Monthly Archives: May 2008

ABT – Is Bigger Better?

[img_assist|nid=124296|title=ABT’s bright attention-getting sign on Northern Lights announces many types of events and services.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=178]No mistake about it… it was mega-church time when I visited the Anchorage Baptist Temple on April 27, 2008. Everything is BIG and reminded me of a movie set. Huge church auditorium, bright lights, TV camera’s, large screen monitors, set-like displays, lots of color and many people.

My welcome
Three people greeted me before I reached my seat, but it felt like I was being greeted as though it were a job without much passion. I was just one of thousands and had no connection. Part of this may be due to the huge crush of people attending the one 11 a.m. Sunday morning worship service.

Good music
The nine-piece band started playing five minutes before the start of the worship service. The music was polished and sounded great. The 65 voice choir is good, singing well and performing several songs. A youth singing group of 15-20 voices also shared their talents. Several soloists sang on the main stage before Dr. Jerry Prevo took the pulpit. As he started, Prevo welcomed a bus ministry group of 38 individuals on stage, which he introduced to the audience.

[img_assist|nid=124297|title=ABT’s large facility hard to miss on E. Northern Lights.|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=238]Interesting sermon theme
The sermon, Speak Sweeter, was in keeping with a lengthy series stretching over April and May. The series was tied to the theme of Tim McGraw’s bestselling country song “Live Like You Were Dying”. Prevo’s remarks were very Baptist in that the death and dying theme was reinforced repeatedly. Example, “How many of you, if you died this week, would go to heaven because you have accepted Christ as your Lord and personal Savior? Where would you go if you haven’t?”

Dwelling on one’s demise-best approach?
I’m no stranger to Baptist churches but I’m turned off when I hear warning or fear-inciting phrases like this. I’m much more attracted to a church that attracts me through the love of God instead of pushing me to join through fear. Sometimes certain Baptist ministers leave the impression your assurances of salvation are never as complete at what they are offering at that moment, for which I strongly disagree.

The service ended with the traditional Baptist altar call to come up front to be prayed for, to pray, and/or to make your decision for Christ. The band started up again as folks came forward. As with most Baptist services, there was a baptism.

Is this a church for you?
If you seek a church to ultimately establish a sense of community, this might be the one. But it’s big, and to me impersonal, at least at my first visit. Except for the obligatory minute of “meet n’ greet” I had little contact with any members. Prevo is available throughout the week on ABT’s station with taped replays of his messages and their services. It may be a better first introduction than attending in person.

Huddling with the Congregationals

[img_assist|nid=123950|title=First Congregational Church Sign|desc=First Congregational’s sign on Northern Lights Boulevard prominently identifies this landmark church.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=79]
I had been curious about the Congregationalists that worship at First Congregational Church. In passing their soaring sanctuary at 2610 E. Northern Lights, I often wondered what manner of service was offered in this beautiful location. Sunday, May 4, I selected this church for my weekly church visit.

FCC’s sole service commences at 10:30 a.m., a bit earlier than other churches with a single service. I find it important to do a little homework prior to doing a new church visit as worship times do vary.

This is easier today with the internet access most technologically progressive churches use. Sometimes I have to do some extensive searching of a churches website just to find the times of services.

In a future column, I plan to suggest 10 things churches can do to ensure their information is clearly user friendly and available. For example, there should be a clickable link on every churches homepage titled WORSHIP TIMES. You can’t believe how often this is buried in some obscure place.

Being greeted

Upon entering the church I was greeted by the official greeters, a husband and wife team who offered the typical official but sterile greeting.

During the official “meet n’ greet” segment, I shook about 7 hands with similar effect. So far in all of my church visits in Anchorage, only one person inquired as to my name and whether I was a visitor.

Having a long career in sales, I have a hard time understanding meeting someone with whom I might be doing business, without inquiring as to their name. Churches can do much in learning how people buy products. Mainly product choices are based on the believability or crediblity of the sales person, and it all starts with being friendly and exchanging names

[img_assist|nid=124007|title=First Congregational Exterior View – Rear|desc=

Look and sound of the church

First Congregational’s beautiful architecture is even more inspiring in the interior. There is abundant parking available.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=199]FCC has a set order of service typical of many mainstream protestant churches. A fairly musical church, they use the organ and a small but surpisingly good choir to augment their service, both of which I considered to be pleasing to the ear. The service lasts about one hour.

FCC is a beautiful church on the interior and features wood beam accents and a soaring ceiling. This huge church sanctuary was only filled 1/3 to 1/2 of capacity.

Listening to the message

The Senior Minister and presider was Rev. Mark E. Long whose topic, Huddled in Faith, dwelt on worship styles and church community over the ages. He emphasized the growth from the center of worship being the ark of the covenant, a movable symbol, to an emphasis on bricks and mortar. Unfortunately what got sacrificed was the emphasis on inner faith.

Rev. Long said we need to answer the question of what is church really, emphasizing that we are the church, but we must give up what we have to others in order to survive.

