Inviting a Generation to Explore Life, Faith and God

Alpha USA
Alpha USA is helping to bring millennials back to the church. (Alpha USA)

"I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, struggling with bacterial and viral meningitis, pancreatitis and encephalitis. One night, I see the window open and this figure comes in, walks right next to my bed and just stares at me. And then nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened, she turned around, opened the window back up, politely closed it and left. I wasn't sure if I was just dreaming or just seeing stuff...

"The next morning, my neurologist walks into my room and she says, 'Jake, I don't really know how to explain this... but your brain infection is gone...'

"It was an angel. I mean, it does sound nuts, but there's no other way to explain it.

"When I got out, I was going through a tough time—I wasn't in school, I lost 80 pounds in the hospital and my girlfriend broke up with me. I was a little lost. That's when a family member of mine asked me to come with him to Alpha. Then he told me there was free food, and to a poor college student, that's a deal maker.

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"There was one night in particular in the course when it really hit me. I just said, 'I'm going to live for Jesus.' It was awesome. I really fell in love with Jesus Christ. It changed me internally."

Essentially, this story from Jake, a 21-year old student from Ohio, is what Alpha's really about—it's a place for everyone, welcoming people from all backgrounds, religions and viewpoints. As seen in Jake's story, Alpha is an outreach tool that helps churches to invite family, friends and neighbors to start a conversation around the person of Jesus Christ and His teachings. Typically consisting of 10 interactive sessions (used by all major denominations), Alpha runs in churches, homes, coffee shops and bars around the globe. Though the location of Alpha may change, the three elements remain consistent: good food, an Alpha talk and a time of small group discussion, where thoughts can be shared openly and honestly. This recipe is a core part of Alpha, making it uniquely effective, especially among this new generation.

Currently, there is a trend within our culture for millennials to leave the church. It is a growing concern not only for the present but also for the future. Recent reports highlight that many millennials feel the church, or rather Christianity, lacks genuine community and the depth needed to tackle the complexity of life. It has been described as "not relevant" or "a boring duty."

This negative impression of the church among millennials was a great burden for Rebecca Long, national director of Alpha Youth. Though a tragic accident took her from this earth at 32 in May, her steadfast dream to captivate young people with the love of God by the power of the Holy Spirit continues to inspire momentum with Alpha across the nation, especially among youth. It is Alpha's heart to help churches provide this generation with more relationships, more consistency and more truth rooted in the gospel.

In the second edition of Alpha Life, Lisa Payne shared a bit of her perspective on being a young person today, "We live in a complicated time. With global economies seesawing, decreasing opportunities for the young and shifts in attitudes towards family values and gendered career roles, it can be hard to envisage what the future will hold. Our identities are being challenged. Who we are, what we do and what our legacy will be are all questions being asked at a much earlier stage in our lives. And this is even before we take into account the idea of faith."

Lisa continues to identify this common cry amongst millennials, "Over the years, the web has seen an increase in online forums like Reddit, crowdsourced question-and-answer sites like Quora and micro-blogging tribes on Tumblr, all evidence for this need for answers and insight. Hundreds and thousands of threads on these sites relate to the question, 'What is the meaning of life?'"

In an effort to reach this generation, we, at Alpha, see the necessity in helping churches to provide a safe place where young people can explore topics that are encountered daily, such as suffering, love and God. First, though, we need to meet and engage young people exactly where they are. Alpha USA is in the midst of a massive rebranding to make it even more relatable to this generation. Its new logo is simple—a question mark. Everyone has questions, and Alpha wants to invite people, both young and old, to ask their questions.

At its core, Alpha is relational. This is vital, as we've found that some of the most positive church experiences among young people are relationship-based. In fact, millennials who stayed in the church were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult in the church.

This leads back to the human desire to belong. Rooted in hospitality and friendship, Alpha creates space for genuine conversations to deepen throughout the night and inevitably with each week.

