Monthly Archives: August 2013

Alaska Lay School of Theology Seminars Announced

An annual treat for religious scholars, laity, and others to study a religious topic of significance is coming! Sponsored by the Alaska United Methodist Conference, professors from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology come to Alaska to teach several 11-hour classes. This year promises exciting study choices.

The Most Important Christian Since Paul is the study seminar to be taught by W.J. Bryan III, SMU’s Director of the Intern Program. This class will focus on the story of Constantine, emperor converted to Christianity in the 4th Century. It invites us to examine the Church and power today.

The Character of Abraham and the Question of What is Most Important in Religion will be taught by Roy L. Heller, SMU’s Associate Professor of Old Testament, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor. He’ll lead his seminar group to look at the stories about Abraham and ask the question: What quality is most important for those who practice religion?

Classes will be held at St. John UMC on O’Malley on September 20 and 21. Don’t miss this opportunity to study with acknowledged scholars and gain from their experience. The cost is a fraction of what you might pay by attending these classes in Dallas. I’ve attended several of these seminars and can attest to their quality and worth.

Church Visits Blog – Reader Questions Answered

Why do you write this blog?
I write this blog because many guests (visitors) to churches are not treated in a warm Christian manner as they visit churches new to them. I’ve observed this behavior, first-hand, over and over again in the past 20 years as I’ve visited new churches myself. It’s hard for churches to game corrections to this behavior. Each church appears to have its own DNA governing such behavior.

Over the years, I’ve received many personal emails documenting such un-Christian behavior, leading many email writers to stop church going completely. This blog is not written to criticize churches so much as to point out behaviors which may be turning seekers away, possibly forever. Many churches tell me they take these observations seriously and work internally to address them. A few have invited me to share my experiences and observations of such off-putting behavior, as well as my suggestions for improvement. Finally, many guests tell me they find new churches to visit or join by reading this blog.

Are you an Anchorage Daily News employee?
No! ADN, as a community service, supports a number of community bloggers who contribute specific content on a regular basis. Like ADN’s COMPASS feature on the editorial page, community members are allowed an opportunity to share their views on a number of topics via these community blogs. You may not agree with the content of a particular commenter, but it is an important service ADN provides to keep the community informed regarding a various issues. The Church Visits blog includes the ability to respond with your comments, pro or con, to stimulate a vigorous debate about issues blogged.

How do you pick which churches you visit?
I pick churches to visit in various ways. First, I pick churches of significant membership size. Approximately 10 to 20 Anchorage churches/parishes/congregations represent the majority of church attendance in our community. I also respect recommendations to visit a particular church. Unusual celebrations or sermons, as announced in ADN’s Matters of Faith announcements in the Saturday paper, also catch my eye. I revisit previously-visited churches on a regular basis. Pastors change, as do members and programs. I love to compare churches over time.

You missed so many things my church does locally in your visit report. Why?
Of course I cannot gain the full scope of what your church does over the course of a year in just one visit, but neither can a guest (visitor). Remember, I’m writing this blog from the standpoint of a visitor. Guests will, however, vote with their feet if they are not warmly greeted, fail to sense true Christian hospitality, be treated to music performed primarily as entertainment, or hear poorly delivered non-biblical sermons. I’ve heard many sermons where pastors did not refer to biblical themes or texts for the first 15 minutes to half hour. Surveys reveal the number one reason people visit churches is to hear what churches believe, their doctrine. The average visitor decides in the first 5-8 minutes whether they will make a 2nd visit to your church. Often they’ll walk out before church starts.

What do you do if you make a mistake in a visit report?
I correct mistakes as they are brought to my attention or noticed by me. Every posted article in Church Visits, since its inception over five years ago, is available in ADN’s archive. It is important these articles remain factual and correct. Remember, my articles represent my point of view. Occasionally I discover my impressions or church behaviors change over time. I’m very happy to point out these differences or changes in print.

I invite individuals to contact me by email to discuss any particular visit, my qualifications, or approaches. All communication is kept private.

