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Thankfully, I wasn’t the Vicar

The first SJSM Alpha Intro Dinner in 1998

In 1998, I was serving as a clergy (Curate) then at St John’s-St Margaret’s Church (SJSM). I was tasked with heading a new way of evangelising through small groups. We called it Evangelistic Bible Studies then (EBS groups). Our Cell groups were struggling with evangelism and that was bad news as the Cell’s DNA is about multiplication. We were running out of ideas. We thought EBS was the key.

There were good reasons to think that way. I had just ran a EBS group for 5 non-believers. We explored various questions such as Who is Jesus? Why did He die? etc. We ended each session with supper. I can recall the fourth or fifth session where we discussed the resurrection of Jesus. I was about to close the session when one of the guest said that he is ready to be a Christian. That came as a pleasant surprise. He and a few other guests made a decision to believe in Jesus. This same group of recent converts went on to reach more than 20 newcomers to church, many whom were their relatives or friends.

We realised than that there was something special about a home-based group evangelism where guests are made to feel comfortable and have their pertinent questions discussed. This was something that will never happen in an evangelistic rally, which was in vogue then.

We stumbled into an “Alpha-like” approach even before the Course itself reach our shores. And so training started in earnest for our Cell leaders who were keen also to experience this way of evangelism. The challenges is how to train our members to response to questions about the faith. I can recall piling a stack of apologetic books as resources. The task seem daunting as most were not gifted to host a EBS group.

At the same time, the Alpha Course finally came to our shores. The Alpha Conference led by Revd Sandy Millar and Revd Nicky Gumbel was to be hosted at St Andrew’s Cathedral. My Vicar then, Rennis Ponniah asked me and some of our leaders to attend. I was reluctant We were already embarking on our own EBS programme. I thought that as Anglicans, it was bad enough that they should teach us how to worship. Now, it is evangelism to our own local Singaporeans? I distrusted this international “franchise” approach. After all, when we are really hungry, we will reach out for Char Kuay Teow or Bak Chor Mee, not Macdonalds.

Still, I had to go. The Nave at the Cathedral then did not lend itself well to a conference. There weren’t flat screen TVs to project the speaker as there are today. I sat way at the back and viewed from the back of the long sanctuary, Nicky Gumbel’s head was bobbing up and down. I think I slept through half of the two day conference. At the end of it, Nicky wanted to pray for those who plan to run Alpha. My Vicar stood up. I had no choice but to follow suit.

After the Conference, the SJSM team gathered to review. I can still vividly remember how we were seated. The Vicar asked, “Should we try out Alpha?” One by one, everyone said yes. Then, lastly it came round to me. And I said ... “No!” I thought we should do it on our own since we are already half-way developing our programme.

I am glad I wasn’t the Vicar then. Alpha would have been barred from SJSM. My Vicar wisely overruled. I thought, if so many leaders, including the Vicar think otherwise, God may just be speaking. This donkey in me was too self-directed.

And so, I reluctantly agreed. We will do it. But quietly please. Our Cells were tired of progammes which did not work. And if Alpha fails, we will quietly move on. I did not like the idea of a video talk either. I will give the talk, I insisted.

Our experience of the Alpha Introductory Dinner is still so vivid in my memory that it seems like it just happened last week. On that fateful evening, we expected 300. Talking about a low key event, members just took the opportunity to invite. And invite they did. Finally, more than 500 turned up (see lead photo). The food was insufficient. Members were told to abstain! We had never seen so many unbelievers in our Sanctuary. I gave the talk. Thankfully, it was inspired, funny, effective and anointed.

As they said, the rest is history. Alpha exploded in a local Singaporean church. Many other local churches began to be interested. Ironically, a bit later, I was asked to be the National Director of Alpha Singapore. SJSM never looked back ever since, nor her Cells. Alpha moved on to impact other churches, prisons, the market place and the region. Countless have come to faith in Christ. My team subsequently insisted we switch to Nicky on videos when they realised - after the third live talk - that my anointing as an Alpha speaker, to put it kindly, was not a permanent gift. We can be glad because the videos can be used in ways which live talks can’t. In any case, the real strength of Alpha is how it enables Christians to reach guests in small groups.

24 years have passed. Now I am at MPCC. St Paul urged Timothy to preach the Gospel in and out of season in 2 Timothy 4:2.

May Alpha in MPCC breathe a new life and way of evangelism in our community. And just to be sure, I will not be giving the talk.


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