Friday, 29 August 2014

Never Before



I'm in my 70th year on this earth and I did something last night I've never done before.
I gave an Alpha presentation, by myself, before a group in a Chinese church. there were 35 people present.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I didn't quite know if the material I had prepared was what they wanted to hear. This church was, in a sense, re-engaging with Alpha, as they have run Alpha's in the past, so I didn't feel it necessary to give an overly detailed presentation explaining everything about Alpha, but I did give an overview, including some of the new Alpha products such as the Campus (7-week course) and the new Alpha Youth Film Series.

But first, as I was told (3 posts below) not to tell a joke through a translator, that is the joke I told. They laughed.

Then I gave a presentation I had adapted from our Pastoral Care training, emphasizing the caring attitude with which we should view every one of our guests coming in to an Alpha course. Finally, I showed a training video by Jason and Ben, our two Youth Alpha Guys™ on prayer ministry, which had had Chinese subtitles added.

Overall, I think the evening went rather well. It started with a wonderful supper at 6:00, with my presentation beginning at 7. The food was great. Some of it was home-made, some of it takeout, with a home-made, quite spicy, shrimp dish being the highlight for me. Looking around, I noticed everyone was using plastic forks to eat. I asked if this was a courtesy to me. Many times, when I have dined with various churches with Wanda Ho, our National Chinese Coordinator, out of courtesy (or pity) for me, after seeing me struggle with chopsticks, my hosts have very graciously provided me with western-style silverware. But I was assured that was not the case this time.

All in all, I pray that the group was blessed and motivated by the evening. I was thanked very profusely and assured that they enjoyed and learned from the presentation. The average of all the feedback forms was 4.55 out of 5, so not too bad.

I will have to work on the remaining .45 for next time.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

I had a pretty good day yesterday

Every once in a while, at the end of a day, I look back and say to myself, "Thank you God. That was a pretty good day." Yesterday was one of them.

I started with an early lunch meeting with two chaplains from a maximum security institution, along with John and Roxana Kreklo, Alpha's National Coordinator team for Prison Alpha. It was fascinating to hear them discuss their challenges and issues. I found myself more of an interested listener than an active participant in the conversation. Times have changed, even since I was involved in prison Alpha about 15 years ago, plus, ministry is far more challenging at a maximum security institution than the medium security one I was involved with.

Then on to a church I discovered online was planning to run Alpha. This was a church I was surprised to see run Alpha, in a denomination that one does not usually associate with Alpha, but the pastor grew up in a Pentecostal church, and was hoping to bring back some of the more fundamental truths of the Christian faith to the congregation.

Then an evening appointment with a church who ran Alpha in a street ministry context downtown. They had some very encouraging reports. I was pleased because that type of setting can actually be both the most rewarding and the most disappointing type of ministry. But they loved Alpha and plan to run the Youth Film Series for their own youth. In addition, they asked about Prison Alpha and running Alpha for First Nations People. What hearts they have for the marginalized! I have long hoped to run Alpha in a certain Native Healing Centre near Edmonton, so perhaps God is working in that direction.

There is so much to do, but so many opportunities.


Breaking the Cycle of Crime

Excellent conference last Friday/Saturday at Beulah Alliance, Edmonton, on caring for ex-offenders. Lots of useful and valuable information from John and Roxana Kreklo, Alpha's Prison Alpha team.

Thanks to Beulah and others with hearts for this ministry. I think a lot of people who may have liked to come somehow missed it.
We'll have to do another.


Sunday, 24 August 2014

Jokes May Not Translate Well

I happened to mention to my friend Mark that I am doing an Alpha training session later this week at a Chinese church. I'm not sure but I think the pastor may be translating my presentation. Mark gave me a couple of tips, including this one: don't try to tell any jokes, as they may not translate very well from English to Mandarin. Then he gave me this example.

