Tag Archives: Baxter Road Bible

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?

 

Three churches, three approaches to Christmas

Last Sunday I attended three separate services. After focusing on Advent this month, I wanted to experience services at evangelical churches not observing Advent. While I believe Advent, rightly observed, can be an antidote to the crass commercialism hijacking Christmas, evangelical churches should also be urging their parishioners to keep focused on the true purpose of Christmas, Jesus.

Anchorage Baptist Temple

This megachurch, Alaska’s second-largest with approximately 2,500 members, is always a feast of sight and sound. Everything seems to be larger than life with an enormous center-stage video screen, flanked by two large video monitors to the right and left. Spirited singing by choir and congregation was underway as I entered the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

The music was a blend of Christmas carols, along with some modern classics such at the “Little Drummer Boy.” Hymnals are not needed as the words are projected on the screens, which use incredible animation to bring the words to life. A vocal group composed of Anchorage Christian Schools youth sang a number of songs, and a singer sang a lovely song.

The stage was decorated with the traditional icons of the season. I counted six decorated Christmas trees on the stage, plus eight more lighted trees in the choir area. There were stacks of presents, teddy bears and candy cane poles all over the stage.

Throughout the service reminders were given about the Christmas pageant to be held this weekend, donations to ABT’s bus Christmas store, and sacrificial giving to the church’s 2016 Christmas Miracle Offering. I was bothered when the Rev. Jerry Prevo mentioned the purpose of this offering as being for employees of the church, the school and church missionaries.

Prevo made a very hard sell for this offering, the likes of which I’ve only seen in one other church — a certain prosperity Gospel church in Anchorage. The goal was $30,000, and I was concerned they were thinking more of each other this time of year than those desperately in need of physical and financial assistance.

Prevo presents well-prepared sermons. He interrupted this one, “Two Kinds of People,” to show a dramatic 12-minute short film to illustrate his talking points. The video illustrated people who respond to invitations to help and those who do not, which he later typified as the “lost” and the “saved.” My ABT visit showed me a “Christmas as usual” attitude with much giving expected, heavy appeals to give to the Miracle Offering, and a significant emphasis on the upcoming Christmas pageant, quite a contrast to my next two church visits.

Baxter Road Bible Church

Less than a mile from ABT, lies Baxter Road Bible Church. The church offers two services on Sunday: 10 a.m. and noon. Arriving at the noon service a few minutes late, I found Communion already being served. The church’s musical group is enjoyable to listen to and sing along with; it presented hymns and carols of the season, typical of non-Advent practicing churches.

Children presented several songs. No matter how good or poor the singing is, this is a time of wonder for the adults. Many of us have been there before, and can only remember the faces smiling back at us.

The Rev. Bob Mather’s sermon, “Preparing for Christmas,” was Bible-based, giving practical advice about preparing our hearts for Christmas. Though this church is a little over a 10th the size of ABT, it’s opened its heart for years to giving during December without urging.

Using the theme, “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’,” the congregation dedicates 100 percent of December church income to community nonprofits and other religious organizations members suggest. These organizations are actively doing the work Jesus referred to in his teaching.

Last year, Baxter’s December’s giving reaped over $90,000, more than twice what ABT has set as its 2016 goal. No sales pitch was necessary Sunday morning for this cause at Baxter. The congregation doesn’t need it; it’s one of those things they do without urging. Mather, pastor at the church, has often told me: “The more we give, the more blessed we are.”

ChangePoint

Alaska’s largest church at around 3,500 members, ChangePoint leads by example in the local community. I tend to find the music overly loud at ChangePoint and don’t visit as often as I could. However, the Sunday 6 p.m. service found a smaller crowd, and music easier on the ears than normal. My decibel-meter measured most of the music at 90-98 decibels, a sharp reduction from previous services.

As I entered, I was greeted at the door and welcomed by a member. I noticed the church’s OnRamp life group was collecting practical gifts for children at McKinnell House, Salvation Army’s temporary family shelter, during November and December. What a sensible ministry!

Before the sermon,the Rev. Scott Merriner, executive pastor, introduced Adam Legg, newly appointed executive director of Love Alaska, and Rick Steele, executive pastor of operations. Legg is in charge of an exciting new venture that joins two previous ChangePoint initiatives, Grace Alaska and Priceless.

Grace Alaska took on some major projects in town such as getting the Downtown Soup Kitchen started, and providing automotive services for single mothers and widows through Rightway Automotive. Priceless is a service to women involved in human or sex trafficking. Approximately 70 women have been referred to the program, which provides them access to over 120 trained mentors in 18 local churches.

Love Alaska will now be a separate organization not subject to ChangePoint’s structure. Members of ChangePoint will be encouraged to support these efforts to address areas of brokenness in our community along with members of other churches. A third initiative of Love Alaska will be Chosen, a program which focuses on mentoring youth as they leave the foster care system. ChangePoint’s annual Uncommon Gift Offering will be taken Sunday to support Chosen. These changes are exciting for Anchorage and ChangePoint is to be commended for making them happen.

