By Rob Renfroe
I think many of us are feeling that things are changing. Our culture, once friendly to the Christian faith, is becoming more and more hostile. And persons who hold to a traditional view of morality are often ridiculed as judgmental, mean-spirited, and on the wrong side of history.
I’m not willing to give up on the power of the Gospel to convert people thoroughly, heart and mind, to Jesus Christ. And I’m not willing to believe that the church cannot influence our culture in powerful and dramatic ways. I believe we can. In fact, I believe in the present dark moment, we, as the people of God, can have one of our finest hours.
But I am certain that the battle to bring secular people to faith in this cynical era will not be won through politics, power or even by the most compelling intellectual answers. We’ve tried to do it that way and it didn’t work.
There are still important reasons for Christians to engage the culture philosophically and through the arts. But I’m convinced the only way we will impact our culture significantly is for people to see the truth, not just hear it. And the truth is that the way of Jesus is a better way to live.
Our current secular culture perceives Christians as judgmental, angry, self-righteous, and defined by a political agenda. Only after Christians are seen as living authentic lives of love and compassion and service – and the Church is seen as a servant community that cares more and loves more than anyone else on the planet – will we get our culture to listen to our claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, who can connect lost souls to God and bring life out of death.
And it can happen. I’m sure of it because it happened once before. In the early centuries AD of the Roman Empire, society was cynical, violence was celebrated, morals had decayed and life was cheap. Twenty centuries later, does any of that sound familiar?
The Romans were cynical about their gods. Their deities were flawed and petty, engaging in foolish and egotistical rivalries – not better than people wanted to be, but worse. And though Romans might sacrifice to their gods in hopes of blessing and prosperity, religion as a whole was losing its influence on the daily lives of the middle and upper classes.
Our culture is also cynical about religion. Fewer and fewer people in the U.S. claim a connection with organized religion. It has become more prevalent to attack and dismiss religion as a crude superstition.
Whether it’s the intellectual attacks of those known as “the new atheists,” secular attempts to remove faith from the public square, or the exposure of the church’s flaws (especially the unforgivable cover up of child abuse by church officials), you can see that persons in our time are as cynical regarding religion as the Romans were in the first centuries after Christ.
During that same period, Romans reveled in the violence of “the games.” They rejoiced to see men fight to the death, whether at the hands of other gladiators or being mauled by wild beasts in arenas throughout the empire, including the Coliseum which seated 50,000.
We haven’t gone quite that far, but there are similarities. Boxing has given way to UFC cage matches. G.I. Joes for boys have given way to explicit video games that simulate murder and even rape.
Morally, first century Rome was a time of sexual promiscuity and decadence. Affairs were common, marriages didn’t last, and it was permissible for men to keep young male and female slaves for their sexual pleasure.
Our time is characterized by human trafficking, the omnipresence of pornography, strip clubs, children sending naked pictures of themselves and others via telephone (sexting), casual hook ups and friends with benefits, so that sex is devalued to nothing more than the gratification of physical desires.
Human life in both cultures is deemed expendable if inconvenient or unwanted. Roman children born deformed or weak or even female could be discarded, left exposed to the elements to die of starvation or mauled and eaten by wild beasts.
Today, we create “clinics” where the unwanted life, often because of defect or gender, is dismembered and discarded. Over the last 40 years we have seen over 50 million abortions. Of those, less than five percent were conducted because the life of the mother was at stake or because of rape or incest.
Two cultures, 2000 years apart, but not that dissimilar. And yet, three centuries after it began as a lower-class Jewish sect in faraway Palestine, the Roman Emperor Constantine announced his conversion. And before the year 400, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, embraced, some estimates state, by nearly half of its inhabitants.
How had a despised and persecuted sect with no political power, that worshipped a man executed as an insurrectionist, and that appealed at first primarily to the poor and the uneducated, change the hearts and minds and eventually the culture of people who were cynical, licentious, crass, and crude? Simply put, the early Christians lived the way Jesus lived. They loved the way Jesus loved. They served the way Jesus served. And when persecuted, they died the way Jesus died, praying for the forgiveness and the salvation of those who had ordered their deaths.
Over time, the Romans came to see that the Christian way of life was simply – better. And they came to believe that the Christian faith could make them better. And they came to believe that the most outlandish thing was true – God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, offering life to all who would repent and believe.
How did the early Christians love and serve and live better? There were unwanted babies left to die because they were deformed or because they were female (there were 50 percent more boys in Roman households because female infants had been discarded). Christians would go into the woods and rescue those abandoned children and raise them as their own.
In times of plague, the Romans commonly abandoned their relatives at the first sign of illness, even pushing them into the streets before they died, in hopes of escaping the disease themselves. Not so the Christians. They not only cared for their own and nursed them to health, but also took in and cared for unbelieving neighbors and strangers – many dying themselves as a result of contracting the disease.
