Tag Archives: short-term missions

A training approach that seeks to redefine missions – one person at a time

Summers provoke a burst of interest in missions, both here in Alaska and abroad. Some provide demonstrable good, others may target faith groups who differ from the sponsoring mission organization’s ideals, and yet others may insinuate themselves into native communities in culturally insensitive ways. We should not ignore local missions by preferring foreign missions. All missions could benefit from changes in approach.

In my June 10 column, “Africa is showing Alaska how to do missions,” I focused on the training Faith Christian Community has offered our community for years through Community Health Evangelism. Faith’s CHE trainer, Larry Kingry, has trained over 100 people during this time, providing them with tools to approach missions insightfully. Many trainees do not take expensive trips to foreign destinations; some do, but a goodly number employ those skills in everyday interactions with people here and in other parts of Alaska.

Kingry was helpful connecting me with CHE-trained individuals. One of them was Heidi Navarro of Community Pregnancy Center.

“We had six of our people trained in CHE,” Navarro said, “and now we not only include our clients in the design of services in the very beginning, but we stop and think through our strategies in helping. We want to build the dignity of those we help and for them to take ownership of the solutions.”

Heidi offered an example of a time where CHE training was useful. She’d started planning a Christmastime “birthday party for Jesus” for kids of clients. “I was all pumped up,” she said.”I would like to do this party for the kids but I stopped myself. I thought, wait! CHE talks about ownership.” She asked a client to take the lead, and own it. The client enlisted her friends, “reaching a whole new people group than before.” The event, held at University Baptist Church was a great success. Heidi says they also use the training day-to-day to encourage a team atmosphere, asking “Is this CHE?”

Joyce Matthews can be found most days working at Downtown Soup Kitchen. CHE-trained in 2014, she talked about her mission experience before CHE. “I have been going to Uganda on short-term missions for years,” Matthews said. “After taking CHE, training and education has been my focus versus taking huge suitcases of gifts. I have been promoting CHE as a strategy for development.

Previously, during twice-yearly trips to Uganda, Joyce noticed whatever she brought or did, or her actions on behalf of other people subsequently became “expected,” establishing a dependency in the Ugandans. Now, she only takes books, using them to share the Gospel.

If needs are expressed to her, she poses the question, “What resources do you have here to solve this problem?” an important key in development as taught by CHE. At DSK, clients also take meaningful responsibility for their actions, consistent with CHE principles. For instance, when a client uses a shower but leaves it messy, they’re called back to clean it if they expect to use it again.

Local real estate agent Fred Owen said, “I was a field coordinator for our church for missions in the Philippines. For years we have poured many thousands of dollars in relief efforts (that were not relief) and created huge dependencies on our church. We destroyed initiative. We then trained 30 pastors in three levels of CHE hoping to turn them away from dependency from outside funds. It still hasn’t happened; it is so hard to break the cycle of long-term dependency. They see Western culture as having unlimited money. Good intent gets lost.” He admits CHE is changing this mindset, but it takes time.

Fred encourages those considering CHE training to “Come with a very open mind if you are considering CHE training. If you have that open mindset, the lightning bolt will come to you. It’s about becoming disciples, not fixing everything.”

A clinical professional from Fairbanks, Jo Miller, took her CHE training last fall. “I started traveling overseas with mission groups as early as 2005, and although I enjoyed the work, I always felt like something was ‘missing’ from the end result after each mission. CHE has provided the missing key with the concepts of sustainability and a clear, measurable long-lasting effect on every community touched. After the CHE training, my entire view on both local and foreign missions has drastically changed along with the choice in what organization I may choose to travel. I am so much clearer on my mission goals and truly feel my efforts are directed by a spiritual basis of love and compassion while providing a solid foundation for those I have the honor and privilege to work alongside in every community.”

Amanda McKinley, a Kenai Peninsula nurse recently returned from Ghana after working with CHE-related programs for two years. I first met Mandy, at my May interview of Dayo Obaweya, regional coordinator of West Africa Community Health Evangelism. Her parents are the directors of Child Evangelism Fellowship; Mandy clearly has a passion for ministry.

