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.

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

Are you a doctor, a lawyer, a mom or a dad? Are you an engineer or sales rep, a husband or wife or any of a list of a hundred other things? Or are you something more? Have you found and fulfilled the central purpose of your life?

The great mistake so many of us make is to imagine that only preachers and missionaries have a “calling” from God. Some of us go as far as entertaining the thought that maybe doctors and nurses and others in the health professions have it too. But mechanics and plumbers? Engineers and inventors? CEO’s and wait-staff? Calling? From God? You’re kidding right? Our jobs aren’t callings. We just pray, pay and play. We make it possible for others to pursue callings.

Not so says Os Guinness in his 2003 book, THE CALL: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

Calling is the truth, writes Guinness, “that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” Calling is the ultimate “why” for human living. “Follow Me!” was not just a command for Peter, James, and John. It’s for all of us.

The book is arranged in twenty-six short chapters, each addressing an aspect of calling from finding our purpose in the way we are made—the talents, passions, and aptitudes inherent in our DNA—to determining our ethics and discovering our passion by living before an audience of One. But they aren’t dry and academic. Every chapter connects to real life by beginning with an interesting story—from Thermopylae to Studs Terkel—and ending with a devotional challenge to apply what’s been learned. It also includes a study guide at the end for group discussion.

Unlike some very popular books on purpose, THE CALL is not a rehash of worn out motivational ideas that flatter in order to deceive and fail to deliver over the long haul. Guinness covers the pitfalls of calling as well as the potential and reminds us that we are not the center of the story, Christ is. And calling is not something we achieve on our own. The timing and opportunities are of God’s making. He calls us to be what he alone knows we can be.

As book reviews go, I realize I’m behind the curve by reporting on a book released 15 years ago. But, if you are like me and find the world is a more challenging place than a simple page or two of soft devotional thoughts will cover each morning, pick it up. It moved me, so I think it will move you.

With that in mind I’ll leave you with one of Guinness’s chapter ending devotional challenges:

Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose in your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself? Do you want to go beyond success to significance? Have you come to realize that self-reliance always falls short and that world-denying solutions provide no answer in the end? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.

POSTMODERN PATH TO JESUS

POSTMODERN PATH TO JESUS

Don Everts and Doug Schaupp tell what skeptics taught them about their path to Christ.

“Evangelism is a process and God is the author of it.” I learned that proverb the hard way in the 1980’s when, as per my seminary’s requirements, I tried each week to lead total strangers to Christ using a four-step presentation of the gospel. I was never any good at it.

If you love people and want them to know Jesus, but can identify with my evangelistic frustrations, you will benefit from Don Everts and Dough Schaupp’s, I ONCE WAS LOST: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus. The book helps us find our place in God’s process.

People aren’t projects nor are they targets, but creatures made in the image of God with all the curiosity that entails. But Everts and Schaupp explain that the gospel suffers from bad branding that has quenched that curiosity.

“Christa doesn’t trust Christians because she was once told she’s going straight to hell. A professor told Ryan that the Bible is full of mistakes. Bonnie read The Da Vinci Code and thinks the church is one big conspiracy. Julie was invited to a church outing but felt like an outsider the entire time.”

Everts and Schaupp worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on college campuses. The book comes from the stories of 2000 mostly millennial people who came to Christ over the course of ten years.  Though everyone’s story is unique, the authors identified five thresholds most post-moderns pass through on their way to the Kingdom: Trusting a Christian; Becoming Curious; Opening Up to Change; Seeking After God; Entering the Kingdom.

Each threshold has a chapter and includes advice on how to help our friends cross that threshold, as well as some common mistakes like my favorite: giving five-gallon answers to six-ounce questions.

“The better we listen, the better we can serve those on the journey. If someone hasn’t even crossed the first threshold, for example, we can stop handing them copies of More Than a Carpenter and realize they are at a place where considering the claims of Jesus isn’t the issue; just trusting a Christian is the issue.”

Nothing is more rewarding than introducing a friend to Jesus Christ and watching that relationship grow. I ONCE WAS LOST will help you do that.

JUSTICE FOR JACK: Religious Freedom in the Furnace

JUSTICE FOR JACK:  Religious Freedom in the Furnace

While sexual assault charges dominate the headlines, destroying careers and political prospects alike, the results of an assault on every American’s freedom of conscience are being weighed in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Jack Phillips’ Colorado bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, is named after his favorite Bible verse, Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” (NLT) Jack’s dream was to use his artistic baking skills not only to provide for his family and serve his community, but also to bring honor to God through his every day work.

