Monthly Archives: January 2012

Five Myths About Youth/Young Adult Church Dropouts

Last week I posted research results from the Barna Group about six key reasons youth and young adults are deserting church.

Predictably, some readers expressed opinions on this blog as to why they thought this was happening.

However, this issue is very complex. The Barna Group, in addition to explaining the Six Reasons youth/young adults are fleeing from church, has also detailed five myths about these dropouts. I believe these six reasons and five myths will perplex churches for generations to come. If you have any interest in the future viability of the Christian church, you will want to fully understand this earthshaking dynamic.

The study results are incorporated in a new book by Barna president, David Kinnaman titled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith.[img_assist|nid=159434|title=You Lost Me by David Kinnaman|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=367]Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.

Reality: There has been considerable attention paid to the so-called loss of faith that happens between high school and early adulthood. Some have estimated this dropout in alarming terms, estimating that a large majority of young Christians will lose their faith. The reality is more nuanced. In general, there are three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals, nomads, and exiles.

One out of nine young people who grow up with a Christian background lose their faith in Christianity—a group described by the research team as prodigals In essence, prodigals say they have lost their faith after being a Christian at some time in their past.

More commonly, young Christians wander away from the institutional church—a pattern the researchers labeled nomads. Roughly four out of ten young Christians fall into this category. They still call themselves Christians but they are far less active in church than they were during high school. Nomads have become ‘lost’ to church participation.

Another two out of ten young Christians were categorized as exiles, those who feel lost between the “church culture” and the society they feel called to influence. The sentiments of exiles include feeling that “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me” and “I feel stuck between the comfortable faith of my parents and the life I believe God wants from me.”

Overall, about three out of ten young people who grow up with a Christian background stay faithful to church and to faith throughout their transitions from the teen years through their twenties.

David Kinnaman, who directed the research, concluded: “The reality of the dropout problem is not about a huge exodus of young people from the Christian faith. In fact, it is about the various ways that young people become disconnected in their spiritual journey. Church leaders and parents cannot effectively help the next generation in their spiritual development without understanding these three primary patterns. The conclusion from the research is that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.”

Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults’ maturation.

Reality: First, this line of reasoning ignores that tens of millions of young Christians never lose their faith or drop out of church. Thus, leaving church or losing faith should not be a foregone conclusion.

Second, leaving church has not always been normative. Evidence exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s.

In addition to continuing the dropout pattern of previous generations, today’s teens and young adults (identified by Barna Group as Mosaics) are spiritually the most eclectic generation the nation has seen. They are also much less likely than prior generations to begin their religious explorations with Christianity. Moreover, their pervasive technology use is deepening the generation gap, allowing Mosaics (often called Millennials or Gen Y) to embrace new ways of learning about and connecting to the world.

Kinnaman commented on this myth: “The significant spiritual and technological changes over the last 50 years make the dropout problem more urgent. Young people are dropping out earlier, staying away longer, and if they come back are less likely to see the church as a long-term part of their life. Today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.” [Note: See Myth 5 for more about how the dropout problem has changed.]

Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.

Reality: College certainly plays a role in young Christians’ spiritual journeys, but it is not necessarily the ‘faith killer’ many assume. College experiences, particularly in public universities, can be neutral or even adversarial to faith. However, it is too simplistic to blame college for today’s young church dropouts. As evidence, many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment; in fact, many are emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.

“The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group.” Kinnaman pointed to research findings showing that “only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests. And most lack adult mentors or meaningful friendships with older Christians who can guide them through the inevitable questions that arise during the course of their studies. In other words, the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.”

Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.”

Reality: The study examined beliefs across the firm’s 28-year history, looking for generational gaps in spiritual beliefs and knowledge. When comparing the faith of young practicing faith Christians (ages 18 to 29) to those of older practicing Christians (ages 30-plus), surprisingly few differences emerged between what the two groups believe. This means that within the Christian community, the theological differences between generations are not as pronounced as might be expected. Young Christians lack biblical knowledge on some matters, but not significantly more so than older Christians.

Instead, the research showed substantial differences among those outside of Christianity. That is, older non-Christians were more familiar than younger non-Christians with Bible stories and Christian theology, even if they did not personally embrace those beliefs.

The Barna president described this as “unexpected, because one often hears how theologically illiterate young Christians are these days. Instead, when it comes to questions of biblical literacy, the broader culture seems to be losing its collective understanding of Christian teachings. In other words, Christianity is no longer ‘autopilot’ for the nation’s youngest citizens.