An American was addressing a group of Japanese business people, with his talk being translated as he spoke. As is the custom with many North American speakers, he began with a joke. Knowing that the audience would not get the joke anyway, the translator translated something like this:
Speaker - the first line of the joke.
Translator (in Japanese): "Our honourable guest is going to tell a joke."
Speaker - the next line of the joke.
Translator: "Our honourable guest is now telling the joke."
Speaker - the next line of the joke.
Translator: "Our honourable guest is now nearing the end of his joke."
Speaker - gives the punchline.
Translator: "Our honourable guest has now finished the joke. Please laugh."
Upon which the entire gathering obediently broke out into hysterical laughter.

Unfortunately the speaker probably now thinks this is the perfect joke to tell every gathering of Japanese business people he addresses. Let us hope that the next translator knows what to do as well, or else the next time he tells the same joke he may be met with a room full of blank stares.


Friday, 22 August 2014

Feedback From Troubled Young People

Here is the text (somewhat edited for privacy and security purposes) I received from an Alpha Coordinator in a youth detention facility in Alberta, regarding the Alpha Youth Film Series run there:
Attendees:  8  (not always the same as some were released; some were  restricted due to bad behavior)  
Boys : 15 – 19 years of age
In conversation with the boys who attended the Youth Alpha Group, the following evaluation was received:
1.      In what ways did you benefit from being in Alpha?
-          Learned about God and understanding of the Holy Spirit  and healing was expanded
-          The questions posed in the videos kept me thinking
-          I now feel more faithful
-          I liked it a lot
-          The Adult version was boring, but the Youth Alpha was pretty good
-          I felt acceptance by you guys
2.      What was the best part of your experience in Youth Alpha?
-          The questions
-          Be sure to keep the ice breakers
3.      What was the most challenging part of your experience in Youth Alpha?
-          Not being there from the beginning (coming in the middle)
-          Would have liked the time to be longer – 2 hours instead of 1.5 hours
4.      Do you have suggestions on how we could make the Youth Alpha experience better for another group in the future?
-          It was good
-          More video testimonies
- Also really like music videos and singing.
Alpha - transforming society by transforming lives, one at a time.


BTW, the opinion expressed by one respondent is not necessarily the universally accepted view of Adult Alpha.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Jesus Stretches Us

Our readings for yesterday, and the sermon, included the story from Matthew 15 about the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus for healing for her daughter. As usual, I listen to every message in an Alpha context.

It's funny to look at Jesus' disciples and perhaps see ourselves in them. I'm speaking here specifically about our sometime lack of faith, or at least, our forgetfulness of his faithfulness. The interesting thing is that the disciples' first reaction when this woman approached Jesus was, "Send her away..."  This was just shortly after Jesus' miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the previous chapter, where their initial idea was the same, "Send them away..."  Between these two incidents Jesus had come to them in the middle of the sea walking on the water and inviting Peter to do the same. When Peter's faith faltered, Jesus reached out his hand to him and saved him, again, miraculously.

You'd think that by now the disciples would have gotten it, but apparently not. You'd think that they would know that, whatever the situation, Jesus would have an answer for it; that he was able to overcome any challenge in some amazing way, but apparently, not so.

In his message yesterday (Aug 17, should be up here in a day or two), Pastor Roy made the point that Jesus was trying to draw them out, disciple them, increase their faith.  In other words, if I got it correctly, Jesus was giving people learning opportunities; stretching them in a sense, so that they would come to the point to which he was intending to bring them, and for them to get there themselves, rather than having all the answers just handed to them. It is in this light that I think we can read his statement to the disciples, "You give them something to eat," his invitation to Peter, "Come," as he walked on the water, and his conversation with the Canaanite woman, in which he drew her out to come up with an effective answer, an answer of faith.

It is the same in the Alpha small groups when properly done. The small group leader is not there to give all the answers to every question. In fact, it is best if he or she gives answers to none at all, but tries to draw the guests out, so that by group discussion, they come to see the answers for themselves. I believe that even if it comes to the leader giving an opinion in some area, it should be primarily as a discussion-starter, followed by the question, "What do people think?" In fact, the most common phrase coming from the mouth of an Alpha small-group leader is just that; "What do people think?"

What do people think?