Because of that conviction, Jack made it a policy not to create artisan cakes to celebrate things that ran contrary to his religiously informed conscience. All his customers were able to get custom made cakes for their celebrations with Jack’s nearby competitors, so Jack’s convictions were never a problem until two men asked for a custom-made cake for their wedding ceremony in 2012.

Jack’s legal team, Alliance Defending Freedom, explains what happened next.

“Jack offered to sell the men any pre-made cake in his shop, but kindly explained that he could not use his artistic talents to custom-design cakes for same-sex wedding ceremonies. Like millions of people across the globe and throughout history, he affirms the biblical teaching that marriage is the sacred union of a man and a woman. Designing a cake for them would force him to violate his conscience.

The men swore at Jack and stormed out. He endured weeks of threatening phone calls and emails. His family and his employees have also been abused.

But that was only the beginning. Jack received notice from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC). He was being sued, accused of violating the state’s nondiscrimination laws.

The commission ruled against Jack, fined him, and tried to force him to violate his conscience.

“I haven’t singled out that one issue as something I won’t do,” Jack says. “I don’t make cakes for lewd bachelor parties; I don’t make cakes to celebrate divorce; I don’t make Halloween cakes, or anything involving witchcraft.”[1]

The CCRC also ordered Jack and his staff to design cakes for same-sex wedding celebrations, go through a ‘re-education’ program, implement new policies to comply with the commission’s order, and file quarterly ‘compliance’ reports for two years to show that Jack has completely eliminated his religious beliefs from his business.

In response, Jack stopped baking custom cakes, losing 40% of his business and laying off employees as a result.

Jack’s story is reminiscent of the biblical Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel chapter three. As Jack refuses to bow to today’s politically correct sexual orthodoxy, so those men refused to bow before a political ideology that exalted the creature above the creator. As Jack faces the loss of his livelihood and life-savings, Daniel’s friends faced the loss of their lives. As Jack stands on his biblically informed conscience before the most powerful court of our time, they stood resolute before the greatest power of theirs, saying, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”[2]

Yet Jack does not stand alone; we are in the furnace with him. His fate is ours. If the Supreme Court rules against him, then religious freedom will cease to exist in the United States. Your freedom to obey your religiously informed conscience in your business, your profession, your education, your children’s education and associations, your affiliations, and yes, even your church, will be confined to the dictates of the new sexual orthodoxy. You will be forced by law not simply to tolerate, but to celebrate things that conflict with your conscience before God.

What can you do? Four very important things:

First, pray. This is first and foremost a spiritual battle.

Second, take a stand. Let it be known that you support Jack. Write if you are able, share this post or posts from the organizations listed in the notes[3], or at the very least go on social media and say, “I stand with Jack.” Supreme Court Justices are human too. They read and your voice matters.

Third, give money. Order brownies from Jack’s bakery. Send him cash. Or send money to ADFLegal.org to help them fight.

Finally, be informed and informative. Share the sermon podcast, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE FURNACE, listed here: http://www.fccsobo.org/files/fccsobo/Podcasts/September%203,%202017%20.mp3. Become knowledgeable on these subjects and learn to give a sound-bite on why the biblical worldview of human sexuality is good for everyone and why religious freedom is the fundamental freedom.

[1] Adflegal.org/jack phillips story

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Da 3:16–18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Adflegal.org/jack phillips story

MY ALPHA EXPERIENCE Kristen’s Story

Note from Dane: I’m delighted to turn my blog over today to my new friend, Kristen Zerbato. You will enjoy her story. 

I moved to a small southern town a little over a year ago, not knowing a soul.  All it took was one kind gesture from my new friend Sally, inviting me to lunch one afternoon, for me to see that there was something about her, a peacefulness, happiness, and quiet joy, that I wanted to know more about and have for myself.

That afternoon at lunch she told me about Alpha and gave me the red post card.  I was overwhelmed with the idea of going to a church function, not having been to a Catholic Church since my grandmother had passed away five years prior, but Sally committed to being there with me. I knew, not knowing anyone, this would be a good way for me to make some friends in a new town, but I never would have imagined what doors it would open and the magical experiences and relationships that would have formed.

I’ll never forget my first Alpha class, while I felt out of place because I didn’t know anyone, the whole Alpha crew and members of the church were overwhelmingly kind and welcoming.  After watching the video and splitting up into groups, I was so anxious and tried to keep that fear buried where no one could see it. As soon as the hosts started the group conversation I felt some tension dissipate.  Their kindness, openness and encouragement was calming and exactly what I needed to begin to open my heart and mind to the possibility of knowing God.

I knew there was something missing in my life, a hole almost, and Alpha set the foundation to fill that hole.  Alpha gave me truth to the big questions I had around Christianity and helped me establish relationships with people I couldn’t imagine my life without now.

