Reframing Evangelism at Your Church with Shaila Visser

Thank for joining us for the unSeminary podcast. We’re talking with Shaila Visser, the Global Senior Vice-President for Alpha International. Alpha is an 11-week course that creates a space for people to invite their friends for a conversation about life, faith and Jesus.

Worldwide, an increasing number of pastors believe evangelism is wrong. This mindset, on top of the changes of the last few years, has caused the Church to lose sight of its God-given mission. Listen in as Shaila reframes the beauty and call of evangelism, sharing how churches can create a culture of leadership development, love in action, disciple-making, Spirit-led living, church building and more.

  • Look outside your walls. // Pastors are working hard right now getting their churches up and moving again after all the changes the last couple years have brought. Many churches have seen a lot of core leaders, volunteers and staff leave which has shifted the focus to what’s going on inside the church. It’s hard to think about how to mobilize your congregation to reach people externally. But Shaila says that we need to get people back on mission and look outside our four walls.
  • Focus on evangelism. // Alpha found in their global surveys that 31% of pastors think evangelism is wrong. Among them 46% of children’s pastors and 48% of youth pastors think evangelism is wrong. Furthermore, 65% of pastors are not prioritizing evangelism in their churches. These statistics raise alarm bells because God has given the Church a mission, and there are many people in crisis who don’t know Jesus.
  • Redefine evangelism. // Shaila says we have to redefine evangelism and reframe the beauty and call of it. Evangelism isn’t about tactics. Rather her friend defines it as joining a conversation that the Holy Spirit is already having with another person. Thinking about evangelism this way gives people relief in knowing that they’re not converting someone themselves. Instead they are participating in helping others come to faith. It’s okay if they don’t have all of the right answers to people’s questions because it’s the Holy Spirit’s work.
  • Evangelism culture. // Evangelism can’t just be a strategy; it needs to be part of the culture of your church. Be intentional about talking about it at every level. Infuse your whole church with a desire to reach their neighbor. Tell stories of evangelism to your staff and during weekend services. Don’t just talk about salvation decisions, but simple stories of someone inviting their neighbor or praying with a colleague.
  • Celebrate invitation. // We love to celebrate baptisms and people’s decisions to follow Jesus, which we should. But if those are the only things we celebrate, it gives people the idea that if they can’t convert someone to follow Jesus they are failing. When we celebrate invitation, however, we help the church to realize what their role is. People get on board and take part in it. And when the church starts inviting, people will come to the Lord.
  • Alpha as an ecosystem. // More than a course or curriculum, Alpha is an ecosystem that helps build the future church, develops leaders, exemplifies radical hospitality, demonstrates love in action, teaches reliance on the Holy Spirit and so much more. It helps the church be what it was meant to be, and helps to build the type of disciples you want at your church.

Learn more about Alpha at or Or come and participate in the Alpha USA Conference on January 26 & 27, 2023 in Florida to see what it’s all about.

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Thank You to This Episode’s Sponsor: Chemistry Staffing

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Download this two-in-one resource that walks you through the decision-making process.

Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Well hey, friends, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in. Man, I’m super excited for today’s conversation. In fact we’ve had this one lined off for quite a while. Super excited to have Shaila Visser with us. She’s the Senior Vice President, International, with Alpha. If you don’t know Alpha, you really should. It’s an eleven-week course that creates a safe place, whether it’s online or in person, where people can really bring their questions. It’s an amazing tool and really an incredible movement that started at a church in London called Holy Trinity Brompton in 1977. You maybe heard of Nicky Gumbel. He took it over in 1990 and really has repositioned this to to make a difference all over the world. I think somewhere around 30,000,000 people have taken Alpha all over the world. It’s been translated in over I think 112 languages. Ah Shaila, welcome to the show. So glad you’re here today.

Shaila Visser — Aw Rich. It’s so good to be with you today.

Rich Birch — So fun to connect and get a chance to spend a little time on the microphone. Fill out the picture – kind of tell us a little bit about Alpha. Give us what did I miss there? Tell us about your role.

