Sunday, January 27, 2013

Two Quotes About Faith and the Public Sphere

Following up on yesterday's blog post with a lengthy quote from Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest, here are two other passages that struck me in recent reading.

In Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, Bruce Chilton finds that Jesus' teaching subverted the understanding that formal religious rituals alone were necessary for purification and forgiveness, just as his views on God's sovereignty challenged the hegemony of Rome and the Herodian party in Galilee. Chilton then goes on to say:

But a Marxist reading of Jesus, as if he were engaged in a systematic redistribution of wealth, is tiresome and misguided: nothing Jesus did directly undermined any significant Roman or Judaic institution, and his teaching on possessions certainly does not amount to any sort of economic theory. There were and are political and economic consequences in applying his teaching, but that does not make it a political or economic philosophy in its context or motivation. The Kingdom was based on a community's acceptance of the poor, the hungry, the bereaved, and the shunned.
(Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, New York: Doubleday, 2000, 137)

Any minister or priest today can easily recognize characters and relate to the ecclesiastical politics portrayed in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, published in 1857. Here the new Bishop of Barchester, Dr. Grantly, and his chaplain The Rev. Obadiah Slope are traveling to the diocese for the first time, and Trollope makes some observations about their views on the church and the political world:

Both men are eager, much too eager, to support and increase the power of their order. Both are anxious that the world should be priest-governed, though they have probably never confessed so much, even to themselves. Both begrudge any other kind of dominion held by man over man. Dr. Grantly, if he admits the Queen's supremacy in things spiritual, only admits it as being due to the quasi-priesthood conveyed in the consecrating qualities of her coronation, and he regards things temporal as being by their nature subject to those which are spiritual. Mr. Slope's ideas of sacerdotal rule are of quite a different class. He cares nothing, one way or the other, for the Queen's supremacy; these to his ears are empty words, meaning nothing. Forms he regards but little, and such titular expressions as supremacy, consecration, ordination, and the like convey of themselves no significance to him. Let him be supreme who can. The temporal king, judge, or gaoler can work but on the body. The spiritual master, if he have the necessary gifts and can duly use them, has a wider field of empire. He works upon the soul. If he can make himself be believed, he can be all powerful over those who listen. If he be careful to meddle with none who are too strong in intellect, or too weak in flesh, he may indeed be supreme. And such was the ambition of Mr. Slope.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Protestantism and Economic Growth

I've been reading Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest, in which he argues that six powerful new concepts, embraced by the West, allowed the Western world to rise to global dominance: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. He also argues that the "Rest" have now adopted these "killer apps" and are threatening the West's position.

Central to the chapter dealing with the work ethic is Protestantism. Ferguson doesn't adopt wholesale Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but does conclude that Weber was "right for the wrong reasons" as in post-Reformation Europe Protestant countries grew much faster in terms of per-capita income than Catholic ones. It's worth quoting Ferguson at length:

Because of the central importance in Luther's thought of individual reading of the Bible, Protestantism encouraged literacy, not to mention printing, and these two things unquestionably encouraged economic development (the accumulation of 'human capital') as well as scientific study. This proposition holds good not just for countries such as Scotland, where spending on education, school enrolment and literacy rates were exceptionally high, but for the Protestant world as a whole...The level of Protestant missionary activity has also proved to be a very good predictor of post-independence economic performance and political stability. Recent surveys of attitudes show that Protestants have unusually high levels of mutual trust, an important precondition for the development of efficient credit networks. More generally, religious belief (as opposed to formal observance) of any sort appears to be associated with economic growth, particularly where concepts of heaven and hell provide incentives for good behaviour in this world. This tends to mean not only hard work and mutual trust but also thrift, honesty and openness to strangers, all economically beneficial traits.

Religions matter...Perhaps the biggest contribution of religion to the history of Western civilization was this. Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read. The Industrial Revolution was indeed a product of technological innovation and consumption. But it also required an increase in the intensity and duration of work, combined with the accumulation of capital through saving and investment. Above all, it depended on the accumulation of human capital. The literacy that Protestantism promoted was vital to all of this. On reflection, we would do better to talk about the Protestant word ethic.
(Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, London: Penguin Group, 2011, 163-164)

So does the continued economic vitality of the West depend on the health of Protestant churches, whether mainline or evangelical? And do the Protestant churches have a responsibility to contribute to economic growth, despite the antipathy of the Gospel message to consumerism and the excesses of capitalism?