Student ministry pastor Adam Brown’s message was the second in a series titled, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His particular message was subtitled, “The Wonder of Real Treasure.” Using Matthew 6:19-24, he said “real treasure is what we think it is,” noting we must each choose our treasure — temporal or eternal — and to chase our master whether it be God or money.

I thought this was a powerful message from a church that is making a difference in our community. As we look at the consumer-driven brokenness of Christmas, it was refreshing to hear this message on Sunday, a real antidote to consumerism.

Advent Conspiracy is an antidote to the over-commercialization of Christmas

Why am I writing about Christmas now since it’s not even Thanksgiving? So many retailers have had Christmas items for sale as early as August or September this year. Plainly stated, it’s marketing greed in a rush to capitalize on every Christmas dollar to be spent. The time to plan for a proper Christmas is now, not later.

A small group of pastors made a positive step in addressing this issue a few years back, creating an organization called Advent Conspiracy. Their website clearly states their premise in just a few words. “Can Christmas still change the world? The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption and relationship. So, what happened? How did it turn into stuff, stress and debt? Somehow, we’ve traded the best story in the world for the story of what’s on sale.”

That’s the problem, and the Advent Conspiracy’s solution is elegant. Its website offers a suite of resources for churches, parents and other individuals to address the problem of the abuse of Christmas as an orgy of spending for ourselves and each other.

Advent Conspiracy is focusing this year on water, noting: “Today, 663 million of our brothers and sisters around the world lack access to safe drinking water. What if the way we celebrate Christmas this year changes this? We continue to hear story after story of churches and families participating in Advent Conspiracy each year to conspire to spend less each Christmas and give in ways that collectively fund hundreds of life-changing water projects worldwide. This year, prayerfully consider including giving to end the clean water crisis as part of your Advent giving.”

Advent Conspiracy’s website offers several short videos which help to bring its focus alive. I urge you watch them.

Christmas, the highest holiday spending time of year, promises to be so again, almost eclipsing last year’s record spending. However, there are clouds on the horizon. According to Fortune magazine, “shoppers will rally after Nov. 8. Election stress is a real thing. And it could hurt retailers as the holiday shopping season gets under way next week.

A National Retail Federation survey found that a majority of Americans will be cautious about Christmas shopping this year, with many possibly pulling back on spending, because of anxiety over the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential contest. What’s more, it’s hard for retailers to get a word in edgewise these days, potentially making their marketing less effective.” Christmas shopping is a nightmare for parents, driving many into debt and despair.

One local church has successfully addressed this problem for many years with its “It’s not your birthday” program. Baxter Road Bible Church began the program some years ago. It dedicates 100 percent of the income received during each December saying, “It’s our gift to Jesus because, after all, it’s his birthday we’re celebrating.” Last year they raised around $100,000 in December. The Rev. Bob Mather, senior pastor of the church, says the money “goes to the poor, the needy, and those going through hard times.” Much of it is spent locally.

The amount of $10,000 is dedicated to a Haitian mission the church has supported for years, vetted by one of the congregation. The focus of that mission is feeding and helping the poor, clothing them, and providing health care. The mission is led by a Haitian minister. I’ve been unable to locate any other Anchorage church that is so generous at Christmas. A few might dedicate one offering in December, or take a second offering for this purpose. Mather observes, “The more generous we are, the better off we are.” The faith and generosity of this warm group of Christians always amazes me. They walk the talk, and have grown rapidly as a result.

Christmas can be a teachable moment for parents with their children. I believe it offers families an opportunity to develop an awareness of the true meaning of Christmas, rather than a narcissistic display of spending that satisfies only ourselves, and does little for mankind.Other useful resources and film links about Christmas are available on my website Church Visits.

Anchorage’s next archbishop to be installed Wednesday

In August 2015, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz submitted his resignation to Pope Francis I in accordance with papal law. After 14 months, an archbishop-designate for the Anchorage archdiocese has been selected. Bishop Paul Dennis Etienne was recently introduced to the community in a news conference. He is currently the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

His installation will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The installation will be preceded by evening prayer at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holy Family Cathedral. Both ceremonies are followed by receptions. (A copy of the official invitation is available here.)

The Mass will begin with Archbishop Schwietz presiding. The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre, will read a proclamation from Pope Francis designating Etienne as the new archbishop. He’ll then show it to the archdiocesan consultors for agreement. At this point Bishop Etienne is now archbishop and will be led to the cathedra (bishop’s chair) and be presented with the crozier. Bishop Etienne will then preside over the remainder of the Mass. Eight to 10 other bishops will be present, including all three Alaska bishops. It promises to be an impressive installation.

