Written by Gayle Elizabeth Starling
Why and how do we pray? Who is Jesus? What is the meaning of life? What happens when we die? How do we deal with guilt?
At some point all of us have pondered these questions. Some have come to one conclusion and some to many conclusions. One thing for sure, most of us wonder, "Why are we here?"
For four years, Focus Renewal Ministries, a renewal ministry within the United Church of Christ, has been using an innovative program, Alpha, to help interested persons learn more about the Christian faith. FRM's executive director, the Rev. Vernon Stoop Jr., recently resigned as senior pastor of Shepherd of the Hills UCC in Bechtelsville, Pa., after 48 years in that position.
"As a senior pastor, I promoted the Alpha ministry at Shepherd of the Hills for the past five years," he says. "It proved to be the most productive, evangelistic program we had ever run."
Alpha was devised by Charles Marnham, a clergyman at Holy Trinity Brompton (London) in 1977. Marnham was searching for a way of presenting the basic principles of the Christian faith to non-churchgoers and new Christians in a relaxed and informal setting.
Since then, it has become a worldwide ministry, with more than four million persons completing the Alpha course in 133 countries.
The Alpha course is a 15-session, practical introduction to the Christian faith. A typical meeting begins with a light meal followed by a talk on a subject paramount to the Christian faith. Participants break into groups to discuss their feelings. Alpha's goal is to provide a format where questions about Christianity can be answered in a low-keyed, friendly, fun, relaxed and non-threatening setting.
Alpha courses are now being run by churches of many denominations, including Baptist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, UCC and Pentecostal, among others. All churches provide the same material, making alterations only to suit local culture. Alpha courses are free with voluntary contributions. In 1992, five Alpha courses were taught; in 2000, more than 15,650 Alpha courses were presented around the world.