We brought the best Canadian we know to educate us on evangelism in a post-Christian cultural context. Shaila Visser is the current Senior Vice President of Alpha International, and she’s also the National Director of Alpha Canada. Alpha creates hospitable spaces for everyone to have the chance to explore the Christian faith, ask questions and share their point of view–wherever they are in the world.
In Portland, we have been working to elevate the conversation on evangelism. Our efforts have included the Show & Tell event where we brought in leaders from North America to inspire and equip local leaders and believers.
Can you Share with us a little about who you are and why you do this work with Alpha to create space for people to explore faith?
I grew up in a rural community in south-western Ontario (south of Detroit for your American listeners). I went to a wonderful church where, if it was full and every seat was taken, there were 80 people. My mother was very faithful in taking us, and we really heard about Jesus growing up in a beautiful way. Like many young people, I went off to a large university where there were 35,000 students, and I literally did not meet Christians. My world became what most university students have: parties, boys, and a bit of student leadership activities. I really didn’t think about Jesus at all. I felt like I left Jesus back at my home.
It was only my last year of university when I met a young woman who was actively engaged in her faith. I found her quite compelling. I thought she was interesting, beautiful, fun, and athletic. I couldn’t help but think, “Who is this woman?” I really thought Christians were over the age of fifty, probably grey hair, not cool at all, and knew they needed Jesus, but later in life.
So, when I met someone who was vibrant and my age who was following Jesus, I was really interested in that. I asked her more and more questions and was invited to a bible study. All my growing up years of hearing the Gospel in my home and in my little local church came alive in me. The information moved from my head to my heart in my last year at university.
I look back at those times and think, “In a school of 35,000, I met one Christian in my years there.” That was back a few years, but it makes you wonder even more, “What’s it like today on university campuses? Where are teenagers and college students hearing the gospel now?” Still, I often say to people that all it takes is one person to love you and come alongside you and show you what it’s like to follow Jesus.
So Jesus found me in my last year of university and came rushing into my heart and mind. I went off to work in Toronto at a boutique marketing firm in the telecommunications industry, and I met all these business women while working there. I came from a business family where I always wanted to get ahead financially and influentially. I just knew I had a desire to lead people. I kept seeing women in leadership, and I realized, “They are not leading in a way that I’d want to.” This wasn’t because of their character, but because they had prioritized work, and now their life seemed to be falling apart. So I started asking the question, “Do I really want to be that?” I’m not saying that every single person who is successful in business is this way, but it just happened to be the story that God was revealing to me that allowed me to think about what I was doing with my life. I was now asking those deeper questions.
At the same time, the Lord was introducing me to people at Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Power to Change in Canada). They had a Women in Leadership ministry, and I just felt like, “Wow, this is an organization that wants to help women understand how Jesus can help them have a whole and successful life but also walk with them through the ups and downs of life.” So I joined Women in Leadership, much to my family’s chagrin in the early days when they were thinking, “We raised you to go to University. We immigrated to Canada from India, and now you’re going to ask people to support you for funds? This is crazy.” It was an immigrant Asian’s worst nightmare. Now my family is really supportive and really excited about what I do.
I just got this passion for reaching people! I was 23 at the time, and the Lord gave me favor to speak the Gospel into business people’s lives. I had one and a half years of business experience; I had nothing. I think in some ways, I was non-threatening because I was just loving and asked lots of questions. I was able to come alongside people and help them find Jesus in the workplace.
So you begin a new adventure with Campus Crusades for Christ. How did that launch you into working with Alpha?
I’d say two things were happening during that time. One was that I had the best leaders above me. Even though I was only in my early twenties, they championed my leadership gifts, came alongside me, called them out, encouraged me, and threw me into the deep end on a number of projects to help me swim. They really gave me confidence to believe that I could lead, and lead not just small things but larger things. I was being apprenticed and coached in that direction.
At the same time, CRU was looking at new models for reaching people. The way they had been reaching business people historically was to bring in a big-name speaker, get table hosts, have people invite people to hear the Gospel, have them check a card, and then follow up with them. It was really ineffective in Vancouver, and so I was looking for something that would work.
