Author Archives: Chris Thompson

Three flavors of Orthodox Christianity in Anchorage – 8/16/14

In the past several months I’ve visited four Orthodox churches in Anchorage representing three branches of Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox faith traces its roots in Christianity back to apostolic (early church) times. Eastern and Western Christianity mutually separated in the 11th century.

Anchorage Orthodox churches represent Greek, Antiochian, and Russian Orthodox. It’s like eating ice cream. You can have many flavors of ice cream, but it’s ice cream nonetheless. I’ll attempt to describe some of the flavors of each in this column.

Greek Orthodox

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church is located on O’Malley Road just east of Lake Otis Parkway. Moving into their new church just months ago, they eagerly await consecration by their Bishop in September. Built in the Byzantine style, its richly decorated interior is light and comfortable, displaying beautiful pictures of the saints in outstanding iconography. Services start Sundays at 9 a.m. with Orthros, and Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse is pastor.

During my recent visit, I witnessed two firsts among my many Anchorage church visits. Fr. Vasili’s homily was based on practical advice to the parishioner attendees regarding their physical, mental, and spiritual health. I’ve not heard a similar down-to-earth sermon in 15 years of visiting churches here in Anchorage. Secondly, during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, it was first spoken in English. Then Vasili called on various ethnic tongues in attendance to recite it: Romanian, French, Arabic, Spanish, Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian, and Greek. Another spine-tingling first. Their renowned Greek Festival runs Friday-Sunday this weekend, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Bishop Maxim of the Serbian Archdiocese will celebrate Divine Liturgy Saturday at 9 a.m.

Russian Orthodox

Russian Orthodox missionaries first arrived in Kodiak in 1797. In 217 years they’ve grown from a single mission there to an Alaska diocese of 89 churches. Anchorage has four, Wasilla and Tyonek each have one, and there are six on the Kenai Peninsula. I’ve had delightful visits to St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral and St. Alexis Mission (meets at APIA building 1131 East International Airport Rd.) in Anchorage. Their services, with the exception of the homily, are usually standing services where the service is chanted by the priest, with choral and audience responses. Both of these churches have choirs who serve as the liturgical glue to keep participants on tune, and in the right place. The music is beautiful and often ancient. Sung in English, Yupik, and/or other native tongues, Slavonic, and Greek, most present participate with heart and soul. Preferring to simply be called Orthodox, a part of Orthodox Church in America, rather than Russian Orthodox, their churches are filled with multi-cultural attendees. Divine Liturgy services start at 9 a.m. Most worshippers fast from midnight until noon the next day, so the Eucharistic bread will be the first food they have in more than 12 hours. Invariably, each congregation has an after-service fellowship meal of sweet treats, coffee, juice, and other dishes. During my visit to St. Alexis, Rev. Michael Oleksa invited me to sing in the choir, an experience I’ll never forget. I truly understood their service after singing it. Oleksa gave a brief practical homily, a sermon delight. In less than 20 minutes he said more than many pastors labor an hour to achieve. Addressing the “are you saved?” challenge so many confront, he noted their assurances of salvation, but that it required more. They also needed to be “doing”, demonstrating that growing in their salvation means you will show it by working for others. I was treated graciously by both congregations.

Antiochian Orthodox

In north Eagle River, a beautiful woodland setting contains St. John Cathedral, an Antiochian Orthodox church in Alaska. Rev. Marc Dunaway is pastor and the congregation is multi-cultural. He shared two new congregations have started in Wasilla and Homer. I look forward to visiting them in the future. My first experience with St. John dates to 2009 when I received an email from a Church Visits blog reader by the name of Phoebe who invited me to explore the beauty of the Orthodox faith at St. John. Making a surprise visit, I was astounded by the simple grace, simplistic beauty of the church, and the musical flow of the service. Attending recently, in conjunction with the Eagle River Institute, an Orthodox conference, I was awestruck, once again by the beauty of their services, the reverence displayed by her people, children included, and the strong community she comprises. The congregation is composed of all ages, millennials included. I was invited to sing with the choir during the conference and found great value in doing so. St. John Sunday services begin with Matins at 9 a.m., Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m., and Vespers at 7 p.m.

Summary

Orthodox churches offer meaningful services. Some are more welcoming than others, but all extend hospitality. Music is clearly not entertainment, but part of liturgy. Divine Liturgy starts at 9 or 10 a.m. Homilies are usually 10-20 minutes offering memorable takeaways. These Orthodox churches are peopled by Christians who have sought and found meaningful faith.

Note to readers: I’ll offer individual visit reports churches, including those mentioned in this article, on my new Church Visits website which will mirror and archive my ADN articles and blogging. That site is now active at churchvisits.com.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140815/three-flavors-orthodox-christianity-anchorage

How Do Alaskans Study the Bible? – 8/9/14

National surveys show that despite Americans’ love and great respect for the Bible, its reading and study frequency is down. The American Bible Society’s “State of the Bible” survey for 2014 showed the extent to which this is true. Even though 88 percent of American households own the Bible — to the tune of 4.7 copies per household — ownership is not enough. Only 39 percent of Americans read it once a week or more.

Some of this is being driven by a shift away from people believing that the Bible is sacred literature. In 2011, 86 percent of Americans believed the Bible to be sacred, but by 2014, that number had shifted downward to only 79 percent.