Shaila Visser — Well first of all, you didn’t miss much. It is true that just about 30,000,000 people have taken Alpha. We have a massive vision to see 100,000,000 people take Alpha through local churches around the world. And it’s just fun to hear stories of Alpha in Nepal, Alpha in Vancouver, Canada, Alpha in Chicago, Alpha in Lima, Peru and just to know that God is on the move. And I, you know, I think Alpha is the thing that makes Alpha a little bit special is some of our key values that play out in it. And we we really believe in radical hospitality, radical love and warmth, and and acceptance around a table and food. And you know so we just have some key values I think that have made Alpha pretty sweet for this season, and you know for Gen Z and and Millennials in particular.

Rich Birch — Love it. Well friends I need to declare conflict of interest right up front. So I although I’m super excited to talk ah to Shaila really from her perspective globally around some issues that we need to wrestle with and think about as a church, I actually volunteer at my church as an Alpha leader. Love it. I love ah, those conversations. I love being around the table. The thing that I and I love that particular environment I’m just the guy who you know helps with Alpha, which is wonderful. It’s it’s ah it’s amazing and I love seeing consistently the people that end up in our in my Alpha groups. Like man these people are wrestling with huge huge issues and what an incredible environment. What a privilege as a church leader to sit and listen to someone um, explain really where they’re at. It’s it’s amazing. So ah so I declare that right up front I love love Alpha.

Rich Birch — Well why don’t we talk about you have an interesting vantage point on the church because you interact with church leaders, not only, you’re Canadian as well – we won’t hold that against you. Hopefully our listeners won’t hold that against me either. Ah but you not only across Canada but around the world, and you know one of the things that we’re seeing kind of in this kind of post-covid whatever this is this season is, we’re talking to leaders like yourself saying hey what are you seeing? What are some of the things that you’re seeing around you as we kind of pivot out of all that as we look to the future? What would be some of the maybe either problems or issues or things that you see church leaders or churches wrestling with in this season?

Shaila Visser — Well I think what’s common to church leaders, and I’m going to talk about all over the world…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Shaila Visser — …because you know we network and talk to and listen to pastors all over the the world, is their their resiliency has been amazing.

Rich Birch — So true.

Shaila Visser — Like I really like even though they’re exhausted and they have taken hits, I just want to honor pastors that they’ve been resilient.

Rich Birch — So true.

Shaila Visser — But what I’m noticing is in the midst of all that, church leaders are regathering, they’re wanting to know who is in my congregation now.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes yep.

Shaila Visser — It’s a big change. You know, people have moved around, people have left. I mean key volunteers have left which is really heartbreaking. So people have left. And then people have come in and they’re trying to discern who is our new core team of volunteers, and people that we can really count on in the congregation. But in the midst of all that, they might not be looking outside the four walls and wondering, you know, who’s out there who doesn’t yet know Jesus that we need to be thinking about as well. Because it’s hard. I get it. We’ve got to regather, ah get people back on mission. Get people meeting in small groups again. How do we then mobilize them to think outside, especially if you’ve have less people coming. It’s hard to think about how you’re going to run what you’ve got internally let alone what you might need to do to galvanize people to reach externally.

Rich Birch — Love it. Yeah I I love that. I want you to push us on that a little bit.

Shaila Visser — Okay.

Rich Birch — So you’re so you’re super kind. You’re nice, which is great, but I I see this even in my own just my own personal life like it’s easy over this season. It’s like the kind of I’m live closer to home, I spend a lot more time in my neighborhood. It’s easy to not look around and see people around me. Ah, when we think about that at a church level, what would be some of the kind of evidence that you’re seeing that hey maybe maybe we’re not looking outside the walls as much as we should? We’re maybe being a little too insider focus, not enough outsider focus.

Shaila Visser — Well I will say that we’ve done some surveys globally, and particularly in Canada just with pastors, and what we found is that there’s an increase in pastors that think it’s wrong to do evangelism.

Rich Birch — Really? Tell me about that.