Anchorage Grace – Not Much Change

3rd Visit – Long Way to Go
I’ve now visited Anchorage Grace three times over the past three years. You can access my previous two visit reports by clicking on the appropriate visit. FIRST VISIT or SECOND VISIT. (These two hyperlinks not currently available.) 

During previous visits, I was not greeted, given a bulletin, or talked to during my entire visit. The service was long and music loud. On my most recent visit, August 11, I was very pleased to see greeters at the main door. They were also holding them open, a very strong gesture. A male greeter gave me a smile and shook my hand. The bulletins, instead of being held, were located on a table by the entrance into the gym/sanctuary. However, no one else spoke to me during my entire visit, going or coming.

Noisy Congregation Before Service
There was a definite lack of reverence before the start of the 10:45 a.m. worship service, a constant in all of my visits to Anchorage Grace. Several musicians, woodwinds, piano, and drums, were playing before the service but noisily chatting worshipers were clearly trying to drown out this pleasing, spiritual music. It was difficult hearing the musicians. At 10:45 a.m. most people were still standing in the back even though the official worship start time had arrived. A person, I guessed to be the pastor, tried calling worshipers to their seats and finally succeeded. No names were given for any of the onstage participants, either vocally or in their bulletin, a clear disservice. (See my recent post on what worshipers want in a bulletin versus what churches are giving them.)  (This hyperlink not currently available.) I don’t recall hearing welcomes of any kind by pulpit personnel. The pastor started with prayer. Then,what I took to be the worship leader (today’s euphemism for song leader) launched into “All Creatures of Our God and King”, and “How Great is Our God”.

Offering Disappointed
The pastor called for the offering with an impassioned plea to GIVE. No one was excepted, including guests. It’s little wonder many guests and members complain that in churches it seems to be “all about the money.” Churches should audibly and in print (bulletin) tell guests they are not required to give. It is inhospitable not to do so! Crotts further told the congregation there was a huge delta in July giving which needed to be made up in August. He then offered what I call a “tell God” prayer, telling God for all kinds of things God must know already, taking time to tell God about their upcoming August baby dedication, and so forth. If God is who the church says He is, this type of prayer is unnecessary.

Music – Interesting Dynamic
The worship leader (no name given) stepped up to the pulpit to lead the congregation in several songs. Two other unidentified male singers were standing 10-15 feet away. It seemed as though those men were not connected with the worship leader. It might have been more appropriate for them to have flanked him at the pulpit, standing a few paces back or on either side. For some unknown reason, the audience was told to stand half-way through the first song after the offertory. The music leader said “We don’t do what we do here for entertainment.” Glancing around me, I noticed few people singing or with any volume. This being true, the music WAS more entertainment rather than participative, especially with the music leader distancing himself from the onstage personnel. Three songs were sung at this time including “Jesus Messiah” and “I will Glory in My Redeemer”.

Sermons Subject Was Not for Guests
I discovered the pastor speaking today was Jeff Crotts after looking him up Anchorage Grace’s website from my seat in the audience. You never know at Anchorage Grace because they often have other speakers too. I’ve heard three speakers during my three visits. He started speaking at 11:22 and concluded at 12:12. The main thrust of his remarks was a journey into Timothy dealing with the qualifications of a deacon. Listen to this sermon by clicking HERE and selecting August 11. Most guests would find this a pretty dry topic that would be difficult to hold one’s attention. If Crotts and Anchorage Grace is building a better climate of understanding for church office qualifications, I could see this sermon in the overall context of educating for spirituality. I think Crotts is an excellent speaker, good communicator, and quite energetic. However, I approach these visits from the standpoint of what visitors can expect from a visit to a specific church. This sermon did not seem to be one an average guest would walk away from saying, “What a sermon! I’d like to know about this church from hearing this sermon.”