After the installation, Schwietz will have the title archbishop emeritus. He’ll continue to pastor St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River where he’s been pastor since his resignation.

“I leave with a tremendous sense of gratitude,” he told me. “The people have been so gracious, welcoming, and cooperative. They’ve been so caring for me. It’s been a wonderful experience. I lay down those responsibilities with regret but look forward to the leadership of the new archbishop.”

In anticipation of a full audience at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, the archdiocese has announced the installation Mass of Archbishop-Designate Etienne will be streamed live online at CatholicAnchor.org.

A variety of Eastertide expressions of faith

As I visit churches, readers frequently ask me, “What church do you belong to?” This seemingly innocent question is a tell for other questions possibly lurking beneath the surface. One might be probing my religious roots, or looking for leanings toward a particular strain of theology. Quite often I respond that when I leave home on Sunday mornings, I feel God is steering me toward a particular place of worship. Unless I’m attending an event of particular significance, I want to experience the fullness of faith: the warmth of hospitality, being with others in corporate worship, lifting my voice in praise and listening to the Bible being opened in new ways that inspire and urge me to share the good news of salvation.

On major holidays, like Easter and Christmas, I enjoy the act of worship for itself, not merely as a writing assignment for this column. At times I feel a bit selfish when I do this, but I too need to hear truly fulfilling messages from time to time, in environments where I’ve been spiritually nourished in the past. As such, today’s column briefly describes several experiences I had starting with last Thursday, and ending Easter Sunday.

Seder: Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church

Last Thursday, I experienced Seder at Christ Our Savior Lutheran. In recent years, I’ve joined this fun congregation in their celebration of the Passover celebration observed by Jews worldwide. Seder commemorates the Exodus, when Jews were liberated from bondage in Egypt. Typically the service follows a prescribed format with readings, specific activities and a ritualized meal with special wine to be drunk at intervals.

Some question why Christians celebrate a Jewish tradition. Many Christian scholars believe Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples actually was the Passover meal. Last week, Christianity Today featured an interview (http://tinyurl.com/gs2k3mz) with Rabbi Evan Moffic, one of the youngest rabbis in Reform Judaism. Asked about Christians celebrating Seder, Moffic said, “The Exodus story is part of the Hebrew Bible, which is part of the Christian Bible. The Exodus story is part of the Christian story. Sometimes we learn about another religion through practicing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing a Passover Seder. You get a much deeper sense of what Passover means if you participate in a Seder rather than just lecturing about it.” This Seder, a tradition at Christ Our Savior since 1998, was pastor Dan Bollerud’s last there; he retires this fall.

Good Friday: Amazing Grace Lutheran Church

I enjoy worshipping here as this congregation seems to continually reinvent itself in worship. A rough-hewn altar had been disassembled. It was arranged in groupings of two timbers each, in a circle of seven stations in the middle of the sanctuary. The congregation split into seven groups, followed leaders with crosses to position themselves behind each timber grouping, which also contained a row of seven lit candles. A leader then recited a reading, after which a hymn was sung by all while a group member, usually a child, blew out a candle at each station. Each group then moved one station to the left for the next reading and song. By the conclusion, all candles had been extinguished and each participant left in silence to return home. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced a more heartfelt service on Good Friday. Thanks to pastor Adam Barnhart for his leadership in new experiences.

Easter morning, 10 a.m.: Baxter Road Bible Church

I enjoy the vigor of this relatively young and rapidly expanding east side church. Led by senior pastor Bob Mather and his associate John Carpenter, they are a model of successful church growth. After a vigorous musical service, pastor Bob greeted all with, “He is risen indeed!” They served Communion early in the service in an inviting manner, following biblical wording, with the elements explained and taken together. This is how Communion is most meaningful but often ignored in many churches. Carpenter’s sermon was based on Luke 24, but focused on the events after the resurrection. You can hear it at baxterroad.org/sermon.html.

Easter morning, 11:30 a.m.: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

St. Mary’s 11:30 a.m. service features a folk/bluegrass music format. It’s upbeat and seems to please to a wide cross-section of St. Mary’s attendees. On Easter morning I more than ready for a musical uplift. From “Good Morning, This is the Day” to the recessional, this service was one of total joy. It began with the children entering the sanctuary, each with flowers in hand, to insert them in a cross in front of the altar. The altar was accentuated by a bank of Easter lilies, each donated by members in special recognition of family members and friends, a beautiful tradition.

Rector Michael Burke set the tone for the service by proclaiming, “He is risen!” The gradual hymn was “Morning Has Broken” and seemed so appropriate for Easter Sunday. The gospel reading was from John 20, the Johanine account of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, telling the disciples it was empty, the disciples returning home, and Jesus’ revealing himself to Mary — a stirring account indeed.

