What is Alpha and how did this gospel initiative come to take place in over 100 countries and 90 languages each year? Convivium sits down with Shaila Visser, National Director of Alpha Canada to learn more about how how a good meal, short video, and honest conversation just might be they key to accompanying those wrestling with some of life's most important questions.
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Convivium: For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with what Alpha is, could you take us back to the beginning? Where did Alpha first begin?
Shaila Visser: Alpha first started at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in Central London in the UK. Holy Trinity Brompton is an Anglican church. The vicar at the time was looking at ways to impact the city and the community around them. He wanted to help people understand more about Christianity, and Jesus in particular.
The first iteration of Alpha was birthed in the 1970's but it wasn't until Nicky Gumbel took it over in 1991 and 1992 that it began to become what people know as Alpha today. In 1993 Alpha really started to become a service to the local church, expanding beyond central London.
C: Alpha is very clear that the exploration sessions it runs for the basis of the Christian faith can be held anywhere with “no pressure, no follow-up, and no charge.” Can you share more about the heart and vision behind this model of engagement?
SV: Alpha is a series of interactive sessions exploring the basics of the Christian faith. Each session looks at a different question designed to create conversation. The course is designed for people that either have no faith, are agnostic, come from a different faith background, or different worldview. Alpha is an opportunity for a group of people to be around a table to share a meal and a conversation about Christianity. There's no pressure. We don't follow up. People can come and check it out. There's no charge or fee. Alpha is just an open, informal, and honest space where people come together to explore and discuss life's big questions.
People today really want to explore life, meaning, and are willing to have a discussion. We want to invite people to come into Christian community and experience who we are and what we believe in a way that allows them to dialogue about it openly and honestly. Creating a safe environment where conversation is facilitated is very important to us. Ensuring that the culture that's created is inviting, welcoming, and radically hospitable is a signature of Alpha both in Canada, and around the world.
C: Can you share more about the global scope of Alpha?
SV: Alpha is in over 100 countries and 90 languages with approximately two million people a year take Alpha globally. Who would have ever thought a course that has been designed to impact young people in central London could impact people around the world?
Alpha has been in Canada for about 20 years. There's about 2,000 churches a year that run Alpha with about 5,000 Alphas running from coast to coast.
C: Could you share with us a little bit about how Alpha became a part of your story?
SV: I got involved in Alpha in 1999 running Alpha in a boardroom for business people and lawyers. I had been working with Power to Change in their Women in Leadership ministry and was looking for ways to impact people in the business world.
It wasn’t easy to reach people in downtown Vancouver and provide them an opportunity to discuss these deeper questions so I decided to try and run Alpha with a good friend Georgia Lee Lang. Georgia owned her own boutique law firm and together we ran the second and third Alpha in the Workplace ever run globally.
It was helpful for so many people. It was like the light went on and I realized Alpha could be used not only in a church context, but it could be used in a workplace. I got involved with the team over in the UK and started traveling with Alpha, speaking and training people on how to run Alpha in the workplace. I did that from about 2001 through to 2010. I just loved it. It was just amazing to watch all of these people in their workplace think about, "How can I create an open environment for people to discuss life's biggest questions?"
Then, in 2010, the board of Alpha Canada was seeking applications for their National Director role and I applied. I felt a very serious call to serve the church in Canada well. In 2010 and 2011, I spent a lot of time listening. I realized there was an opportunity for Alpha to serve the church well in Canada again.
C: Your website reads: “All sessions start with food.” Could you share with us about why food is integral to the Alpha model?
SV: Food really is the basis of the all that we do. I would say that, we believe there is something supernaturally wonderful when people are gathered around food that is both biblical and practically life giving. Through scripture, we can see food and the discussions over food, the coming together over food, as hugely important. The leading issue in Canada, if not globally, is social isolation. The meal in this day and time is even more important. Us opening up our homes, our churches, our workplaces and offering people a meal, and a drink, and hospitality is increasingly going to be the deciding factor on whether or not people take our faith and our involvement in their lives seriously.
