November 16, 2015

Amazing grace

Written by  Bob Phillips
Bob Phillips, far right, with an Alpha weekend retreat group. Fourteen nationalities were represented. Bob Phillips, far right, with an Alpha weekend retreat group. Fourteen nationalities were represented. Photo provided by author.

This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

There is a lovely, ironic line in an old Paul Simon love song: “If something goes right … whoa, it’s likely to lose me; it’s apt to confuse me, because it’s such an unusual sight, ... I can’t get used to something so right, something so right!”

So much has gone wrong in our 22 years of experimental church planting in Amsterdam. But by God’s grace, and the counter-intuitive power of the gospel, a few things have gone right.

From 1993 to 2003 Mim and I helped to plant Gemeente de Hoeksteen (Cornerstone Fellowship) in Amsterdam-Noord. The gathering of seekers and strugglers grew in number from 10 to 80, then back to 35. Heartbroken, we decided together to close it, and with tears and blessings, sent each other out to other congregations as missionaries.

In January of 2004 feeling God’s calling to press on in Amsterdam, we were invited to serve on the staff of Crossroads International Church. It was one of the few experiments that was surviving and thriving. I was asked to serve on the leadership team of the weekly “Alpha Course” from the Anglican Holy Trinity Brompton in London. This proved to be an excellent cultural fit for seekers, both Dutch professionals and various international students and immigrants. The ingredients: dinner together and growing friendships, a substantial lecture and Bible study ("Who is Jesus?" and "Why did He die on the cross?") and an open discussion time in small groups, respecting each other’s perspectives.

The philosophy of Alpha is also marvelously counter-intuitive: in the discussion groups the leaders learn to facilitate an open discussion. If there are spiritual realities behind these themes, the Holy Spirit will gently convince each person. We try to make it a safe place to voice doubts and identify obstacles. This is hard for me, but I bite my tongue, ask open questions, and listen carefully. I love to watch team members grow as Alpha discussion group leaders.

So, for 11 years now at Crossroads, we’ve been running 13 weeks of Tuesday evening Alpha, twice each year, every spring and fall. Each time, with our lovely team of 10 volunteers, we get 25 to 35 participants. It’s very messy, but they nearly all come to faith in a “process conversion.” Then they want to get baptized, and they often invite friends and family to their baptism celebrations. Our Alpha team will have a sign-up table in the lobby, inviting people to the next Alpha. (Crossroads provides us with a flow of genuine seekers, almost like Henry Ford's assembly lines with cars!)

About eight years ago, I asked Gerard, a theologian friend, “How can we better equip these brand-new believers to share their faith while they still have all these contacts with their old friends?” And he told me about a workshop called “Three-Story Evangelism.” I found the concept to be simple but deep: three stories. First, listen well to their stories; second, be prepared to tell your story of coming to faith; and thirdly, find metaphors to link these to God’s story in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I began offering “A Workshop in Three-Story Evangelism” each year at Crossroads, specifically inviting friends who had recently come to faith through Alpha, or others who had recently been baptized.

On the first evening, we would make a list of three people in our lives, and increase the level of prayer for them. We would break up into prayer groups. Jan, a mature Dutch lawyer, wept in prayer and said, “I’ve been meeting twice a year for twenty years with my best friends from college, and I would never dare to talk to them about my faith ... but it has never occurred to me that I could pray for them!”

I gave the group a homework assignment using Vonette Bright’s “Sharing Your Story.” The next week, they came back with their rough drafts, role-played telling their stories, and got new homework: memorizing 2 Corinthians 5:21 and a simple way of telling God’s story in the gospel. On the third evening, they practiced “preaching the gospel” to each other in their small groups.

I asked the group if anyone had tried telling their story. Maryann*, a lovely, tiny, tougher-than-nails probation officer from Hong Kong, said, “Oh sure! My mom prayed with me on Friday and asked Jesus into her heart. And then my 10-year-old son on Saturday! And they both came to church with me last Sunday!” Hmm, this seems to be working …

After the first workshop, I passed around an evaluation form. Everyone was positive and encouraged, but nearly everyone had the same critique. They were terrified to actually talk about these things with their families and friends. And those who tried had been confronted with difficult philosophical and theological objections that they felt unprepared to address. “If God is good, why does He allow evil and suffering?” “What about other religions?” “How can you believe in the Trinity?” These budding evangelists were asking for more equipping in Christian apologetics.

So we went another round, and we spent seven weeks together reading and discussing three books: Nicky Gumbel’s Searching Issues (the best introduction I’ve found for beginners with the seven most common objections), Timothy Keller’s The Reasons for God (same issues with more developed answers), and William Edgar’s Reasons of the Heart; Recovering Christian Persuasion (Keller’s former professor and an excellent resource on methodology).

Henri Nouwen says when a person tells their unique experience, instead of arguing about abstract theology, it mysteriously hooks into a universal with which others can identify. It’s been a personal delight and a holy privilege for me to hear each person’s unique story!

Students become co-workers and friends; ministry gets multiplied. Some are Dutch professionals: Frederique, the economics student; Sjaak, the television cameraman. Others are international immigrants: Anton, the engineer from Zimbabwe; Iris, the business analyst from Malaysia. And lately, we have several recovering heroin addicts: Marck, Harm, Francisco, and Walter, who have not only brought their friends but have launched an Alpha Course in one of the local prisons.

When Maryann wrote her story, she told how she was raised Catholic, but became bitter and angry with God when her favorite uncle died of cancer. She had not gone to any church for 14 years. But her Chinese friend Phyllis invited her to Crossroads for a dedication service for her first baby. Sitting in our rented high school auditorium as the worship music began, Maryann found herself weeping. The message that was preached was from Romans 8, “nothing can separate us.” She was undone; no Alpha course necessary. She was God’s project, not ours. And when Maryann was baptized a few months later, she stood in the water and recited the entire chapter from memory.

We get to multiply evangelists and apologists, which is amazing grace. And I have to stop sometimes and pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. I can’t get used to something so right ...

Bob and Miriam Phillips serve with EMM and Serge (formerly World Harvest Mission) in evangelism, teaching, and leadership development at Crossroads International Church of Amsterdam.

*Pseudonyms were used in this story due to sensitivities.

This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.