By Lee Chung Horn
IN SHORT is a regular column of significant church news. In a world of expanding voices, news reporting is the foundation for context and debate, and a bridge to the future.
https://www.trueway.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/Together_2023_Aug_Alpha.mp4Alvin gets his small group to understand what faith is, and how Christians come to faith.
THIS YEAR’S ALPHA, JUST ENDED
This year’s Alpha course was many things: lively, struggling, hope-filled, would be some words to describe it.
For starters, it had a very low sign-up rate, possibly the lowest one in its history in True Way. Secondly, Alpha usually comprises twelve weekly sessions, but participants started 24 March and ended 7 July.
This was a shadow but some reasons were immediately apparent. First was a leadership change. Elder Lawrence Fu, after seven runs of Alpha, had passed the baton to a younger man, Alvin Chia, and perhaps some change would be inevitable.
Also, the church was coming out of three years of COVID-19 paresis. It wasn’t easy to get volunteers and helpers to run what had started in 2013 as a labour-intensive, annual church project.
“We really had very few participants this time,” confesses Alvin, 35. “Only 8 or 9 or ten persons signed up. Of this number, roughly five would be volunteers who came to help me.
“The number was lower whenever people had to be absent, for one reason or other.”
Described as “an opportunity to explore the meaning of life,” the Alpha course is an evangelistic course which introduces the Christian faith to non-believers. Alpha started in 1977 in the UK, but grew rapidly in the 90s. In 1998, the group ran 10,500 courses, many of these in foreign countries. It registered a local office in Singapore in 2003.
In 2013, True Way ran its first Alpha course. Though some church members had worries about theology and praxis, our initial concerns were more about manpower and sustainability. But there was excitement and interest even when the course ran over 12 weeks.
“At our first Alpha, I think we might have had 70 to 80 participants on Friday nights. Of this number, about 20 to 25 would be non-Christians. The rest would be church people – pastors, elders, deacons, people who wanted to be involved.”
Many Singapore churches adopted Alpha. On the surface, it was easy. There was a set curriculum. There was a small guide book. Churches just had to get the materials for participants, arm leaders with an instruction manual, and recruit a small team of volunteers to serve food and run games. Many churches were energized by the stories of good outcomes that circulated.
At True Way, a familiar, well-oiled Friday night routine soon appeared. People looked forward to a good-quality video, followed by discussions in small groups where Christians helped non-Christian participants with their questions.
This year, things changed markedly. It started with a very poor sign-up.
Alvin: “Looking back, I should have done more publicity, and earlier. When I counted the final numbers, it was already time to start. After we started our first session, I felt we couldn’t stop.”
Alvin’s small group met in a room in church. There was no need to use the multi-purpose hall, or a sanctuary. The group was very small. Though the attendance wobbled from time to time, they soldiered on.
Chia, a communicant member, first came to True Way in December 2019. He works as a films classifier in a local statutory board. He has served in several of the church’s outreach and evangelism programs, and is also a member of the PA team.
“After a bit, there were just two or three new participants. We had one guy who asked to participate virtually. So we dialled him in on Friday. We tried to get him a good view of the video. Sometimes, the connection died. He sometimes vanished from the screen because there were young children in the house.
“I was a bit discouraged when he had to leave the course mid-way.”
Clarence Tan, 58, on the other hand, was a physical participant. He was the oldest one.
“I really enjoyed Alpha. Alvin is a very good leader, he was energetic and creative.
“I think I attended about 70 per cent of the course. But after one or two sessions, I realised, to my surprise, that Alpha was an evangelistic course, aimed primarily at non-Christians. Nobody told me.”
Clarence had come to True Way in January this year. He worked in security and sings bass in a local chorus.
“I became a Christian when I was in my teens. But I backslided for many years. Last year, with encouragement from a friend, I decided to give my faith a try again. The first church I visited didn’t work out, but True Way did. I’ve been coming regularly, and have made several friends.”
This was the first time that Clarence had heard of Alpha. “I guess as a lapsed Christian the whole Alpha movement passed me by.”
Clarence felt he hadn’t wasted his time.
“I was glad to learn the Christian faith all over again,” he said. “Was it really four months? Well, I’m glad I came. Everyone in the Alpha group was warm. Alvin cracks great jokes!”
Lawrence: “Alpha is fundamentally about evangelism. Although we accept Christian participants, especially young Christians who are new in their faith, our primary interest is about reaching non-Christians.”
Alpha is a ministry in the evangelism pillar. True Way runs two other courses for new Christians and seekers – ABC and ASK. ABC is short for “A Basic Christianity,” and ASK “A Seekers’ Class”.
Alvin said: “We need to know whether the new faces in Alpha are Christians or not. We never ask when people sign up. We feel our way. After a bit, you suspect, and you can tell.”
The lack of clear information about religious affiliation can stumble operations.