Monday, January 21, 2013

That They May All Be One: Sermon, January 20, 2013

This sermon was preached for the Week of Prayer For Christian Unity. The 2013 worship service was written to reflect the work of the Student Christian Movement of India, and included testimony from a Dalit (or "untouchable") Christian woman in Orissa state who is a victim of persecution for her faith and status.

With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:6-8, Common English Bible

On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.

He said to them, "What are you talking about as you walk along?" They stopped, their faces downcast.

The one named Cleopas replied, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?"

He said to them, "What things?"

They said to him, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there's more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn't find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn't see him."

Then Jesus said to them, "You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, "Stay with us. It's nearly evening, and the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, "Weren't our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?"

They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying to each other, "The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!" Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.
Luke 24:13-35, Common English Bible

Giving all glory and honour to God.

A day or week dedicated to unity among Christians has been a dream of church leaders for about two centuries or so. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been marked continuously for the last 119 years, and is now held around the world between January 18 and 25 so that it covers the days between the feasts of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Today I want to tell you a little about what is happening with Christian unity here in our area. You know that we cooperate with the Newington Wesleyan Church on the Stormont County Fair service and Good Friday worship. Clergy in South Stormont meet a few times a year, we share information about our churches’ ministries and events, we organize worship services at Woodland Villa in Long Sault, and we have collaborated on the Alpha course, the introduction to Christianity. I meet with clergy and representatives of other churches in overseeing pastoral care at the Winchester and Cornwall hospitals. There is a Cornwall and Area Christian Council, with clergy from the city of Cornwall and surrounding counties meeting once a month. I’m the president. We support each other in our ministries and coordinate worship at seniors’ homes and prayers at Cornwall city council. Our January meeting was on the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, with worship led by my friend Monsignor Rejean Lebrun from Holy Cross Church in Cornwall.

Monsignor Lebrun talked about when this week was a big thing, 1965 when the first city-wide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service was held, and there was an opening service at St. Paul’s United Church and a closing service at St. Columban’s Roman Catholic Church, and both were packed full of people. There seemed to be a real momentum then, as the Roman Catholic Church became much more open to dialogue with Protestants. This momentum picked up steam with what was called the liturgical movement as churches went back to ancient traditions of worship and their worship practices became much more similar. That’s when our United Church began using the liturgical calendar with seasons of the church year like Advent and Epiphany that we hadn’t observed in the past, and many United Church congregations began reading Scripture in worship from the common lectionary, a cycle of readings shared with other denominations. If you look back at United Church worship resources from the 1960s and 70s, there were a lot of materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And if you look in the front of the red hymn book, the one that came out in 1971, you see that this was the joint hymn book of the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada.

It looked then as if the two churches might merge. Real Christian unity, churches coming together to form a greater union, seemed to be imminent. American denominations were merging. The Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches had joined in the United Church in 1925, and the Evangelical United Brethren came in 1968. Talks with the Anglican Church had produced the red hymnal for use by both churches, and a framework to merge the two denominations.

But then the United and Anglican churches couldn’t come to a final agreement. And today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is probably only being observed in a few churches in this area. I think since those days our idea of unity has changed. The 1960s and 70s were all about big programs, big projects, big institutions, in government and business and the church. Now we know that bigger isn’t necessarily better. These days we don’t have unlimited money and time and effort, so in the church we have, I think, turned away from merging denominations together into bigger denominations, and chosen to cooperate in a limited number of areas where we can make a real impact and build God’s realm of peace and justice, while preserving our diversity of belief and practice. We would rather have God’s people working together to be salt and light for the world than try to get everyone worshipping the same way and organizing their churches in the same manner.

So our money and time and effort are going at the national level into coalitions of churches: like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank that we are familiar with in the Seaway Valley as there are local farmers that participate in supplying crops and knowledge; like Kairos Canada which supports justice work; like Project Ploughshares that does research on issues of military spending and arms exports; like Action for Churches Together that provides assistance when disasters strike. Rather than maintain our own, costly, in-house distribution of books and materials, we now use the same centre as the Lutheran and Anglican churches.

I can tell you, because I am one of the people involved, that the United Church of Canada is beginning negotiations with other denominations on mutual recognition of clergy, which means that we will cut out a lot of the red tape involved in admitting a minister from another denomination into our church and the other way around. We’re trying to make it easier for clergy from, for example, the American Methodist or Presbyterian churches, or the Korean Presbyterian church or the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, to serve Canadian churches, and for our ministers to serve outside our denomination.