I stumbled across Alpha. A local businessman, who was very successful in our city, had heard about Alpha from his Anglican minister. Up to that point, he had never told anyone he was a Christian in that way. He went to church once in awhile, but he never said to them, “I’m serious about this.” He had invited sixteen people and fourteen of them came, all business leaders, executives, and chairmen of boards. They practically jumped on the phone with him to say, “Yes, I want to be part of this!” because where else would they go to discuss these things?
Many of them came to faith through Alpha because it created a safe space for them to ask anything, to question and doubt, and they just got to journey together. They met for many, many years after in Bible study. Even those who hadn’t professed to follow Christ kept coming because they loved being part of this group, and they loved learning together.
I heard that story and I thought, “I have to do this!” I started doing it with a lawyer in the city. She had her own boutique law firm and was very well-known. She had also not come out and said, “Hey, guys. I’m a Christian. Here’s what I believe. I go to church every Sunday.” It wasn’t that she hid it, but she hadn’t promoted it. She started inviting people, and we would do these Alphas at lunch time around her boardroom table. She would say to all the guests, “I’m just on a journey too. Come and join me. My friend, Shaila, is going to run this group.” We would turn on a video and watch it, and it would cover lots of topics: prayer, who Jesus is, why he died, does God heal today, and other topics that come up in Alpha.
None of these women had a faith background, and they would just open up. There was this development of them realizing they were loved and that there’s a purpose to their lives. Not all of them decided to follow Jesus (there were many of them who did), but I know for tho se who didn’t, it started a journey in their own spiritual lives.
So we just started running it more and more, and then Alpha in the UK asked us, “Would you come and teach us how you’ve been doing this?” The business man said, “Well, I don’t do public speaking, but I’ll send Shaila.” So in 1999, I started going to the UK and training people. Then they said, “Would you do this around the world?” and I started helping them there. Just watching Alpha in its infancy start to take off around the world was remarkable. We got to watch as people on factory floors in China and people in Exxon Mobil in both Houston and in Asian Countries and then entrepreneurs started running it for their business people in their companies. We just saw this movement that continues today of business people saying, “Yes, I could run Alpha. It’s safe. I feel confident in it. I don’t have to be an expert, I can just love and welcome and facilitate a discussion.”
I can say that my whole work career has been one whole shock. I had no idea this would be the next open door. Most of the doors that I saw, I didn’t want to walk through, and God sort of pushed me through in a loving way. Now I’m so glad he did because I want to be in this path.
I also love what you said about the space that gets created for conversation with Alpha. Could you expand on why Alpha works to create that space? What do you think is so powerful about it?
When I think about what it means to be involved in evangelism, I think about Darryl Johnson, who is a friend, pastor, professor, and author, said it best when he said, “Evangelism is joining a conversation that the Holy Spirit is already having with another person.”
That underlines a lot of what Alpha is about. We have relationships with people who are either coming closer to God or are far from God, and we invite them to come and check it out. We think it looks very much like parts of the New Testament church in the early days where we come and have a meal together. So Alpha always has an open table, a belief that something wonderful happens together around food when believers and nonbelievers get together. We listen to a talk, which is where people hear about the person of Jesus, and then we have a facilitated discussion.
The beauty (and honestly the hardest part of Alpha for most Christians) is we don’t answer questions. We create a safe environment where people can come and say, “I think this is rubbish. I don’t believe any of it. You guys are crazy for believing it.” Rather than giving them an apologetic for why they’re incorrect, we instead sit back and say, “That’s interesting. What does anyone else think?” or, “How did that make you feel?” What you find is that the Holy Spirit is at work in all of this; the Gospel has been proclaimed through the video, and now they get a chance to wrestle with it. The best facilitators are the ones who say the least.
