“Why don’t more people come to parish events?” “Where are all the young adults and young families?” Four years ago, it seemed as if I was asking myself these questions every time I set foot in my church.
I had been leading Bible studies and organizing retreats for more than a decade, and consistently low turnout was beginning to discourage me. I was passionate about sharing the good news, but hardly anyone under the age of sixty was willing to attend the events we offered at St. Joseph, my parish in Ohio. I had a suspicion about why this was the case: “God” and “church” just weren’t a priority for most people.
So I prayed . . . a lot. Then our local Catholic radio station aired a program called Christ Is the Answer, which features a priest named Fr. John Riccardo. As I listened, I kept hearing him mention the success he was having at reaching people with the Alpha course at his parish. I wondered if Alpha could be the answer to my prayers.
An Opening for the Unchurched. I did a little research and learned that the course is “an opportunity to explore life and the Christian faith in a friendly, open, and informal environment.” It was developed at Holy Trinity Brompton, an Anglican church in London. Is this even Catholic, I wondered? And yet because it starts at the beginning with proclaiming the basic message of Christianity, it is Catholic, because we as Catholics proclaim the same message of Christ’s death and resurrection as all baptized Christians.
The truly unique thing about Alpha is that it is a helpful “entrance ramp” for people who have never really heard or understood the heart of the Catholic message. The Alpha course provides a way they can relate to that message. It doesn’t require any prior knowledge of Catholic terminology or the liturgy. It is also centered around activities that young people and those who don’t attend church find nonthreatening: a meal, a video presentation, and small group discussion.
A Relatable Message. As I watched the very first episode of Alpha, I was captivated. It was as if the host, Nicky Gumbel, was speaking directly to me. He described finishing college, getting a job, and getting a girlfriend. He said he had hoped that each of these would be the “one thing” that would finally satisfy him, but none of them did. I thought to myself, I’m not the only one who felt that way before I encountered Jesus.
I watched more Alpha episodes. One of them featured a painting by William Holman Hunt titled Light of the World. This image of Jesus standing at a door is based on Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” Nicky pointed out that there is no handle on the outside of the door in the painting because Jesus is patiently waiting for us to invite him into our lives.
As I explored the eleven-week Alpha course further, I discovered that at its core is the nurturing of relationships—relationships with each other in small Alpha groups and, more important, our relationship with Jesus. At the heart of it, if we are too busy or something is not a priority, it really is a problem with the relationship. The deeper your relationships, the higher the priority you will give to them. And that applies to Jesus and our faith community.
Making “Church” Inviting. In three years, we have run Alpha eleven times consecutively, and each time is better than the last. At each session, we have had guests who are Catholic, some who are not Catholic, and even people who have no faith background at all. After their Alpha experience, I find that the barriers and misconceptions they had about the Catholic Church begin to crumble. Now I see more people in their twenties, thirties, and forties coming to events at our parish, a wonderful change for us.
Alpha meets the desire in people’s hearts to have meaningful conversations and to build relationships. This has had noticeable effects in the way people relate to one another at our parish. A young parishioner who had returned from doing mission work was struck by how hospitable the parish had become. Before Alpha, she had never seen so many people linger after Mass to talk with one another.
We have all become more open to the Holy Spirit, which has led us to new ways of praying. In our Bible study group, we used to say, “We’ll pray for you” when someone was ill. After finishing the Alpha course, the group gathered around one of our members to lay hands on her and pray for healing. We had never spontaneously prayed like that until Alpha!
When I asked an older woman in our parish to tell me about her experience attending Alpha, she said, “I’ve been Catholic my whole life, and I’ve always done everything right because I was afraid to go to hell. Now that I know what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, I want to do everything right because I want to be with him forever in heaven.”
How Jesus Becomes a Priority. Fr. James Mallon, the pastor of St. Benedict Catholic Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has seen the effects of Alpha in his parish. Alpha creates opportunities for people’s hearts to become soft and open to Jesus. He says that doing catechesis before evangelization is like planting seeds in concrete. It’s no wonder that so many young people leave the Church; the seeds of faith never have a chance to grow because there is no relationship with Jesus. Without that relationship, anything church related quickly moves down the priority list.
A woman in her early forties hesitantly accepted my invitation to join our first Alpha. She had been away from the Church for about twenty years. She wasn’t interested in attending a “church thing,” but I caught her off guard with my invitation (and I think she didn’t know how to say no!).
At first, she was quiet and casual, acting as if everything in her life was fine. Then the members of our small group started to become friends and build trust with one another. Seven weeks into the course, during a retreat, the Holy Spirit moved her to go to Confession for the first time in twenty-seven years. In the remaining weeks, she started to open up about deep wounds in her heart. At that point, we were able to pray together for her healing, and the Holy Spirit did the rest.
I had always thought that good catechesis could bring people into a relationship with Jesus. Now I think that the relationships have to come first so that people’s hearts become open and eager to learn deeper truths of the faith.
Anne Cook coordinates evangelization at St. Joseph Catholic Parish in Marblehead, Ohio.
If you’d like to learn more about bringing Alpha to your parish, The Word Among Us Press has a new resource available. You can order Unlocking Your Parish by Ron Huntley and Fr. James Mallon at wau.org.