Doug Birdsall, former president of the American Bible Society, has been widely quoted regarding why Bible reading is declining:

“I see the problem as analogous to obesity in America. We have an awful lot of people who realize they’re overweight, but they don’t follow a diet. People realize the Bible has values that would help us in our spiritual health, but they just don’t read it.”

Those who are Bible engaged are now equal with those who are skeptics, at about 19 percent. The study, performed by the Barna Group, defines Bible engaged and Bible skeptics as follows. Bible engaged: those who “Believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with no factual errors, or believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with some factual errors, and read the Bible daily or at least four times per week.” Bible skeptics: those who “selected the most negative or non-sacred view from five options, saying they believe the Bible is just another book of teachings written by men, containing stories and advice.”

This shift toward skepticism is being led by millennials, i.e. 18- to 29-year-olds. In an upcoming article about millennials, I’ll include some of the reasons behind this trend.

Although the study revealed 26 percent of Americans never read the Bible, many more are reading and studying it. Here are some ways Alaskans study the Bible:

By themselves

Most people read and explore the Bible on their own. Some start at the beginning and read straight through to Revelation. Others, more New Testament-oriented, read that part only. Listening to the Bible in your car and online is also a great option if you study along. You can obtain most popular versions of the Bible from firms such as Audible for only one selection. These recordings generally run from 75 to 100 hours depending on the speed of the narration. There are also Bible apps for your smartphone. Many are free or minimal cost. My app has dozens of translations and I use it during sermons to compare how the same text is rendered in another translation. Many churches too offer electronic Bible access on their apps. TrueNorth Church and ChangePoint are two examples of this.

Bible study correspondence courses, sometimes aided by DVDs, are wonderful ways to read and study Scripture by yourself. Be aware that these courses can steer you to a particular denomination, But on the whole, they are great choices. Some of these courses offer quizzes with instant answers to test your comprehension.

Group study

Some groups read, study and comment on the Bible unassisted. Group leader Dean Southam sends out a brief reminder, often humorous, a few days before each meeting. In the July 22 email, he wrote: “This Thursday 6:30-7:30 am at Trinity, we will be tackling (reference to tackling is remembering NFL training camps open this week) 2 Thessalonians 2.” I’ve been pleased to join the Trinity Presbyterian men’s group over the years as time allows. Meeting at the church at 6:30 a.m. Thursdays, they usually read and discuss a chapter each week. A diverse group of professionals and some retirees, only about half of whom are Trinity members, they transition through each chapter with ease and grace. I enjoy their fellowship. Often, there are as many translations present as men. Similar groups for both men and women are available within and outside many local churches.

Some Bible study groups are large, facilitated groups. One such group is Bible Study Fellowship, which meets in large churches and is well attended. Separate groups are held for young adults. The format is small-group study using a workbook and coming together for a spiritual talk after. (Use search term “Bible study groups Anchorage” to bring up many options.)

Pastor Ray Nadon shared that Great Land Christian Church offers “customized” Bible studies, men or women, based on individual need and where they’re at. This is a great option. If I was a pastor, I’d say to a group, for example, “Say, I’m getting a group together for an hour of fellowship and Bible study for six weeks. We’ll be digging into the parables of Jesus to discover how they can affect your Christian walk and witness.”

Pastor John Carpenter of Baxter Road Bible Church is planning a group men’s Bible study based on Joe Gibbs’ “Game Plan for Life Volume II,” having covered Volume I last year. The studies last six to eight weeks and are a comfortable commitment.

The hardest part of Bible study is getting started. But remember, it takes two weeks to adopt a new habit, and this will be a habit you won’t want to break. Whether you study by yourself or in a group, you’ll discover it is a welcome activity. Studies are emerging about how intense study halts declines in mental acuity. I believe intense Bible study may be one of those activities.

Original ADN Article Link
http://www.churchvisits.com/2014/08/how-do-alaskans-study-the-bible/

Are church websites tracking you? – 8/2/14

Are church websites tracking you?

An article by Adam Tanner in Forbes magazine online instantly got my attention. Titled “God Is Not The Only One Watching Over Your Church’s Website” (July 28), it revealed astounding information about the extent to which many churches and other religious websites allow “trackers” to collect information about who visits them, and what they look at while there.

Tanner describes using the tracker discovery and blocking software Disconnect (disconnect.me) at the request of an Anglican priest friend. He discovered the priest’s church website contained 10 trackers. Going on, Tanner looked at various religious websites and found a wide range of examples of website trackers, from the Vatican, which had none, to 48-49 for the Church of Scientology. A synagogue in Manhattan had eight, a Protestant church organization revealed 14 and an Islamic shrine in Mecca had four.

Tanner obtained an eyebrow-raising quote from a well-known megachurch researcher. “It does seem invasive of personal privacy,” said Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary. “I am absolutely certain that very few religious leaders know their sites have this form of tracking… nor do most small secular businesses. They barely comprehend the basics and haven’t even considered tracking technology or the ethical implications of these features with their members.”

Trackers and tracking data, rarely identified, are used by religious organizations and marketers to potentially target you for advertising in the future. After visiting the site, you might receive pitches for books, videos or contributions to specific causes based on the types of websites you visited.

Our security-conscious environment, spurred by recent revelations about the vast amounts of data the National Security Agency has been collecting, suggests people need to understand what they can expect when visiting church websites. Adept Internet researchers can build amazing profiles of who you are and what you do. I question, as did Adam Tanner and Scott Thumma, the necessity and validity of such tracking.