Alvin realizes this: “After a while, I thought we might have only one non-Christian in our tiny group. We were too shy to ask. But later, this person said she was Christian. That meant we were running an Alpha course without a single non-Christian.
“Maybe this was why the work grew more difficult as we went on. I guess I was wondering what I was going to accomplish. I cancelled some parts of the curriculum, and collapsed other parts. If our participants are saying they are Christians, maybe we don’t need some of the curriculum.”
Lawrence: “I ran Alpha seven times. I was told by the staff at Alpha Singapore that most Alpha classes could expect to experience a contraction over succeeding runs. They said 10 percent with each run. After several runs, I was thinking it may be time to stop doing annual runs. I thought maybe once in two years would make better sense.”
Alpha at True Way stopped in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, it started gingerly again, and was conducted via Zoom. That year, Lawrence ran his last course, with Alvin as understudy.
“I became the new chairman of the evangelism committee in 2022. I ran my first Alpha in 2022 on Zoom. I think we might have had 6 or 7 non-Christian participants that year.
“This year’s course was my second time. It was conducted in church, and it felt like a whole new experience.”
When asked to share his thoughts about the recently concluded Alpha, Alvin paused.
“People tell me it’s alright, don’t be sad,” says Alvin. “They say people are commitment-averse. Twelve weeks can feel daunting.
“I know gospel work is hard, but I think we need to rethink Alpha. This fact came home to me. I have many church seniors whom I really respect, but I think we need to slaughter some sacred cows.”
Certainly commentators and journalists have discovered that many churches and groups not only adopt Alpha, but adapt it to their needs.
“For instance, because our group was so small, I treated every Friday session around our table as a mini-altar-call, so I didn’t do the big one near the end of the course.
“Despite some discouraging moments halfway through the course, I felt excited because I learned to be faithful. I remember telling my group a few times, ‘We are halfway but let’s all be faithful and see each other at the finish line.’”
HOLY WEEK CONVENTION: THE GLORY OF THE CROSS
Once a year for more than two decades, English Presbytery churches have been gathering at their annual Holy Week convention to watch, wait and ponder afresh the meaning of the Cross.
At Holy Week Convention this year, True Way again played host to 15 sister English Presbyterian churches, welcoming the faithful and the seeking to two night services on 5 and 6 April. This year’s theme, The Glory of the Cross, was explored by invited speaker Rev Dr Edwin Tay who spoke at the two services as well as at the annual Good Friday service at the Singapore Expo.
Rev Dr Edwin Tay is the principal of Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister of the Chinese Annual Conference of Singapore’s Methodist Church.
Congregants were inspired by his crisp style. Rev Dr Tay taught from John 17, John 18 and John 19, taking his listeners from Christ’s high priestly prayer through the arrest at Gethsemane, the trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, and finally the crucifixion. He shared plainly about the terrible power of sin, its pervasive corruption of human conscience and institutions, and what finally defeated it.
A worship team and choir from True Way led the worship at the Good Friday service. They were accompanied by a music ensemble that included musicians from other congregations.
NEW CHURCH LEADERS ELECTED AT ANNUAL CONGREGATIONAL MEETING
At the annual congregational meeting held on 7 May 2023, communicant members discussed the ministry reports of the year past and other business matters. Members also cast votes for new officers to serve in the church’s Session and Elders and Deacons Court. Elders Lek Siang Hwa and Chng Chee An were re-elected to their third terms. Audrey Lee, Chai Wen Cong, Koh Eng Chuan and Edmund Chia were elected as deacons. Elders and deacons serve three-year terms. At their installation service on 6 August, Rev Lee Kien Seng exhorted and charged the six new leaders to seek God in everything, and lead lives of humility and steadfastness.
FAREWELL TO REV TAN CHENG HUAT
We bade farewell to Rev Tan Cheng Huat who retired on 26 February 2023. Rev Tan came to True Way in 2000, serving till 2013 as our moderator and senior minister. For the ten years after 2013, he served as non-resident missionary, and was appointed to critical leadership roles in other Presbyterian churches. For the church family, and especially church congregants who came in the time of Rev Lee Kien Seng, a beautifully produced, narrative-tribute brought Rev Tan’s work and ministry to achingly vivid life. Written by congregants and members, old and new, the heartfelt stories all expressed poignant gratitude to a man whose humility reduced distance. The affection one remembered in Rev Tan’s voice whenever he spoke with people was found astonishingly in every word that writers penned for the tribute.
Even people who have left True Way sent contributions. In his prayer, Rev Lee Kien Seng gave thanks for the life that Rev Tan had lived faithfully, sacrificially and in service to God and man.
Holy Week Convention: The Glory of the Cross” were taken by Leong Peng Mun. The video and all other photos are by Lee Chung Horn. Design and layout by Tony Cheung.
Opinions expressed are those of our authors. This is the fourth article of our July 2023 issue. All rights reserved. Please send comments to [email protected]. Previous issues are available at trueway.org.sg/newsletters.
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