Jesus is like Santa: My Alpha Experience
Recently I have been attending an Alpha course at Harbour Church in Portsmouth, and as the course comes to a finish I wanted to write about my experience on Alpha and what I have thought of the process.
"Alpha is a series of sessions exploring the Christian faith. Each talk looks at a different question around faith and is designed to create conversation. Alpha is run all around the globe, and everyone's welcome. It runs in cafés, churches, universities, homes—you name it. No two Alphas look the same, but generally they have three key things in common: food, a talk and good conversation." - https://alpha.org/
Note: I have been told some Alpha courses include video talks, the course I took had live/ in person speakers.
As a child I attended church for the ‘holidays’, you know: Easter, Christmas and Christingle (not sure what that one was. Think it related to an orange and candles somehow). As an adult I have only attended weddings, christenings and funerals, not really any services. A couple of those weddings have had choice words in the service, that very much reminded me why I don't do this Church thing. A Church is not somewhere I feel accepted, I’m happy to be there for the architecture and the spirituality/ feeling or the ‘vibe’ that I get. Though importantly, I get this from the building not from the service or the people there.
I have always believed in something more, but never felt able to define or understand that. Or to be honest, a real need to. I now find myself in a loving relationship with a practicing Christian who regularly attends Church, and who’s belief is a strong part of their identity. We have shared conversations about our thoughts, feelings and ideologies, and that’s been great. Yet I think we have both had a desire to be able to talk in more depth about and explore those thoughts.
Finding Alpha Around 4 months ago a friend of mine (also called Mike) suggested looking at the Alpha course, as a way for me to explore my faith and ability to better understand religion, specifically Christianity. He had taken part a few year before and said it was worthwhile. I thought it sounded good and mentioned it to Laura. Little did I know, years back Laura had taken part in Alpha too and had even supported the delivery of a course. So she was very positive about participating. In fact it was Laura that looked up courses and found one of the 10 week programmes that matched both of our busy schedules. That first week was interesting. Walking in, we were welcomed at the door with Freddos (this only happened for 3 weeks, clearly a tactic to ‘recruit us’). Inside there was a dark stairway with blue neon lights running up the side of the stairs. The first thing I noticed as we entered the first floor room, above an ice cream parlour, was that it was very well branded. The walls were all painted black and white with loose low-level light bulbs creating a very cool space. To one side was the merch shop(!!!), where you could get branded tees, hats and hoodies. The stage was in the middle of the room, a little strange, but I mean, that surely was just the start of the strangeness right?
We were put into groups, I think based on age. There seemed to be something like: 1 teenage group, 2 young adults, 2 groups with 20's and 30's and 1 over 40’s group. Each group had about 10-12 people in. It seemed quite a lot for discussions, but I assumed our numbers would lessen as the weeks passed, and they did. But not as much as I expected. Our groups included some ‘undercover Church people’ who I gradually worked out from their ‘pro Church’ words. Not sure if you can tell, but I was quite sceptical.
Apparently they weren't 'undercover' they just didn't standup and say "I go here". By the end of the course I really appreciated this approach, because it helped prevent all the questions being directed at the 'leaders' and facilitated more whole group discussions. But at the start, yer, I definitely thought undercover agents. There was a welcome talk and an introduction to how the course would be led. Each week we would eat together, talk to those in our group, then there would be a musical performance followed by a guest speaker and then a discussion based on that weeks topic and the content of the speakers presentation.
The main topics included:
Is there more to life than this?
Who is Jesus?
Why and how to pray
Reading the bible
The Holy Spirit
How does God guide us
& other linked topics/ sessions
The eating together was nice, personally it was more a benefit in terms of accessibility. If there wasn't food it would be hard to access because of the timing (7 - 9pm on a week night). The food was good and provided with a suggested donation of £3.
It also helps to provide a real community feel quickly, theres is definitely a bonding thing that can happen when you eat together. Maybe its a social thing, maybe its psychological, I don't know. But it is a core part of the Alpha course, so they obviously see a good opportunity there to indoctrinate... I mean provide a supportive welcoming group environment.
The first two weeks were relaxed, in that a band, yes a band... Apparently this isn't news to most people, but I still think of Church as having choirs with people in ropes. Not bands, with people wearing hats, tight jeans or crocks.
Anyway, the first two weeks we turned in our chairs and faced them to listen. Week three you are encouraged to stand and sing along. Some definite recruitment type behaviour right there.
By week six its full on hands up and out, eyes closed, you know, proper cult behaviour. But it didn't feel like that...