“Through the ministry of my parents,” she said, “I have had a passion to help others become their own teachers so that they become less dependent on outside resources. Through nursing work I have seen that not just spiritual needs must be addressed. I think that often the Western Church completely separates spiritual and physical. But when we look at the life of Christ he did not ignore the physical needs around him nor did he ignore the spiritual, he addressed both.”

In Ghana, Mandy helped start Children’s CHE and Women’s Cycle of Life. Children’s CHE introduces children to learn through Bible and physical health prevention stories. They learn how to purify water, make fly and mosquito traps, prevent malaria, and make latrines to prevent disease. Beadwork was taught to help children make jewelry to sell to help their families or pay school fees. Parents become more interested in adult CHE programs as they are taught by their children.

The Women’s Cycle of Life gives women a forum to discuss pregnancy, danger signs in pregnancy, preparing for delivery, nutritious foods for children, and how God values women. Mandy said, “Some of the women told us that they were always arguing and fighting but when they started to meet together for WCL they learned how to get along and work towards a goal. They have worked together to start a market in their area.”

Kingry is offering a CHE training over two weekends in September. For more information and to sign up, visit pixelark.com/registration/signup/?5050.

Local blogger comments on South Africa mission trip column & letters to ADN editor

Last week I discovered a local blogger had articulated his views and responses regarding the South Africa mission trip I wrote about in May.  He did a creditable job in detailing more thoroughly some of my presented material dealing with the problems  these short-term mission trips present.  In his views, he suggests the mother’s letter to the editor may have complicated the issue, especially with regard to her participating son/daughter.


My column was not submitted to discredit this particular church, but to point out these types of short-term mission trips do more for the participant than the people on the other end.  In light of all of the evidence these trips do more harm than good, long-term, I’ve suggested this church present an op-ed regarding their views.

Unfortunately, in Alaska, we’re often more comfortable dealing with issues on the other side of the world rather than providing caring Christian services to those in our own neighborhoods. It is my hope these articles on missions will bring missionary activities into clearer focus here in Alaska.

Africa is showing Alaska how to do missions

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a large local church youth group going to South Africa for a short-term mission trip. Although I purposely did not name them, they were subsequently identified by a member in a recently published letter to the editor as from St. John United Methodist Church. They and other local churches have participated in a number of such missions the last few years, sending groups to Africa despite widespread information such trips usually do more for the participant than those on the other end. In fact, most of such trips, according to the Africans, do more damage than help.

A popular definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There has to be a better way to conduct missions and this column describes it.

Recently, I had an opportunity to interview a knowledgeable spokesman from Africa representing a network of churches and nongovernmental organizations that understand the limitations of well-intentioned individuals. That person, Dayo Obaweya, is regional coordinator of West Africa Community Health Evangelism covering an area equivalent to the Lower 48, comprised of 17 countries in which more than 300 million people have a per capita income of $1 to $2 dollars a day.

I was intrigued by a talk he gave at Faith Christian Community’s Sunday service last month in which he said WACHE’s goal was “to bring people out of poverty into the love of Christ.” Contrast that with the goal of so many short-term mission trips we know of. My interview with Dayo was the next day.

WACHE is an affiliate of Community Health Evangelism a Christ-centered educational program used by hundreds of churches and organizations across the globe. Obaweya was visiting U.S. members. Faith Christian Community is a CHE member and has trained over 100 individuals in CHE methods.

CHE’s core strength is in training. The organization describes itself as “a plan for individual and community development through physical and spiritual teaching.” Trained CHE members don’t do development but “teach CHE to local trainers, who teach CHE to their own people in some of the poorest places in the world. These people do development for themselves.”

The CHE website describes how this all happens: “Local people do it for themselves by: Choosing their own people to be in charge; Choosing their own priorities of what to change; Choosing their own people to be trained to teach house to house; Finding their own resources; and accomplishing their own goals when and where they choose. Local people own and manage their CHE plans. We just train their teachers. CHE is big on ownership!” That’s empowerment at its best.

