Monthly Archives: October 2008

St. John Orthodox – A Spiritual Treat

[img_assist|nid=133747|title=Sign at Entry to St. John Orthodox Cathedral|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=201]Summary
Invited to visit by a member, I enjoyed the company of this fine group of Christians at St. John Orthodox Cathedral for part of Matins and the complete Divine Liturgy service on September 21, 2008. Warmly greeted by another member holding a child, I was given a brief rundown of the service. She shared how “we stand a lot” during the service, then showed me a place on the back row where I might be more comfortable sitting or standing. The services were in a set order, with worshipers standing most of the two hours of the liturgy. And…I, who object to standing, stood most of the service. This was a service wonderfully accented by religious ceremony, a meaningful homily, beautiful choral music throughout, and a touching religious acceptance of several adopted children of a parishioner family that even brought the pastor Fr. Marc Dunaway to tears. A joyous celebration in the multipurpose room downstairs brought me into close contact with individuals of this wonderful group for further discussions of their faith. I can see why this church is rapidly expanding in Christian love.

Invitation and Visit
Occasionally I receive an invitation to visit a particular church. An invitation came from a blog reader/church member, Phebe, in July. copied her thoughts from that original invitation below.
“Your blog is interesting and personal. I see you have visited many Protestant churches and a Catholic Church. I wonder if you have considered visiting an Orthodox Christian church. The St. John Orthodox Christian church in Eagle River is especially interesting because it is made up of mostly converts. It is in the Antiochian Western Diocese of America. I believe you would find great differences from a Protestant church, but also that there is a reason behind these differences and all are related to ancient traditions, or biblical backup for lack of a better word. Thanks for the blog.”

Asking her to share a little more about why she chose St. John Orthodox, she wrote.
[img_assist|nid=133749|title=Phebe|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=150]“I’ll have to admit that it took a long time and it was a journey of about 10 years along with a whole lot of other people. That’s in itself is a long story, however, I did love C. S. Lewis and when I began to hear the teachings of the Orthodox church, it was the first time that what I heard made sense. Then, my decision has been reaffirmed, many times, and after going to an Orthodox funeral (several) and an Orthodox wedding (quite a few) I knew I would never change. Even tho there are cultural differences in many other localities, it’s good to know I can commune anywhere there is an Orthodox church.”

Warm Reception on a Chilly Morning
St. John Orthodox Cathedral sits on a small hill between the Glenn and Old Glenn Highway in Chugiak. The bells were tolling as I left my car to to enter the cathedral on that sunny, but chilly September morn. A parishioner choir member holding a small child greeted me, asking if it was my first time at St. John. She kindly explained the service in process (Matins), and the order of service noting “we stand a lot”. The explanation of the service was a first in my Anchorage visits. Offering me a worship book she admitted for a newcomer, it might be too much.

The church offers a visually pleasing interior highlighted by generous amounts of natural wood, rich colors and exquisite icons. A dome crowns the ceiling and features a large painting of Christ the Pantocreator looking down. The service including the Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. was primarily sung and chanted.
[img_assist|nid=133755|title=Christ the Pantocreator Painting in the Dome|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

Stand and Worship
The choir stands on the right quarter of the main sanctuary floor and sings without instrumental accompaniment. The music is Russian style with many pieces being in minor key. It was lovely and added a real touch of the sacred. As the service continued, people of all ages continued to stream in, including choir members. This is an “all ages” church with many young children as well. Unlike other churches where crying children can be easily heard, I was absolutely amazed at the lack of noise from the children. Many parents, during this long standing, held a child for over 2 hours during the service. Also unlike other churches, there are no other options for the children such as Sunday school or children’s church. What a wonderful way for children to learn about their faith and religious practices from the cradle up. Other churches might well want to investigate this phenomena.
[img_assist|nid=133753|title=St. John Orthodox Interior-Seated During Homily|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

During communion the parishioners clasped their arms in a crisscross position over their chest when going to and coming from the bread and wine at the front of the church. The homily was delivered by Deacon Joseph Ray. His thoughts were well-delivered in honor of this day being the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross. A most unusual sermon, he dwelt on repentance as being the avenue the early church took to combat the human tendency toward indifference. He further noted “Repentance has a beginning, a starting point, but it is a process which requires a lifelong effort. It is the taking up of our own personal cross. It is being willing to die to ourselves, to put others first, to put God first. In St. Paul’s words, it is to be “crucified with Christ”. When do we stop repenting? We stop repenting when we stop breathing. Sometimes repentance is a 180 degree turn. Sometimes it is a 10 degree turn, but it is always a turn, away from sin, to God.”