For Christians who have been trained in apologetics, it’s really hard. They have to bite their tongues and sit on their hands; it’s quite funny to watch actually. The best facilitators on Alpha know how to create a safe environment because they know they don’t have all the answers. They are actually greatly relieved when we say, “We don’t want you to have all the answers.” Lots of times, Alpha guests are super new to faith and come back as helpers and then small group leaders. The reason they’re so great is they just love and accept people and say, “This is the best way to do evangelism. This is the best way to introduce my friends to Jesus.”
So Alpha is really about creating a safe environment where people experience radical hospitality. They feel very loved for who they are in that season (not because they may become a Christian). They’re given the opportunity to say anything and not be stomped on if they disagree with anything presented in the videos or anything someone else has said.
We also do an Alpha weekend three-quarters of the way through, and that’s where we create an environment where people can experience God. There’s just not enough time to get to know one another relationally if you’re just doing it one time a week. When you do an Alpha weekend, people come expectant to have a retreat together, and God moves. The vast majority of people who come to faith come to faith on the Alpha weekend because we’ve pulled them away and given them this experience. They learn about who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit does, and how they can be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then God shows up and does exactly what we expect him to do: help people understand who he is, move in their hearts, and open their eyes to the wonder of the Gospel.
Nicki Gumbel, the pioneer behind Alpha and the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London, says that Alpha is the most disappointing thing he’s ever done because he knows how many people don’t come back week-to-week in a small group. But he says if people leave the Alpha weekend kind of stomping out of there, he often thinks, “There goes the next minister/pastor/missionary!” This is because often the people who are the most resistant to the gospel on the Alpha weekend come to faith powerfully in the next week or a couple weeks later, and they go on to be church leaders. It’s quite funny.
What do you think keeps people from saying they’re a Christian? Why do you think we’re so intimidated to share our faith?
Well, I don’t think we want to align ourselves with other people who call themselves Christians and say things that we disagree with vehemently or are embarrassed by or think, “Oh I agree but I would say it differently.” For lots of us, we just want to say, “Whoa, I’m backing away from that if that’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s not my definition, and I don’t want to be known as that.”
Particularly in the West, there are so many polarizing conversations happening that cause people to just back away from it. In some ways it is to the detriment of the beauty of the Gospel because the people who are actually out there loving their community, welcoming people of all sorts of differences into the family of faith should be the one to rise up and say, “Hey, there’s a better way. There’s a more loving way.” There’s an opportunity for us to create open spaces for dialogue where dialogue is being shut down. The opportunity right now for Christians who want to love and serve their neighbors in the community is they need to become louder voices, not quieter.
We should let love lead us. The Trinity is the most beautiful expression of love; it’s where love was birthed. When we as individuals are living out of that reality, we lead with love, and then a world wants to know what we believe because we are loving like Jesus.
What would you say to the greater church of Canada/U.S.? What breaks your heart for the global church right now?
There are a couple things. First off, I’m really concerned about what’s happening with teenagers right now in the world. I don’t have my own children, but I seem to have collected a number of godchildren. My friends all have teenagers right now, and I just look at all the hopeless situations (kids who are cutting themselves, trying drugs, and trying to numb themselves from the pain of lack of purpose or lack of self-identity).
I looked at that generation and what I love to see is the new movement of people who are hopeful speakers about that generation and call out what is possible in that generation. We speak a lot of negativity both around Millenials and Gen Z. We really want to start being people who call out hope in that generation. I think we’ll see hope rise again if the church stops labeling people and instead starts calling out the potential and the giftings of a generation or of people groups.
The church generally needs to stop thinking, “These are all the stats. This is so bad. This is so terrible.” They need to start pointing the flashlight on all those communities where there is hope in the next generation, and bring it to light.
A second thing is something I’ve noticed at least in the West. Since there’s been this kind of critical societal move against Christians, Christians are becoming more quiet and reserved about their faith. Actually this is the time to rise up and do so in a very love-based way that can really extend grace and mercy to people and help them find a home in Jesus Christ. I would say we need to help people realize they can share their lives with others and do so in a really winsome way. Then they can invite them into something: church, Alpha, a conversation in their home around faith issues, whatever it may be. The world is increasingly hungry for what we have.