Obaweya described one such venture in West Africa where a village was asking for a multipurpose community center and school. Indigenous CHE trainers went to this village and did a simplified planning process. They asked if the village had sand, stones, gravel, land and water? They were told yes. Would they supply labor to build it? Yes! Wood for the roof? Yes, we’ll cut locally.

Asked if they had concrete, they said they had 10 of the 100 bags needed. The village was encouraged to pool bits of money to buy more concrete, acquiring 10 more bags. CHE asked government officials in to see the progress. Astounded by their initiative, and finding them the 80 bags the project required, they immediately authorized delivery of the needed shortfall. Local financial pooling raised funds for the tin to cover the roof.

The project turned out to be an unqualified success, using the CHE strategy to achieve community transformation, a major goal of CHE leadership. Obaweya said the building is now used as a meeting hall, church and clinic when government medical workers come to give children medical examinations, etc. Obaweya, who visited it recently, said other surrounding villages had asked this village for help planning needed projects.

Health work is an essential part of what CHE does. CHE trainers go into people’s homes and villages teaching proper sanitation and hygiene principles. They address family size issues by training through Women’s Circle of Life and Men’s Matters groups. Larger families in impoverished parts of West Africa sometimes struggle to survive. Individual couples receive training and instruction in family planning.

Another CHE program trains children in practical matters of hygiene, nutrition, gardening and Christianity. Children bring these life-saving principles home, sharing them with their parents.

CHE affiliates also support initiatives that include microfinance and group savings programs.

WACHE tackles water projects but shuns Western technology for drilling and water extraction, instead choosing low-tech approaches that can be made and maintained locally, when repairs are needed. Too many water projects fail when well-meaning groups from developed countries go in and overengineer projects with little local buy-in, and without the knowledge and ability to maintain them.

CHE’s process is holistic, empowering individuals to help themselves, tending to their mind, body, and spiritual needs. It’s transformative. It resurrects people’s lives which have often been destroyed by Western do-gooders with handout methods destroying personal initiative and depersonalizing individuals and families.

When I asked Obaweya his view of short-term mission trips, he responded by saying, “We don’t want to call it short-term missions. We’d rather call them evangelists. I see them as evangelists across the border. The word short-term mission can become a hindrance,” noting that people coming with this label are not thinking of something that is going to last. Rather WACHE involves them in initiating a process such as child or community health screening, an entry exercise. The ongoing process can then be initiated by the local community.

WACHE’s model weans people away from a culture of dependence by teaching people to organize, plan, build, grow food and learn about God’s love.

Short-term missions have problems. Here’s an alternative

Last week I wrote about the flood of missions tourists coming into Alaska, and those who are leaving Alaska with the same goal in mind. Since then I’ve had an opportunity to speak with a missions representative from Africa visiting Anchorage to support the mission efforts of Faith Christian Community.

But before I share more about Faith Christian Community, it’s important to set the framework.

In his compelling 2011 book “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It),” Robert Lupton wrote: “In the last fifty years, (Africa) has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid. How effective has this aid been? Country by country, Africans are far worse off today than they were a half century ago. Overall per-capita income is lower today than in the 1970s. Over half of Africa’s 700 million population lives on less than $1 a day. Life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels.” Lupton argues that this scenario resulted from created dependency and the destruction of personal initiative, due in part to government aid programs, well-meaning NGOs and missions programs. He also links this to U.S. efforts to eliminate poverty through entitlements, programs and charities, “creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work.”

Many Protestant denominations in Alaska host missions teams, primarily from the Lower 48, to work on churches, ministries and church camps. Often, these well-meaning individuals perform work for which congregations could and should be directly taking  responsibility, but create dependencies because the local attitude is that someone will always do it.

David George, director of missions for the 54-church Chugach Baptist Association (Southern Baptist), calls these groups “partners.” Cleaning up on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers or in Kodiak at the Crab Festival Outreach are important activities for their group of churches.