Shaila Visser — So the 31% of pastors surveyed say they think it’s wrong to evangelize.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Shaila Visser — What was more alarming for us is 46% of children’s pastors and 48% of youth pastors thought it was wrong.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Shaila Visser — And it goes to 65%…

Rich Birch — That’s stunning.

Shaila Visser — …65% of pastors said they they are not prioritizing evangelism. So if you think about just those stats, it really raises the alarm bells to say, okay Church. We have a mission. God has given us a mission. And yes, it’s been very difficult. But what about all those people that are in crisis that don’t know Jesus?

Shaila Visser — Give you just one small example. Ah this past Saturday I went and met with my husband’s a police officer and his former partner, she just had a baby, she and her husband. And the baby isn’t gaining weight and isn’t doing well. And so I offered to come and pray for them. And neither of them are Christians. She has she went to Catholic school and hasn’t been to church since she was in grade 12. Her husband’s an atheist, but they were desperate. And just the ability to see beyond ourselves to the pain, but not just see it, not just say, “oh I’m going to pray for you” which everybody says fine, thank you.

Shaila Visser — But actually run towards it and offer something in a moment that is beyond our capability to help them, which is offering prayer, which is calling on on the Father to come in by the power of the Holy Spirit and make a difference. And you know I laid hands on their little newborn and they wept and they wept and…

Rich Birch — Oh so sweet. Yeah.

Shaila Visser — And at the end they said you know maybe we should be going to church. I mean here’s an atheist and a person who’s not been to church in years.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — And it’s because the Spirit of God is calling people, and ministering to people outside of our four walls, and he’s inviting us to have eyes to see them, and hearts to consider their needs…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — …in the power of the Holy Spirit to meet that need. So I just think I don’t want us to miss it. So we’ve got stats on the church.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — But then we’ve got an ah increasing need out in the world today of people that are longing for hope. They’re longing for someone to offer them something they can’t access themselves. And if the church doesn’t run towards that, we’re going to miss it.

Rich Birch — Right, love that. I love what a beautiful story. Love that picture of um, you know, people receiving prayer, being really open to that. You know, we I had a very similar experience in my current Alpha group where um, we we actually at our church, we had a mutual friend of ours, Tammy, was speaking and she was offering prayer at the end of the service. And um, a lady who had been actually was only her second week attending on a Sunday, she came to Alpha first before she came to our church, and she was saying you know I’ve never had anyone pray for me in my entire life. And she was she was talking about how like incredibly special that was, and she was like I didn’t really understand it. But wow that was amazing and, you know, in the midst of everything that was going on and, you know, on the wrestling, that’s you know that’s amazing. Interesting.

Shaila Visser — And can I just say, Rich, that I think the secret sauce of evangelism right now, particularly in North America, ah the way into hearts is through prayer.

Rich Birch — Interesting, Interesting.

Shaila Visser — Because it’s so um, caustic, right?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — …in the world of politics right now. And the church is in the mix there, which doesn’t help the narrative that Jesus is good…

Rich Birch — Yes, yeah.

Shaila Visser — …and loving and kind and compassionate and slow to anger, and all those sorts things. And when we come in just person to person offering a supernatural opportunity when we pray the Holy Spirit’s presence and present with that person. So don’t miss the opportunities around us; don’t get stuck in the greater narrative of the church, you know, what people think of the church and the cultures against us. But get actually stuck in with real people that have real problems…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Shaila Visser — …and offer prayer and see how the Holy Spirit leads you. And watch as he opens eyes and hearts because that’s what he’s inviting us into…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — …the one by one loving our neighbors.

Rich Birch — Love it. So good. Well I’m hoping ah listeners, as you listened in, that you were shocked by those statistics around you know 31% say it’s wrong to evangelize. 46 and 48 of you know children’s and youth pastors. I’m hoping yeah as Shaila said that, that that shocked you. I know it shocked me. Um, but Shaila, let’s come back to that.

Shaila Visser — Yep.