I think this, for me was for a few reasons. But mostly because the people praying through their singing had taken the time to discuss their faith with you. You had, by this stage had open discussions that meant, even if you didn't feel the same way as those choosing to pray/ sing in that way you understood it. For me, that makes all the difference. I didn't feel excluded or ill informed because they were doing something weird or different. In fact it didn't seem weird at all. While I am not about to do that, it was beautiful to see and hear.
By the way Harbour have a great singer in Rachelle!
The Guest Speakers
Ok, the speaking and the discussions are where your experiences are going to be totally your own and will dictate how your experience on the course goes and what you think of Alpha.
My experience is that the talks started great, however, particularly as the weeks go on I felt like the talks could have been shorter. I wanted more time in the discussions and more often found my attention drift in the 45 minute talks. I was fortunate in I attended with Laura, so I had someone to continue the discussion with for another 30 - 60 minutes after the evening event finished. I also heard other people had gone to a bar or sat in the car and discussed their thoughts with someone else after some of the sessions too. I think its really beneficial if you can make a bit more time to digest and discuss the topics and spin off points each week. You will get more from the course if you are able to do this.
I loved that we had a lot of young people as guest speakers talking about their experiences and thoughts. Having experience of working with young people, I found it a particularly positive experience. However, I did find myself wanting to hear from an older speaker too. Someone over 30. I wanted to hear from someone more like me I guess. Someone thats been divorced, that has or is struggling with their life, someone thats experienced a longer life. That said I am sure there are plenty of under 30's that have had a lot of crap happen to them, so I am not sure if I am maybe I am not giving enough respect to the younger speakers, and maybe I just wanted the visual of an older person with assumed wisdom?
I took the most from talks where they merged bible stories and messages with their own life experiences. That felt more relatable and more friendly to me. There were some awesome messages that I will talk more about further down.
A couple of the talks I didn't like because they were too close to the Bible. By that I mean there was too much "in the Bible it says...", "verses X, chapter X says". That turns me off straight away. I find that boring and, more importantly, it ties faith to a text that I have many problems with and one that I would not currently choose to follow.
Ok, heres some of my issues with the Bible which mean I struggle to relate or connect with it. Again, these are my points, you are free to disagree.
Its written only by men
Its written by man, not God
Its dated, in terms of culture and society
Its approach to sexuality
The problem I least have is the realism. I have always kind of had my own faith. I believe in a higher power, but I am not sure what that is. I didn't believe in the Bible stories as they are written. They are too magical or fanciful for me. However the messages, of love, peace, kindness, supporting those around you, being good. Those kind of 'life messages' are something I very much believe in.
This is why the realism isn't a big problem for me, but someone quoting scripture is.
The discussions at Alpha and my chats with Laura have opened up a new way of viewing the Bible to me, which is the interpretation that the Bible could be rather seen as 'stories' with 'true messages', rather than 'true stories'. An example being the Adam and Eve story. Some Christians believe this to be fact, others see it as a fictional story to illustrate a true message. This way of interpreting the Bible is new to me, but a very interesting one.
Again, if you choose to believe the Bible is completely factual, thats cool, I respect that. Its just not what I believe.
These were way better than I expected and honestly these were the reason I had wanted to take part in Alpha. Through the discussions I learnt about my own faith and that of those in my group. I really enjoyed these discussions and they provided me with a very positive view of Alpha, Harbour Church and particularly the people in my group.
Those 'undercover Church members' were out in the open by week three. From this stage, I also saw the non cynical reason of why they were more discreet at the start. It was, I think, to avoid all our questions and thoughts being directed at them, rather than to the group or ourselves. They help the discussion along and feed in when needed, but very much try to support the rest of us to express and explore our own thoughts and beliefs.
One discussion I found particularly beneficial was 'Who is Jesus'. The talk had been about a load of facts that back up Jesus being a real person and timelines etc. In the discussion I said, "For me, Jesus is like Santa. I don't need all the facts, I believe Jesus and Santa were real people, lived and did some cool stuff. I just think that their stories have been exaggerated". Our discussion continued for a while as we all spoke about our thoughts and believes. I so, so, valued the opportunity to talk openly in a non judgemental space and to be able to say something that could be considered unintentionally offensive and to have that open discussion. For that I am most thankful.
For me the discussions were the best and I would have liked more time on them. They are also the reason I didn't like the first week. There was too much ice breaking and whats your name rubbish. But as someone who delivers training, I understand why thats there. Particularly in a 10 week course.