Christians provided food and assistance to the poor regardless of their faith and to both sexes, though Roman welfare was given only to males. They were faithful to their wives and kind to their children.
Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor, gave the following account of the Christians he had interrogated sometime between 111-113 A.D.: “… They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, no(r) falsify their trust …”
In the midst of the decadence and the cynicism and the hedonism of Rome, the Christian way, the way of compassion and purity and service, looked like life, a superior kind of life. And what was once despised became treasured. And the foolish One, crucified in weakness and shame on a cross, became adored as Lord of all, God in the flesh. And a culture was changed.
Our culture can be reached. Its promises of life and happiness in material possession and pleasures will leave people in our time as empty and as unfulfilled as did the cynicism and selfishness of the Roman Empire. But whether they know it or not, people in our crass and cynical society are looking for a better way. And when they see it in us – the way of service, sacrifice and love – they will be able to believe that the way of Jesus is the way that leads to life.
We don’t have home field advantage anymore. But we do have a real opportunity to become focused on the way of Jesus and live it out the very best we can. If we do, I believe God will be pleased and a world can be transformed.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
By Rob Renfroe
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), there is an amazing passage. I think it provides a great deal of insight into the debates and discussions that occur between those of us who are orthodox and those who refer to themselves as “progressives.”
In this sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice enters a strange world and encounters Humpty Dumpty, whom she has a difficult time comprehending. He uses words with which Alice is familiar, but the way he uses them seems odd, if not completely nonsensical. When she tells him that she does not know what he means by a word, “Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you.’ … ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”
Sound familiar? Words I think I understand and have in the past found very useful in communicating with others, when talking with my progressive friends seem to have been given altogether different meanings.
Take the word “open.” Certainly, being open is a valuable trait as we seek after God and his truth. “Being open” is the virtue of admitting that no matter how much we may know, we still have much to learn. Openness is the sincere acknowledgement that God often speaks in surprising ways – even through people with whom we disagree, and so we need to listen to all who want to dialogue in good faith.
It’s here where progressives often take us traditionalists to task. They claim that we are anything but open because we have made up our minds regarding certain doctrines and seemingly won’t budge, no matter how out of step we are with the most current beliefs.
But does being open mean having no settled opinions or beliefs? If it does, then many progressives are as closed-minded as they claim we are. For example, most progressives in The United Methodist Church would never consider ordaining anyone who discounted the validity of ordaining women or who rejected infant baptism. Of course, neither would traditionalist Wesleyans, but the point is that the progressive worldview never would allow this thought: “In rejecting this candidate for ministry, we’re not being very open, are we? In fact, we’re rather intolerant.”
No, it would never occur to them that holding to these particular beliefs and implementing these standards for ordained ministry would ever make them guilty of not possessing “open hearts, open minds, [or] open doors.”
John Wesley described true openness, calling it a “catholic spirit.” He described it this way: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one.”
It’s not wrong, in fact it’s imperative, that a church has particular doctrines and practices and is willing to defend and enforce them. I don’t believe that means we’re not open. I agree with G.K. Chesterton who said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
It’s not wrong to hold views that you have decided are correct – in fact, so correct that you are unprepared to change them. What’s wrong is condemning others for doing so when you have done the same thing. One could say it borders on hypocrisy.
In evangelical-progressive dialogues, “openness” among progressive advocates too frequently means that you must believe what they believe – and be absolutely sure that everyone else is wrong.
If for example, it were stated that many gay persons were not “born gay,” but came to same-sex attraction through events that occurred in their lives, you are likely to be labeled by progressives not only as closed-minded, but as hateful – even though there are no reputable scientific studies that conclude all gay persons are attracted to the same gender because of genetics or other biological causes. And if you are invited to give a prayer at the presidential inauguration, holding this view, you will discover, as Pastor Louie Giglio did, just how “open” progressive guardians can be.
Or, express your belief that abortion on demand is immoral. Forget “closed-minded;” you will never be on the staff of our most progressive, and one would assume therefore, our most “open,” UM agency – the Board of Church and Society!
But many who assert just as strongly that gays are born gay and abortion is never wrong if it’s the woman’s choice fancy themselves to be open, not closed, even though they will not for a minute consider another position.
And what about our most important claim: that God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, and that no one comes to the Father except by him? Why does claiming that The Truth is found in the Christian faith cause the “open-minded” progressive wing of a Board of Ordained Ministry to be on edge or even hostile, as many of our orthodox colleagues have discovered? Because being open in the progressive worldview often does not mean being open to traditional Christian teaching, what Wesley called the “grand Scriptural” doctrines. Instead it means being open to the latest theological fad – which will be yesterday’s news and forgotten in a generation. And it means being open to what other religions teach and failing to affirm that what we have in the Christian faith is a revelation that is uniquely true and authoritative.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Allan Bloom writes: “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”
We live in an Alice in Wonderland world when some people claim, for example, that Islam worships the same God as Christianity, even though Christians believe that God sent his Son Jesus into the world for our salvation and Muslims do not. That kind of openness isn’t broadmindedness – it is simply denying the reality that contradictory views cannot both be true. Have you ever been told that Buddhism and Christianity are simply two different paths to the same God? It cannot be true. Buddhism denies that the death and resurrection of Jesus is in any way connected to our salvation. Christians believe it is essential. The same holds true for Hinduism and its pantheon of thousands of gods and goddesses. It’s not being open or generous of heart to claim Christianity is true and at the same time assert that all religions lead to God, even those that deny the uniqueness of or the need for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; it’s being disingenuous. It’s mistaking being open for accepting everything, even beliefs that are contradictory, and denying reason’s power.
