Good Friday has Arrived

For many Christians, Lent has been a lengthy time of reflection as the season of Lent annually provides. Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, I visited Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church for their 11 a.m. contemporary service.  The service, which I’ll recount in a future article, was attended by warm greetings, beautiful music, and inspiring preaching. Although there was not palm waving, there were palms. For me, it ushered in Holy Week beautifully.

Good Friday is a solemn day for many Christians, in that it commemorates the death of Jesus. Many churches will be conducting Good Friday services, traditionally at noon, but often in the late afternoon or early evening to accommodate workers.

I’ll be attending Good Friday services at First Christian Church of Anchorage (Disciples of Christ). They’ve asked me to present my versions of two older hymns but set to new music. Their service commences at 6 p.m. if you have no church option. This is a warm and friendly church. I enjoy their fellowship.

Blessings to you as this important weekend begins.

Lent Drawing to a Close

As Lent draws to a close, I’ve had a chance to reflect on its value to the Christian life. For me it has offered a time of personal introspection, something I don’t do enough of.  Ash Wednesday’s reminder of “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” based on Genesis 3:19, are sobering words, not easily ignored. Ongoing events in my life are constantly reminding me of my mortality. Lent provided the proper framework to let it all sink in.  Maybe the same is true for you.

I’ve been blessed, as I wrote last week, by participating in a single church’s Lenten soup suppers and talks on Wednesday evening. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church offered great soup, incredible Christian fellowship, and meaningful talks. Last night, Rector Michael Burke concluded these Lenten evenings with a history-based talk about the meaning of Holy Week and the various days observed during it.  He began with a discussion centering around a handout relating to the liturgical calendar of the church year.  The various cleansing ceremonies in the early church were then explained including full immersion baptism after one learned more about the faith for three years.  Candidates renounced their sin, fears, and the evil powers of this world, and were immersed three times. This was done once a year at the time our current Easter falls. Rector Michael mentioned he tries to do the same at St. Mary’s each year, and if possible to lead the congregation in a renewal of their baptismal vows.

Burke concluded this informative time with the Eucharist. Using the rudimentary service contained in the didache, a brief anonymous early Christian treatise dated to the first century, we shared the bread and wine around the circle, a most meaningful experience.

A pastor friend introduced me to Rev Dr Jill F Bradway, First American Baptist Church’s new pastor, explaining she introduced her congregation to Lent starting with Ash Wednesday. She describes her experience with it at her church.

“I’ve been in Anchorage for 5 weeks. I came right at the beginning of the Lenten season. It has been a new experience for the congregation. I hope more will choose to make the journey next year.

“Lent isn’t something that most Baptists observe. We wake up to the season around Holy Week, celebrating Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter! And as wonderful as that is, it misses the opportunity to enter more intentionally into the disciplines of prayer, self-reflection, and repentance.

“While a Master of Divinity student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, I saw my Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal counterparts participating in Lenten exercises. It made ask myself the question, “What do they know that I don’t?” And so, I began to ask questions of them, to observe their special services, and finally to look at Baptist polity to see if there was anything to keep me from adopting these practices into my own life and ministry. Expanding my understanding to include the significance of Lent has added an unexpected richness to my spiritual journey.

Many more Baptists and other evangelicals are exploring Lent and its meaning in the Christian walk. I wish Rev. Bradway and her congregation well as they do their own personal exploration. This year, Ash Wednesday at St. John United Methodist Church was my Lenten beginning. Many Anchorage churches have ushered this poor soul into the meaning of Lent for which I am truly grateful.

 

Lenten Wednesday Night Soup Suppers – St Mary’s Episcopal

I’ve been enjoying St. Mary’s Episcopal’s Wednesday night soup suppers and talks. Starting at 6 p.m., they feature a simple soup supper prepared by a parishioner. At 7 p.m. Heidi Marlowe, St. Mary’s member, has been presenting an excellent series of talks on “Monastic Practices for Lay Life“.

Drawing on her personal experience as a modern day contemplative, Heidi’s presented a picture of monasticism going back to the dawn of Christianity.  She’s guided by St. Benedicts Rule, as are many monastics. Marlowe also created a short form of the Rule called “A Smaller Rule”, which she made available to all who wished a copy. An example from it reads:

“embrace life, whatever that may cost,
whatever that may mean,
and however that may appear.”

Another volume she created was a Psalter to be used for Lent, drawn from the Rule of Benedict, and the Office of Vespers for Wednesdays in Lent.  It is used for group recitation at the conclusion of her talks.

