BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

The church I lead ran its first Alpha Course in 2011. We’ve hosted it eight more times since then (twice one year and none in 2018) and 2019 was the best ever! The reason? Not because our team was any better than previous years. We had many of the same people. And not because the food was any better, although it was great. And not because the Alpha Course now features a high-quality video journey with two young hosts in fascinating global locations along with in-person interviews instead of just a guy giving a talk on a stage. We used the new videos in 2017. The difference was that the 2019 Alpha Course at our church had more prayer support than any previous year and it showed in at least five ways.

First, prayer preceded the partnership between the Task Force leader, me, and the Alpha Course Host, Jeff Good. Jeff and I went into this partnership after attending the Alpha Course National Leadership Conference in Arizona last winter. We prayed together in the hotel room and at other times during the conference and came away convinced that God would have us offer the course this year. After that, we agreed to meet weekly to pray for this year’s course.

If you’ve ever spent a long time praying for a specific project, you know what I mean when I say that many direct answers to prayer don’t seem all that spectacular. Things just occur or become obvious or apparent that weren’t apparent before. Things flow. For example, all we knew when we left Arizona was that we were going to offer the course and we needed to pray. We didn’t know who would lead the Task Force and who would be the Host. The Task Force leader oversees setup, meals, and clean up. The Host does PR and everything else. But over time it became apparent that, even though I’d been the host most years and I’m no cook, I should lead the Task Force and Jeff should be the Host.

Direct answers to prayer and evidence of its power appeared in other ways as well.

I realized we probably didn’t have enough budgeted to pay for all the food and the necessary advertising. We also needed a new catering plan that would involve the whole church. But before we even had the catering plan, someone donated $1,000 for the food. Then, a thought “occurred to me,” You dummy, Karen Schopen owns the best restaurant in town and has been in the hospitality business her whole career. Ask her! And voila! We had a new catering plan that included the whole church working together as a team.

But we still needed someone to massage the menus and recruit the cooks and select the right serving setup and make sure I kept everyone up to speed. Enter my excellent wife who, though she’s never cooked for fifty people in her life, knew exactly what to do and how to get it done. Almost the whole church participated. No one felt exhausted and burned out at the end. The meals were great! And the cost? We spent $942.04 on food!

Then there was childcare! Before we could even ask her, Karin Theo offered to do a children’s program concurrent with Alpha. Karin recruited helpers from the whole congregation, and we didn’t have to worry about this part at all. A big relief for me!

Technological problems overcome. We wanted this Alpha Course to feel seamless and high quality to our guests, but we also knew that, technology being what it is, glitches happen. We prayed about that and sure enough, about halfway through the course, the sound card went bad on the computer. One of our guests who is a whiz with technology had it figured out for us before dinner was over.

Finally, and most important, friends who are genuine seekers felt free and safe to ask their hardest questions and hear answers. People in the small groups developed great relationships, shared their deepest struggles, and grew closer to God. One, totally new to the area and our congregation, even joined the church.

With all that in mind I want to ask you to do three things. First, join us each week in prayer for the 2020 Alpha. Second, ask God to show you what part you can play in an Alpha Course near you. Third, begin praying and talking it up with your friends as God provides opportunity. Be ready to invite them when the time comes. I believe the 2020 Alpha Course will be the best ever!

Haven’t heard of The Alpha Course?Click here: The Alpha Course.

WHY CAN’T WE COMMUNICATE?

WHY CAN’T WE COMMUNICATE?

“Are you listening to me at all?” My wife asked gently as we waited for our meal at Applebee’s.

Oops, I thought. You’re so busted! “Uhhh…No, I was trying to see who won the game last night,” I replied, still snatching glances at the wall-mounted screen over her right shoulder. Good thing she likes sports, or she would’ve really been mad.

Have you ever said something to someone and, having listened to their response, realized that they didn’t grasp the tenth part of what you were saying? Or felt like they weren’t listening at all?

Perhaps this is only common to preachers (and football widows). After all, preaching, as they say, “is just talking in someone else’s sleep.” But I have a feeling that you know what I’m talking about, that you’ve experienced communication frustration. Where does it come from? Why is communication, especially communication about spiritual things, so difficult? Well before you take a megaphone to the next person that doesn’t listen consider a few things.

