Renew My Church calls on parishes to create a culture of evangelization in their communities. One way to do that is to reach out to non-practicing Catholics or others not practicing a faith and provide them with an opportunity to form a personal relationship with Jesus.
To help parishes accomplish that, the archdiocese’s Office for Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship is offering Alpha, an effort that began in England in the 1990s and that more than 29 million people in 167 countries have participated.
“What we’re asking parishes to do is actually use Alpha as a tool to help create an environment that helps them establish a culture of evangelization,” said Elizabeth White, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship.
Since the Renew My Church Summit last October where Alpha was first introduced, White’s office has held “Taste of Alpha” nights in each of the archdiocese’s six vicariates to familiarize parish leaders with the program.
Although Alpha was founded by a group of Anglicans at a parish in London, it is being used by Catholic parishes around the world and is endorsed by leaders such as Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn.
Alpha is not heavy into theology and church rubrics. Rather, it is a 11-week course that focuses on basic questions such as “Is there more to life than this? Who is Jesus? Why and how should I read the Bible?”
A full meal is offered in an inviting environment, then participants watch a 30-minute Alpha video and share in conversation afterward. There is one retreat day during the 10 weeks. Leaders use personal invitations to bring friends, family and others to Alpha.
“It’s the very basics. It’s not about becoming Catholic, it’s about encountering Jesus Christ,” White said.
She describes it as “radical hospitality.”
“It allows people to chat over breaking bread, which is a very Catholic thing to do and what we do culturally in our own homes regardless of our background,” she said. “It gives a sense of ease and belonging.”
At first, the video and discussions are relatively simple, but they progressively go deeper over the weeks.
“Alpha isn’t a catechetical learning. It’s a personal unpacking,” she said. “It’s about giving adults the space to share their own experiences.”
Alpha groups don’t have a leader. There are hosts and greeters who help the group have a conversation.
“That’s hard for Catholics because we’re used to the leader being the person who has all of the answers,” she said.
For example, if a participant asks, “What does the church think about baptism?” the leader doesn’t answer. Rather, he or she turns the question to the group and asks what everyone else thinks.
Doing that can be an adjustment for church leaders, who may have theology degrees and know that those in the group aren’t coming up with the correct answer, White explained.
“But you have to trust the process because it’s not about having answers. It’s about encountering Jesus Christ,” White said. “It’s also about that sense of belonging and not being shut down and not being made to feel wrong.”
The Catholic faith is very rich and often complex, which can intimidate many people, even the highly educated. Alpha offers a safe space for discussions about God.
“In Alpha you don’t have to have all of the answers. That’s the safety of Alpha too because you can be a leader of the group and not have the answers,” White said. “You can be that host because nobody expects you to have the answers. It makes it a lot of fun.”
Alpha focuses on witnessing rather than catechesis.
“It’s very scriptural-based and very witness-based,” White said. “As Catholics we’re so used to everything being grounded in the sacraments. Alpha is just a pre-sacrament phase.”
Based on research by the Barna Group, 88 percent of people who take part in Alpha are more committed to having a personal relationship with Jesus.
There’s no pressure for participants to join the church and no follow-up after. The only cost to parishes is the meal and leader and participant guides. It’s recommended that groups include 12 people with two hosts, two helpers and eight guests. Parishes can have more than one group going at a time, even in the same space.
When starting Alpha, parishes are asked to first host two small pilot groups with parishioners. Those parishioners will then become hosts, helpers and greeters for future Alpha groups.
Parishes can do Alpha even if they haven’t gone through Renew My Church yet.
“It teaches you to be radically hospitable because you recognize that people get very vulnerable very quickly and you recognize that you need to have great care for them,” White said. “There aren’t a lot of spaces in our lives where we can have conversations like we can have in Alpha.”
Alpha is just one part of the archdiocese’s plan to create parish cultures that support evangelization. More of those plans are shared during Evangelization Days being held in the archdiocese’s six vicariates (see story in Feb. 10 issue).
For more information on Alpha, visit Alphausa.org/catholic. For information on Renew My Church, visit archchicago.org/renew.
The renewal we are undergoing through Renew My Church is encouraging us to be creative and to sometimes use distinct words or phrases to capture a new concept or to provide a different way of looking at something otherwise familiar.
When members of St. James Parish, 2907 S. Wabash Ave, attended the Renew My Church Summit in October 2018, they heard a lot of great things about how the church needs to have a culture of evangelization.
Deacon Keith Strohm is a deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago and travels the country creating and sustaining processes and programs of evangelization and formation at the group, parish and diocesan level that focus on making missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. He is also the executive director of M3 Ministries (m3catholic.com) and a co-author, along with six other collaborators, with Sherry Weddell of the book “Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples,” which is a follow-up to the book, “Forming Intentional Disciples.”