“Many younger Christians are cognizant that their peers are increasingly unfriendly or indifferent toward Christian beliefs and commitment. As a consequence, young Christians recognize that the nature of sharing one’s faith is changing. For example, many young Christians believe they have to be more culturally engaged in order to communicate Christianity to their peers. For younger Christians, matters of orthodoxy are deeply interconnected with questions of how and why the Gospel advances among a post-Christian generation.”

Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do.

Reality: Some faith leaders minimize the church dropout problem by assuming that young adults will come back to the church when they get older, especially when they have children. However, previous research conducted by the Barna Group raises doubts about this conclusion.

Furthermore, the social changes since 1960 make this generation much less likely to follow the conventional path to having children: Mosaics (often called Millennials or Gen Y) are getting married roughly six years later than did the Boomers; they are having their first child much later in life; and they are eight times more likely than were the youth of the 1960s to come from homes where their own biological parents were never married.

The author of the new Barna book, You Lost Me, Kinnaman asked several questions in response to conventional wisdom: “If this generation is having children later in life, are church leaders simply content to wait longer? And if Mosaics return, will they do so with extra burdens—emotional, financial, spiritual, and relational—from their years apart from Christian community? More to the point, what if Mosaics turn out to be a generation in which most do not return?

“Churches, organizations and families owe this generation more. They should be treated as the intelligent, capable individuals they are—a generation with a God-given destiny. Renewed commitment is required to rethink and realign disciple-making in this new context. Mosaic believers need better, deeper relationships with other adult Christians. They require a more holistic understanding of their vocation and calling in life—how their faith influences what they do with their lives, from Monday through Saturday. And they also need help discerning Jesus’ leading in their life, including greater commitment to knowing and living the truth of Scripture.”

More complete information on this topic may be found on the Barna Group website: Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts

Don’t Get Out Much
My church visits usually revolve around Anchorage proper, but when I get out to our local communities to the North (Eagle River, Chugiak, Birchwood, etc.), I usually have a unique experience. This was the case a week ago, when on January 15 I visited Eagle River Grace, sited not far past Chugiak High, on an invitation.

Greetings and Hospitality Say Much
I’d like to say I was warmly greeted when I entered ER Grace that -15 degree morning, but I can’t. No greeter or bulletin passer was present to welcome me or hand me a bulletin so I didn’t get a greeting or a bulletin. Without a bulletin I sailed blind into the service. It’s not the responsibility of church guests to ferret out bulletins prior to a service, so I didn’t.

Despite not being greeted at the entrance, a woman did say “Good Morning!” as I trundled in front of her down a row of seats to my aisle seat. After the service, as I was leaving, the couple seated next to me introduced themselves and inquired if this was my first visit to Eagle River Grace. Countless opportunities to be guest-friendly were lost that morning. Even though it was noted there were many “visitors” there that day, leaders and members ignored guests throughout the entire service. The pastor or worship leader could have, at a minimum, asked if there were any attendees missing bulletins and solved one problem then and there.

Bulletin passers, as a rule, are not the best greeters. Trained and knowledgeable greeters should be at every church door in our community. An opened door, a flashed smile, friendly handshake, hearty welcome, no probing or uncomfortable questions, and a welcome gift for guests are just a few niceties that come from a good greeter. Remember, guests decide if they’ll return to your church during that crucial 5-8 minutes from reaching your church’s front door, long before the music or sermon has started.

Pre-service Noise
I’ve visited few churches in the Anchorage bowl that have demonstrated such an overwhelming noise level prior to the service. I felt it bordered on disrespect. A party of three men in my row were debating the merits of a particular football game which I found extremely distracting. I cannot believe this church has a clue about the holiness of God from this behavior. Within minutes they would be inviting God to be among them and bless them with His presence. Many Anchorage church members repeat this scenario week after week. I recall in recent years where we used to invite God’s presence with “…trembling and fear”. Now we debate a recent football game before we invite God to join us. Unbelievable!

Church Couldn’t Start as a Musician Was Missing
When church start time came, a musical group of three assembled onstage. However, all was not well. The lead musician said “…let’s wait to start church until all the musicians are here.” Several years ago, I saw this happen at ChangePoint with a delayed start of their service because their drummer was missing in action. The same thing happened here. A young lad finally came bounding up the aisle and started playing the drums so the service could start. Personally, I feel no church service should be delayed because a musician is missing. I was flabbergasted to see a replay of this scene. This bordered on the disrespectful.