And the Tears Ran Like Rain
The service ended on an extremely high note with Father Marc conducting a beautiful religious acceptance ceremony for two newly adopted children of a large family. Based on wording in Psalm 2:7 “You are my Son, today I have become your father”, the new father of the children welcomed his new children with these wordings along with appropriate admonitions by Fr. Marc. I do not think there was a dry eye in the church after this touching ceremony. At the conclusion Fr. Marc noted the church was growing and needed to actively incorporate the newcomers in meaningful ways and would be sharing thoughts about how to effectively address this, in the future.

There was a joyous time of sharing in the multi-purpose room on the lower level after services. I discovered some of the members were not strangers, having seen them previously in the local Anchorage community. This orthodox community follows midnight to noon fasting and were enjoying some needed refreshment, coffee, pastries, etc. after the service. Phebe introduced me to many people during this time. My heart was truly warm as I pulled out on the Old Glenn headed back to Anchorage close to 3 p.m. that day. Only then did I realize I’d been there for around 4 hours. Thank you Phebe for the invitation, and thank you St. John community for your love and Christian hospitality.
[img_assist|nid=133756|title=St. John Orthodox Cathedral – Chugiak|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]
Stay Tuned for Installment #2
In installment 2 of this visit, I’ll share some highlights of an impromptu tour I was given of their campus, including the St. James house, location of an innovating and inspiring youth program, and site of a Thomas Merton sojourn.

Guest Blog – Chris Walker’s “10 Tips for Greeters”

Sorry this blog entry is delayed but I’ve been ill the past couple of weeks and am just getting back up to speed. Recently I became aware of Chris Walker, blogger and religious trainer. He found my Church Visit blog on the web, publicized it on his, and contacted me to introduce himself. Two weeks ago, he was a speaker at an evangelism workshop at Victory Bible Camp in Palmer. On his way back home, we met at the Anchorage airport to get acquainted. One of the things I discovered about Chris is that he is also a Mystery Church Visitor, offering visits and after visit reports on potential improvements to the ways churches deal with visitors. The “10 Tips for Greeters” below is from his website and offers useful advice for churches, members, and visitors. See 10 Tips for Church Greeters at

The extract below is from this website. By clicking above, you will be taken to the full entry on Chris’ website.

Here are 10 tips for greeters. Remember, it’s more than a handshake.

1. Smile.
2. Fresh breath.
3. Make eye contact
4, Take initiative and greet.
5. Don’t ask “Are you new?”
6. Don’t ask “Is this your first time?”
7. Offer a bulletin if your church uses them.
8. Personal warmth — look like you enjoy welcoming people.
9. Say “I don’t think I’ve met you yet, I’m {insert your name here}”
10. If they are new, offer to show them where the restrooms are and offer information about childcare if necessary.

If you are a visitor at a church and you do not find the suggestions above are in use, this church may not be prepared to deal with you, the visitor. Always give a church a second chance, but if they cannot deal with you, one wonders if they can effectively deal with other visitors or possibly their own members. Many organizations put their best and most tactful people in front of the public to create a good and lasting impression. Why should churches be any different?

Christian Courage, It’s Still Alive!

Recently, I was teaching in a senior high school classroom. At the end of the day, after the students had turned in their papers, stacked their chairs, and exited the classroom, I noticed one young girl still working at her desk. I told her it was time to go. Thinking she hadn’t heard me I prepared to mention it again as I wanted to leave. Finally, I saw her getting up and coming toward me. Giving me her paper, she also gave me a little tract, mumbling something like “this is for you.” It was one of those little tracts from a local church entitled, Heaven/Hell – The Choice is Yours. I put it in my backpack, forgetting about it until the other day.

While I don’t particularly agree with the blunt confrontational tone of the tract, I applaud the girl for her courage in sharing it with me. And thank God I live in a country where we can share our beliefs without fear. I don’t know if she was breaking some school rule for doing what she did and don’t care. It took guts for her to hand it to someone she’d never met before that day. Right now there are Christians in India who are being murdered for their faith. Daily, the news sources bring stories of persecution, murder, torture, and church burnings from Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Laos and many other countries. Click here for more.

Next time someone gives you one of these tracts, or rings your doorbell some night to give you one, be kind. And send thanks to God for living in a land where freedom of religion is a right.

