Monthly Archives: January 2014

With dedication, meaningful church can be found in Anchorage

ADN is now running Church Visits, a feature article on the Religion Page, in the Saturday paper. This week’s feature can be viewed by clicking HERE

Blog postings of church visits and other faith-related issues will continue. The feature article will highlight commentary on important local and national issues. These articles will be available in ADN’s online edition and hyperlink posts by midnight Friday nights.

I appreciate ADN’s support of more coverage of religion issues. In the near future, you will also see in these articles a growing emphasis on coverage of other religions, events, and priorities. Alaska is becoming no stranger to religious pluralism.

With dedication, meaningful church can be found in Anchorage – 1/24/14

I’ve recently received several emails indicating the hunger of readers for more in their religious experiences, though they prefer to raise their concerns anonymously. I’ll offer some suggestions to these readers’ questions here. In the future, I’ll consider their concerns in the context of a wider national discussion.

Stopped going to church years ago: “I’m not one to publicly comment on blogs but I want you to know that I frequently read yours and you are right on the money in your observations. I am a lifelong Christian but stopped going to church years ago because the church as an organization frustrated and disappointed me. I am one of a very large number of Americans who have left the church but not God. Others I know who made the same decision keep each other built up in the faith through informal gatherings where we share what God has been doing in our lives and saying to us. We are active in online conversations as well. I believe that the church as a body of believers is good but the organizations many choose to wrap themselves in are not what God intended and therefore they fail.”

Keep searching and you’ll find what you need. The search is a meaningful part of your journey. There are great church options in Anchorage to meet your needs but it will take dedicated effort to find them.

I like well-known author Christian Piatt’s four reasons for coming back to church after 10 years:

• I found a community that defied Christian stereotypes

• I found my voice (singing)

• I found deeper meaning

• I found a sense of belonging.

“Pagan Christianity” by George Barna and Frank Viola will offer great wisdom in your search.

Looking for a church in Anchorage: “I recently moved to Anchorage from Texas. You don’t have to tell me, ‘You’re not in the Bible Belt anymore’ because I have already that found out. This past Sunday, I tried three contemporary churches but none of them were exactly what I wanted.

“I love contemporary worship and have been led in worship by Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Kristian Stanfill and Hillsong, to name a few. I like powerful worship even if there is just an acoustic guitar, but I don’t like a show. I like the overall atmosphere to remain worshipful and not just loud music. One of the churches was a little too “showy” for me.

“I need biblical teaching. I don’t like watered-down, youth group-type lessons. My favorite pastors in Texas brought the word of God every week in a powerful way that made me want to change the way I lived. Another visited church’s message was too juvenile for me.

“I need a community with people my own age. I was involved in a small group back home with other 20-somethings, and we met every week for Bible study.”

Texas offers many more meaningful flavors in religious practice than Alaska. Sadly, many Anchorage churches concentrate on show but less on content. Solid research reveals the No. 1 reason people visit new churches is to find out what they believe. Unfortunately guests are often only exposed to other authors’ books and thoughts but not the Bible.

These guests hunger for solid spiritual thinking but leave unsatisfied, never to return, because they were not fed. In the future, I’ll be sharing specific strategies how to locate meaningful faith communities. There are answers, and you will find them here.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at

Original ADN Article

Don’t Do These 5 Things in Church – Really?

In a recent Yahoo Voices article, a Pastor Franklin wrote an article titled “Pastor Encouragement: 5 Things Not to Do in Church—5 Things Church Attenders Do that Tend to Discourage a Pastor. Click HERE to read entire article.

As I read this article aimed at church attenders, I got a little hot under the collar because I began to see a one-sided rant that did not ring true from my hundreds of church visits.

First of all, I think pastors do need member encouragement, but by the way many run their churches, they need to fix their own issues before pointing fingers at members.

This particular pastor’s list of “5 no-no’s” contained the following.

