Nerves gnawed at Carla Hatton the first time she walked into Columbus’ Grace Lutheran Church in 2011 not knowing a single soul.
She came to find out about a group highlighting Christianity’s basic questions, but she arrived with a big, non-faith-related question: Will people think I am clueless because of information I don’t know?
Besides, her family had drifted from church when she was 15 and she had never returned. Now, 34 years later, here she was.
She realized soon enough that she need not have worried. Volunteers put her at ease and never put her on the spot.
“I’m very shy, so I kind of sat back and let others talk and ask questions,” Hatton said.
But the free, 14-week Alpha Course dramatically affected her and also husband Andy’s faith — so much so that they’re among Alpha volunteers for the latest session meeting at 5:50 p.m. Tuesdays.
Informal gatherings featuring speakers, DVD presentations, a bit of worship music, and casual, small-group discussion, are held at the church,
3201 Central Ave.
“If you’re like me and you just don’t yet have the gumption to ask the questions you’ve been thinking about, then you can listen, and there’s a good chance someone else will ask them,” Hatton said of the twice-per-year programs that have drawn everyone from non-churchgoers to longtime Christians seeking to deepen their faith or foundation.
Questions and topics range from “Where did the Bible come from?” to “Why would a good God allow evil?”
The Rev. John Armstrong, Grace’s pastor, sees the program, used in churches, prisons and other settings worldwide, as particularly significant in an information age.
“People either do not know the Gospel, or they are confused about the Gospel,” Armstrong said. “They see God primarily as a law-giver or a rule-maker, rather than someone who unconditionally loves them.
“It’s not that there aren’t rules (in Christianity). But as St. Augustine said, ‘Love makes all things easy.’ When you perceive God as sacrificially loving you, you want to do those things that are pleasing to him. It’s not a matter of got to. It becomes a matter of get to.”
Grace was among the first churches in Indiana to use Alpha 14 years ago, according to Armstrong.
Sessions sometimes attract only a few people, including those from other churches, since everyone is welcome. Others might draw 15 or more.
Additional churches in the past have used Alpha in Columbus, too. Organizers always emphasize that it is not a membership class, nor is any pressure applied to attend anywhere.
Armstrong mentioned that questions are not answered with facts or a list of data. They are explored through Scripture passages and biblical background.
“I believe there’s nothing more important than truth, and we believe Christ is demonstrable truth who sometimes is misunderstood,” Armstrong said. “How would people feel on Facebook if someone misunderstood them? God has a lot at stake here. He doesn’t want us to get him wrong.”
Columbus’ Kyle McLeod was intrigued by Alpha when it began at Grace. But he didn’t see how in the world he could be involved while running a business with 60-plus-hour work weeks. But he decided to serve as a volunteer with wife Norma.
“When I made that commitment,” McLeod said, “everything else just fell into place. I soon discovered I had time for everything else.”
The 52-year-old McLeod said his and wife Norma’s work as Alpha leaders the past eight years has enhanced his own faith “and forced me to regularly get into God’s word. And every time we’re there, I learn something new. Plus, it helps keep me grounded.”
The Hattons and McLeods both mentioned that they regularly invite others to Alpha.
“But we’re pretty non-aggressive about it,” McLeod said.
Carla Hatton acknowledged that she’s still rather timid. But she credits Alpha with helping her and her spouse be bold enough to investigate the faith.
“Once you learn more of what it’s about, it gives you freedom,” she said. “I saw that we’re all sinners saved by grace.”