The First Alpha - Running the Course
After a year of seeking to build the core team by drawing in other Christians from outside the parish to live and minister there, the team and Ian in particular, were beginning to feel vulnerable. Ian was beginning to hear the questioning voices of other ministers: why are they so focussed on people joining the core team from the outside and not evangelising the folks of Stockethill?
The departure of the fourth member of the core team only made the situation feel worse. The plan had been to start as they intended to carry on, with Christian community at the heart of the new church’s life and mission. The alternative, to which they felt pressurised and ill-equipped, would be for the small team to embark on a campaign of public evangelism.
Alpha answered these problems in more than one way. The team had gathered a handful of connections to people whom they felt might be interested in coming on such a course and Alpha would bring them together. It allowed the team to be engaged in a form of evangelism that was recognised and acceptable to those looking on from outside, while still allowing them to be true to their convictions that the Gospel was best communicated through relationships and that small group discipleship should remain central to all they did. In particular, Alpha’s format of food and hospitality was well-suited to build a community oriented church.
The area was leafletted, with help from a group from Whiteinch church. Nine people attended the course along with Ian, Sarah and Gail.
The team’s expectations were still high. Ian recalls wanting this group to develop so that new leaders would be formed who themselves would create their own groups, so that quickly a network of groups would spread throughout the area. What actually happened, happened slowly and perhaps its significance was all the more real and longer lasting for that.
The first night was a nervous affair for the team. Ian was ill and Gail and Sarah ran the evening. It’s possible that without ‘the minister’ the evening had a more open feel. Later, the team were proud that their church could still take part in mission without Ian. Sarah recalls how excitement was quickly mixed with the surprise of responsibility: they now ‘had people’ to care for, to minister to.
Over the weeks, the group developed a close relationship. Perhaps rarely for such a course, there was no difficult individual who dominated conversation. Instead, the group's members supported each other. They were ‘in it together’ and wanted to continue their journey together at the end of the course.
Ian asks in the video whether this sense of community extended to the core team. During the course, Ian, Sarah and Gail were the course facilitators, and even if they felt aware of their own inadequacies, the group assumed their competency. Eventually, as the group moved on from the Alpha course and began to talk of developing their own church, the relationship between the core team and the group became stronger and the two groups less clearly distinct: in creating a new church they were all novices.
Alpha has proved popular and useful. No one has attended the course, in the years that Stockethill has run it, and dropped out simply through dislike. At the same time, as Meggie points out, some people say that it’s ‘not for them’. It takes confidence to launch into ten weeks of conversation.
The point can probably be broadened. Stockethill is a church in which group hospitality and discipleship has been as essential. This distinctive identity, moulded through Alpha has been embraced by many people over the years. But, equally, the apparent informality and the assumption that conversation about spiritual matters is an unexceptional daily occurrence, can be threatening and alienating for some. The use of Alpha in Stockethill has been impressively influential and successful but it is unclear the extent to which some have been excluded by the very thing that has drawn many in.