San Francisco, Hong Kong, anywhere in the world
We all know that Alpha is a tool that can be used in many interesting contexts, but have you thought that Alpha could also be run virtually? Vincent, from Hong Kong, started the first ever Alpha run virtually with guests living in different countries all around the world:
How did your Alpha start?
A pre-believer friend from San Francisco was visiting Hong Kong and we got to talking about Alpha. She really wanted to do it, but didn't have a church that she was comfortable with in SF, so she asked if we could do it over Skype. As we started talking about it, we thought it might be fun to invite some friends to join us in this "virtual" Alpha, so we decided to use Google Hangouts instead, which has free group video chatting. We ended up with three guests (one from SF, one from HK and one who splits his time between Beijing and Bangalore; none of them knew each other), one helper and one leader.
What are the logistics of your Alpha?
We meet once a week starting at 11:30 p.m. Hong Kong / 7:30 a.m. San Francisco. At the end of each session, we do a bit of housekeeping — scheduling the next call, talking about potential retreat locations, etc.
What were some of the highlights of your Alpha?
There was one week when each of our five members was in a different place — San Francisco, Hong Kong, Thailand, Switzerland and India. And it totally didn't feel like it — it felt like we were in the same room together, having a chat about Jesus! As a card-carrying "Alphaholic" and tech geek, I remember being amazed to see God at work in that situation.
Our group has become very tight-knit. A few weeks ago, one of the guests commented that he felt really close to all of us — and that was before the group had ever met in person! In that sense, it's not so different from other Alpha groups that I've run in the past. It really feels like God put us together for a reason, and it's been amazing to watch the growth of our guests from Week 1 until now (our last session is next week).
Another of the highlights has to be the Holy Spirit Weekend, which we decided to hold in Kuala Lumpur. Everyone flew in from their respective countries, and we tapped into the amazing HTBB staff to help us with the retreat. It was the first time that we had worship, the first time we did prayer ministry with the guests, and the first time we actually met in person as a group — and each of our guests had his or her own personal breakthroughs that weekend.
What were some of the challenges and how did you overcome them?
It's definitely a big departure from the Alpha groups that I've led in the past. For example:
- Bonding: We don't eat dinner together, so we don't have that "social" bonding time with the guests and it's hard to open up to people about life's big questions when you've never even met them in person. We tried to mitigate this in a couple of ways. First, we began each session with a "Fast Check-In," where each person gives one word for how he or she is feeling physically and mentally, just to quickly get everyone into that place of open sharing. Then we would do a "deep" communication starter, which helped us get to know each other beyond just superficial niceties. It also helped that all of us have pre-existing friendships with either the helper or the leader.
- Videos/Talks: We don't watch the videos together — everyone clicks on the YouTube links in our shared Google Sheet and watches the videos on their own beforehand. We did live talks during the Holy Spirit Weekend.
- Worship: We never did figure out a way to do worship "virtually" on Google Hangouts — but we did it at the retreat, and occasionally brought some of our guests to church on Sundays to experience worship.
- Prayer Ministry: We didn't actually attempt any one-on-one prayer ministry on Google Hangouts until the Healing talk — but that actually ended up being amazing. True to our Alpha roots, we asked God for some words of knowledge about each of the guests prior to the discussion, and after sharing the words with them and asking about any other ailments that they had, all of the guests closed their eyes and prayed along as I asked God to heal each of their ailments in Jesus' name. It was quite a special moment.
What would you say now to others thinking about running Alpha, having run it virtually yourself?
I think what this season has showed me is that we serve a BIG God. He transcends technological barriers, He transcends geographical boundaries and His Spirit can work through us to touch each other, even when we're thousands of miles apart. So don't be afraid to try something a little crazy and different! Alpha isn't just about good food, funny talks or friendly people — even though it is all of those things — the real heart of Alpha is about loving people and helping them to encounter Jesus.