The First Alpha - Reflections on the First Alpha
An Unrepeatable Moment?
The first Alpha course that Ian, Sarah and Gail ran was foundational for the future church in Stockethill. The church has run the course on many subsequent occasions and many have been blessed by it, but it has never again been run to the same effect as that first time. The obvious conclusion to draw is that you cannot lay a foundation twice. The church was created the first time; you can’t create it twice. There are other reasons, though, why other courses have perhaps not been so significant. As Sarah says, when the first course was run it was the ‘only thing’ the core team were doing. They had few other pastoral responsibilities, presbytery commitments or other church groups to lead or contribute to, few sermons to write. It is difficult now for the current church leaders to commit as wholeheartedly to the running of an Alpha course as the core team did that first time.
Ian reflects that a recent Alpha did, at one stage, seem to display the same cohesiveness as the first. That group deliberately stayed together and, like the first, ran the course again for others. Ian’s hope had been that this group, which had run on a Wednesday, could become a new midweek congregation. It didn’t, however, principally because the members of the group had been attending the Sunday services and preferred to continue to do so.
In the summer between the running of the first Alpha and the second, the new group spent time visiting other Aberdeen churches. Each visit was a chance to see different possibilities for their new church as well as to see things they could purposely avoid reproducing. This ‘church tour’ was also important in further strengthening the group’s relationships and focussing all the members on the shared task of imagining their new church. The tour is fondly remembered by all involved and has often been referred to over the years, and yet it has never been repeated. Again, the reasons for not repeating the tour are probably obvious: the purpose of the visit was to help form a shared vision of their new church. Once the church had been formed, their was no need to repeat the tour. To do so would inevitably have been disruptive to the smooth running of the church.
An Established Church or an Experimental Church?
For some time now, Stockethill has styled itself as a multi-congregational church. It has done this because it has three Sunday congregations, the meeting in the Community Centre and two meetings hosted in sheltered accommodation complexes, and because it prefers to emphasize the significance of the many small groups that meet during the week. In addition, however, the church has also wanted to insist that it was open to new congregations beginning in different places or times that were adapted or suited to a particular community in the parish. In practice, however, so far the Sunday meeting in the Community has remained the central meeting place for the church. No doubt there have been individuals who have found their main spiritual home in community groups, and the same could be said for Stocket Grange and Woodhill Court, the sheltered accommodation meetings. Even so, the Sunday meeting at the centre has not been duplicated or rivalled in any significant way.
Perhaps an important reason why this is so can be seen in the telling of the story of the first Alpha. Although Alpha has been run many times subsequently, it has never yet been run in the same way, with the explicit intention of starting a new church. As Ian mentions, the recently run Alpha that had a tightly knit community did not want to lead a life separate from the rest of the church.
The problems with this model of church growth appear at least twofold. Firstly, the church leaders of an Alpha course that is being used to plant a church need to commit themselves fully to this new venture. This is what the core team were able to do for the first Alpha. All subsequent Alpha courses were being run out the church that had its centre in the Sunday meeting at the community centre. The time Ian spent over his sermons for this congregation and the attraction of Sarah’s worship leading can’t simply be duplicated for another congregation and so all other attempts to create new congregations would be dependent on others, no doubt lay, grasping the vision of a new church and pushing it forward. But church planters are in short supply.
One other hope for the running of Alpha courses has been that a newly created community would take on the responsibility of introducing others to what they have recently found. In practice, however, this had proved difficult to realise. The problems lie in part in the attraction of the already existing congregation, to which their leaders are ultimately committed, but also in the fact that new converts are rarely the blank slates we might hope them to be, ready to receive and follow the biblical principles of church planting. What the church has found in practice is that new converts, or Christians new to the church will more easily adapt to the conventional practices of Sunday worship than something more adventurous, particularly when their leaders from the course are themselves committed to such worship. Marilyn makes clear in the video that Ian’s ideals about multiplying congregations and an Alpha community running the course again for others were entirely shared. This new church was still finding its feet. They wanted to run the course again to understand it better, to enjoy it again. The result of all of this is that a second Alpha course, run by the participants of a first, can only with great difficulty reproduce the same results because the participants of the second will see their leaders already enjoying a church, to which they will want to join.
A concluding note should perhaps be this: church planting is not a beginners activity, at least in the way we create disciples. We might wish to argue that the principles of mission and evangelism should be basic to the Christian life and be given to new converts from the very start of their faith. In reality though, church planting requires sacrifice. It requires the cutting of ties to one congregation and the making of new ties with the new congregation. If you like, it’s akin to marriage, to leaving and cleaving. New converts rightly look for community to join, for identity to be formed and strengthened. Church planting requires the questioning of all of these, so that what is necessary for one context can be recognised and left behind for a new identity in a new context.
Ian asks the question, ‘Where are we as a church, twelve years on?’ The church has grown and matured. The original community has embraced the stresses of expansion and has matured in faith. Stockethill Church has a story of church planting to share. It is perhaps only now, though, that we are learning what the significance of that story is and how it might be told again today, even in Stockethill, with the same results.