“In the summer these teams help us in 16 neighborhood parks where we feed children a healthy lunch (they don’t get school lunch in the summer) and conduct Bible Clubs afterwards. Our newer and smaller churches count on the mission teams to help them in promotion, prayer walking and the ministry at the parks,” said George.

“Along with the physical help, the teams bring financial resources that help our small and financially struggling congregations,” he added. “Without their financial assistance, we could not do the ministries noted.”

Some short-term missioners, here and in foreign countries, expect to be tourists, which creates problems. George noted that they’ve experienced this too.

“The only time a mission team has been a hindrance or problem is when they come and expect the local church to host their sight-seeing trip to Alaska. We know those on teams want to experience Alaska and we help them plan a day or two for that, but we need them to work while they are here,” he said. “Some teams, and only a very few, come expecting to be catered to and the churches be a guide for their Alaska vacation. When teams act this way, we make a mental note and never invite them back again.”

That happens in foreign short-term missions too. Many teams are more interested in local sightseeing than the mission itself.

Dayo Obewaya, who is based in Nigeria and serves as the West Africa area coordinator for Community Health Evangelism, told me some ridiculous tales of “short-term missionaries” who were uneasy with local food, water and housing accommodations in the countries he covers. Some went so far as to refuse to drink local water, requiring it be imported from Great Britain — clearly not an inexpensive proposition.

Last year, Southern Baptists announced cutbacks of 600-800 foreign missionaries and support staff due to financial shortfalls. Earlier this year, the total lost was revealed to be 1,132 missionaries. I wonder if any of this is due in part to short-missions adventuring by Southern Baptists, leading to a decline in giving. The saddest part of this story is that many were already the most seasoned, knew the landscape and had made the commitment to serve.

Over the past couple of years, Faith Christian Community has trained more than 100 members in their community health evangelism program, part of the Global CHE Network. They equip local members to serve in their own community, and, if God calls, to other parts of the world. CHE is a worldwide program with training at its core. It addresses poverty in all its forms (physical health, economic, spiritual and social). Obewaya networks with mission organizations and churches in West Africa and beyond. I think CHE and Faith Christian Community have discovered part of the solution and have already put it to work in our local community. I wish more churches were as Alaska-focused as they are.

I’ve come to the conclusion that most branches of Christianity contend with short-term missions problems. Alaska is spectacular and more convenient for Lower 48 churches than other destinations. As such, it is a magnet for people who desire to do a “mission” because it’s such a great place. However, the resources most useful here may not be those being provided. How many come to Alaska to serve without an adequate knowledge of our cultures and their differences from those of the Lower 48? How many think that showing local churches money, hard labor and service projects will rectify our dismal church attendance rate of 1 in 4 attending weekly?

As with foreign-directed short-term missions, we need to seriously think about what is accomplished by missions in Alaska. Is it adventurism, tourism or patching issues? How much good can one week in Alaska accomplish? Proselytizing, or sheep stealing, is clearly not the answer and has provoked distress in many villages. Thoughtful training and preparation of local members, such as at Faith Christian Community, might possibly be the best answer.

About the Author

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who has been visiting Anchorage and other local area churches for over 15 years. Go to his website, churchvisits.com, or follow him on Twitter  at twitter.com/churchvisits or email at churchvisits@gmail.com.

Why short-term mission trips may do more harm than good

Lately I’ve looked at many websites displaying glowing advertisements for short-term missionary activities in Alaska this summer. Many offer a variety of outdoor pursuits, including fishing, boating, wilderness treks and hiking. One featured missionary duties such as cleaning up after messy user who trashed the lower Kenai and Kasilof Rivers with all manner of waste. Is this truly what missionary activity is all about?

It’s intriguing this particular mission’s participants pay $650, plus airfare, to have this experience. Is that what the Gospel is all about? Do atheists, Buddhists, Muslims or Jews do this as well?