Rich Birch — That we ah we can’t we can’t be content with that. Ah, we need to push back against that. What is the you know what’s the solution there? How do we um, how can we as leaders push back against that in our own churches? What, you know, maybe we see that maybe we look around and say like, oh man I can kind of see that growing in us. I see this culture maybe growing up around us of of, you know, maybe walking away from evangelism. What would be your coaching for us?

Shaila Visser — I really think we have to redefine evangelism.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Shaila Visser — I think when people especially if they’re you know—I’m a Gen Xer—especially if they’re younger than Gen Xers. As soon as they he… hear the word evangelism, they immediately jump to method. You know it’s like this natural tie-in…

Rich Birch — Here’s this pamphlet; here’s this thing…

Shaila Visser — Yeah.

Rich Birch — Here’s this tactic. Yes.

Shaila Visser — Yes, exactly. And so there’s a hangover of a tactic that may have worked in a different generation that’s been thought to but still be fruitful in some way here, and in Canada and the US, and therefore they opt out. And they have they really don’t like it. So what we want to do is redefine evangelism, reframe the beauty and call of evangelism. And so I want to give you a definition of evangelism…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Shaila Visser — …that my friend Darryl Johnson has given that I think is not only biblical but it’s helpful to address this very issue. And it’s: evangelism is joining a conversation that the Holy Spirit is already having with another person. So let me say that again…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — …evangelism is joining a conversation that the Holy Spirit is already having with another person. So that means before you go in to talk to anyone, the Holy Spirit’s already been at work. When you’re in the conversation, the Holy Spirit’s at work. When you leave the conversation, the Holy Spirit’s at work. And so we’re not the initiator. And when we start to remember that and realize that evangelism is joining what the Holy Spirit’s doing, it gives you first of all relief that you’re not converting someone. You are participating in someone coming to faith. but it also makes you realize that if you really screw it up, if you really say the wrong thing, don’t have the right answer, can’t answer their very complicated questions, it’s okay.

Rich Birch — Yeah, love it.

Shaila Visser — It’s okay.

Rich Birch — Love it. So this is friends like I this is a part of why I love Alpha as a movement is I, having seen this firsthand of the training that you that you know your organization provides and then the coaching on the ground around like it’s not our job it’s not my job to do like bible jujitsu with people, and like get them to like take a certain step, get them to say a magic thing. That at the end of the day, I love it for me as a Christ follower, it stretches my faith to say you know what? The Holy Spirit’s at work in these people’s lives. My job is to come alongside and to maybe play a role to ask the Spirit, hey what part of my what part of this conversation do you want me to part of? Where do you want me just to shut up and not say anything, you know? How do you want me to listen? Um man that’s that’s really life-giving. I find that incredibly life-giving. So but what does that look like? So how do we how do we in in our churches join that conversation? How could we, you know, find a way to um, really try to cultivate that with our people?

Shaila Visser — Yeah, so I’ll give a couple of examples of churches that I think have done it really well. And it always starts with the senior leadership of any church, right? And it starts with what are the conversations that you as a staff, or you and your elders, or your board are having around this very topic? Because it’s going to leak from there. If you realize as a leadership team at your church that nobody’s talking about who they have relationship with that’s outside of the four walls, that should set off a little alarm bell.

Rich Birch — That’s a problem. Yes.

Shaila Visser — And yeah, but but it does happen. We it happens at Alpha Canada…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Shaila Visser — …that we’re talking all about, you know, strategy and ah the people we’re working with and the church leaders we serve. And then suddenly we realize we haven’t talked about the guest who at the end of the day is our motivation.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — And so churches like look at your conversations first and say, does this come up at all?And I know the churches that are the most um, activated in reaching their communities are the ones that at the staff level it’s talked about regularly. And I’m not just talking about like the senior staff. I’m talking the janitor talks about it, the person who’s doing maintenance, the person who’s, you know, taking care of the facilities, like everybody’s talking about it. And it’s got to leak out as culture.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — If it’s not culture and it’s just one strategy as part of the church, it’s not going to infuse your whole church with this desire to reach their neighbor. So I’d say that’s where you start. What does it look like at the top level…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — …ah um of your church.