I believe this visit was the best of my visits to Anchorage Grace to-date, but remain absolutely astounded this congregation remains so un-friendly to guests. They appear to be extremely friendly to each other but not to strangers. The gospel is the “go-tell movement”. Building friendly relationships is important to the Christian’s work given by Christ to build a receptive context for hearing the message. At the conclusion of the service, there was a stampede to the food tables located in the back. I found my exit impeded as I swam through this feeding frenzy. My only suggestion would be to locate the food elsewhere out of the main entry/exit corridors.

Anchorage Grace runs a good Christian school on the Hillside, but this review is not about the school. It’s about being an inviting church that welcomes guests with open arms, offering a guest-friendly service in every aspect, and providing meaningful bible-based sermons. For the most part, this third visit offered a slim departure from previous visits. Maybe instead of deep diving into instruction-centered council like the book of Timothy offers on qualifications of deacons, this pastor might consider offering a series of sermons on the biblical imperatives of Christian hospitality and practical ways to achieve them. Genesis 18 offers a graphic story of the visit of the three strangers to Abraham, the attendant story of Abraham’s extreme hospitality to them, and the end results of his hospitality. This might serve as a good starting place for this church.

Church Members Want This in Bulletins

Bulletin Nonsense in Many Churches
Many churches have thrown the traditional bulletin out the window, replacing them with “Worship Guides” or bulletins without the information members and guests really want. This creates a confusing state of affairs appearing to substitute meaningless change instead ofmeaningful change.

What Do People Want
Nationally noted church consultant Thom Rainer recently performef an informal survey of church members asking a simple question, “What do you want in a church bulletin?”. His findings were astounding, going against the grain of the direction of what many churches are now doing.

Rainer’s top 5 findings, in order of response, are listed below.

Respondents have little patience with bulletins filled with incorrect facts or grammatical errors. They are looking for a quality handout, worthy of their church’s name, and in touch with our times.
Sermon notes/outlines
Members are looking for space to write notes regarding the sermon. Many take these notes home for study. They’re also looking for helps, outlines, and reference. This surprised me because I think they’re a distraction.
Order of service
Without this, members and guests have no idea of what’s coming, who’s participating, and a time-frame of the service. Regardless how many pastors think they’re being very modern by dispensing with this information, they’re upsetting large numbers of people by doing away with it. As a professional church visitor, I find it very confusing, as would any guest, to understand what is going on without a reference as to what is planned.
Attendance/stewardship statistics
This was a real surprise to me but members appear to like this data. It’s a sign of health in the church. A pastor should not spend time berating giving patterns. Inclusion of giving data solves that issue.
Members indicated they don’t mind some announcements in the bulletin, but would rather see them on a screen or video before or after the service, or on the church’s website. Too many churches have pages of announcements to the point one has to literally wade through them.

I urge churches and pastors to reexamine this issue. Many in our local area appear to have leaped before they looked. There is abundant information and studies available to help such as the aforementioned Rainer study. To link to this study click HERE.

Esteem for Clergy Low – Pew Research

Lastest Pew Forum Findings Not Encouraging for Clergy
Recently released Pew Research from the Religion and Public Life Project has disclosed discouraging results for clergy. Survey respondents were asked to rate whether or not ten professions contributed “a lot” to society’s well-being. The professions were Military, Teachers, Medical Doctors, Scientists, Engineers, Clergy, Artists, Journalists, Business Execs, and Lawyers.

The military came out on top with over three-fourths (78%) of U.S. adults saying armed services members contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being. For clergy, only 37% felt clergy makes a big contribution to society. Regular churchgoers are more positive about clergy, but even among weekly church service attenders only 52 % rate clergy as contributing “a lot” to society. 29% rate clergy as making “some” contribution, and 11% say clergy contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all”. Click HERE to view this report on the Pew site.

Gallup Poll Mirrors Pew
A Gallup poll released in November 2012 mirrored Pew results. In it they asked the question of respondents for various career groups,“Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields — very high, high, average, low, or very low?” Clergy was rated as being honest and ethical by only 52% of respondents.