We can be open to persons who differ with us in their beliefs – we can learn from anyone. We can be and should be open to persons, regardless of their lifestyles – we are all sinners, and all are deserving of the ministry of the church. There’s no question about that.
What we cannot be open to is the false logic that contradictory religious beliefs can all be correct. What we cannot be open to are those who claim to be morally superior to persons who will not recant their traditional Christian beliefs, when they themselves are every bit as obstinate in their beliefs as those they judge. What we cannot be open to are those who sit on Humpty Dumpty’s wall, redefining words, because they have decided that’s the way to master the conversation and, ultimately, the church.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
By Riley B. Case
The greatest revival in religious history was fueled by Methodists in America between 1784 and 1850. This period marked the 66 years after Methodism was formed in this country. During that time, Methodism grew from 2 percent to 33 percent of the religious adherents in America.
In 1850, 12 percent of all Americans were Methodist. This was accomplished without the benefit of seminaries, or professionalized Sunday schools, and with almost no church bureaucracy. According to the American Almanac in 1837, Congregational seminaries enrolled 234 students, Presbyterians 257, Episcopalians 47, Baptists 107, and Methodists none. Instead, Methodists at the time were organizing camp meetings, composing gospel spirituals, and crisscrossing the country with their system of circuit riders.
Analyzing Methodist spiritual strength in America, Bishop Matthew Simpson wrote A Hundred Years of Methodism in 1876. Simpson was known at the time as Mr. Methodist. Converted at age 18 at a camp meeting, Simpson felt called to preach and was on a circuit at age 23, became a college president (Indiana Asbury) at age 28, elected editor of Western Christian Advocate at age 37, and elected to the episcopacy at age 41. Simpson fought against slavery and alcohol, was a friend of Abraham Lincoln (and preached his funeral sermon), and lobbied four different presidents for Methodist presence in government. He served as a bishop for thirty-two years.
According to Simpson, Methodist growth and influence could be summed up by three factors: Methodism’s doctrines, its piety and zeal, and its system of government. Simpson referred to the Articles of Religion for doctrine, the General Rules for moral purity, and the conferences for system of government.
Simpson summarized Methodism’s doctrine as follows:
“Its creed may be styled evangelical Arminian. It teaches the natural depravity of the human heart; the atonement made by the Lord Jesus Christ as a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; that salvation is offered to every individual on conditions of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; that a man is justified by faith alone, but that good works follow and flow from a living faith. It teaches that every believer may have the witness of the Spirit attesting his sonship, and insists upon ‘following after holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’”
On zeal and moral purity Simpson said:
“…its success has not been owing to any lowering of the moral standard, or catering to the tastes or prejudices of society. The voice of the Church has been clearly heard in the denunciation of vice in every form….It sacrificed in many instances the favor of wealth and influence rather than to forbear its testimony.”
What has happened?
How did we get from there, from the Methodism of Bishop Simpson, to where we are today? Instead of 12 percent of the American population, United Methodism today counts 3 percent of Americans as United Methodist (and this after the EUB merger). In 1890, Methodism claimed 7.1 million members, almost as many as today, when the population was only a fifth of what it is today.
Methodism’s “piety and zeal,” especially for the saving of souls, has waned, and the moral witness hardly exists. This is no better illustrated than by the accusation that the church’s stance on sexuality in the Discipline is “immoral and unjust and no longer deserving of our loyalty and obedience” (Bishop Melvin Talbert). The immoral and unjust stance Talbert objects to is the church’s traditional stand of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. Simpson’s term for this compromise is “catering to the tastes or prejudices of society.”
In church government, the Call to Action recommendations, with modest proposals for reform and revitalization, after several years of study, $500,000 spent on expenses, and untold hours of discussion, failed spectacularly at General Conference, due, among other things, to the inability of United Methodists to think and work together.
The straight answer to what has happened is that Methodism has for a long time been compromising its core beliefs and values. This is not something that has just happened recently but has been going on for over one hundred years. This has not been like a tire blow out, but like a long, slow leak.
Even during Simpson’s time, the attacks on the core beliefs of Christian faith were being launched. Those who did not want the Methodism of Bishop Simpson, who believed that to be credible in a modern world, the beliefs of the church would have to change, were called modernists. Modernists started with a denial of Original Sin. John Wesley had stated that the whole Christian Gospel rested on the assumption that all are born in sin and that the person who denied Original Sin was not a Christian.
