Jim Walton is Pastoral Assistant of Richmond Presbyterian Church, Richmond, British Columbia.
Last October, everything seemed to fall into place and point to the Alpha ministry as a must in our church. Four of the six friends from our Wednesday noon pastor's prayer group registered to attend the Vancouver conference. Not only that, we were getting the story of Alpha "straight from the horse's mouth." Sandy Millar, Nicky Gumbel, and a worship team from Holy Trinity Brompton in London would be there in person!
The Alpha Conference proved to be everything I had hoped it would be, and more. Worship with four hundred other Christians was a "taste of glory," the gravy on the conference experience. And the veil of mystery surrounding the Alpha ministry was lifted for me. I decided to step out in faith to buy work books for youth and adults as well as the video series. There was no doubt in my mind as to the value of Alpha in terms of teaching the basics of the Christian life and for evangelism. The Alpha "package" looked flexible enough to adapt "cross-denominationally."
The ideal place for me to begin was with two small groups of teens that I had been relating to through our Breakfast Club (Sunday School) ministry. The Education Ministries Committee of our church brought my request to Session to offer a profession of faith class for the teens using Alpha. Our Session agreed to the proposal on the basis of what is key to a successful Youth Alpha ministry, namely the relationships we had built over several years. The response to a letter sent to teens and their parents was almost unanimous. How could the teens refuse the opportunity to hang out together for a couple of hours on a Sunday evening, beginning with food, no less? "I don't care what you say Mom, I'm going," Bryan announced to his Mom the Sunday morning he got the invitation!
Youth Alpha involves a little more work than its adult counterpart. You can't turn on a videotape of Nicky Gumbel speaking to a large group of people and expect the young people to "tune in." One has to "create" the Youth Alpha session from suggestions made in the Leader's Manual (although I have heard of one Youth Alpha where the talk consists of clips from the videotape sessions).
To run a Youth Alpha you'll need a Teacher's Manual and Youth Manuals. Other youth resources (in addition to those listed in the Leader's Manual, include: The Total Package, by Campus Crusade for Christ; The Word on the Basics of Christianity, by Jim Burns, Gospel Light; Active Meetings on Basic Christianity, Group Books; and Group's Active Curriculum. These publications by Group Books cover a variety of topics covered by Alpha. Our group of nine teens can be handled by myself in the comfort of our living room. A friend running a Youth Alpha for forty young people in a Taiwanese Reformed Church required several leaders to help with the study time (the youth range in age from ten to seventeen in his church). I have taken the easy way out for supper — the teens bring a few dollars and we order pizza or chicken! My friend in the Taiwanese church runs Alpha as part of their usual Friday evening youth group; he feels they are missing something by not having a meal together.
The actual teaching session takes forty-five minutes and consists of "ice-breakers" (which involve games, video clips, and/or an activity), a short talk (the outline for the talk is in the Youth Manual), and a Bible study (suggestions for the study are made in the Leader's Manual). Forrest Gump running across America is used to remind the teens that we all follow someone or something; the teens are then confronted by the claim of Jesus to "follow me." The attitudes involved in making a commitment to Christ are first highlighted by the tests faced by Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade. The struggle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader provides a springboard to the session on resisting evil. Teens learn that their church experience need not be that of Mr. Bean! Clips from Back to the Future help the youth reflect on how today's choices have future implications. The topics covered are the same as for the adult sessions. They deal with teaching on the Trinity, the work of salvation through the cross of Christ, and the disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, worship, and witnessing. I have added the requirement of memorizing the Apostle's Creed and teaching about the sacraments and Presbyterian church government to the session on the church.
The potential for controversy in the sessions on the Holy Spirit (a criticism of Alpha by some) is minimal but worth drawing attention to. The youth manual states in part, that, being filled with the Spirit means receiving the gift of tongues. This teaching on tongues also comes out in the video series, although Nicky Gumbel makes it clear that this particular gift is not given to all believers and does not makes one a "better Christian." Nevertheless, some churches may have difficulty with this teaching. A colleague in our Presbytery decided that it would be better for him to teach the subject rather than use the video. I simply kept the topic of tongues within the previous session on spiritual gifts and taught confession, repentance, and prayer as the necessary elements for being filled with the Spirit so that the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit may be expressed in our personal and church life (i.e., being filled with the Spirit means keeping sin from clogging our spiritual arteries!). All three sessions on the Holy Spirit are covered on a weekend retreat. My friend in the Taiwanese church held their retreat in their church over a Friday evening and Saturday. Our group went to Victoria to mix our teaching with some fun. The retreat has actually proved to be a bit of a "carrot" to draw some of the teens to the Sunday sessions.
Youth Alpha has been a tremendous blessing. The element of community for our small group has been strengthened, the door for future Bible study has been opened, and the young people are taking the challenge to membership in the church seriously. In fact, the teens assisted in a worship service (greeting, ushering, reading) a short time after completing the course. But the real value and challenge of Youth Alpha remains to be seen, namely encouraging the teens to bring unchurched friends to the next series! This by far, in my opinion, is the greatest potential strength of Alpha… friendship evangelism. And I would value your prayers in asking God to use this tool to accomplish just that in our church!