Because I lacked a bulletin, I initially mistook the music leader for the pastor. Eventually, I figured out I was wrong on this score. He noted there were many visitors there but I observed not one visitor-friendly gesture. The ensuing music service was good, about 25 minutes worth, by a smiling music group who seemed somewhat unfamiliar with their music as their faces were buried in their music stands during much of the musical portion. The music leader had us stand when the music started and there we remained for around 25 minutes. It must be a local ritual. I saw absolutely no reason to force the audience stand for such an extended period of time, other than forgetfulness. E.R. Grace, there has to be another way.

Still Christmas at E.R. Grace?
There were several strong reminders of Christmas past, even though it was past Epiphany. A Christmas tree in all its glory was onstage, as well as various Christmas banners. It may be this church was still celebrating Christmas and I was unaware of their traditions, but it struck me as odd to still be displaying these symbols.

50th Wedding Anniversary Retaking of Vows
In my Anchorage church visits I’ve not seen worship time devoted to a wedding, but E.R. Grace did for a couple’s retaking of their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary. I thought it was sweet, but confusing to a guest. This ceremony might well have been conducted immediately before or after the church service. Then again, a guest-friendly remark or two about the significance of this might have gone far.

Awesome Prayer Ritual
This church has a tradition of offering specific member needs in prayer, but most unusually, the pastor does not offer these prayers. Rather, individual members offer to pray for each specific request. This, a first for my Anchorage church visits, had a deep impact on me. I’ve not seen this practice in any other Anchorage Bowl church. What a wonderful demonstration of the power of prayer! I was deeply moved by this visible and aural reminder of appealing to God’s power. The Bible reminds us “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Despite my various concerns about this church, I instantly recognized something otherworldly was happening here.

I was also touched that many youth were in attendance in stark contrast with my recent article’s notation on youth deserting churches in Anchorage.

The Offering
Despite so many visitors being present, no one was excepted from giving. One of the most visitor-friendly things churches can do is to acknowledge your guests are not expected to give during the offering. Few churches do this, but it is so easy to do with such high impact. Otherwise, many guests will walk away with the impression that it’s “all about the money”. Suggest they give to their home congregation. An insert in the bulletin, or reminder from the pulpit is sufficient to make this point.

Excellent Pastoral Sermon
As I didn’t receive a bulletin, I never knew who the pastor was or who was speaking. The pastor, or whom I assumed so, preached an excellent 35-minute Bible-driven sermon based on John 3:1-16. However, I almost walked out as he commenced speaking because he was on a Tim Tebow kick. I think church people, especially pastors, make a mockery of God by praising Christian-leaning athletes. God-loving athletes are on both teams, and are often shown on TV as pleading for God to bless their particular team, or thanking God for a particular score. Personally, I don’t think God works that way. It wastes valuable teaching time to press a point that dishonors the holiness of God. Tebow’s story is a good one, but not applicable in the pulpit.

The End
By this time the service had been running for almost two hours. The service closed with the wonderful chorus “Of How He Loves You and Me”. I found E.R. Grace to be a real conundrum. There were aspects of the service I truly liked: prayers and the sermon. I disliked the noise, being forced to stand during a long singing, holding the service up for a missing musician, and generally ignoring visitors/guests in every respect. This church, based on my visit, did not seem visitor-friendly nor demonstrate true Christian hospitality. Concerted efforts might plug these leaks, but I suspect many potential members slip through E.R. Grace’s fingers due to neglect of church fundamentals. I probably would not quickly return to this church for another visit as there are many other solid and welcoming church alternatives in town..

As I left, no one bade me goodbye or noted my passing. It was a chilly drive back to my Turnagain home. ct

Coming Feb. 11 – Steve Johnson’s “A Play for a Purpose: The Gospel According to John Mark”

Just got word of an important spiritual play coming to Anchorage’s Wendy Williamson Auditorium on February 11. You’ll want to plan ahead to enjoy this rewarding evening.

What is this play about?

Steve Johnson’s “A Play for a Purpose: The Gospel According to John Mark” is a one man, dramatic presentation of life during the first century. “The Gospel According to John Mark” will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you feel like you, too, are an eyewitness to the most extraordinary story ever told.

John Mark was there. When Jesus fed 5000 and walked on the water. When Peter was freed from prison by an angel and when Paul was led away to execution. He knows who wrote Hebrews and what Jesus wrote on the ground. He’s the last living eyewitness to the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. He’s going to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about…


Who is presenting this event?
Hope worldwide: Alaska Chapter as a fundraiser for Steve Johnson’s wife’s medical treatment. She is being treated for cancer in Portland. This fundraiser will also benefit Hope worldwide.