Before writing this article I selected a cross-section of Anchorage-area church websites — including Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Baha’i. Analyzing each website using Disconnect, I found trackers are prevalent here, too. About half of the 34 local church websites I checked revealed one or no trackers, but the remainder had more than one. Saint John United Methodist Church had the most with 12, followed closely by First Church of Christ Scientist at 10. Saint John Orthodox showed nine. Interestingly, some of the Catholic churches had them, while others did not. Holy Cross Parish had seven, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish showed six and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had two, while St. Benedict’s Parish had none. For the Jewish community, the Lubavitch Center showed eight, while Temple Beth Shalom had seven. The Anchorage Islamic group had four, while the Buddhist group only had one. The Baha’i group showed none.

Anchorage’s two largest churches, ChangePoint and Anchorage Baptist Temple, showed two and one, respectively. The central Mormon website for Anchorage had four, as did Muldoon Community Assembly. Finally, of two Hillside churches, Hillside-O’Malley Seventh Day Adventist Church had eight trackers, while Trinity Presbyterian had three.

True North, a growing Anchorage church, uses technology heavily. “We don’t use a lot of tracking purposely,” said Brent Williams, True North pastor. Indeed, they don’t, as they only have one tracker. In a future article, I’m going to share the experience True North Church and ChangePoint have had with implementing apps to grow their churches.

Tracking is a relatively new technology for churches and website visitors to understand and deal with. Many churches are adopting privacy policies and posting them prominently on their websites. Here’s one example of such a policy used by an Outside church (whose identity I’m not disclosing); identical statements appear on many church websites: “The Site may use cookie and tracking technology depending on the features offered. Cookie and tracking technology are useful for gathering information such as browser type and operating system, tracking the number of visitors to the Site, and understanding how visitors use the Site. Cookies can also help customize the Site for visitors. Personal information cannot be collected via cookies and other tracking technology; however, if you previously provided personally identifiable information, cookies may be tied to such information. Aggregate cookie and tracking information may be shared with third parties.”

The privacy of a person’s relationship with their religious organization is an assumed fundamental right. Churches need to post their privacy policies prominently where people can access them easily on their websites. I suggest you use a piece of software like Disconnect to unmask tracking on all websites you visit, but most importantly on church websites. Amazon.com exposed me to 10 trackers as I wrote this article. Tools like Disconnect can show you who the tracker is, and in most cases these trackers can be blocked.

Churches must avoid all appearances of wrongdoing, which can start with that first contact a potential visitor has via their websites. Newer and more sophisticated tools are on the way, which will make this write-up look like child’s play. I commend those churches with little or no tracking. Churches with heavy tracking scores need to take a deeper look to protect the interests of those they come in contact with.

Original ADN Article Link
http://www.churchvisits.com/2014/08/are-church-web…s-tracking-you/
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Try something different for church this weekend – 7/26/14

We’re having a great Alaska summer in Anchorage and the vicinity. Anchorage and many other Alaska communities are hosting tens of thousands of tourists and returning snowbirds. Our glorious environment, incredible weather and many natural wonders are spectacular. Despite potential distractions, I urge visitors to seriously look at churching differently while here. Locals, take an opportunity to breathe deeply and become better acquainted with our church community. The following suggestions are offered as ways to step outside your religion box, while honoring the concept of a rest day.

Try a different church

No matter your faith tradition, there’s value in worshiping elsewhere from time to time. Mainline church members express amazement in seeing the dynamism offered by some of the evangelicals. Pentecostals can gain new insights from participating in a slower liturgically based service. In my church consulting, I frequently suggest churches have teams of visitors who go out regularly observing the conduct of worship in other churches, especially in denominations other than theirs. Often they discover practices to bring back to their home church, or find they already do a great job but are still improvable.

Review ADN’s Matters of Faith listings

For years, ADN has been providing listings in Saturday’s paper of notable religious events. Often, I find notifications of religious events that may have escaped my notice otherwise. Many of my blog posts or columns have started from spotting something out of the ordinary here. Concerts, special lectures or unique events have caught my eye. Years ago, an insert by St John United Methodist Church of a free performance by a chamber orchestra and choir of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” caught my eye. It was a wonderful evening of music. My review of this event led to an introduction to Karen Horton, St John’s organist and choir director at the time, and her invitation to join their choir. I sang with them off and on for years as my church visiting schedule allowed. The saying is true, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”

Think topical church visits

Stained glass aficionados have a feast of churches to select from with wonderful displays of stained glass. We can’t begin to compare with the East Coast but are blessed nonetheless. Here are several impressive examples. St. Patrick’s Parish and Amazing Grace Lutheran have inspiring round cross church windows. First Presbyterian has a huge stained slab glass wall with various motifs embedded therein. All Saints Episcopal is a panoply of stained glass with many themes. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish has beautifully themed displays of huge floor-to-ceiling panels behind the altar, as does Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish.

Icons are a hallmark of Orthodox Christianity. St. John Orthodox in Eagle River has a wonderful display of them. If you are lucky you might find their iconographer, Robin, is present at the service when you attend. St. Innocent Russian Orthodox also has an impressive display of icons.

Totems, anyone? St. John UMC has a large carved wood totem, Tsimshian style, in their sanctuary. Depicting the passion story, it is a marvel to behold. Rev. David Frison, pastor emeritus, carved this and a Christmas totem. (You can see fiberglass replicas of these totems outside, if you visit when the church is closed, along with plaques telling their story.)