At St. Mary’s, the Eucharist is called The Great Thanksgiving. Burke always patiently explained the meaning and importance of the Eucharistic service, that it is God’s gift to us, open to all. Somehow this morning it seemed truer than ever. Although I’m not an Episcopalian, I’m in solidarity with the love they show for each other and their strong expressions of faith in God. It’s always a treat to visit this warm, welcoming church but Easter Sunday seemed more so.

Each church mentioned has something special to offer to those seeking an unusual experience. Eastertide this year was very special to me. And yes, that nicely iced Champagne mentioned last week was a special toast to the meaning of this extraordinary day.

Don’t miss this!

April 1 starts Defy Fear Week, a week of events structured around the documentary “Defiant Requiem,” a film about Jewish prisoners in World War II who use music as a weapon of resistance, and which culminates in two performances by the Anchorage Concert Chorus of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” on April 8 and 10 in the Atwood Concert Hall.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

What are we really celebrating at Christmas?

Let’s face it: Our stories about Christmas originate from the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, but we don’t really know when Christ was born. Many scholars tend to favor spring as the most likely time of year. This is based on the account of shepherds watching over their flocks by night, something more likely to have taken place in spring than winter.

We probably celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 because of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt pagan celebrations held around the winter solstice. It was also the birthday of Mithra, the pagan god of light. On the darkest day of the year, Roman pagans celebrated by lighting up the night with fires to repel the dark. Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival of Saturn, was also celebrated in December, with often-unrestrained merrymaking. Scholars believe elements of both festivals eventually became incorporated into Christmas.

Hans Lietzmann, in his definitive “A History of the Early Church,” writes, “The festival on Dec. 25 originated in the west, and undoubtedly Rome was its cradle. Here it was observed as early as A.D. 336 under Constantine. From that date onwards, it is mentioned wherever we are justified in expecting it. Epiphany was unknown in Rome throughout the whole of the fourth century, being observed for the first time about 450, when it was mentioned by Leo the Great as the festival of the ‘Magi,’ i.e., the wise men from the east.” Historian Will Durant, in “The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ,” wrote, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”

Popular culture and Christianity have slowly developed traditions that don’t always correctly represent the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, Christmas cards, crèches in homes and churches, and living Nativity scenes wrongly depict the Magi as being present at the birth of Jesus, though they did not arrive until sometime after his birth — possibly days or weeks later, or even longer. Scripture notes it was some time after Christ’s presentation in the temple. The shepherds came, but not the wise men. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, only that three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — were given.

During the Reformation, many reformers, including John Knox, John Calvin and Martin Luther, rejected the way Christmas was celebrated. Luther, a former Roman Catholic priest, did allow certain Catholic observances of Christmas, and is said to have encouraged the bringing of evergreen trees inside and lighting them with candles. Presbyterians, on the other hand, were a late holdout against the celebration of Christmas, and when Puritans settled in America, they initially banned its celebration (cultural suspicion of the holiday persisted into the mid-1800s in New England).

Gift giving, once a tradition welcoming in the New Year, slowly shifted to Christmas in the 1800s. In the last hundred years, Christmas has become a phenomenon of unrestrained spending to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s even become an international sensation in countries with virtually no official tie to the teachings of Christianity. To me, it’s curious that religious leaders do so little to correct this orgy of spending, redirecting those energies toward the holiday’s true meaning.

I’ve visited many churches in town during this Advent season, an annual time of reflection and preparation of recognition of the birth of Jesus, and with only one exception, I’ve heard “business as usual” sermons on many different topics including parables or explications of passages of Scripture unrelated to the coming Christmas season.

Thankfully, one pastor mentioned “Advent Conspiracy.” Advent Conspiracy (see adventconspiracy.org) is a movement started nine years ago to correct the excesses of this season. Its website states these four simple aims: “Advent Conspiracy is a global movement of people and churches resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption by choosing a revolutionary Christmas through Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.”

It’s simple and easily accomplished. Some families have written to me telling me wonderful stories of how Advent Conspiracy has changed their perspectives, helping them become better Christian citizens of the world, fulfilling the truth of the Gospel.

This contrasts with pollsters’ predictions that average American spending for Christmas will be $830 per family, with many spending over $1,000, the highest amount since the Great Recession of 2008.

Who hasn’t had a family gift opening with squalling children, hurt feelings, and a numb sense after the gifts are all open, not to mention mounting debt as a result? I’ve seen it many times; it’s not pleasant. Christmas spending is a huge shot in the arm for our economy, but wouldn’t it be better to more wisely use those resources during the year to recognize family birthdays in turn?

Christmas is “not your birthday,” as the Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reminds me yearly. For Christians, at least, it’s Jesus’ birthday — to be observed in a manner reflecting all the glory and praise back to Him for the marvelous gift of grace God gave a fallen world. (And yes, I realize practitioners of other religions, plus atheists and agnostics, observe Christmas traditions that have become a part of pop culture.)