HOPE worldwide is an international non-profit organization whose vision is simple: “to bring hope and change the lives of the world’s most poor, sick and suffering.” HOPE worldwide, Ltd. is a 501(c)(3) charity that has been providing services around the world since 1991. In addition to supporting these goals, the Alaska Chapter of HOPE worldwide localizes the vision to include mobilizing communities to deliver sustainable, high-impact services to the poor and needy of Alaska. HOPE worldwide has been working in Alaska since 2008.

Tickets are available at

I’m planning to be at this performance to learn, to support Steve’s wife’s cancer treatment, as well as to help Hope worldwide: Alaska Chapter. Too few truly spiritual events worthy of note are brought to Alaska. This is one of them. Don’t miss it!

A downloadable brochure/poster is attached.

Why Are Anchorage Youth/Young Adults Deserting Church? Six Reasons

As I travel from church to church in Anchorage, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer youth attending church. In many churches, I see virtually no youth at all. I’ve been perplexed by this, wondering what the driving reasons are. Some churches have instituted programs to attract and capture the missing youth, or retain those still attending. I shake my head when I see this because so often churches create “programs” as solutions for issues deeper than they seem to understand.

A recently released report by the Barna Group, a Christian research organization, based on a five-year study they conducted called the Faith That Lasts Project, uncovered six solid reasons why 18-29 year-olds have disconnected from church. I find these observations troubling, worthy of note, and a real challenge to churches everywhere. The six reasons are recapped below with brief explanatory comments from the Barna Group. Barna’s explanations are so powerful I included them rather than my feeble attempts at capsulizing them. The study results are incorporated in a new book by Barna president, David Kinnaman titled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith .[img_assist|nid=159434|title=You Lost Me by David Kinnaman|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=217|height=390]

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysomething Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).

The Barna report goes on to observe that “The research points to two opposite, but equally dangerous responses by faith leaders and parents: either catering to or minimizing the concerns of the next generation. The study suggests some leaders ignore the concerns and issues of teens and twentysomethings because they feel that the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have their own children. Yet, this response misses the dramatic technological, social and spiritual changes that have occurred over the last 25 years and ignores the significant present-day challenges these young adults are facing.”

Source: Barna Group: Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

This is meaty stuff, and cause for deep concern on the part of all Anchorage churches. Like key current issues in our educational system, they can be addressed and solved, but not without understanding. In a future post I’ll address some myths about these church dropouts, and share some ideas of solutions.

Anchorage Moravian Church: Joyous & Sincere

Tonight I attended a wonderful church service in East Anchorage which left me tingly and warm. Anchorage Moravian Church is located in a warren of streets not far from the Muldoon curve. Arriving just before the 6:30 p.m. service, I found a parking lot mostly devoid of cars.

Apprehensively, I entered the church and found the crowd pretty thin. But, as the evening progressed it filled up and was quite full by the end of the service. Considering our weekend weather, it was a brave act for folks to come out. [img_assist|nid=159283|title=Moravian Choir – Anchorage Moravian Church|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=102]

The service started with a song led by Sr. Pastor William Nicholson without musicians as they were finishing their dinner downstairs. It seemed like everyone joined in singing. Nicholson then started the meeting with prayer. This was one of the most sincere and touching prayers I’ve heard in years, and deeply moved me. After the prayer, he invited the Moravian Choir up to sing. Mostly women and a few men, they sang most beautifully in Yupik and English. Singing several times during the evening, it was always a pleasure to listen to their music. The musicians, several guitarists and a bassist finally joined in. In many churches the singers are unsmiling. Not here! They showed they were happy in their music.

After the choir sang, a period of special music and individual testimonies began. Members, singly or in groups would come up to sing, primarily, or give a testimony and possibly also sing. This was heart talk about changed lives, love of God, faith in Jesus Christ, living the daily life, and an outpouring of thanks. What was happening here was a return to the church of apostolic times when people came together to share and learn more. This is so uncommon in the Anchorage church community. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed this participative type of worship. It was truly wonderful.

Anchorage Moravian is mainly an Alaska Native church. I was one of only a couple non-natives in the audience. However, I cannot fathom any Christian not being comfortable here. I was greeted by several at my seat, and a woman came running after me in the parking lot to ask my name. She also invited me to return. There was such a warm spirit of hospitality in this church I can’t begin to recount it. So many churches in our community are reserved, members are isolated from each other, and folks are there to observe church as it unfolds, almost like entertainment. Not this church. Very few in attendance did not get up and make a contribution.

