A November 28, 2010 drop-in visit at Anchorage Lutheran to observe First Sunday of Advent was disappointing. Despite a warm greeting, I discovered a former bedrock Lutheran (LCMS) struggling to present a Contemporary Christian face.
The music and message failed to grab my attention, while the children’s story did. This pattern is being repeated all over the U.S. and is partly responsible for the decline in attendance in many churches, and drop in denominational strength for many.
Great Memories Precede Second Visits
I visited this church over five years ago at Easter. A beautiful service, strong message, and firm proclamation of “He is Risen!” made a lasting impression on me. Thinking I’d find a great First Sunday of Advent service here too, I decided to take a chance.
As I approached the front entrance, I was greeted by a woman outside, holding the door open. She was assisted by several other women just inside the door. I instantly felt welcome. That was one of the last positive moments at this service.
The Rest of the Story
A typical Lutheran liturgy was presented consisting of twenty-five parts! This turned out to be presented in Praise Worship fashion. A praise group of 4-5 persons, playing piano, keyboard, guitar, and bass, was in charge of the music. Presenting ten Contemporary Christian songs throughout the service, they appeared to me to fall short of meeting worship needs. Perhaps it was due to the great number of grey haired people not used to this style of music. It may also have had something to do with their low energy and lack of eye contact.
The acolyte jumped the gun, lighting the Advent candles before the pastor made remarks about their significance. First Sunday of Advent is commemorated as “Hope” or “Expectation” in candle lighting, an unfortunate omission.
There was no mention of guests throughout the majority of this service. Advent and Easter are extreme occasions to welcome guests and it is sad not to accommodate guests.
Children’s Story Awesome
The strongest point in this service was the Children’s Talk. Using an “I Spy” theme, the children were responsive and participative to the man presenting, and were rewarded with Advent Calendars. The male presenter to the children deserves a gold medal for his ability to communicate with them.
Problems with the sound system marred the flow of the service. The screen and projection system, an afterthought in this beautiful church, further proceeded to mar the service. The pastor seemed confused with the audio/video and overhead screen which disrupted the service flow. Unfortunately too, the screen, jutting out from the right side of the sanctuary, disrupts the sightlines of this beautiful church.
In his sermon, interim Pastor David Reinke seemed to forget the symbolism of Advent, most disturbing to me. He offered a hanging statement, “There’s a power in looking forward.” My unanswered question was, “To what are we really looking forward?”
Another awkward moment was at the time of the offering when “Offering”, a Paul Baloche song, was sung. This might have been better presented as an instrumental. Similarly, at communion time, a set of three songs was sung by the audience, but possibly could have been more effective as an instrumental-only piece, allowing for a point of reflection. I recently observed communion in a Fairbanks church where only the piano and bass player delivered reflective music during the communion service. That was one of the more beautiful communions I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Doesn’t the Bible observe, “Be still and know that I am God.”?
One other poignant portion of this lengthy service was a liturgical section titled “Invitations to Service”. Several members came forward presenting community service options for the member consideration, a first in all my Anchorage churchgoing.
Change is Tough
Many churches know something is wrong in their churches and set out to seek a magic fix. Often they resort to a Contemporary Christian service format as that fix. Unfortunately, in doing so, they can distance and offend a huge sector of their church attendees. CC is not the solution in most cases. Relevant worship and meaningful messages are often what people are seeking most.
I believe all participants at this service were sincere but in the end, I couldn’t depart too quickly. First Advent Sunday has captivated me for years, but I was clearly devoid of meaning by the time I left. This church may be searching for meaning in the vacuum of interim leadership, but as a guest, I’d be unlikely to return.
Several years ago I attended a similar Lutheran contemporary worship service. I was unable to write it up as it would have appeared to be an un-Christianly hatchet job. Church services should be something to look forward to and can be a delight, and great sustainer for those of us searching for meaning. My reviews of church visits are highly personal, relating to my experience, somewhat akin to a restaurant review. They are not always going to be positive.