Monthly Archives: January 2010

Trinity Advent Event: Neighborly Jazz Sharing

Churches are often seen as stodgy, sterile and unfriendly places, frequented by parishioners afraid to even ask their neighbors in to share a cup of coffee. During the recent Advent season, I visited a church not fitting that mold. Trinity Presbyterian, a church I’ve commented upon several times previously, featured an unusual concert on December 13 departing from standard Advent musical fare. One out of ten neighbor-friendly concerts Trinity held in 2009, they offered an evening of light jazz enhanced by a club-like setting in their lobby. An amazing variety of desserts and complimentary coffee drinks from Trinity’s espresso bar were available for concert goers. The only catch for Trinity members was you needed to invite a non-churched friend to attend. The large crowd was evidence Trinity loves inviting their neighbors to share their joy. [img_assist|nid=147418|title=Trinity Jazz Concert for Neighbors|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=189]

The music was provided by the Alaska Jazz Workshop and Trinity’s band. There were a few subtle Christian touches in the concert. Pastor Letts read a portion of Jesus’ birth story from Luke to set an Advent emphasis late in the concert. Several awesome Christmas renditions were featured with my favorite being Island Noel. But the standard fare featured selections like Round Midnight, Spain, and Save the Last Dance for Me. Both bands were played with talent and enthusiasm. Standout performances by John Damberg, J.R. Aquino, Anthony Reed, Keith Carnes and so many others made for an enjoyable evening. This was not really a Christmas concert so much as neighbors inviting neighbors for coffee, dessert, music and friendly contact. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening with this warm and dedicated group of people. Even in a somewhat secular forum, Trinity still exudes the warmth and hospitality I find uncommon among so many Anchorage churches.

Intrigued by this relaxing and neighbor-friendly concert, I asked Trinity’s Senior Pastor Tom Letts some questions about this amazing concert.

Chris: Tom, I was surprised and pleased at the same time at the predominately secular concert in a sacred venue. What’s up?

Letts: Musicians, Christian or not, speak the same language. We are all passionate about music. And the musicians at Trinity just live naturally as Christians in these ‘secular’ venues. At some point it becomes utterly normal to play a ‘church gig’ together (Christmas and Easter mostly). Our worship services are built for celebrating all that God has done through the week. We sound and speak and act like ‘normal’ people but there is a certain freedom and joy here that can’t be found anywhere but in the worshiping Body of Christ. We celebrate the Creator of all music and all musicians. Musicians of all faiths ‘get’ this.[img_assist|nid=147434|title=Alaska Jazz Workshop & Trinity Band Combined|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=151]

Chris: How did you get hooked up with these musicians?

Letts: It seems to me that maybe the most natural connection between the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ worlds is in the arts. It just makes sense to build relationships with artists of all kinds. About five years ago we began by building relationships with musicians in the area. We connected with J.R. Aquino when he was a junior at Diamond. We began working with John Damberg and the Alaska Jazz Workshop. We went to some ‘battle of the bands’ contests and got to know some of those guys. I substitute teach for the ASD in music and have met some great music teachers who happen to be great musicians as well. We’ve gotten connected with UAA’s music school and the Anchorage Symphony, the Dave Velasquez Band. We also go to the Taproot’s open mic night and meet musicians there.[img_assist|nid=147433|title=John Damberg and Alaska Jazz Workshop|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=142]

Chris: How did this joint venture get started?

Letts: It did not take long to realize that the south side of Anchorage had few music venues outside of the schools. This was particularly evident at Christmas. So we offered our building, as well as our resources for hosting and publicity, and put on Christmas concerts that served as fundraisers for the groups. The concert you went to was a fundraiser for the Alaska Jazz Workshop. It was the ninth community concert we’ve done. These musical community events are just so natural for us now. We know the musicians and we want to enrich our community…it’s great!

Chris: What’s the connection between this concert and Trinity’s mission?

Letts: It’s simple, all we are trying to do is offer ourselves to our neighbors as Christ first offered himself for us. No strings. No preaching. Just caring for others as He first cared for us. We tend to do this in areas that are natural for us. What is more natural for a church than music? Our musicians love their musician friends. These people really matter to them. Our musicians have developed a natural inclination to creatively serve their friends.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts Pastor Tom, and additional thanks to all the participants for the great Advent evening.[img_assist|nid=147435|title=Brass of Both Groups|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=213]

Ten Things I’d Like to See More Anchorage Churches Confront in 2010

Last year I posted my Ten New Year’s Wishes for Area Churches. Although they were widely read, I was disappointed only a Mormon-centric blog felt compelled to respond with a self-congratulating post stating all my concerns would likely be met in one of their churches. After visiting many area churches since that 2009 post, I submit an updated New Year list of 10 with specific comments and suggestions.

