Make the Alpha course the best night out in town – with the best food, the best music, the most vibrant atmosphere – and it becomes a powerful tool to help people who would not dream of going to church to discover Jesus.
That’s the advice of Ger Jones, the UK-born senior pastor at Vintage Church in Los Angeles, whose church has swelled to 1200 members thanks largely to the enormous growth in its Alpha course. From five people at its first Alpha six years ago, the course attracted 450 people at its most recent outing.
A few years ago, the church looked at ways to deepen the experience of Alpha – a series of 12 talks and discussion groups around a shared meal introducing the basics of the Christian faith introduced in 1977 by Holy Trinity Brompton in London. As of January this year, 26 million people around the world had taken part in an Alpha course, including half a million in Australia.
“We really made the Alpha evening a hugely unmissable event, so we have great food, we make it that it’s like an Instagram-able environment, as we call it in LA, we put a pub in it, we made sure that people felt it was just a vibrant, exciting place to be,” Ger tells Eternity.
“People love a night out and so let’s make Alpha the best night out of the week.” – Ger Jones
“Sometimes in the past, we were low key and quite quiet, and what we found is by really working hard on hospitality, by working hard on just the content and friendships and the experience, people really loved it and people got excited about bringing their friends.”
Ger is touring Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Brisbane holding “Alpha masterclasses” to coach churches that are hungry to see Alpha thrive rather than just limp along.
He is passing on two key insights: “First of all, we made sure the atmosphere and the environment on the Alpha evenings were something that a guest would love, that it was great food, great music, great atmosphere that’s relevant to the people in the community. People love a night out and so let’s make Alpha the best night out of the week.
“Secondly, we introduced something at the very beginning of Alpha called the Alpha launch party where people can just bring their friend to that one-off Alpha launch party and they can then decide after that party if they want to do the Alpha course; and so we make that event at the beginning of Alpha such a great evening, with great music, great food, a great atmosphere, very safe to bring friends to.
“Holding that really increased the confidence of people in the church to invite their friends because they knew it was just a one-off evening that was very safe but lots of fun. It mobilised the whole church in inviting their friends.”
Ger believes Alpha has never been more relevant in societies such as Australia, America and Britain – where an increasing percentage of people would never go to church but still want to explore the big questions of life. He believes it becomes a powerful tool to help people go on a journey towards Christ when you provide a safe, non-judgmental, enjoyable environment where people explore faith at their own pace without any pressure.
“We actually built a pub inside the church so that people would … feel at home and they feel relaxed.” – Ger Jones
“We found that many people in LA are asking spiritual questions, they’re asking the biggest questions of life, but they’re not particularly keen to go to church on a Sunday – they’ve been turned off the church and they don’t want someone preaching at them. They want to go on a journey of self-discovery, a journey of conversation, a journey of hearing what others think,” he says.
“Alpha is, I think, coming into its own at this season right now where people really want to ask spiritual questions but don’t want it pushed down their throat, they don’t want to be told what to believe and Alpha helps people find Jesus at their own pace.”
He says it’s really important that people feel safe and relaxed in the venue – so that they can really enjoy themselves.
“We hold it in a church but we make sure the church feels very safe for people, so we actually built a pub inside the church so that people would feel very much that they’re not going into a daunting environment, that they feel at home and they feel relaxed.
“We run it sometimes in churches where we’ve had a café with really good coffee and milkshakes and things like that, so whatever is relevant to your community. We do have a pub at our Alpha and it does sell alcohol but it’s with a two-drink limit. What we find is it’s more about having your friends feel that they are relaxed and they are safe because that’s what they’re used to.”
Ger says Alpha’s main goal is simply to give people a beautiful taste of who Jesus is and his experience in Los Angeles is that people who are far from Jesus – who maybe have had troubles with the church or don’t like the church – still find Jesus irresistible.
“People really want to ask spiritual questions but … they don’t want to be told what to believe and Alpha helps people find Jesus at their own pace.” – Ger Jones
“We’ve seen a lot of people come to know Jesus, which is really wonderful – people who wouldn’t normally come to church, whether they be people from other faiths or atheists; they’ve come to Alpha and quite openly said they would never set foot in the church, but they really love the opportunity to go on a spiritual quest and a journey and they’ve come to find that Jesus is the one that they were always looking for but didn’t realise it,” he says.
He gives the example of a massage therapist who attended Vintage Church’s most recent Alpha at the invitation of a client. She had tried everything from Eastern medicines and meditation to other religions, but by week five she decided to ask Jesus to show her if he was real.
“She had a profound experience of the love of Jesus and she’d never experienced that amount of love and she came in that week and said, ‘I think I’ve found the person that I’ve always been looking for’ … and by the end of the course she couldn’t stop telling people about Alpha.”
While the presenters in the Alpha films are English, Ger says the recipe and the values of the course are universal and translate well to whatever country it is held in.
“Alpha now has published and produced new Alpha films so they’re more global in their feel.”
He says if churches are confident in the recipe of Alpha and invest in it in a way that makes it an unmissable evening, an exciting place to be, the course is as powerful as it’s always been.
“It’s been around for a while, but we found in the heart of Los Angeles that you can make it very Los Angeles, you can make it very Sydney, you can make it very relevant to your community and they’ll love it.”
If you would like to attend one of the Alpha Masterclasses, click here.