1. Come late
2. “Rest” your eyes
3. Refuse to sing during worship
4. Leave as quickly as you can after the service
5. Speak only to people you already know

I’ll address his issues one by one from my observational experience.

Come Late
Many churches, especially Pentecostal, have a habit of expecting that people will show up late. This is partly due to an initial 45 minutes of music, often ear-blasting rock-type music, preceding the service. People know church will start sooner or later so are in no hurry to arrive on time, often to music they don’t particularly favor. In other churches, the first 30-45 minutes is dedicated to preliminaries such as music, announcements, offerings, prayer, children’s stories, appeals for funds, etc. Most guests, and many members, come to hear the pastor so they see this as unnecessary fluff. It’s not disrupting to the members or pastor to enter respectfully late during this time. If I were a pastor, I’d rather see people come to church, late or not. Prune out the fluff, and see a change in attitude.

“Rest” your eyes
Many pastors and church leaders get miffed if a member or guest dozes off during the service. I do the same during any occasion where the speaker and the program are not planned and crafted to hold my attention, whether it’s Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, or whatever. Few church pastors are born or trained speakers. Public speaking is an art. Too many pastors read their entire sermon, or use 3-point Powerpoint slides to take attendees through planned presentations where they read those slides to you. That, plus dimly lighted and non-ergonomic seating can put many people to sleep in a flash. Many pastors take 45 minutes to an hour to say what a well-trained pastor can say in 15 – 20 minutes, in an interesting, and informative manner. This is an easy fix.

Refuse to sing during worship
Many people don’t sing during worship because the band blasts so loud they can’t hear the singing, so it doesn’t make any difference to them. Many times the songs are boringly repetitious with unchallenging lyrics, forgettable tunes, possibly highly syncopated and difficult music, or songs filled with smushy lyrics suggestive of a boy/girl relationship. People are told to stand and then kept standing for half to three-quarters of an hour singing this stuff and watching the band strut their stuff. Folks are tired of this Pablum. Go to Great Land Christian Church instead and hear the members sing their hearts out to incredibly good a capella music. You’ll actually hear them sing, and experience the joy of this wonderful Christian music having meaningful and uplifting lyrics.

Leave as quickly as you can after the service
People leave quickly for several reasons. Guests leave quickly because most churches ignore them so badly they can’t wait to get away. They’re certainly not going to stay around on the off chance someone will take pity on them and ply them with the standard twenty questions such as “What is your name?”, “How did you hear about us?”, “Where did you church before?”. Guests made their minds up about returning 5-8 minutes after arriving. Members want to get home to their weekend pursuits, ignoring the fact that it’s the Sabbath in which man was enjoined to not work on it, or cause any other others in their employ to do so either. It is a day of rest, from everything. Psychiatrists and psychologists will attest to how badly-needed a weekly day of rest really is. Pastors have a huge role in training members to be hospitable, but I’ve only heard 1 or 2 pastoral sermons on this issue in the last 10 years. It’s too strong a topic for most pastors to brave.

Speak only to people you already know
This is part of what I call church DNA behavior. Guests obviously get hit with this first. I’m always amazed when the dreaded “Meet ‘n Greet” or “Passing of the Peace” portion of the service comes, how guests are ignored and friends talk with friends. Really a sad commentary. Sadly, this behavior also extends to the membership with member friends only interacting with member friends. Pastors are literally afraid to say a word about this for fear of member retribution, but clearly know the problem exists.

This particular post is not intended to step on the feet of any particular local pastor. Rather, it’s intended to take another hard look at why Alaska is at the bottom of church membership, attendance, and prayer habits of the entire U.S. It’s not a definitive answer to these problems, but “church as usual” is not working well here. I hope readers will focus some commenting attention on these observations.

Five Church Moments that Blew Me Away in 2013

2013 was challenging year for me as I attended Anchorage churches and wrote of those visits, or other religious matters connected with them. Although I visited many churches and wrote up posts of those visits, there did not seem to be as many “blow me away” moments as in previous years. There is no particular order to this list but it does represent a list of my highly significant spiritual moments. The bolded headings for these moments are hyperlinked to the post on these particular moments.