Churches with views? Three Anchorage churches offer spectacular natural views not to be missed. St. Mary’s Episcopal offers a wraparound view of our beautiful Chugach Mountains. Resurrection Chapel at Holy Spirit Retreat Center renders a 180-degree view of the Knik Arm leading up to Sleeping Lady and then to Mount McKinley. It takes one’s breath away. Finally, Chugiak UMC has a window wall looking out on Denali.

Megachurches here too

Megachurches are defined by a generally accepted term of consistent weekly attendance of 2,000, and by that definition Alaska has two of America’s approximately 1,700 megachurches. It you would like a taste of this in our huge state, give one of these a try. ChangePoint, at 3,300 average attendees, is our largest, offering four services each Sunday. They have great messages and good music, but bring some ear protection if 105 decibels bothers you. Anchorage Baptist Temple is independent Baptist, averaging about 2,200 attendees, with a main and an evening service.

Look outside of Anchorage

One to 1 1/2  hours outside of Anchorage are the towns of Girdwood, Moose Pass, Palmer, Wasilla, Willow and Sutton. All have churches worthy of visiting. Check the Internet or call the church for the smaller towns just to make sure they’re there when you’ll be. Who knows, you might even be invited to lunch.

If you’re visiting, we’re glad you’re here. If you’re local, try some of these ideas. Remember the Apostle Paul’s advice to not forsake assembling ourselves together. God bless.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140726/chris-thompson-try-something-different-church-weekend

Men’s retreat offered more than fishing – 7/19/14

Recently, I accompanied a group of men, mostly members of Baxter Road Bible Church, a popular East Anchorage church, on a float and fishing trip down the Gulkana River. Actually, I first heard about the trip when I attended the Beast Feast at BRBC, which I chronicled on my ADN Church Visits blog. The cost was minimal, I was free and so I signed up.

The trip is offered by Copper River Float Ministry of Glennallen. Started by Dave Lemaire more than 12 years ago, it was a major factor in his personal recovery from the kidnapping, rape and murder of his daughter in 1991. Dave’s wife, Michelle, is his onshore facilitator of food, facilities and scheduling. The ministry is staffed by an awesome group of men volunteers, trained yearly to gain or maintain cataraft or rubber raft skills. Ages of the ministry’s volunteers range from the 20s to the 70s.

Lemaire limits the trip to four churches each summer. To take advantage of this experience, churches must book their trips up to two years in advance. Offering three men’s trips and one women’s trip each summer, CRFM also has women volunteers accompanying women participants on their trip.

Originally, more than 30 men from BRBC signed up for the trip but it conflicted with the Luis Palau appearance that weekend and half the men decided not to go. Departing early morning June 6, we carpooled or used the church van to drive to the Gulkana River bridge north of Glennallen. Transferring gear to a bus, it was north to Poplar Grove and a hike downhill to the river where the boats were moored. The ministry volunteers had floated them downstream from Sourdough the previous evening. At riverside, Lemaire introduced his crew, giving us a thorough safety lecture ending with prayer. Pastor Jason Severs of Old Paths Baptist Church in Glennallen presented each trip participant with a Bible printed on waterproof paper, a missionary initiative of his members.

Floating downriver for about six hours, we covered about half of the 36 miles we would float on the water. We pulled into a rocky, sandy beach area and the volunteers made camp, erecting several large tents, a canopy-covered cooking area, laying campfires and preparing for dinner. Guys went fishing along the shore. Some of us fished on the float down, as the kings were just beginning to appear. One of our party caught a nice, bright king but the rest did not score any fish on the trip. A few men were unsettled by sets of extremely large grizzly paw prints while setting up camp. Lemaire guessed they had been there a week or two prior to our arrival.

Dinner and breakfast, overseen and cooked by Lemaire, were tasty. Grace was said before each meal, not an unordinary practice for many Christians today. After dinner, Josh Heffner, a layman from Wasilla, talked briefly with us around the campfire. Using an example of building a house, he detailed clearing the building site and bulldozing to a suitable level before laying foundations. He invited the men present to “take time on the beach to examine your foundation.” He similarly talked before breakfast and after lunch the next day, using related themes. Encouraging the men to create good foundations, he reminded us of Christ’s parable of “The House on the Rock,” so they were secure. These brief talks were not pushy, were by nature reflective and appreciated.

BRBC’s associate pastor John Carpenter took a low-key role on the trip, which I liked as he works with these men regularly. He shared: “It’s always been more difficult, for whatever reason, to get men to connect and plug in at church. Men are more willing to let down their guard on the float trip, responding more readily and deeply to the message of the Gospel, taking a more active role upon return.”

Several men shared thoughts.

Adrian Ortiz said: “The Lord is involved in this ministry. I had a great opportunity to draw nearer to God.”

Paul Thiel enjoyed “time on the river with some great guys,” further noting, “I needed a break and would invite others to experience it. The food? I’ve never eaten such good food in the wilderness. The chili and cornbread lunch was totally worth going!”

Carlton Rice really liked Lemaire’s initial statement that “This was not a fishing trip to talk about God but a trip to commune with God and also have a chance to do some fishing.”

Over the course of the trip, Don Hennessey and I established an acquaintance. He enjoyed the trip, liking the solitude of the forest, the sounds of the animals and the river, further sharing: “The closeness of nature helped me draw closer to the Lord. I especially liked the waterproof Bible we were all given at the beginning of the trip.”

