Close to 140 Canadians, many from the west coast, were part of the crowd of 6,000 at Royal Albert Hall in London for a two-day Leadership Conference last month, when Alpha founder Nicky Gumbel delivered a barnburner talk about what he called a “united church.”
His talk was patterned after many of the biblical concepts utilized by the Alpha movement over the years to engender a focus on the person of Jesus. One of his points was that the idea that unity should be “invisible” was a bit off the mark. While uniformity is not particularly to be desired, he suggested, the outside world needs to see that Christians, despite diversity, need to be seen as standing together.
High profile supporters
Cameos from the 2014 Alpha leadership conference provide evidence of the kind of unity that its founder, Nicky Gumbel, engenders. Royalty, a left-leaning former British prime minister and a recently re-elected right-leaning successor all have nice things to say about Alpha.
Prince Charles, an aficionado of sound British architecture, referring to 27 churches “re-planted” by Alpha in previously empty or underutilized edifices, commended Alphites for their “work in bringing churches back to life. It is remarkable and inspiring.”
Tony Blair, who was British Labour PM from 1997 – 2007, told the crowd that Alpha’s leadership efforts were “worldwide and famous.”
And current Tory PM David Cameron said Alpha demonstrates the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbour”, especially in its prison work, which helps inmates prepare for “new life” outside the walls of incarceration.
Influence on Metro Vancouver
I talked about the conference and its possible local impact with three Metro Vancouver pastors, as well as Sally Start, the Alpha Canada “ambassador.” The pastors were:
- David Koop co-pastor with wife Cheryl, of the downtown Coastal Church set at the base of western Canada’s tallest building.
- Paul Williams, associate pastor of Granville Chapel located at 43rd Avenue and heavily-travelled Granville Street.
- Laura Nelson, senior pastor of historic Olivet Baptist Church, located just steps from New Westminster’s City Hall.
All three pastors agreed that Alpha has a way of encouraging relationships, fellowship – usually associated with food – and discussion about Jesus and the heart of the gospel. It does so in a manner, they indicated, that helps fellow believers and seekers think together and on the same page even though they might differ on some aspects of religious faith.
Coastal committed to Alpha early
Koop, for his part, said that Alpha courses and programs have been used at Coastal Church almost from the time of its founding two decades ago.
“People in the city see [Christ-followers] as attractive when we are dwelling together in unity,” he noted, adding that the Alpha approach to unity was the “great takeaway.”
Koop suggested a range of Vancouver activities where such unity is being cultivated currently. “Voices Together – the July 1 event bringing together thousands at 5 pm in Pacific Coliseum – is just one example. Another was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission-inspired prayer gatherings that occurred this past Sunday [at St Andrew’s-Wesley United and First Baptist churches.]”
Koop cautions that “it takes work and effort and can be a little bit messy at times. [The Alpha inspiration] is that anyone who wants to can be in the conversation.”
Right from the beginning, Koop said, Alpha was “a discipleship tool [which enabled] first generation Christians to bring friends to a place where they could discover the questions of life.” At any given time, up to 150 people are involved in Coastal Alpha programs, some held in the “common rooms of high rises, in a home, in restaurants, once in a pub and on the church site itself.”
Granville Chapel: Alpha as a movement
Koop came from British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, worked several years in the prairie oil patch and earned his doctorate of ministry at Seattle’s Bakke International University.
Granville Chapel’s Paul Williams, by contrast, came to faith through the church just around the corner from where he lived in London. As it happened, that church was Holy Trinity, Brompton – affectionately known in the Alpha movement as HTB. Ordained an Anglican, he went to Brazil for 10 years where he planted Alpha-type churches, and met his wife, Alessandra. (They have two children.)
Williams notes that one of the things that attracted him to move to Granville Chapel from Brazil was that the lead pastor, Andy Perrett, was a strong believer in the Alpha approach.
“As we as church mobilize and equip communities [around us] of which we are all a part, Alpha can be a tool. We run it [often] in homes because our people come from many areas around the city. And rather than seeing it as a course, coming out of London, we are seeing as a movement of God.”
Olivet Baptist: Another personal connection
For her part, Laura Nelson, who has been senior pastor of Olivet for the past half-decade, has come more recently to the Alpha movement. As it happened, daughter Emily went to work a couple of years ago for HTB, mainly in conference registration and other administrative work. Nelson went to visit Emily on her new “home turf” and decided, out of that visit, to go to this year’s leadership conference.
“We have run the Alpha marriage course a number of times. And, I have come to appreciate the rhythm of offering Alpha regularly. Our hope is to do one every fall.
“It is a good tool. It clearly presents the gospel in a non-threatening way, with a good format,” she says, suggesting that the Campus Alpha format, which runs seven weeks, is the right length of time for Olivet. [Other programs run 11 weeks.] And there is a sense of transparency and honesty that come through, together with the [clear intent] to lift Jesus high.”
She also notes that the church’s experience with ESL programs influenced the food offerings that are so important to Alpha’s fellowship-establishing atmosphere. “We did it with food from a different country each week,” she said.
Broad acceptance for Alpha
Amplifying on the impact of Alpha on Canada, Sally Start points out that it is finding acceptance across the Christian spectrum – “Catholic, Anglican, evangelical, Pentecostal, southern black and so on.”
The course numbers have doubled in recent years, she adds noting, with a reference to a local statistic, that “last year, close to equivalent of 10 percent of the population of Surrey took Alpha courses across Canada.” (Surrey’s population is 500,000. A total of over 46,000 Canadians took the courses.)
Part of the unity aspect, she suggests, comes from learning to “disagree agreeably, drawing on what the late Anglican leader John Stott referred to when he said ‘love becomes weak if it is not hardened by truth and truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love.’”