Despite the misgivings outlined above, I think Christmas is a wonderful time of year to look forward to and celebrate the birth of Christ in Scripture, spoken word, and song. It is also the least invasive time in which we can invite friends and acquaintances to our place of worship to celebrate this joyous time. For parents, it’s a teachable moment when your children can learn about the beginnings of Christianity. Advent observance can also delve deeply into prophetic scriptural writings, words and music dealing with Messianic anticipation.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Re-examining the meaning of Advent

This Sunday, Advent Sunday, signals two significant events in many denominations. First, the church year for many mainline denominations begins. Second, Advent begins: an annual period of about four weeks before Christmas, which for 1,500 years has been marked by fasting, repentance, hoping and prayerfully pondering the first and second Advents. Advent offers real meaning to the season, especially providing teachable moments for children and those new to the Christian faith. While Advent is primarily observed by Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as mainline Protestant denominations such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Congregational, other denominations are also slowly adopting its observance.

Sadly, for many Christians, Advent only marks the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when expensive holiday decorations go up in, on and around their houses. Then too, parents ponder, and often agonize over, what they are going to give family members and themselves for Christmas. The National Retail Federation survey for Christmas 2015 finds that holiday shoppers plan to spend an average $463 on family members, up from $458 last year and the highest in survey history. Average spending per person is expected to reach $805, with more than half of shoppers planning to splurge on non-gift items for themselves.

Contrast this with the loving charity embedded in Baxter Road Bible Church’s December giving program, where all church income is donated to those in need in this community. Pastor Bob Mather told me this week that, to date, $300,000 has been donated to “to help the poor, the needy and those going through a hard time.” Members suggest which local organizations receive this aid.

“We have found that the more generous we are, the better off we are financially,” Mather says. “You truly cannot out-give God.” BRBC’s program goes under the title “It’s Not Your Birthday.” That’s such an excellent idea. A few other local churches might designate one Christmas offering for this purpose, but December’s offerings? Incredible!

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable,” wrote Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While imprisoned in Germany during World War II, he penned some thoughts to friends reflecting on the Advent season. “It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Advent goes much deeper than much of what we see and experience in most churches.

Changing attitudes are slowly being seen in other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, where Advent is not a core tradition. Joe Carter, communications specialist for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an article titled “Southern Baptists and Advent: Four Things to Know” that acknowledges changing attitudes in that denomination, writes: “With the exception of Christmas and Easter, Southern Baptist congregations in America generally do not observe the days of the Western church calendar. Instead, they tend to follow the pattern of the Puritans, who believed following the liturgical calendar violated their liberty of conscience (many Puritans refused to celebrate any holidays besides the Lord’s Day). Some Baptist churches, however, have begun to incorporate Advent observance in their preparations for Christmas.”

Traditional Advent music looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, and a traditional observance of Advent avoids Christmas carols, which are are reserved for celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve. The watchful anticipation expressed in these hymns — such as “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” or “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” — is part of the attraction of Advent. From the perspective of one observing a traditional liturgical calendar, singing Christmas songs during Advent would be like a spoiler for a movie you were looking forward to seeing. Nevertheless, many congregations do so. Last year, when I asked a pastor why his congregation was singing carols during Advent, I was told they skipped traditional Advent hymns in favor of more cheerful music.

Advent sermons often address the key themes of each Advent Sunday: hope, love, joy and peace. They’re linked to the four purple Advent candles in a wreath of evergreen, lit in order each Sunday as a new theme is taken up.. On Christmas Eve, a white candle in the center of the wreath is lit to signify Jesus, the light of the world.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in a sermon titled “The What and the When of the Christ Child,” said: “People like us have careful work to do in Advent, to weave our way between two big dangers. On the one hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who specialize in times and dates and schedules, who know with precision the time of Christ’s coming and who speak confidently of millennia and pre-millennia and post-millennia. … They know too much and reduce God’s freedom to the timetable of their ideology. On the other hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who are offended by those people, and who in reaction are in love with their comfortable affluence and who imagine that it will not get any better than this, and who expect no gospel arrival at any time ever. People like us live in that awkward place amid those who know too much and those who expect nothing.”

Advent is a wonderful time to challenge and strengthen your faith and can be a useful force for sharing and Christian growth.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Church apps gain a foothold among local churches

Since Apple first released its game-changing iPhone in 2007, apps — and smartphone apps in particular — have changed the way we access the Internet and the way we use our smartphones.

I’ve written about apps in the past (you can find my previous coverage at (tinyurl.com/nfch7xn), but as different churches adopt the technology or adapt the ways in which they use it, the subject is worth revisiting.