When you put food and conversation together and give people a safe place to come, the Holy Spirit is released in a way that allows hearts to soften, minds to open to the gospel by the time we watch the Alpha film series. We would never recommend that people go without food on Alpha. It’s hard work to prepare the best meal you can for any number of people, but the church in Canada I will say, has realized that it's a key component.
C: What is it about Alpha that has allowed the movement both to not only endure, but flourish?
SV: I think it's the grace of God; it's Holy Spirit anointing. We are as surprised as everyone that God has used Alpha in this way in Canada. We just sit in awe of the amazing work that God has done through our team, through our board, through the churches, through our volunteers. It takes about 40,000 people in Canada to run Alpha every year. That's people on the ground and in local churches, committed to creating a space that welcomes a stranger, and invites them in to consider the big questions of life.
C: In Fall 2015, Alpha released its refreshed digital materials. Could you share with us a little bit more about the vision you have for your newly produced digital content?
SV: We released our Alpha Youth Film Series in 2013 as our attempt to serve the paid and volunteer staff that help run youth groups from east to west. We wanted to create something that would be helpful for them. Alpha had never done a digital or film series for teens. In 2013 we went from having about 70 alphas running for youth right across the country, to 900 in a six week period. It was crazy.
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The church really wanted a tool that could help them reach kids in their community. It wasn't just about, "Let me run this for my youth group." It was about, "How do I equip the teens in my youth group to invite their friends?" The series is now operational in 45 countries in 19 languages.
Nicky Gumbel and the crew in the UK said, "Could Alpha Canada and Alpha international based out of the UK co-produce a refresh of the entire film series? Could we co-produce the Alpha film series?" We created this resource that the local church needed a tool that they could feel proud of and excited about. The Alpha film series presents the gospel story in a compelling way for their guests, for people far from God or outside of the church.
C: Is there a particular story that you return to when reflecting on the impact of Alpha?
SV: The most exciting stories are always about a life that has been deeply transformed. I think of four stories in particular of our staff members now. When they look back to ten years ago, they were not even Christians. They were in their early or mid 20's; they weren't walking with God. They had no interest in Church. If you would have told their young self in their 20's, "You're going to become a Christian and you're going to work for the organization that participated in your coming to Christ," they would have thought you were crazy. And here they are, four millennial leaders within our own staff because the ministry touched their lives.
It was a whole life transformation. In my own church, I can look around on any given Sunday and see at least 25 people sitting in our church today that have come to faith in Alpha. I have friends and neighbours that have come to faith on Alpha. I think we're getting the first taste of a movement of God in the country to draw more hearts to himself. We're just a small part of what He is doing, but we get to see the first fruits of this movement.
I'm particularly excited for the next generation. Teenagers of faith, blow my mind. They are faithful, passionate, committed to reaching their friends. I am just amazed at their courage, their excitement to run Alpha for youth with their friends, and the make a difference. When I was a teenager I would have been scared to run Alpha at my high school, but kids are really excited.
C: As we begin a new year, what is your hope for Canadians of faith who encounter Alpha this year?
SV: My hope for Canadians of faith in Canada is that they would continually push deeper into understanding the purpose of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit so that they can be faithful to represent him in their daily lives. Whether they find themselves in the workplace, as a volunteer, in their own family, in the community at large. That they would represent Christ well and invite people as the Holy Spirit leads, to consider the claims of Christ.
My hope for the church in Canada is that they would reclaim the beauty, the passion, and the gift it is to be involved in the work of evangelism in our nation. The best quote I have heard on evangelism, that I think we need to recapture is by Darrel Johnson, who says, "Evangelism is joining a conversation that the Holy Spirit is already having with someone."
If we really understood this truth, we would listen more intently to the Holy Spirit and listen more intently to our friends, our family members, and our colleagues to ask, "Lord, what are you saying to them and how can I join that conversation?" If all Christians, regardless of their church tradition, decided to do that, we would see a massive change in our nation.
My hope for Canadians in general, who perhaps are of a different faith, or have no faith, or who have given up on faith is that there would be a faithful Christian who befriends them and loves them well, and gives them opportunities to explore the meaning of life from a Christian perspective. Maybe this will look like Alpha, and we'd be delighted if that was the case. More importantly, we just want Jesus to be known by everyone, regardless of what tool or how that comes about.
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