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Mark and Julie love their neighborhood. “It’s the kind of place,” Mark says, “with a lot of kids and not many fences. Oftentimes,” he adds with a smile, “I’ll come home from work and there will be twenty kids at my house—and it takes me five minutes to figure out which ones are mine.”
When they first moved to their south-Wheaton neighborhood in 2004, the Farrells had two young daughters, one a toddler and the other a newborn.
As the years passed, those little ones grew and were joined by two more, a boy and another girl. And over those same years, empty nesters up and down the street were replaced by more and more growing families like theirs, along with lots and lots of kids.
So the summer when their oldest had just finished kindergarten, Mark and Julie, joined by Eric and Leslie Brown, decided to host a Neighborhood Bible Club, inviting the kids who lived in the houses around them into their yard for games, stories, singing, crafts, and an opportunity to learn about Jesus. And even when only twenty kids showed up—and it rained every day—they didn’t lose heart.
“We just moved into our basement,” Julie says, “and that worked, because there were only twenty kids!”
The second year, the club drew more than thirty kids, and the last couple of years, Mark says, it has really multiplied, becoming an annual not-to-be-missed event on their street. “It’s so cool,” he says, “how the kids start talking about it on the playground all through the spring.”
An Interesting Question
A few weeks after last year’s club, Mark and Julie returned home from a trip to find four e-mails from parents whose kids had attended the club. All were seeking help with answering the questions their kids were asking them about what they had learned at Neighborhood Bible Club.
“My kids keep coming to this club,” one mom said, “and now they’re asking us questions about the Bible. And we don’t know the answers. How can we help them find answers to their questions?”
Mark and Julie began to talk together about how they could help those parents—and a few others who expressed similar interest—learn more about God and the Bible so they could answer the questions their children were asking.
Mark remembers one dad saying, “I have no idea how to talk to my kids about faith, but I want to.”
“For everybody,” Julie adds, “it was, ‘I want to do this for my kids.’”
The idea of a neighborhood study group started to come together, leading to the obvious question: What kind of study would be helpful to these parents?
The Alpha Option
A conversation with Marie Allison, Director of Connect Ministries at Wheaton Bible Church, introduced the idea of using the Alpha curriculum—the same videos and discussion questions that the Alpha Course held at the church was using—with this newly formed neighborhood group.
“All I knew about Alpha at that point,“ Mark says, “was that a cousin of mine had come back from England in the early nineties, all excited about a thing called Alpha. But I really knew nothing about it.”
As they learned more, it soon became clear that the Alpha content—a basic introduction to the Christian faith—was a perfect fit for this group of parents.
“So we asked five families,” Mark said, “including Dave and Helen Harris who attend Wheaton Bible Church, if they wanted to do a Bible study together. We didn’t really know much about Alpha ourselves at that point, so we described it simply as a way to help us answer the questions the kids are asking us.
“And that’s been true,” he adds, “even for Julie and me. The Alpha videos are really well-presented explanations of the Christian faith, and I can’t tell you how often I find myself using one of the examples from the videos with my own kids.”
The group began meeting at five every other Sunday afternoon. They started by having supper together—twelve adults and fifteen kids. At six, the adults would go downstairs for their study, to watch and discuss the Alpha videos, while the kids played soccer, Pictionary, or hide-and-seek—the older ones watching the younger ones.
“The kids get along so well that it hasn’t been a problem,” Mark says. “In fact, the parents tell us that at about four on those Sunday afternoons, the kids are saying, ‘Hey, when do we get to go?’ For a parent it’s so easy when the kids want to be there.”
During the hour when the parents meet, it’s much like any other Alpha course, starting with a video that’s about a half hour long, followed by a discussion time.
The videos the group watched included, “Is There More to Life Than This?“ ”Who Is Jesus?” “Why Did Jesus Die?” “How and Why Do I Pray?“ ”How Can I Have Faith?” “How Does God Guide Us?“ “How Should I Read the Bible?” and others.
Response to the videos was so positive that by the time the group had watched the tenth video—which typically concludes the Alpha course—no one was ready to stop, so Mark and Julie sought out some additional videos as the group continued meeting.
“After we watch the videos, we have a great discussion time,” Mark says. “We never make it through all the questions that come with the curriculum, so I just pick a few—usually focusing on our role as parents who want to be prepared to teach our kids.”
After watching the video on reading the Bible, the group responded to the question “Growing up, did you ever read the Bible?”
After a number in the group responded to that question, Mark asked, “If I ask your kids that question in twenty years, what with their answer be?
“That was a real aha moment for many of us,” Mark says.
The experience has forged a new level of friendship among these neighbors. “The discussions following the videos have taken conversations to a very real and meaningful level,” Mark said. “Before this, some of us were just passing acquaintances. Now we are real friends.
“It’s not surface-y,” Mark says. “It has become a safe place to share concerns. From the first or second night, it was clear that this wasn’t just going to be a neighborhood supper group. It’s been a place where you can ask hard questions, and we can cry together and pray together.”
The Farrells would enthusiastically recommend the Alpha course to others. “The videos are not overwhelming,” Mark says, “and are so easy to watch. There’s humor, and you don’t get lost in theology. It explains the Gospel so clearly without going deep into the weeds.
“All we did was open our home,” Mark adds. “But I have been blown away by the response from these families.”
There’s no question, Mark says, that this group will continue their Sunday evening gatherings. The only question now is, What will these neighbors and friends study next?