Craig Springer is the Executive Director of Alpha USA, a program used in thousands of churches of all denominational proclivities across the United States. Alpha is a program that began in England and has been used around the globe to help the spiritually curious and confused discover what it means to be a follower of Christ. Before taking the role with Alpha USA, Craig was a pastor at churches in Chicago and Denver. Craig is the author of How to Follow Jesus: A Practical Guide for Growing Your Faith and How to Revive Evangelism: 7 Vital Shifts in How We Share Our Faith .
Craig, evangelism is obviously a passion of yours. How did that come about?
I grew up in a good home but a faith fractured family. My father was Jewish and my mother had us attend a traditional protestant church in town while growing up. During my teenaged years, I turned away from any expressions of faith and into a very rebellious life. However, I was always searching for more—more purpose, more clarity, more fulfillment. I cried out to God one day, “If you are there, if you are real, show up and show me how to find you.” Not long after that, a new friend invited me to a youth group at a thriving church. I heard from John 4, Jesus saying He is the living water and if I come to Him I will never thirst again. I said, yes to Jesus and everything did change. I started following Him wholeheartedly and found forgiveness in relationship with Him, purpose in His mission, and fulfillment in His presence. I knew that since discovering Christ was the most important thing ever to happen to me, then my life from that point forward was to be about helping others find Christ .
There’s a lot written about the difference between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials from a cultural point of view. Should we consider a different approach to evangelism for each? Are there unique challenges each generation brings when presented with the Gospel?
Yes and No. Painting with a broad stroke over a people group or demographic will always be limiting. Jesus’ methods of evangelism included preaching to a crowd, one-on-one conversations, gatherings around a table, gatherings in the temple, conversational, confrontational…you name it. What Jesus did effectively identify and uniquely speak to, were the questions people carried in their hearts. Think of the ways Jesus spoke differently to different people, not necessarily by age, but by heart question: the woman at the well, or Nicodemus, or the crowds after the feeding of the five thousand, or the Pharisees, or the Roman Centurion, or the rich young ruler, or Mary Magdalene—all his interactions uniquely spoke to the questions of those people. So let’s pay attention to the questions in our culture and the lives of people we long to reach.
Now to give some suggestions regarding the generational shift of questions (covered in disclaimers that there are always exceptions of course). The primary questions generations have been asking have shifted.
These historically for Boomers have included more analytical questions aimed at awakening a Christian faith heritage:
How can you prove what is true?
How can I be forgiven for my sin?
How can I know I’ll go to heaven?
How can you prove God exists?
Gen Xers and then more so Millennials have shifted the questions to more of a self-fulfillment self-actualization journey:
How can I find purpose?
How can I deal with loneliness and emptiness?
What will help me live a great life now, not in some distant afterlife, but here and now?
And now many of the core questions I am noticing among Millennials and Gen Z are far more social impact related (in addition to the self-fulfillment questions):
Where can I find an answer to the injustices in this broken world?
Where can I find restoration for my soul and a people to live this out with?
Knowing the questions people are asking will help us in how we share our faith, like Jesus. But the starting point would be listening until we really hear and understand what people are longing for and the questions they are carrying in their hearts.
Most of our readers have heard of Alpha but for those who are not familiar, describe what it is.
Alpha is a conversation series designed for people to explore the meaning of life, explore the Christian faith, ask questions, and share their point of view. Everyone is welcome. Alpha is run all around the globe in online groups, cafes, churches, universities, homes, prisons—you name it. Generally, an Alpha experience includes connection with others, a short film, and discussion. It facilitates a space for listening and belonging over time as a critical part of spiritual discovery. Many people with no faith background or wavering faith in Christ, report developing a new relationship with Jesus as a result of participating in Alpha.
Alpha presents key material in a highly relational setting. In the 1970s programs like Evangelism Explosion focused on one-on-one conversations. What’s particularly helpful in today’s culture to have conversations about Christianity in a small group?
One of the greatest desires within all people is to belong. Often our evangelism efforts can focus on transferring information or beliefs yet leave out the importance of belonging as part of spiritual growth. We’ve found the power of “belong before you believe” groups like Alpha, resemble tables that Jesus sat at, like Levi’s party of tax collectors. They are fun, engaging, relational, and surprisingly draw people closer to Christ when the content and conversation is framed around questions of faith and listening to one another. One-on-one evangelism is great, and we should continue this. However, the reality is that many Christians have a difficult time doing one-on-one evangelism effectively, even with training. Small-group evangelism can engage Christians in sharing their faith who don’t feel gifted at sharing their faith by just making invitations to a great meal and discussion time.
Whenever I hear a person either misrepresent key Christian teachers or accidently get a theological concept wrong, I’m tempted to correct the person. I know I’m not alone. Yet, Alpha takes a different approach. Can you explain how you train Alpha volunteers to engage in these conversations about Christ and Christianity?
Jesus asked 307 questions. He was asked 183 questions. He only directly answers eight. Jesus is almost 40 times more likely to respond to a misstatement, a comment, a question, or a threat from someone by drawing them further into conversation rather than just pouncing with a proclamation. Jesus knew the power of listening. At Alpha, we train group hosts to be listeners and facilitators of great conversation not master teachers trying to ensure all the right points get across. Since the film series shares the truth about Jesus clearly, the discussion time can be for reactions, questions, things people are wrestling with without correction. This model comes from the way of Jesus. As a parent of children entering their teen years, I’ve had to learn that my directive/corrective communication and parenting style which may have worked well when they were five won’t work quite as effectively when they are fifteen. I need to take a much more patient, listening, drawing out through questions approach to our conversation than just correction and direction. Often our knee-jerk reaction in evangelism interactions can lean more towards the corrective parent approach rather than the wise, listening approach of Jesus.