There was an extended prayer time by the pastor for special needs, and he shared some very touching cases before praying. He said he was leaving for the hospital after the service to baptize an infant from a village who was in hospital in grave circumstances. Prayer for a member who had just lost a husband. And for a senior member unable to come to service. And on it went. I was deeply touched again by the sincerity of his petition to God on behalf of these requests and more.

He then called for the offering, and in an unusual verbal gesture, he told those from other churches to save their money to give at their home churches. This is so generous to guests. Most pastors refuse to except guests when asking for an offering. I can recall, on one hand, the number of pastors in four years of my church visits where this has happened. The pastor also recognized at this time there were pastors there from various native congregations. In some respects, this was a community gathering, but they do this every Sunday evening!

The evening continued with more music and testimonies and concluded with very brief remarks from Pastor Nicholson tied to the evening scripture of Mark 1:4-11, which he’d also used in the morning service. He was refreshing to listen to, talking straight from the heart without reading a prepared text.

The Moravian Choir was invited to come back up for the closing song “Brighten the Corner Where You Are”. Once again, it was a joyous outpouring by the choir, and the remaining audience. One of the members, a hospital chaplain, was invited to offer the benediction. I was quite moved by his prayer which concluded with the Mizpah. The choir then led us in the closing prayer song.

“Bless us and keep us Lord, we pray as to our homes we go.
Help us to serve thee everyday, and more like thee to grow. Amen”

It was a intensely spiritual evening for me, one that I will long remember. I highly recommend this church as a stop for refreshing on your spiritual journey. It will give you a new appreciation of our wonderful, and very talented native Christian brethren in our community.

10 Things I’d Like Anchorage Churches to Tackle in 2012

Each year, based on my church visits and observations for the year just ended, I look forward to sharing things I believe churches can do, or do better to be more welcoming to members and guests, increasing attendance, and membership at the same time. Many of these things seem to appear on my lists year after year, because churches do little or nothing about them. Did you know guests decide in 5-8 minutes if they’ll ever return. How does your church fare?

Warmly Greet Each Guest and Member
Rarely do I receive a truly warm and welcoming greeting. Many churches rely on bulletin passers to be greeters, which for the most part they are not. The 20 questions many churches seem to ask guests are off-putting and extremely distancing. You know the questions. What is your name? How did you find us? Greeters should use their own names, and welcome guests with greetings such as “We’re pleased you chose to worship with us today!”. Be sure to have a welcome gift in hand or close by to make guests feel truly welcome. And Pastors, for goodness sakes, stop embarrassing guests by pointing them out during the service.

Advertise Your Presence
Many Anchorage churches do a poor job of letting the general public know who they are and where they’re located. Newspaper and direct mail advertising should be more utilized. Most advertising is directed toward Easter and Christmas. The Daily News offers no-charge postings for special events available Saturday’s Matters of Faith page. Yet, few churches take advantage of this generous offer, often to be outnumbered by non-Christian listings. I receive very few direct mail pieces in my neighborhood, yet I’m within 5-10 minutes drive of many well-known Anchorage churches. Only once have I been aware of a member direct visit to my home. Finally, many church websites are poorly designed, out-of-date, and ineffective. If your church is not tapping the power of the internet, you’ll ultimately lose the game.

Improve Signage
An easy way for churches to identify themselves is to have signage, readable from the road at the posted speed limit, up-to-date, legal within the parameters of Anchorage’s sign ordinance, and making a positive statement about your church. To achieve these goals, I strongly suggest your church use a sign professional who understands the proper use and construction of a sign. Service times should be optional, but your church’s web address should not. Many churches, with outmoded signage, identify themselves as “yesterday”. A relevant church for today understands the importance of good signage.

Make Those Websites World Class
Many Anchorage area church websites are woefully deficient in virtually every aspect of a truly functional website. If these churches competed as businesses (some would argue they are), they would be losing business hand over fist to more agile competitors. Part of this is due to a questionable reliance on untrained and unskilled church members to construct and maintain them. Don’t be tempted to go this route. You don’t have an untrained or unskilled pastor do you? Church websites are so important these days, they must be professionally built and maintained. Whatever you do, keep your website up-to-date, always, without fail. Remember, first things first – name, address, and service times should be on the first page where they can be seen, without scrolling. I know we live in a beautiful area, but mountains, lakes, streams and forests are totally unnecessary. Leave those scenes to the convention and tourist bureau. Rather, depict happy members engaged in the work of your church, and in positive social contexts.