Dave Lemaire has experienced more pain than many of us will ever have to endure. Clearly he has a heart for men and an ability to attract volunteers. If you ever have a chance to experience this trip, do so. He recently became a part-time director of men’s ministries at The Crossing in Birchwood, a rapidly growing suburban Anchorage area church. Either way you meet him, it will be worthwhile.

My experience was delightful, drawing me closer to God and nature, much more than any other men’s retreat I’ve done.

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 adn.com/churchvisits.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140719/chris-thompson-men-s-retreat-offered-more-fishing

Does the length of the sermon matter? – 7/12/14

Christian churches, as a rule, have a long and glorious history of lengthy sermons, often an hour or two long. My suggestion last week that a 20-minute sermon might be an appropriate length drew the ire of some readers. Let’s face it: Our current communications paradigm is one of talking heads and sound bites. Too many Anchorage pastors squander precious sermon minutes with long stories or illustrations, full of emotional appeal, and narcissistic “I” statements with few ties to the chosen subject.

Consider Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’. Five variants of his powerful speech exist, with word counts running from 267 to 272. In the brevity of 10 sentences Lincoln brought the nation together. Lincoln’s address takes only two minutes to recite, but the images burned into one’s mind form a lasting impression. Preceding Lincoln that day, famous orator, politician, diplomat, and pastor, Edwin Everett gave a two-hour oration numbering 13,607 words. Everett is now a historical footnote, but every schoolchild in our country is exposed to the ‘Gettysburg Address’.

Dan Bollerud, Julia Seymour, and Martin Eldred, a group of courageous ELCA Lutheran pastors in our community, release a weekly online 10-minute liturgy, true to Lutheran liturgical format, presenting the basic elements of a worship service. (Called 10W, it is available on the Internet at www.10worship.blogspot.com/ or you can have it automatically sent to you weekly by texting 10W to 22828.)

Many famous preachers and theologians consistently deliver excellent, Bible-based sermons in a 20-minute timeframe. Noted pastor, author, and religion educator Barbara Brown Taylor consistently delivers her sermons in 20 minutes or less. She’s delivered many Duke University Chapel sermons in under 20 minutes. Her powerful Feb. 9 sermon this year at Duke Chapel, “The Grace of Good Works,” is inspiring and motivational, and at only 14 minutes in length, a marvel of brevity. (You can find it on YouTube using Google search terms ‘barbara brown taylor duke chapel 2014’.)

Highly sought-after theologian Walter Brueggemann’s sermons often last less than 20 minutes. His Duke Chapel sermons are similarly brief as are Barbara Brown Taylor’s. His December 5, 2010 sermon at Duke Chapel, ‘Continuing Through The Disruptive Conjunction’ is under 20 minutes, and full of Christian power. (You can find it on YouTube using Google search terms ‘walter brueggemann duke chapel 2010’.)

The length of a sermon is not the sole focus of this article, but it’s an element. A sermon should deliver quality content but also depends on whether or not a hearer is open to receive it. Clearly we as hearers bring something to the table. But there are limits. Mark Beeson, Senior Pastor of Granger Community Church, a 5,500-member United Methodist Church in Granger, Indiana quoting his mom says, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

However, sermons are the documented reason many attend church. Today’s sermon practice has morphed significantly from Old Testament and apostolic times. In the book “Pagan Christianity”, Frank Viola and George Barna comment on key features of Old Testament preaching and teaching.

• It was participative, accepted interruptions, and addressed current concerns.
• Prophets and priests spoke extemporaneously not delivering regular speeches.
• Preaching was sporadic but allowed audience participation.

Documenting Jesus’ style they note, He didn’t give regular speeches, preached and taught in many different ways considering audience, time, and place. Dialogue was often used.

They further observed New Testament apostolic style embraced many of these same characteristics. Preaching was sporadic, used special occasions to deal with problems, was extemporaneous, and used dialogue. Adherents worshiped in leaderless house churches. Today’s preaching style was basically unknown in early church days.

So what is the purpose of preaching? Basically, it is to explain and apply scripture. 1 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV). When is the last time you had a dialogue during a pastoral sermon applying these principles in a New Testament manner? Probably never, because the format of today’s preaching does not allow it. Some pastors are televised and it would interrupt the flow of the process. Some may be recording it for replay so that’s clearly not an option. Mostly today’s preaching is a monologue. A few churches offer texting questions to the pastor. In my personal experience, the tough questions are screened out by screeners.

The Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Brueggemann sermon examples, while not dialogical, explain and apply scripture in a way that’s clear and understandable, in less than 20 minutes. In the vernacular of our culture, they are “sticky” thoughts. I sincerely desire that readers exercise discernment about preaching, regardless of length, which appeals to a broad spectrum of hearers looking for essential truth. I’m most concerned the millennial demographic has access to preaching that engages. Great Land Christian Church is a church with many millennials and fosters an encouraging format of interaction between hearer and preacher. I like the interactive format between congregant and preacher at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. There are others offering congregant engagement in Anchorage, but they are definitely in the minority.

But what I’m hearing in many local churches may not satisfy them.

Four steps to a visitor-friendly church service – 7/5/14

Blogging and writing about Anchorage area churches has occupied my time for more than six years. I was looking for four things in my mystery church visits, and they still suffice:

• Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality
• Friendliness and warmth
• Effective, well-delivered, Bible-based, main teaching
• Music deepening the worship, not just entertainment

This list covers the basics. In this article, I’ll give examples of how these four points work in actual practice. It’s simple for churches to provide them, creating a welcoming environment. During this time, many seekers have found churches meeting their needs.