What Do These Results Mean?
In my 5+ years of blogging about churches in Anchorage, and from my first-hand observations of churches and clergy, I believe low clergy contribution ratings may be influenced, in part, by:
• Sermons lacking in biblical educational value, even though studies indicate most church visitors show up at church to find out what a church believes, their doctrine. Often intensive book studies become the focus of sermons instead of clear, understandable, biblical instruction.
• Services jammed with musical entertainment, often longer than the sermon, entry level Christian sermons, lots of fluffy fillers, and little positive Christian education.
• Pastors trying to promote or recapture a new form of worship going back centuries, often filled with mysticism and attempts to recast scripture in new forms.
• Clergy supporting expensive short-term missions while failing to organize and lead members in addressing urgent local needs for our neighbors in need.
• Clergy dabbling in politics, social issues like gay rights, and digging far into social justice issues in an unbalanced manner.
• Huge financial requirements for expensive churches, large staffs to support them, but little-used over the course of a week.
• The pastoral position has become merely a job instead of a passion or calling.

In closing, national commenters point to many churches defecting from their roles in providing quality Christian education in a consistent manner. In reality, part of the blame extends to the family level for this. The church and pastor cannot work miracles where parents have abdicated their role in the home. This of course mirrors what we commonly hear in education. Many parents blame teachers and poor curricula, expecting teachers and schools to do the work they avoid.

Meanwhile seekers in America, overall, are migrating to a “spiritual but not religious” mindset. Often this means assembling a belief system from little pieces of a number of belief systems. A few pastors out there in U.S. Christendom are expertly addressing these issues but most aren’t. These results are especially hurtful for Alaska which ends up at the bottom of Pew Research in membership and attendance per capita vs. the rest of the U.S. I’m eager to hear what my readers think these numbers mean.

Homer United Methodist Church – Pleasant Visit

Solstice Surprise Visit
In late June, I visited Homer United Methodist Church  at the conclusion of a pleasant solstice weekend celebration with friends.  There was a decided lack of parking, and I ended up parking on the grass.  The visitor parking was full, having only a couple of parking spaces.  I was a bit confused about where to enter as there was no Main Entrance sign.  There were three entry points on the front of the church.

It was a beautiful June day but no one was greeting at the main outside door which remained closed.  I waited for a preoccupied greeter inside who cheerfully greeted me with “Are you a first time visitor?” These words cause first time guests to cringe as it’s a phrase that singles out and separates.  All a greeter needs to say is “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.”  I was asked to sign the guest book but I declined.

Long Time, One Person
Inside the church the seating was very tight.  Seats were located in the small balcony but the seating made it hard to see.  A member led out a very long period of announcements culminating with the introduction of a North Carolina mission’s team.  Unfortunately, no other welcome was extended to any other guests, of which there were many. After the announcements, the service followed the traditional form of Methodist liturgy.  The church was beautiful inside, but a bit crowded for the 100 or so worshipers.  This was a special Sunday for this church as it was Reverend Lisa Marie Talbott’s first Sunday with them as their new pastor. She was officially greeted by the church and a prayer was offered for her.

Music Most Pleasing
From the initial Introit music from their bell choir, to the four congregational hymns, to the choral special choral anthem, “Love Lifted Me” by Maynard and friends, I could tell this church is blessed with great musical talent and love for music.

Good Sermon
Pastor Lisa’s sermon was titled “That Small, Still Voice”, based on a poignant reminiscence of the emerging illness and ultimately death of a step-daughter.  She’s a good speaker and it appears her sermons will be enjoyed by this congregation.

Unusual Serving of Communion
When it came time for the communion, Pastor Lisa and her husband Joe were the sole servers.  It was a nice gesture, very personalizing, but significantly slowed the delivery of the communion to the congregation.  Although I was only spoken to by one other person, I could tell this was a warm and collegial congregation.  Almost to a person, everyone went downstairs to the fellowship hall for refreshments and fellowship after the service.  As I had a long drive ahead of me, I did not stay to partake.