We also have a mutual agreement among Canadian denominations to recognize each other’s baptisms, so that if you were baptized here and want to marry in a Roman Catholic church, for instance, you won’t have to be baptized again. Unfortunately, we don’t have an agreement on Communion. Our reading today was about recognizing Jesus in the breaking of bread, but Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox Christians aren’t able to do that together in the Lord’s Supper. If we go to a Catholic or Orthodox church we can’t take Communion, because of different understandings of the sacrament.

So that’s nationally. In our Presbytery I began, when I was chair, to foster a partnership with the United Church of Christ across the border in New York State. They were formed during the big wave of denominational mergers, like we were, and were originally Congregationalist, and that’s one of our traditions too. Originally it was just to have a joint observance of 200 years since the War of 1812, with the two churches witnessing to the peace that we profess as followers of Jesus. Now it’s expanded to attending each other’s meetings and sharing ideas on how we can do Christian education and stewardship and justice work.

And I’ve talked about what we do on the local level. One of the things we have focused on in the Cornwall and Area Christian Council is reminding each other, and the people in our churches, about fellow Christians around the world who suffer persecution for their faith in Jesus, and trying to stand with them. There was an ecumenical worship service last year in Cornwall for the persecuted church, and we try to set a date each year for prayers for Christians suffering for their faith. This year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service has reminded us, in the testimony of Sarah that we just heard, about this persecution, and how it is taking place even in India, the world’s largest democracy.

Many of us probably think of India as a predominantly Hindu country, and it is. It also has nearly 32 million Christians, although they are a tiny minority in a country as big as India – just three percent of the population. There have been Christians in India since the days of the early church, with the message of Jesus supposed to have been brought by the Apostle Thomas.

The main Indian churches, other than the Roman Catholic Church, are unions just like our United Church, bringing together Anglicans and other Protestants in the Church of North India and the Church of South India. And many Indian Christians are Dalits, untouchables. The word “Dalit” means “crushed” or “suppressed,” and that’s what the untouchables have been in the Indian social system, regarded as so low that even their shadow can pollute a person of a higher social class or caste. Many Dalits have been attracted to the Good News of Jesus, who reached out to marginalized people. But even in the church Dalits may face segregated congregations, cemeteries, and worship services, although discrimination against Dalits is officially illegal in India.

And, as we heard in the story of Sarah, there have been cases of persecution of Indian Christians, and especially Dalits. The story we heard was from Orissa state, where there has been a wave of persecution; I was just reading a report from another state, Maharashtra, where a mob surrounded and beat Christians at worship two weeks ago.

Sisters and brothers, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and at all times we are praying for and working for the day when all may be one. That is what Jesus prays for his followers, that they may all be one, and that is in fact the motto of The United Church of Canada and the Church of South India. The stories of our fellow believers suffering for their faith remind us of how fortunate we are in the freedom of worship we enjoy, and that we are striving that all may be one in faith and purpose, not just in Canadian churches, but united with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. When Jesus prayed that we may all be one, he wasn’t asking that we have the same beliefs and practices, but that we be one family. Every member of a family may not think and act the same way, but they are on the same journey.

The prophet Micah asks, what does God require of us? To seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. We have a long way to go, but we are on that walk of Christian unity together.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Interview With Shannon Kearns, a Transgender Man Being Ordained as a Priest

Shannon Kearns is a transgender man and will be ordained on January 19th as an Old Catholic priest. I'm thrilled to be able to interview him, and grateful that he took the time to answer some questions when he is so busy getting ready for the ordination service. He says that "there still aren’t enough stories (though thankfully more each year) of transgender clergy. If my story can reach someone who feels called but thought there was no space for them, than that’s amazing."

I have been blessed by reading his thoughts on church liturgy as resistance against the secular culture and his experience as a trans individual in the church. I will be praying for him on January 19th as he is ordained, and for his ministry starting a new church in Minneapolis, House of the Transfiguration.

Shannon is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and is a deacon, about to be ordained as a priest, in the North American Old Catholic Church. He writes as the Anarchist Reverend. He tells me that he loves to read, watch cheesy TV, and play LEGO video games.

Can you tell me about the Old Catholic tradition? It may not be a familiar one to many readers.