Don’t Embarrass or Annoy Your Guests
Despite solid research, and pastoral warnings, many area churches have embedded within their churchly DNA, a strong compulsion to ask every guest to stand up and identify themselves by name to satisfy congregational curiosity. A few guests will tolerate this but the majority do not desire this, and will seek another place of worship to avoid being embarrassed in the future. Never ask your guests their names, especially in public. That’s rude and un-Christianly. Give them space. Don’t be overly familiar or suffocate (mob) them. Give them space to evaluate your Christian hospitality.

Make Your Bulletin a Roadmap for Guests
Many Anchorage churches are proud of their bulletins which tell the guest little about the church or the ensuing service. They consider this to be “new school” thinking and staunchly defend this practice. The end result is the guest goes away from the church knowing little about it, is totally unfamiliar with the order of service, those participating by name, the rituals being employed, and news of what’s going on in the church. And while we’re at it, please do not waste member and guest time by reading the bulletin to them. That is purely insulting! I’ve observed many Anchorage churches devoting 10-15 minutes to this rude practice.

Assume Nothing
I frequently observe churches that share absolutely nothing about their services and practices during the service, leaving the guest in a quandary as to what’s happening during the services. These churches ASSUME guests will understand their practices intuitively or by osmosis. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Communion, for example, can be observed in multitudes of ways, but to not explain your practices by word or in writing, can be unsettling. For example, is it truly “open communion”, “semi-open”, or “closed”? Is the bread/wafer taken, held and consumed in unison with the rest of the members, or is it consumed immediately? Same for the wine. Communion leaders can explain this simply in few words, and conversationally. Other practices such as baptism, methods or styles of praying, and use of music all require less assumption and more explanation in a guest-inclusive way.

Pastors Should Greet and Say Goodbye
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among pastors in the last five to ten years. Before the service, many of them are nowhere to be found, when they could be greeting guests and members, leading by example. After the service some are practicing what I call “Duck n’ Dash”, making themselves unavailable to the worshippers. They become invisible. Some pastoral literature suggests this is good as it makes you seem more important, i.e. not being seen as frequently. It’s part of a pastor’s job to be available. A competent pastor will also use this time to connect members and guests with others in the congregation who can help them with special needs. The pastor should keep his business card handy to give to guests ensuring they can contact them.

More Study, Less Music
Current research and survey results show the majority of guests visit your church to find out what you believe, to study scripture, and to learn about your church’s doctrines. Pastors should assume guests know little to nothing of your beliefs, something that’s quite possibly true for members too! In a recent Pew Forum Survey of Religious Knowledge, only 40% of individuals answering the question about the true meaning of the bread and wine in Catholic Communion got it right! The modern church response is to give members and guests 30-45 minutes of contemporary Christian music, and a prepared 3-pointer or a fill-in-the-blanks sermon. This kind of service mix is canned entertainment and assures many churches will be filled with ungrounded members. Music of questionable influence is given great importance in many church services. Theologian David F. Wells has studied contemporary Christian hymnals, comparing them to regular hymnals, and discovered approximately two-thirds of contemporary Christian songs are theologically inaccurate, while few traditional hymns are so tainted.

Money, Money, Money
It’s the truly rare church I visit in Anchorage that doesn’t confront guests with the offering plate. Uppermost in guests minds is “…it’s all about the money”. The easiest way to deal with this is to kindly urge guests, before the offering, to not feel compelled to give, recognizing they are your guest. This should also be inserted in your bulletin. Be sure to note offerings are taken on a free-will basis and that many members have their own giving plans and practices. I’ve had pastors argue this point with me vehemently, but the end impression in guests minds is that it all boils down to money. This past year, I’ve been confronted by church pledge drives, building drives, and mission drives, all during the main part of the service. Valuable learning and lesson time is wasted during these off-putting financial pressure points. Committed believers give! They don’t have to be pressured.

2011 was a learning time for me. I did discover solid, positive churches and wrote about those meaningful church visits. Many unsolicited emails were sent me describing ill treatment at the hands of unthinking and uncaring churches, asking for suggestions about churches where such behavior would not be likely. Mostly I’ve heard the same theme over and over; “Help me find a church where the golden rule is practiced.” I look forward to another year of church visits, and of sharing them with you.

May 2012 be a year of meaningful seeking and spiritual growth for you.