More Changes Coming to ChangePoint

[img_assist|nid=123770|title=ChangePoint Entry Sign|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=167]
In my posting earlier this year regarding my January 20 visit, I promised to revisit this Anchorage mega-church later in the year. To this end, I revisited ChangePoint on September 7, 2008 for the 11:30 a.m. service.

Traffic Nightmare
The traffic revisions on Raspberry have created a nightmare to get into this church. East & Westbound Raspberry traffic compete with outbound church and inbound Minnesota Northbound offramp traffic to Raspberry. There were short tempers aplenty this morning. These types of frustrations detract from the religious experience. Members and visitors alike should not have to experience them. I’m surprised ChangePoint and the MOA hadn’t worked this out prior to Raspberry Road’s eastbound extension opening.

Parking, once the Rasperry Road mess was negotiated, thanks to their talented and dedicated team of parking attendants, was swift and painless. They are to be commended for this level of attention to detail. This time, there were greeters at each set of doors who gave warm greetings. And there were bulletin passers at the doors to the sanctuary.

Amazing! No Drummer, No Church!
Uncharacteristically, the service did not start on time. The musicians seemed to be there and the musical leader was pacing around. Finally, the drummer came running down the aisle, got on the platform, and started an awesome beat. Obviously, at ChangePoint, if the band is not ready to play, it’s not time to worship. Clearly the music at ChangePoint is a big draw and entertainment. Maybe that’s why the band lead, the keyboardist, is on an elevated plane above other officiants on their gigantic platform. To me, the beat and full-fledged musical expression felt more dancefloor than church. Only the words on the screens had lyrics that sometimes indicated otherwise.

Dan Jarrell, the new lead pastor since Clauson’s departure, was accompanied by seven elders on the platform. His focus this day was to address the challenges posed by ChangePoint’s discovery they’d been offtrack for some time, rapid growth, mass defections of staff, plus persistent and looming financial concerns. Jarrell grouped the challenges ChangePoint faced in four key areas:
You can listen to his in-depth discussion/message by clicking here.

A Sampling of Solutions/Problems
A few keypoints Jarrell noted (bold) and my comments:

Return to the Word – The Gospel of Jesus Christ (solution)
Comment: This is the most obvious source of Christian belief. Great honesty, but sad to hear. Sadly many churches substitute feel-good programs, new member expansion, structure building, and social justice emphasis instead teaching and preaching the gospel. The Word of God must always come first and in great abundance.

Staff implosion due to dysfunction and outside consultants (problem)
Comment: Paul said it best in 1 Cor. 3:19 – “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” This has happened so often in many other churches and mega-churches like ChangePoint. Mega-churches are big business and a thriving market for consultants.

Placing a ChangePoint sticker in member’s home windows (solution)
Comment: This attempt to establish and proclaim ChangePoint’s presence in member’s neighborhoods, further supported by building better relationships with neighbors may well create attitudes against them. In the past, as a community church volunteer, I’ve had many doors slammed in my face when approaching community neighbors displaying community and church stickers in the window. Stickers are meaningless.

Summing it Up
Jarrell summed it up by noting with frank honesty, “If we as a church can’t be obedient or faithful enough, we don’t deserve to stay here.” ChangePoint has tremendous challenges ahead of them in repositioning their ministry with the stated significant financial and internal organizational issues they face. As Jarrell articulated, solving them depends heavily on reorganizing elders, deacons, and, plus member training, retraining, and indoctrination with a heavy programmatic emphasis using the book/course, Gospel Transformation. ChangePoint is not alone. Other mega-churches are currently dealing with some of the same issues Jarrell addressed this day.

ChangePoint’s solutions appear to be very program driven. Only time will tell how this retooling works for them. They do offer a quality experience, but is it a quality experience people seek, or a greater connection with the gospel? I commend them for identifying and addressing crucial issues. In my previous review I concluded “…I entered, exited, was entertained, and left feeling empty”. This time I still felt pretty much the same, except I give them credit for addressing identified issues.

In the future, I will share how suburban Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church, a nationally known mega-church and promoter of the same kind of church direction followed by ChangePoint, has come to grips with the recognition they’ve grown too fast, aided by awesome musical entertainment and zippy topics. But, they’ve ignored the needs of their core, committed Christian congregation. It is firmly believed by many that programs are not the solution. Believers really thirst to be taught the Bible, the meat of the Word, and more serious-minded scripture by preachers, who can, in a clear, expository style, share the blessing and gifts of the Word.