A Profile on How a Growing Parish is Reaching Others for Christ
Walter stands in front of the altar at our church, sharing his story with tears in his eyes as our pastor, Fr. James Mallon, holds a microphone close so others may hear. Walter is a muscular looking fellow, with a handlebar mustache, tattoos, and silver hair. And yet he stands in front of the entire congregation … weeping. Walter weeps as he shares his Alpha story — how through Alpha he encountered Jesus. And now, after a lifetime away from the Catholic Church, he is all in. He stands in front of 1,500 people over the weekend and pleads with them to try Alpha. He encourages them to invite their family and friends to come, too.
How often do people cry at your parish? Every year at Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I see countless people with tears in their eyes. It is a privilege to see God active in the hearts of so many. Almost half of the participants of our last few Alphas have identified themselves as “unchurched.” These are people on a journey to find God. After seven years of running Alpha, our parish just finished our biggest Alpha yet, with more than 200 guests in the evening sessions alone.
Saint Benedict’s purpose is: “To form disciples who joyfully live out the mission of Jesus Christ.”
To be formed as a disciple you must be evangelized. At Saint Benedict’s we see Alpha as our primary means of evangelization. The amazing thing about Alpha is that it is so much more than a simple program. Ron Huntley, head coach at Divine Renovation, always says: “Alpha as a course is good, but it’s only good. Alpha as a culture is amazing.”
Today the Divine Renovation Ministry works with parishes all over the world. We coach them as they bring their parishes from maintenance to mission. One of the very first things we coach pastors and their leadership teams to do is evangelize.
Evangelizing isn’t something that comes easy to most of us. That’s where Alpha comes in. Inviting people to Alpha is easy. Why? Because Alpha is fun and not intimidating. It’s easy to invite someone to something you think they will enjoy.
Evangelization as a First Step
Mass is one of the highlights of my week. But the Catholic Mass is both daunting and confusing to the uninitiated. I know this, and so do other parishioners. Because of the intimidation factor, inviting people to Mass can be hard.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion. It can then produce its fruits in the lives of the faithful: new life in the Spirit, involvement in the mission of the Church, and service to her unity” (CCC, 1072).
Take note! Our liturgy “must be preceded by evangelization.” That’s our approach at Divine Renovation Ministry. If we want to evangelize, we want to have something we can invite people to. Alpha is the on-ramp at Saint Benedict Parish.
It is strange to find yourself in a community where it is not unusual to see someone cry. And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. When Walter first stood in front of the Saint Benedict Parish community, I didn’t know who he was. Now Walter is a member of my Connect Group, a medium-sized group of 20-30 people. I get to see Walter every two weeks when we gather for a meal, a talk, praise and worship, and prayer time. Walter’s sister Arlene visited our Connect Group for the first time this month. She just finished her Alpha experience after Walter’s invitation. My wife sent her a text that same day. Arlene’s response showed the power of a simple invitation:
“I truly enjoyed the afternoon, it has been an amazing journey so far … I am very blessed … I have to admit that you and Dan along with my brother have inspired my curiosity as I watched your journey at Saint Benedict Parish. So, thank you to you both.”
At the closing night of Alpha, we have a party. We dim the lights, serve wine with finger foods, and most importantly, we ask our Alpha guests to bring friends and family who might be interested in trying Alpha. We also invite a few guests to give a short testimony of their Alpha experience. This season Walter’s sister Arlene got up and gave hers. One life changed led to another changed life. This is how Alpha works all over the world.
This is what Alpha can do for your parish. When evangelization is front and center in your parish, everything changes. Alpha brings people to God. It brings people to your parish, creates community, raises leaders, and transforms your culture.
DAN O’ROURKE is executive director of Divine Renovation Ministry, a ministry founded by Fr. James Mallon that works with pastors, priests, and lay leaders around the world to equip them to bring their parishes from maintenance to mission. For more information visit DivineRenovation.net.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, April-May, 2018.