Rich Birch — Yeah, love that. That’s a real practical takeaway, like even this week to say, um, maybe you you do a week of just observing your team, just kind of mentally in your head. Like does that ever come up? And does it ever leak out of my life? And you know and where are those conversations I’m having with people? When you know when am I not just, you know, here in Canada it’s becoming winter. It’s very easy for me not to talk to my neighbors in this season because it’s like it’s so cold out, doing that—well at least my part of the country, not and where Shaila lives – it’s never cold there. It’s beautiful there all the time. Ah, but where you know what does that look like in my life. But then and then maybe next week you try to stir that conversation with your team. I love that. Practical.

Shaila Visser — Exactly. And then there’s two other things I’d say to it. What are you storying? And what I mean is ah if you are in executive leadership at any church there are stories you’re telling. So how often are the stories being told by staff members, whether it’s on stage, you know at the front from the pulpit, or whether it’s just like in small groups, how many people are telling stories of evangelism? And not just like someone came to faith, but hey I hung out with my neighbor or I offered prayer for my husband you know partner at work. And you know, how are those stories coming about because that’s also forming culture – the stories you tell. So even having ears to hear, okay, yeah, we’re talking about it on our staff team. But what stories are we telling that are leaking out…

Rich Birch — That’s Good. Oh.

Shaila Visser — …and then becoming intentionally out. And then the third thing I’ll say is what are you celebrating? So in the church as you know we love to celebrate baptisms. We love to celebrate people coming to Jesus. We know that the angels rejoice, as they should, as we should, when someone comes to faith. But here’s what that does in the church if that’s the main thing we celebrate is what it does is it means average Christian who doesn’t have the gift of evangelism, who is terrified to invite their friend, thinks I’m not that person. I can’t convert anyone. I’m not going to do that.

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — But when we celebrate what our part is, then people get on board. So let me tell you what I mean by that. Celebrate invitation.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser —I’ll give you a story from my friend Gary who is the senior pastor of a very very large church here in Canada. They decided to do a big Alpha campaign. They wanted a thousand guests to come to their Alpha. They were going to run at workplaces and ah in ah, schools for kids, etc, etc. and in the church. And he had a celebration Sunday. They’re pentecostal so you know they’re going to like do the whole crescendo to the best story, right? So the congregation really gets ramped up to this is exciting.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — But and you know he started with someone who said, oh I invited two friends; they came to Alpha, you know, I’m so excited see what happens. But the story he ended with was a woman woman in her mid 50s who said she invited 50 people to Alpha – her whole neighborhood.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Shaila Visser — Well you know in a Pentecost Church they’re clapping, they’re like this is amazing.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Shaila Visser — And he said what happened? And she said no one came.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Shaila Visser — And he said, today we celebrate you for doing your part. You invited.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s so touching. Oh my goodness. That’s beautiful.

Shaila Visser — You you invited.

Rich Birch — That’s beautiful.

Shaila Visser — And see when we flip that narrative. We’re helping the church realize: I know what my part is to play.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — Get them inviting…

Rich Birch — Yes, love it.

Shaila Visser — …and some people will come.

Rich Birch — Yeah, love it. Well and and we know that you know it takes two or three, five or six, twelve or fifteen different invites with some people, right? They have to hear it about it a bunch. They’ve got to, you know, they they think about it. They might go online, see something. What is this Alpha thing? What is this or what is this church thing? What is this before I would would plug in? I love that. Do you have any examples of so one of the things that Alpha does well as ah I would say as a movement, as an outsider looking in, is this whole storying thing. Like retelling the story time and again just like woven right into what you guys do. You’re constantly even in today’s conversation you’ve done a very good job of that. What are some other ways you’ve seen churches do that well? Um, you know some other examples of that of, you know, kind of, you know, storying the right things as a church?