A friend who is an engineer for a large utility company tells me that when he had to hire some new engineers, he required applicants to hand write sample repair instructions to a mechanic. Something like two out of ten could do it with any competence. Our education system is not what it used to be. More and more people are graduating from high school and even from college without the ability to make themselves understood.

We are also in a much denser communication environment than ever before. Commercials are shorter and faster, cell phones, Twitter, and text messages interrupt normal conversation, emails, pop-ups, dual screens – all of these technologies force feed us with hundreds more messages than earlier generations had to process, causing us to erect thicker message filters than we did forty or fifty years ago. We humans can only absorb so much information at a time. As a result, attention spans have shrunk. We are also becoming more reliant on pictures and music and less on words. We are a nation of receivers tuned to the elemental frequencies of image and melody. Language is becoming harder to digest.

But there is a third reason that people often cannot hear what we’re trying to say, especially if our message concerns the kingdom of God. Spiritual forces are at work. Consider Jesus and Paul’s comments on the matter:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Jesus in Mark 4:15 NIV)

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (Paul in 2 Cor 4:3-4 NIV)

The ability to communicate clearly and powerfully is a skill that can be learned. But in the end only God can penetrate the darkness, the spiritual veil that covers the heart of men and women. So, no matter whom you’re talking to or when, before you begin to speak, pray for the Lord of light to open the eyes and ears of the soul in your listeners. He alone has the power to make his light “shine in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

“I can’t be part of something I’m not sure I believe,” said Sam, “but thanks for inviting us.” Sam, his wife Shelley, and his daughter Chelsey were our new neighbors. Our kids were friends and they seemed open, so I had invited them to church.

I appreciated Sam’s honesty and integrity, so we just prayed, built a great relationship, and looked for opportunities to introduce them to Jesus. But then Sam’s career path took them to Memphis. We were sad when they moved, but we kept in touch via email.

A few years went by until one day Sam pulled into my driveway. He was in town for a few hours to check on his house and tenants. We talked for an hour. The sun was setting and the mosquitoes biting when Sam said, “I just thought you’d want to know that we’ve been attending a church in Memphis.”

I said, “That’s great! But I’m curious. You said when we were neighbors that you couldn’t be part of something you weren’t sure you believed. What happened?”

Sam’s reply was instructive. “The first month we were in South Boston we were invited to four different churches. Before people even got to know anything about us, they were inviting us to church. I wasn’t sure about any of it at the time. It felt like a lot of pressure.”

“What was different about the church in Memphis?” I asked.

“It had a lot of things we needed. It’s speaks to people who haven’t been to church in a long time or at all and aren’t certain about anything spiritual. We needed to be anonymous for a while, to have time to process what we were hearing. They let you do that. We needed relevant messages. Their basic theology is conservative, but they speak to issues we face every day. We needed contemporary music and informal style. They are committed to that too.”

“Wow, that’s great!” I said. “Sounds a lot like what we try to do albeit on a smaller scale.” (Sam’s church hosts three thousand on Sundays).

“We still haven’t joined the church,” he continued. “But we understand now the need to take a serious moral inventory of our lives, order our priorities and when it is time, make a 100% commitment. We’re going to do that soon.”

I couldn’t have been happier to hear what the Lord was doing in Sam’s life. I’m convinced He can do that for our neighbors today. After all, it isn’t the first time He has led his church to adapt itself to the needs of people far from God. As the Apostle Paul wrote: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:19-23 NIV).

Sam’s church ‘became like Sam in order to win Sam.’

Maybe you know someone like Sam. Let me ask you to do three things. First, pray for him and his family all summer. Ask God to heighten his curiosity about spiritual things. Second, love him. Spend the time to get to know him. Third, invite—but don’t pressure him—to attend the Alpha Course with you (www.alphausa.org). The course is designed for people who are seeking but just not sure yet what they believe. It gives people time to process what they’re learning within a supportive, no-pressure, community.

You never can tell what God might do if you’ll be a no-pressure friend to your neighbor.

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

The crowd was frenetic, chaotic, out of control. Hundreds, then thousands of people, rushed from every corner, out of every gate, jumping fences, hurdling ditches, and throwing clothing on the ground in adulation.

No, it wasn’t an Elvis concert.

The two men in the center of it were overwhelmed, not knowing how to react to the adulation, until they saw the local priests leading a couple of bullocks toward them with garlands for gods and the tools of sacrifice in hand. That’s when they tore their shirts wide open yelling: “HOLD IT! STOP! We’re just people like you! We’re here to tell you about the real God who made everything!”

