by Alastair Sterne
September 18, 2017
When I was a teenager, I was walking past a church when a misplaced banner caught my eye. Perhaps it was the well-meaning duct tape that held it in place that drew my attention. It was that or the poor excuse for a logo: a sketch of a bizarre shaped person who looked like he was having a seizure while carrying an oversized question mark. I stopped and read the slogan “Alpha: explore the meaning of life.” I thought, “I don’t know what Alpha is but it clearly can’t help me discover the meaning of life.” I continued on and gave it no further thought.
Flash forward a few years. I’m somewhere in the middle of Canada, on tour with a band playing “math-rock” in dingy bars. The epitome of a niche market. Meanwhile, in the overloaded van, I’m reading a book a friend gave me called The Purpose Driven Life. Through that book, amidst the musk of six poorly bathed men, I encountered Jesus and nothing has been the same since.
Much to my chagrin, I also discovered that the author is well known for wearing oversized Hawaiian t-shirts. “Did a guy in that t-shirt really lead me to Jesus?” I felt had.
I’ve always been a stickler for design and appearances. My snobbish attitude for all that looks fair and beautiful, hip and cool has served me well at times, but it has also been a subversive tyrant. If it weren’t for grace, it could have kept me from Jesus. But God had other plans. Among many other things, God has made me grateful to be led to him by a man in a gaudy Hawaiian t-shirt. But God is always challenging us, and he wasn’t going to let me escape that bizarrely shaped cartoon person that I had dismissed so scornfully years before.
I was re-introduced to the Alpha course about 5 years ago. I was meeting with the senior pastor of Coastal Church, Dave Koop, to seek his advice about church planting. Dave told me “you would be stupid not to run Alpha.” I remember thinking, “Really? That weird cartoon dude carrying a question mark?” I was torn. What next? Start preaching in a Hawaiian t-shirt? (Okay, maybe I’m still not over it).
Fortunately, I trusted Dave so I took his advice and I decided to run it. I’m am so glad that I did. Alpha has never unfolded the way I expect it to. It always surprises me.
stories from alpha
The first time we ran Alpha one person came to faith. This was a great cause to celebrate, but deep down I had hoped to see more people commit to Jesus. Although I never expressed it, I thought to myself, “That’s it?” After the course, she was baptized at another church and then moved to China. I must admit: all in all, I was disappointed. I didn’t even get to baptize her! But God convicted me. God doesn’t save people for the sake of adding more people to our church. God saves people because God loves people. Our responsibility is simply to create the opportunity to hear the message, care for people well in the process, and trust the results to God.
Another time we ran Alpha and by the third week, almost none of our guests returned. Once again, I was discouraged. But then the Spirit reminded me of The Parable of The Great Banquet, and specifically the words, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” This time around we were hosting Alpha at the Granville Room, so I went outside and stood on Granville St. Approaching complete strangers in the cold October rain is well outside my “comfort zone.” As people passed by I began inviting them inside. I asked, “Excuse me. Do you want a free meal?” The reply was typically, “What’s the catch?” I was honest, “You have to watch a film about Jesus and tell us what you don’t like about it.” To my surprise, we filled the venue. Never underestimate the power of a free meal.
Let me tell you about a few of the people who came in from the “highways and hedges”:
A group of people who were homeless ended up participating in the entire course. They even joined us on the weekend away, and for a season attended St. Peter’s until returning to Toronto. One person in this group had only been homeless for a month. We helped him get back on his feet, a member of our church even opened up a room for him, and now he’s living on his own and working full-time in Vancouver. He has yet to place his faith in Jesus, but we leaped on the opportunity to love him like Jesus loves him.
Another person who came in from the “highways and hedges” also joined us for the whole course. Afterwards, he joined a Community Group and has been in St. Peter’s Community groups ever since (two years and counting at this point). We grabbed lunch recently and he admitted that he wasn’t planning to come back to Alpha after that first free meal. But a bizarre set of circumstances the following week left him no choice. He found himself locked out of his apartment and figured he may as well head back to the Granville Room for another free meal. I suspect the Holy Spirit may have had something to do with it.
A year later we’re running Alpha at the Granville Room again and a woman and her friend walk in just as the film is beginning. I invite them to sit down and offer them a meal — to my delight, they accepted. As we discussed the film around the table, she told me an incredible story: “We weren’t supposed to be here. We were down the street at Earls but decided it was too busy. We were walking aimlessly, looking for a place to eat and grab a drink, and came in here because we had never been before.” But then she upped the ante. The story got even more interesting. She said, “You won’t believe this, but yesterday I was at Chapters and a pink Bible was on the sale rack. I decided to buy it because I have never read it. And now, here I am.” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know Bibles came in pink! But guess what the topic was for the film that night: Why and How Should I read the Bible!