In April 2011, I first became aware of local church apps when ChangePoint staffer, Adam Legg, (changepoint.com) excitedly showed me the church’s new app. ChangePoint may have been the first Alaska church to release an app, but slowly other churches began rolling out apps. During this developmental period I asked many churches, obvious targets for app use, why they were not developing them. Consistently I heard money cited as the No. 1 reason, though I suspect in reality churches failed to understand apps and their potential value for their faith communities.

Adam — now ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor — recently shared the congregation’s changing vision for their app noting. “In over 4 years since rollout, our app’s been downloaded on almost 9,000 devices and used hundreds of thousands of times,” he said. “In the spring of 2011, when we launched our app, it was estimated that 35 percent of Americans owned a smartphone; that number is now around 70 percent. A recent Forrester Research study showed 85 percent of the time people use their smartphones, they are using apps. We see this as an area continuing to provide big opportunities for our church to reach people where they are.”

But it’s not all about the app.

“While we are incredibly pleased with the growth and usage of our app, we must remember it’s only one tool in our church’s digital communication strategy,” he said. “Social Media, website, video storytelling, and many other tools are used here at ChangePoint to bring a message of ‘Life in Christ’ to thousands of people every week. Digital media is changing how people communicate, and in turn, the church must take note and adjust our communication as well. The ChangePoint app has been a huge step in helping us do just that.”

Using Apple’s app store, I searched for Anchorage and Alaska church apps. I found 12 in Anchorage, and 10 outside of Anchorage. You can find the Anchorage listing on my website at churchvisits.com showing various features each church has implemented. Most of the listed church apps also have Android counterparts, and some have been released for Windows phones. Churches with apps usually have app links on their websites. Grace Christian School was listed under Anchorage churches, and St. John United Methodist uses a generic app, which depends on you entering a special code to locate their portion, not a sure methodology.

Most apps offer archived sermons for replay. A few allow users to watch those sermons, and fewer still offer live streaming of a sermon as it’s being delivered. Anchorage Baptist Temple recently added this feature. Many apps offer Bibles, Bible plans for reading, church calendars, and access to blogs or social media. Online giving has become an important option for apps, and bulletins are very helpful.

Baxter Road Bible Church, a rapidly growing East Anchorage church, recently added an app and updated its website. Both are attractive and functional.

Asked about the genesis of their app, BRBC’s (www.baxterroad.org) associate pastor, John Carpenter said, “We saw how this technology worked. Phones have become more than just phones anymore. Our website’s purpose is to get information out to the body of the church. We see apps as an extension of our website. I refer to our website and app as BRBC’s Costco-like sampler approach. It gives people a taste of what we offer; it’s easy and convenient. We find that listening to our messages/sermons is probably the key driver for its use. We also find our people appreciate up-to-date information on what’s happening in our church community. Donating via app and website is certainly growing. When my family and I took our vacation this summer, it was a great way to stay in touch with our church family.”

A church plant, True North Church, (midtown.truenorthanchorage.com) effectively used apps as part of their church growth strategy. Unlike most churches, they developed their own app in 2011 aided by a local Christian developer.

True North is growing and attributes some heartwarming stories to their app.

“A young woman began attending True North several years ago. Coming out of a divorce caused by her infidelity, she began the process of healing and restoration while attending True North,” the Rev. Brent Williams told me. “Through this process, she realized her need to reconcile with her ex-husband and take ownership of her sin. The ex-husband began listening to our sermons through our iPhone app while living in the Lower 48. By God’s grace, one year ago, the husband and wife reconciled and were remarried during one of our church services on a Sunday morning.”

Brent concludes, “Our app enhances our ministry by making the Gospel accessible to a culture entrenched in technology — a culture that is on the move. The app allows those inside the church and those not yet part of the church to stay connected to the weekly teaching and weekly updates of True North Church.”

I believe Alaska church apps provide better missional growth opportunities than, for example, expensive short-term mission trips. I applaud these churches for their vision and hope many more will join them soon. Their growth is due, in no small way, to their deployment of today’s technology for today’s generation.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Vacation Bible Schools – July & August 2015 – Anchorage

Here is a list of Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) scheduled for July & August 2015.  It may not be complete but is the result of a Google search going down to the first 5 or 6 pages of the search results. Clicking on the name of the church will take you to the church website. If your church is not listed and should be, email me at churchvisits@gmail.com and I’ll add you.
7/13-17/15 St John UMC
7/13-17/15 First Baptist – Eagle River
7/13-17/15 Baxter Road Bible Church
7/20-24/15 First Christian Methodist Episcopal
7/20-24/15 Holy Cross Catholic
7/27-31/15 Chapel By the Sea
7/27-31/15 Lutheran Church of Hope
7/29-8/2/15 Anchorage Lutheran
8/3-8/7/15 Peace Lutheran – Eagle River

The changing ways churches use websites

Since moving to Alaska 15 years ago, I’ve seen Anchorage’s faith community rapidly adopt digital media — especially in the past five to seven years. Some churches have been slow adopters, a frustration to those who stay current with technology. Others have rushed headlong into digital media trying to adopt everything in sight with no clear strategy for doing so. A few churches have meaningfully adopted digital media, adeptly providing clear benefits to members and visitors. This column today explores the growing importance of one type of such media — church websites — locally.

