Tag Archives: Mary Bolin

Three church visits on the first Sunday in Advent

Last Sunday was the first in the season of Advent. That morning I visited three churches along the O’Malley Road corridor. In last Saturday’s column, I mentioned that not all churches observe Advent, and on Sunday, I set out to visit several services to see what different congregations do during this liturgical season.

Amazing Grace Lutheran Church

My visits to Amazing Grace over the years have been satisfying, providing deep spiritual experiences. This time of year they offer three services: 8:15, 9:30 and 11 a.m. The sanctuary was decorated with white poinsettias, especially massed around a rough-hewn altar. An Advent wreath with four blue candles and one white one was positioned on the left. A trimmed Christmas tree was on the right side. Five banners hung from the large sanctuary cross, each spelling out one letter of the word “peace.”

The gathering song was “Prepare the Royal Highway,” a message of waiting for the Messiah. Not all music was traditional Advent music, but it offered distinctly strong theology.

The Advent candle for the day was lit early in the service, which was strongly liturgical; the first and second Gospel readings were from Luke 1, while the third reading was from Luke 2. Pastor Adam Barnhart’s message explored the readings from Luke within a personal story about how he asked his wife to marry him.

Communion was celebrated with the entire congregation present in a circle around the altar. At the conclusion of the Holy Eucharist, he prayed for all while hands were joined. Amazing Grace has always underscored the amazing grace we have. I enjoyed my visit immensely.

Cornerstone Church

My visits to Cornerstone have been pleasant and memorable. I especially enjoy the Rev. Brad Sutter’s preaching and I was welcomed warmly by greeter Mary Bolin. The 9:30 a.m. service started with the church’s talented praise band. They sang five contemporary Christian songs for about 40 minutes before the sermon. I felt the group’s volume — about 100-105 decibels, like many contemporary praise band churches — was unnecessary. Churches are responsible for the well-being of their congregants, and loud music threatens to damage listeners’ hearing. Congregational singing was drowned out, a common occurrence with loud church music. I estimated about half the congregants were not singing or were merely mouthing the words, in contrast with Amazing Grace, where everyone sang. The music was no different from any other time of year, with no Advent or pre-Christmas messages.

Sutter’s sermon was based on Romans 12:6-8, dealing with the gifts of grace. He noted he was following an outline he’d used before. Although well-delivered, it seemed repetitive and ran much longer than I expected. I had to leave before his remarks were completed to attend an 11 a.m. service in a nearby church. To watch his sermon, go to akcornerstone.org and click on “sermons.” Cornerstone does not observe the Advent tradition. When I asked Sutter, the church pastor, about this, he said, “We are flexible regarding the Sundays leading up to Christmas each year. Last year, during each of the Sundays of Advent, we did focus on a theme related to Christ’s coming.” This year, Sutter said, the church plans to explore the theme “Why Did Jesus Come?” over a series of services in December.

Christian Church of Anchorage

I attended Christian Church of Anchorage after hearing they planned to sing hymns. Indeed, when I arrived just after 11 a.m., they were singing hymns. Six hymns and a sending song were sung during the service. A group of four women, two men (one with a guitar) and pianist helped bring them alive. Unlike Cornerstone, you could clearly hear people joining in and singing these hymns. It was a pleasant experience and included some of the most recognizable music I’d heard that day.

The Rev. Deryl Titus’ sermon was based on the “60 Days of Celebration,” and drew from Matthew 1:18-25.

“Since Thanksgiving and Christmas are only a day each and they come and fade so rapidly, I chose to use the whole months of November and December” for the 60 days of celebration theme, Titus wrote in a subsequent note. “Every week we are realizing how to celebrate not two days but two months.”

At the conclusion of his sermon, Communion was served. I was greeted before and after service by a number of people. While not an Advent service, it offered symbolism prefiguring Advent. The service and sermon can be watched on the church’s website.

This trio of services on the first Sunday of Advent made for an interesting mix. I’d be interested in hearing about your Advent experiences.

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, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Mary Bolin – Cornerstone’s Greeter Extraordinaire

As long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve emphasized warm greetings, conveying a sense of hospitality, and friendliness and warmth as two of the four criteria I look for in my church visits. Greeting members and guests appropriately is one of the most critical things a church can do. It sets the tone for the time people spend at church. Unfortunately most Anchorage churches fail to understand the importance of training and maintaining effective greeters in their churches. A few churches have them and this blog post highlights one such extraordinary church greeter.

Early in my visits, I visited Cornerstone Church and discovered Mary Bolin, a key part of their highly effective greeter ministry. I was shocked when I returned some months later to find she greeted me by name. In the intervening years, I’ve made a number of visits to Cornerstone and have observed Mary at work. I could use many superlatives to describe Mary, but the key one would ultimately be the result. She’s effective!

One Sunday I visited Cornerstone. As Mary warmly greeted me I asked if Pastor Brad was speaking. She indicated that he wasn’t as there was a guest speaker instead. I mentioned I was leaving because I’d come to hear Pastor Brad. Mary countered saying the guest speaker had delivered a wonderful message in the earlier service and that it was powerful. She was so right as it turned out to be one of the most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard in an Anchorage church.

I’m pleased to present this interview with Mary Bolin. The bolded text text are my questions of her. Mary’s responses are non-bolded.