My blogging has focused on giving brief reviews of churches as seen by their guests. Over the past six years I’ve received many emails and blog comments from church guests affirming my observations. Often, readers have joined churches due to these observations, or occasionally, despite them.

Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality

As a church prepares to host prospective guests, there are many ways to roll out the welcome mat. Is your church website up to date? Does it prominently display location and service times at the top of the homepage screen? Location and service times are what most church website visitors are looking for. Or does the website display the church name over beautiful pictures of mountains, rivers, lakes, and streams? Unfortunately these beautiful pictures are a big fail for every church that makes this poor website design mistake, and hundreds of Alaska churches do it. Alaska tourism spends tens of million dollars attracting visitors to our beautiful state. Churches are not in the business of tourism!

When a guest shows up at a church is the signage readable at the posted speed limit? Are there visitor parking signs in sufficient quantity, and are they reserved for your guests? As the guests enter, open the door, greet them with a smile, and welcome them to your church. As you greet them, make an inclusive statement like “We’re pleased you’ve chosen to worship with us today. My name is Fred. If I can help you in any way, please let me know. Our senior pastor is sharing a wonderful sermon on redemption today. We’re having a potluck after the service, and you’re invited. Please join us. There’s tasty coffee and donuts in the fellowship area on the right.”

Genesis 18 provides the best Bible lesson on hospitality, portraying an extravagant example of Abram’s kindness to strangers.

Friendliness and warmth

Churches can convey the warmth of their church by individually greeting guests, even at their seats, and making them feel recognized and welcome. Do not ask their names; rather, say, “I’m Freda and so happy to welcome you. My husband Bill and I sit over there. Let us know if we can answer your questions.” These simple statements convey a sense of friendliness and warmth.

Pastors often fail to welcome guests from the pulpit, an egregious omission. Guests don’t need to be welcomed by name, but should be made to feel welcome. Most churches play the “Meet n’ Greet” routine ensuring you will not be met or greeted. Before the church receives its offering, the pastor should say, “I realize we have guests today. As our guests, don’t feel compelled to give. Just let the offering plate pass you by. We’re so pleased you’ve chosen to worship with us.”

Effective, well-delivered, Bible-based, main teaching

Most studies of why people visit churches indicate they come for the preaching. Effectively, they are interested in knowing what you believe. Guests don’t come to hear book reviews by pastors, traveling music groups, or returned missionaries who’re weary, battle-fatigued, and fighting depression. If you’ve never heard a well-delivered biblical sermon, you’re in for a treat. (Email me to obtain several links to excellent ones.) An articulate sermon should happen in less than 20 minutes; in fact, with the younger generation, it’s essential.

Music deepening the worship, not just entertainment

Huge cultural clashes occur over music in today’s churches. The conservative hymn, organ, and choir crowd does not appreciate the contemporary music scene, while the younger set enjoys rock n’ roll music so prominent in many megachurches. Some churches provide a buffet of all the musical flavors, trying to please everyone. I look for several factors in church music. Regardless of the type of music, can I actually hear the lyrics? Is the sound level appropriate for my hearing? Does the music actually increase the depth of the worship, the sermon, and tie to the themes of the day? What doctrine or theology does the music express? Many local churches have musical sets lasting a half-hour to 45 minutes. A band member commands people to stand, and standing the entire time, sing mostly unrecognizable music. That’s unacceptable. 115-120 decibel sound levels are disrespectful and damaging, but flourish in many churches. Finally, music people should invite people to stand instead of commanding. A good example is, “I’d like to invite all who can stand to do so and join us in singing ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus.’”

Visiting a guest-friendly church can be wonderful. Otherwise, be prepared for a painful experience.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140710/chris-thompson-four-steps-visitor-friendly-church-service

What’s it like visiting a church with a guest-friendly service? – 7/5/14

Blogging and writing about Anchorage-area churches through the Anchorage Daily News has occupied my time for more than six years. I was looking for four things in my mystery church visits, and they still suffice:

• Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality;

• Friendliness and warmth;

• Effective, well-delivered, Bible-based, main teaching;

• Music deepening the worship, not just entertainment.

This list covers the basics. In this column, I’ll give examples of how these four points work in actual practice. It’s simple for churches to provide them, creating a welcoming environment. During this time, many seekers have found churches meeting their needs.

My blogging has focused on giving brief reviews of churches as seen by their guests. Over the past six years I’ve received many emails and blog comments from church guests affirming my observations. Often, readers have joined churches due to these observations, or occasionally, despite them.

Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality 

As a church prepares to host prospective guests, there are many ways to roll out the welcome mat. Is your church website up to date? Does it prominently display location and service times at the top of the home page? Location and service times are what most church website visitors are looking for. Or does the website display the church name over beautiful pictures of mountains, rivers, lakes, and streams? Unfortunately these beautiful pictures are a big fail for every church that makes this poor website design mistake, and hundreds of Alaska churches do it. Alaska tourism spends tens of million dollars attracting visitors to our beautiful state. Churches are not in the business of tourism!

When a guest shows up at a church are the signs readable at the posted speed limit? Are there visitor parking signs in sufficient quantity, and are they reserved for your guests? As the guests enter, open the door, greet them with a smile, and welcome them to your church. As you greet them, make an inclusive statement like “We’re pleased you’ve chosen to worship with us today. My name is Fred. If I can help you in any way, please let me know. Our senior pastor is sharing a wonderful sermon on redemption today. We’re having a potluck after the service, and you’re invited. Please join us. There’s tasty coffee and doughnuts in the fellowship area on the right.”