That is the riddle of faith communities. This certainly trued up with Long’s remarks about Congregationalists emphasis on funding two major initiatives.

Special initiatives

One project is the endowment of a Center for Congregational Leadership at Olivet College to focus on equipping individuals and churches for ministry in both traditional and emerging forms. The other initiative is to increase the knowledge, influence and growth of the Congregational Way via the creation of a Fund for Congregational Growth and Renewal. This will provide member churches with financial resources for new and renewed ministries.

Long was erudite and had good thoughts to share. I found it difficult to follow him due to his reliance on a printed text. So few ministers ascend the pulpit today without a script. God must be amused because there is so much to share. Maybe these initiatives will bear fruit and I’ll want to worship again at this church. Until then, I have a sense this congregation is still searching, but at least they are searching.

Changes Coming to ChangePoint?

[img_assist|nid=123770|title=ChangePoint Entry Sign|desc=ChangePoint’s presence is announced by this sign on Raspberry Road as one turns in to the church property.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=167]
[img_assist|nid=123771|title=ChangePoint Facility|desc=A tasteful transition to a church from the previous occupant, ASI.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=230]I had been hearing a bit about ChangePoint prior to my visit on January 20, 2008 and wanted to experience one of their services. ChangePoint is easy to find being located in the old ASI facility on Raspberry Road just east of Minnesota at 6689 ChangePoint Drive. The 11:30 a.m. service was chosen and I arrived a bit early. No one greeted me or acknowledged my presence.

Lots of music
ChangePoint is very music heavy. According to my calculations there was 40 minutes of music performed, for the most part, by a 9 musician band, quite good, quite loud, and quite long. In many contemporary worship services today, it has been my observation and that of other church scholars, that music is used to generate a desired response in the worshipers. To illustrate, on cue, as the sermon was concluding, the keyboardist came out and started playing to heighten the mood as the pastor concluded his remarks. To this reviewer, there were no recognizable songs, but thankfully, the words were projected on screens. In the future, I’ll devote several blog posts to the controversy about trends in church music today.

Senior Pastor had invitation he couldn’t refuse
The pastor this day was Dan Jarrell who started by noting that Karl Clauson, the lead pastor, would not be delivering the message, the final in a 4-part series he had been giving, as he’d been offered skybox tickets to attend the Green Bay Packer playoff game. The audience laughed, applauded, and shrieked their approval. I was taken aback!

How much different would Christianity be today had Paul, on the road to Damascus, decided to attend the Syria vs. Israel donkey pull? The message was well delivered. Taken from James, the message (Don’t Blink: Live Strong) was about dealing with trials and tribulations, advice to the early Christian church. It was easy to follow, due to the use of fill-in blanks in the bulletin, and the large screens. There was an obvious Martin Luther King tie-in to the message.

Something hiding?
Like many of today’s mega churches, it is easy to slip in and slip out of services like this. I’ve heard this church has an active small group focus, which may explain some of the coldness at large group services. Maybe the real warmth is seen in the small groups. I’ve heard about this church over the past couple of years and its work in the community.

Unfortunately, as with many of today’s churches, I entered, exited, was entertained, and left feeling empty.

(I understand there have been some changes in the pastoral staff since this visit. ChangePoint will be targeted for another visit later this year.)

There’s a Winning Method at this Methodist Church

While not a stranger to Methodist churches, I’m not particularly drawn to them. It’s possible I’ve reacted to their seeming preoccupation with social gospel agendas, over the good news of Jesus Christ. These thoughts were perceptibly changed during my April 20 visit to St. John United Methodist – 1801 O’Malley Road – Anchorage.

Warmly welcomed multiple times
As you may already know, I’m put off by churches that do not warmly welcome visitors into their midst. For the first time in a long time, I’m pleased to note the quality of the welcome I received at St. John. I was greeted and welcomed three times before I reached my seat. An older parishioner and his wife sat down next to me. They introduced themselves after which, he asked if he could introduce me at the appropriate time. St. John’s time of sharing and introductions is not unlike the “happy bucks” time at my local Rotary club. This resulted in giving me a beautiful and natural feeling of community.

Pleasing sanctuary
This congregation has created a beautiful sanctuary and meaningful church interior. Unlike some churches, they’ve invested on the inside rather than the outside. I found the sanctuary spacious and comfortable, accented by a beautiful 17 foot story-totem carved by a former pastor Davis Fison.

Touching scene
The senior pastor, David Beckett, was preparing to leave for their General Conference session in Texas. During the children’s story, he was asked to come forward and sit. And was then presented with a prayer shawl for the trip. The other ministers, and the children, were invited forward to pray for him and put their hands on him, during the prayer. I found this to be a profound display of love for their pastor.

This is a musical church that loves to sing recognizable hymns, old and new. Their musicians play the piano and organ well, plus there is a choir most weekends. However, the choir did not sing this day.

