Ironically, I am entitling my second NaBloPoMo entry “Alpha.” It’s ironical because alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. That is one of the few things I remember from the three quarters of Greek that I took during my sophomore year of college. Yea I know, who takes Greek? After that one year, not me. But my future wife was in that class too — although that’s not why I took it. Frankly, I don’t recall why I signed up for that class. Fritchman was in that class too. But none of us were in there after that first year. I moved on to French, and Jen took Spanish. Not sure what Mark did about the foreign language requirement.
But I digress.
A few years ago, our church started offering a program called the Alpha course. The course was written by Nicky Gumbel who is the Vicar at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. Gumbel is a former barrister, so I identified with him right off the bat. Depending on how you run the course, Alpha is a 10-week course that includes a 30-45-minute message each week presented by Gumbel. The course offers people a chance to explore the Christian faith regardless of their religious background or relative inexperience with or hostility towards the Christian church. The course progresses through a series of topics designed to explore the meaning of life and learn more about the Christian faith. We offer dinner, dessert and childcare for the participants. The evening usually progresses as follows: welcome, dinner, music, video, dessert and discussion.
The first time that our church offered the course, I signed up as a small group leader. The SGL is tasked with facilitating discussion about the week’s video. And by “facilitating discussion” I don’t mean correcting what I might think are people’s misconceptions about God or Christianity. I encouraged people to be completely honest about where they were. If they thought Christianity was irrelevant in today’s world, I wanted them to shout it from the rooftops. If they were mad at God, admit it. God can handle that. If they’d been hurt by a church leader in the past, I apologized for that but encouraged them to take a fresh look at things now that they were in a different place in their lives. The great thing is that when you give people the freedom to unpack their thoughts and feelings about the church or Christianity in a place where they are safe from judgment, they’ll dig in and really explore. I always considered it a privilege to get a front row seat to watch people walk this journey for the 10 or so weeks I met with them. Some made serious changes in their lives in that short span of time. Others simply started on the journey again. But both were affected. And I enjoyed being a part of it all. If you get the chance to be a part of an Alpha course, I would strongly encourage you to participate or lead a table.
But one request: if you have been an active member of a church for a long time and maybe even took part in an evangelism training course like Evangelism Explosion or something similar, please leave whatever you learned there at home when participating in the Alpha course. Alpha is not designed or intended to be a place where believers can have a captive audience of unbelievers or new believers and commence firing the proverbial fish in the barrel. I cannot tell you how many times tables at Alpha have been short-circuited because one or two participants think this is the opportunity to share the Four Spiritual Laws with all the non-believers at the table or to quote Scripture or talk about the God-shaped hole they had before they met the Lord. All of that breaks down the atmosphere of trust that the SGLs are trying to develop around the tables. When a participant shares his or her doubts about God, Jesus or the Bible and is immediately met with a barrage of memorized verses or a diatribe about the inerrancy of the Bible, you’ve lost that participant. At best, you’ve set the table back because the table moves forward only as fast as the slowest member. As I see it, the Alpha course is about fostering an opportunity for seeking. Most importantly for individuals to explore for themselves and come to their own conclusions. If you don’t think you can submit to those general rules, please don’t participate. (Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion! I am not a spokesperson for my or any other church or the Alpha course itself. If you have a beef with the preceding paragraph, you have a beef with me; not my church or the Alpha course. I’m just saying.)
Funny story about the current Alpha course that our church is offering. (Not funny “ha ha.” More like “funny how you averted that potential disaster.”) About six or seven weeks into the course, we offer a weekend get-together. In the past, we’ve reserved cabins at a nearby park and had an Alpha Weekend Away where we offer a few of the Alpha messages in a day and a half and play and fellowship and eat. This year, we decided to hold the Alpha Weekend at the church. It gave us a chance to offer childcare which we couldn’t offer at the cabins. On Saturday, we decided as part of the weekend that we would have a huge tailgate in the church parking lot. Each table had a theme for the weekend, and their tailgates were extensions of that. People set up all sorts of tailgates. The best tailgate — as voted on by an esteemed panel of the Alpha leadership — was a table that brought out a couch, a dinette set and a big screen TV among other things. At lunchtime, the parking lot was awash in the aromas of grilling burgers, dogs and brats.
Towards the end of the morning video on Saturday, I see a guy in the parking lot. He’s with our group. He appeared to be setting up some of his table’s tailgate stuff. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing because he was obstructed by a truck in between me and him. About 15-20 minutes later, after the video is done and the tables have split off around the church building to pray in groups, I was talking to Caroline and looking out the window, noticed a flame peeking up over that truck bed that had been obstructing my earlier view. I may have blinked twice. In that span, the flame shot up about 15 feet — as tall as the tree that was next to the truck. And then billowing thick black smoke shot up as well. I ran outside to see what exactly was on fire. Turns out the guy had decided to start up his deep fryer and then left it unattended and went back inside. When I turned the corner of the truck, the fryer was fully engulfed. Did I mention it was attached to a propane tank? And there was a back-up tank sitting about 3 feet away. The black smoke? That was the rear tire in flame. The back end of the truck above the tire was aflame as well. The fire was on the side of the truck where the owner inserts the hose at the gas station, so my immediate concerns were not only exploding propane tanks but an exploding full-size pick-up. So I ran inside to call 911 and three guys grabbed some extinguishers. The three volunteer firefighters successfully put out the flames. I didn’t think they had a chance frankly. Just as they put out the flames, the rear tire blew. From where I was standing, I thought it was the propane tank. I relayed that info to the 911 operator. The concussion knocked back one of the guys with the extinguishers; he also had some trouble hearing out of the ear on that side of his head. When the tire blew, it knocked over the deep fryer and the pot of grease. Thankfully, the fire was out, so it wasn’t a flaming pot of grease like some medieval weapon. About 10 minutes after I called 911, and well after the fire was out, the fire department showed up to survey the damage.
At the final session later in the afternoon, one of our pastors, JM‘s Dad, introduced the last video. Welcoming everyone back, he said that he’d talked to the prayer team and asked them when they pray for the Lord to bring His fire that they be more specific next time. Bellowing laughter ensued. I couldn’t see the truck owner to gauge his reaction.