My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Over the past few months, I have been sharing updates on our efforts to build a culture of discipleship within in the Diocese of Green Bay. In this column, I want to focus on Alpha, an exciting program we have launched over the past few years aimed at helping people discover or rediscover Jesus.
As I grow older, I am more aware of the ways in which the world around me has changed. This is true of the church as well. We live in a world where there is less face-to-face communication, and a world that sees less value in parish life and even the sacraments. While I could lament what we’ve lost, and certainly there are times I wish we could return to the “good old days,” as your bishop, it is my responsibility to ensure that the church reaches people where they are. To do this, we have to utilize new methods and approaches to meet the needs of the world today. This is the task of the new evangelization that Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have called us to embrace.
One of the specific changes I have observed is the way people grow in their faith. In decades past, people used to listen their way to faith. But today, they are more likely to talk their way to the faith. People have deep questions about life and they are looking for meaningful answers to these questions. But they don’t simply want to be told the answers, they want to understand them and consider whether those answers make sense for their lives.
This is the genius of Alpha, an 11-week course that addresses some of life’s most pressing questions: “Is there more to life than this?” “Why and how should I pray?” “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?” While Alpha provides answers to some of life’s difficult questions, it does so in the context of a conversation built on relationships.
Relationships are the key to a successful Alpha program because it is designed to honor people where they are and help them grow in relationship with each other while growing in relationship with Christ. This emphasis on relationship is specifically built into the structure of Alpha.
Each session begins with a meal so that the leaders and the participants can get to know each other and share life together. Sharing a meal with another person helps to break down some of the barriers that we are so good at building around ourselves. This facilitates more openness for the group as they watch that session’s video and spend some time discussing what they saw and heard.
By serving a meal to people with the intent of getting to know them, by hearing the Good News within the context of people’s life experiences (as presented in the Alpha videos) and by listening to people’s stories about their joys and sorrows, parishes “make straight the way of the Lord.” When done well, Alpha provides a user-friendly on-ramp into our Catholic parishes where opportunities to discover Jesus, follow Jesus, worship Jesus and share Jesus are easy and accessible. This is one of the characteristics of Alpha that makes it different than many Bible studies or film series – it approaches the task of discovering Jesus in new ways.
All of this is a tall order and a new way of “doing church” for many of us. Making disciples in our post-Christian society requires some paradigm shifts in how we do ministry. And with any paradigm shift or adjustment, there is usually pain and sometimes confusion. But if we are going to embrace the call of the new evangelization, we must be willing to try some new things, even if we experience some challenges along the way.
I believe that Alpha can serve as the spark that people need to deepen their relationship with Christ in the community of the church. So, if you haven’t done so already, I would encourage you to consider participating in Alpha. Contact your parish and find out when the next session will begin. And please know that you and all the Alpha groups in the diocese are in my prayers.
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.