#1 – Improve Hospitality Shown Visitors
On the whole, church visitors in Anchorage are not being warmly welcomed and treated hospitably. In general they are ignored or given only cursory attention. I’ve even experienced this un-Christian behavior on successive visits to the same churches. Even worse, many churches single visitors out to identify themselves during the services as a seeming afterthought. But often visitors are totally ignored, even without a single mention in their services.
SUGGESTION-Hospitable churches have multiple people covering all normal entrances to greet visitors and make them feel welcome. Several of these few hospitable churches will stand by and open the outside doors of their churches, greeting visitors with a handshake and a smile. An example of this kind Christian behavior may be seen at Trinity Presbyterian and Cornerstone Church weekly. Recruit and train responsible members of your church in hospitality procedures. Don’t single out visitors to identify themselves. Rather, members and the pastoral staff should find them and greet them hospitably and personally.

#2 – Really Care for Your Church Website
Often local church websites are deplorable, not reflecting the same care and upkeep they accord the tenets of their religion. Many times they are maintained by volunteers having a limited understanding of graphic design, and true website functionality. Worship times are often not shown. out of sight, or buried behind some non-standard nomenclature such as SCHEDULES. Outdated information is everywhere on church websites. Misspellings are rife. Ask this question of your website. Would a potential visitor spend 10-20 minutes hunting there for our church’s normal worship times?
SUGGESTION-Have your website professionally designed and maintained. If you offer sermon recordings, post them within days, not weeks or months. What’s seen on the initial screen may be the only thing potential visitors will ever see. Sure we have beautiful vistas here in Alaska. But are they worth half of that initial screen to show them, i.e. Are you in tourism or seeking and helping people who need God?

#3 – Make Your Church Sign Work for You
The purpose of signage is to identify your church and your meeting times. Many church signs are designed more for walkers, not drivers. Some show service times in such small letters that passersby may never know when you meet.
SUGGESTION-Don’t waste space on cutesy messages or upcoming sermon titles on your sign. Save those for your websites. Just give the basics assuming folks drive by at 40-60 mph. Please don’t use VISITORS WELCOME on your sign if you really are not prepared to deal with them.

#4 – More Extemporaneous Preaching
Too many pastors read their sermons, putting congregations to sleep or confusing them with written logic instead of clear conversational thoughts and ideas. There is little eye contact, with pastors sometimes losing their way, not gauging the receptivity of their remarks.
SUGGESTION-The tried and true method is to:
(1) Say what you’re going to say
(2) Say it
(3) Say what you’ve said
No one has a problem with pastors referring to a quote or scripture when they speak. But, to read sermons word for word is not fair for parishioner or visitor alike. Just talk to them. To me, the most belittling sermon of all is the 3-pointer where the pastor leads you to “fill in the blanks”. I’m not, however, against key thoughts being flashed on a screen, but don’t read them. I, and most of your audience, can read. Otherwise just send us the material and we’ll stay home.

#5 – Send Follow-up Notes/Letters to Visitors
Rarely do I receive any follow-up responses from churches I visit. Sometimes I only leave an email address, my PO Box or just a phone number. But nothing comes. Churches sometimes spend hundreds of dollars just to attract a visitor and then do nothing about it.
SUGGESTION-Please emphasize on your visitor registration that no one will visit or call without your request. But do use that information to thank them for attending, inviting them back at the same time.

#6 – Less Musical Entertainment – More Musical Worship
A number of churches start with a musical session where the audience is asked to stand, and then hammered with 30-45 minutes of excessively loud contemporary Christian music. In many cases the audience is merely treated to showboating singers, guitarists, drummers, brass players, or keyboardists under the guise of Christian praise. Sometimes the music never refers to the hallmarks of Christianity, i.e. salvation, God, Christ, etc. Instead lyrics of love, peace, joy and understanding take their place. I recognize that many local churches use music appropriately throughout the service to augment and embellish their worship and liturgy. For this I give thanks.
SUGGESTION-Don’t make audiences stand for long periods of time, marooning them after asking them to stand. Take a hard look at your music. Does it glorify God or man?

#7 – Preannounce Guest Speakers
Frequently I visit churches only to find a guest speaker is preaching. These individuals are rarely mentioned on church websites. Some may be good, but if I’m visiting a church I want to hear the regular pastor. Guest speakers are a fact of life but I want some predictability, as do other church visitors. During the past year guest speakers have subjected me to wandering sermons, poor presentations, and sermons about topics I was surprised to hear. Chances of a visitor returning are significantly lessened when they are surprised by a guest speaker.
SUGGESTION-At least preannounce these individuals on your website and the newspaper, along with their topics.

