Rev. Jackson Clelland is the minister of Zion Presbyterian Church in Angus, Ontario, and serves on the Renewal Fellowship Board.
As Tony and I were driving into Barrie for the Alpha leadership conference he suddenly piped up and asked me, "How come you asked me to help you with this program?" A good question, one which I was not sure how to answer. Tony's family had been a part of our church for years, and he had just recently become more involved. He was still testing the waters, trying to discover just where and how he fit into this community called the church. I, on the other hand, had just a year earlier arrived in Angus, Ontario to my first church as an ordained minister. I too was testing the waters, uncovering my unique ministry and discovering God's vision for this unique church.
In reply I said, "I guess it's because I want to know how someone coming from outside the church would perceive the Alpha program. I've been in the church for too long to know if I'm asking the right questions of this program. You're still new enough that you can still remember what it was to be on the outside of the church looking in. I want you to think like an outsider this weekend and ask yourself if you'd come to an Alpha program if it were offered at our church." I'm glad I was driving, because I wasn't sure if Tony would have turned the Jeep around and headed the ten miles back to town. I figured a direct question deserved a direct answer. As it turned out, I was right.
Attending the two-day Alpha leadership conference is a must for those who would run an Alpha course in their church. It essentially models what Alpha is and does. We arrived in Barrie to a near-full church. A worship team climbed onto the stage, strapped on guitars and led us in worship for half an hour. Tony turned to me and whispered, "Are all these people Presbyterians?" As we found out later, at least thirty different denominations were represented there. Tony was amazed that all these different groups were worshipping together, praising Jesus. Everyone seemed so joyful, and the worship so uplifting that Tony and I wondered if our church couldn't be a bit more like this. Then the speakers got up to teach/preach about the principles of Alpha. I have to admit that I don't generally like conferences, but I found myself paying more attention rather than less as the conference continued. As it turned out, we were not only to sit and listen to speakers, but were to experience God's work powerfully to change people's lives, filling people with his Holy Spirit. We were also involved in praying for those around us and for each other. By the end of the conference not only had we had learned about Alpha, but we had experienced the Holy Spirit ministering to us through other people.
I could not have asked God for a better ambassador than Tony for Alpha in our church. Tony was so enthusiastic about the conference that it came into almost every conversation he had for the next week. His enthusiasm was contagious. As a minister, I am always glad when someone else gets excited about ministry. It means I will not be carrying the ball all by myself. Over the next few months we together organized Zion Presbyterian Church's first Alpha program.
Alpha is a short, practical introduction to the Christian faith. Each evening of the ten weekly sessions begins with dinner, includes a videotaped talk by Nicky Gumbel (an Anglican Minister at Holy Trinity, Brompton in London, England), and ends with an opportunity to meet in small groups to discuss the talk. Each night deals with a different question. There is also a weekend away, midway through the ten weeks, where the teaching on (and, for many, the experiencing of) the Holy Spirit takes place. Our schedule looked like this:
- Who is Jesus?
- Why Did Jesus Die?
- How Can I Be Sure Of My Faith?
- Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
- Why and How Do I Pray?
- How Does God Guide Us?
- How Can I Resist Evil?
- Why and How Should We Tell Others?
- Does God Heal Today?
- What About The Church?
The Holy Spirit Weekend Retreat
Celebration Dinner Party
At first, we wondered how this would ever look at our somewhat traditional little church numbering around a hundred. Who would come? How many would come? Who would cook the meals? Who would lead the small groups? Who would lead the worship? In retrospect we were clearly over our heads; which meant that we had to trust God more than we would have otherwise. Trusting God for Alpha was a lot of fun.
Tony wanted to know how many people to plan for. I said, "Why don't you ask God to send 60 people to Alpha." I was shooting high. So Tony began to pray and ask God to send 60 people to our first Alpha course. I came back from a vacation three days before the first night of Alpha and realized that we had only 25 people registered. The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call Tony.
"It looks like we've only got 25 coming."
Tony sounded hurt, "I've been asking God for 60 people."
"I guess God knows what our church can handle."
On our first night 58 people walked through the door. Tony looked at me as if to say, "Look who's got more faith than the minister." The next week brought four or five more people. Tony's prayer was answered.
Our worship team needs were suddenly taken care of when a new family started attending worship at our church. As we were to find out, they had been involved in the music ministry in another church before it had closed due to financial problems. The husband played guitar, his wife sang, and their oldest son played bass guitar. They knew many choruses and worship songs and wanted to share them with us. Alpha was a perfect opportunity, both for them to become a part of our church family by sharing their gifts and us to learn something other than traditional music. It was so clear that God had sent them to us.