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Paradox of Fundraising

I spoke recently to a senior church leader about asking some of the people I know in his congregation for support, and he was quite discouraging in his response. Discouraging to a point. In other words, he did not give the requested permission. He acknowledged that there are more and more people in my position, needing to raise their own funding, and approaching individual congregants at the, "ground level" for money. I think he was trying to protect his people from this kind of thing. What he did do was to volunteer to take my application for support to his church board and put forward a proposal for his church to support me.

I have been agonizing, of late, about fundraising. I'm not very good at it, and I think my conversation with this pastor showed me why. I think he helped me put my thoughts into perspective.

I don't like asking my friends for money. I don't like asking people I know for money. I have done it, because that has been the model I was shown for raising support. But why? Am I too proud? Or is it the same reason people don't feel comfortable asking others to Alpha - fear of one thing or another. Fear of rejection. Fear of imposition on someone.

I believe I don't like asking friends for support because I'm afraid they will feel obligated to provide it because of our friendship. I would much rather have people buy in to my, or any, ministry because they feel truly called to do so, not because a friend or fellow church member asks them and they feel uncomfortable saying, "No." The danger is that they may just give a few bucks as a one-time gift just to satisfy that sense of obligation, but that's not the reason to support and that's not the reason I want people to support my ministry with Alpha.

So I don't like asking, but at the same time, support really is necessary. So what I would like to do is to make the need known as widely as possible, then allow God to touch the hearts of those He will touch, to participate with me in my Alpha ministry. That is why we are organizing this fundraiser. We are inviting as many people as possible, explaining our ministries, then allowing each guest to make a decision to support or not to support the ministry of their choice. I don't mind letting friends know there is a need, but what I don't like to do is then to ask them face-to-face for their money. As I said, too often, a person approached in such a way might give a one-time donation out of a sense of personal obligation, or to get the asker off their back, so to speak, but not give any ongoing support to a ministry they haven't really been convicted by God to help. If any feel called by God to sit down with me and discuss my ministry, I am more than happy to share, because I think Alpha is truly a great ministry, and one well worth supporting.

I don't want my support to be given grudgingly. Support should be given freely or not at all.


Dog Days - A, "Seinfeld" Post

I'm just taking a break, switching over from working on the training presentation I'm giving to an Edmonton Chinese congregation later this month, to make this post.

And I suppose, in a way, it is a kind of, "Seinfeld post." A post about nothing. I finished completing my expense report for July and noticed how little travelling I actually did. A lot of my time was spent on the phone last month, and on e-mails, hearing from one Pastor, Alpha coordinator or another how summer was not a good time to get together. The reply I heard constantly was, "Let's touch base again in the fall."

Speaking of the phone, how fortunate I am to have a plan that gives me free long-distance calling. Each month my cell phone statement includes hundreds of what would have been long-distance calls, all marked, $0.00.

And speaking of September, I am looking forward to seeing the Alpha stats for that month. I have spoken to a lot of churches who plan to run Alpha in the fall. The Youth Film Series (YFS) has really caught fire, and is, in effect, what Alpha is supposed to be about - invitation. The young people for whom it is designed (Jr. High and High-School) are way more invitational than we adults tend to be, and up to half or more guests in a Youth Alpha (I still like to call it that) are from outside the church presenting it. And... many of them are staying with the group.

Having said that, we can't afford to sit back and rejoice at the wonderful success of YFS, ignoring the rest of what Alpha has to offer. Alpha is as important and as effective as it ever was, when run properly, at reaching our communities and friends for Christ. In fact, perhaps the success of YFS will lead to an interest on the part of its graduates in checking out Alpha, classic or 7-week, as a next step.

There is a new paradigm forming here. As one youth pastor told me, these new kids would consider such a church to be, "my church," even if they never attended a Sunday service. We, "ancients" might not see it the same way. To us, "my church" is where we go on Sunday morning, but to these previously, "unchurched" young people (if I can put it that way without offence) "their church" is where they go Wednesday nights for Alpha. They might never darken the door on Sunday morning, but it is still, "their church." But here is the important thing, if I may quote the Apostle Paul, slightly edited, and slightly out of context,
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way... Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Plilippians 1:18, edited)
Well, I did it again, and once again I am reminded, and remind my readers, that this is just a diary, where I sit down at the keyboard and just start typing, sometimes not knowing where I will end up. So what started as a post about nothing somehow became a post about something.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, 9 August 2014

