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.
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.
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.
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