I have lived a very good life so far, but the joy and love I’ve felt and all of the things I’ve learned/ am learning about myself and the Lord, has made this year without a doubt the most meaningful and memorable.  I can’t thank everyone at my new church, and especially Sally, enough for showing me so much kindness and love.

THE LIGHT IN THEIR EYES

It has happened too many times to be a coincidence. My wife and I will meet someone new and comment to one another later, “I think she’s a believer. I just sense that she is.” Sure enough, as we come to know the person better our intuitions are confirmed.

I call it the light in the eyes. It’s the reason we tell people about Jesus, invite them to the Alpha Course, and invite them to worship with us. That light is indicative of much deeper and greater things, things that give me deep joy.

But wait a minute; aren’t we supposed to be concerned about where people spend eternity? Heaven and hell and all that stuff? Well yes, but that comes later. Salvation, as the Bible calls it, is what happens now and continues to infinity. Life in Christ, eternal life, begins here, on earth and has definite earthly effects.

Let me outline the ones I’ve witnessed and see if you agree.

The light is the first thing and always a pleasure to see. The shadow is gone from the countenance. The expression takes on a new kind of clarity born of inner peace. The Apostle Paul called it “the peace that passes all understanding,” and he wasn’t kidding. We’ve found, sometimes after years of searching, our ultimate identity in Christ as one of God’s chosen creatures. His Spirit has taken up residence inside and filled us with … well it is not easy to explain. It just is. Love, joy and hope come close, but there is more to it than that. There is something, Someone, where before there was nothing and no one. Life will continue to have its difficulties. There will be ups and downs. But we are never again alone in the universe.

Wounds begin to be healed. Bad habits begin to be broken. Internal peace is followed, sometimes rapidly, sometimes less so depending on the level of obedience and maturity, by external peace; peace in relationships, peace in the life as it takes on more of God’s order of things. Trivialities are put aside, essentials are elevated and prioritized. Christ is at the center of the life bringing balance to the whole.

The yield of these things is fullness of life as the order and peace enable the development of capacities inborn but heretofore obscured or misdirected. The gifts of the Spirit are deployed and untapped potential is discovered.

As the believer continues to grow and these potentials come online they begin to point to purpose; the intersection of our gifteddness and passion with the needs of the church and the world. Life becomes more focused and more fruitful; confident in its identity, stabilized by the order, encouraged by capacities newly discovered resulting in the revelation of why we were put here in the first place.

Then the greatest thing of all happens. The fruit of a life formed in the image of God, filled with the Spirit of his Son begins flowing out into the blessing and encouragement of others. Others see the purpose strengthened by confidence and carried out with competence. They experience the blessing of being served by someone who seeks no personal glory. They observe the fullness of the soul and the order in the life and sense the peace that flows from inside under-girding it all.

And finally, if they are truly seeking, they too begin to see the light in the eyes and wonder where they might find it.

RENDEZVOUS WITH JESUS: Alpha 2017

A new friend sat across the table at the local deli, eager to tell me what had happened to him.

“On the third week, when Nicky Gumble led in prayer, I prayed with him and gave everything to God. I told God I couldn’t do anything without him and didn’t want to try. Up until then I had some good days and some bad days, well, really a lot of bad days and some OK days, full of anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. All of that is gone. I felt this incredible lightness after I prayed. I’m sleeping the night through now, and I’m so happy.”

That was in 2011, about five weeks into our first Alpha Course, and conversations like it have continued to happen ever since. That’s the reason our church will offer Alpha in September for the eighth time since 2011. I’m writing today to ask you to pray for the course and for friends you might invite this summer.

Haven’t heard of Alpha? Wonder what it’s like?

The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community.

Learning is a process that happens best when we are in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. People who have attended church all their lives will enjoy it. Those who’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity will also enjoy it and come away enriched, with new understanding and new friends.

The Alpha Course Team, the people who make the event happen each fall, consists of two parts: task force, and hosts / facilitators. The task force prepares the meals and handles logistics. The hosts / facilitators make  guests feel welcome and facilitate small-group discussions. The only prerequisites to serving on the team are to have attended the course at least once and meet a few times prior to launch for prayer and training.

One of the most important things our Alpha team has learned over the years is that the primary reason people attend the course is because a friend has invited them. So even if you choose not to serve on an Alpha Course team, your prayers for and invitations to friends really count. Of course you’ll also want to attend with whomever you invite.

The coolest thing in the world is to sit with new friends, see the peace and joy on their faces, hear how awesome it is to know that they are loved and cared for by the Creator of heaven and earth, and know that we got to play a small part in their rendezvous with Jesus.

Interested? Visit  http://alphausa.org.