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.

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.

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

I was approaching agoraphobia—the inability to be in a crowd—and didn’t know it, but then, I didn’t know much of anything about anxiety disorders in 1980. All I knew was that I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly worried, I felt terribly alone, incessantly churning down inside. I had been a confident, risk-taking teen, but by age twenty all that was gone. I was so uncertain of myself that I stayed in my car between classes at the junior college and drove straight home after lunch to spend the rest of the day alone and miserable. The only way I could describe it was that it felt like I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight and no rope to stop me.

If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be among the thirty-odd percent of Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have an anxiety disorder. It’s even worse among college students, 62% of whom reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016 according to The New York Times.[1]

The search for peace is driving unprecedented sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, over 15.2 billion dollars and rising in 2015.[2] The medications have helped many people. And the more we learn about the brain the better. But finding peace is about more than balanced brain chemistry. It’s about inner harmony. Bottom-line: if our souls are out of balance the medications will only mask problems, problems that, if resolved, might preclude the need for medications.

It behooves us to ask then, what exactly is peace?

Peace means wholeness. Shalom—fullness of life—is the old Hebrew word. Harmony, which comes from the Greek Ireinei (pronounced I-Ray-nye), “at one again,” is another. When I have inner peace I am at one, I am whole. My mind and heart are in harmony and every part of me is in agreement. Inner peace has little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with how my mind and heart respond to those circumstances. One thing is certain: I cannot have peace with others if I do not have peace within.

We chase peace in many ways.

Fame is one, the search for which is exacerbated by social media. Teens especially are vulnerable. When we are well-known (translation: many “friends” and “followers”) and well liked, the center of attention, we have peace. But the peace of fame is fleeting. It leaves us empty and anxious when the spotlight turns, as it inevitably will, to someone else.

Perfection is another. Pursuing perfection makes us feel an inch taller than everyone else. Ben Franklin had thirteen rules of virtue but found he could never keep them all at once. Eventually we hit the wall, the end of our ability to achieve whatever goal we set be it athletic, musical, moral or financial. When that happens, peace is replaced by frustration, another word for anxiety.

Finally, some pursue peace through conformity to a sub-culture: We’re Goths or Gays, Progressives or MAGA’s, Baptists or Brethren. Conformity is sturdy, reliable. The boundaries are clear and so are the “ins” and the “outs.” But conformity offers peace only to insiders. It erects barriers to outsiders. In the end, conformity is the peace of prison. Life stops at the gates.

The Bible explains where our anxiety comes from. We are fragmented, incomplete creatures, created whole in the image of God but broken at the fall. We are jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, un-synchronized and incomplete without relationship with Him who made us.

The Bible also offers the path to peace: Jesus. “For he himself is our peace,” wrote Paul, “who made the two one.” Jesus is our peace because of two things: His personal wholeness, he is shalom personified, and his work of redemption. He restored our broken relationship with God.

Jesus is the only unfragmented person who ever lived. He is complete, lacking nothing. “In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.”[3]

Jesus restored, synchronized and harmonized, our relationship with God. “We have peace with God through” him.[4] He filled up what was lacking in us by “making us complete” in himself.[5] He unifies our minds in peace, overcoming our mental fragmentation by the control of his Spirit.[6]

In March of 1980 I gave my life to Christ, asking him to take control, and experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” The falling stopped, and my feet were finally on solid ground. I have had many ups and downs since then, but the rock beneath my feet has never moved. Aren’t you ready to do the same?

[1] https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/10/18/why-extreme-anxiety-is-at-an-all-time-high-among-american-students

[2] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/anxiety-disorders-and-depression-treatment-market

[3] Colossians 2:9

[4] Romans 5:1

[5] Colossians 2:10

[6] Romans 8:6 & 9.