21 April 2022
An international evangelistic course to introduce people to the concepts of Christianity is more than an educational tool for many Anglicans.
The Alpha course originated in the UK in the late 1970s and has been used by a variety of denominations around the world to help them connect with their faith.
St Mary’s Caulfield vicar Reverend Mark Juers has run several Alpha courses in his ordained life and says he has seen many good outcomes.
The most recent one – arising from the first Alpha program he has held since he arrived at St Mary’s – resulted in a baptism on Easter Sunday.
“It was for someone who’d grown up Hindu, and through Alpha became a Christian,” Mr Juers said.
At Mr Juers previous church, St Hilary’s in Kew, there were people who did the course decades ago who weren’t Christians beforehand, he said. They converted afterwards and were still part of St Hilary’s today.
Mr Juers said that for many participants, some of the previous mythical views they’d held about the church were replaced by joy and delight about what the Christian faith actually was.
For those who were already part of the church, he said, the course helped revitalise their relationship with it.
He believes Alpha could help people who cared about asking good questions about faith have real conversations that they otherwise don’t get to have.
“It’s the right content to generate conversation afterwards in a way that helps people feel safe and not pressured,” he said.
St James’, Dandenong vicar Reverend Graeme Peters, also found the course content fascinating. But it was the format, Mr Peters said, that gives it strength.
During a recent nine-week course at St James’ a group of about 20 participants gathered once a week in the church hall. At each session, they discussed their thoughts about faith, watched a video about Alpha and then had a group discussion about it afterwards.
Mr Peters thinks it works because people gather over a meal and share their stories, build a community and relationships, and “hear the gospel and grow in their understanding of what it’s about,” he said.
Mr Peters said it keeps people coming to the group, even if they were not yet convinced by the message.
He aimed to use it to help his congregation become more involved in an opportunity through which they could invite others along to church or introduce their faith to others.
Mr Peters said in St James’ large multicultural congregation many people were quiet and therefore not given to talking to other people about their faith.
“For several, this is the first time in years they’ve had the opportunity to talk directly about their faith with anyone else. So, I’m hoping to strengthen [their confidence] a bit more,” Mr Peters said.
St James’ parishioner Rusty Nicholls estimated that it was the fifth or sixth time he was doing the Alpha course.
For Mr Nicholls, it was the grassroots, fellowship nature of it that most appealed. “It’s just a good way of getting to know people,” he said. “People can come, even if they’re not Christian, and sit down next to someone who is, and just talk about the spiritual aspects of life.”
The chance to engage in person again was a boon for Mr Nicholls who said he has completed many bible studies courses over the years, both in person and virtually.
During the recent COVID lockdowns the course had a swell in online participants. According to Alpha Australia 40,000 people joined online in 2020 and the numbers soared further in 2021.
But Mr Nicholls would rather Alpha discussions started over dinner. “I think you really need to sit around the table and talk to people, otherwise, I keep feeling like I’m missing out on the fellowship and that I’m talking over the top of people and being rude. When you’re sitting in a group of people, you can discuss a passage from the bible, for example, and get a much clearer picture of things,” he said.
Mr Juers said that the pandemic had called for a sudden and swift shift to make the course available online, “when so much about it was about being together in person, sharing food and developing trust.”
There were, however, benefits to the online format as well, he said. Attending in person could be limiting and many people could only participate because it was online.
Since emerging from lockdown St Mary’s runs the courses in a hybrid format. Some people can attend in person, Mr Juers said, and others can login to take part.
Mr Juers believes that Alpha and courses like it, would be hybrid for some time to come to allow for that.
“It’s called ‘Alpha’ because it’s the beginning. It’s not the entirety of the Christian faith, it’s really just an introduction. It doesn’t then give people who want to become a part of the Christian church a roadmap for beyond that,” Mr Juers said, “but then Alpha was never intended to do that.”