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The Power Of God

Sermon
The Alpha course raises strong emotions, not least amongst clergy. Alpha is a course on basic Christianity, designed for non-believers and devised by Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, London. It started in a small way back in the seventies and eighties, but when a young curate, the Revd. Nicky Gumbel, joined the staff of Holy Trinity, he revamped the course and it took off in a big way.

It's now a large, world-wide concern, commercially viable and spread around the world by video cassettes of Nicky Gumbel's lectures, together with handbooks for students, handbooks for leaders, and a host of supporting books, many of them written by Nicky Gumbel. It has also spawned supplementary courses, like a marriage course, a course on prayer, Youth Alpha, and a post-Alpha follow-up course.

The basic Alpha course takes place in local churches, in pubs, in people's homes, or anywhere that people gather together.

Each evening of the course starts with a good meal accompanied by wine (if desired), all of which is provided free of charge. No grace is said prior to the meal, and the conversation is deliberately kept away from religion. After the meal, people watch a video in the series. Then, on the first introductory evening (where the video talk is: "Christianity - boring, untrue and irrelevant?”) people are invited to return the following week to continue the ten-week course if they wish to do so. There's no hard sell, and no manipulation; people merely receive an invitation to return if they wish to do so.

Each subsequent meeting follows a similar pattern, starting with a meal and going on to a video, but then followed by about three quarters of an hour for discussion after the video. The discussion is very open, and doesn't necessarily stick to the topics raised in the video, since the video is regarded more as a starting point than a finishing point.

Members of the group set the agenda for the discussion and are encouraged to say what they really think and feel about God and religion. And since most of them are non-churchgoers, this can lead to some fascinating discussions.

Alpha has enjoyed phenomenal success in churches both large and small. At Holy Trinity Brompton, something like 500 or more people sit down to the meal each week, and almost all continue the whole course. Many become Christians as a result of the course, and many come back on the next course as helpers, and eventually become leaders. Even in smaller churches and less populated areas (like ours), Alpha has been enthusiastically received by those who have ventured on to it.

Since this all sounds like very good news indeed for the Church, you may wonder how anyone could possibly oppose it, but it is strongly opposed by some church people and also by considerable numbers of clergy.

Perhaps the reason for this is the word "enthusiastic". Alpha is an evangelical course, and although I've found it open and gentle with no hard sell or manipulation, I've also seen it produce enthusiastic Christians. This is wonderful and very exciting to see, but I worry a little that these new Christians perhaps tend to settle rather firmly on a very black-and-white form of Christianity, which in my own experience is far from being the whole truth. However, it's not a bad starting point, and as long as I remember that Alpha is only an introductory course which needs to be followed up by offering people broader and wider visions of Christian truth, I'm sold on Alpha.

One thing that's very noticeable in Alpha but which is often less noticeable in the Church as a whole, is the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, this sometimes leads to angst among those church members who practise and prefer a more sober form of Christianity.

The Holy Spirit weekend is the central pivot of Alpha. It's a whole weekend (or in our case, just a day) when the Holy Spirit is specifically invited into the lives of the participants, if they wish to take that step. Again, no pressure is put on anybody, but the results are amazing. Many people experience a real change in their lives and their perception of God. God becomes real to them, often for the first time. Instead of being remote and historical, they find they're not only able to talk to God, but also receive replies from God, and this almost blows them off their feet. They "feel" God's presence, and it's very close and real and warm and loving. And the power of that presence of the God within enables extraordinary changes in people's lives. God's very real power enables marriages to be saved, alcoholism to disappear, sexual or any other form of immorality to be discarded, healing to occur, and eternal life to be experienced.

This can be scary stuff, and can produce unexpected physical manifestations such as speaking in tongues. The weekend needs to be handled carefully by the leaders so that nobody goes away frightened and nobody goes away feeling inadequate if they themselves haven't experienced anything odd or haven't felt God's presence.

I confess to being a convert to Alpha. In the beginning I was very uncertain about it, and both sceptical and anxious about the Holy Spirit weekend, but discovered that my worry was needless. Like the Thessalonians, the "..gospel came to us not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction."

Instead of being simply an academic discipline or a barely remembered childhood habit, Christianity became real for our people and full of power, and it was a privilege to share in that time. And whatever we may think about Alpha or any other course, unless Christianity is real and people can make a genuine two-way relationship with God, the Church will continue to empty. These days, few people attend Church because it's the thing to do. People only attend if it's worthwhile. And it only becomes worthwhile if they know they are contacting, or being contacted by, a living God who has power to act in their lives.

The Thessalonians were a model to all the believers in the surrounding area. Their work was produced by faith, their labor prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. And they also became imitators of Paul and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering and they welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. The Lord's message rang out from them not only in Macedonia and Achaia--their faith in God had become known everywhere. They turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and Jesus, whom he raised from the dead.

No wonder Paul's opening remarks in his letter to them are so warm and encouraging. If all our churches were like the church in Thessalonica, our churches would be full to overflowing and we'd have no financial worries at all. So let's not be afraid of God's power, or of the ways in which it might be manifested, for only God can bring our own generation back to himself. And God knows the best way of doing that. Perhaps it was God himself who sent Alpha to us!
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