A banner outside St. Paul's Bloor Street in Toronto promotes the Alpha course. Submitted photo

Alpha course proves ‘gospel communication tool’ in Toronto

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The following is the second instalment of a two-part article detailing experiences of the Alpha course in the Anglican Church of Canada. Read Part 1.

Alpha Canada national director Shaila Visser estimated that in 2016, there were 3,800 Alpha courses being run across Canada in more than 1,750 churches, including both youth and adult courses. Of that total, 99 parishes of the Anglican Church of Canada ran the Alpha course during the year.

One such parish is St. Paul’s Bloor Street, the largest Anglican congregation in the Diocese of Toronto, which began presenting the Alpha course in the fall of 2016. Rector and senior pastor Barry Parker, who facilitates the course at St. Paul’s, said that his congregation has been using Alpha as its “primary interface with the community for evangelism”.

“A lot of my experience in the church is that we’re designed and conditioned to think that people ought to come to us,” Parker said.

“Alpha takes a different tactic. We need to go to [people] by engaging folks where they’re at, not where we think they should be.”

Each Wednesday, St. Paul’s Bloor Street hosts a weekly lesson using the Alpha course. Participants gather for a meal before watching a video lasting 25-30 minutes. The host then asks a series of open-ended questions for round-table discussion.

Parker noted that the latest series of videos targets a younger demographic, reflective of the population in its Toronto neighbourhood which is surrounded by condo buildings. In turn, the average age of participants attending each Alpha course has grown younger.

“It’s been really effective … For example, in this [current] group we have three young women being baptized in a couple weeks that have come out of Alpha, just because they’re so excited and engaged now in the journey of faith,” Parker said. “We see this as sort of the portal to start this journey of faith and lead to discipleship.”

Finding flexibility in local contexts

Visser described the goal of the Alpha course for parishes as “providing a safe on-ramp to their local expression of church in a way that engages people that have otherwise found it to be irrelevant,” one that can lead almost anywhere from deeping questioning to a greater understanding of Christianity to baptism.

That focus on local contexts means that gauging success depends on the specific context for each congregation running the Alpha course.

Reflecting on both St. Paul’s Bloor Street and St. Jax Montréal, Visser—stressing that it was only her personal opinion and that she does not live in Montreal or attend St. Jax—noted, “From what I understand, [St. Jax is] using Alpha because it’s a replant of an already established church, and so they’re trying to really reach the community. They don’t yet have an established sizable congregation, and they are really trying to grow the congregation by sharing the faith, not by pulling people in from other churches.”

“To do that, you have to provide an on-ramp for people either far from God or toying with the idea of God, and I think that’s why St. Jax has taken that approach … where[as at] St. Paul’s, a very vibrant, healthy church in the centre of Toronto, they would run it on a Wednesday night because they already have lots going on on the weekend and in their Sunday services.”

Alpha course is only one way to spread the gospel

Despite embracing Alpha as a valuable tool for congregations, Parker cautioned that the course is “not some magic bullet”, but rather “a gospel communication tool that seems to have resonance in connection with a culture that is increasingly disconnected from the church and the gospel message”.

The church plant at St. Jax centred around the Alpha course, he said, is “a radical approach. But when you think about it, what [parish incumbent Graham Singh is] trying to do is present the gospel to a totally non-churched culture in downtown Montréal, and it’s effective. And as that community builds, then they move into worship, and they’ve had great worship services. I’ve been down there.

“It’s not they’re neglecting worship, they’re just not leading with worship. They’re recognizing that we can’t do that—Christendom is dead, so you can’t lead with Christendom. You’ve got to lead over here and bring folks into not only the experience of Jesus, but also then the community of Jesus, the faith community, the body of Christ.”

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