Globally isolation is becoming the leading issue of the day. If I could put a hopeful lens on it, though, I think it’s also the biggest opportunity. The church is one of the best places to find community where you can be loved, accepted, and supported when you’re in a crisis. I love the local church, and I believe the local church is the best support for people in all their life stages. In the past, the church has often been a mirror to the world and tried to say, “Here’s what’s been going on in the world” and reflecting that instead of saying, “Here’s a window to who we are.”
The church can see itself not as a mirror, but as a window. It can say, “Look at who you are. Come around, and eat with us. Come around, and be with us.” The best churches in the world today are finding ways to be hospitable in radical ways. They are saying to the world, “Community matters. Love matters. You can be known and loved and accepted for who you are in this place. And, oh by the way, we do this because we love Jesus. Would you like to meet him as well?”
In our city, Vancouver, where less than 3% of the population goes to church on any given Sunday, Vancouver Foundation did a study. Over the course of five years, the city of Vancouver had a goal to lower the levels of loneliness or isolation felt by so many in the city. So they had projects, sponsored neighborhood parties, all sorts of things so people could get to know one another. After five years, they found that it didn’t work.
I think the reason for that is because the church and faith communities need to rise up in that space. We should be saying, “We will not put up with anyone on our block or street feeling isolated and alone because we love Jesus, and Jesus is all about community and welcoming people to his table, so we will do the same.”
In Canada (it’s probably similar in the U.S.), 28% of the population live alone. Likely they live far away from family and friends who they grew up with because they’ve moved for their first job or for university. People are increasingly isolated because of the global movement and the breakdown of families, so I just think the church has to be their family. I just think it’s a hopeful situation, but the people of God have to be engaged and on-mission to reach them.
One final other thing I’d love to add about the church is in regards to prayer. One of the most important things we can do as Christians is pray. I don’t know what it’s like at your church, but I know at my church and others, when they call a prayer meeting, two to ten people show up. The churches that are making the biggest impact in their cities or their region churches are the churches that pray. I think it has to be a worldwide movement of the church to spend more time praying because it shifts things, and it gives people the opportunity to align their hearts and minds with the work of God in their communities. They have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying, and then they move in that direction.
I know that the Archbishop of Canterbury has started Thy Kingdom Come (a partnership between 24/7 prayer). In the UK, they’re packing out Cathedrals of with people from all different denominations, and they pray together. We’re doing a smaller event in Vancouver in partnership with 24/7 prayer because we believe that we need to be at a praying people first and foremost. This is because it’s communion with God that leads to mission and changed hearts, both for ourselves and for the world. I just want to encourage prayer as the engine room all Mission work.
I agree. Millenials and Gen Z in particular are driven by causes, and we don’t have great examples of people who start on their knees in prayer. how do we learn this practice of slowing down?
I’m an Enneagram 3—a big engine, get-it-done, take on the world, visionary type person—and I just always see more opportunities. My biggest lesson in my leadership has been to just slow down. I’m seeing that when I align and listen to the conversation of a community and I get into a place of listening more than speaking, it is shockingly humbling. I’m realizing that when the Lord speaks and tells me to do things, it has exponentially more impact than when I just work harder, do more, see a vision and go for it myself. I have really had to discipline and train myself through lots of ways to be a listener to God, to really capture the heart of the Father, and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do great work and to have higher impact. I get how hard it is, but it is the call for all Christians.
You’re here for Show & Tell event here in Portland. what intrigued you about the opportunity to come into this? What possibility arises out of bringing leaders together to share this vision of evangelism in a more collaborative spirit?
My experience, both in Canada and globally, has been that church leaders are always facing the pull towards inward ministry. The needs are great, and they do an event every Sunday. Other ministry leaders or city movement leaders are more focused on targets and trying to move ahead to reach the city, care for the poor, and meet the societal needs. I think in the busyness of all that, evangelism is easy to put on the back shelf. It requires the most amount of effort, prayer, money, and risk. When you put all four of those things together, it’s easy to see why it would be something that people would rather leave behind for a season or longer.
