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Eastertide 2011: Elaine Young 

(Photo: Sue Careless)

Over 16 million people in 164 countries have taken an Alpha course, including a quarter million Canadians. Anglican laywoman Elaine Young is Alpha Canada's Regional Director for the Atlantic Provinces and the Canadian Director for Relationship Central. She talks with Sue Careless about the popular evangelistic program and some of its new courses.   

Alpha has, by any measure, been an outstanding success in spreading the Gospel of Christ, in building up faith, lives and churches. What aspects do you think have made it so appealing?
The course is practical – it addresses questions about the existence of God, the purpose of life, what happens after death, the teachings of Jesus and more. Many people, even those who have attended church for years, have never really understood the basics of the Christian faith. Alpha provides a friendly, non-threatening place for anybody to explore.
How has it changed since its early days?
Alpha Canada’s vision has remained the same – to see the evangelization of Canada resulting in the transformation of society. However, our resources have adjusted and changed over the years – we now have Classic and Express Alpha, as well as Alpha in 7 weeks with Jamie Haith. We help churches to innovate – bringing Alpha to the community centre, the arts club, the coffee shop, the pub and even Fitness Clubs.
What does a basic Alpha course consist of?
The course usually meets once a week for 10 weeks and includes a day or weekend away in the middle. We do have a shorter 7 week-version with 20-25 minute teachings and a multimedia component. Topics include: Who is Jesus, Why did Jesus Die, Why and How Should I Read the Bible, three talks on the Holy Spirit, How Can I Resist Evil, Does God Heal Today and What About the Church? Each session usually involves some food, a DVD or ‘live’ teaching and small group discussion.

What are some of the ways the basic Alpha course has been adapted for particular situations such as prisons, the military, college and the workplace?

Prison Alpha In 1995 the first Alpha course was held in a prison in Britain. Now over 80% of British prisons are running Alpha. Within Canada, there are courses in 40% of our provincial and federal correctional institutions. The rate of re-offence among ex-prisoners in Canada is between 55-90% depending on the age group. About 7 out of 10 will re-offend within two years of their release – but that rate drops in half when inmates have taken Alpha and become connected with a local church community.

Alpha for the Military is a ten-week course that has helped many soldiers find answers to questions about suffering, injustice, loneliness and the meaning of life. Alpha for the Military is offered on many Canadian military bases and operations, including in Bosnia and Afghanistan. We also offer The Marriage Course with a special session for the military titled: Coping with Times of Separation.

Alpha in the Workplace Factory workers are facilitating courses in their cafeterias and health workers in their hospitals. Groups often meet before or after work, or during the lunch break. Meetings are usually shorter than church-based sessions due to time constraints. Nor is there worship during Alpha in the Workplace, with the exception of the Weekend or Day Away.

At Campus Alpha students get together to enjoy a free meal, watch a short 30-minute DVD, and then voice their thoughts, opinions and questions in small groups. Campus Alpha is running in colleges and universities all across Canada.

Youth Alpha seems particularly innovative. How does it work?

Youth Alpha runs over seven or ten weeks, plus a weekend or day away in the middle. Youth Alpha shares the same important elements as any Alpha course: food, fun, worship, a talk, and small groups. It is designed for young people aged 11-14 and 14-18. It’s aimed at youth who would not call themselves Christians, but also works as a refresher course or confirmation course for church or school groups. The course has been run in schools, community centres, church youth groups, youth clubs, and young offenders institutions.

There are three different ways of presenting the material. Stream 1: Alpha-Tech is for teenagers who enjoy video clips, computers, multimedia technology. It works well with older youth and teenagers who have some knowledge of Christianity. Stream 2: Alpha-Active is aimed at younger youth. It involves games, drama sketches and activities to help the group interact with each other and learn more about Christianity. Stream 3: Alpha-Lite is for use in school groups or where the session must be shorter. Stories and testimonies are used to start discussions. Alpha-Lite gives teenagers a chance to talk about themselves and their own lives in an open environment. We also have a free online tool called Talkbuilder to help leaders build a Youth Alpha talk for any context. From it you can select the Alpha talk you want to give and choose from various video clips, jokes, games and quotes to illustrate your points.

What changes were made to the standard Alpha program when you were adapting it for use with those for whom English is a second language?
We provide a slower-paced version of the course (sometimes up to 20 weeks) using simplified English. The shorter talks are presented live and the speakers are trained to present in a culturally sensitive and relevant manner.

You are described as the Director of Relationship Central. What is that?  

The aim of Relationship Central is to provide practical, relevant help to couples, individuals and parents who are at different stages in their relationships.

Tell me about Alpha Canada’s two marriage courses?

The Marriage Course is 8 weeks and covers topics like: The Art of Communication, Resolving Conflict, Impact of Family Past and Present, Good Sex and more. The Marriage Preparation Course is 5 weeks and covers: Communication, Commitment, Resolving Conflict, Keeping Love Alive and Shared Goals and Values. These courses maintain a middle ground for Christians and non-Christians alike. They are not preachy but provide all that is good and necessary for healthy relationships and family life. Each couple's privacy is protected; there is no group work. Churches find these two courses open the door for taking the Alpha course and that Alpha attendees become interested in Relationship Central courses. They help people connect with the church community,

This fall two new parenting courses are going to being offered. Could you describe them?