A couple of men in safety vests could have done much to ease the parking congestion outside, and some minimal training on greeting guests might work some wonders.  Most importantly, I would revisit this church on subsequent visits to Homer.

Church Attendance Offers Protection Against Depression

Church Attendance Lagging?
Many have given up regular church attendance for a variety of reasons. Problems with the church, personal problems with the life lived, incredible recreational opportunities in Alaska, and other distractions have all conspired against regular church attendance. Even the apostle Paul cautions to “…not forsake the assembling of yourselves together.” A recently-published Canadian study offers substantial hope in fighting depression from a surprising quarter; regular church attendance.

National Post excerpt…
A major new study that tracked more than 12,000 Canadians over a period of 14 years has found that regular attendance of religious service offers significant protection against depression.

In an article published in the April issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan write that incidence of clinical depression was 22% lower among those who attended religious services at least once a month compared with people who never attended.

“Significantly fewer monthly attenders reported having episodes or a diagnosis of depression,” the authors write. “This … suggests a protective effect of religious attendance.”

Marilyn Baetz, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, co-wrote the study with Lloyd Balbuena and Rudy Bowen. In an interview she said the explanation for the effect remains something of a mystery.

To view the complete National Post story, click HERE.

Church Visit Zingers I Sometimes Receive

Zingers Received
When people disagree with how I conduct my church visits, the basis of items I evaluate, or my authority for doing so, I’ve been hit with with one or more of the following zingers. I thought it might be of interest to Church Visits readers to see my reactions to some of them.

1. You slink in the front door, and sneak out the back one.
I’m rolling on the floor as I write this. At over 6′, I’m hard to miss, but I can walk in the church front door, find a seat without anyone noticing me, shaking my hand, saying “good morning”, or handing me a bulletin. I do notice church folks talking to each other animatedly, but trying hard to ignore an obvious guest. People are looked squarely in the eye and given a smile by me. Never have I entered a church through its back door. My goal is to get treated as any other church guest is treated. Many a pastor has been passed by me entering, yet without a note of acknowledgement.

Sadly though, a pastor friend told me he approached his greeter about being more open and welcoming to visitors. He was shocked to hear in return that “there was no need. Their church was already large enough and needed no members!” This man was intentionally thwarting visitors from ever returning.

2. It’s your responsibility to identify yourself to people to be greeted and treated hospitably.
Detractors love to make it “my fault” and “my problem” church members are not responding to me proactively. As a strange person in a strange church, I’ve been told I’m supposed to go around making “myself” known, welcome, and hospitable.

Scripture contains dire warnings against those who fail to extend hospitality. There are approximately ten times more scripture references about providing hospitality as opposed to references about homosexuality. Yet, what topic is more often referred to? That’s right! Would you let guests come to your house and expect them to make themselves “known, welcoming, and hospitable”, especially in a strange environment, while you and your guests make no attempt to extend yourselves? Absurd isn’t it, but that’s what readers and critics have essentially suggested. Little wonder people are turning away from religion. Here’s one good example why.

3.You had a responsibility to advise pastoral staff you were present before attending, and subsequently writing about our service.
This is about as ludicrous as it gets, and extremely audacious of the pastor to utter it. Of course, this church had been unfriendly, inhospitable to their guests, receiving a poorer-than-normal assessment from my post.

Angie’s List and Yelp have business models which rely on reader-users to report service grades for businesses. One of my Anchorage doctors asked for my signature on a form where I was forced to agree to not report on him or his clinic in exchange for receiving their services. There is a fear in the land from disclosure, I swear it. However, people want to know, in advance, what type of experience they’ll have. Churches are no different than anything else.

Restaurant reviewers depend on confidentiality. This ensures this is a normal experience with no one the wiser about the the true reason they are dining at the restaurant.

4. Further posts of silly questions, accusations, and zingers received will be coming.

Much of this could be avoided if pastors actively started preaching sermons on true hospitality and how to extend it. If they trained their members to meet the public in a warm and welcoming way, becoming less self-absorbed, the true essence of the gospel, most of this would disappear.