Church websites provide basic church information and are an important digital medium. A 2012 Duke University study found only 55.7 percent of U.S. congregations had websites. Today, it’s estimated that closer to 60 to 65 percent have websites. Even in Anchorage there are a number of churches without websites or with only a minimal presence via a mention on their national denominational websites. Churches without websites, nationally and locally, tend to be smaller, and fewer in members.

Three years ago, Grey Matter Research in a study of church website use revealed a number of key findings. They noted three types of visitors to church websites: those who attend that church, those who regularly attend services but at other congregations and those who do not attend services regularly in any congregation.

What church website visitors look for is revealing. Most frequently (43 percent) they look for times of services. Twenty-nine percent are looking for activities offered, such as youth groups, studies or events. Twenty-eight percent looked for maps or church location. Twenty-six percent watched streaming video, and 26 percent listened to streaming audio. Twenty-two percent were checking out the church’s beliefs, 18 percent were requesting prayer and 15 percent downloaded a podcast. The study authors noted that the most basic items looked for, time of worship and location or map, were missing in approximately half of the church websites checked in sample areas of Memphis, Tennessee and Grants Pass, Oregon. The same is true in Anchorage. I’ve written about it many times.

The study also noted that, in the previous 12 months, more than 17 million adults who do not regularly attend worship services visited the website of a church or other place of worship. In other words, if churches don’t do a great job on their websites, they won’t be found or visited — both a huge challenge and wonderful opportunity.

I’ve visited and written about St. Benedict’s Catholic Church several times. From the first time I looked at their website (www.stbenedictsak.com), it made sense. Commonly sought items are there, on their main website page: service times, location, youth ministry information, bulletin and homily podcasts are all there and constantly up-to-date. Also included are statements about what they believe. It’s clean, functional and certainly satisfies demand for the commonly searched information noted previously. It does not have all the bells and whistles some contemporary Christian churches add to make their websites look extremely modern.

Another church website providing much of what website visitors look for is Baxter Road Bible Church’s (www.baxterroad.org). It’s clean, high-energy and refreshing. Recently updated, it provides worship times, location, sermon replays and information about activities, all on the first page. Like St. Benedict’s, BRBC also allows members to contribute online. This rapidly growing church has used their website to provide much of the same information for years, but have changed the look and feel to enhance its utility.

Cornerstone Church (www.akcornerstone.org/) has maintained an excellent, current website for years. They are also one of the few churches that allow visitors to watch recent sermons. If a website doesn’t offer watching, a church might still provide a way to listen to a recent sermon. A growing number of Alaska churches now offer apps for the iPhone or Android platforms. Cornerstone’s app offers the ability to listen to sermons or download them. Some church apps only allow you to listen. Few church apps currently offer the ability to watch sermons. I’ll deal with the benefits of church apps in a future column in this series. Clearly, apps are a powerful tool, for much more than just listening to sermons.

If you are a prospective visitor looking for a church, I suggest looking for the following things on church websites. First, look for location and service times. Driving is time-consuming and costs money. Try to locate a congregation that might satisfy your needs in the immediate vicinity. If you do become involved in that church, you are more apt to enjoy a wide array of activities if you live closer to it. That first visit is also a lot closer so you’re more apt to go. Next, peruse their statement of beliefs, which should be located on their first page or one click away from it. Does it align what you are looking for? A virtual visit might be a good next step. You should be able to listen to or watch a recent sermon. Sermons are important as they occupy one-third to one-half of the time of an average church visit.

The churches and websites mentioned above illustrate a cross-section of churches in Anchorage that offer the information on which visitors can rely when seeking a church. There are many churches not offering enough quality information through their websites to allow potential guests an opportunity to assess them for a visit. No slight was intended by not mentioning other churches. I believe each of the mentioned churches do a great service by providing quality websites for potential guests, and for their members. The aforementioned study addressing members says, “Among online Americans who attend worship services once a month or more, 28 percent have visited their own congregation’s website in the last thirty days, 44 percent have done so in the past six months, 57 percent have done so in the past year, and a total of 68 percent have done so at some point while attending that place of worship.”

Happy churching!

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Faith community giving offers local help during the holidays – 12/13/14

In my last column, I mentioned the outrageous sums people spend to celebrate Christmas by extravagant giving to one another, especially children, as well as alternative fundraising efforts by our faith community. Today’s column features fresh updates and reader comments about giving, plus some brief Advent music thoughts.