I am really excited about these two courses and how they will help our churches reach into the community. We ran the pilot of both Parenting Children and Parenting Teenagers and they were very well received. Again, like the other courses with Relationship Central, they are practical and relate to every parent whether single, divorced or married. The evening is similar to Alpha in that guests watch the teaching on the DVD, but the talks are mixed with interviews from parents with real reactions and insights into their own parenting styles. There is opportunity for small group and plenary discussion interspersed throughout the teaching. The material is adaptable to a 5 or 10-week format.

What does it say about our Church that we have so many adults within it seeking to obtain very basic information about the faith? Where have the clergy, Christian parents, Godparents, Sunday Schools and youth programs fallen short?

We still need to offer the basics, but perhaps we should look at our “packaging.” I think many of us are still trying to work from older models of communicating the Faith. Still, I am hopeful as I see more and more frustrated clergy and Christian educators looking for a new approach. Even at Alpha, we have updated and remodeled our course over 10 years. Alpha's teaching is theologically sound. We need to be inviting those we love to investigate the Christian faith – if they are not interested or hostile, so be it, we have been obedient in asking.

Does the need for Alpha also reflect the impact the secular world has on us?

One of the reasons I became involved in Alpha was my passion to reach the younger generation. Our shrinking church congregations and the absence of the 20 and 30 somethings is a huge concern. Alpha has a good record – I’ve personally seen hundreds of people come to faith over the years I’ve been involved, many of them young.

Are Canadian Evangelicals less willing to evangelize than they were in the past?

I think we are afraid of evangelizing. We fear being rejected.  It’s one reason I love Alpha as all that is required of us is to give the invitation to investigate the Christian faith – it is not hammering people over the head trying to convince them of their need.

What was your first encounter with Alpha like? How has Alpha shaped your own faith journey?

We received the VHS tapes in the mail back in 1996. I watched about 3 of the talks by Nicky Gumbel and was immediately convinced that this course was what people in our congregation and those outside the church would respond to. I did have a strong faith when I initially heard the talks, but I was not a believer in my early 20’s and I thought if I had heard these talks then, I might have started my faith journey sooner. I think Alpha has helped me to be more articulate about my faith – I’m more knowledgeable and comfortable talking about the basics of Christianity in a way that allows the curious and skeptical room to explore and engage at their own comfort level.

How often would you recommend that a church offer an Alpha course?

I suggest churches run the course regularly. For churches that have run Alpha for a long time, I suggest they think about taking the course outside their church walls. Consider running a course in a home, or a café or restaurant.

How much person-power is needed, given there are meals to prepare?

The course is easy to run, but it does require time and commitment. Many courses are running with a full-course meal, but some only have finger foods. We ran a course last fall in a Mexican restaurant on Monday nights (a slow night for the restaurant so they let us have the entire second floor). We had nachos every week, which the restaurant provided. We used the shorter 7-week Alpha course with Jamie Haith.

How does this new course with Haith differ from the original Nicky Gumble version?

The new Alpha in 7 weeks is the same basic content condensed with speaker Jamie Haith, one of the associate clergy at Holy Trinity Brompton, England. [Alpha originated there with Anglican pastor Nicky Gumble.] The 7-week framework fits better with university & other post-secondary educational schedules.  

 What initiatives have been successful in promoting Alpha to the community?

According to our surveys, the best way to bring guests to Alpha is through personal invitation. I just heard about an Alpha course running in Halifax that had their finale Celebration Dinner and one person brought 20 guests! The Celebration Dinner is a great way to invite friends, family and co-workers along to see what it's like with no pressure to sign up. Other initiatives include high visibility banners, newspaper and TV notices and public ads. Some churches go together to purchase large newspaper ads.

Would it be wise for a church to try running various Alpha programs concurrently?

I know of one church that just finished running five courses! They had two "classic" Alpha courses, a "Senior Alpha" and two "Youth Alpha" courses. For four years running we ran follow-up courses concurrently with an Alpha course using the dinner format at our church, St. Thomas' in St. John's, NL. Churches have run Alpha and The Marriage Course on the same evening, but we recommend that the groups dine separately -- The Marriage Course meal is designed to enable private conversation between individual couples.

Some church leaders are wary of the "Holy Spirit" weekend. How do you allay their fears?

Although I personally am unsure what the hesitation on Holy Spirit teaching is, I understand the range in Holy Spirit experiences among churches is vast. Experiential knowledge of the Spirit's ministry in the life of prayer and in the concrete context of pastoral and formational ministry (spiritual wisdom) is certainly not something that seminaries emphasized when my husband was in studies 30+ years ago. We find, however, that people, Christian or other, are naturally curious about the Holy Spirit and welcome teaching about His person and work. Midway through the course, often in a retreat setting, Nicky and Jamie teach on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, giving particular attention to the "gifts" of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12), including tongues. Church leaders in some denominations tend to be sensitive about this area, but the majority of clergy that are familiar with the Alpha material agree that the teaching is biblical and sound. The record speaks for itself: the weekend or day away for most people is the turning point in the course – conversion, renewal & reformation.   TAP

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