No matter. Horace Bushnell, a Congregational minister, was teaching even before the Civil War that children did not have to be taught they were sinners before they could become Christians. A child could grow up and never imagine anything but that he or she had always been a Christian. This theory, when taken to its logical conclusion, cut the heart out of Wesleyan doctrine. If persons can always have been Christians there is no need for the Atonement, Repentance, or the New Birth.
Modernists could not change the stated doctrine of the Church, which was protected by constitutional law, but where they could make changes, they did. The section, “Depravity,” always a part of Methodist hymnals, was deleted in the 1905 hymnal. In 1910, the M.E. Church South omitted words in the baptismal ritual that said “For as much as all men are conceived and born in sin, and that our Savior Christ saith, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” and replaced these words in the ritual: “Forasmuch as God in his great mercy hath entered into covenant relations with man, wherein he hath included children as partakers of its gracious benefits….” This was further diluted so that by 1932 the ritual said: “Forasmuch as all children are members of the kingdom of God….”
This is significant. The Church went from believing all have been born in sin to believing that we are all members of the Kingdom. No wonder we today have the ideology of “Inclusivism,” the approach that since all are already members of the Kingdom there is little interest in talking about Original Sin, Atonement, Repentance, Redemption, Salvation. Under this ideology, beliefs, practices, and standards do not matter. Neither pastors nor church boards nor the Discipline can make a judgment on a person’s readiness for church membership, or a person’s salvation, if one can even talk about salvation.
The Holy Scriptures
By 1920, new members were no longer required to respond to the question, “Do you believe in the doctrines of Holy Scriptures as set forth in the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church?”
In 1935, E.B. Chappell, editor of church school materials in the M.E. Church South, asserted in the book Recent Developments of Religious Education in the Methodist Episcopal Church that earlier leaders “lacking in scholarly equipment” were well-intentioned but did not realize the “larger meanings” of theology and taught an “inherited Calvinism” leading to “erroneous opinions that became a serious hindrance to the development of effective religious education.” Chappell identified the erroneous opinions as total depravity, emphasis on blood atonement, and the necessity for radical conversion. Chappell admitted the task before the leaders with scholarly equipment was great, since almost all Methodists still clung to the old ways of thinking, but these Methodists would have to change.
Chappell was followed by Ethel L. Smither in a 1937 book entitled The Use of the Bible with Children, which stated clearly that what was being presented was not just one person’s idea, but was “official” and “approved” by the Board of Education of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Smither started with a discussion of “universal reconstruction” – old ways were not adequate; new ways must prevail. The new ways were that the learning of facts, doctrine, and Bible stories was no longer acceptable. What was acceptable was having “vital experiences.” The purpose of Christian education was not to impart knowledge about God or the Bible or salvation, but character growth and personality development. The end result was that most Bible material, including stories from Bible story books, and especially the Old Testament, was not suitable for children, since they would present a picture of God that was distorted by contact with pre-Christian ideas.
Harold Paul Sloan, representing a small and unsuccessful evangelical effort to counteract the modernist juggernaut, in the 1916 book The Child and the Church argued that the most important crisis in the Church was over what would be taught to children. To deny the doctrine of Original Sin was also to deny the cross, the Atonement, and the doctrine of Christ the redeemer.
In 1929, George Betts published a study The Beliefs of 700 Ministers. The affirmation: “Man was originally in a state of complete moral perfection which he lost by his disobedience and fall,” was affirmed by only 61 percent of the 700 ministers studied. While 71 percent of the Evangelical Association pastors affirmed the statement, only 40 percent of the Methodists could do so. Among seminary students, only 18 percent affirmed the statement. After Congregationalists, Methodists were the most liberal group of the denominations surveyed.
Modernism as an approach to theology and Christian education was discredited by the 1950s. It was a spiritually bankrupt theology. Many ideologies have been, however, advocated in its place: idealism, process theology, existentialism, feminism, womanist theology, liberation theology – all of which have failed to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, who still read their Bibles, and in countless churches across the nation, still preach a Christ crucified.
Those who worry about United Methodism should know that, thanks in part to Good News and other evangelical renewal movements, United Methodists have greatly modified their views since Betts’ study in 1929. Except for American Baptists, United Methodists are now more conservative in their doctrinal and moral views than any of the other mainline denominations. Groups like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans (once the most conservative theologically of all mainline groups), the Disciples, and the Presbyterians are imploding and in statistical free-fall. It can be argued there is a direct relationship between how theologically liberal a denomination is and how great is the disintegration.
