`Christianity 101' goes to video

Ellicott City couple lead free Alpha Course targeting unchurched

January 05, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Before they discovered the Alpha Course, David and Allison Fritz never felt satisfied with the prayer groups they held in their Ellicott City townhouse.

It was stressful and time-consuming having to organize speakers. And they were bothered that they seemed to attract only committed Christians.

The Alpha Course -- a sort of Christianity 101 centered on videotaped sermons -- solved their problems. With Alpha, the Fritzes didn't have to worry about setting an agenda every week because the course follows a format. Because it is specifically tailored to seekers, the Fritzes found an effective way to bring non-Christians into the fold.

The course, which originated at an Anglican church in London, has spread rapidly throughout the United States and the world in the past five years. In addition to the nonreligious, Christians in all the major denominations have taken the course: Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostalists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.

The courses are free, and Alpha is nonprofit, said Alistair M. Hanna, executive director of Alpha North America in New York City. Hanna volunteers his time to the nonprofit, as do the Fritzes and the hundreds of other Alpha hosts around the world.

"My conviction about why I want to do Alpha so much: I want to give others the opportunity to come into a friendly, seeker-sensitive, nonpressurized environment that's an easy place to come but that doesn't have to be a church," David Fritz said.

When the Fritzes first offered the course in 1995, hardly anybody in the United States knew what Alpha was. Now, at least one person is offering the course in each state, including 80 in Maryland. Last year, 118,000 people took the Alpha Course in the United States and Canada -- up from less than 4,000 three years ago, Hanna said. It also is offered in more than 100 countries around the world, he said.

The Alpha Course was founded about 20 years ago by a clergyman at the London church. About seven years ago, another clergyman at the church changed it to make it more attractive to nonchurch-goers, and that's when Alpha really took off.

The new-and-improved Alpha recipe, no matter where the course is offered, is the same. Scheduled once a week for 10 weeks with an optional weekend retreat, each Alpha evening includes a home-cooked meal, a videotape about Christianity and small-group discussions. A team of helpers from the host church helps greet people at the door and make and clean up meals.

The first Alpha videotape is called "Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?" Others include: "Who Is Jesus?"; "Why and How Should I Read the Bible?"; and "Why and How Should I Tell Others?"

Each participant receives an Alpha Course manual that contains quotes from the Bible, suggested readings, space for notes and advice on how to write a moving testimony about the role of Jesus in his or her life. The booklet is illustrated with playful cartoons and the Alpha symbol, a cartoon man struggling under the weight of an enormous red question mark.

Kelly Preuett, a sprinkler fitter who lives in Ellicott City, attended an Alpha Course at the Fritzes' this fall at the urging of his girlfriend's sister. Before Alpha, he had no religious training, he said, but he enjoyed the course and wants to continue his Christian studies.

"I found a part of my life that I'd been looking for," he said.

On a recent night at the Fritz household, about 30 people, including Preuett, gathered at 6: 30 to eat dinner and then watch a video: "Why and How Do I Pray?" Everybody sat in folding chairs facing the television, following along with Bibles that the Fritzes lend for the duration of the course.

Afterward, they split into small discussion groups, one led by the Fritzes, to talk about prayer.

The conversation quickly became intimate.

"Sometimes when I'm driving, I talk to God," said Preuett.

"I try to pray in the morning and ask for guidance throughout the day," said Jay Testerman of Ellicott City, who builds and restores furniture for a living. "He's my guidance counselor."

"I'll be in a really big hurry, and I'll say, `OK, God, find me a parking space,' " said Lois Testerman, his wife.

From there, the group debated whether God always answers prayers, whether God gets angry when people ask for material things such as parking spaces and whether God is comforting, like a friend, or demanding, like a patriarch.

Johnny Bowling, a lineman at Simkins Industries in Catonsville, said he thinks God sometimes answers prayers in a roundabout way.

"I broke up with this girl," he said. "I started praying for her back." He was in the throes of breakup misery, he said, when he met a woman who suggested he pray instead for the obsession to go away.

"I prayed," he said. "I got up, and it was over, man. I knew God was in my life, and he answered prayers."

Information about the Fritzes' Alpha Course: 410-313-8969.

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