Genesis 18 provides the best Bible lesson on hospitality, portraying an extravagant example of Abraham’s kindness to strangers.

Friendliness and Warmth 

Churches can convey the warmth of their church by individually greeting guests, even at their seats, and making them feel recognized and welcome. Do not ask their names, rather say, “I’m Freda and so happy to welcome you. My husband Bill and I sit over there. Let us know if we can answer your questions.” These simple statements convey a sense of friendliness and warmth.

Pastors often fail to welcome guests from the pulpit, an egregious omission. Guests don’t need to be welcomed by name, but should be made to feel welcome. Most churches play the “Meet n’ Greet” routine ensuring you will not be met or greeted. Before the church receives its offering, the pastor should say, “I realize we have guests today. As our guests, don’t feel compelled to give. Just let the offering plate pass you by. We’re so pleased you’ve chosen to worship with us.”

Well-delivered, Bible-based teaching 

Most studies of why people visit churches indicate they come for the preaching. Effectively, they are interested in knowing what you believe. Guests don’t come to hear book reviews by pastors, traveling music groups, or returned missionaries who’re weary, battle-fatigued, and fighting depression. If you’ve never heard a well-delivered biblical sermon, you’re in for a treat. (Email me to obtain several links to excellent ones.) An articulate sermon should happen in less than 20 minutes; in fact, with the younger generation, it’s essential.

Music deepening the worship

Huge cultural clashes occur over music in today’s churches. The conservative hymn, organ, and choir crowd does not appreciate the contemporary music scene, while the younger set enjoys rock n’ roll music so prominent in many megachurches. Some churches provide a buffet of all the musical flavors, trying to please everyone. I look for several factors in church music. Regardless of the type of music, can I actually hear the lyrics? Is the sound level appropriate for my hearing? Does the music actually increase the depth of the worship, the sermon, and tie to the themes of the day? What doctrine or theology does the music express? Many local churches have musical sets lasting a half-hour to 45 minutes. A band member commands people to stand, and standing the entire time, sing mostly unrecognizable music. That’s unacceptable. Sound levels in the 115 to 120 decibel range are disrespectful and damaging, but flourish in many churches. Finally, music people should invite people to stand instead of commanding. A good example is, “I’d like to invite all who can stand to do so and join us in singing ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus’.”

Visiting a guest-friendly church can be wonderful; otherwise be prepared for a painful experience.

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 adn.com/churchvisits.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140704/chris-thompson-whats-it-visiting-church-guest-friendly-service


By Chris Thompson
Anchorage

10 excuses people give for not attending church – 6/28/14

Many Christians feel they can go it alone regarding religion or religious attendance. They regularly and vigorously express these sentiments to me when commenting about my Church Visits articles or in response to my blog posts. It’s a national trend. Regardless of specific reasons or excuses, those expressing their disaffection quickly point out they reject corporate worship, organized religion and can worship by themselves at home or wherever. Many, however, still hold to their Christian beliefs.

It’s important to distinguish between excuses and reasons. Merriam-Webster defines excuse as “something offered as justification or as grounds for being excused,” while defining reason as “a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense.” Excuses are often offered as a way of making oneself feel better about not doing something, while reasons are used to explain, logically, why a course of action was pursued.

In the business world, working with decision-support system data, I often told my clients, there are “good sounding reasons” and “good sound reasons.” My mind likens good sounding to excuses and good sound to reasons.

A local pastor friend recently named the top three excuses or reasons parishioners give him for not attending church.

1. We’re so busy; our life is so full.

2. Our kids have a sports conflict.

3. It’s Alaska. We’re going to the cabin, fishing, hunting, boating or playing in the snow. (Choose all that apply.)

Another local pastor named his top three: too busy, not into organized religion and a previous bad experience with church. There’s no order to my list of 10 excuses below.

I have to get my life together first: This excuse is used as a means of covering for a person’s perceived inadequacy until he or she is finally better. Group religious practice is one of the means, not stumbling blocks, allowing this to happen.

I feel church members are all just hypocrites: A hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another. It’s a human trait most of us tend toward. Church attendance can provide a mirror to recognize and effectively deal with it.

I think all churches care about is my money: If more churches were open and honest about this, money would not be as much of an issue. It’s often more a matter of perception than reality. Your presence in the church can be a force to address it.

I can’t measure up to church’s dress codes: Concerns about how any church dresses should never be an issue. Wear what you have and be proud of it. I’ve never seen or heard of any Anchorage churches with dress codes.

I get nervous about going to church: Nervousness can be due to bad experiences with a church, low self-esteem, performance anxiety, or many other issues. Almost everyone can be made to feel nervous about anything. When I started flying lessons, I was extremely nervous until I became more knowledgeable and ultimately confident.

What a church believes may differ from my personal beliefs: Belonging is an important benefit of attending church. Your beliefs will resolve themselves, but belonging is a very important part of religious experience. Corporate belonging was a very important characteristic of the early Christian church.

I work Sunday so can’t attend: Many individuals or couples get discouraged when one has to work on Sunday. However, a vast number of Anchorage churches offer Saturday evening or Sunday evening services to fit busy schedules.

