Willow Creek learned this the hard way. Shintani shares, "We originally thought our best Alpha leaders would be our strong evangelists, people who love to talk about God, Jesus, and why Jesus died for you. In Alpha, that actually harms what we're trying to accomplish."
Kaczmarek agrees. Leaders who want to be the "oracle of knowledge," whom people look to for every answer, will hurt Alpha small groups. The key is "hospitality, welcome, bringing people in, and meeting them where they are," she explains. The teaching is the time to explain what Christians believe. The small groups are the time to listen and discuss, not to persuade or defend. Rather than teachers, the leaders serve as tour guides, as Linnea Smith explains—people who are themselves on a spiritual journey.
And there's no need for the spiritual journey to end when the 10 weeks of Alpha end. Many small groups continue to meet or stay in touch in some way. "They do this journey for 10-11 weeks, and then what's really cool is they've found their first Christian community," Shintani shared. "They may not even be Christians yet, but they tend to stick together. They often start attending church together and serving together. It's been beautiful for me to see Alpha groups that still stick together 3 years later. It's more than just learning the basics of faith. It's an experience that connects them with community."
One of the unique things about Alpha is how easily it can be replicated in any context. With videos, group questions, and even tips for running the course all available online, leaders around the world are taking Alpha and creatively making it work in their context. From megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church to prisons in Zambia, leaders are using Alpha to help people experience real community that opens them up to the gospel message, life change, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
—Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com.