Another type of missionary activity is where local churchgoers leave Alaska for other parts of the world to serve on short-term mission trips. A large local church group will shortly depart for South Africa, an expensive trip. What’s really going on here? In a paper published in the journal Trends and Issues in Missions, Liberty University professor Don Fanning makes a powerful case that short-term missions can create dependencies and problems among the very people short-term missionaries are supposed to be helping. South Africa, like Alaska, is about 80 percent Christian.

Church attendance, a key measure of religiosity, shows South Africa’s weekly church attendance at 56-60 percent per week, while recent Gallup data shows Alaska weekly attendance ranks it in the bottom 10 states, with 26 percent attending weekly. The mission field is here in Alaska, as I’ve argued before, not other areas of the world. Many local churches are missing the boat: local member involvement is critical.

The mission trip I mentioned earlier is advertised at ShorterTermMissions.com this way: “At Salmon Frenzy, we will host service projects for Alaskan residents camping out on Cook Inlet beaches at the Kenai River and Kasilof River. Thousands of Alaskans are dip-netting sockeye salmon as an annual family event. Our ministry approach is gentle servanthood and need-meeting through various methods: Kids Clubs, Bounce Houses, Prayer Walking, Traffic Control, Trash Pick-up and serving free hot dogs, water and hot cocoa. Share Christ in personal, relational ways. We engage the public in secular forum through servant evangelism.”

I’m sure local governments love these money-saving activities. But why are Alaskans and Outside tourists not held responsible for caring for our environment?

Struck by a phrase on that website regarding the demographics of people they serve, I asked the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, Bishop of Sitka and Alaska in the Orthodox Church in America, (formerly Russian Orthodox) for his reaction. He said, “In general, these are Protestants who want to ‘convert’ the poor Natives who are not Christian by their standards. On the website ofshorttermmissions.com, they specifically state that they are there to convert ‘Agnostic, Russian Orthodox, hints of Shamanism and some Christian influence.’ Note the specific attack on the ‘Russian Orthodox’ as if they are not Christian. This is pure arrogance on their part. On another web page they add ‘Catholics’ to their targets.”

Mahaffey, further decrying this proselytizing, says, “What they are doing is downright sinful in my eyes. The very idea that they have a ‘truer’ faith than the Orthodox Christian Faith is both pretentious and false. If you want proof of the damage done by these groups, just look at the statistical evidence since the arrival in Alaska of the Sheldon Jackson missionary/teachers. The attempt to ‘Westernize’ these ‘ignorant’ Native peoples was based on a complete misunderstanding of their culture and religion. The Russians came and gave them a written language, educated them and treated them as equals, quite a different approach than that used by Jackson’s minions. Not only this, but as you may be aware, in our church in Kenai is a document from Catherine the Great addressed to the Russians who came to Alaska. Part of that document tells them about how to treat the Natives and it is quite different than that of the U.S. representatives.”

I resonate with Mahaffey’s concerns. The mentioned practices continue and amount to “sheep stealing.” Many Alaska villages are too small to support the plethora of churches denominations establish, a divisive and confusing practice for villagers.

Orthodox Church in America sends summer teams to Alaska to repair churches and rectories, and provides vacation bible school teaching in villages. Local Orthodox priest, the Rev. Michael Oleksa, commenting on these mission teams says, “The problem with this ‘help’ is that often they do what the locals could have done for themselves, developing a village attitude that they don’t have to take care of these needs because someone else, from somewhere else, will do it for them. Of course, if the village is itself short of manpower, this is unavoidable, (like repainting the spirit houses in Eklutna). But when there are hundreds of able-bodied men in the town who could have easily repaired the church themselves, this can become an issue of dependence.” A true statement in Alaska and the rest of the world.

A Catholic group from Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, a 1,000-family parish in Herrin, Illinois uniquely serves here approximately every fourth summer. This year they’re bringing 66 people, aged 14-18, to work locally. Group leader Jeff Goffinet shares, “Each of the trips has been a remarkable experience for our young people. Coming from Southern Illinois, we have nothing to compare to the Alaskan lifestyle. However, service is universal. While in Anchorage, we have had young people work both in nature and serving those in need. While the experiences are widely different, they have been awesome. We have helped clear downed trees in Earthquake Park, served food at Beans Café, and helped in various homeless shelters. All have been meaningful to our youth.” They’ll be sleeping on the floor of Lumen Christi’s gym. What a great example!