If you are thinking of attending an Alpha course just beware the first week isn't representative of the course, you have to give week two a try.
Additionally I have to mention The Bible Project. During one of the discussions, TBP was mentioned as I had suggested I haven't and wouldn't be likely to read the Bible. But a kids Bible maybe more my level; so I could understand whats going on and have an informed view on its content, rather than a view on what I have been told it says. During this discussion TBP was recommended to me, and I have to say its great. I have been watching their videos and listening to the podcast. Its presented really well. You don't need to be a Christian or a 'believer' to listen/watch it. It is presented in a simple and fairly easy to digest way (I have watched the videos 2-3 times though). So I would recommend checking them out if you'd like to know more - thebibleproject.com
The Away Day
Firstly, do it! It is an awesome chance to spend more time together and discuss not just the talks you are given on that day, but everything up to that point. This was particularly my experience as we had our Away Day the weekend before the last Alpha session, so it did feel a bit more of a round off. There was a lot packed into this day, I believe some Churches do this over a weekend rather than a day. Which I am sure enhances the experience a lot. However, that does potentially make it a lot less accessible to people. For example I would say only about a third of people on the course I attended were at the Away Day, even though the Alpha Team rearranged our Away Day to stay in Portsmouth, rather than the planned Bournemouth trip to make it more accessible.
The Away Day was rounded off with a group praying session and leaders offering to pray for us. You know, I was like, yer these guys seemed cool. This must be where the cult crap kicks in right? The rooms dark, we have our eyes closed, theres soft music in the background and a soft spoken prayer reading. Then the individual prayers quietly happen. I have 3 maybe 4 spiralling thoughts on this and my experience.
1. Its totally set up to be suggestive. If you want to feel something or be touched, you properly will be. Derren Brown would be impressed by this setup.
2. I don't want to do this. I don't do the bread and wine in 'normal' Church, so why would I do this.
3. Not to do with the Alpha course, but an insight to my mind --- My depression brain interruption happened because of the closed eye relaxed state, saying "harm yourself", "smash your head on the table", "just fall, I'll make sure you hit the table" --- Anyway...
4. I do believe theres more to life than just what we see, and if thats true. Then why couldn't someone have an experience at this time, just like they could at any time? Accept what you know and respect what you don't.
Then, as those thoughts ran my head... someone asked if I would like a prayer and I said yes, dammit. Why did I say that?
O well, It'll be fine, right? It was nice, it was ok. Well then I felt something. Dammit, I am falling for the cult stuff!
So here it is. I know I felt something. I felt it from the person praying for me. I felt it from the space that was created. I know this. Was it God, Jesus, Buddha or someone/thing else, I don't know, and I am not sure I care. No thats wrong. I do care, rather. I am not sure it matters to me who its was, just that it happened.
Let me explain. In week 2 or 3, during our group discussion, it was mentioned that people don't want to believe in something that isn't true and feel tricked if it isn't. I don't feel that. I don't have a problem believing something that isn't true, in regards to religion. Maybe because religion or rather faith to me is more than 'this book says this' 'this person says this' its about feelings and ideologies.
If I believe something it isn't because I have seen it, then it would be fact not faith. Thats not belief to me. To me faith is more a blind thing, or maybe thats not it as such, but what I want? I want blind belief. I don't want to care about the details. Does that make sense?
I don't care if I am 'tricked' if I have had the experience. Because, for me that experience will have been real. That's my truth.
I could talk about how because of my struggles with depression, because of my experiences of self harm and suicidal thoughts I am more suggestible in experiences like that Saturday. Or, I can talk about how because of my experiences I am now more open to the opportunity of having a conversation with God or experiencing them, or just having a spiritual moment.
Would I have jumped out a plane 10 years ago, would I have attended speed dating, would I have spoken about my mental health, would I have traveled to Manchester to meet 20 people I've never met, would I have travelled to Dublin and Amsterdam on my own or had a tattoo? NO!
Maybe, just maybe I experienced something because I allowed it to happen, because I was ready for it to happen.
For most of my life I have known limitations on love and acceptance, I have known that nothing is unconditional. I am weary of trust and struggle with my own self worth, yet in that moment I felt total acceptance and support from Rob (the chap praying for me) and from somewhere bigger.
In that moment I was touched, I was moved. Was it God, I don't mind and it doesn't matter to me. I felt it, and I value that.
This is way longer than expected. So heres an attempted quick wrap up.