Advent Music Miscues

Advent began on Nov. 30 and many churches, including mainlines, began singing Christmas carols, just as the commercial radio stations commenced broadcasting them too. Traditionally, Advent is considered a mini-Lent, a symbolic period of hopeful watching and waiting for Jesus’ birth. Under this tradition, hymnody is restrained and songs such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “O Come, Divine Messiah,” are used. Unfortunately, many churches unabashedly burst into carol singing as if Christmas had already arrived, echoing the offensive commercial push that makes Christmas happen from before Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. Part of what makes the Christmas season unique, religiously, is observing a period of looking and longing for the Messiah. To make it an accomplished fact seems to play into the hands of commercialism. Ultimately, by Christmas Eve, many are sick and tired of the sacred and secular Christmas music of the season.

Readers Voice Advent Concerns

One reader comments, “While I have donated years of cash payroll deductions to support charitable organizations, I don’t think it helps our children learn the life lessons of charity. My girls baked cookies, turkeys, vegetables, etc., to take to the shelter. The joy and excitement they felt was real, the handshakes and smiles of homeless patrons was real.”

I recall my parents taking their four children to hospitals, nursing homes, shut-ins, and church events to actively participate in sharing the joys of Advent with those in need. Toys were minor considerations. Our real needs and those of others were paramount.

Giving Updates

Last Sunday I attended four events in our faith community, three of which I mentioned in last week’s column.

Baxter Road Bible Church Service

I like this Bible-based church, and its friendly members. Rev. Bob Mather’s message on Sunday dwelt on the key themes of Christmas. As he observed, “It’s all about surrender.” When the offering was taken, Mather noted this was the fourth year all December offerings would be given directly to charity. BRBC confidently believes this year will push them up over $250,000 given over the past four years.

Mitzvah Mall

Attending the Mitzvah Mall was more fun than writing about it. Congregation Beth Sholom opened their synagogue from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday to 24 local nonprofit organizations with primary interests in our area. The few exceptions were Malawi Children’s Village and Helping Hand for Nepal, locally based but outwardly oriented. Nothing was sold. Donations were given, many in the names of others, to fund these organizations. I peeked at some of the checks being written and they were substantial. It was a crazy good time seeing the vibrant energy flowing from this event. Over $15,000 was given to these organizations in those 3 hours. I checked out every nonprofit and discovered some new to me. One great idea I learned was the concept of Tzedakah money. Each week the Jewish youth bring this Tzedakah (charity) money to Religious School where it is pooled. When Mitzvah Mall rolls around, the money is split up and given back to individual youth as Mitzvah Bucks which they spend for those organizations where they believe the money will do the most good. Congregation Beth Sholom transfers the money to those organizations, and is also willing to talk about their Tzedakah program with other faith organizations that might want to start their own youth giving initiatives. What a wonderful energizing way to involve the youth in giving to charity!

First Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Market

Arriving at First Presbyterian Church Sunday afternoon, just as they were closing, I had an opportunity to observe this new event. Approximately 10 “vendors” were there with holiday gift items. Bean’s Café was there with soups and coffee as was the Downtown Soup Kitchen. The Apparent Project had well-crafted handmade Haitian items for sale. The group’s purpose is to help parents take care of their kids, avoiding relinquishment and abandonment. I’m sure this event will grow next holiday season.

First and Samoan United Methodist Church free community dinner

These two congregations provided a tasty dinner for all called “A Place at the Table.” Served buffet style in the fellowship room of First United Methodist Church, many meals were gladly enjoyed, a great number by homeless and street people. It was a meaningful event for me personally as I met two delightful members with separate personal missions, which you’ll read about later.

Downtown Soup Kitchen connection

As a result of last week’s article, Sherrie Laurie, executive director of the Downtown Soup Kitchen, introduced her organization to me. This remarkable organization provides daily soup meals, showers, and clothing to many underserved residents of Anchorage. For years, ChangePoint and City Church have provided heavy lifting for this great organization, a load now being shared by 27 congregations in our faith community. BP, ConocoPhillips, and the Boy Scouts of America are also huge supporters of Downtown Soup Kitchen, as are hundreds of volunteers. In their beautiful new facility, they feed 350-500 people daily, provide showers for 400 people per month, do more than 300 loads of laundry, and distribute more than 700 pieces of clothing. All of this is supported by more than 1,800 monthly volunteer hours. Currently they’re distributing about 350 backpacks, purchased for $20 by individual donors who then fill them appropriately with supplies for men or women. For a truly worthy cause, I suggest putting Downtown Soup Kitchen on your giving list.

Personally, I’m cheered by this faith community outpouring for those in need. Clearly, I’ve not covered all local projects and fundraising but I’m rewarded to mention these and have a personal opportunity to be a part of giving to these worthy organizations. Keep those stories coming in directly to churchvisits@gmail.com so they can be included in future columns.