Christendom is dead. It used to be that Christianity was referenced in textbooks, the media, the arts, and in daily conversation, with certain regularity; it was assumed that most people, at least in America, were Christian. It used to be, but not any more. It’s a shock to realize when you’re a Christian, and are interacting casually with someone at the grocery store or the gas station, that you can’t assume that this person has ever had a significant experience with Jesus Christ.
The current era is commonly called the postmodern era, as we’ve been changing our modern views of philosophy, science and art since about the 950’s. But some researchers and futurists are calling this era “pre-Christian,” in order to describe an emerging world culture that has more in common with life 2000 years ago. pre-Christ, than it does with the culture of 200 or 20 years ago. In other words, today’s world is largely pagan polytheistic, and not really knowing or caring about the reality of Jesus. Not having a Christian foundation in place around you can make it seem more difficult to fulfill the Christian call to discipleship, ?baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.?
Unless you consider Alpha ? a program for teaching Christianity to non-believers. Alpha began at Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, England, by Sandy Miller, who wanted to devise a teaching program for new believers to help them learn the basics of Christianity. Nicky Gumbel, one of the Alpha teachers and a barrister who had recently been converted to Christianity while reading the New Testament to prove its invalidity, began to notice that several class participants weren?t Christian at all, and had come to Alpha out of curiosity. So he redesigned Alpha to be a better tool for reaching non-believers. The course has been sweeping the world with power since.
First Century Christians, Supernatural Experiences, and Mainline Traditions
The power of Alpha around the world tells me it?s hitting the mark at least to some extent in post modernity, but not without some irony. Many churched people I?ve talked with don?t believe Christendom has died, nor do they resonate with the emergence of the pre-Christian era, and so there is some often strong resistance to finding new ways to communicate. Yet, the fact that the current culture can be identified as pre-Christian also means we now have the opportunity to repeat the experiences of the early church, which was probably the most amazing time in the history of the church. So the new methods we?re looking at to communicate the gospel aren?t really new.
Dave Housholder is teaching pastor at Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville, MN, where he has developed one of the largest Alpha ministries in the world. Dave compares Alpha to the Church of Acts: ?You eat, worship, and study every time you meet; you have opportunities to witness healing and be
healed; you have personal contact with the Holy Spirit; you have experiences with the power of prayer; and you are there because someone has invited you.?
From what I know about the postmodern culture, experiences and relationships are essential. So I can see why Alpha would have an impact. But supernatural experiences are kind of foreign to most mainliners. Says Hous, ?Experiencing God?s power is a much better method of evangelism than th
one-on-one-meet-for-coffee-for-years until conversion; or the crusade, in which the person comes to faith in a setting that doesn?t even resemble a church, and then has no where to go to develop their faith.?
Did I know about John Wimbur? ?He taught one of the most controversial courses at Fuller Seminary called Signs and Wonders, in which the premise was that the most effective way to evangelize was to show God?s power and not talk people to death.? Well, that certainly is what happened on the day of Pentecost, and in the Church of Acts. The Spirit manifested his gifts in the apostles, and they went out and performed miracles and signs and wonders, and ?day by day God added to their numbers those who were being saved.?
But in a Lutheran church? Are you all Charismatic here? ?No. Charismatic is kind of a negative, 70?s term. The Charismatic movement is over. I?d say Alpha is open to the Spirit, to receiving the manifestations of the gifts of the spirit.? Okay. I see the connection between being open to the Spirit and effective outreach and post modernity. But, c?mon Dave! I?m a Methodist. My tribe will never go for this. We?re intellectuals! ?I know what you mean. We?ve really separated our theology to describe the Holy Spirit as being responsible for sanctification, but Biblically, the role of the Holy Spirit is to convert. And Wesley was into that. He was an apologist, he had cell groups, faith was heavily experiential, he believed in the power of the Holy Spirit?Alpha is like a reincarnation of all that.
It?s in your roots!?
Fringes, Chaos and Going to the Ends of the Earth
And Wesley also went out to the streets and the coalmines to be with people who were at the very fringes of church life, or who weren?t in church at all, in order to bring them the good news. One of the things Housholder said is that Alpha ?draws from the very large fringe of the church.? As I make connections in my head between Alpha and post modernity, I am very aware that focusing on the fringes is another reason Alpha seems to work in our emerging culture.
If you listen to Christian futurists and students of the culture tell you how to function in the post modern era, you?ll hear them say that it?s very important to go to the fringes, to the places where we?d typically spend the least amount of our time. It?s at the fringes where there is the most activity, the most change, the most creativity, and perhaps the greatest yearning for revelation. The fringes of the church are the places of chaos, where God is perhaps doing his most profound work.