Alpha is an awesome course I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn about THEIR own faith, be that christian or not. Though be aware, thats the way its directed.
Harbour Church is a welcoming place filled with (mostly young) passionate understanding people.
Come with an open mind. You don't have to agree with everyone or anyone, but listen and make your own decisions.
Be respectful. Even practicing Christians can disagree, let alone having us non believers there. I really valued hearing 3 or 4 practising Christian's talking about their different views, it was interesting and for me reaffirmed its ok to think and believe something different.
Make sure you have all the details for the session when you sign up. I didn't get any check up or reminder emails about the course, so make sure you have the details at the start.
Don't expect to get all or maybe even any answers. Its not about the answers, its about the questions. Sounds weird but there you go.
Make sure to do week two, week one isn't a true reflection of the course.
I hugely valued the (undercover) leaders who facilitated the discussions and groups. Thank you.
Harbour Church has an amazing singer in Rachelle.
Make time after. More of a personal note. I have enjoyed having dedicated time each week to talk about 'what is life, faith and more'. So I want to make a real effort to continue to have these conversations following the conclusion of the course.
I would have liked more discussion time. If you can hang around at the end and talk to the other people there, make the most of the time.
I am not about to attend Church weekly, or even monthly. But I am more open to Church because of my Alpha experince.
I am happy to say my views in the future may chance, they may not. Thats ok.
I am more respectful and confident in my own beliefs, and I would/ could more happily share them.
The Bible Project has amazing resources and is a great way to learn more.
I would love to hear about your experiences if you have attended Alpha. Was it good, bad? Have you started practising a faith after Alpha? Do you still have the discussions? What did you think of the experience?
One person that has read this post already is Laura. She has a slightly different take on the Alpha course, potentially because we came at the experience with different views and experiences. I am delighted to be able to share Laura's views with you (included below), so you can get another insight to the course.
This expression and discussion of different views is very much in keeping with the Alpha course, so we have obviously picked up something.
About 6 months ago Mike texted me saying "a friend of mine has suggested I do a course thing about Christianity. He said it's a discussion thing about the Bible and stuff, but I can't remember the name." Hmm I thought, that sounds interesting, I wonder what that could be. Then Mike found the link and sent it to me. Oh, I said, It's the Alpha course! Oh yes I know about that, let's do it! I've been a practising Christian my whole life. 29 years of sitting in pews, listening to sermons, and singing hymns. I've done the Alpha course 3 times before (I know, a bit greedy). First when I was 15, then again at university, and I've also been part of leading an Alpha course when I did an internship with a church. So I'm a bit of a seasoned Alpha goer, and as a practising Christian am not really the target audience for the course. It is designed for people who have questions, who aren't Christian, or who are new to believing in God. People like me? I'm not who they want. However, I'm who they got and although I didn't think I'd get much from it before we started, I was surprised how much I did take from each week. The biggest thing I valued were the discussions Mike and I had together. I love hearing how Mike feels about his faith, and how he views the Church, the Bible and my religion. Sometimes I feel challenged by his questions, which I enjoy. His questions make me question why I believe what I believe, which is an important thing to ponder. Sometimes I surprise myself at how I feel about his opinions. The Bible was a surprise. I had quite a reaction when Mike said that he switches off when people quote Bible scripture, that he doesn't really care about it. If I could just take a moment to go off topic, share how I feel about the Bible. The Bible is difficult at times. It can present itself as a book of rules, or lists of outdated points of view which have no standing in our 21st Century lives. There's lots in the Bible which I don't agree with. There's lots in the Bible which actually disagrees with itself, verses in the same book can contradict each other! It's library, a collection of books of ancient wisdom, stories, songs, poetry, letters and prophesies (there's even a book all about sex). The Bible was written by humans (more specifically men) but inspired by God. And it tells a long story, threaded through all the ancient scripture is a tale of love. The story of the love of God to his people, us. The human race. And wow, does he love us all. So even though I understand Mike's issues with the Bible, when you look past those, when you read it with the Holy Spirit in your heart, with a belief in God you can read past the problems and see the bigger truth. And truth that God loves us all. Just as we are. Back to Alpha. I would recommend the course to anyone. It's a place where you can bring those questions you think are too silly, or might offend an actual Christian if you asked them. It's a space designed to have those kind of discussions and to have input from Christians who while we might all agree with the fundamentals (God love us, Jesus died for us), we will have vastly different opinions on just about everything else. So give it a go. Those big questions you never knew you needed an answer to just might get answered.