A SMALL group of people, arms around each other, are outside singing at the top of their voices, and it’s time to go home.
Inside there are more refusing to budge – only one lot are younger.
But these are not the stragglers at the end of a party or drunken patrons being herded out at closing time.
They are more ‘drunk’ on the spirit generated by the Alpha program on Scripture and faith, and their enthusiasm is a sign of the impact the program is having at All Saints’ Parish, Albany Creek.
The people outside are members of one of the small discussion groups, sufficiently inspired for an impromptu burst of Shout to the Lord on their way to their cars.
Among those inside are a youth group reluctant to leave an interesting conversation on one of the many faith issues Alpha had thrown up.
Bryen McMahon, who with wife Fay, was one of the instigators of the Alpha program in Albany Creek, wants to go home, but he is not complaining because this is the sort of enthusiasm that has made the program such a joy for the couple.
This effectiveness of Alpha is part of the reason for Fay and Bryen having completed Alpha courses four times, and why they were keen for All Saints’ to give it a go.
It’s also the reason they want to spread the message to as many parishes as possible.
People from seven other parishes around Brisbane came to Albany Creek for its first Alpha course – Questions of Life.
Alpha is a program developed in the Anglican Church in England but is suitable for other denominations, and valued by many Catholics.
It enlivens faith through a sound, contemporary exploration of Scripture that is related to daily living.
Alpha evenings are relaxed and non-threatening, with hospitality and community being important components.
They involve a supper, 40-minute video and group discussions.
Anglican minister Nicky Gumbel, a former atheist, is the presenter on the videos and participants will often mention his entertaining and engaging style as one of the courses’ assets.
An Alpha course lasts 12 weeks but missing some evenings often does not affect involvement in the rest of the program.
The McMahons were delighted and amazed by the success of Albany Creek’s first Alpha program which finished on July 21.
The program started with 90 on the first night, averaged 75-80 each week for 12 weeks, and finished with 105 on the final night.
‘You had to be there to see over each week how new friendships were forming,’ Bryen said.
‘Each of the seven small groups were bonding together, many people were telling how much they were getting out of the video talks, (and) a number of people who had even been thinking of Ôleaving the flock’ found a renewal and revival that ‘has made the difference’.
‘But on the last night there was an unbelievable feeling – people were still gathering in their groups after the finish, some holding hands, some just sitting on the floor of the church in a circle, some praying, some even singing the theme hymn Shout to the Lord.’
Many were eagerly looking ahead to the next Alpha.
‘That feeling on that last night was something like I’d never seen.’
Bryen and Fay had witnessed before the enthusiasm Alpha generated for the faith.
‘I presented it as a wake-up call and that’s what Alpha is. It’s a wake-up call,’ Fay said.
‘We’re told we’re fed at the table of the Eucharist and the table of the Word. I think some Catholics are suffering from malnutrition because we feed from the table of the Eucharist but we’re not sure about the Word.’
She said Alpha was about correcting that imbalance. She had seen older people in tears because of the insights of faith and Scripture that Alpha had revealed to them.
‘They say ‘I’ve reached 70 and I’m only just finding this out’. That’s sad. For whatever reason (Alpha) has opened up a new world.’
Alpha had generated a great loyalty and commitment among the community, including the young people who participated.
The parish invited four youth representatives on the Alpha committee and they have had strong involvement.
One of the youth participants, Julien Van Houts, said the course had been beneficial socially and in developing his faith and answering questions he had about his faith.
He said he he’d witnessed the program motivate people who had not previously been spiritually active.
‘Towards the end of the course, everyone was charged. People were hungry for God’s Word.’
Sue Hutton, who is attending Albany Creek’s latest Alpha course – A Life Worth Living – said Alpha ‘opens your heart’.
‘You start to see things differently,’ she said.
She said she met a man in his 60s there who told her he had listened to the readings presented in the course – from St Paul’s letters to the Philippians – all his life but had not seen the meanings revealed to him for the first time through Alpha.
‘The underlying thing is the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit in action.
‘(Alpha) just breaks open the Word of God. You feel as if you’re being encouraged.’
Sue’s son, Luke, 13, is the youngest participant and he’s ‘loving it’.
Another parishioner, Alan Forbes, who is semi-retired, had been a little hesitant because he was uncertain of the appropriateness of a program from the Anglican Church for a Catholic group.
Because the program had the backing of Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby and parish priest, Fr Ron Mollison, he decided to give it a go.
‘Archbishop John and Fr Ron were right,’ he said.
He said the course was challenging, reaffirmed the basics of our faith, and provided encouragement and practical help.
‘I found that the course challenged my complacency about my faith and my feelings about prayer and the Holy Spirit.’
Selina Harris, who has been heavily involved in Alpha programs in Redcliffe and helped run it in Sunnybank, said it was beneficial because ‘it goes back to the basics in terms of the Bible and prayer’.
‘It also has the benefit in people coming together in Christian friendship. Genuine friendships are formed or strengthened. It builds community.
‘Participants bond with the group and one another and are able to openly talk about their lives and their faith.’
Plus, Alpha had the element of fun.
Selina said she looked back on her experience with Alpha as ‘a time of spiritual growth for myself and in the lives of others …’
For more details about Alpha or if you would like to know how to start the program in your parish, phone Fay and Bryen McMahon on (07) 3264 2080.