They also make their own arrangements. Meanwhile, many mission websites are commercial. Goffinet says they tried one such group last year. “Every year, except last year, we plan our own trip. We make our own arrangements, we do our own budgeting, we feed ourselves, etc. Last year, for the first time, we used a commercial company. We were very disappointed. Money was not going to the clients who needed it, and we were clearly not wanted to work as hard as we did. Any chore we finished meant that they had to find more work for groups coming in after us. I’m sure not every group that sponsors these kinds of trips is like that, but I will certainly be very unlikely to use those kinds of groups in the future.”

Next week, I plan to write about Protestant summer mission activities in Alaska.

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

Church gardens grow community: It’s time to start planting more assertively.

Last year, I wrote about local initiatives some churches have taken by planting church gardens or allowing church property to be used for community gardens. When I started writing that column, I pre-supposed those gardens would be used primarily for producing fresh food for Bean’s Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen and other community organizations that feed the hungry. And many church organizations do use them for that purpose.  What I didn’t realize was that a growing number of churches allow anyone to use a garden plot on their grounds regardless of where the food goes.

As I wrote that column, I was unaware of the garden at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Northeast Anchorage. It was created through parishioners’ conversations with neighbors. The neighborhoods around the church are heavily populated with immigrants, and many have garden plots at the church. These gardeners are allowed to use their assigned plots for growing produce to feed their families. Many of them also sell produce at various times throughout the season. What a wonderful use of church property. I visited the garden last fall during the AFACT celebration of Medicaid expansion. It’s beautifully tended, containing many vegetables not native to this area; often the gardeners are immigrants from Southeast Asia or the South Pacific.

Many churches have beautiful grounds, often park-like, even without many trees having access to sunlight for growing. This land might be utilized to grow food for food banks, church pantries, feeding programs and church suppers. Entire outreach programs could be constructed around such programs, even to the point of their being utilized year-round. There is much wisdom in Jewish medieval philosopher Maimonides’ saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Many recipients of community feeding services might have a greater appreciation of the gift of food if they understood, through participation, the work that goes into producing food.

In other areas around the Lower 48, churches are seeing the value of community gardens and implementing them. For a church community the size of Anchorage with over 375 houses of worship, there are few churches using their land as God’s gift. Conversely, clergy here frequently dwell on stewardship as a church member responsibility. Why don’t they apply the same stewardship rules and principles to church property?  I realize some church properties are too small, bounded by parking lots, contain too many trees, and meet in schools or mini-malls. But what about the rest? I know of churches adjacent to vacant lots that could be used to promote community gardening.

Practical Christianity is harder to do than theoretical Christianity. We attend church, listen to sermons, study the Bible and intellectualize what Christianity is all about. Matthew 25 shares Jesus’ words about practicing practical Christianity. “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” The chapter continues to detail the unfortunate fate of those who did not practice these virtues.

It’s been my observation that many Christians find it easier to contribute money to churches or go on short-term mission trips than to roll up their sleeves and create meaningful change in the community. Some churches do it better than most, but there is much room for improvement. Millions have been spent in Anchorage to invest in foreign missions in countries where Christianity is predominant, when Alaska is one of least Christian states in the U.S. The mission field is here!

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is an example of what churches can do quickly. Starting last year, they planted seven gardens, with additional potato beds planted for F.I.S.H. They’re planning eight more big raised beds for their new Thomas Center for Senior Leadership later this year. Rector Michael Burke reports they have “lots of gardeners and visitors to the gardens and labyrinth.” Currently all produce grown is donated to organizations that feed the hungry.

