I go to a church that runs two Alpha courses a year.
I’d heard a fair bit about it, read articles about it, seen photos of it on Instagram. I was aware of the buzz that surrounded Alpha. But for a while my life has been about pregnancy and juggling little people with a husband who works night shifts and I just never seemed to be able to commit to a whole nine weeks of something.
But this year it felt possible and my husband said, ‘Do it. It’ll be great!’
And I was curious.
What is this thing that over 26 million people around the world have tried? How does it work? What makes it so good?
So I said to one of my mates ‘Here, do you fancy doing the Alpha course with me?’ sort of assuming she would just say, ‘Emmm, no thanks’.
But she didn’t say yes. And she didn’t say no.
Actually, she said, ‘What’s Alpha?’
And I felt God saying, stop jumping the gun, stop presuming things. My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.
So we ended up going along with a few other mums that we know. I wasn’t sure how any of us felt about God or being a Christian or what their beliefs or questions might be. But they wanted to do the course and we shared a lift into town. And if I am honest it felt like a little break from sorting the bedtime routine at home. Win-Win!
We’re half way through the course now and here’s a little of what I’m discovering.
Alpha is so simple.
It has a really stripped back feel. There are no gimmicks, no traditions to weird you out, no hidden agendas. It’s a free course that looks at the basics of Christianity over nine weeks. We meet in a coffee shop in the centre of town and we sit at a table, side by side and face to face. We share buns and cake that are homemade and awesome. We hear a talk. We grab another coffee and we have a conversation with the seven or eight people in our group. We listen. We ask questions. We might say, ‘Here’s what I don’t get.’ or ‘This is difficult for me’ or ‘Yeah, this really resonates’. It’s so simple.
And yet, it is so significant.
Because the way this little table of people make their way through the big questions of life is deeply important. Those who lead the discussion and guide our conversation don’t appear perfect, they don’t seem overly accomplished or together. There is no arrogance to their tone. I never feel patronised. In fact, there is never any rush to offer proof of ones beliefs or a mad scramble to get up on a pedestal. Just a lot of people saying you are welcome here. In all of your uncertainty, with all of your questions and doubt and cynicism – you are so very welcome. Take your time. We won’t judge you, we won’t get offended by your honesty, we won’t talk over the top of you.
You see, the group of people sitting at the back on the wooden stools near the window…that’s my group. They’re a great bunch of people and from the first week I knew – these people don’t want to own this space they want to share it with me. They don’t want to make me like them, they want me to become more like the person I was made to be. They’ve been praying about it for weeks.
They just believe the gospel works best in community. Their motivation is the love of Jesus and it dissipates any fear I brought to the table.
I love how Alpha is real – and by that I mean face to face as opposed to virtual. Thinking can be hard work, sharing your thoughts out loud can be even harder. But when you are brave enough to do it and eight other people look you in the eye and nod along saying ‘me too’ it is liberating. It feels like honest conversation is what we were made for. That feeling of being heard and noticed and understood is pretty great.
I wont lie, at Alpha there have been some silences. But they aren’t hurriedly filled with nonsense about religion. They provide room to breathe and mull over the question that’s been posed. And so, while I chew on my delicious Oreo Cheesecake traybake, I also chew over my experience of forgiveness and what it has looked like for me.
I listen to others explain where they find themselves today and how they’re approaching faith.
We chat through the idea of working so hard for God, always earning what is freely bestowed. We consider the weight of making it all about what we do rather than who we are becoming.
We consider Jesus, his radical life on earth and the transforming power of his presence. We talk about the ways in which prayer can be so difficult and reading the Bible can be tough. We offer things that work for us, models and apps and patterns and mind-sets that have helped us a little along the journey.
It probably sounds like a lot for a Monday evening. But it doesn’t feel intense or hard work. Keeping up is easy. It feels like we are partaking in something incredibly special.
Each week I leave Alpha and there’s this taste in my mouth -it’s not just the really good coffee. It’s the taste of hope and life and acceptance. At Alpha the presence of Christ fills the atmosphere and it changes things. I loose track of time. I feel such a deep urge to listen well and understand others. I feel compelled to shake off my deep rooted religion and get to know the person of Jesus a little more. I feel a bit more equipped to live this life of faith.
And when a guy stands up at the end to thank us for coming I am disappointed.
Because there is an opportunity for more here.
More of Jesus. More of his goodness. More of the Kingdom.
In an atmosphere like that your faith is only ever enlarged. You want to stay a little longer.
And so, this little buzzing coffee shop in the centre of Belfast, filled with people from different backgrounds and experiences and questions– well, it pretty much stinks of Jesus Christ. I think I might have found a little bit of the Kingdom here, right at the end of Hill Street.
I’m glad I signed up.