Relevant message
The pastor’s message was the second part of a two part series, “Why I Am a United Methodist.” A captivating speaker, Pastor Beckett is adept at speaking from the heart and connecting with the heart of the listener. Citing author Billy Coburn, who in a recent article noted Starbucks philosophy of addressing boredom, loneliness, and alienation by creating areas to recapture a sense of community for our lost informal public lives. Beckett noted we experience community in two places: home and work. Further quoting Coburn he added “Wouldn’t it be awesome if our churches were automatic “third space” places of community?” Beckett noted they are United Methodists “..because religion is of the heart, because the Bible is our Book, because religion is practical, because Christians are here to worship, witness, and grow. And because religion is not a private affair.” I found Beckett’s illustrations meaningful and to the point.

Positive impression
From a casual contact with this church at a Sunday morning service, I left with a compelling picture of their community, a church that will open its arms to all who come. Recently a Church Visit blog comment by gays looking for a church was noted. I am confident St. John would accept these individuals as children of God, even though this is not the official position of United Methodists. Pastor Beckett closed with the words of John Wesley, the key founder of Methodism, “Above all things, let your love abound. Let it extend to every child of man: Let it overflow to every child of God. By this let all know whose disciples you are because you love one another.”
[img_assist|nid=123519|title=Story Totem – St. John’s|desc=Created by Pastor David Fison, this story totem depicts the Easter story in red cedar using the Tsimshian Indian-style, and gracefully accents the sanctuary at St. John’s United Methodist Church.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=467][img_assist|nid=123520|title=St. John United Methodist Church|desc=Located at 1801 O’Malley Road, Anchorage, AK 99507 907-344-3025. Pastor is David Beckett.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

Pressing the Presbys

[img_assist|nid=123014|title=First Presbyterian Church|desc=This church has an inspiring, worshipful décor accented by a wonderful stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=254]

[img_assist|nid=123016|title=Exterior|desc=First Presbyterian Church is located at 616 W. 10th Ave.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=443]

On April 6, I visited First Presbyterian Church (616 W. 10th, 272-6411) to see any evident changes since previous visits several years ago. Upon entering, I received a warm but official greeting from an elderly greeter. I made my way to my seat without further contact with any other members, except to be handed a bulletin.

Beautiful and musical too
Located on the Delaney Park Strip, this church has an inspiring, worshipful décor accented by a wonderful stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary. Behind the alter a simple cross, accented by a palm tree, is effectively displayed.

This church follows a fairly formalized and set order of service. The music was familiar and easy to sing. Unlike so many other churches today, they have a choir, and a credible one at that — well led and in tune.

Exodus in Perspective
The scripture, the keynote of the sermon, was the entire chapter of Exodus 16, dealing with the flight of the Israelites from Egypt and God’s care for their needs during the wilderness sojourn. In conclusion, the Rev. Peter Loughman cautioned that God allows bad things to happen to good people, but that ultimately the trouble ends. At times I had difficulty following his many stories and their application to the topic.

Ultimately, communion brought a wonderful focus to the story of the manna (food supplied by God) referred to in the sermon scripture. Presbyterians offer open communion, which means you need not be a member to partake.

Not particularly outgoing
Unfortunately, as in previous visits, except for the obligatory “meet and greet” time early in the service, I had little meaningful contact with other parishioners or the clergy. Notwithstanding, this could be a comfortable church to settle into, somewhat formal — not a blue-jeans church. As a result of other visits to Presbyterian churches, I’ve discovered they can be extremely warm and friendly to strangers. Maybe this is the personality of this particular church, but hidden to visitors.

Why this blog?

I’ve been looking for a church. Not just any church but one relevant to my own particular walk.

Brought up in a strict, conservative, evangelical church, and educated primarily in church schools and colleges, I felt the need to discover, on my own, the necessary foundations for my belief. In this quest I have visited and worshipped with many streams of religious persuasion.

Occasionally, I’ve discovered some great belief communities, only to realize later that there was something amiss at the core.

During my journey, of necessity I have been exposed to many churches and congregations. As entrance conduits to various religions, I have sometimes become disenchanted with how many of them failed in attracting hungry hordes, desperate for the meaning religion can bring to one’s life. Often this failure starts at the church front door and is detectable, by an outsider, with a simple visit.

An amateur biblical scholar and student of religions, I probably come to churches knowing “too much.” My wife and I have searched, seemingly in vain, for a religious community we both can share, one that brings relevance and structure to our lives.

We are not alone. I feel a brief review of a typical church visit, and its impressions upon an observer, can be a real service to people looking for a faith community.

This blog is launched to create a meaningful dialog and useful conversation for those seeking meaning in religious worship.

The key criterion for these reviews is:
· Is the church friendly and warm? Did I truly feel welcomed?
· Was the main teaching relevant to my personal walk and was it delivered effectively?
· Did the music merely entertain or did it deepen the worship experience?

The Associate Editor of Christianity Today observed last week, “Would anyone in our community notice if our church stopped meeting?” This is a great question, one that I hope we address in this blog.

Here’s to a great conversation!