SHAILA VISSER is the national director of Alpha Canada, which produces videos for interactive small groups that deal with questions of love, purpose and faith. It’s an experience overwhelmingly embraced by Canadian churches from many traditions. One of the secrets of its success is radical hospitality, as Shaila Visser explains to senior editor Karen Stiller.
SHAILA VISSER is the national director of Alpha Canada, which produces videos for interactive small groups that deal with questions of love, purpose and faith. It’s an experience overwhelmingly embraced by Canadian churches from many traditions. One of the secrets of its success is radical hospitality, as Shaila Visser explains to senior editor Karen Stiller.
Faith Today: How has evangelism changed in Canada?
Shaila Visser: In evangelism, we need to think of a cultural shift in the Church rather than the next best program. The shift is [to consider more deeply] what does it mean to lead in our communities with love, and extend radical hospitality? To those who are "other" or different or far from God, or maybe one step away from God? In our community, in the workplace, wherever we find ourselves?
The Church, particularly in the West, has seen evangelism as almost like, "If I run this program, they will come and people will come to faith." [But] the WesternChurch is waking up to the fact that it’s about the culture.
Does the program, whether you use Alpha or another one, support a culture of love, invitation, hospitality, generosity, and a leaning in to allowing the Holy Spirit to be the primary force in the work of bringing people to faith?
All too often in our churches in Canada we celebrate conversion, which is the work of God, but we don’t celebrate the faithfulness of the people of God in inviting – which is their part
FT: Sometimes in the Church we get very concerned about results. It sounds like you are talking more about a journey, and appreciating the journey.
SV: Alpha is absolutely all about creating a culture of invitation to come on a journey. We really trumpet that as the idea behind Alpha. When we think what it means to live life around people with a different faith than us, or no faith, it is a journey. It is very rare [when] someone goes from being an atheist to a Christian overnight. It is a [long] journey.
But we also have to be careful that we don’t use the language of journey to avoid inviting people to consider Christ. Whether it’s Alpha or other evangelism tools or programs, the idea of journey is so important, and the expectation [is] that we are participating with God in [shaping] someone’s understanding of who Christ is.
FT: Tell us more about radical hospitality toward people who might make us uncomfortable, or with whom we have difficulty relating?
SV: I’m speaking about evangelism. I would hope every church in Canada would accept any person living in our country to come and explore faith. I would be blown away if that was not a possibility in a church. That you could be of any background and be interested in faith and be welcome here.
It is a willingness to host people as if you were having an honoured guest in your home, whether you run it in your church, a hair salon, a pub. What does it mean to roll out a red carpet? To say you are welcome here? To some people that can feel like a five-star meal with wonderful punch and great coffees and teas.
Some churches have figured out how to feed an amazing meal to people for under $10 a person. Radical hospitality means mood, lighting, comfortable chairs. What would you be doing if you were trying to make someone feel welcome and at ease?
I’ve seen it done in the smallest of Alphas and largest. More people come back for the food and atmosphere more than anything else over the first weeks of Alpha. It is countercultural to offer the best for people on a regular basis.
FT: Shaila, how has your faith been impacted by your work and experience with Alpha, and this idea of radical hospitality?
SV: I grew up with parents who showed radical hospitality, radical generosity, faithfulness, neighbourliness. In some ways I’m not sure Alpha influenced this in me so much as my family of origin.
My parents immigrated from India, and they had friends in our home from around the world. My mother would always show radical hospitality. We would have people come stay with us. My dad would take time off and they would drive them around and take them to Niagara Falls. We had so many people come through our house, the very wealthy, the very poor. My personal values of my family of origin aligned with Alpha. I thank them for that.
My dad’s closest friend and his wife were Hindus and vegetarians. They wouldn’t even eat from pots that had meat prepared in them. My mother went out and bought new pots and labelled them so they would know they could eat there.
Even though Indian food takes all day to make, she’d always make it because everybody loved it so much. Everybody wanted it if they came to our house.
FT: What is Alpha’s strong appeal?
SV: I think churches in Canada need all the help they can get from organizations like ours that want to serve them and help them achieve their mission in the community.
We just exist to serve. We often say we re-engineer from the Church backward. We’re always listening to the Church. How can we serve them? What would help them meet their needs?
