This Ain’t no Alpha! – InGear article

This Ain’t no Alpha!

john_campbell_webThoughts on Vision4Life’s Bible Year by Rev Dr John Campbell of Northern College, Manchester.

First published in InGear Autumn 2008

Alpha Courses are a 21st century phenomenon. They offer a particular idea about how to engage uncertain and curious others with a clear, specific presentation of the Christian message, and for many people across the world (not just in communities of young professionals like Brompton), they work. Of course, no presenter can entirely resist the temptation to tweak the bits they don’t quite agree with, but the basic idea is clear, specific and focused and comes with a well-organised support structure that does everything short of cooking dinner.

Whatever Vision4Life is going to be, it ain’t gonna be no Alpha. As one of those who’ve been involved from the beginning, I’ve been watching carefully. I’ve seen what I can only describe as the Holy Spirit leading a growing circle of diverse URC people into an evolving process where we’ve discovered as we’ve gone along what it is we’re doing.

Here’s a spatter of my latest understandings of what it is and how it seems to work…

A process not a programme

United Reformed Churches don’t like being told what to do. So, we haven’t wasted our time telling anyone what to do, we’ve invited them to share a ‘process’ where we all try to address the issues in our own way, as we think appropriate to our own context.

That may sound a bit wishy-washy, but Alpha and many other programmes already exist; they’re there, should churches decide to use them. What we’re about is coaxing, challenging and exciting any and every URC (or LEP with a URC component) into devising and developing ways to deepen and renew their engagement with the Bible (and with Prayer and Evangelism).

A deliberate focus on the church

Too often I’ve listened to committed people telling groups of URC members what, as a Church, we should be doing. Too often this is done in a way that simply heightens the guilt that freezes people into inaction.

Increasingly I feel that if URC folk are going to reach out it’s going to have to start from honest, realistic reflection on what’s truly important. If we are going to get refreshed enough to share, we have to stop sipping from the broken cisterns of ‘this is the way we do it’ and tap back into the springs we claim our God has given us. There’s a refreshment task for so many of us before we can effectively carry water jars to others.

A menu to take away

Some churches have active, creative cell groups that burrow deep into God’s Word; other churches have a distinct Bible Study crowd that never seems to recruit new members; yet other churches can sort of remember when they used to have a study group if they try hard.

The Bible Year planners have assembled (in the spare moments of already busy lives) a range of specially-produced materials that churches might find helpful, especially if they risk adapting them to suit their own situations. We’re also hoping that churches that have tried other existing study materials will write in so we can share the recommendation (with user’s comments) on our website.

But churches that don’t use anything on our menu, but do get folk engaging with the Bible in fresh ways, or include fresh people in the process will still be doing what Vision4Life is all about – it’s the refreshing of Bible engagement that matters.

Where are the experts?

If there are any experts involved in Vision4Life, they are in the churches, not in the team that’s assembling materials. The key expertise is in knowing what might or might not work in your setting, who the unreached groups within your church family might be, what ploys might work to get more people more excited about Bible engagement. Devising what to risk and try in your church is the most important bit of the process.

Learning not teaching

The URC committee that prepares new ministers has changed its name from ‘Training Committee’ to ‘Education and Learning Committee’. It could be just a gimmick, but I think there’s something absolutely vital hidden in here. The thing that really matters is not what the teacher teaches, but what the people learn. It all depends on how the learner’s understanding grows, and that is most likely to happen if the whole process encourages rather than berates, enables rather than points up inadequacy.

The introductory questions for the Vision4Life process deliberately began with getting people talking about their own understandings of the Bible and what it has meant to them over the years. If Vision4Life is about anything it’s about this – start where the people are – honestly, encouragingly, enablingly (!)… helping people to believe they know how to drink, and coaxing them back to the well, letting them admit they’re thirsty.

The Spirit and the churches

Just at the moment I feel like someone who’s invited a friend along to a Gospel crusade. We’re doing all we can as best we know how, but really, from here on in, its all down to the Spirit… I’m sitting here praying.