TIGARD — With a mix of both Protestants and Ro-man Catholics as featured speakers, a promotional dinner here last month for the global evangelistic program Alpha em-phasized the unity possible under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, despite differences.
“We don’t desire unity for unity’s sake, but for the Kingdom mission’s sake, said Kirk Petersen, Alpha USA Northwest director, as he introduced the speakers and the theme for the evening, “That They May Be One,” based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21.
Featured at the event at Westside: A Jesus Church in Tigard were Jad Levi, pastor of the Protestant fellowship Trinitas in Phoenix, Ariz.; Bishop Peter Smith of the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, and Eric Shreves, a Catholic lay leader and member of the board of directors for Trinity Academy in Portland.
All have been involved in People of Praise, an Indiana-based charismatic Christian parachurch organization open to any baptized Christian — including Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox — who affirms the historic Nicene Creed and agrees to the community’s covenant. It is through that organization that all three took part in a papal event featuring Pope Francis at Vatican City.
Shreves said one question that burned within him as he arrived at that gathering was whether Catholics and Protestants really can evangelize together.
The answer, he determined, is yes. He and the other speakers said one such way is through the Alpha program, which is utilized worldwide in both Protestant and Catholic churches.
Founded decades ago in Great Britain, Alpha is an evangelistic course which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith through a series of talks and discussions. It is described by its organizers as “an opportunity to explore the meaning of life,” but in a safe and open environment where all participants can share their thoughts and opinions and ask questions without feeling judged.
Levi noted that 6,500 churches in the United States are running the Alpha program, many of them Catholic as well as Protestant.
“Alpha is one way we can work together, to be in mission together, under the banner that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ Levi said as he pointed to a background projected image of that very phrase in different languages.
Levi said that as a Protestant, he has dealt with misconceptions about the Catholic church, including that it promotes a salvation based on works.
Smith said that was indeed a misconception but that it was cleared up when Catholic and Lutherans a few years ago jointly affirmed that “justification is through Jesus Christ” alone.
“It healed that theological rift,” Smith said. He acknowledged that while some differences in theology also remain, “what we have in common is far greater than what separates us.”
Levi agreed. “It has been such a gift to me to get to know my Catholic friends … Sometimes I think they may love Jesus more than I do,” he quipped. Levi said Pope Francis made his own call for unity during the event at the Vatican. The pontiff asked the Protestants who were present, such as Levi, “Will you go on mission with us, under the banner that ‘Jesus is Lord’?”
Smith, who was born and raised in South Africa, said he years ago had a “profound experience” in the Holy Spirit that brought him to a far deeper personal relationship with Jesus.
“The technical term is, God zapped me,” he said. “It was the difference between knowing about the Lord, and knowing the Lord.”
It is in giving the Holy Spirit room to work, that all those who claim the name of Christ can impact the world for Him, Smith said.
“When we don’t try to possess what God does, God can do so much more,” he said.
Those at the dinner also heard brief testimonies from two people who have had their lives completely transformed by coming to faith in Christ through Alpha.
Victoria Simonitti became involved in an Alpha youth program at the Tigard church. At first skeptical, she became convinced that the program was truly representative of the Savior.As time when on, I started to realize how real it was, and how loving and caring God is,” she said.
Ellery Gibbs took part in Alpha through Bridge-town Church of Portland.
“It’s just such an amazing platform to meet people you normally wouldn’t meet,” she said.
Gibbs said the program lets participants learn at whatever pace they find comfortable. “Alpha meets you where you are,” You don’t have to do something you don’t want to do.”
But the point came where she did want to pray a salvation prayer that brought her to Jesus.
The talks wrapped up with Portland-based evangelist Andrew Palau coming up to pray with the speakers and for the overall unity of the Church in reaching the world.
For more on Alpha, go to alphausa.org or phone Petersen at 503-819-2605.