Each Alpha begins with a warm meal, be it crock-pot chili and cornbread or fajitas and grilled vegetables. The food is an experience, in itself, and often serves to draw people from around the region. Who can resist a free meal?

During mealtime, individuals typically sit with their assigned small group and is encouraged to talk about interests and life, unrelated to faith. The conversations expand into discussion after the small groups watch the Alpha Talk, which covers topics such as "Who is Jesus?," "Why and How do I Pray?" and "How Can I Resist Evil?"

At Alpha, small group leaders do not give answers, but rather encourage a freedom to share opinions and work through different perspectives in relation to the Bible and God. This is really where the relationships begin. As people open up, trust within the group naturally forms and people feel a companionship with one another. Even after Alpha is over, many friendships within the small groups continue, strengthening a feeling of 'place' within a faith-based community.

Millennials also continue to be impacted by the gospel through Alpha because Alpha is engaging. In addition to the 15 foundational Alpha talks, we are striving to produce materials and resources that are intellectually engaging in a way that resonates with culture. Just recently, we launched the brand new Alpha Youth Film Series (available for free online).

In this new film series, Alpha invites thousands of youth across the country to join the conversation about some of life's biggest questions. Intended for 13-18-year-olds, it includes 12 interactive episodes designed to equip youth workers and students to reach their friends and community for Christ. Since it was first released in Canada in 2013, Alpha Youth expanded from 84 courses to more than 800 courses. Alpha's hope in the next 18 months is to reach more than 150,000 young people for Christ in the U.S.

Tim May, head of Alpha UK and passionate believer in young people, reflects upon our call to recreate for this generation: "We have spent so long criticizing and complaining about the church's disconnection with culture, and we have also just copied it at times and then given up and conformed to it. But the call on God's creation was always to create culture—to form it. We are called to create, and that takes imagination."

In order to generate fresh culture and change amongst individuals, especially within Alpha Youth and Alpha Campus, we have found that our materials need to be driven by creativity.

That's why Alpha has created a film series that is innovative, engaging and fun. In each episode, the two main characters, Jason and Ben, travel around the globe, interviewing various people on the streets about questions ranging from "If you had only 24 hours left to live, what would you do?" and "Have you tried reading the Bible before?" Also included are three breaks where Alpha small groups can engage in the conversation and discuss their own answers—both comical and serious—and begin to see that faith is exciting and relevant to each individual, no matter where they are in life.

However, Alpha is most effective in helping churches to reach young people because Alpha is powerful. Not by us, but by the Holy Spirit. It is by the power of God, working through His body—the church. We have seen God use Alpha to radically impact young lives for Christ across cultural, economic and spiritual boundaries. Alpha creates the space and the time for the Spirit of God to do what only He can do. Faith moves beyond an intellectual exercise and becomes the foundation for a life transformed by God, as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is formed. This intimate understanding of Jesus is vital both to members of this generation's relationship and engagement with the church and to their faith.

We have seen the Holy Spirit work in incredible ways among college students and other young adults through Alpha. Recently, Alpha partnered with the Campus Ministries at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Each week, approximately 300 students gathered to watch the Alpha talk and then meet with small groups on their residence hall floors for a time of discussion. A number of students had first-time encounters with the Holy Spirit, and 75 were trained and equipped to run Alpha again. Furthermore, at Arizona State University, 175 students took part in four courses running throughout each week, and at Holy Trinity Brompton Church (HTB) in 'pagan London,' a recent Alpha course drew more than 1,000 people, with an average age of 27. God is on the move, using Alpha as a place for the Holy Spirit to make a difference in people's lives.

Our time on earth is precious. And when we take a brief step back from the pace of our culture, we begin to see that few things actually matter beyond a relationship with Jesus Christ. In His great love and grace, we are invited to spend eternity with God. Because of this, there is an urgency to follow our call—to go and spread the gospel among all people. Alpha is excited and honored to partner with churches to help empower millennials as individuals and leaders so that, together, we can continue to fight for this generation in an unstoppable way for Christ.   

Gerard Long is executive director of Alpha USA.

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