When one of the members of our congregation volunteered to cater the meals for the entire ten weeks, I was ecstatic. What a gift! Richard was a cook on the military base (the community next to Angus). His ability to cook creatively for a large group was exactly what we needed. The teaching at Alpha was great, but it was even better after a mouth-watering meal. Richard's gift to us had the additional benefit that so many more people were free to involve themselves in other areas of Alpha than if a group had prepared the meal. Twelve people from the congregation, when asked, immediately agreed to take the training involved to lead the small groups. The Lord faithfully provided for all of our needs to start the program. Would he not also be faithful throughout the ten weeks?
It is difficult to describe those ten weeks. We ate, we watched the videos, and we talked with each other. It all sounds so very simple. But so many lives were changed over that time. Many who came to us came with no knowledge of the Bible whatsoever. Some came from very anti-Christian backgrounds; others had been Christians for years but felt that Alpha would be a refreshing experience. With such diversity of opinion and background it seemed that the small groups would disintegrate. Just the opposite occurred. Because the small groups were not meant to be teaching units, but were designed to elicit opinion and discussion without fear of judgment, the group members gradually began to bond with each other. Everyone's response was important. No question was viewed as a "bad question." By the end of the course many were talking about getting together again, and one of the leaders had volunteered to continue to hold a small group in her home.
Just prior to Alpha's onset a few people started to attend our services who had previously been worshipping at another small church in our community. Unfortunately, this church had suddenly closed due to financial concerns. Alpha gave us an in immediate opportunity to include these new people. As pastor, my concern prior to Alpha was that these newcomers would be seen for years to come as "the people from X church." Alpha allowed all involved, both old and new, to be "the people who together experienced the Alpha course." Additionally, we had just ordained three new elders to the Session. Alpha was a great way to equip new elders to serve and minister to the congregation.
Almost the entire church was mobilized for this ministry. We are a congregation of around a hundred. An Alpha course for sixty people was a large undertaking. As we worked toward this ministry we encouraged people to discover and use their gifts, both spiritual and practical. Some were committed to setting up the dinner or to wash up afterward. Others were committed to pray. One or two people who had never led a small group before found that they enjoyed it. Almost everybody, including me, was moved to do things that would have normally been outside their comfort zone.
The Holy Spirit Weekend Retreat was particularly special. I had never laid hands on anybody to ask for the Holy Spirit to fill them. Should I have been surprised when the Holy Spirit did? A number of people received visions or words of knowledge as the Lord revealed himself to them. A number of others experienced a great sense of peace and knew for certain that they were now a child of God. It was so edifying to see and be a part of what God was doing in revealing himself so intimately to transforming lives. Many who were blessed most deeply at the retreat had become believers just weeks earlier.
Three weeks after the Holy Spirit retreat we listened to the video, "Does God Heal Today?" Afterward we invited people to come forward to be prayed for if they desired healing. We had never done anything like this before in our church. I had no idea how people would respond. But despite my lack of faith, many came forward for prayer. There was no hypnotic music playing in the background, no loud shouting, or pushing. We simply asked those who came forward what they would like prayer for and asked the Holy Spirit to come and heal them. And again, God showed up powerfully. In wasn't until the next week's session that we realized the extent to which God had answered prayer. Many infirmities including migraine headaches, an arthritic knee, and an immobile shoulder were healed. God also began some emotional healing in individuals that had its source in painful childhood experiences.
I think the main difference that Alpha made in our church is that we are now an expectant group of people; we expect God to show up and do great things in our midst. We are looking for signs of his presence regularly and are now trusting him to do many things unimaginable even a year ago. Alpha encouraged everyone to pray because we were seeing so many answers to pray around us daily. At least five, maybe more, people gave their lives to Christ during the ten weeks. All of them had people praying for them.
We have been edified and encouraged. Sunday morning worship is visibly more joyful. The Session is more active and progressive than I have ever seen them. Alpha has raised many new issues for us. Where are we going from here? What is our vision for the future? How are we going to continue to nurture those who have so recently come to faith? We are considering the follow-up to Alpha: "A Life Worth Living," an Adult Sunday School program, and small group ministry. All the members of the Session have recently committed to reading books on ministry with the purpose of discovering God's vision for his church. We are suddenly a highly motivated group scrambling to look toward the future.
I think one person expressed on the last evening of the course what most have felt about Alpha: "Before I came to Alpha I felt like there was something missing in my life." It was a phrase that Tony and I had heard many times echoed at the Alpha conference months earlier. But it was true. It was true for those who invited Christ into their lives, but it was an equally true statement for the many others who were a part of Alpha. Tony discovered the great many ways that he fit into our church community. I discovered many gifts for ministry both within myself and in other members of our congregation. Many who came became close friends. The Session found a vision and is thirsty for God to reveal more of it. Others found a ministry of service within God's church. Whatever was missing, it certainly isn't missing anymore.