"You Are My People"

"...I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one. I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” - Hosea 2:23b
I believe this quote fits perfectly with the mission and purpose of Alpha. Alpha is in the business of reaching people who are not (yet) God's people and drawing them, in the power of the Holy Spirit, into a relationship in which they become God's people. This verse proclaims the best news in the world because, in effect, it proclaims that the gospel is for everyone, even those who can't believe it is for them, and those for whom we sometimes can't believe it is meant. It means, implicitly, that whatever one has done in the past; however far one has strayed or run from God, Jesus Christ came and died on the cross so that anything one has ever done wrong, no matter how bad, or even so seemingly petty,can be forgiven. And let's face it - no matter where we are, or see ourselves, on the spectrum of goodness to badness, our need for Christ is exactly the same. Each of us needs to receive the salvation purchased for us by Christ on the cross. There is no sliding scale.

Sometimes these ones God is speaking to through the prophet Hosea are the ones furthest from Him. They may seem like the ones least likely to be considered God's people. They may be people who never expected they could be acceptable; who never felt they were worthy of having God bring them into a relationship with Himself. In fact, they may never have known, thought  or even been aware that such a relationship was possible or existed.

We owe it to them, we owe it to God, to inform them that this relationship is possible. We have been ordered by God to do it. This is a relationship they cannot even understand or comprehend until they are in it. Nor could we, before we experienced it. Our human words cannot convey the hint of a beginning of an inkling of what this relationship is like. But through our words, and by our encouragement on an Alpha course, and especially the hearing of His word, the Holy Spirit can bring life to even what might seem like the deadest heart.

If anyone comes to God, hat in hand, so to speak, through Jesus Christ, God will never say, "You are not mine."

He has said so.



Thursday, 7 August 2014

When Alpha "Doesn't Work(?)"

From time to time I hear of a church who was disappointed in the Alpha they ran. Practically without exception, the problem stems from one of the following key departures from recommended Alpha procedures:

1. Failure to invite. Michael Harvey says that 80 to 95 percent of people in a typical church just plain don't intend to invite anyone to an Alpha. An Alpha in such a church is doomed to run through its own existing members and then to fritter away. I have heard of people who have taken Alpha and loved it, but still refuse, or more likely are afraid to, invite anyone to the next one. But an invitational culture is key to any ongoing success with alpha. Without it, the danger is that Alpha will shrivel and atrophy.

2. Skipping the weekend away. The ideal weekend away is just that - getting the whole group to a retreat centre for at least a Friday evening and a Saturday. I always loved these times and found them almost like a holiday. It gives guests the opportunity to spend an evening and at least one day in a peaceful setting, not having to worry about housekeeping or meal preparation, and being able to focus in a concerted way on the topics of the weekend. These topics, of course, are on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. Next best is to run the weekend in either another church facility or even in the usual venue, but it must indeed be included in any successful Alpha.

Some churches  avoid these topics on theological grounds. However, it doesn't matter on what grounds they avoid the weekend away, the effect is the same - that is, the course loses a great deal of its effectiveness. Even in conversation with the pastor of such a church, I have said, in effect, "Don't try to avoid the subject. It's like not telling your teenager about the facts of life, hoping they won't hear from anyone else." Any Christian, new or otherwise, is going to hear and wonder about Spiritual gifts and especially the gift of tongues. They will hear from someone, so why not show Alpha's teaching on the subject, then discuss it in the context of their specific denomination's teaching.

3. Small group leaders too vocal, too strong or too opinionated. Alpha training is intended to address this, but invariably there are those who slip through the cracks. Even in some of my own courses, no matter how many times or how strongly I try to get through, sometimes there is a small group leader who talks too much, tries too insistently to share his own opinion, or tries to correct guests' thoughts or questions.

I have been involved in Alpha courses for over 20 years and I can say confidently that when it is run right, it works. Even Pastors or leaders I speak with, in whose Alpha's they have been disappointed, don't usually criticize the Alpha material itself (with, perhaps, the theological exception mentioned above). The Alpha recipe is sound, but if anything is left out, it's not really Alpha.