Shaila Visser

‘Alpha’ targets teens

  • May 22, 2014

The Alpha program in Canada wants no Catholic left behind, especially the younger generations.

The ecumenical program focused on Christianity reached almost 21,000 high school students across the country in 2013 through the Alpha Youth Film Series. The provinces with the most participants were British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

The series was launched last September and includes 12 episodes about the basics of the Christian faith designed for teens age 14 to 18, including “unchurched students,” that address questions surrounding life, Jesus’ existence, Christianity, God, etc. The hosts travel the globe and a range of opinions from believers and unbelievers are presented.

When run properly, the series requires participants to engage in discussion with their peers where no question is off limits.

“It’s really designed to engage high school students in life’s biggest question in a medium that works for that demographic,” said Shaila Visser, national director of Alpha Ministries Canada. “Is there meaning in life? Who is Jesus?”

In Alpha, “we say anyone can say anything. So (the film series) is an opportunity for them to wrestle with the basics of the Christian faith, and truthfully it’s designed for people that are either not really themselves Christians, new to the faith or perhaps are lapsed in their faith,” she said. “Even young people today, especially in high school, are becoming adults (and) are really wrestling with questions: ‘Do I believe what the Church teaches me? Do I believe what my parents have taught me about faith?’ The Alpha youth film series really gives them an open place to have this discussion.”

Alpha Canada recently conducted a search for its first national director in a Catholic context and hired Josh Canning to fill the role. Canning previously worked as director of chaplaincy at the University of Toronto’s Newman Centre, a hub for young Catholics. He was also a campus minister for seven years at both U of T and York University.

“There’s quite a lot of interest in the Catholic Church in Alpha, whether it’s Alpha being run for adults or whether it’s Alpha for youth,” said Visser on the hiring of Canning. “We really wanted to ensure that we had someone who understood the Catholic Church, who could really come alongside and serve them well, and he is an ideal candidate with a real passion for the New Evangelization.”

Canning agrees that Alpha is a tool that Catholics should be using for the New Evangelization.

“It is a means of inviting people to explore or re-examine the Christian faith as it relates to the questions and desires of their hearts,” he said. “This is a time for Catholics to recognize themselves as missionary disciples, and Alpha offers us a context to live this out. My heart is on fire for this, and that’s why I applied for the job.”

In some Protestant contexts, Canning says Alpha may be enough to bring them to full initiation into their Church, but in a Catholic context, Alpha uses “unique aspects of Catholic formation.”

“In a Catholic context, it may serve as a crucial first step in the journey and lead to RCIA and the sacraments of initiation. As well, Alpha can be linked with some other forms of sacramental preparation, such as marriage prep and for parents of children who are being baptized,” he said. “Finally, it can be introduced into contexts like chaplaincy programs or curricula at Catholic high schools.”

The Alpha program began in an Anglican church in London, England, and was first run in a Catholic context in the UK. In Canada, more than 73,000 Canadians participated in Alpha last year. Visser says Catholics in more than 70 countries have participated.

“The Alpha course is really intended to serve parishes,” she said. “It’s not catechesis... but this is something the Catholic Church can use and be very confident in its theology and its approach because it’s been used all over the world by Catholic churches. They can feel confident in its approach to help people really understand who Jesus is and make a commitment to follow Him.”

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