In 2010 the number one thing churches were saying was, "Can you please update your material?" We did that with the Alpha Youth Film Series. We also have the new Alpha Film Series available.
We update a product, but at the same time we’ve been championing the idea of Alpha, and not just the tool. If people are evaluating Alpha based on the video product, they are missing the bigger impact of Alpha, which is the hospitality of food, small group discussions where you can say anything, and it’s safe for people to disagree and have varying opinions.
And lastly that we leave room for the Holy Spirit to move. The product had to be updated, and we’re seeing a resurgence because of that. It works for all age groups. But on the other hand, they are also understanding this idea of what it means to engage our community with hospitality.
FT: Is it hard for Evangelicals in particular to be okay with people saying potentially incorrect things about God or theology in the small groups?
SV: Alpha can thrive or fail on the small group experience. We often say that if you don’t train your team every time, we will default as Christians to wanting to provide an answer, and a "right" way of thinking. It is the death of a good Alpha.
It is the hardest thing for Christians to bite their tongues and allow people to say things that are completely different than what we hold true. The Christians think it is their responsibility to right their incorrect thinking.
We say, "Please don’t. It will kill your small group."
FT: So there really is a requirement to trust in the process.
SV: I think we have to trust three things. That the Holy Spirit is the primary evangelizer. Secondly, Alpha actually teaches the beginning of the understanding of the gospel. There is theology built into every week of Alpha. The third thing is we have to trust process. We have to trust the process and the journey.
FT: Church people sometimes take Alpha again and again because they enjoy it so much. But it feels like that might not actually be Alpha’s purpose. What do you say to that?
SV: We really discourage people from taking Alpha multiple times. We suggest they come once as a guest. If they miss a lot of weeks or miss an Alpha weekend, that’s understandable to come again. But if they’ve done 80 per cent or more of Alpha, we suggest they volunteer next round.
We’re trying to avoid people coming back again and again because they might become passive and not active in their own development. With church people who take Alpha as a refresher, they wrongly start to think of it as their ministry. And it’s really not the right atmosphere for new guests to come into.
FT: So committed Christians filling out the groups is not the best plan?
SV: We’d rather see Alpha with five guests than see a room of 40 people with five guests and 35 Christians. It really is intended for people with no faith or new faith. Alpha will die quickly if it’s full of church people. It’s not for them. When Alpha is predominantly church people taking it, you’ve missed the beauty and potential of it.
FT: Shaila, in your own life, what feeds you as a Christian and a leader?
SV: What feeds me is doing what I love and loving who I’m doing it with. Our staff team is made up of the most incredible, gifted people. And it’s fun. It’s not just that we’re working hard. It’s fun. We’re different, and we’re better because we’re different. I love our diversity in age and ethnicity, and the number of young people we have.
I’m a better leader because we have so many millennials working here. I love coming to work. I’m a happy person at work.
The second thing that gives me life is finding opportunities to actually share my faith with people in my sphere of influence. I’m not interested in Alpha because of Alpha. I’m interested in Alpha because of Jesus. I still want to have faith conversations with lots of people. It gives me life and energy.
I’m very careful to prioritize my health, which is spiritual, physical and mental health. That’s taking time to work out, to eat right, it’s how I treat my body as a temple of God. It is a significant part of my discipleship – finding the right rhythm, reading great books, reading beach books.
My husband is my greatest advocate and best friend. Spending time with him is life giving for both of us. Finding a rhythm to life in what I love to do and who I’m doing it with is my biggest challenge. I also get renewal from going for a bike ride by the beach, eating with friends, it is all life giving for me.
FT: Any final thoughts?
SV: I’m very inspired by the Church in Canada and by the thousands of church leaders I get to interact with. These are men and women of faith faithfully serving in their communities. They are the unsung heroes. We know what the statistics are and the EFC has been great at feeding those back to the Church.
It is my greatest joy and privilege to serve the Church in Canada. We have some of the most remarkable opportunities as Canadians both in our country and abroad. As we continue to trust God and leverage those opportunities, I think we will continue to see Canadians are world changers. And it’s fun to be part of it.
FT: Thank you, Shaila.
PHOTO: JOSHES PHOTOGRAPHY