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December 18, 1999
Column #955

THIS CHRISTMAS WHY NOT GIVE CHRIST?

     Last Sunday the most remarkable testimony was given in my church by a man whose life had been transformed by coming to know Jesus Christ. Why is that remarkable? Isn't that what the church is all about? Not usually. We forget, as a former pastor used to say, ''The church is one institution which exists for those not yet in it.''

     The young man who spoke was Chris Perreca, who attended a 15 week course called Alpha, which has proven to be a powerful evangelistic tool. What's the evidence? First, a half million people have attended Alpha in 12,700 churches. Second, more were organized by Episcopalians than any other denomination. Have you ever met an evangelistic Episcopalian?

     Rev. Nicky Gumbel, a British Anglican priest who is not a natural evangelist, developed Alpha for people like himself. Alpha groups begin with dinner in a home, during which there is no talk about religion. Then a video of Gumbel speaking is shown on core concepts of Christianity. The opening talk is ''Who is Jesus? The historical evidence for his life, death and resurrection.'' Next is ''The Cross: Why did Jesus die? Why read the Bible? Why and how should I pray?''

     After the video there is informal discussion. This is ''friendship evangelism.'' Friends invite friends to introduce them to Jesus. And it is life-changing, as Chris Perreca testified.

     He confessed that he had attended church only sporadically -- ''one of the people who sneaks in'' at Christmas or Easter, ''a fair weather participant.'' He was raised a Unitarian. ''My mother was a Presbyterian, my dad, a Catholic and I was very much confused. I knew that Jesus was an important person. But I had little understanding of his significance. My relationship with God was nonexistent. I did believe in God. I thought that by being a good person I could avoid sin and troubling situations. I thought I could face daily challenges on my own and without the help of anyone else. And I was wrong.

     ''Before become a Christian my relationship with my parents and other individuals that I love was torn and fatigued. The relationship with one women who I had learned to love, was very difficult as well because of my own spiritual emptiness.

     ''Without God I was incomplete and often felt alone. Oftentimes I made poor career decisions. Often I was faced with frustration and had moderate anger. I directed it at strangers  the sales girl in the Gap store. Very seldom was I mean to colleagues or loved ones. These are people I cherished. But they were aware of my impatience with others and were very much disturbed that I was often abrupt with compete strangers. I struggled to find happiness.'' he said.

     ''Joyfulness was nothing I expected to find. What made the difference was the participation in the Alpha course. It was the support of Alpha course leaders and participation of other individuals. During our interaction one time a week and during the weekend retreat, even the silliest spiritual questions were entertained. There were two of us who had some of the best questions out there. I was raised a skeptic. My background as a chemist major and engineering major at the Naval Academy and veteran naval officer offered difficult questions.

     ''By attending Alpha and by allowing God to enter into my heart I have become a contented and a peaceful person. My loneliness has eroded quickly, and has been replaced by different convictions and a heart full of energy and warmth.''

     He said that his father, John Perreca, attended the Alpha course three years ago and underwent a ''transformation into a more joyful and caring person. As a Christian my father's efforts to love his family have become more sincere and sensitive. He was a good guy before but he is now a better husband and father.'' Yet Chris resisted his dad's invitation to attend Alpha.

     How has becoming a Christian affected Chris? ''He has helped me heal many of the hurts and pains I have had. He has most recently helped me to have patience in my career pursuit. His results, however, are not prompt. They have to be ones we have to be patient for.

     ''The greatest changes I have seen within myself are that I care for people more, I have greater inner peace and contentment. I live each day with vigor and abundant energy. I am more patient with loved ones, strangers, parents. I have now the willingness to reach out to others to care and help them. I prayed for the first time during the Alpha session. Before, prayer was one thing I did before a dinner. Though My relationship with Christ, I have a greater accountability and greater strength to resist temptation. Before I had limited power to behave differently,'' he confessed.

     This Christmas, why not make a decision to give Christ to others, through Alpha?

     As Chris concluded: ''I ask of you today, if you would like to reach out to others in the community who may be skeptical like myself, this is a great opportunity.'' (Web: alpha.na.org)

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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