The North American Old Catholic Church is an independent Catholic group not in communion with Rome. As a group they ordain women, queer folks, partnered and married people, and folks who have been divorced. They are focused on social justice issues and new church starts. There are parishes all over the United States, but the main concentration is on the East Coast.

Were you raised in the Old Catholic tradition, or came to it later?

I was not raised in the Old Catholic tradition, or really any Catholic tradition. I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical church. While there was a lot about the church that I loved, I never really felt like I fit in. When I hit Junior High I felt a very strong call to serve the church in some way. I wanted to be a part of making the church more welcoming to people. As someone who lived the first part of my life being perceived as female, I was told from a very young age that I could never be in ministry except to, maybe, teach Sunday school. I definitely could not be a pastor. As I came to understand more and more of my own identity (first coming out as a lesbian in college and then later coming out as a transgender man), I also came to understand more about faith and my relationship with God shifted. I left the evangelical church and worked in mainline churches for several years (United Methodist, American Baptist, United Church of Christ) which was a better fit theologically, but I still felt something was missing for me.

What attracted you to the Old Catholic Church?

I began to explore Catholic liturgy, introduced to it through the life and witness of the monastics, the activism and wit of Dorothy Day, and the poetry and fierceness of Philip and Daniel Berrigan. In the Catholic tradition I found the mix of radical politics and deep, contemplative faith that I had been really longing for.

However, even though I was strongly drawn toward Catholicism, I still felt that I had no place in it: As a transgender man there was no way I could be ordained as a Roman Catholic and I had no idea that the Old Catholics even existed. I was pursuing ordination in a mainline congregation; even though it didn't feel like the exact right fit, it seemed like one of the only options I had to fulfill my calling to ministry. I found the Old Catholics on Twitter of all places! The presiding Archbishop Michael Seneco reached out to me to see if I could help get the word out about the North American Old Catholic Church and the fact that they ordain transgender people. The more we talked about the NAOCC, the more I felt like it would be a good fit for my own calling and ministry. I was ordained to the diaconate in June of 2012 at the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference.

How do you feel called to be "set apart" through ordination?

I feel like my calling to ordained ministry is not about being "set apart" from people so much as it about specificity of role. Meaning that I am called to walk with people, to help them create rituals that mark time and bring meaning to their lives, to help facilitate worship where they can experience God, and to preach and teach the Gospel.

Can you describe what the ordination service will be like?

The ordination will take place as part of a traditional Catholic Mass. There will be prayers and singing, the Bishop will lay on hands to ordain me, I'll be vested (dressed) in my new vestments (clergy clothing; a priest's stole and chasuble), and then I will help to celebrate the Eucharist.

Do you think that being a transgender person gives you a certain perspective of God as Creator, Christ and Spirit, or affects how you will serve the church?

Being trans has definitely shifted how I understand Jesus especially. My own physical transition has brought me to a much better understanding of what it means to be embodied, what the incarnation meant, and has challenged my thoughts about crucifixion and resurrection. The idea that Jesus lived a bodily life really resonates for me in new ways.

I think really having experienced being not welcome in the church will affect how I serve the church. I know what it feels like to be told that I am not the "right kind" of Christian or Catholic, I know what it feels like to desperately want to be in a religious community but to feel like I don't fit in or that I am not wanted, I know what it feels like to want sacred space but to not know where to go to find it. I want to be able to minister to other people who have been on the margins or who have felt unwelcome in churches.

I'm fascinated by your statement that being trans has challenged your thoughts about crucifixion and resurrection. Can you say more?

Here is a short response, but it might also be helpful to read the passion narrative I wrote based on my trans* experience.

The first time I really started to think about the similarities between my own trans* experience and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was in a class in seminary. We were looking at the story of "Doubting Thomas". I had been transitioning for a little while and quite frankly I was exhausted: I was tired of fighting with people to use the right pronouns, tired of answering questions about the state of my body, about what surgeries I had (or had not) gotten, tired to advocating for myself. In class that day we read the story of how Thomas wouldn't believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he saw Jesus' scars. It reminded me of all of the invasive questions I got from people. It reminded me of the comments people would make about my appearance. Why couldn't they just believe that I am who I say that I am? I was also struck by the gentleness of Jesus' response to Thomas. He both chides Thomas for his lack of faith, but also offers to show him his scars anyway. It was a stunning moment.

