Father James Mallon & Ron Huntley
When setting up Alpha in the parish everyone starts with the best intentions but there are often common mistakes. Father James Mallon, priest at the parish of Saint Benedict in the Archdiocese of Halifax, Canada, and Ron Huntley, Director of Pastoral Ministries also at Saint Benedict parish, share how to avoid making those mistakes with their three-part podcast “How to Kill Alpha in 10 Steps”.
1) Don’t have a full meal, go straight into the talks
Food is the first thing people try to downsize because it can be hard work. “When you have a meal 10 weeks in row with perfect strangers they become great friends” says Ron.
Alpha is not just about delivering information and knowledge; it is about building relationships and belonging to a community. It is during the meal that relationships flourish and you build long lasting friendships. “As the relationships build and trust grows it allows people to be open to receive the content of the talks which then will impact their lives and result in changed lives” adds Father James.
2) Cut the Alpha weekend
Nowadays everyone is so busy that some parishes may feel it is easier to avoid running the Alpha weekend.
The Alpha weekend focuses entirely on the Holy Spirit and it covers almost one third of the entire course. “When I travel to speak at conferences and when I interview people who have had life changing experiences, 90% of the testimonies begin at the weekend away. This is where it all comes together for people. This is where people have a powerful experience of God’s love,” says Father James.
3) Don’t pray
Prayer needs to be intentional, and as hosts and leaders we need to acknowledge that we can’t transform lives through our own willpower. We have to pray and ask people to pray leading up to the course, during it and after it. If running Alpha in a parish setting, use the prayer ministries and networks within the parish.
“We have a team praying for guests even before we know who the guests are going to be” says Ron. “We always ask hosts and helpers to show up 30 minutes before Alpha starts so we can spend 15 minutes letting them know what’s important to cover that particular session and we also take some time to pray for people.”
4) Teach in the small groups
Small groups are not for teaching! It can be hard not to say anything and to hold off from answering all the questions. However, small groups are for guests to share thoughts and ask questions to each other.
It is recommended that an Alpha small group (8-10 people) has two hosts and two helpers. The goal of the leaders is to facilitate conversation.
5) Be intense, skip all the fun icebreakers and go straight into the big discussions
Intensity turns people off. Joy opens the door to people growing in faith.
We shouldn’t talk about anything religious during dinner or skip the fun icebreakers. “We want to show that Jesus came so that we can have life and have it to the full. I want my joy to be in you and your joy to be complete (John 15:11). Joy is so foundational to the Christian life,” explains Father James. “That is what we try to do at Alpha; to have an absolute blast!”
6) Talk Catholic
Language matters. Don’t assume everyone is Catholic or familiar enough with the Catholic culture. If people don’t feel like they understand or can join the conversation, they won’t come back.
The goal of Alpha is to bring people to a close encounter with Jesus. Father James says, “Let’s bring people to a relationship and then once they are in that and have had the life changing experience then comes the whole question of what you do next. Let Alpha be Alpha and don’t try to stuff a whole lifetime curriculum into 10 weeks.”
7) Choose group leaders who think they deserve to lead
Alpha is an evangelisation tool predominantly to reach people who are away from the Church so it is important to choose leaders whom guests can connect with.
When it comes to choosing your leaders, Father James says, choose “someone who is going to be incredibly loving, non-judgemental, kind, patient, funny and not intense. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis says that evangelisation in our context today has to be non-judgemental, it has to be about listening and that is really what the qualities of a small group leader are.”
8) Pick a team and keep the same team forever
“When it comes to Alpha sometimes we are so focused on the guests that we forget that there is an opportunity to raise up leaders. Alpha is also about raising up leaders,” explains Ron.
Alpha is like a pipeline and in order to not block the flow you want to have a high turnover, a constant movement. This is the key to growing leaders. You want to identify people, train them and send them out to other ministries or launch a new Alpha initiative in other contexts.
Ron explains, “We are not putting on a course, we are changing a culture. They are two very different things. We are raising people up, equipping them, helping them to encounter Christ and then we need to move them on.”
9) Pick songs that are hard to sing
Good music is important. We want to teach people to praise God. Worship can be very awkward for guests but it is also the part they can most relate to; everyone listens to music. You have to do it right so people feel like joining in.
You don’t need a big band, choose someone with a guitar or a piano and for the first couple of weeks choose one hymn that people from outside the church would recognise, for example ‘Amazing Grace’. As the weeks progress build to a couple of hymns but try not to introduce a brand new hymn every week and always repeat one from the week before.
10) Don’t have a plan post-Alpha
You have to have a vision post-Alpha. If you are running Alpha you should be expectant that people are going to be transformed and come to know Jesus, so ensure you have something in place for them to continue their journey in faith. Relationship is key so invite people to come back to help at Alpha and consider setting up on-going fellowship groups like Connect Groups.
Connect Groups are small to mid-size groups, 20-30 people, that meet to connect and to grow. They meet every week or every other week to continue growing in discipleship, teaching, ministry and most importantly continue growing in friendship and fellowship.
Ron says, “First task is to get people continuing small groups, mid-size groups and in communities where they experience relationships. Because if you get into that then you have got the rest of life to fill in the blanks. This is not a sprint, this is a marathon.”
Listen to the three-part podcast on How to Kill Alpha in 10 Steps here.