Carnmoney, Northern Ireland
The choice to do Alpha was a big decision. In our congregation, we all knew what it was to be a Christian, but God hadn’t shown up for years. Our church was distant from its parish, and not effective in reaching into it.
Individuals did come to faith but the life of the congregation wasn’t being revitalised.
What struck me about Alpha was that every single session came back to Jesus. You’re forced to deal with Jesus no matter what topic you were on.
I thought I’d run Alpha but leave out the bits I didn’t like! But in spite of all my best intentions, God showed up and did things I hadn’t seen before.
There were some people who didn’t want us to run Alpha, who didn’t like it, and I invited one of them to do the course and see if what he thought about it was true. It ended up being transformational for him and his wife.
We held the first course in a golf club restaurant. Lots of people came who weren’t Christians. Lots of people came to faith. Everyone wanted to do it again, so we decided we’d be an Alpha church and do it regularly. We realised we need to constantly reach out, not just have special weeks or missions. We pressed in, if God did something and it worked we did more of it, and if it didn’t work, we did less.
Alpha completely changed the life of our church. The congregation saw something they’d never seen before. They realised they themselves could reach out to people, and make a difference. It’s a narcotic to see someone come to Jesus.
I remember one woman who came on Alpha, who was married to a man who was really hostile towards church. He made her leave her purse at home when she went to Alpha so she couldn’t give money for her meal. He fought and quizzed her every night when she came home from Alpha, and before the end of the course he had come to faith, without setting foot near Alpha! We knew this was special.
We started to expect answers to prayer, and set up 24/7 prayer room in the parish.
It changed the culture around our worship and what we expected God to do. We killed the hymn prayer sandwich, and now band leaders are free to play on, create space. We saw as many things happen on a Sunday as we did at Alpha.
Alpha also taught us the importance of food. We now have a coffee bar space in the church. Food changes everything, it means people don’t come in with arms folded, and no connection to anyone or anything. Now we come in to connection and community, and worship together with a coffee in hand.
We opened our hearts and minds to what God can do and allowed God to have freedom to be active when we were together. It happened and continues to happen.
Our church ended up growing so much we needed a new building just to house everyone. (At the time of this interview, the old building was being demolished to make room for the growing congregation).
When we first started running Alpha, 12 years ago, the Holy Spirit aspect of the course was initially the most challenging for us. We had preconceptions of what God should do.
I realised there was no reason to believe that God had stopped doing what he did in the New Testament, that God hasn’t changed how he works.
On Alpha, people got healed, people got words and pictures. But I was personally a bit at sea with all of it.
I prayed: If you want to do this stuff among us, it’s ok, just don’t do it to me. I’m comfortable with what’s happening, do whatever you need to do, but don’t do it to me!
A few years in to running Alpha, a few of us decided to go to an Alpha conference. The speaker encouraged us to hold our hands out to receive the Holy Spirit. I had never seen anyone approach the Holy Spirit this way; quiet, no pressure, really ordinary. He just prayed, and we had an overwhelming sense of the presence of God. Afterwards we went to a park with ducks and sat on a bench. For 45 minutes nobody spoke. No-one could speak. What was that, what just happened there. We realised then what Alpha was really about and what God was doing through it. We hadn’t understood what it could mean.
It brought a sense of direction and gifting I didn’t know was there.
‘Revival’ is an accessible evangelical way of talking about the Holy Spirit.
We did Alpha to change the church but the person who changed most was me.
John's son, Dave, runs a Spring Alpha course in the cathedral quarter in Belfast. You can read more about this here. Carnmoney Presbyterian have also planted a house group into Belfast, and are hoping to start a church plant in the cathedral quarter in the autumn.