The disintegration is not just in statistical numbers, but in influence and relevance. Without a central core of essential truth, churches and denominations meander into meaninglessness. This is the major issue facing United Methodism today. It may be fine to present Plans of Action with important restructuring. It may be fine to talk about Vital Congregations which are welcoming and diverse and friendly. It may be fine to be involved in works or mercy in the community. It may be fine to seek social justice and to work for the end of poverty and racism. It may be fine to have highly educated ministers trained in philosophy and the social sciences. But without the preaching of the pure Word of God, the people perish. Would that we might hear that word from our bishops and our church leaders.
For many years, progressives ruled in the seminaries and the boards and agencies and even at the General Conferences in The United Methodist Church. Under their leadership, the church has suffered. At the moment there is no hint that these people have the slightest clue as to the connection between what they have been advocating and the destruction of the church.
But maybe, just maybe, the tide is beginning to turn. When Bishop Melvin Talbert went into a rant following the General Conference and called what is in the Discipline “immoral and unjust and no longer deserving of our loyalty and obedience,” he may have been doing the church a favor. Some other bishops stood with Talbert. He was supported by some jurisdictions and conferences and special interest groups. Let us understand this for what it is: an outburst of desperation because the church is no longer willing to march to the progressive drum beat.
Many of us wish still to uphold the doctrines and discipline of The United Methodist Church. We are not willing to jettison that which made us vital and strong. For this we pray and work.
Riley B. Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference, assistant executive director of the Confessing Movement, and a member of the Good News Board of Directors. He is also the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon)
By Mary Jacobs, The United Methodist Reporter
Jim Charlton was serving on the evangelism committee at Wheatland Salem Church in Naperville, Illinois, when he first heard of the Alpha course. While the United Methodist congregation was evangelistically minded, it was searching for an effective method to mobilize the congregation for evangelism. So Mr. Charlton and his pastor decided to check out a conference about the Alpha course.
“About 45 minutes into it, we realized this … was what we were looking for,” he recalled. The church began offering Alpha in early 1999, and still offers it today. At least 1,000 people — average ages 30-35 — have taken the course at Wheatland Salem over the years.
“We experienced a renewal because of Alpha,” said Mr. Charlton. Not only did the course bring new folks into the church, “we saw people who were pew sitters . . . come to Alpha, and suddenly they’d get involved.”
“It’s a great outreach tool,” said Kim Neace, who now leads Alpha as Wheatland Salem’s coordinator of outreach.
Like Wheatland Salem, many United Methodist churches around the U.S. — as well as churches of virtually every denomination — have similarly discovered the Alpha course, a ready-made, 10-week non-denominational curriculum in the basics of Christianity. Currently, about 500 United Methodist churches — more than any other denomination — are offering Alpha.
Each week, participants — “guests” is the term Alpha leaders prefer — come for a meal, followed by a video presentation and small group discussions. The program also includes a daylong or weekend retreat.
What makes the course unique, leaders say, is the low-key, non-judgmental approach. Guests are encouraged to ask questions. There’s no pressure to make a faith commitment or join a church.
“One of the key ingredients to Alpha’s success has been in making guests feel relaxed, accepted, and open to the gospel message,” said Gerard Long, president of Alpha USA.
The Alpha course was first developed in an Anglican church, Holy Trinity Brompton in London, in the late 1970s, as an introductory Bible study for new church members. Over the years, Alpha morphed into a “crash course” in the basic principles of the faith, and spread around the world.
Today, churches of every major denomination in all 50 states and 169 countries host Alpha courses; they’re also offered in prisons, homes, schools, coffeehouses, and businesses. Since its inception, Alpha course leaders say, more than 19 million people have taken the course worldwide. Some 3 million have taken the course in the United States.
Alpha’s curriculum is centered on a series of video lectures by the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, an Oxford-educated lawyer who later became a minister at Holy Trinity Brompton. He combines humor, personal reflections, and passages from a variety of theological sources to address questions like “Why does God allow suffering?” “Why and how do I pray?” and “Is Christianity irrelevant?”
Mr. Long, who left a career in finance to lead the Alpha program in the U.S., says the organization has set a goal to reach 18 million in the U.S. by 2020. In 2007, after a period of declining numbers, Alpha’s U.S. organization put regional teams in place to help support Alpha programs at local churches and promote growth. That has paid off with growth of about 20-25 percent in overall participation every year since 2007.
Among United Methodist churches, the number hosting Alpha courses peaked at 765 in 2002, decreased to about 400 in 2004, and, with 500 currently hosting Alpha courses, is now steadily increasing.
One church that has succeeded in sustaining its Alpha program is the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Some 7,500 people have taken the course since the church began offering Alpha about 11 years ago, according to Jeff Kirby, minister of adult discipleship and men’s ministry.
Resurrection’s secret: When visitors turn up at Christmas and Easter at the church, they learn about the Alpha course.
“It’s an easy invite,” said Mr. Kirby. “Alpha introduces people to the essentials of the Christian faith without holding a Bible over their heads and telling them, ‘You gotta believe right now.’”
In the course, guests feel safe asking questions — any questions, no matter how simple or challenging.