I began to look more closely at the passion narratives of Jesus and I saw more parallels; his "coming out" at the transfiguration, his struggles with his family, the way his friends started out as his biggest supporters but abandoned him in his time of need. And I was struck by the way he had to endure pain and crucifixion in order to get to the beauty of the resurrection, but that even when he was resurrected he still lived with the scars of what he had experienced. In medieval paintings of Jesus, the wound in his side looks eerily like the chest surgery scars of many trans* men; this, too, was another point of contact.

I think my experience of transitioning has helped me to engage with these stories again; to cling more steadfastly the idea of resurrection being bodily, to understand that bodies are important and that even though I live with scars there can be something holy about them.

Thank you! This has been great. Blessings!

Thanks!! Really appreciate you doing all of this.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

More on Alpha: Questions of Life

Questions of Life
By Nicky Gumbel
Alpha North America, Deerfield IL, 2007
207 pages

Nicky Gumbel first wrote this book in 1993 to accompany the handful of Alpha courses then up and running, based on the original offering at Holy Trinity Brompton. Called "the Alpha course in book form," Questions of Life has now sold over 15 million copies worldwide and introduced millions of people to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith.

The introduction states that in the book Nicky Gumbel provides answers to "the hunger and growing hope in every human heart that somewhere, somehow, there may be found a contemporary answer to the timeless question, 'What is truth and how and where can we discover it?'" Questions of Life is structured like the Alpha course itself, in fifteen chapters that present answers to faith questions:
Is there more to life than this?
Who is Jesus?
Why did Jesus die?
How can we have faith?
Why and how do I pray?
Why and how should I read the Bible?
How does God guide us?
Who is the Holy Spirit?
What does the Holy Spirit do?
How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
How can I resist evil?
Why and how should I tell others?
Does God heal today?
What about the church?
How can I make the most of the rest of my life?

In the book, and the Alpha course, Gumbel adheres to Christian orthodoxy, and does not attempt to describe any of the historic or current theological debates or breadth of belief regarding, for example, the Atonement - the saving work of Christ on the cross. Gumbel speaks throughout the "why did Jesus die" chapter in terms of the penal substitution theory of the Atonement ("only the blood of Christ, our substitute, can take away our sin"). There is no acknowledgement that the moral influence and Christus victor models of the Atonement have been equally legitimate views of Christ's death.

However, Questions of Life remains a resource for new believers (and, perhaps, some longstanding "cultural Christians") that introduces the core beliefs of the Christian faith in an accessible, relevant way.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Alpha Journey

The Alpha course began in the Church of England and has spread worldwide. It is the most popular small group activity introducing Christianity and seeking to make disciples for Jesus, at least in the English-speaking West.

I have been involved in three iterations of Alpha, in cooperation with congregations of other denominations (Anglican and Presbyterian) in our area. I know that Alpha is not looked upon with favour by some United Church of Canada folk, because of the way doctrines like the atonement are presented in the course, but I can't find another adult education activity that is as successful in forging ecumenical partnerships, motivating a congregation for evangelistic mission, and making disciples.

This article on Alpha is used with permission and credit attributed to Gerard Long 2012 Alpha USA.

The Alpha Journey
By Gerald Long

In the U.S., the Alpha course has already reached 3 million people in all 50 states and in every major denomination. On this extraordinary adventure called Alpha, together with our leadership team, I’ve asked God to provide clear vision in our strategic thinking and mission goals. Prayerfully, we’re seeking “to transform our society—one life, one church, and one community at a time.” Also, we’re enthusiastic about all that God’s doing to make this happen! In Genesis, God asks us to “go forth and multiply,” and in Matthew, He asks us to fulfill the Great Commission: to “go and make disciples” of Jesus Christ. With these instructions in mind, we’ve set strategic goals to greatly expand our reach in the U.S. We’re seeking to multiply the number of churches that run the Alpha course as well as the number of guests enrolled; to enrich families and individuals through many of the marriage, parenting and outreach materials we provide; and, most importantly, to see more and more lives transformed for Christ. We’ve set a goal to reach 18 million people with the Gospel via an Alpha course in the U.S. by 2020, which is part of Alpha’s global vision to reach 100 million people with the wonderful news of Christ by that same year. And, God willing, we’ll continue with great passion on this exciting journey of changing lives for Him.

