Josh Canning, left, Alana LaPerle and John Kivell promote the Alpha program as an effective means of evangelization.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Josh Canning, left, Alana LaPerle and John Kivell promote the Alpha program as an effective means of evangelization.

August 31, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON - Alpha is an effective tool for evangelization as it provides the means for learning about Christianity and the basic teaching of Jesus Christ, says Josh Canning, the program's Catholic Church coordinator.

"Alpha is effective in bringing people to Jesus so it is a deeply needed tool in the new evangelization," Canning said in an interview.

"The main purpose of Alpha is to give people an experience of Christianity and an encounter with the Lord."

Alpha is a series of interactive sessions that explore the basics of the Christian faith. Each session includes a meal, a talk and a small group discussion. It is being run around the world by major Christian churches in homes, workplaces, prisons, schools, universities and places of worship.

Canning was recently in Edmonton as part of a tour to promote the program.

"When I started (in 2014) I think there were around 96 Catholic parishes in Canada using Alpha. We are now closer to 140, which means a lot of parishes are seeing the potential (of the program) and grabbing on to it."

Few parishes currently run Alpha in the Edmonton Archdiocese, although many did it in the past.

"Compared to other parts of the world where everybody knows Alpha it's still not that well known in the Catholic Church," noted Canning.

"My job is to make Alpha known and to train people in running it, not just in parishes but also in high schools, youth groups and anywhere that people gather."

He said Alpha is currently running in a number of prisons across the country and "we should see it in seniors' homes, campuses and workplaces."

Alpha was run in a motorcycle shop and there is an Alpha course in a women's workout class.

"They basically get together, eat their pre-workout smoothies and stuff, get on the bikes, watch the talk on TV and then they sit down and talk about it," explained Canning. "So there is a good adaptability to many places."

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park has been offering Alpha since the spring of 2013 and about 200 people have taken it, said coordinator Alana LaPerle.

"We have offered the program four times. We offer it now every spring and every fall. It's sort of an ongoing invitation."

LaPerle said Alpha is the best evangelization program she has seen.

Many public and Catholic schools in Alberta are offering the youth version of Alpha, including Archbishop Jordan High School in Sherwood Park.

Alpha started in the 1970s in an Anglican parish in London, England, whose pastor thought that some new Christians needed a deeper understanding of the Christian message.

ENGLISH BEGINNINGS

"So he started to meet with them in his own home. He would make dinner for them and then he would give them a talk and then he would encourage discussion about it," related Canning.

"It was a very popular program and lots of people, even people who had been Christians their whole life, wanted to be part of this program."

However, in the 1990s pastor Nicky Gumbel came in and he saw greater potential in the program. Gumbel saw that this could be more than just a program for new Christians. It could be for anybody who has questions.

"He put an evangelical kind of lens on the program and developed it beyond his parish. He decided to make recordings and train other people in doing it and from there everything kind of exploded."

SPARK FLAMES OUT

The program did well in Canada in the early 1990s but was not done with a long-term vision, lamented Canning. Many parishes ran it once or twice and then discarded it.

"We saw a good spark but then it died off."

In the past few years, Alpha has been revived as parishes see its effectiveness as an evangelization tool for lapsed Catholics and those with no faith. An estimated 27 million people around the world have done Alpha.

TEENS FLOCK TO FAST-PACED STYLE

The Alpha evangelization program also has a youth version which has touched thousands of teens across Canada.

Called Youth Film Series, this version "is a beautiful piece of modern media," explains Josh Canning, Alpha Catholic Church coordinator. "If we want them to pay attention for 20 minutes, then it has to be very engaging."

The series replaced a youth program that wasn't video-based, Canning said. "It was kind of a big textbook."

More than 30,000 teens in Canada have gone through the Youth Alpha.

Fast paced

The film series is documentary style, explained Canning. "It's two guys talking to each other; all of a sudden they are in the Holy Land; it's word on the streets, discussions. So it's very fast-paced and engaging."

In a youth session the video is only 20 minutes long compared with 30 to 45 minutes in an adult session.

John Kivell, Alberta regional coordinator of Alpha, said at least 20 public and Catholic schools in Alberta have done the youth program over the lunch hour.

Archbishop Jordan High School in Sherwood Park has being offering youth Alpha since 2014.

"This is our third (term) offering Youth Alpha at the school, and we've reached about 200 kids," said Alana LaPerle. "We actually had waiting lists the last two times."

LaPerle said the kids come because they get religious education credits and free pizza. "But they stay because they love it," she said. "They say the program is fun and a great way to learn about their faith."

Added LaPerle: "We are turning non-Christians into Christians."

The Alexis Reserve on the north shore of Lac Ste. Anne is also presenting Youth Alpha, Kivell said. "Even the older siblings who aren't in school want to come and the parents want to come too."