Stepping-stones to Alpha

We knew that one of the key principles was that, to get the best out of Alpha, we had to keep running it, and the more we ran it, the more it would work and the more likely we were to grow. But there was a problem: we had run out of people to invite. Well, not exactly run out - we knew plenty of people from our coffee mornings and social activities. But if you asked them to Alpha, that panic-stricken look would come over their faces as they frantically tried to think of what else they had on that day. What were we doing wrong?

We found out almost by accident. I spent some time with one of our churches going through how we could best reach out to people, and after a number of sessions we realised that we had a big gap between our social and spiritual activities. We were very good at building relationships with people socially with coffee mornings, luncheon clubs and so on, but not good at moving this social relationship towards a spiritual engagement. That is why no one could get our coffee morning people into anything on a Sunday morning, let alone onto Alpha. We needed to put some ‘stepping-stones’ in place between the two.

To help, I drafted a short course on how to build these existing relationships to the point where, instead of panic at being invited to Alpha, people would say ‘Oh, that sounds interesting. Yes I’d love to come with you’.

First, I did some research on whether this was a specifically Methodist problem and yes, it was; more so than with other denominations. The Methodist Church Life Profile 2002 (downloadable from the Methodist website) was especially useful, as are sources such as Bob Jackson’s Hope for the church and Christian Research’s publications. I found that Methodists have a head start over other denominations in our large social networks. We are more involved in social activities as well as social action in the community. We are also better at welcoming newcomers. So we have no shortage of people to invite to an Alpha supper - and Methodists are famed for their catering, so it should be easy!

However, although Methodists are loyal, sociable, caring, involved and community-minded, we are reluctant to talk about our faith and so find it hard to connect despite knowing that people today are more spiritually attuned than in the past. In addition, fewer Methodists attend small study or prayer groups than other denominations and therefore are not necessarily on home ground themselves in an Alpha course. We are less likely to have specific outreach events in our church, and to be involved personally in local church-based evangelism. No wonder we struggle so hard to move our excellent social contacts towards the spiritual heart of the church.

So what to do? I looked for some time to see whether there were any resources that could help build those stepping-stones from coffee morning to Sunday morning. The Emmaus course has an excellent pre-course booklet called Contact that goes some way towards this, and there is the noted CPAS course Lost for words, although I felt we had to start much further back than verbal witnessing, the thought of which would scare most of our people rigid. So I tried to write something appropriate and called it Stepping-stones: from coffee morning to Sunday morning. The last bit of this title was going to get me into trouble later, but it has a nice ring to it so I’d like to keep it!

This is how it works. It is planned to take place over four sessions after an introductory presentation that would normally be the focus of a Sunday service. Some churches would want to take their time and so the four sessions can be stretched as required - this is Somerset and we like to take things slowly down here.

The introductory presentation looks at what stepping-stones means, who the course is for, where we start and finish, and how it links into the four themes of Our calling. The first group session, ‘Preparing the Church’, looks not only at our levels of contact but also at the underlying principles of love and prayer. The second, ‘First Steps’, is about developing who we are, being open to the Holy Spirit’s gifts, and being open to closer relationships with other people, their needs and agendas. The third session, ‘Next Steps’, explores the practical ground from user-friendly events at church through to how to respond to the hard ‘God’ questions that people invariably raise, by offering suitable booklets, prayer or the minister! The fourth session, ‘Stepping-out’, draws together what has gone before into a ‘to-do’ list and prepares to commission the whole church for the new initiative.

There is a 20 page manual with the course for those who like reading through something. Then there are handouts for each session and a PowerPoint show. All these cover the same basic ground and follow the same structure. We’re just completing it in one of our churches, where it has been commented that a challenge that seemed hard or impossible before we started is now starting to come together.

Now here is the interesting bit. Our Super mentioned the course at Synod and offered the materials on a free CD-Rom for any who might like to trial it, and we also mentioned it to some people beyond the District. My phone and email were buzzing for weeks and I’ve been buying CD-Roms by the spindle!

Now, I’m under no illusions that the reason why we supposedly retired people are in any demand at all is because we’re cheap (well, free). But what we have been looking into down here seems to have touched a spot much more widely than we had expected. We thought it was just us. Time after time, ministers and Alpha leaders have told me they too have heaps of contacts but a real problem getting beyond the coffee morning level of engagement. And interestingly, people from some other denominations, particularly Anglicans, have also said that they have a similar pre-Alpha problem.

Why is this? Possibly because of the heritage of ‘connexion’, there seems to be quite a homogeneous Methodist culture and style of doing and being what we are, so we tend to have problems in the same areas. Possibly also because Alpha’s own pre-course material is mainly about publicity and brand recognition and is at its best among either networks of colleagues who like to go out together anyway, or among established evangelical churches that are committed to evangelism as a way of life and so know the ropes.

There will be other reasons, but our main aim at present is to continue trialing the Stepping-stones course and improving it bit by bit. The most interesting input so far, from several people, is the very valid thought that our conventional ‘Sunday morning’ is not necessarily the best place to be building stepping-stones towards! Very true - I have to admit that I mainly put ‘Sunday morning’ in the title because it sounded more buzzy than ‘from coffee morning to Alpha’.

To get people to the ‘Alpha level’ is what the course is aiming at and I am conscious not only of the invariable need to start further back than we think, but also to ensure that we don’t try to do everything in one course and make it indigestible. If local church evangelism is so relatively new to many Methodists, we need to take it in bite-sized chunks.

But the ‘Sunday morning’ comment highlights that we do need to point people beyond where the course immediately leads us and to avoid giving people the impression that a Sunday morning five-hymn sandwich is the invariable, ultimate destination. We will have to work hard on this.

The course already contains some suggestions of where to go beyond the ‘stepping-stones’ exercise, for example Robert Warren’s Healthy Churches’ handbook, which is a very 21st Century approach to a user-friendly church review. I also need, in the next draft, to suggest some further explorations beyond and around Alpha and my first thoughts are that to point towards a look at the concept of ‘fresh expressions of church’ may be a good way to do that.

That is for a later. For the time being, my CD burner is still humming away and Headline readers are more than welcome to a copy of the course.

The Stepping-stones course is available without charge on CD-Rom, and includes a manual, session handouts (both in Acrobat .pdf format) and PowerPoint presentation. TheCD also contains a range of other materials relevant to the Alpha and Emmaus courses.

If you would like a hard copy of the manual and handouts, please send a cheque for £3 to cover laser-printing and postage.

Please contact Charles Freebury as follows:

Tel: 01460 78501

89 Hermitage Street, Crewkerne, Somerset, TA18 8EX