These Lenten suppers end on April 5.  I’ve enjoyed each presentation as they have evolved, starting with Heidi’s talk first Sunday of Lent.

Last Wednesday, The Rev. Kacei Conyers–Associate Rector, gave a fascinating talk about the origins and use of the Common Book of Prayer.  It certainly added to my store of knowledge of this central document used in the Episcopal Church.

Lent is a time of self-examination prior to Holy Week.  St. Mary’s is excelling in presenting Lenten fare that aids in that process. I highly commend this series to anyone seeking to know more about contemplation, and a more structured practice of practical monasticism for the daily life. Thank you St Mary’s for this gift to the community. You are feeding the body and the soul through this series.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is located on the SW corner of Tudor Rd, and Lake Otis Parkway.

Subscribe to Receive Email Posts of Church Visits Columns

Church Visits is alive and well. However, many readers do not receive it because they do not check the website, churchvisits.com, regularly or do not participate in social media to receive notices of each new column.  If you’d like to receive an email of each column, complete this form, submit it, and confirm your request by the email you’ll receive.  Then you’ll receive each column as published by email. Thank you for your interest!

Chris Thompson

My Hiatus is Over

It’s been over a month since my last post.  My website/blog is alive and well.  Many long-time readers are not getting my Church Visits columns because I’m no longer published in the Alaska Dispatch News. Also, many of those readers do not use social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook which I use to distribute my writing.

I’m hard at work setting up MailChimp as an additional distribution mechanism for my columns. If you subscribe, MailChimp will send you an email of each column as it’s published.  In order to do this, I’ll need email addresses for you and your friends.  Please email me with your request to be included and I’ll do so quickly, I anticipate my MailChimp connection will be live in about a week.

Email your requests to me at churchvisits@gmail.com.

Blessings

Chris

Ashes Signal Lent’s Beginning Tomorrow

It’s difficult for me to believe that Lent commences tomorrow. Part of that difficulty is wrapped up in my lack of understanding of how quickly the church year whizzes by. My evangelical upbringing did not honor the church year, as observed in so many mainline, orthodox, and Catholic churches. That, of course, extended to Lent.

Over time, I’ve become very involved in observing the various waypoints of the church year, discovering the various ways many Lent observing faith traditions journey through Lent. In the process Lent, Advent, and other similar traditions provide comfort and spiritual centering for my life. Over time these various faith traditions have sunk in and nourish my soul.

Ash Wednesday is one of those waypoints.  In this age-old simple ritual of accepting ashes on my forehead, and being reminded by the ash imposing clergy of my mortality with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, I’m annually reminded that, as the old spiritual says, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”

Orthodox Lent has already with Forgiveness Sunday services last Sunday. I’ve observed this healing practice at St. John Orthodox – Eagle River, and Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox – Anchorage.  What a wonderful healing practice which should be emulated by many more churches.

Often, Lent observing Christians are asked about what they are giving up for Lent, with somewhat humorous tongue-in-cheek replies.  In fact, the annual Twitter Lent Tracker for 2017 (see https://www.openbible.info/labs/lent-tracker/2017) indicates the top 10 Lenten give-ups seem to have little to do with drawing closer to God at this season.

Rank What Number of Tweets
1. social networking 1,076
2. twitter 933
3. alcohol 771
4. chocolate 664
5. chips 554
6. sweets 321
7. fast food 319
8. school 298
9. soda 295
10. swearing 288

Lifeway Research started its own poll Lenten poll this year and discovered these were the top ways Christians said they would be observing Lent: Fast from a favorite food or beverage (57%), Attend church services (57%), Pray more (39%), Give to others (38%), Fast from a bad habit (35%), Fast from a favorite activity (23%). (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/what-to-give-up-for-lent-2017-twitter-top-100-ideas.html)

I’m impressed with people who resolve to do something for others or take up a useful habit during Lent. The Christianity Today article, noted above, stated “LifeWay found that nearly 3 in 10 evangelical believers (28%) now observe the Lenten season before Easter, while Catholics remain most likely to do so (61%).”  To me that is a startling but growing number.

Another Orthodox practice that impresses me is their rigorous fasting during Lent, primarily to keep their heads and bodies clean and clear to fully participate in the joys and sorrows of what the Lenten season brings.

If you do not observe Lent or haven’t been exposed to its practices and significance, I urge you give it a try starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow.

Lenten blessings to each of you.