When Kevin invited me, I thought, “This is a great opportunity!” Portland and Vancouver first of all have a lot of similarities, and I’m realizing that the same problems exist in cities all over the world. Church leaders, parachurch leaders, and organization ministry leaders are all facing the same pressures for funding and leadership, and so thinking about evangelism as one more thing they have to do is really hard. I feel convicted to come and share about the characteristics of leaders who are seeing evangelism flourish as well as some of the theological underpinnings.
I think evangelism has had a bad rep in the last 20 years, and people have started to have an allergic reaction to the word. They either think they need to get more apologetics training to get all the right answers, or they give up. What I would like to challenge people to consider, as I said earlier, is that we are joining a conversation that the Holy Spirit’s having with someone.
In John 15, Jesus says, “I will now send the Helper, the Comforter.” The Helper’s job is to lift up Jesus. The Helper’s job is to show a way to Jesus. We get to join that conversation that the Holy Spirit’s already having with someone. When I think about my neighbor across the street or my university friends who are far from God, I’m not thinking, “Oh Lord, if I don’t do anything, nothing’s happening.” The reality is that the Holy Spirit’s already doing something. We get to learn to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit saying, “You should invite this person,” or, “You should give this person a call.” There are those moments where we think, “Why is that person on my mind today? I haven’t talked to them in three months. I don’t think anything’s wrong with them.” Then you call them and tell them, “I don’t know why, but I felt like I should call you today and say how are you?” Nine times out of ten you’re going to hear the person say, “You’re kidding me.” That’s the Holy Spirit prompting us to come alongside others in love and courage.
Evangelism is so broad; it’s not narrow. We all have to find our voice in it, but we also have to find the voice of the Holy Spirit in it and join. In that way, yes it’s risky. Evangelism is always risky because we put ourselves in the way. We think that somehow if we do it rightly or wrongly, something will or won’t happen. The reality is you could fumble or give the best answer possible. If the Holy Spirit’s moving in that person’s heart at that moment to come to Christ, it’s going to happen either way because it’s the Holy Spirit’s work.
We have to recapture the joy of evangelization and realize there is a wonder in joining God in what he is already doing. The fact is He doesn’t have to invite us into it. He wants to invite us into it because he knows the joy and discipleship we experience when we enter into someone else’s life and help them find Jesus.
It’s like going to the gym for the first time if you haven’t been in a long time. You go there and think, “Okay, I’ve got a five pound weight in my hand. I seem to be quite good at this!” Then the next day you can’t move your arm right, and it was only a five pound weight.
It’s like that when we’re starting to try to listen to the Holy Spirit and take steps of faith. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong. But as Mike Pilivachi says, “No one dies,” so we should keep practicing it. As we use that muscle of faith and take those risks to enter into conversations that we feel uncomfortable with or aren’t sure if we’ve heard from God correctly, as we take those promptings and work that muscle, our muscle becomes stronger. We gain more confidence, and we do it more and more.
I’ve got to this point where I’ve said this crazy prayer to God. I’ve told Him, “Okay. I’m ready. I’ll do whatever you want me to do even if makes me look foolish.” Even then, I’m so resistant to being there personally. I’m like, “I’m going to look like a weirdo. I’m going to say crazy things.” I’m going to get it wrong sometimes, but that’s the best part of learning to listen to the Holy Spirit. Even if I see someone and feel like I should say something or do something, but then it’s a total bust, God can still use it. But then there’s also the times where you really risk and it was really right.
I heard this amazing story from a pastor who came to speak to our Alpha staff. One of the women in his church found she had this muscle for speaking into people’s lives and praying for healing, and they would be healed. These were non-Christians who were being healed in Jesus name. One day, she was on a flight, and God said to her while they were in the air, “I want you to pray for the woman behind you who has something wrong with her neck.” The woman’s thinking, “I’m too crazy. I’m not going to do it.” She argued most of the flight with God, and once the plane landed and got to the gate, the pilot came on the air and said, “I’m so sorry, but we can’t seem to open the door. There’s a malfunction with it.”