Prayer is everything, really; it’s at the core of everything we do, every decision we make. Communicating with God, our gracious Heavenly Father is such a privilege and a necessity at the same time. At the core of Alpha are relationships, first with God and then with our guests. And prayer is key to our relationship with God. Also, as James 5:16 says, the earnest prayer of a believer — a person right with God—avails much. And through His Holy Spirit, we receive the love, joy and peace — and all the fruit—that only He provides. For each guest of the Alpha course, each seeker, it’s the power of prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit that brings the conviction, revelation and transformation of the heart that he or she so desperately needs.

For the past two decades, the mission of Alpha — making disciples of Jesus from all walks of life — has greatly impacted the world for Christ. All the content of Alpha is based on the truth of God’s Word—on His infallible Holy Scripture. So we know the content is trustworthy and true, this Biblically-based content, is then systematically laid out to unfold the basic teachings of the Christian faith. We have updated some of the more practical aspects of the course several times to make it as relevant as possible and to achieve maximum results. Very importantly, we also ask that Alpha leaders teach the material as it is written, to not change its key teachings. Our training materials reinforce this point, and we entrust our leaders with this responsibility.

One of the key ingredients to Alpha’s success has been in making its guests feel relaxed, accepted and open to the Gospel message. We want to treat others with humility and respect, to value each guest, to show them a servant’s heart and to honor them with confidentiality. And, of course, the atmosphere should be friendly, non-judgmental and inviting — a fun place to be! One of the best ways we can show people we love them is to listen carefully and respectfully to what they are saying. The most successful groups tend to learn about Jesus and have fun at the same time. That also brings up one of my favorite parts — the Alpha jokes. Our leaders weave humorous stories into the opening and teaching time, and during the discussions we encourage leaders to interject humor when appropriate. Finally, testimonies throughout the course by people who have “been there” — who can relate how God has opened their hearts and transformed them from the inside out—provide a powerful ingredient.

The Alpha course offers guests a 10-week small group experience, plus a weekend or all-day getaway. After talking with hundreds of people who have experienced the getaway, I can say with confidence, “It’s a crucial component, so please don’t omit it!” As you might guess, it not only helps everyone bond together more closely, but it also gives the guests the space, time and environment to thoroughly process all they’ve been learning, and it gives the Holy Spirit opportunities to soften hearts in amazing ways. Those who fill out evaluation forms often cite that “it’s the best part of the course.” In particular, it provides an opportunity for balanced teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit to empower Christ followers to be His witnesses. It’s often a time when guests experience for the first time that God really does love them. Their understanding of Christ and His teaching spreads from their head to their heart.

The Alpha course has proven successful in leading participants to make a personal commitment to Christ. When churches begin engaging the community through Alpha, they’re looking outward, seeing the broken and hurting people who need answers to life’s biggest questions. In reaching out to people from all backgrounds — co-workers, neighbors, classmates, those embracing other religions and world-views and even those in our prison systems—churches are discovering new blessings and new passion in sharing God’s truth. Churches that were perhaps declining find themselves growing. Often, churches develop an entire evangelism strategy, a vibrant prayer ministry and a new heart for those who need Christ’s redemption. I encourage every church to “Go Forth” — to multiply the souls saved for Christ and to fulfill His Great Commission. In summary, churches that implement the Alpha DNA see growth in new disciples, in leaders, in service and in financial giving.

The Alpha course offers a 10-week small group experience for those within and outside the church. The adventure doesn’t end after 10 weeks – it continues! Alpha offers a line of discipleship studies that help guests keep seeking, exploring and growing in faith. Many groups plan a follow-up reunion or party to stay connected, begin going to church together, start a small-group discipleship group, get baptized or serve together inside or outside the church. Also, many will invite their friends and family on the next Alpha course and will often be a helper and then a leader on the course. God faithfully paves the way.


Gerard Long is the president of Alpha USA. Today in the U.S., three million people in all 50 states and 127 denominations have already experienced the Alpha course, with hundreds of thousands making a commitment or recommitment to Christ. (Globally, the Alpha course has reached 19 million people in 169 countries and 113 languages.)

Gerard’s first book, The Breakthrough was developed in cooperation with best-selling author Ken Blanchard, The Breakthrough uses a modern-day parable to communicate basic truths about God, suffering and the after-life. Gerard blogs regularly, where he writes on the topics of evangelism and church growth.