Mike Graham concurs. Mike is pastor at Lindstrom UMC, the first Methodist church in Minnesota to introduce Alpha. ?One of our blessings has been that people in the church have mixed with people outside the church and have connected with each other and God in some marvelous ways. People have found ways to use gifts they didn?t know they had; some have found God for the first time; others have moved closer to God; marriages and families have found healing.?
So, there?s drama at the fringes. ? Much drama. So many things in the church have an ancillary value in mission, but this is direct. People can see lives changed. Parishioners can witness non-believers finding new life in a relationship with God.? But isn?t it risky at the fringes? ?Absolutely. We?d wonder, ?Will those we invited come? What if we invite the Holy Spirit to “show up” and He doesn’t? How do we deal with seekers in the same group as believers?? ? So what did you do? ?Tried to have faith and trust completely in God for whatever was going to be the outcome.?
Wow. Trust in God, in the midst of your anxiety. Does any of the pressure you sometimes feel have to do with being a smaller church? ?One of the great things about Alpha that they emphasize at the training conference, which is really true, is that Alpha works for any size group. Because it?s small group based (eating and discussion) all you need to start is that–a small group. Occasionally, on some nights, all we had was one participant (with the leaders) in one of our small groups and it was fine.?
So, Alpha is really an opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission. ?No question. Alpha gives a church an opportunity to have a direct impact in the mission of the church to make Disciples of Christ.?
Churches in the Blur
There are churches springing up around the country, underground type Christian churches that are post modern and far outside the institutionalism of the mainline churches. They operate in the Spirit all the time. Signs and wonders and miracles are not new to them, like they are to many of our traditional churches. These churches are small and unheard of. I have wondered if Alpha, as systematic as it is, would ever be needed in such churches. My guess ? probably not. But at least for now, Alpha is connected with people who are transitioning from modern to post-modern. It is a way for people to experience a different reality of God that they never knew existed, and at least for this time in history, Alpha is a great tool to help churches transition through the blur.
Personal Testimony: Alan Blegen Participant at Alpha at Lindstrom UMC
My life is completely different since I went through Alpha. For one thing, I am reading the Bible. I never went to church much growing up, or as an adult, just holidays. But about half way through Alpha I made a commitment to read the Bible and since then I have read the Bible cover to cover ? the Living Bible. The Alpha talk about being in the Word every day just impacted me. I was up until 5 a.m. one night because I was reading all night and couldn?t put the Book down. And I had to be at work at 6, but I had energy and the fact that I was up all night didn?t seem to matter. I am so hungry for more ? I just want more, and want to do more and give more. And now I go to church about every week. I used to think church was just a place people went to gab, and that I didn?t need church since as far as I could tell, God was everywhere, so why did you need church?
I’m not sure why I went to Alpha in the first place. My friend Jerry kept calling me to play on the softball league ? he called me every year. And I always turned him down. So this time when he called he didn?t ask me to play softball, he asked me to go to Alpha, and I said yes, right away. I don?t know why that happened. I think God just must have set it up that way. God prepared the way and it all just fell into place. Maybe one possible reason I said yes was because I was thinking that Alpha was something my wife and I could do together. But then I couldn?t even go to the first session, so it was kind of off to a bad start. But I went to the second session, which I guess was probably kind of surprising since I didn?t make it to the first one.
Once our pastor talked about how a red-hot coal, when taken out of the fire, loses the intensity of its heat, and its glow. That?s how it is when someone doesn?t go to church. Alpha made me a red-hot coal and going to church is the rest of the coals, the fire that stokes you up and keeps you red hot. A couple weeks after Alpha ended, I went on a Walk to Emmaus. It?s like a pattern of energy is surrounding me. Emmaus was fantastic. It was there that I think God spoke directly to me for the very first time.
It was a strange experience. The whole Emmaus walk was tremendous, but the weird thing was that I was sitting at the table of John, and there were bananas on the table. I hate bananas. But I was eating them. I just couldn?t understand why. At the end of Emmaus you receive letters from people who love you. I got a letter from my son Eban, who said to me, ?Dad, eat a lot of bananas, and when you come home, I hope you?re a better dad.? Eban is a Welsh name that means John.
I think God was really speaking to me at Emmaus. This whole thing began with Alpha. When Alpha was in session, I couldn?t wait every week to go back. And then I couldn?t wait to go to Emmaus. And then that experience with the bananas and me sitting at the table of John and that message from my son, it was like it was a sign. God didn?t give up on a poor soul as me. God has a plan, and the plan is that we all have a much better place to go to one day. That is a reason to live, to help as many people as you can. Before Alpha my life was really in a shambles. There were a lot of things. Alpha really changed my life.