Feet in the vineyard
By Prioleau Alexander
(Reprinted with Permission)
When her husband passed away at the age of 55, Margaret Cotton was understandably devastated. Struggling with countless questions and needing a support group, she found her way to an Alpha course — Alpha is a program that teaches the basics of Christianity, then allows participants to break into small groups to discuss the teaching presented. Interestingly, the course is specifically designed for sceptics, seekers and agnostics. Clearly the course was a transforming experience, as Margaret went on to serve as an Alpha Small Group Facilitator for the next five years. In 2009, she was approached by the leaders of Alpha USA and asked to become the director of Alpha South Carolina. Leaving her career in advertising and accepting this position was certainly a leap of faith, as the job would require she serve as a “missionary,” raising all the necessary funds. Fortunately for South Carolina, Margaret accepted the job. Recently, Margaret provided the Compass with an interview.
How is Alpha doing in South Carolina? It’s been amazing. When I started there were only five or six churches in the state offering Alpha and over the past eight years that number has grown to close to 200. There are also courses running in prisons, campuses and workplaces. This past year, three of the ministries at The Citadel offered Alpha (Baptist, Methodist and Catholic) and we had close to 200 cadets participating.
How did Alpha begin? Alpha started in the 1970s in London at Holy Trinity Brompton Church and spread organically for more than a decade; eventually requests for Alpha materials and training grew to the point where the team at Holy Trinity Brompton had to create an entire division to handle the demand. As the Holy Spirit has continued to bless the fruits of the program, the need for a bigger team has grown, as it’s now a global ministry. Incredibly, it is now is offered in 169 countries in over 112 languages, crossing all denominational lines.
What changes have you seen in the last few years? Traditionally the teaching sessions were presented as an on-stage recording of course-developer Nicky Gumbel speaking to an audience at Holy Trinity Brompton; it works because his wit and charm quickly win over the toughest audience. The basic course “recipe” is still the same, but one new development is the addition of an instructional film series filmed all over the world. As a result, churches now have three DVD options: The “classic” Nicky presentations, the new Alpha Film Series and Alpha Youth. We’ve found the new film series appeals tremendously to the younger generation.
Why do you think Alpha is so effective? Alpha is offered in an easy going, non-judgmental way, starting first with a free dinner. Conversations over a meal allow people to get to know one another and build new friendships. Members of the team are trained to assume every guest is a non-believer and thus the conversations focus on the guests’ personal interests; discussions about faith are left for the presentation and the small groups. Each presentation deals with one of the concepts of the Christian faith, followed by small group discussions. Everyone in the group is treated as a VIP, regardless of their beliefs and all are encouraged to ask hard questions and seek satisfactory answers. There is never any pressure to speak and no question is off limits. People no longer want to be lectured to; they want to be listened to.
What advice would you give a church thinking about starting Alpha? Check it out! I am happy to meet and discuss how best to run it, train the staff/leaders and provide coaching. The materials are free online and since I raise my own funds, I offer my services free of charge. It’s the Alpha philosophy that churches can no longer sit back and expect people to come to them. Jesus tells us “to go.” If a church seriously wants to step into outreach or evangelism, Alpha provides one of the very best tools to do that. Work in the Vineyard takes many forms — some plow, some plant and some gather in the harvest.
Margaret Cotton’s calling and work with Alpha assists all these efforts in a unique way, as her work is that of teacher … teaching others to plow, plant and reap. I hope all Compass readers will make 2018 a year to learn more about the Alpha Course.
Margaret may be reached at MargaretCotton@AlphaUSA.org