Even with that, Paul and Barnabas, apostles of Jesus Christ, were barely able to keep the Lystrans from sacrificing to them.

God had just healed a cripple through Paul. The Lystrans mistook them for a repeat of a Greek myth where Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as servants for a while to get a read on human devotion. In the myth the two deities finally remove their disguises to receive the worship that was their due and offer blessings to their worshipers. When Paul and Barnabas ripped their garments open to reveal puny humans inside it popped the Lystran’s bubble. A few hours later they were stoning Paul. (See Acts 14:8-18).

Living in the selfie generation makes it hard to keep our shirts buttoned, so to speak. We need help avoiding self-deification. The best way to do that is by serving others in three practical ways.

Serve simply. Just show up and do what needs to be done. A great example happened on a tragic occasion. In the days when most shoes had to be shined, a young father of four lost his life in an accident. Instead of saying, “If there’s anything I can do,” one of the neighbors knocked on the door and said, “I’m here to shine the children’s shoes.” That simple service spoke reams of love into the young widow’s soul.

Serve today. With “his face set” on his way to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last time, Jesus had a lot on his mind. Yet he stopped to heal a blind man. Setting aside our agenda for the day, even if it isn’t an emergency, is a huge expression of humility.

Serve silently. I borrow this one from the late Stephen Covey who taught: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We serve best when we listen close, empathizing with others without expressing our own thoughts.

Of all the ways to serve, this is one of the most personally beneficial to the servant. It is also the most difficult and humbling because we think so much of our own experiences and like the sound of our own voices.

Covey explained that silent service also enhances our effectiveness as leaders. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.[1]

When we practice silent service, we give people what they need most. That’s why this is so helpful in the pursuit healthy humility. We learn to value others above ourselves and in the process give them life.

[1] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pg. 241

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

It was a muggy fall evening in 2000 and our youth leader Marty, and I were almost finished. We’d been at the county fair all afternoon conducting surveys to learn the spiritual needs of our community. Among the questions we polled: Do you attend a church? Why or why not? What attracts you to a church or turns you off?

The replies varied on all but the last question: What do you think the county needs most?

Ninety percent responded with, “Something for the youth.”

I was already leading a small outreach to Christian kids on Wednesdays at the middle school, but, frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Marty was doing a great job with the kids from our church, but they were already “churched” kids and besides, he had a full-time job at the power plant. He was doing as much as he could. A local pastor’s group, of which I was a member, considered opening a youth center downtown, but funding and leadership were insurmountable hurdles, mostly leadership. We knew that anything effective would need a dedicated leader, called to minister to kids, with plenty of time on his or her hands.

Nine years went by and though I prayed about it from time to time, nothing happened. Then one day I got a cold-call, “Hi, I’m Dave Snyder and I’d like to talk to you about a ministry called Young Life.” I had known a Young Life guy in seminary and was impressed so I listened. “My kids are grown, but I feel a burden from God to get something going for the youth. I think Young Life is the way to go. Would you be willing to visit one of their camps and think about serving on a startup committee?”

I visited two camps that season and was so impressed I’ve been involved ever since. Here’s what I learned.

Young Life was founded in 1941 by Presbyterian minister Jim Rayburn. It is known for its high-quality youth camps—they study Disney World for ideas—and enormously fun club nights. They call it a party with a purpose. But it isn’t about the camps, or the clubs, or the party. It’s about the kids.

Teens have tense, pressure-filled, lives. Well over half live in broken homes. Smartphones and social media make escape from peer pressure impossible. Drugs and alcohol are everywhere. The sexual revolution is steam-rolling them into porn addictions, unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, abortion and emotional emptiness. Dave Snyder got involved after attending a law enforcement seminar on growing gang activity in our community.

Young Life starts with concerned adults who are willing to go life-on-life with teens on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship. That takes time, patience, trust, and authenticity. Its leaders go to their games, and hang-out with them at Bojangles to build real relationships. And not just with churched kids, Young Life specializes in developing innovative approaches to reach uncommitted, disinterested teens. It is the most sociologically intelligent outreach organization I’ve ever seen.