Lutheran Church of Hope started small and late last year with five elevated boxes behind the church. Congregation member Don Bladow “has been the primary blood, sweat, tears, and prayer behind the garden,” says Pastor Julia Seymour. Don completed the University of Alaska Extension Program’s Master Gardener class in anticipation of a busy planting season. He plans to have 20,000 square feet under cultivation. Bladow says they’ll plant about one-third of that this year. He’s been raising money for the garden by turning wood bowls from trees that were on the property. All of the proceeds go into the project. Money is still being raised for specific gardening needs. This summer they’ll plant broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, parsnips, radishes and zucchini. All produce will be given to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA). Any of our food pantries will say how welcome fresh grown food is to recipients. Don maintains a blog on this project at harvestofhopememorialgarden.blogspot.com. Our community needs many more like Don.

Local churches currently having or developing community food gardens include Lutheran Church of Hope, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Joy Lutheran Church – Eagle River, St. John United Methodist Church, Turnagain United Methodist Church, Chugiak United Methodist Church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, Trinity Lutheran Church – Palmer, River of Life – Chugiak, and Central Lutheran Church.

Something our local church community might consider is what Methodists in Kalamazoo, Michigan are doing. They’ve created a “Summer Christian Camp” for a distressed neighborhood there. They focus on young adults 16-28. This 10-day ministry focuses on food and hunger and includes community gardening, 4-H community projects, ‘Free Store’ ministry, and Loves and Fishes food pantry. They train youth leaders, educators, pastors, and other passionate Christian adults.

Jesus often referred to food, hunger, feeding, planting, sowing and harvest themes in His ministry. I challenge other local ministries to emulate those lessons.

Six ways churches can improve our community

Many opportunities exist in our community where churches and their individual members could have a more significant impact in improving our community. I detail six ways that can happen. A few churches have a track record in some of these areas, but many do not. My list of helping ways is not exhaustive, but illustrative of how much more good might be done.

Clean community efforts

Anchorage is a hot spot for tourism in Alaska. Thousands of tourists come every day to visit our town, and see what we offer. Many of our streets and highways are eyesores due to the trash seen on them. It often remains for weeks and months. Few churches or faith-based organizations have their names on roadside signs saying they are responsible for keeping that section of road clean. Even the roadways around many churches are littered with trash. The old saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness” might have greater meaning if churches took greater pride in the environments where they are located. This would also be a major way to demonstrate your church’s commitment to the community. For Christians, there are many scriptural injunctions regarding our duty to care for the earth.

Missions here are possibly more important

Some local faith-based organizations, especially Christian ones, are obsessed with the idea of sending teams of people to the ends of the earth to participate in expensive short-term mission trips. Often the countries where they go are more Christianized than the U.S. Alaska, according to most studies, is at the bottom of the scale for prayer, Bible reading, and church participation; the mission field is here. Plus research indicates most of these trips actually do more damage than good, in the long run, by engendering insidious dependencies.

A few organizations are beginning to focus on Christian microfinance as a way to better the lot of those in far-flung lands. The Chalmers Center, at Covenant College, trains churches in the U.S. and Canada to begin biblically integrated financial education classes for low-income people. They’ve trained church and ministry leaders in over 100 countries, and are currently focused on equipping networks of churches in West Africa to form church-centered savings groups. Chalmers leaders Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote an amazing book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself” which was rapidly adopted. Their associated training guides are actively helping fulfill the Gospel commission with regard to the poor. Fikkert and Russell Mask’s latest book, “From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty through Church-Centered Microfinance,” was just released. These programs are intended for local use as well.

Invite surrounding residents to a church picnic or potluck

Comparatively few churches invite their surrounding neighbors to the church for a community dinner without strings attached. I’ve attended a few of these gatherings and it’s wonderful to see churches being charitable to those in their church neighborhood. One-to-one discussions at such events go a long way in breaking down barriers and determining community needs. Anchorage is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the U.S. You never know what will come out of such a venture. One church in Chugiak discovered the neighborhood youth had no place to play inside, and opened its gymnasium to them for basketball. It engendered much good will in that neighborhood. Major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter provide powerful opportunities to not only feed and talk with each other, but to include church neighbors.