East Anchorage congregation gave generously to the community in December

In my December 17, 2016 column, “Three Churches, Three Approaches to Christmas”, published in Alaska Dispatch News, I mentioned Baxter Road Bible Church’s annual giving campaign in December.  Unbelievably, they donate 100% of church income to charitable causes in our community, causes suggested by individual members. Their theme is “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus'”.  (see http://www.churchvisits.com/2016/12/three-churches-three-approaches-to-christmas/)

This congregation walks the talk, and unbelievably gave over $102,000 in December!  I’ve been privileged to become acquainted with some of the members of this dedicated church community.  They give out of their love for God and their fellow man.  A few members might not even want me to mention their giving in the event this practice might be mistaken for being a prideful act.  Clearly they lead by example and their example has been a personal inspiration.

Coincidentally, the same day I visited BRBC in December, I also visited Anchorage Baptist Temple. Unbelievably, Pastor Prevo made an earnest appeal before his sermon for a coming “Christmas Miracle Offering”, to be distributed to staff of ABT, Anchorage Christian Schools, and their missionaries.

Some churches might take up a special offering in December for the poor or local projects of concern such as various non-profits.  I thank God for churches like BRBC which remind me that Christmas is the time to emulate the gift given to us in the form of Jesus.

In his wonderful book, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday”, Pastor Mike Slaughter reminds us, “At Christmas, we celebrate a messiah, a deliverer, who was born to die. So, we too are called to give ourselves sacrificially with Christ for the world that God loves. More for him and less for us. Such sacrifice is paradoxical because the more of ourselves that we give away, the more abundant our faith and our contentment will be with what we have. In our culture of consumption, this is a countercultural way to live. Living on less when we could have more and giving away more when it means having less is a frightening proposition to many people. It is not easy, and there will be naysayers, but this sacrifice is what Jesus truly desires of those who would follow him.

Since 2004, Ginghamsburg Church and local partners have raised $8.3 million to provide humanitarian help for Darfur with their Christmas Miracle Offering. (see http://ginghamsburg.org/serve/ways-to-serve/christmas-miracle-offering)

I didn’t read a single word or hear a single TV story about Darfur during the Christmas season just passed.  Makes you think doesn’t it?

 

Church Visits Back Online!

Welcome Church Visits reader.  It’s been 10 days since my final Alaska Dispatch News column. Some readers mistook my last two posts as news that I’d retired from writing the column. Although ADN decided to no longer carry my column, I’m continuing to visit churches, comment about those visits, and share related matters of faith.

After 8 1/2 years of writing for ADN via blogs and published columns, all without compensation, I felt the expenditure of many hundreds of hours visiting churches, researching topics of interest, and submitting written work was worth the cost.  Unbelievably, I never even received a single free newspaper from ADN during all those years.

My website, churchvisits.com, contains a compendium of everything I’ve ever written for ADN. They’ve assured me that, for the foreseeable future, all of my recent writing for them will continue online at adn.com/churchvisits.

I’ll be posting each of my future articles to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. If you do not use these social media, you can request to be included on article updates I’ll be emailing via MailChimp. This will result in your receiving an email for each new article so you can stay up-to-date.  Please send me an email at churchvisits@gmail.com if you’d like to be included for that list.

Future articles will cover:

-10 things I liked about church practices in 2016

=Altar calls – genuine or psychological blackmail?

-Demonic possession – real or fake?

-Faith and science – are they compatible?

-Three popular views about hell

=Church visits – good and bad

Thank you for your support of my writing. I look forward to keeping your minds active in the coming years. Very few writers tackle religion as I do across the U.S. It’s a unique emphasis that’s unconventional but engenders great interest.

Blessings for the New Year!

Chris

10 things I’d love to see churches address in 2017

Churches are complex groups of people who develop their church’s DNA — often over the course of many years. Many are heavily influenced by their pastor of the moment, “lifers” in the congregation, or core denominational beliefs that may change as they develop or morph over time. During the course of my many local church visits, I’ve seen some meaningful change over the years, but some issues I’ve noted every year seem to be impervious to change.

For many years now, I’ve been sharing my lists of 10 things I’d like to see churches tackle seriously in the new calendar year. This list will be my last published in Alaska Dispatch News but I’ll continue to write about them and other pertinent visit-based observations on my website, churchvisits.com. This list is in no particular order, but these items are widely recognized to be significant in attracting new believers, retaining members and sustaining church growth.

