Alpha is a 15-session introduction to the Christian faith. It is designed primarily for non-churchgoers and new or lapsed Christians. It is a simple and effective tool for evangelisation that mobilises lay people of any group size to welcome anyone interested to find out more about the Christian faith.
In addition, it acts as a witness to Christian unity, as this tool for evangelisation is used by every Christian denomination. The Catholic Church in Singapore has been using Alpha since the late 1990s when it was first introduced to the Church of St. Ignatius by the Anglican St. George's Church.
Irene Tay, who attended the Alpha course at Blessed Sacrament Church liked the course because "not even once during the course did any of the leaders or helpers criticise other religions."
Some parishes, such as Blessed Sacrament, St. Ignatius, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and Immaculate Heart of Mary, have found Alpha provides growth and renewal for the parish and people become more involved in its liturgical life.
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Alpha has appeal because it is non-threatening. It creates an environment where participants are free to speak their mind and still be accepted, no matter how ridiculous or heretical their position may be. It gives people a chance to be listened to. This is especially important considering Alpha's target audience, some of whom may have had unpleasant experiences with Christianity.
Although the 15 sessions are carried out over a 10-week period, a participant is free to leave at any time. This frees a person from possible fears of being coerced into becoming a Christian, and leaves him more receptive to the discussions on Christian life.
"I especially appreciated that group discussions were relaxed and easygoing," observed Edwin Toh, who attended an Alpha course at the Church of St. Ignatius. "No one was expected to or compelled to share. "In my discussion group, there were non-Christian members too. It was a remarkable experience for me to have the opportunity to share and discuss my Catholic faith with non-believers," he added.
"It was also a profound experience for me to personally witness a fellow non-Christian course member touched by the Holy Spirit during Alpha and ultimately progress to RCIA."
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A typical Alpha course
A typical Alpha course
Each Alpha session begins with a meal. The session is usually held in the evening. The meal serves to set participants at ease and helps them to get to know each other. After the meal, the participants are invited to a live talk or view a video produced by Rev. Nicky Gumbel.
The participants are then broken up into small sharing groups where they listen to one another, discuss and learn more about the Christian faith and life issues. No question is considered too simple or too hostile.
Topics that are covered include the persons of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the relevance of Christianity today, the purpose of the Bible, the meaning of life and making the most of it. Only topics on which all denominations have agreed on are covered, which makes it an ideal tool for cross-denominational evangelisation.
In the middle of the 10-week course, participants are invited to attend a weekend live-in retreat called the Alpha Weekend where they are given the opportunity to have an experience with the Holy Spirit in a guided session. Members of a group usually grow much closer after the weekend.
At the end of the course, participants who are interested to find out more may be directed to the RCIA or other post-Alpha activities.
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Alpha has served to feed other evangelisation programmes in the Catholic Church, often supplying RCIA courses with eager catechumens. There is no shortage of testimonies from people who have had their lives changed after attending the course.
From Blessed Sacrament Church, one such couple was George and Jane Lee, who attended Alpha after having a feeling of dissatisfaction that something was missing in their lives. "We were surprised at how much insight we gained about the Bible and Jesus' teachings," they testified. "More significantly, we realised after completing it that the answer we were searching for lay in a deeper relationship with God through Jesus, our Saviour," they added.
Conny Fernandez testified that "there was a warmth, and inclusiveness that was unlike any I had experienced before". "Everyone came together after work, every Thursday evening, for a meal and fellowship. And all who attended felt welcomed week after week. I felt like I was part of a community."
Commenting on the benefits of Alpha, Father Anthony Hutjes, who is in charge of the programme in Blessed Sacrament Church, said "Alpha has created new life and forms of fellowship" at his parish. "It has activated dormant Catholics. It has brought old and new Catholics together in the running of a meaningful programme, that offers enriching faith- ducation, even for longstanding parishioners, and - at the same time - it is an effective tool for outreach to non-Catholics."
So far 20 non-Christians have joined the RCIA because of Alpha, he said. From the viewpoint of ecumenism it is meaningful too, because it promotes cooperation with members of other denominations, he continued.
"We are determined to go on," he assured.
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Blessed Sacrament Church will hold their new Alpha course from Mar 23. For more information, call 6474 0582 or visit their website at http://bscalpha.info/
Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour begins their next Alpha course on Feb 28. Enquiries: 6241 9565