1. Interview with Mary Bolin
My interview with Mary Bolin was a high point of presenting people of significant note in the Anchorage church community. A long-time greeter at Cornerstone Church in South Anchorage, Mary’s thoughts reflect a deep passion for welcoming and connecting guests at her church. In my years of visiting churches, Mary stands out above all other local greeters in making guests glad they chose a particular church for their worship.

2. A Joyous Service at Great Land Christian Church
Without a doubt, my revisit to Great Land Christian Church was one of the my high points of 2013. These are friendly people, full of good energy in their service, hungry for clear spiritual teaching. This is clearly a place where the younger generation rule and come to learn. Their preacher Ray Nadon fills them with the Word, and a greater knowledge of its meaning each Sunday, and their music is a capella and fun to sing. What a surprise to actually hear worshipers singing and not being drowned out by a 105db praise band.

3.Pastoral Sharing of Advent Reflections
I was gratified by the pastoral responses to my request for Advent Reflections which were published on this blog throughout December. The quality of the thoughts each pastor shared was far beyond what I expected. To these pastors, Advent is more than just a word. It infuses the season leading to Christmas with new expressions about the significance of the waiting, longing, and fulfillment of the promises of God. Thank you pastors!

4. Beer & Hymns Fundraiser
Clearly the Beer & Hymns fundraiser for LSSA’s food bank was an immensely enjoyable and successful evening. Held at Mo’s O’Bradys in April and November, this 2 hour event spent with folks who are obeying Christ’s command to feed the hungry, was much fun. I met many new people, sang wonderful hymns, enjoyed good food and beverages, and saw how active the sponsoring church, Christ Our Savior Lutheran, is in the local community. They talk the talk, and walk the walk.

5. Ash Wednesday 2013 – St Mark’s Episcopal – Seattle
One of my highpoint spiritual experiences last year took place at St. Mark’s Episcopal church in Seattle. A wonderful homily by the Reverend Irene Tanabe hit the nail on the head, including several Seinfeld references, atypical for an Ash Wednesday service. Click here for an audio recording of Rev Tanabe’s well-delivered homily. The church also had “Intentions Trees” for registering ones intention for a change in behavior or attitude during Lent. This marvelous idea was the subject of another post.

4th Advent 2013 – Anchorage Presbyterian Fellowship – Disappointing Visit

Earlier in 2013, I experienced an encouraging visit to Anchorage Presbyterian Fellowship, a breakaway group from one of Anchorages major churches, posting that visit HERE. (Hyperlink currently unavailable) I revisited APF on 4th Advent 2013, December 22, as I always emphasize visiting Advent observing churches during December.

Still meeting at UAA, APF had moved to a larger recital hall, but the group appeared to be about the same size. This time no one greeted me, so I picked up a bulletin, and walked inside. To get to my seat I walked across the front of the hall, in full sight of everyone present, taking a seat on the right side. I joined in and experienced AFP’s worship service. All five Advent candles were already lit. Surprisingly, nothing was said about any of them or the significance of 4th Advent. For a former Advent –observing group, it was a bit of a shock to discover they’d dropped the Advent emphasis. They also appeared to have dropped use of the lectionary, the chronicle of Biblical texts and observations used throughout the church year.

The preacher that day was Rev Dave Bacher, one of ChangePoint’s ministerial staff. He delivered a fine sermon on the Parable of the Sower as described in Mark 4:1-20, titled “Four Types of People”. Although it was an excellent sermon, it did not tie to Advent in any way. Dave has been one of a number of visiting pastors APF has been using as interim preachers during their pastoral search. They were fortunate in assembling a number of good ones from various pastoral backgrounds and religions which appear to have served them well.

However, emanating from a major Anchorage church, APF members appears to have brought some of the same problems with them I formerly observed and blogged about, especially unfriendliness to guests. Their old church never demonstrated warmth or hospitality to me during any of my many previous visits. Churches that are warm and welcoming to guests generally have a track record of fast growth. This may be why it appeared the same number of worshipers were present during my 2nd visit to APF.