Alpha is one of those rare programs that works in churches big and small, traditional and contemporary—even Roman Catholic and Protestant! Why does it work so well regardless of the church culture and context?
The apostle Paul said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Alpha works across many traditional, methodological, and denominational boundaries because its focus is purely on introducing people to Jesus. Certainly, there is more to discipleship than an introduction. And it’s not that we can’t and shouldn’t have theology beyond just Christ and the cross and the resurrection, but we believe our (Alpha) role in the wider Church is to help make this introduction more effective for churches to their communities. We want to help equip churches with a front door for those outside the faith to find their way to Jesus through that church. Then those unique and diverse churches invest in the long-term discipleship efforts which will reflect their own tradition. We are pursuing gospel-centered unity; where we can partner across Christian traditions around the atonement of Jesus Christ even if there are some other areas of disagreement among traditions.
Practically speaking, one other reason Alpha works in various churches is that it’s easy to get started, scalable no matter the context, can grow fast, can mobilize many in the congregation, free to do, and creates its own regenerating momentum with the testimonies of people finding faith in Jesus. It’s powerful.
If a church leader wanted to bring Alpha to their church, what would you tell them?
Definitely go for it! Especially if you don’t yet have a way of facilitating conversations for people with questions, doubts, hurts, and hostilities towards faith as part of your church’s evangelism strategy. If you only have a platform for communication (weekly services) or groups primarily for Christian discipleship, please do start Alpha or something similar to create a space for conversation. Don’t worry about launching big, just gather a handful of emotionally intelligent, connected to friendships outside of the church Christians who can make invitations and give it a go!
Besides leading Alpha, you’re a published author. In your book, How to Revive Evangelism you identify “7 Vital Shifts” that can help us as we share our faith. Would you identify a couple of those shifts and how such a focus can help have a dramatic impact?
I’ve alluded to a few of the shifts in some prior responses. We need to shift towards conversation not just proclamation. People are longing to be heard. We can disarm the polarizing, inflammatory lack of dialogue in our culture by being great listeners. Our churches need to shift from just inviting people to come to us to understand us through our proclamation, to creating spacing where we seek to understand others through conversation. This is what softens the mind and heart of people genuinely seeking and who may ultimately say yes to Jesus.
Another key shift, a move from just welcoming to belonging. We often provide a surface-level courteous welcome to people outside of the faith, in our own personal lives, and in our church spaces and ministries. But Leviticus 19:34 says “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The idea is that someone from outside the faith should feel and be treated as an intimate family member, even before they believe. I share some powerful stories of this and practical application in the book of how we can more effectively shape belonging and not just welcome.
One more I’ll mention here is to shift from just hoping for many to hungering for more. As someone passionate about evangelism myself, I have often hoped for many. I have hoped for many to come to Jesus, many to attend my church, many to be baptized, many to log on to the message online, etc. The starting point though of an effective evangelist’s prayer isn’t for the Lord to revive another person, it’s “Lord revive me!” We can only ever be effective evangelists with lasting impact if we are hungering for more of the Lord ourselves. This has to be our heart conviction, to love the Lord with greater passion. This is what draws others to Jesus and centers us on Jesus’ love ourselves.
Inertia can be a friend and an enemy. If we are in motion, it’s easy to stay moving. However, getting started when we are at rest seems an insurmountable task. How can the stuck (person, leader, or church) become unstuck in the arena of evangelism?
I find myself and others may often get stuck initially because of proximity. Our research with the Barna Group revealed that 38% of adult Christians in the USA don’t have a single non-Christian friend or family member in their lives. Life is busy and the beauty of Christian community and a thriving church is that it draws us deeper into those settings. But we must stay proximate, like Jesus, to those outside of the “religious” establishment. He was after all known as the friend of sinners. So, to get unstuck, we may need to figure out how to get out of our bubble intentionally and that’s hard because it can take time. Instead of exercising alone, join a workout group or class-focused gym. Join a sports recreation league. Chit chat with colleagues at work a little longer. Help your neighbor in their yard or down the hall in the apartment building.
And without trying to be promotional, this is one of the reasons I love Alpha so much…the invitation is so easy. Once you have those newer friendships, you don’t need to convince them about the substitutionary atonement of Jesus in those early conversations. You can just say, “Hey do you want to go to this conversation and film group at my church (or at this restaurant, etc.)? We are watching a film series about life and faith, sharing a great meal, and then just talking about it, what do you think?”
Any additional thoughts we should consider regarding evangelism?
When Jesus told of the great banquet he said (paraphrasing) “there are more seats at my table, compel others to come in!” Jesus longs for us to make invitations to a great party on His behalf. He wants as many invitations as possible to go out and for us to never give up. But always remember they are invitations to a great PARTY; Jesus even says we should be compelling. If what we are sharing with others feels and sounds more like a stern teacher handing out failing report cards or an angry parent lashing out against a misbehaving child or even a conceited expert correcting others for their wrong thinking, we might be missing the point. We are called to be compelling party inviters casting a vision for an insatiable feast.
Craig, thanks for sharing your passion with us today! If someone wanted to explore Alpha or learn about your resources, where can they look?
All of the Alpha content is free (including the training and films) because of generous donors who care about you and your church reaching people who don’t yet know Jesus. Go to alphausa.org to find everything you need.