The call to both live and spread the faith can be an intimidating one, but Deacon Steve Mitchell makes it look easy. And fulfilling. The Michigan-based national director for Alpha for Catholics spoke with Word on Fire recently and gave us a taste of what it takes to be a "New Evangelizer."
When it comes to evangelizing—and being evangelized—Deacon Steve Mitchell knows his stuff.
The 57-year-old Oxford, Mich.-based national director of Alpha for Catholics—an offshoot of the wildly popular teaching course on Christianity—was born into the Catholic Church, but drifted away.
“I had an intense conversion experience in my 20’s with the Baptist community when I was in the military,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview. A self-proclaimed product of the ‘60s and ‘70s, something about the Baptist teachings resonated with him. But after about 10 years, the faith of his childhood came calling again.
“I longed for the Eucharist, so I drifted back,” he said.
But “drift” might be a bit of an understatement, considering the trajectory his return to Catholicism set him upon. He was ordained a deacon of the Archdiocese of Detroit, he reared six children steeped in the faith, and then, of course, came the job at Alpha nearly three years ago.
“I hadn’t heard of it before,” he admitted, adding it was his wife who nudged him along, saying the opportunity had his name written all over it.
Mitchell’s staffing business, heavily reliant on the automotive industry in Detroit, closed in 2008 when the bottom fell out of the economy. He was restless, impatient, but still passionate about evangelizing. He interviewed for the job, got it, and hasn’t looked back.
“About half the people (who partake in an Alpha course) have a conversion or reversion to following Christ,” he said. “I’m not a catechist, I’m not an apologist. I’m an evangelist.”
More than 18 million people in nearly 170 countries have taken part in Alpha programs, comprising courses for all Christian denominations, according to its website. Alpha for Catholics, an affordable 10-week course for adults formed to answer the call for the “New Evangelization,” aims to welcome those who have fallen from, or on the margins of the faith, those whose faith is alive and well, and those outside of the faith altogether. It’s social, it’s un-intimidating, it’s inclusive. It’s effective.
“Alpha focuses on the core proclamation of the Gospel,” Mitchell said. “The core message that Jesus loves you.”
The model is simple, but evokes strong reactions, Mitchell said. The courses are interesting and efficient, it’s lay-led (thus not burdening an already overextended clergy), and most importantly, the un-muddied message tends to hit home.
“People are starving for purpose,” he said. “Once you know the compassion of God, your life changes.”
But the challenge, and some might argue the point, is to court a new generation of faith seekers.
“When I was young, we belonged, we believed, we behaved,” Mitchell said. “Now it’s like, ‘Eh, what’s in it for me?’ They lose interest.”
But what draws folks to Alpha, what keeps the stream steady, he said, is a search for purpose, for meaning, for the moment in our communication-heavy but connection-bereft lives when we wake up and say, “Is this it?”
Mitchell said that the courses work when a student sees that who unites us is greater than what unites us. This is not only a personal awakening, but serves to keep Christian denominations from any infighting.
“We have to look at ourselves as a family, and that other non-Christians are watching,” he said. “We’re on the same side.”
And more pressing, we need to be more demonstrative when it comes to experiencing the joy inherent in Christ. A revival? Whatever invokes the love, fuels the compassion, gets folks fired up.
“I would love to see Alpha as one of the tools,” to achieving that end, he said. “And that people wouldn’t have to leave the Catholic Church to find these answers.”
Kerry Trotter is the content manager at Word on Fire.