1. Hospitality should be world-class.

A major reason a church guest will never return occurs when they receive a sense they are not welcome when visiting a new church. It’s easy: Just don’t open church doors for them, establish eye contact or genuinely welcome them with a handshake and smile while handing them a bulletin or order of service. It’s every member’s responsibility, not just a designated greeter’s. I’ve only heard one pastor deliver a sermon, in all my Anchorage church visiting years, that talked about the importance of hospitality.

2. Music should be relevant and respectful.

Every church has its own musical styles, from the Church of Christ vocal-only music with no instruments, to some Pentecostal and evangelical churches with killer music groups blasting up to 115 decibels for sustained periods of time. I’ve noticed, for the most part, that the louder the music, the longer the play time. Usually the contemporary music is a medley of mostly unfamiliar songs to which people stand and listen to the group perform. That’s silly. It’s even sillier to perform 30-45 minutes of such music that’s unconnected to anything else in the service.

3. Sermons should be Bible-based with great takeaways,

Sermon series seem to be the flavor of the moment in many churches. They may last weeks or months. Many pastors seem oblivious to the research that indicates millennials, for example, are concerned with issues such as science and faith, sexuality, fostering relationship building, and hypocrisy, and feel the church fails to address these issues, to name a few. David Kinnaman’s well-researched book “You Lost Me” provides the data to back up these concerns. Yet, I’ve never heard a single sermon address any of these issues. Little wonder this group feels religion is failing them.

4. Meet-and-greets are not guest-friendly.

Many churches practice this mind-numbing exercise to make themselves believe they really care about guests. Incredibly, some churches still ask guests to stand up and identify themselves, when research indicates this practice singularly discourages return visits by guests.

5. Visitor parking should be plentiful and convenient.

Visitor parking spaces, of a sufficient number, say, “Welcome, we were expecting you!” Yet, too many churches have too few of them. Like designated handicapped parking spaces, they say, “We value our visitors.”

6. Guest packets are a must.

Every first-time guest should receive information about the church, its beliefs and practices, and information about learning more about it. Unless churches learn to know people walking in their doors, they’ll never know who is or is not a first-timer. These information packets are often more effective when accompanied by a memorable gift such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, a great candy bar or a coffee card. I’ve received fewer than 10 such packets in all of my hundreds of Anchorage church visits.

7. Offerings must exclude visitors.

A very common practice is to shove the offering plate under every guest’s nose without exception. Guests should hear clearly that they are not expected to give. Some churches take up multiple offerings, making it doubly important to remind guests, who are not members, that they’re excluded from giving to offerings.

8. Follow up with every visitor.

It’s a delicate matter getting information from new church guests. Many will be checking you out before they commit to sharing information. Others will gladly share that information if their visit seems to be going well. The field is divided whether a personal visit or some other type of follow-up, such as a letter or phone call, is best. However, the value of a guest visit to a church lessens with each passing day. Make that after-visit connection quickly.

9. Websites are important connectors; treat them accordingly.

I’ve seen some major improvements in church websites over the years but an often-overlooked fact is that most people consult them for two things: location and times of services. That information should clearly be showing at the top of the page when your main site comes into view. Many websites have taken the approach of using rapidly changing graphics to entice the user. Often that can confuse instead of help. All church websites should be updated weekly, if not daily.

10. Phones – make them work for your church.

Calling churches is currently, in my opinion, a waste of time. Even during office hours, it’s a rare occurrence if a real person answers. Often, a messaging system will answer the phone and give numerous options about what you’re looking for: worship times, location, staff, etc. Personal contact may be the lifeblood for establishing a relationship with a person needing what a good congregation can offer. Personally, I’ve discovered that messages left are returned less than half of the time.

This is my last ADN Church Visits column. I want to thank ADN for filling a void in church and religion coverage starting in 2008 with my blog and then in a weekly print column in early 2014. Over the years I’ve tackled a variety of issues regarding church culture and matters of faith. Though this column will no longer be published at ADN, I’ll be regularly updating my website with similar posts of my visits and religion issues. I’ve stepped on a few toes but I write truthfully and honestly. My opinions are my own but I back up my writing with other knowledgeable experts and research. Thank you for reading my column. I invite you to visit my website, churchvisits.com, which contains all 8 1/2 years of my ADN writing and many more useful resources on music, mission and topical indexes (and ADN has indicated they’ll be keeping my ADN-blogged and column writing, online into the future at adn.com/churchvisits).