The story gets better still.
The next week she returned with another friend. He was somewhat antagonistic during the discussion. But over time he softened and admitted that he had grown up in the church and had stopped being actively involved in his faith. But then he looked at the woman who brought him and said, “This is the craziest thing for me. For years I prayed for you during high school and asked God to save you. And now here you are bringing me to Alpha.” They checked out St. Peter’s on a Sunday once, but haven’t been back.
You can’t create these experiences; you can only open yourself up to them.
I’m trying to tell you stories of ambiguity because that’s what it means to share faith in our city. Not every story gets a beautiful bow on the package, and not every person that comes to Alpha becomes a Christian. Some do, and it’s a great reason to celebrate. There is simply no joy that matches the joy of seeing someone come to faith in Jesus (angels even throw a party). But this is only part of Alpha. In many instances I don’t get to know how every story will resolve, and I’m okay with that: because I trust that Jesus has a good end in mind and that he will keep working through every means possible to save people.
but really … alpha?
We have a seasonal schedule for Alpha at this point and when we start talking about Alpha more intentionally as a church, I often meet an unspoken resistance. People find roundabout ways of saying, “Isn’t there something better than this?” A hint of ego lands on better with a side of distaste with this.
If you have your hesitations about Alpha: I get it. To adapt St. Paul for my purposes (cf Philippians 3.3-6):
If someone else thinks they have reasons to for their snobbery, check out mine: I emerged top of my class, was employed at the top advertising agency in Canada, became an award-winning Creative Director and was featured in magazines; defiantely of the tribe of cooler-than-thou. As to hipsterdom — many tattoos, a snob of Snobs in regard to culture, an Elitist; as for zeal, persecuting comic sans; as for righteousness based on the standards of good design, faultless.
Alpha seemed like the worst way to reach someone when I first encountered it. It offended my design sensitivities and even my thoughts about evangelism:
The majority of us need Alpha because otherwise we stay in our comfort zone and keep our faith to ourselves
“I want to share faith relationally not through some program,” I argued (with myself mostly). This remains true for me. This may be your conviction as well. It could be that you’re already sharing your faith in winsome ways and so you don’t see the need for Alpha. You’re a relational evangelist. Perhaps you are constantly praying and expecting opportunities to talk about Jesus in gentle and persuasive ways with your friends and family — and really with anyone who will listen. Every coffee, every movie night, every hike, every moment may be an opportunity to speak tactfully about your faith. You develop meaningful relationships over the long haul and consistently share faith in those friendships in appropriate ways, tastefully talking about the good news with others. If this describes you, please know, you’re not the person I have in mind. (And I suspect you would actually have no qualms with Alpha).
But I’m writing at length about Alpha for the majority of us who need Alpha because otherwise we stay in our comfort zone and keep our faith to ourselves (except perhaps in the rare and infrequent instances where an opportunity drops itself into our laps and the Holy Spirit practically forces the words out of our lips). I’m talking to those of us who may use the argument for relational evangelism as a way to avoid having to be intentional in sharing faith at all. The truth is many of us actually want the relational and could do without the evangelism.
Here is my challenge to you: show me something better than Alpha, show me that you’re actually doing it, and I’ll gladly follow your lead. But for now, follow me into Alpha.
The truth is: Alpha’s design and approach are phenomenal. The new Alpha film series is unparalleled in its production value, quality of story, and accessibility — and this is high praise coming from a design-snob-in- recovery. But the deeper and more vital truth is this: good design has never saved anyone, and Alpha has never saved anyone, although both have surely made the message of Jesus more accessible. Only Jesus can save — and he will gladly use our feeble efforts. The Spirit will surprise us if we open ourselves up to him. The message of gospel always comes to us on its way to someone else. That is how every single person becomes a Christian. As we find our place in this story, we may try, we may fail, we may fall short, and we may see God surpass our wildest expectations.
People may accept our invitation, try Alpha, and leave seemingly unchanged. Others may not even accept your invitation. But we don’t get to see behind the scenes — God uses the smallest efforts of faithfulness to bring people into his kingdom. You might be one piece in thousands of pieces that help bring people to Christ. But none of our efforts are the point. The point is that the good news is so good that we must share it with others. That’s our responsibility. The decision people make to accept our invitation to Alpha, or to accept Christ’s invitation to salvation, is not ours to make for them.
Try Alpha (or try it yet again).
Invite someone this week (or invite them yet again), and if they accept your invitation, accompany them to our Alpha launch night this coming Monday, September 25th at the Granville Room.
Everyone is welcome. The meal is on us. The food is fantastic.
Leave the rest to Jesus.