#8 – Offering & Communion Should Be Made Visitor Friendly
In many churches offerings are taken and communion served without a single word of explanation being directed to visitors. Please do visitors the courtesy of telling them they are under no obligation to give. Regarding offerings, I only observed this approach once this past year. Participation by the visitor in Communion/Eucharist should be explained before it is served. If, for example, you have open Communion for all who have accepted Jesus, say it.
SUGGESTION-Don’t forget visitors when you ask for offerings and serve Communion/Eucharist.

#9 – Pastors, Don’t Hide Behind Non-Specific Email Addresses
Nothing is more irritating than to receive an email purporting to be from a pastor of a church I’ve visited, only to discover when responding to ask or answer a question, someone else responds. This is so inappropriate, especially when I’ve asked a question intended only for the eyes of the pastor. Additionally, many pastor’s email addresses on their websites really have an underlying address such as This routes your email to a lower level functionary who will quite arrogantly decide whether or not to even share it with the pastor.
SUGGESTION-No pastor should hide from the public. The right thing is to receive requests or suggestions directly. Don’t use intermediaries to screen them from you. If more church boards were aware their pastors were playing this game, I daresay less of this would be happening.

#10 – Visit Other Churches Regularly
Churches should send teams out regularly to visit other churches to observe what works and what doesn’t work. Observations about welcoming and hospitality, order of service, music, noise, reverence, explanation of offerings and Communion/Echarist plus sermons delivered should be documented and brought back for meaningful discussion.

First Methodist: Outstanding 4th Advent Service

Fourth Advent Sunday, December 20, I visited First United Methodist Church in downtown Anchorage on the Parkstrip. I was intrigued because they advertised a service of A Celebration of Lessons & Carols for Christmas. Despite my weak welcome, the service morphed into a treat of word and song unlike anything else I’ve experienced in Anchorage. It was an amazing display of talent for a smaller congregation. Churches many times their size are unable to muster the numbers of people needed to make this type of presentation. I was disappointed more of Anchorage was not there to enjoy this wonderful service.

Weak Welcome
Regular readers know I mention this often, but a weak welcome lessens the chance a visitor will ever return. My entrance this morning was noted with a handshake and greeting by a younger man in some type of robe. I proceeded unimpeded and otherwise unnoticed into the sanctuary after taking time to help myself to a cup of coffee. In performing this ritual in most churches, I provide an opportunity for churches to extend themselves.

Abbreviated Liturgy
Methodists have a strong liturgical tradition, often lengthy services, but for this service it was kept extremely short. The service started on a high note with a brass quartert, (trumpets, trombone, and tuba) playing. After preliminary announcements by the Rev. Debra Lindsay-Hudgins, slendidly attired in a native kuspuk, lovingly crafted by a congregation member, FUMC’s talented and versatile organist, Janet Carr-Campbell, played a traditional carol prelude. The call to worship was followed by “O Come All Ye Faithful” with organ, brass, choir and congregation joining voices. It was wonderful. After the invocation by Rev. Lindsay-Hudgins, the main program commenced.

Service Format
The service was structured around seven lessons, each lesson based on a particular scripture and it’s reading. I’ll briefly describe each lesson below.

First Lesson – Isaiah 9:2, 40:5, 7:14
After this reading the Advent candles were lit by one of the church families. Soloist Lauren Green then beautifully sang Handel’s “Rejoice Greatly” from the Messiah.

Second Lesson – Luke 1:26-33, 46-49
This reading was followed by choir and all singing “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”..

Third Lesson – Luke 2:1-7
We all joined in singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” after the reading.

Fourth Lesson – Luke 2:8-14
A beautiful rendition by the chancel choir women of well-known composer Craig Courtney’s song “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” echoed a message of the real impact of Christ’s birth.

Fifth Lesson – Luke 2:15-16
Once again Lauren Green sang, this time the beautiful solo from the Messiah, “He Shall Feed His Flock”.

Sixth Lesson – Matthew 2:1-11
“God Rest Ye Merry” was the focus of the music, given in wonderful bell tones by the Handbell Choir.

Seventh Lesson – “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem” by Maya Angelou
This extraordinary poem is truly amazing for it’s power in it’s brevity concluding with:

“And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.”

In a rousing climax the chancel choir sang “Jazz Gloria” by Sleeth. A very contemporary reminder in the jazz idiom of what Christmas is really all about.

Wow! I enjoyed the time at First Methodist and was truly ready for Christmas. The instrumentalists, vocalists, readers, choir, Rev. Debra’s music directing husband, Douglas Lindsay, and of course Rev. Debra herself, all certainly deserve thanks for their Christian love and hard work in bringing this wonderful celebration to the Anchorage community. I certainly enjoyed every aspect of this service.