Happy New Year to each of you!

The value of Christmas is deep and remarkable

When many of you read this, Christmas Eve preparations will have been made. Churches will be ready for you with multiple services; this annual event will be celebrated with great joy. Music, candles, pageantry, sermons and goodwill will herald the end of Advent and entry into Christmas.

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches will not hold Sunday services. But, according to Christianity Today, “Eighty-nine percent of pastors say their church will hold services on Christmas Day. Leaders of Lutheran (94 percent), Church of Christ (93 percent), Baptist (91 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (91 percent), and Holiness (92 percent) churches are most likely to say their church will hold Christmas Day services. Pentecostals (79 percent) are less likely. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas.”

Some argue against churches having Christmas Day services, especially when Christmas falls on Sunday, because Christmas Day is a family day. Presents need to be opened and family Christmas traditions need to be observed and perpetuated.

The purpose of Christmas Eve services is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in imaginative and multiple glorious ways. For many churches, these services are their most heavily attended of the year. Many evangelical churches now actively use them for evangelism, i.e., attracting new adherents. And what better way to use them. But for many, Christmas Day is an afterthought.

Be sure to check with your church to ensure it is holding Christmas Day services before going. Last week, over coffee with a pastor, he revealed he’d made the mistake some years ago of going to a church retreat during a weekend assuming all members would be there.

Unfortunately, no notice got posted on the church door. Upon his return, he discovered some people did come for a Sunday service and left with the impression the church was no longer in business. This also happened to me when visiting a local church. It turns out they were away at a camp meeting but the door had no notice of it.

Most Catholic and Orthodox churches hold both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. As always, it’s best to check church websites or call to ensure when services will be held. I fondly remember, as a then-member of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, singing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral several years ago.

It’s truly a beautiful service with brass, choir, organ, timpani and piano focused squarely on the birth of Christ and culminating with the partaking of Eucharist. To be able to participate in this “extracurricular” event was an honor I’ll always remember. This might be a good year to experience this beautiful Mass along with this elite musical group.

As a choir singer for most of my life, I can personally attest to the amount of effort church music directors put into the preparation of music for Christmas services. In some churches with large choirs, the choir itself can represent a sizeable portion of those present for services. Choir members invest significant amounts of time preparing for this special music, and enjoy the participative efforts of their singing.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I urge you to experience Christmas celebrations of other faith traditions. It always amazes me how rarely Christians allow themselves permission to experience Christmas through the eyes of another faith.

Maybe they are fearful of eternal damnation if they do so, or are so tied to their personal congregation that they feel nothing could be better. I’ve experienced Christmas in various areas of the world, and through the eyes of various cultures. It’s fascinating to do so, and gave me new insights and appreciation for practicing my own faith in ways that were enriching.

Growing up in a Christian family, even if we did not go to Christmas Eve service, we always commenced Christmas Eve festivities with a Gospel reading of the Nativity story. It’s an enriching story and needs to be read in its entirety to catch its fullness.

I like Luke’s version the best, and Luke 2 is the place to start. Matthew’s version of the Nativity starts at Matthew 1:18 and is preceded by the genealogy of Jesus. Try reading with some different translations to capture the scope and sway of the text. The King James Version, even with the Elizabethan English, still captures the imagination. These days I often enjoy the English Standard Version for its translation accuracy and beauty of language.

My experiences with Anchorage Christmas services have always been an enjoyable part of my church year. No matter where I go, churches seem to be on their best behavior during this time. Many years, I’ve gone to multiple churches to experience their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

I’ve been particularly blessed when churches offer “Lessons and Carols” services during Advent or at Christmastime. I see that First Congregational Church is offering such a service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Also, Holy Family Cathedral will be offering this type of service on Christmas Eve at 11 p.m. Zion Lutheran offers its own Christmas Eve service of “Lessons and Carols” at 7:30 p.m. These types of services are beautifully rendered with readings, carols and special musical presentations.

As I wind up my writing year, this will be my next to last column for the Alaska Dispatch News. Next week I’ll present my “10 Things I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Address in 2017” column. My “10 things” columns at year’s end have been something I look forward to writing and will continue to do as I confine my church writing to my website, churchvisits.com. The site also contains all of my ADN blog posts and columns for the past eight and a half years, approximately 530 articles.

As we complete Advent and transition into Christmas, I wish each of you warm Christmas greetings. May the peace and hope brought by the birth of Jesus’ attend your ways at this time, and into the coming year.

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