“It starts at a pre-suppositional level,” Mr. Kirby said. “We’re exploring the meaning of life, and questions like ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”
All Alpha gatherings begin with a meal and casual conversation, and that’s key.
“For many, they have a sense of belonging before they begin believing,” Mr. Kirby said.
Like other Alpha leaders, Mr. Kirby eagerly shares the numbers of guests who have taken the church’s Alpha course, but doesn’t have firm numbers as to how many actually ended up joining the church.
“I’d say the majority do,” he said, adding that many people who were already part of the church became more involved after attending Alpha.
Steve Peterson had been attending Church of the Resurrection for years, but never met Mr. Kirby until the two happened to be seated together on a flight a year ago. Mr. Kirby invited him to try the Alpha course.
Mr. Peterson liked what he saw.
“You find out that a lot of people have the same questions you do,” he said. “It’s basically just a conversation with other people who are trying to find their way. There’s no rules, no homework, it’s really non-threatening.”
Mr. Peterson had been attending church fairly regularly, but he says he was “drifting a bit” by the time he encountered Alpha. He calls the course a “spark plug to get me engaged.” He has since taught two Alpha courses at the church.
Ron Smith had a similar experience. He’d attended Church of the Resurrection sporadically for about seven years when he first took an Alpha course shortly after retiring as a police captain in the Kansas City, Missouri, police force. Now he leads Alpha courses in two prisons.
After years in law enforcement, he says he’d become “very cynical about the offender population” and had no interest in volunteering in a prison. But now, by way of his Alpha involvement, he serves through a variety of faith-related programs at the Lansing Correctional Facility, the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. He is also helping lead a faith-based recidivism reduction program at the penitentiary.
“I can only attribute all this to the Holy Spirit,” he said. “You see some real, tangible benefits to people who are desperately in need of repairing their broken lives, mending their families, becoming responsible citizens. Alpha is a pathway to better things.”
Mr. Charlton, who is now director of course development for Alpha USA, echoes that. He’s seen broken marriages healed, drug addicts turned around, lukewarm church members turned into devoted and engaged Christians.
“Evangelism is not just a great responsibility,” said Mr. Kirby. “It is so exciting to watch God transform people’s lives.”
“When you introduce people to the real Jesus, and invite them in a way that’s accessible to them, and do that in an atmosphere of hospitality and acceptance . . . it’s amazing what happens,” Mr. Charlton said.
And that’s the genius of the Alpha course, according to Mr. Long.
“Young people want the opportunity to ask questions, not to be told, ‘This is the truth, you’d better believe it,’” he said. “That doesn’t work with this culture. In Alpha, there’s no problem if you disagree. That’s OK.”
While serving in Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon encouraged churches there to adopt the Alpha course as a way of reconnecting with their communities, with good results.
“Alpha is particularly great for churches wanting to reach young adults and young professionals,” Bishop Willimon said. “It’s real. You don’t feel like you’re getting a bunch of church talk.”
At the same time, he calls the Alpha course “unashamedly theological.”
“Alpha is about Jesus,” he said. “The most interesting things we have to say to the world tend to be theological. That, to me, commends Alpha.”
A few pastors in Alabama told Bishop Willimon they felt the Alpha course was “too charismatic” and put too much stress on the Holy Spirit. That’s a concern that other Alpha leaders report hearing from local pastors. But Bishop Willimon, who’s now professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School, doesn’t see that as a problem.
“As Wesleyans, it’s kind of hard to overstress the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Several of those interviewed for this story did say they learned about the Holy Spirit in Alpha in a way they hadn’t encountered before in church.
“We’re unapologetic for talking about the Holy Spirit,” said Mr. Kirby. “Speaking in tongues is touched on . . . but it’s not presented as a high bar of Christianity.”
‘Get up and go’
Peggy Lively sees the movement of the Holy Spirit in her experience with Alpha. Fifteen years ago, she says she was awakened in the middle of the night by a voice that told her: Get up and go. In the two years that followed, she pondered the words and what they meant. Then she heard about the Alpha course.
“I had a physiological reaction,” Ms. Lively recalled. “Immediately, I knew it was what I supposed to do.”
That was the beginning of the Alpha course at Trinity United Methodist in Arlington, Texas. After 13 years, the course has introduced the Christian faith to hundreds of people. Many participants ended up joining Trinity, but Ms. Lively cautions that the course’s ultimate purpose isn’t just to bring folks through the doors.
“It’s not really there just to bring new members to your church,” she said. “But many felt they belonged here and wanted to join.”
Participants aren’t required to talk or to share during the course. “Some will take the entire course and not say a word,” Ms. Lively said. “And then at the end of the course they’ll say, ‘It’s changed my life.’”
Mary Jacobs is a staff writer for The United Methodist Reporter. Reprinted by permission of The United Methodist Reporter.
