Alpha: 'Is there more to life than this?'
Can Catholic parishes, schools and colleges become vibrant, mission-focused communities? The answer is a resounding yes, says Laura Whinnery, and Alpha can help move them in that direction
ALPHA was a short faith formation course at Holy Trinity Brompton, an Anglican parish in London, when Nicky Gumbel, then the church's curate, transformed it into a course designed to introduce those who would not consider themselves Christian to the person of Jesus.
It has gone on to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Made up of a series of sessions, usually run over 11 weeks, Alpha is typically led by lay people.
Each session looks at a different questions around faith and is designed to create discussion.
No two Alphas look the same, but generally they have three key things in common: food, a talk and good conversation.
Alpha is for everyone; all backgrounds, all contexts, all ages. It is particularly attracting many young people who are asking the question, 'Is there more to life than this?'
It offers everyone, especially those outside the church, the opportunity to explore the Christian faith, ask questions and share their point of view in an informal, friendly and open environment.
It takes people on a journey often leading to a personal encounter with Jesus.
It enables people to ask their questions, share ideas, build friendships and experience the love of God.
Alpha relies on the Holy Spirit. It is only God who changes people's lives - Alpha just introduces him.
The Alpha experience has been overwhelmingly positive for those open enough to give it a try.
Based on real friendships that are built over a few weeks, and often last for years, many have discovered - or rediscovered - friendship with Jesus.
Alpha now runs in every part of the global Church, including the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and all mainline Protestant denominations.
Millions of people have tried Alpha - the course has been translated into 112 different languages.
Since its introduction to Northern Ireland, Alpha has run in almost 30 parishes and 40 schools; interest continues to grow with a further 20 registered for the autumn.
Some of the exciting collaborations include with St Mary's University College, Belfast as well as a joint venture between St Brigid's Parish and Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast.
The Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's University Belfast also launched Alpha at freshers' week to run throughout this first semester.
Laura Whinnery is Alpha NI Youth and Schools Worker. To find out more email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Catholic context
ALPHA runs in every part of the global church, including the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and mainline Protestant denominations.
In a Catholic context, it has been widely endorsed.
"There is a deeply felt need for the reality of young people's lives to engage with the Good News of God's love and mercy. Alpha is a well-tried tool that enables such encounters to take place and I am very happy to encourage its use.'
Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown
"Alpha is for meeting Jesus. What I like in all that I have seen and heard about Alpha is the simplicity."
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna
"Alpha has a clear purpose. It is rightly called the 'Alpha course', meaning that it is not 'Alpha and Omega'; it isn't the end of it all but it's a beginning. As an introduction for people to faith, Alpha is really effective."
Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Papal household