Who is Jesus Christ?

Alpha takes Christianity back to the basics

Aaron Lambert

As Catholics, it’s so easy to get caught up in the doctrine and dogma and theology of the Church that we often forget the fundamental question of Christianity: Who is Jesus Christ?

Alpha seeks to remedy this. The easiest way to describe Alpha would be to call it an evangelization tool, but as its proponents will say, it’s much more than that. Aimed primarily at people who have no experience with Christianity or the Church, Alpha is an introduction to the Kerygma, a Greek word meaning “teaching” and used to describe the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, upon which the Christian faith and all of its tenets are founded.denv

Originally started in the Anglican church, Alpha is designed to be used across all Christian denominations. The program is currently used in several parishes in the Archdiocese of Denver, including St. Joseph’s Parish in Golden, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver. The program is endorsed by the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries as one of three programs for parishes to utilize for evangelization efforts.

Alpha serves as a great starting point for those exploring the Church and many parishes have opted to use it as a supplement to RCIA, which assumes that a person has already taken the first step toward being a Christian—namely, entering and actively pursuing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. While RCIA is intended more as a means of catechesis, Alpha is a simple introduction to the Christian faith that can spark deeper conversion, said Scott Elmer, director of evangelization and family life ministries. However, he noted that the two should not be dependent on one another.

“[Alpha] could help people to make a decision to give themselves to Christ and enter into RCIA, but it shouldn’t be bound by that,” he said.

St. Joseph’s Parish in Golden is currently conducting its second session of Alpha. Andrew McGown, director of faith formation for the parish, implemented the program last year, and some people enjoyed it so much the first time that they’re going through it again. 

“It’s a safe place to come and really informally get a taste of Christianity and build relationships, which are really at the heart of Alpha,” McGown told Denver Catholic.

A typical Alpha night starts off with a free meal, followed by a talk, done either live or in the form of a video, and is capped off with a small group discussion. The casual nature of the program is a big part of its allure, McGown said, and makes it easy to invite people to.

“It’s a totally different atmosphere than any other church program. The three proposition statements of Alpha are: no cost, no pressure and no follow-up,” McGown said. “It’s always free, we’re not going to pressure you into doing anything you don’t want to do, and we’re not going to track you down and guilt you into coming back. It’s safe to try.”

While the program is designed with non-Christians in mind, McGown stressed that practicing Christians should not write the program off as being too basic or below them.

“The great things about Alpha is it’s not so focused on non-Christians that that someone who is coming to Mass couldn’t benefit from it,” he said. “It’s a revisiting of the Kerygma, the most basic proclamation of the Gospel, and we all need that.”

Mid-way through the program, Alpha participants go on a day-long retreat that’s meant to be an introduction to the Holy Spirit. This experience is often very powerful for those in Alpha, and is the “crux of the whole Alpha model,” McGown said. “It’s a chance to pray and be prayed over … and really experience God in a profound and personal way.”

Brandon Young, director of communications for Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and a Catholic convert of two years, had such an experience on this retreat when he was in Alpha. Young had always had a relationship with God throughout his life, but he had never stepped foot inside a church before entering Alpha. At the time, the program was used as Immaculate Heart of Mary’s RCIA program, and Young entered because he felt like God was calling him to “step it up.”

He couldn’t have predicted the impact Alpha would have on him.

“Still, to this day, the most intense, personal encounter [with Christ] I’ve ever had in my entire life was part of Alpha,” Young said. “When we did the retreat, I felt the Holy Spirit enter me and Jesus talk to me so clearly that I couldn’t keep it together. It was overwhelming.

“After they were done praying over me, I left and went to the sanctuary and just wept. My heart had felt something it had never felt before.”

As a convert, Young said he can be critical of some cradle Catholics who are catechized really well, “but don’t know how to have a one-on-one relationship with Christ.”

[Alpha], for the first time, just let me focus on that, without any external influences,” he said. “It’s not Christianity 101, but it’s, ‘Who is Jesus, and how can I have a loving relationship with him?’ If we’re all called to be disciples, we need to understand Jesus.”

To learn more about Alpha, visit alpha.org. A new Alpha program starts at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish May 1.

COMING UP: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.