Shaila Visser — Well, you know for churches that have run Alpha what we have seen is they always bring up people onto stage, you know, during a service to talk about tell us your story. And they asked 3 simple questions. Um, what was your life like before you came on Alpha? Ah, what was your experience like on Alpha? What difference has Jesus made in your life? Just 3 simple questions.

Rich Birch — Yep, love it.

Shaila Visser — It could it doesn’t have to be Alpha, it could be anything.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — But they do it so regularly that the church is familiar with hearing people that don’t know Jesus or didn’t know Jesus six months ago, three months ago, a year ago, that the the story is being told so often, that the church just thinks this is normal. But the problem is if we just do it one Sunday a year or two Sundays a year, it doesn’t feel like people are coming to faith on a very regular basis. And so what you want to do is tell simple stories. It doesn’t have to take up very much time.

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — These stories, typically when I hear Nicky Gumbel do them, or other pastors, it’s a minute.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Shaila Visser — It’s a minute and a half. It’s so quick. But what you’re doing is you’re giving people a vision that this is normal to expect people to come to faith.

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — So I think that’s the kind of story I mean people may film it as video because then they can edit it…

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Shaila Visser — …make it as short as they want, but there’s something about the…

Rich Birch — Put some music under it.

Shaila Visser — …yeah, but you know what, there’s something about the beauty of a raw moment. And I love that they do this at Holy Trinity Brompton in London – these raw moments with real people on stage. Because when you do the video, it may be produced beautifully, but in the moment something’s going to be said that’s absolutely hilarious or really deeply touches you…

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Shaila Visser — …because it’s an embodiment of the story in front of them. So don’t get away from that that raw kind of messy testimony …

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — …that you may have scheduled for a minute and a half and it goes four.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — But but it’s beautiful and the congregation is really motivated to say, that could be my friend. Because what the the congregation is hearing is so many stories that they know people like that.

Rich Birch — Right, love it.

Shaila Visser — And it gives them confidence to invite.

Rich Birch — Okay Shaila, I’m hoping our relationship can sustain this.

Shaila Visser — Oh gosh.

Rich Birch — We are two thirds of the way into this interview and um, you haven’t even told us about Alpha. Like this is a part of what I love about your movement. It’s like humility is baked into what you guys do. Like it is It’s at the core. and and you know earlier you just rolled over ah—which I loved, it was this which again I was like very classically well, it’s classically you and it’s also classically Alpha—you’re like yeah we’re trying to you know, get Alpha in front of 100,000,000 people. Like if that was me I would be like I’d be leading with that and hammering that but not Alpha.

Shaila Visser — Well, because…

Rich Birch — You guys are like there’s there’s humility baked right in. It’s amazing.

Shaila Visser — Could I say, Rich, that this is the reality…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — …including Nicky Gumbel the pioneer behind Alpha…

Rich Birch — Yes, yes

Shaila Visser — We all want people to meet Jesus.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — Alpha happens to be a tool…

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — …and a ecosystem that really helps everything from church planting…

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — …to um to create a culture in a church of Holy Spirit dependency etc. It does lots of things. Like most people think Alpha is just a plug and play tool. They don’t realize it’s an ecosystem that can really help the church.

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — And when people get the ecosystem, it really flourishes and it helps build leaders, develop leaders, etc, etc. But we’re we’re so much about Jesus. We’re so much about spirit-filled living that Alpha is not what gets us up every morning.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Shaila Visser — So so people coming to know Jesus does.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — So really, that’s why the posture is, we’re not trying to sell Alpha.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Shaila Visser — We’re trying to say, guys, if this can help, let us help you.

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — But we need the world to know Jesus and that’s what is motivating to us.

Rich Birch — Okay, so I’m going to push you on that though.

Shaila Visser — Okay.

Rich Birch — Because I want people I think there’s folks that have this is what I have this what happens when I talk to people about Alpha…

Shaila Visser — Yeah.

Rich Birch — …Church leaders across the country, they’re like that’s like a curriculum, right? It’s like ah that’s like what is it a bunch of videos and and they think about it at that level. Um I totally understand, appreciate, and have seen how it’s so much more than that. It’s a culture.

