I checked in with Todd recently to catch up and find out about Alpha’s upcoming conference on Conversational Evangelism.
Todd, catch us up on your work as President of Alpha USA. How long have you been in the role and what do you enjoy most about your job?
I have worked with Alpha USA for nearly three years now—it’s hard to believe how fast time goes by! I spend a great deal of time on the road introducing various groups to the Alpha Course, describing why small group, conversational evangelism is such a good fit for postmodern, post-Christian, post-secular America.
The most rewarding art of the job is the vantage point it gives me to see into the wider body of Christ. I know the dire statistics regarding church life in America, I see where the culture is going, and I agree with George Barna that there is a revolution happening outside mainstream church life.
But, with all that said, I am constantly amazed by the wonderful, godly people I meet in churches of all kinds who have a sincere, non-religious, non-manipulative heart to create a safe place for seekers to journey toward faith. That discovery has been heartening. It is rewarding to come along side such people and their churches with the tool of The Alpha Course.
What are some things people would be surprised to know about Alpha?
Here is the most surprising thing: it is not a “modern” tool. Our present culture is transitioning and still mixed when it comes to worldviews—modern and postmodern. Alpha fits well because it has elements in the course that appeal to both groups. For instance the apologetics in the talks and the structured process are attractive to modern-leaning seekers. But the dinners, the small groups, the environment of emotional, intellectual and relational honesty that pervades a good course are hugely attractive to postmodern seekers.
In the early days of The Alpha Course in the USA, there was a natural and understandable emphasis on doing the course in the exact way it was invented in London. But over the years Nicky Gumbel has tweaked the course to better fit the hundreds of young, urban Londoners who attend the course every week. In the USA we need to follow his lead. I always tell people to highlight the aspects of the course that best fit the people to whom you are in conversation. That’s just no-brainer common sense—and solid missiology too!
Here is the second surprising thing: did you catch the part about 100’s of young people coming to the course at Holy Trinity Brompton? I witnessed the same phenomena at my friend Nancy Hanna’s church in mid-town Manhattan. They both were key reasons I took this job. It is extraordinarily rare these days to find something truly effective for young, postmodern seekers. These seekers like Alpha because we explain Christianity to them in an honest, straight forward way, but we do so in a conversation in which they can say whatever they want to about us, the church, “god”, etc. They are also encouraged to ask any question. We promise to help them find the best answer we can in a non-preachy way. It works…
How many churches currently use the Alpha Course and how many people are involved in putting the course on each week?
We do not have the best of records, but we currently show that there are just over 8,200 churches using The Alpha Course. In addition there are 438 Youth Alpha courses being run, 220 on college campuses and scores more in prisons, workplaces and military settings such as Iraq and Afghanistan. That rate of activity would mean that there are tens of thousands of volunteers working to put on Alpha Courses at any given time.
Why do you think more evangelical types of churches are just now beginning to take advantage of Alpha?
In contrast to historic, “liberal” mainline churches, evangelicals have always had their own models for doing evangelism. Those models have changed over the years, but some current, effective model has always been available to them. For instance, Baptists, Bible Churches or Calvary Chapels have not had a felt need for us—they know how to invite others to church and then give them a chance to respond to an alter call. The younger, more up-to-date evangelical churches, having been influenced by the church growth movement, have been doing seeker-driven or seeker-friendly services for a couple of decades now. All these groups already had an evangelistic track to run on. However, as things in society change, The Alpha Course can be a valuable addition to the things they already do well. It will reach a subset of people they are not currently reaching.
Tell us an Alpha success story:
Here are two:
- Heather Hanson
I was raised Jewish and took it very seriously, although I had many questions about where we go when we die and who God is. I was the first girl in my family to have a Bat Mitzvah, and I insisted on it.
If anybody talked to me about Jesus Christ I was off ended. If ever I heard that a Jewish friend had read the New Testament, I was mortified.
But things started to change. One of my half-brothers converted to Christianity, so I tried reading the New Testament, but I didn’t understand it.
When I moved away from home I stopped going to synagogue. I became very engrossed with my job in the fashion industry.
Friends who were opening a restaurant outside Chicago asked me to help with part-time waitressing. In my first week a man walked in, and I told my friends, “That’s the man I am going to marry.” Gary was 45 and divorced with three children. There was a 17-year age difference between us. And he was also a churchgoer.
A year and a half later, we married at a Christian and Jewish service. For the first year, Gary and I went to the synagogue on the high holidays. As a Jew, I felt that I should be there, and I wanted my husband to experience it with me. But I realized how far away I’d drifted from Judaism. I didn’t want to belong to a religion simply because it was a cultural process. So I decided to go to Willow Creek Church with Gary.
Still, I felt guilty that I wasn’t going to the synagogue. At the same time, I was obsessed with religion: I read book after book—Buddhism, Islam, the New Age, tarot cards, horoscopes.
One December, a nearby Presbyterian Church put up an “Alpha is here” sign. I had no idea what Alpha was. On Christmas Eve we went to the church and talked with a woman about Alpha. She said to come to one night, to listen and see what we thought.
So we went. And I loved every second of it. Our discussion group was boisterous and loud, with people from all different backgrounds. Everybody was involved.
I remember explaining to the group that comprehending the New Testament was like learning the sky was purple when I had known my whole life that it was blue.
At night, I’d get into bed with my teaching Bible and read something. I even asked God to make it OK for me to become a Christian, because I was afraid of disappointing my parents.
After the healing night of the course, I had a long conversation with God: I am sorry. I want to be forgiven for my sins. And I want to give my life to Christ. Show me now how You can use me.
The following week I went back to the Alpha group, and in the middle of our group discussion said, “I have an announcement to make. . . .”
