Many people hunger for a relationship with Christ, and while most Catholic parishes offer great catechetical opportunities, in many instances it proves to be too much information for those just starting out on their spiritual journey or those who are “seekers,” according to Deacon Steve Mitchell, national director of Alpha for Catholics. “With good reason, Catholics get very excited about our faith and want people to experience its fullness,” says Deacon Steve. “The tendency is, out of that excitement, to back up the Catholic truck and dump everything on them at once, overwhelming people who are just curious, who want to dip their toe into the water. We must start with relationship, and the most important relationship is our relationship with God.”
“The number one reason people give for leaving our faith communities is, ‘I wanted to experience God and I didn’t find him in the Catholic Church,’” Deacon Steve says.
Alpha was created in England in the 1980s for those searching for a spiritual connection with God, and is now offered in every denomination, in 160 countries and 100 languages.
“Because it is such a basic course, focused on creedal Christianity, it is offered across denominational lines,” says Deacon Steve. “Our Holy Father and his predecessors have been encouraging us to encounter Jesus anew and bring people to Jesus as the early Christians did. Alpha facilitates that encounter with Jesus, where people are invited to make a commitment to Christ, to drop their nets and follow him.”
The format used by every parish starts with active Catholics reaching out to friends and family who are struggling or perhaps curious about God. “Almost all evangelization is relational,” says Deacon Steve. “That’s how it really gets done.”
“A typical evening is a meal, a talk from a DVD and a small group discussion. It’s pretty simple,” he says. “People show up and the course is a zero entry point where they can explore the deep and profound questions in life.”
“We invite people to come and see the first night,” Deacon Steve says. “We promise not to call or bother anyone who isn’t interested. About 85 percent of the people come back and finish the course.”
Alpha is designed for the un-churched and de-churched, but faithful Catholics are also touched by Alpha. “They encounter God in a profound and personal way,” Deacon Steve says.
Between eight and 10 guests are hosted by two Alpha facilitators at each table. Facilitators, who receive training, are selected for their natural gift of hospitality.
“Our approach is like hosting a dinner at your home,” says Deacon Steve. “You get guests talking and facilitate a conversation. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s a little unique that way.
“Once people finish the program, there is a hunger for more, an eagerness to go deeper. Encountering Christ brings transformation and reengagement.”
Some join Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), while others get active in service. Scripture is also of great interest for people after they finish Alpha.
“When people experience the Holy Spirit, they get hungry for Scripture,” says Deacon Steve.
“I’m a cradle Catholic, and I had a typical Catholic experience growing up. I never knew God in a really personal way. I was always afraid of God,” says Deacon Steve. “Many cradle Catholics have been given information about Jesus. Alpha introduces people to the Good Shepherd, which is possible because he is alive, raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. Alpha introduces people to Jesus, not the idea, but Jesus, himself.
“It’s exciting for me when grace is met by faith, that moment when a person’s faith comes alive,” he says. “Where people are born again is where they tend to hang out for a while. If we can bring them to spiritual rebirth and renewal in our Catholic communities, they will stay with us and become full, active, conscious participants.”
More information on Alpha can be found at www.alphausa/catholic.