alpha course books.
This fall Alpha courses are underway for a third year at several Twin Cities churches, many of them Lutheran. Hosanna! of Lakeville had 505 people in its winter 2001 course, the largest in the western hemisphere and second largest in the world. Hosanna! has 4,400 baptized members, served by a staff of 80, full- and part-time.
“It’s for everybody,” Hosanna!’s Erickson says of Alpha. “It’s geared toward the non-believer, but it’s also for Christians. They take the course, then recommend it to friends, because they feel listened to. They realize, ‘These Christians really care about me.’ We want them to feel like guests in our home.”
Homes of members served as the original setting for Alpha two years ago at North Heights Lutheran (ELCA), St. Paul. “Some people prefer that venue,” says Karen Doyle, director of outreach, who oversees Alpha core leaders and coordinators. “Some don’t drive at night, or they just like to stay in their vicinity.” Alpha is now offered on both the Roseville and Arden Hills campuses of North Heights.
“We’ve had between 800-900 people go through the Alpha course,” Doyle says. “As we near the end of each series we send out a survey, ‘After Alpha, then what?’ Many want to stay with the same small group, to continue studying discipleship or what makes life worth living.” North Heights has 7,500 baptized members and a staff of 75, including 11 ordained clergy.
“At Sunday worship a week or two before the course begins we invite people to give testimonials about their experience with Alpha,” says Calvary’s Gartland. “One man had been out of work and was running out of options. Now he’s working, his life has turned around, and it all started with Alpha.
“A couple was in the last stage of a failing marriage. They had tried marriage counseling and it hadn’t worked, but as a last resort they signed up for Alpha. Halfway through the course their children began asking, ‘What’s different about you?’ The answer was Alpha. They’d begun praying together, asking God for guidance. It saved their marriage and now they’re back in Alpha as leaders. This course invites people to go a step deeper in their faith than they’ve done before.”
Per Nilsen says, “Alpha has had a significant impact on the culture of our congregation. We begin with a core of members within the church and reach out from there. We’ve had everyone from Buddhists to agnostics to avowed atheists in Alpha. One man told us, ‘Before Alpha I didn’t know if I was a Christian. Now I know for sure that I am.’”
After its initial success at Prince of Peace, growing from 25 to 50 and then to 350 on Monday nights, the church has integrated Alpha into virtually every part of its education program.
“We offer ‘Alpha for Kids’ on Monday nights, and this fall we’re starting our 7-12 graders on the Alpha course on Wednesday nights. We’re also marketing heavily to parents. Alpha is one of three core courses for anyone entering the life of our church.” [The others are the Life Keys course on spiritual gifts, and the Discipleship Connections course, the latter written by Nilsen.]
In summer 2001 the entire Prince of Peace staff took the basic Alpha course. “We wanted our staff to be equipped to talk about Alpha,” Nilsen says, and to experience what one participant called “the best ten weeks of my life.”
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For more information about Alpha, contact any of the four congregations mentioned:
* Calvary Lutheran, Golden Valley, Pastor Steve Gartland. 763/545-5659, ext. 120.
* Hosanna! Lutheran, Lakeville, Kim Erickson. 952/898-9417.
* North Heights Lutheran, St. Paul, Karen Doyle. 651/631-2299, ext. 6852.
* Prince of Peace Lutheran, Burnsville, Pastor Per Nilsen. 952/898-9359.