Thursday, May 15, 2008

What conditions must be present in a church before Alpha could succeed?

Alpha or Kingdom Ethos

Alpha evangelism is more than just a presentation of a series of propositional truths for seekers to accept or reject. When a seeker decides to convert to Christ, he or she is not only converting to Christ in heaven but also to the Christ on earth, viz., the Body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12:12). A seeker must be attracted to both the heavenly Christ and the earthly Christ for conversion to occur: very often, a seeker is turned away from the heavenly Christ because he has a bad encounter with the earthly Christ. So, a holistic Gospel presentation must take seriously the seeker’s experience of the earthly Christ, for it is through the believing community that the seeker experiences the heavenly Christ.

In Alpha evangelism, the Gospel we proclaim is the Good News of the Kingdom of God: this Kingdom reality is incarnated in a community indwelt by the Holy Spirit and characterized by “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Such a Kingdom presence and power can only be expressed through an Alpha host team that manifests the Kingdom ethos expressed by the following core values:

1) Love for the Lost

Evangelism is more than about running a programme. It is about love for people, especially those who are lost and without Christ. This must be the basic motivation for all who are involved in evangelism: “for Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor 5:14). This love is expressed as a deep compassion for the lost “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).
This compassion for the lost is manifested in our attitude of gentleness and respect to everyone who comes on Alpha, knowing that deep down in every guest who is without Christ is a sense of lostness and emptiness despite their outward self-confident behaviour.

2) Kingdom mindset

We do evangelism to advance God’s agenda on earth, namely the establishing of His kingdom. We are not doing it to increase our church membership. Our daily prayer is “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). Church growth is not the reason for evangelism but Kingdom growth. If our guests decide to join another church after the Alpha course, we should rejoice because all churches belong to the Kingdom of God. For this reason also we do not disparage other churches or denominations during Alpha for such negative attitude compromises the Kingdom mentality which is always generous towards other parts of the Body of Christ.

3) Graciousness

A gracious attitude is the opposite of the judgmental attitude. Graciousness refers to our understanding that the Gospel is good news—so we speak more of God’s mercy than judgement, more about Spirit than law, more about faith than works. Of course, we do not avoid telling the guests about the Bad News of sin and judgement. But the Gospel is Good News and so that must be our emphasis: we do not condemn or make our guests feel guilty. That is the works of the law. But grace is freeing, not condemning.

Graciousness is also reflected in our affirming attitude: we are always finding reasons to praise and encourage, not criticise or disparage. While we may not always agree with the views expressed by our guests, we nevertheless try to affirm truths even in their contrary views and opinions. The last thing we want is to become defensive, because defensiveness is an attitude born of insecurity about our faith. We must be willing to admit we don’t have all the answers. We do not set up ourselves as experts in Alpha, but we are simply gracious hosts and hostesses. Our aim as hosts and hostesses is to help our guests have an enjoyable and happy experience in an Alpha session.

Grace is about being good, not about being right. In Acts 10:38, we are told that Jesus went about “doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” In Acts 15:28, the apostles wrote to the Gentiles believers that “it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit”, not “it seems right to us.” Legalism is focused on being right; grace is focused on doing good. If we keep on doing what is good, we will end up doing what is right without being judgmental. However, if we are focused on being right we end up with legalism—and that is a repulsive rather than attractive attitude.

4) Relationships

Alpha is about people, not programme. Our top priority in Alpha is building relationship, not winning arguments. We are not trying to be right all the time. Even when we know what the guests are saying is totally inaccurate and untrue, it isn’t necessary to immediately put them down nor correct them. Rather, our attitude should be that of trying to understand why the guests have such misconceptions of Christianity. It could be that they had bad experiences with Christians before or they are simply ignorant. In the end, it is love that draws a person to Christ and this love is experienced in a relational community: “People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.”

Eating together is an important part of Alpha because it is an opportunity for relationship-building. Small talk is also an important skill to cultivate during mealtime for it is a non-threatening communication that allows the guests to be themselves and speak about things that matter to them.

5) Servant attitude

The Alpha ministry is a servant ministry. We do not set up ourselves as spiritually superior teachers and leaders here to impress the spiritually inferior guests with our religious knowledge. Rather, we approach the guests as servants, ready to offer a hand to serve them in any way possible. Servant-like ministry includes practical helps like serving drinks and helping our guests get their food, always alert and attentive to their needs at all time. In the Kingdom community, everyone is a servant and we demonstrate this attitude as part of our proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom. Jesus himself has set an example for us to follow: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served , but to serve , and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-28).

6) Holy Spirit ministry

We believe that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. It has nothing to do with our persuasive skills or knowledge. Jesus says that when the Spirit comes, “he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Instead, our responsibility as evangelists is simply to clarify misconceptions and explain simply the Good News of Jesus Christ, leaving the result to the Holy Spirit. We do not try to “convict” people of their sins by making them feel guilty. Our role is to show love and acceptance and let the Spirit do the work of life transformation.

Therefore, there is no need to put pressure on anyone who is not ready to believe. If a guest is not ready, it simply means the Holy Spirit has not touched him or her as yet. We continue to pray for our guests and love them even when they are rejecting everything we say. The Weekend Away is an important part of this divine ministry and we facilitate the ministry of the Spirit through the laying on of our hands.

7) Ecumenical spirit

Alpha is run in many different denominations, including Roman Catholic churches. We therefore have to be ecumenically sensitive and demonstrate acceptance of Christians from all denominations. The last thing we want to see in Alpha volunteers is religious bigotry that manifested itself in criticisms of other denominations. This is off-putting for seekers who expect to find unity and love among Christians of all denominations. We want to model the inclusiveness of Christian faith, not exclusiveness. If we highlight our own denominational distinctiveness at the expense of others, we are promoting division rather than unity in the Body of Christ. This attitude hurts the Body of Christ and the Lord of the Church. It also turns off seekers from accepting Christ as Lord.

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