How long have you been a greeter at Cornerstone?
I do not remember when I started to greet officially. I think I started in the ‘90’s. I do, however, remember my motive, and that was to make anyone who came through our doors feel welcome; newcomers and regular attendees alike, early, on time or late arrivers. Most people like to see someone who is obviously glad to see them.

Have you received any special training to be a greeter? Are you or Cornerstone providing any training to keep filling the ranks of qualified greeters?
I have not received any special training. At some point I was on the email list of a famous greeter who put out greeting tips. I forget now who he is, but he did have some good points that I may or may not be using. For me, greeting is not a technique; it is a state of mind, a welcoming state of mind. Even when I goof up and call folks by the wrong names, or put couples together who are not couples (as I did with you the first time we met!), if people perceive the sincerity of a welcome and a genuine interest in them as people, much is forgiven.

My single criterion for anyone with an interest in being a greeter is this: SHOW UP. I do not set up lists, I do not call and remind the greeters, if they say they will greet, I expect they will. Greeting is a wonderful privilege, it is not a task, it is not a duty. It is the best ministry in the whole hierarchy of church ministries. I have been a part of other ministries like teaching Sunday school, heading up women’s groups, serving on church council, serving on pulpit committees, and so forth. This is the best. I do have my new greeters greet with me for a couple of Sundays just to get a notion of my philosophy, but as individuals, each of them will greet in the manner than suits them best.

What kinds of things are guests looking for when they first visit your church and how do you help them find them?
A broad spectrum of things people are looking for: Do you have classes for my children? Youth groups? Women’s bible studies? Small Groups? Prayer teams? Men’s groups? Occasionally someone will ask about the kind of music we have or wonder what denomination we are, but not often. I will answer the questions I can and direct them to others for answers I do not know. Frequently folks will have found us online and will have read our statement of faith. Lots of times people say, “I drive by here every day and just decided to come.”

I understand you are a chaplain in Anchorage. Would you share the nature of your work with our readers? Does your work as a chaplain have any bearing on your mission at Cornerstone?
I am a Police and Fire Chaplain. That ministry is one of the greatest joys in my life. In that capacity, we Chaplains minister to the officers and staff of the Police and Fire Departments, as well as some associated entities such as the Medical Examiner’s Office. We are part of the police team in that we are dispatched, along with the officers, to incidents where we assist victims or friends and family members of persons who are injured or deceased. This allows the officers to conduct their investigations while the chaplains care for the others.

Being a Police Chaplain is kind of a cousin to a “Greeter Chaplain”. Many times, as greeter, I have the opportunity to minister to, pray with, and listen to individuals who come my way.

Some readers maintain the friendliness of the welcome of guests to a church has nothing to do with whether or not they will choose to return for another visit at that church? Do you agree with this statement?
Well, I think it is in the nature of human beings that we desire to be in relationship. A warm welcome can be the start of a relationship. Whether or not a person returns to our particular church does not concern me, other than if they do not return I miss out on getting to know him or her. I do not greet in order to attract people to Cornerstone Church. I greet because of what I said earlier. I want people to know someone is glad to see them who are interested in them as individuals valuable to God. Often I have said to people who say they are church shopping,”There are a lot of good churches in Anchorage. Try not to be swayed by your feelings, the music, the preaching or the youth programs. Rather, listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit places you in a church body, not only will you be fed, but the wonderful gifts God has given you will be used in ministry to others.”

Greeters in some churches ask seemingly endless questions of guests. “How did you find us? What church do you normally attend? etc.” Would you comment on the relevance of these questions?
It is helpful to me to know how someone has found Cornerstone. It is not an easy place to get to, at least for first timers. So I often do ask that question. It is a nice point of engagement for further conversation and helps me (sometimes) remember them the next time I see them. I deliberately do not ask about other churches because that is information not relevant to me. I wouldn’t want to participate in hearing anything bad about another church. Usually I ask people their names and try to connect in a way that I might remember them, as well as give them the lay of the land, i.e., “We have coffee, tea and water here in the foyer and you are welcome to take it into the auditorium during the service”.

What do you think when you approach a new guest(s)?
Usually I’m thinking, “Have I met this person/family before?” I usually approach that situation pretty directly by asking, if I’m not sure, Have I met you before? It would be unusual for me to ask, Is this your first time here? People are very gracious and whether I have met them before (several times, even) or it is a first time meeting, they are kindly to me and friendly back.

Cornerstone is unique in that guests are offered a gift. Would you comment on your welcome gift and what is given?
For a few years we did give gifts, and good stuff too like chocolate bars (large and good quality), coffee mugs, travel mugs, good books. Now we do not. The idea behind the gifts was to meet the newcomers. However, it became apparent that the gifts started to become the focus, and the meeting of someone was not important. Sometimes I would be talking to a person, turn around to find all of the gifts had disappeared, while I had not met any of the persons who had them! Enough with the gifts.

Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts with Church Visits readers. It is my hope your insights might take root in more Anchorage churches, giving a new dimension to the proclamation of the Gospel. The “Field of Dreams” philosophy no longer works in churchianity. Many Christians and their churches have lost their sense of uniqueness that marked them, effectively, for hundreds of years. Effective greetings and conveying hospitality go back to Abram, thousands of years ago. God bless you as you continue to touch guests and members at Cornerstone.