I hope their new pastor focuses on what makes a church outstanding and help APF members understand the value of extending oneself personally to guests as a church growth strategy.

2014’s Top Ten Church Issues List – Annual Must Read

Happy New Year Church Visits readers. It’s now 2014 and I’ve just finished ruminating about ways local churches could address various ways they operate to make themselves more attractive to guests looking for church homes. As always, I invite your feedback on my thoughts. I usually don’t throw things out there unless there is documented evidence of the need for addressing these issues.

Top Ten Issues I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Confront in 2014

1. Friendliness and Welcome
Despite looking for truly friendly, warm, and welcoming churches in Anchorage, I rarely found or experienced them in 2013. I can tell you more about who they are not than who they are. The average Sears, Carrs, and Nordstrom store is more friendly and welcoming than the average Anchorage church. True hospitality is not only measured by being handed a bulletin, and greeted by a handshake, but an outstretching of the human spirit conveying a genuine sense of spiritual welcome, that you are in a special place, and that their prayers for God’s blessing are upon you. You’ll know when it happens to you.
Takeaway: Friendly, welcoming churches attract new members.

2. Clean Up Church Websites
Many local church websites are out-of-date, illogically and inexpertly constructed, and contain numerous grammatical errors. Most visitors to church websites are primarily looking for service times for your church and its current location. Sadly, some churches locate this information at the bottom of a too long home page, out of sight of the searcher. Others locate service times under something called schedule or calendar, not worship or service times. Too many church websites are hopelessly devoted to geographic scenes of Alaska lakes, mountains, or rivers having nothing to do with the church. What catches my eye are pictures of happy members engaged in the work of God.
Takeaway: Well constructed, attractive websites attract guests.

3. Fix Your Church Signs
Too many churches still have hopelessly outdated church signs that are illegible, contain useless information, and can’t easily be read from a car passing by at the posted speed limit. Those constraints and Anchorage’s sign ordinance mean that church name, web address and possibly service times are about the only things that can be read by a passing driver. If a commercial business’ sign vendor designed code acceptable signage similar to what many churches use, there would be reasonable grounds for a lawsuit on the grounds of ineffectiveness. Most churches hire professionally trained pastors. Why shouldn’t they just save the money and get a “wanna be” pastor? Wouldn’t it be cheaper? Yes! Would it be effective? No!
Takeaway: Hire a professional sign consultant now.

4. Stop Being One-Stop Shops
Too many Anchorage churches fail to support community-wide efforts to bring music, drama, or nationally known speakers to a cross-section of all churches. These churches refuse to announce the availability of these presentations in their bulletins, newsletters, or by pulpit announcements. There is a predominating church culture here which projects a “not going to support, because it’s not from us” attitude. Science flourishes based on an interactive give and take culture, stimulating discussion. So does today’s religious climate flourish by vigorous discussion and debate. The average pastor in Anchorage does not encourage its members to look outside the box, projecting a fear of the unknown. For example, over the past year, I’ve privately encouraged pastoral support for the showing of an award winning, and faith building film on Hell. To date no church has shown the courage to expose its members to this film. It’s like the dark ages all over again.
Takeaway: Churches that do not interact with the church community as a whole ultimately project the wrong image.

5. Visit Other Churches
Every Anchorage church needs to have members going out to visit other churches, to observe first-hand, what works and what doesn’t. Hidden issues in your church may become obvious when you see it in another church. Do other churches have effective greeters? Do they maintain guest friendly services, including them in the dialog, or do they assume guests know and understand what is happening at all times? Does your visit leave you wanting more, or during that critical 5-8 minutes from arrival, did you feel as though you would never revisit that church? It’s what I call a “church DNA” thing. You’ll know when you experience it. This information needs to be brought back and shared with your church.
Takeaway: Visiting other churches regularly pays big dividends.