Kurt Warner: From Super Market to Super Bowl
The NFL star talks with Steve Beard
Good News, 2013
Being cut by the Green Bay Packers was not part of the plan. Neither was returning to Cedar Falls, Iowa, and working the nightshift at the Hy-Vee supermarket for $5.50 an hour. Needless to say, playing in the Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers and then doing a stint in front of Dutch fans in Amsterdam is not exactly the career path for star quarterbacks in the National Football League.
However, that was all part of the zany agony-and-ecstasy trek of quarterback Kurt Warner, a real-deal quarterback who went from stocking shelves in a supermarket to hurling passes in three Super Bowls with two different teams.
The recently retired record-holding, MVP quarterback is going to be hosting a new TV show about second chances on the USA Network . Good News editor Steve Beard spoke to Warner about the show, his faith, and leadership in the huddle.
Your new show is called The Moment. Seems like you are the perfect host for a show about deferred dreams and second chances.
I was the guy chasing my dream for a long time and then a number of things brought me to a screeching halt and forced me to work in a grocery store and to travel overseas to make my dream happen. It took somebody giving me a second chance for me to be able to get back in the NFL.
Let’s talk about this new show.
The individuals that are nominated for the show are those that were chasing their dreams and then somehow life got in the way. They no longer could pursue the dream that they’ve always wanted and they had to step in a different direction. Once you step in that other direction, it’s very difficult to get back on track. We come in and we surprise them with an opportunity to chase that dream again. They spend two weeks training with a mentor in their profession and getting back up to speed and learning the ins and outs of that profession again. At the end of those two weeks is a dream job interview for them in which they get a chance to showcase not only their skills in their profession, but more importantly, to really sell themselves and why a particular company should take a chance on them and what they can bring to the company.
It ties in so perfectly with my story. If we’re going to chase our dream, most of us need somebody to open a door for us and give us a second chance. My hope is to be the guy that can help open a door for someone else.
Your career track was seriously a roadmap of heartache and elation. On the way to the Super Bowls, what kept your dream alive?
I never let my circumstances outweigh or crush my dreams. Like you said, it was deferred, but it was never covered up. When I was working in a grocery store, playing football was still at the forefront of my mind. I always kept that dream alive. As soon as you start to push it out of your mind or step down a different path, it’s very difficult to get that back. I never let any of those things be an excuse.
You had plenty of available excuses, though.
I never allowed any of those excuses to dictate my circumstances. I think that was the key for me. What you see with a lot of people is that they make the excuse that it’s somebody else’s fault. But a lot of times, people have stepped away from it and then maybe that opportunity arises and they’re not ready for it or they’re afraid to step into it because they’re going to fail.
It’s easier to sit back in the confines of your garage and create something where nobody can tell you it’s not any good than actually going out into the world and having to compete and pitch your product. A lot of people come up with something to blame for why they’re not where they want to be, and what should be blamed in most situations is ourselves.
All these things underlie The Moment and that’s why I love it so much. Hopefully some of these episodes will be like looking in the mirror for some people saying, “You know what, that’s me. Now, what am I going to do about it? Am I going to just continue to wallow in my excuse, or am I going to go out there and create a second opportunity for myself?”
I can’t knock on everybody’s door. My hope is that people watching at home say, “Ah, this show is enough to throw me back in the ring. This show is enough to inspire me to do something.”
If you wanted to be in a band, pick up your guitar again and start playing and see what happens. If you wanted to be a lawyer, pick up a couple of online classes and start working towards that.
It seems like the rest of life devours our deferred dreams. What did you do when you were tempted to give up?
The one fortunate thing with my dream was that even when I was doing these other things – arena football and playing over in Europe – there was always football that was a part of my life. There were moments of frustration when I would go to a try-out and never get a call back. I’d be thinking, man I couldn’t have done any better in that try-out.
There were moments where I wanted to make an excuse. But these excuses don’t get me any closer to doing what I want to do and to living the life that I want to live. If I’ve got to work nights at a grocery store so I can work out during the day and have opportunities to try out for teams, I’m going to work nights and do that.
I enjoyed going to work every day. I was in a much better place as a father and a husband because I did what I loved to do and I wasn’t just sitting around every day.
The Moment is not a faith-based show, but you are a faith-based guy. How does faith play into the issue of dreams deferred?
I think faith plays into it from so many different angles. As a Christian, the idea of second chances is what the Christian faith is all based on. Jesus came to give us that second chance, that second opportunity. So that’s where it starts. The real reason that I continued to chase my dream was I believe that’s what God created me for.
Hey, I’m supposed to play football, I’m gifted to play football. I believe if I get that one opportunity, I’m going to jump in with both feet and I’m going to take advantage of it and my life is going to change.
God creates each one of us with a distinct purpose. He’s gifted each of us in certain ways: to lead men, to throw a football. And He’s given us different gifts. The key is living in your gifting, living in your passions – what God put inside of you, that drive that He put inside of you. That’s what life is all about, taking that gift and sharing it and utilizing it and having an impact with it.