Shaila Visser — Yeah.

Rich Birch — Talk to us about that. For folks that maybe have a sense of it. It’s eleven weeks long, there’s a weekend in the middle. There’s videos. There’s a guy from England. Like I don’t know much about it, but help me understand how. Alpha could be or has been used as a kind of culture reinvigoration tool. I know it’s not it’s not the only one. And I know you’re not just interested in that as the only one. But talk to me about what that actually looks like in churches.

Shaila Visser — Well I think what we hear, and why church leaders when they really get to understand Alpha, and we do trips where we take pastors over to London. We have our Alpha USA conference coming up at the end of January in Florida. That’s a terrific opportunity for people to really get a feel and an understanding. But here’s what’s beneath Alpha. so it is what you just said. It’s eleven weeks. It’s you know it’s got an Alpha weekend. But here’s what it does for the church. People that are new to faith or have not even yet heard about Jesus or ever given their lives to Jesus, ah, it is building the type of disciples you want at your church.

Shaila Visser — So that’s why many churches will just say if you’re new to our church, we want you to go on Alpha. And they’ll put one group of Alpha that’s like people that have been christians for a while, but they put it through because they want them to understand what radical hospitality looks like. What love in action feels like. What it is to be Spirit dependent. What it even means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. What it means to pray for people reliant on the Holy Spirit. What it means to develop leaders who come in who’ve never taken Alpha, they don’t know Jesus, they come back as a helper because they’ve come to Jesus. They come back as a small group leader.

Shaila Visser — So there’s leadership development baked into it. There’s a heart for reaching more people baked into it. There’s so many things that a local church is like if I had resilient disciples in my congregation that knew how to pray for others and trust the Lord, how to be outwardly focused, how to be deeply prayerful, I would want that they realized that Alpha creates this ecosystem. And at Holy Trinity Brompton in London they always say Alpha is the front door, and church planting is the back door. And they’ve planted over a hundred churches.

Rich Birch — Right.

Shaila Visser — So it’s like they’re just seeing people come in, but they’ve got a certain type of DNA in them when they’ve taken Alpha that really helps grow the things church leaders want to grow in their congregation. So it’s it’s it’s the secret sauce that if people understand it is more than a tool. It gives you way more than that.

Rich Birch — Love it. Yeah and I’ve seen that firsthand that you can see this kind of cultural. It’s sneaky because you you think about it as a church leader as a program, but it has a much more um pervasive or can have a much more pervasive impact on you know on the entire church, which I just think is wonderful and beautiful. And um and at the core is this idea that we’re trying to create a place for people who don’t know Jesus and are wrestling with what it means with all the big questions in life. We’re trying to create a place for them to feel welcome at the table. One of the things that’s super obvious um is this culture of hospitality in Alpha. Talk to us more about that. Why why why does Alpha see that as a kind of ah it seems to be like a key part of of the of how God’s used Alpha over the years.

Shaila Visser — Well we see it all over Jesus’ life, right? Is just this radical hospitality and welcome of the stranger…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Shaila Visser — …of someone who’s very different but also sitting at a table and eating with people. And so pre-pandemic ah meals and food are a very significant part of Alpha.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Shaila Visser — People often evaluate Alpha looking at the videos. Are they good quality? You know and we create Netflix quality videos. But they’re actually just evaluating that. But what they should see is as Alpha as a mini little ecosystem within the church is actually about the radical hospitality at the table. Then you watch this little 25 minute video, 20 minute video and then you have open discussion. And so what it is doing for people is it’s teaching your already existing church members who are volunteering how to be a listener. Because as you and I know, Rich, ah Gen Z in particular want to know that Jesus is good. And they have to have an experience of it.

Shaila Visser — And Alpha provides an experience of it but also teaches your leaders how to be listeners, how to join the Holy Spirit, how to shut up and not tell people what they should think. And the younger generation needs that so hospitality, food, listening that are those are core components and that is not what the church is known for. And we train it deeply into everyone who’s running Alpha.