Kathleen, our leader, started crying. Gary was crying too.
Gary and I try go to church every Sunday now. For Gary, Alpha was a spiritual workout. It helped him get his spiritual muscles back. And I’ve felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I know that Jesus died for me, and I feel unconditionally loved.
My prayer used to be, God, why won’t You help me with this? But now, I ask God what I can do for Him—that’s the difference. He’s in charge of my life now. He gives me the tools and I get to be the vessel.
- Hamid Azimieraghi – “Looking for Something”
I was born in Iran, to parents who were Sufi. We were not really religious. When the revolution of 1979 happened, we were the religious minority. We had no freedom, so I escaped and came to the United States.
From then on I was always looking for something, but I didn’t know where to start or where to go. I was married to a Christian and my daughter, Gabriela, who is 7 years old now, was baptized in a Presbyterian Church. After my divorce, she was going to church every other weekend when she wasn’t with me, and I wanted to continue that.
I also wanted to know the things my daughter believed, so I was looking for something to teach me the basics of Christianity. A friend recommended Alpha, and I contacted Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (St. Louis, Mo.). I didn’t know anyone at the church. It was scary—I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid they’d ask me a question [about Christianity] and I wouldn’t know the answer. Also, I had my guard up. I didn’t want anyone to force me to believe something I didn’t want to believe.
The first night changed my idea about the course—I knew this was what I wanted. We had about eight people [at our table]. Two of the guys are now two of my closest friends. One of them was the guy who came over [in the beginning] to say, “I’m here to tell you this is not true.”
The other one knew everything, but at the end he said, “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.” It somehow touched everyone’s life at that table. Everyone’s life in a different way.
By the time we went to the retreat, I decided, If this is Christianity, then I want to be Christian. I started asking, “What do I do?” That was the most attractive thing: They let me go at my own pace, and when I decided I wanted to do this, they were all there to help me, and not one moment did they push me.
The moment I realized the power of Alpha was when I bought a yearbook [from my daughter’s school] and asked her to sign it for me. She wrote: Dad, thanks for taking me to church, and I started crying.
I love my daughter—there is nothing I would not do for her. Of all the stuff I have bought her, the things that stay with her and impress her the most are taking her to church every other Sunday.
If you are looking for some answers about Christianity, this is the course. It’s going to open a huge spiritual vineyard to you. At churches there are lots of people like me, and they don’t know where to start. This is a great tool to reach people like that.
Alpha is hosting this conference in March. Why did you decide to partner with some of todays best evangelism thinkers and practitioners?
Well…where to start? …this is a fabulous group of people! They all are very well respected and rightly so. Becky’s book “Out of the Salt Shaker” was named by Christianity Today one of the 50 most influential books in modern evangelicalism. She has forgotten more about evangelism that most of us will ever know! Mark is exceptional when it comes to helping local churches transition to an outreach oriented community of faith. Lee is probably the most accessible and popular apologist of our time. Finally, Garry Poole has really cracked the code to creating small groups that allow seekers to find their way to faith—he is flat expert on the subject.
But…in addition to all their amazing expertise, these guys also know that something is up in culture, that times are changing. We all surmise that a key response to this change is for the church to learn to listen, to experience the fact that listening can be hugely persuasive. Evangelism today needs to be two-way communication. It requires a conversation. We hope to start a conversation about this among the constituencies of people who have followed the ministries of Becky, Mark, Lee and Garry.
This is a pilot conference. We are not sure yet that we can get said what we think needs communicated. Come help us figure it out. Join the conversation. If the conference goes well, if we see that is it truly helpful, we will do more of them around the country later in 2007 and 2008.
Conversational evangelism – what’s that and why is it important?
Preaching in large venues worked well in the 20th century. The modern world respected, demanded and loved its experts. If something went wrong with our car we expected to find an expert mechanic. If we suddenly developed a health issue, we demanded expert medical care. It was a totally normal part of life. Add to that the realities of Christendom wherein pastors, teachers and evangelists were those experts in religion, it created an atmosphere wherein seekers could feel comfortable looking up to the religious expert on the big stage. That kind of environment fit the way they sought expertise in every other facet of life.
Today it is different. Most seekers don’t want to be talked down to from a stage in one way communication. They need to talk, they need to tell their story, they need a place to unload all their fears and pre-judgments about religion, etc. This requires a conversation. It requires that we come down from stages and sit with seekers around a dinner table, letting them set the pace and direction of the conversation.
Some people fear that letting “non-Christians” talk will lead to compromise. They say “why would you let a non-Christian go on about false doctrines or wrong beliefs”. It’s not like God is surprised to hear what they are thinking! We create an environment in which they can get it out and then hear feedback from their seeking peers and the guides of the group. We are always amazed by the way the Holy Spirit works in these settings. Some seeker will say something crazy or blasphemous and another seeker will, tone him down or set forth an alternative view, etc. Over a period of ten weeks the Spirit is able to find pure gold out of the dirt and rocks sifted in the group through honest conversation..
Why did you decide to come back onto the Off The Map Board of Directors?
Why of course, the food, fun and felicity at the board meetings! The brownies were, “put you into chocolate shock” good!
Actually, I think what OTM is doing has the possibility to help shape the near future of evangelism. Our notion of the spiritual practice of serving others is key to evangelism in the coming years. Not long ago I heard Donald Miller—of Blue Like Jazz fame—say that a key question seekers are asking today is “are you a good person because of your faith or your religion?” Practicing the spiritual disciplines to become the kinds of people who naturally, routinely and easily serve others, while holding on to the evangelistic values OTM has historically emphasized, is a winsome window into faith.
February 4th, 2007 · 12 Comments