She immediately heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say to her, “That door won’t open until you pray for the woman behind you.” She thought, “I can’t believe God’s doing this to me. This is mortifying!” She decided, “Okay, fine God.” She then turns to the woman and said, ‘Do you have a problem with your neck because I feel that I am supposed to pray for you.” This woman said, “ I do, I have a terrible pain.” Of course, at point the plane’s quite quiet and no one’s talking as they’re waiting for the plane to open. So she prays for this woman, and then someone else says, “Would you mind praying for me?” I can’t remember the exact number, but it was well over eight or nine people who she prayed for in a row for healing and who were actually healed and could say they felt something different, that the pain was gone, or they felt peace inside of them.
As soon as she finished with the last person and sat down, the pilot came back on and said, “We figured out the door, and it is now open.”
I hear that story, and faith rises in me. But then I think, “Lord, please don’t ask me to do that because that’s really crazy.” I do hope and think, though, that I’m at a place where I say, “Okay Lord, please let me have faith to do that because the world wants to be loved in all sorts of ways, and that’s just one of them.” I want to be on the front lines and see amazing things happen.
I know you have heart for millenials and youth. There are a ton of student-led Alpha groups around the world. What do you attribute that to?
We don’t give the younger generations enough credit, and we don’t call out all of the possibility that they have in them. For some reason, they’ve been labeled in a way that’s very unhelpful for them. We leaders need to look at them and spot potential, call it out of them, and pray it over them. As we are more honest about what kind of leaders we are and share our own vulnerabilities, strengths, and weaknesses, they start to realize they can learn from us as leaders because we’re also on a journey and in-process.
I think this next-generation, particularly those in high school right now, are going to put us slightly-older people to shame. They are taking their faith seriously. Now I also know lots of parents of teenagers who are like, “Oh my goodness, I just hope my kid makes it through high school,” and then the next question is, “Will they make it through college with faith?”
That’s the wrong conversation. The conversation should be, “How do we get teenagers into the game of faith and not just think that we need a youth leader to entertain them or give them a bit of Bible?” We actually need to invite them into the grander story within which they have a role to play.
Alpha has a high school series as well, correct?
Yes, we have Alpha for Youth. We created that in Canada. Our second version came out in 2017, and it’s gone right around the world to 45 countries and 19 languages. The thing that’s particularly of interest to us was that in 2017, we had about a 150 student-led Alphas (these are teenagers running it for their friends) in Canada, and then one year later, we had 466. This says to me that Alpha for Youth is being owned by the youth in the greater measure. It is not youth volunteers or youth pastors running it for their teens; it’s actually teens saying, “Okay, thank you for equipping me, for texting me your prayers and top tips on how to run it, but you’re now actually giving me a vision that I can be a part of this and do something and change the trajectory of my friends lives which often then change the trajectory of the whole family.” So I’m very excited.
We had about 60,000 teens in Canada come on Alpha last year. In the U.S., it’s growing exponentially too. I know a great leader, Jordan, who is heading up that work here. I actually think it’ll be the largest part of our ministry in the next few years because teenagers are longing to be counted in, and somehow in our language, we counted them out.
Gen Z is eager to wrestle with these harder conversations. Part of what we’re finding when they start to take Alpha for Youth is that the first few conversations are quite awkward. We really have some great icebreakers built into the series to help the teens because they’re no longer used to having face-to-face discussions without their devices. There is a bit of a journey there to help them, but once they get in, they’re all in. It’s such an honor to watch them lead from the front (if it’s a bigger group) and host and MC, and seeing youth leaders on the side just championing their teenagers to say, “You can do this. You can run it. You can influence your friends.” It’s remarkable work, and we’re so privileged to serve the church to do this work.
If people want to hear more about Alpha, where should they go?
In the U.S.: alphausa.org
In Canada: alphacanada.org
Anywhere else: alpha.org
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