Rich Birch — I love it. So good. Well I I’ve just this has been a great conversation today. I love that you’re pushing us on this and thinking in a new way. You know, as you look to the future kind of as you’re wrestling with how do we how do you help encourage churches build this kind of redefined evangelism culture, what are some of the questions that you’re thinking about as we look to the future things that you’re wrestling with?

Shaila Visser — Well I am really wrestling with the next generation. Alpha has always been target locked on on young people in their twenties. That’s who we design Alpha for. So if you’re like I want to hit Gen Z and the youngest millennials, then Alpha is really thinking always about everything we do is about that that age group.

Shaila Visser — But then we also have Alpha for youth which is really radically ah fabulous in our our network of churches around the world because it’s not just, how does a youth worker use it? It’s actually how do students run Alpha for their friends. And we’ve really got a student led movement happening. but in the midst of all of this um and coming out of pandemic life, I hope we’re coming out of pandemic life.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yes, me too, me too.

Shaila Visser — I hope we’re hope we’re through it. Um I’m asking four questions, Rich. I’m asking the question what if the future leaders of the church Aren’t in the church today?

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Shaila Visser — Then the second question I’m asking is what if the future leaders of the church aren’t even christians today? What if the kid you pass at the mall, at the restaurant, wherever is going to be a pastor…

Rich Birch — Love that Love that.

Shaila Visser — …but today they don’t know Jesus. And then the third question, especially in this North American culture where we understand media’s against us. It’s just it just feels like there is there is no longer any Christian majority to speak of. What if the harvest is actually plentiful all around us and we don’t have eyes to see it?

Rich Birch — Wow.

Shaila Visser — And then the last question I’m asking church leaders and Alpha Partners is: what if all three things are true – what should we be doing differently?

Rich Birch — So good.

Shaila Visser — What should we be doing differently? And the Holy Spirit and your team and your friends, they start to actually answer that question. And when you start to answer those questions, you start to see possibility.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — I think we’re living in the most fabulous possibility time even though the world is dark, even though things are tough. The bright morning star shines the brightest when the night is darkest. And I’m excited. I really think, Rich, the harvest is plentiful all around us. And I can’t wait to see what the church does.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — Because people are longing for hope. They’re longing for peace. They’re longing for purpose. And we just got to we got to reach them…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Shaila Visser — …in the power of the Holy spirit.

Rich Birch — Love it. So good. Well, Shaila, this has been what a what a gift this has been today. Friends, I hope you’ve been encouraged and ah, reinvigorated. Lots to chew on. I think I’ve got a page of notes here – things I need to wrestle through and think about in the coming weeks and months. So I really appreciate that, Shaila. If um is anything else you want to say just as we kind of wrap up any kind of final thoughts as we as we close down today’s conversation?

Shaila Visser — I think I just want to encourage and challenge church leaders. You know I’m a Canadian, so I say it softly. I I want to encourage and challenge church leaders: in the midst of pulling people back together, don’t miss who’s outside of your four walls.

Rich Birch — So true. Yeah.

Shaila Visser — There is opportunity. Your future best leaders. Your future best um staff members. They’re out there. And they don’t know Jesus yet. And you can make a difference.

Rich Birch — Love it. So good. Well I appreciate this, Shaila. Hey where do we want to send people if they want to track with Alpha? Where do we want to send them online? How do where do we want them to kind of plug in with you guys?

Shaila Visser — Yeah, go to you’re going to find all of that and then you know please consider going to the conference. You’ll really understand the cultural ecosystem and it’s not just an Alpha sales job. Please like hear us. We don’t do that.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, yes, yes.

Shaila Visser — Um, but come to the Alpha USA conference. I think you will love it. And if you’re in Canada, ah, do come over to, connect with us online. We are so happy to serve churches around the world, and particularly in the US and Canada.

Rich Birch — Love it. Thanks so much. Thanks for being here today. I really appreciate it.

Shaila Visser — Thanks, Rich! Love what you’re doing and so happy to be with you today.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.