Somewhere along the way I learned about Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) -- the church in London where Alpha started -- and their Alpha follow-up. They use a model they call "pastorates" -- groups that meet in homes, roughly 25-30 people, gathered every couple weeks around a specific schedule. They eat together, then spend some time in worship, hear a brief teaching from one of the group leaders, and pray together. Pretty simple. They meet seven times in three months, then take a month off, then start again on the same pattern. At HTB these "pastorates" have become a crucial part of the church's life. Pastorates are the primary means for evangelism, as people invite their friends to a group that has become very important in their life. Pastorates also help the church develop leaders, as individuals try using new gifts in their pastorate and eventually grow to the point where they step up to serve in the larger church. The groups provide most of the pastoral care for the church's members, and do most of the mission work of the church out in the community as groups take on projects or see needs and serve their neighbors. As groups grow, they intentionally give birth to new pastorates. To facilitate these new groups, leaders are expected to have an apprentice who learns to lead with the specific idea that they will birth a new pastorate at some point.
I've thought for years about starting something on this model. Alpha seems well suited to launching this kind of medium sized group. (A traditional "small group" is usually 10-15 people, so these groups are roughly twice that size.) In conversation with some other Alpha leaders a few years ago, we played with the idea of calling our groups "Delta" groups. Partly this is a play on Alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet -- delta is the fourth. Partly it is a play on the image of a river; if Alpha is the source of the river, the delta is where it empties into the ocean, where the channels spread apart and rich soil is built up. The delta is a rich area of abundant life where plants grow and birds and fish come to raise their young. If you wanted to push it, you could also make a play on the military's "Delta Force" -- an elite group that knows how to get difficult tasks accomplished.
Last night we launched our first Delta. A group of people who have been around Alpha for a while gathered together for a simple meal, some great conversation, a short time of worship, Bible teaching based on yesterday morning's text at Central's worship services, and a time where we broke up into smaller groups for prayer. It was great fun. Many people who couldn't be there last night were excited about the idea, but schedules being what they are some were unable to make it. However, I think that this group might lead to a couple or even three or more groups launching after Christmas. My role at that point will be to transition out of direct leadership and work instead to equip those who lead and support them in their roles.
I'm excited about this. As I read the book of Acts and other portions of the New Testament, this sounds a great deal like what the church was designed to be. I don't see in the Bible that God ever intended church to mean hundreds of people sitting on benches watching two or three people lead worship. It's supposed to be participatory, and that requires smaller groups.
If we learn to function in this way, what does that mean? I don't know. I'm guessing, though that it will mean the church grows stronger; people get better care as they are rooted in a group of friends who meet together regularly; more leaders are equipped to shepherd the church; more people get invited in, as it's easier to invite someone to your home than it is to drag them into a church building. Over time I'm guessing that these groups will get less dependent on a massive church building with a massive mortgage, so more dollars might start being funneled to outreach projects in our own communities and across the world. Certainly it will get messy, personalities will come into conflict, and some unforeseen problems will raise their ugly heads. But that happens in any form of church.
So we'll see where it goes. Like I said, I'm excited!