There are so many people that step away from what they believe they were called to be and to do, and they never really get to enjoy the life that God presents each and everyone of us because they’re not chasing those things.
We allow the world, we allow finances, we allow the big house, we allow the pressures of other people to get our minds away from what God’s really called us to.
Obviously, not everyone can play quarterback in the NFL. But I believe it is essential that athletes, preachers, and role models encourage men and women to pursue their dreams.
The mission that God has given every one of us is to use our unique talents. God says, “I want you to use that because in using that is where you’re going to have the greatest impact for Me.”
It’s all-encompassing what we’re doing with this show, trying to rekindle that fire and that passion that God put inside of every one of us so they can really step into the life that they’ve been called to. I believe that their impact on other people is going to be much greater than just wallowing around in the 9:00 to 5:00 job or in the career that they’ve got now where they don’t enjoy it and they’re punching a clock. They really can’t be the people they want to be or have the impact they want to have in those positions.
You have some of the most incredible records in NFL passing history. They are going to be etched in NFL history forever. But even for you, there was a time when your interceptions outnumbered your touchdowns. How do you get out of that funk and launch your success again?
My life has been about setbacks and breakthroughs. And I believe that the microcosm of life is sports. That’s what sports is about, it’s about ebbs and flows, it’s about highs and lows. It’s about the fact that it’s very difficult, if even possible, to play the perfect game. And so, there are going to be moments that you don’t succeed. But to me, those are the greatest challenges in life. You didn’t play very well last week. Now what are you going to do about it?
This person said you’re not good enough, what are you going to do about it? This team said we’re cutting you because you can’t play. This coach said you’re not good enough to start on his team. When people say that, what do you do with it? Do you run and hide underneath a rock or do you say, “Okay, I hear you, now I’m going to go out and show you.”
That was how I approached it. And I think that’s how all great players and all great leaders and all great people of accomplishment look at it. They don’t look at it like I have to be perfect and if I’m not perfect then I’m going to run away.
All great people realize they are not going to be great every time out. But when I’m not great, that presents to me the ultimate challenge to accomplish something.
What did you learn about leadership in a huddle?
The first thing is that all eyes are on you. So how you respond, what you say, what your actions are, is the primary thing in any kind of a critical situation. I’ve thrown an interception in the Super Bowl and we went from being ahead to being down by 10 points.
We step back into the huddle and all eyes are on me. And I have no idea where we’re going from here. What’s next? How I respond in this huddle is going to infiltrate the entire team.
As a leader, you must understand those critical situations and how you’ll respond. Maybe one time you’ve got to yell and scream and get on your teammates. Maybe one time it’s just, “Hey guys, my fault, but I’m going to make up for it right now.” Maybe sometimes it’s just looking at them with confidence, “Don’t worry about it, guys, I’ve got it covered.” And then there’s other times where there’s nothing I could have said. These guys are scared to death, saying, “Man, you just lost the Super Bowl for us.”
The only thing I could do was say, “Here’s the play.” And you go out and make a play and then you watch them come back, play by play, because you’re responding in a certain way with your action.
In loss and victory, all eyes are on the leader.
Yes. And the second thing I learned being in a huddle is that you can’t lead everybody the same way. There’s a lot of people out there with these leadership books that say, “Okay, here’s how you do it.” Well, I don’t believe that. I believe that the key to leadership is knowing the people – your followers and understanding how to reach each and every one of them. You’ve got to find ways to reach them where they are.
Some players, I had to get in their face. I had to embarrass them because it was that embarrassment that pushed them to the next level. Other guys, if you embarrassed them, they shut down. They didn’t want to talk to you.
You had to put your arm around them and say, “Okay, you know, here’s the deal….” There’s just different ways to lead. Some people are rah-rah people, where you have to yell and scream and emotionally kind of tap into them. Other people, you can yell and scream all day long and it doesn’t change their expression one bit. They want to see you work, they want to see your actions. You have to be in tune with your guys, your team, your group, your business, your employees to understand what drives them.
There are very similar aspects between a football field and The Moment. Part of my process on the show is to learn what helps motivate these people. I’ve got to get them from working in their garage to being ready to present with one of the biggest companies in the country in two weeks.
I’ve got to find ways to push his or her button. I’ve got to find ways to force the issues, to take them places that they’ve never gone before, they don’t want to go, or they didn’t think they could go.
Leadership becomes a huge part of being able to encourage them along the way and find ways to go through those disappointments and those struggles and get them back on track and get them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
They might not like you, but your goal at the end of the day is to accomplish something – not to make them your best friend. A lot of different aspects of that that are difficult, because we all want to be liked; we all like to be everybody’s favorite. But you’re going to be respected more by getting the results at the end of the day than just being everybody’s best friend.
This has been a true pleasure, my friend.Thank you very much.
My pleasure. Take care.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Photo: Courtesy of USA Network.