If you knew my past, you wouldn’t want me in your church: Church offers the tools to resolve the issues in ones past. It’s like a hospital. Hospitals are for people who are sick or have something wrong with them. Churches are like hospitals for those needing spiritual care, which includes us all.

It’s rainy, snowy, icy, too hot, or too cold: Believe it or not, weather is often given as a reason for not going to church. One pastor observed that, given the way the church year splits into weather increments, only two days fall into churchgoing; Christmas and Easter.

I’ve been hurt by the church or its clergy: This has no limits as many have been wounded in many ways. It’s a top reason for skipping church. However, 1 Peter 3:9 offers an infallible remedy.

A generational and cultural divide is also affecting church attendance. In the 1960s, a shift away from the “we” generation to the “me” generation began. In 2012, the American Psychology Association published a fascinating study, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009.” The study results indicate Millennials are the “Generation Me” instead of the “Generation We.”

A huge issue for the church today, it may explain why Millennials are so hard to reach. It’s all about them, with little room in their lives for church, God, grace and the love of Jesus. The bible notes this spiritual condition many times. Some label this condition narcissism.

A 2009 Pew Forum survey ranked Alaska next to the bottom (37 percent) regarding the importance of religion, bottom for church attendance, and almost bottom for frequency of prayer and belief in God. Prayer, bible study, and church attendance well may be antidotes for these trends.

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 adn.com/churchvisits.
By CHRIS THOMPSON

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140627/chris-thompson-10-excuses-people-give-not-attending-church

Religious pluralism in Alaska here to stay – 6/21/14

This week a letter to the editor was published regarding a previous letter concerned that the Daily News showed anti-Christian bias by not doing more reporting on the recent Luis Palau extravaganza at Cuddy Family Park. Without my weighing in on the merits of the letter writer’s concerns, I will say it’s time to recognize that Alaska is becoming a pluralistic religion state. We’ll see more of this in the future. Let’s take a look at how pluralistic Alaska’s religious scene has become and where it may be headed.

According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey, published in 2008, the religious breakdown for Alaska shows some interesting data. Forty-seven percent of Alaskans are Protestant, 14 percent are Catholic, 4 percent are Mormon, 3 percent are Orthodox Christian and fewer than 2 percent represent other Christian faiths. Thus more than two-thirds (69 percent) of Alaskans identify with the Christian faith. Other faiths represent minor fractions. Muslims are 1 percent, while Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and other world religions show less than a half percent each. The “Other Faiths” category showed 2 percent. Finally, the 27 percent of Alaskans were classified as “unaffiliated.”

As a religion writer, I try to cover the major issues represented by all faiths. With more than two-thirds of faiths in Alaska being Christian-based, my coverage is identified immediately with this large cluster. The unaffiliated group is already covered by the rest of the media without requiring my involvement. This group is composed of atheists, agnostics or the uninterested. The other 4 percent of faiths combined are beginning to see increased coverage from me, but the facts betray that any one of these groups, at most, exceeds 1 percent of Alaska’s population.

Living here in the last frontier, are we more religious than other Americans? No, the Pew Forum Survey Summary says. “When it comes to religious beliefs and practices, the Landscape Survey finds that Alaskans tend to be less religious on a variety of measures as compared with the overall U.S. population. For instance, whereas a majority of American adults (56 percent) say that religion is very important in their lives, only 37 percent of Alaskans place great importance on religion. Nearly one-third of Alaskans (31 percent) say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives, compared with only 16 percent among the public overall.”

But do we Alaskans, even though our religious numbers are smaller, make up for it by going to services more often? Once again, the Pew Forum says no. “Americans as a whole are nearly twice as likely as Alaskans to say that they attend religious services on a weekly basis (39 percent versus 22 percent). And nearly half of Alaskans (47 percent) say they seldom or never attend worship services, compared with only 27 percent among the public overall.”

Some churches are making gains here in Alaska. That’s according to an Association of Religion Data Archives 2010 report, which compared changes for Alaska congregations between 2000 and 2010 using data collected by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The highest growth rate was in the Mormon faith, which added 13,151 adherents, a factor of 69 percent. Episcopalians grew by 541, Seventh-day Adventists by 520, Evangelical Covenant by 499 and United Methodist by 452.

The report also showed many churches experienced huge losses of adherents. These included Orthodox, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutheran, Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God, to name the top loss groups.

The Luis Palau event, while questionable on several fronts, had serious backing by a significant number of local congregations. I believe the local media gave it fair coverage during prime time. During a recent visit with a local pastor, he pulled out a stack of individual responses from the Luis Palau organization which came back to him as a byproduct of the event.

Ours is a land of religious freedom and tolerance. The roots of Christ’s ministry were based on love and respect. In Matthew 22:36, Jesus was asked, by a lawyer of the Pharisees, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV). This is the great “love to God” and “love to man” commandment.

Due to population growth here in Alaska, with significant numbers of people coming from areas of the world where Christianity may not be the dominant religion, it’s going to be increasingly important to honor the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the Christian ethic of love to God and love to man. Attacking another’s religion is not the answer. There’s more than enough blame to go around. Our great challenge, as Alaskans, is reverse the trends of loss of faith and religiosity. Successfully doing this will stabilize our culture, strengthen our families and grow our state. Religious pluralism appears to be here to stay. We all can be more tolerant of others, regardless of religious biases.

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 adn.com/churchvisits.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140620/chris-thompson-religious-pluralism-alaska-here-stay?sp=/99/110/161/