On the shore of Ontario’s beautiful Lake Rosseau, under a fresh blanket of October snow, more than 250 strangers from across the Greater Toronto Area gathered for an Alpha Weekend Away. Up in the Muskoka woods and far from the noise of our busy city lives, we spent three days breaking bread, playing games, singing, praying and seeking a deeper relationship with God.
The Alpha Weekend Away – most likely the largest ever held in Canada – brought together 14 Alphas led by Toronto region churches spanning 8 different Christian denominations, from Pentecostal to Baptist to Anglican. But the majority of guests weren’t regular church-goers. Some were lapsed Christians taking steps to return to faith, some were brand new to Christianity and some were altogether unsure about Christ or even the existence of God.
The weekend kicked off with games and a pop-song sing-along on Friday night and ended with the first snowfall of the season and a power outage on Sunday morning that left us in the dim stillness of the Muskoka woods. “It’s like God is showing us that we are the lights,” said one fellow Alpha weekender on Sunday morning as we headed to breakfast.
What’s Alpha and the Alpha Weekend Away?
Alpha is a series of interactive sessions, often run by churches, exploring the Christian faith with food, a talk and small group discussions. Alpha runs in countries around the world, including more than 5,000 across Canada (1,800 in Ontario) in 2017.
The Alpha Weekend Away is a central component of the Alpha experience and focuses on a tough question. Maybe one that isn’t thought about enough, even by life-long Christians: Who is the Holy Spirit?
Come, Holy Spirit
Ryan Moffat, Alpha Canada’s Regional Director for Ontario, was at the GTA-wide Alpha Weekend Away, praying and worshiping alongside guests, many of whom were learning about the Spirit for the first time.
“I remember my first experience with the Holy Spirit as a kid. Someone spoke in tongues and I was mystified, thinking, “What just happened? Is this real?” I was intrigued and eager to learn more. But it was years before I truly opened myself up to the Spirit and felt the joy and peace he brings,” says Ryan, who helped coordinate the weekend with four other Alpha Canada staff and 26 volunteers from churches across Southern Ontario. “It’s in those moments of openness that the Spirit moves in our lives, and the Alpha Weekend Away is all about making space for that openness.”
On the Saturday afternoon, we had an opportunity for prayer in the Spirit. Imagine 250 people, some standing with arms wide, some sitting with heads bowed, opening their hearts in prayer. Ryan was observing the crowd from the back of the room.
“You could see it on people’s radiant faces, in their posture or in their tears that God was doing something for them,” says Ryan. “I watched people pray for their neighbours. I even watched people get up and cross the room to pray for complete strangers. I saw people who were hesitant or skeptical about the whole weekend suddenly bow their heads and open their hands.”
“For some of the guests,” Ryan continues, “what was started there will continue to transform their lives. There were people who experienced physical and emotional healing, people who were called into something completely new, and people who gave their lives to Christ.”
Advice for Churches Running an Alpha Weekend Away
Andrew and I will be helping to lead Alpha at our church in the new year and, coming away from experience, it’s clear that the Weekend Away takes a lot of work, planning and prayer. With 12 Alphas under his belt, Ryan offers some advice to help prepare us for this challenge.
“It’s a lot like hosting a Christmas dinner,” he says. “You buy the groceries and prepare all the food, lay out a table, think about your guests and hope the weather is good so that they arrive safely. It’s a ton of work, but the moment you sit down at the table and look around, you see love, peace and joy, and you know you would do it all over again.”
“Go into the weekend knowing that a point will come where you will feel the love, peace and joy of the Holy Spirit there with you, and you will know it was worth the work.”
What about Alpha Weekend “don’ts”. What is the most common pitfall that churches should avoid when planning?
“Fight the urge to cram the weekend into a single day,” Ryan says without skipping a beat. “A lot of times, we assume that people attending Alpha won’t be willing to commit to a full weekend of prayer and contemplation, but they are often the ones desiring this the most.”
Connecting with other local churches to jointly run an Alpha Weekend Away can help build critical mass to overcome logistical or financial challenges, Ryan suggests. Lay volunteers came together to organize the GTA-wide Alpha Weekend Away, with each church taking on a different responsibility, from room allocation to entertainment to hospitality. As the saying goes, many hands make light work and churches can accomplish more (and for a more affordable price) by running the event as a group.
“Things happen on this weekend that don’t happen during weekly Alpha sessions. By stepping away from every day life, people allow themselves to open up and authentically respond to God’s call,” says Ryan. “It’s an incredible blessing to watch the Spirit work in people’s lives in this way, and to support them through this part of their journey. It’s what I love most about my job.”
If you are in Canada and want to try Alpha or run Alpha, visit Alpha Canada.
Photo credit: Ryan Moffat, Alpha Canada’s Regional Director for Ontario
2 thoughts on “Alpha Weekend Away in the Woods”
Thank you for this reflective post, Elise. I can attest to the powerful experience of the Alpha weekend retreat and am grateful that you captured it so beautifully in words.