6. Train Your greeters
I know only one or two churches in Anchorage with greeters truly worthy of that title. The rest are sadly lacking because churches are “penny-wise and pound-foolish” about locating and providing this training. Most churches rely on volunteer greeters trying to ensure each member does their part of this thankless chore, by filling in their names for a Sunday or two. It’s easy work. Just stand there, be cheerful, hand the guest a bulletin, don’t talk with them, and move guests inside. Don’t worry about saying your name instead of asking theirs, don’t truly welcome them to the service setting expectations about what will happen, and certainly don’t give them any information about your church they can take home. Greeter training does take time and money, but believe me, growing churches find it pays! Almost every church and pastor I know overestimates their greeter’s abilities.
Takeaway: Professionally trained greeters are a huge win for any church.

7. Become Culturally Relevant
Our churches should not mirror our culture but should stand as a bulwark against it and its excesses. Much of today’s religion reflects an unbridled display of narcissistic practices. Do you find it as interesting as I do, that many pastors and church leaders dress down when they go to church, but dress up to go to court, graduations, marriage or naturalization ceremonies? People go to church to worship and fellowship with the divine, but rarely dress up to do so reasoning it’s not as important as those secular ceremonies. Consider too that much of today’s church contemporary music is narcissistic and about me, me, me. Some church music is trance-like with meaningless repetition, while other church music can be erotic singing using love affair types of terms. Many of today’s religious leaders have begun to recognize the dangers of this Pop 40 format i.e., it cultivates a careless attitude regarding the divine.
Takeaway: Music and dress can say much or little about the relevance of the gospel and interface with the divine.

8. Please Include Guests in the Money Dialog
Most churches pass the offering plate without considering guest impressions. The kindest way to handle this with guests is to tell them they are not expected to give saying “It’s our church’s practice but you should feel under no obligation to give”. Would you send an offering plate around the table in your home expecting guests to also give? Of course you wouldn’t, but I only heard one Anchorage church address this honestly and fairly in 2013. Money is a big part of many church discussions, so much so, that many church guests can think it’s all about the money. Being an inclusive church, one that wraps its arms around people, means not allowing guests to feel they are being compelled to give. The worst case is at one local unnamed church where the pastor spends about 15-20 minutes on a pre-sermon offering appeal, and then sends around KFC buckets for the offering.
Takeaway: Extorting money from guests is bad policy.

9. Give Your Guests a Kindness Token
Few Anchorage churches take notice of guests long enough to offer them something with which to remember their visit. I received maybe two or three such tokens during my church visits this year. One was a loaf of bread, presented by a member who actually sought me out after the service. It was not a meaningless gesture, but bespoke of a faith that wanted to share. Another church shared they used to give guests a premium candy bar, small spiritual book, and information on the church, until they discovered members taking these gifts for themselves from the hospitality center. The gift was discontinued because of this. What a sad commentary on people of faith. The bottom line is, don’t let guests go unacknowledged.
Takeaway: There’s more gospel in a loaf of freshly baked bread than anything else.

10. Eliminate the Queue to Shake the Pastor’s Hand
One of my pet peeves is to visit a new church and then be forced to stand in line to exit the church because the pastor is blocking the main exit point. There are many ways some churches have discovered to eliminate the “standing in line” dilemma. One is for the pastor to stand in the front of the church available for discussion or feedback on his sermon or a special request. Mark Meredith at Community Covenant used to do this. Fr. Dan used to stand behind open double exit doors at Holy Cross Parish and grasp parishioner’s hands using both hands as they flowed around him like Moses at the Red Sea. Traffic really moved. Another excellent way is for the pastor to immediately go to the fellowship area where he mixes and mingles. When church guests encounter “waiting for the pastor” lines, it often makes them uncomfortable and less likely to return, or they’ll sneak out of the church by some other route.
Takeaway: Traditional waiting to shake the pastor’s hand was dead years ago, and will push guests away. Get rid of it!