Young Life’s mission is simple: Introduce teens—all teens, black, white, Hispanic, everyone—to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. They don’t wait for the kids to come to church, they go where the kids are and earn the right to share the gospel with them.

Most pastors are generalists by default. We do not have the training or the time to invest in teens effectively. Most church youth pastors also play multiple roles for their congregations and can’t spend the necessary time with unchurched kids.

Our county launched Young Life when local teacher, Sarah Reaves, after responding to Dave Snyder’s invitation to attend a camp, volunteered to lead it part-time without pay for its first year. Many kids began relationships with Christ under her leadership. Last year we took a financial risk and invited Matt Rich to lead full-time. He’s been doing great work. Last weekend, twenty-five teens from our community attended fall weekend at a Young Life camp. Eight began relationships with Jesus Christ. I’ve been in ministry over twenty-five years and never seen that kind of effectiveness. That’s why our church has Young Life in its monthly budget.

I hope you will put it in yours.

For more information, or to give online, visit http://www.younglife.org.

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

The tiny taxi’s wheels crunched gravel and sand as we dodged yet another car-sized hole in the washed-out road through the Himalayan foothills. Rounding a bend our host said something in Nepalese to the driver and he whipped the little car sideways, backed up into a gravel patch and stopped. We were on this road to view Mount Everest, but it remained lost to us all day, shrouded in clouds.

We found instead evidence of the movement of God that is also shrouded to most western eyes.

“Here,” said our host in clipped English, pointing to a narrow, red, three-story house built into the side of the hill, “this is a Church, and this is the pastor.”

The proud pastor, whom I’ll call Sundar, led us down into the second-floor. “This is the worship center,” he said. “My family lives upstairs and we work downstairs.” We removed our shoes and followed him inside a 30’ X 15’ room with no chairs. “Fifty people at a time worship. The Church has 250,” he explained. “Fifty-eight are baptized believers.”

Two pictorial Bibles graced the yellow walls, the whole narrative of Scripture on three-by-four-foot banners filled with 5” X 7” images from the Garden of Eden to Revelation. The Lord’s Prayer, in Nepalese, was on the far wall, The Apostle’s Creed stood opposite. So, this is how they do it, I thought. This is like the early Church, before anybody had Bibles. They tell the stories and recite the Creed to cement the meaning of the stories in place, then follow the Lord in prayer. Remarkable!

More remarkable still was the faith of Pastor Sundar.

Sundar started the church about ten years ago in a rented house near the district’s Buddhist temple and police station. “The first year was OK,” he said, “no problem.” But by the end of the second year, with more and more people attending, the Buddhist monk got angry.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” said Sundar. “The Buddhist monk attacked me. He slapped me three times saying, ‘Why did you come here? What do you think you are doing?’ and he mocked me, and the Church, and Jesus.”

“I was angry,” said Sundar, “so I prayed: God, what am I to do? If I grab him and throw him down the mountain he will die. Then the authorities will arrest me. So, what do I do?”

Immediately, God spoke to his heart, “Sundar, this chance to suffer for me many people do not get. But you get this chance. There is no need for you to take revenge. I’ll take care of him.”

“I am an easily angered man, but all this happened inside my heart in an instant. So, I threw my hands up and said, ‘Lord, I give thanks!’ And the Buddhist monk walked away, still mocking and joking about Jesus, and opened his clothing and urinated in public.” (This is an intense form of mockery for them, like saying: “I relieve myself on your god!”)

The quarrel had attracted three policemen from the nearby station. One said nothing to the monk. The second said to Sundar, “Why are you arguing with the monk? He does good things for the community!” The third said to the monk, “This man Sundar brings new things, good things to our town. You should not quarrel with him.”

“Within three months,” said Sundar, “The man who said nothing was transferred out of the area. The man who opposed me was paralyzed in half his body. And the man who supported me was left here. God confirmed his word to me that day.”

Nepal is an officially secular, but predominantly Hindu nation with stiff laws against evangelism. It is also the birthplace of Buddha. I was amazed by the strength of Sundar’s faith and the vitality of his Church. Professor Phillip Jenkins, in his landmark work, The Next Christendom, explains what I was seeing: “By most accounts, membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs in to the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority.”[1]

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of men like Sundar leading new churches all over the global south. They are expecting to meet persecution of all kinds every day and trusting God in the middle of it. Are we?

[1] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, third edition, 2011, p. 9, Kindle version.