Personally participate in feeding the poor

If you’ve never helped out at one of our food banks, food distribution programs, or local helping organizations like the Downtown Soup Kitchen, Bean’s Cafe, Brother Francis Shelter, or the Rescue Mission, you’ve missed a tremendous opportunity. Yes, it requires giving up some personal time, but the return is huge. There are many other such opportunities in Anchorage, and none will turn down offers of help. Yes, you can give to support their needs, but giving is too easy. It’s important you be personally invested in the act of love and charity. Some of these organizations would love to have people come in to read, direct bingo games, or provide Bible studies for their clientele.

Provide practical approaches to building strong marriages and families

Marriage and strong family units have been under assault for many years, contributing to some of the social problems with which our community deals. Faith-based organizations can do more to address this severe need than they are currently doing. Many approaches can be used. Some of them will really change lives. I’ve recounted several examples in this column of incredible reversals of course, where couples and their children got a second chance. I think too many churches do not make these programs high priority. I rarely view any announcements about them in the paper or see them advertised on television. It takes talent, training, energy, and a strong faith commitment to pull them off but they pay off in the long run. They should also not be a one-shot deal but an ongoing process.

Community gardens go far to address many issues

An excess of land surrounds many of Anchorage’s churches. A few churches have taken the opportunity to put this land to use by providing space for neighbors to grow vegetables without charge. The gardeners are free to use the resulting produce for themselves or to sell it. Churches themselves often grow vegetables, with the help of members, to donate to charitable organizations such as the Food Bank of Alaska, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, Bean’s Cafe or others. This is a practical way to show members how to help others. I’m hoping more churches adopt this brilliant method of helping. A few will ultimately determine ways to involve showing the poor how to grow some food for their own needs.

All of these initiatives have the potential to demonstrate the commitment of our faith community in bettering the lives of many locally.

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.

Searching for a church? Some observations and questions

All right, you’re new to our community — a visitor, or a new part-time or full-time resident. It happens you also are looking for a faith community where you can develop, sustain, and practice your spirituality. You may be confused with the many communities of faith from which to choose. It’s no longer a given that the faith of your youth — or previous place of residence — will sustain you. The religious environment in our country is undergoing some of the most radical change in over a century. Take nothing for granted. Be thorough in checking out your new church home. How do you proceed? Here are some general suggestions, and five specific questions to ask any church you visit, culled from my 15 years of visiting local churches, and seven years of writing about those visits.

Obviously some faiths, Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc., usually follow traditional liturgical patterns, so some observations noted here may not fully apply.

Looking for a church: essential observations

Start your search by looking for churches using the Internet. Note whether they have a functional, up-to-date, useful website, displaying service times and location on the first page. If it displays pictures of mountains, lakes and streams instead of key member activities, move on! Look for recent sermons and watch or listen to them. That is a great clue about ministerial communication style.

The church sign should be easily read at posted speed limits. A good church sign should also include an Internet address and service times. In a drive-by inspection, the church should be outwardly maintained, and clean. When you enter the parking lot, determine if adequate parking is provided for guests and the disabled. Upon entering for the first time, look for greeters who’ll extend warm welcomes and provide a bulletin or worship guide. If you have children, ask the greeters if the church provides meaningful programs for them. Look at the restrooms to determine their cleanliness. Unclean and inadequate women’s restrooms are a common complaint. Adequate and comfortable seating is important. A church 80 percent full appears completely full.

The music should be meaningful, tied to the service or liturgy, and proportional to the length of the service. If not, it is probably indicative of an entertainment culture in that church. Look for welcoming language from the people leading the service. Their language should imply a sense of inclusion. “We” is inclusionary; “I” is exclusionary. The pastor’s sermon is a key focus of church attendance. It should hold your interest, engaging your mind in a meaningful way. It should enhance your spirituality. Finally, observe if you were talked to after the service. These are all important hallmarks of a hospitable church.

Five important questions to ask during your first church visit

Will my family and I regularly encounter Scripture?

Church should be a place where better insight can be obtained from Scripture. It’s appropriate to expect this from churches. Unfortunately, some churches have agendas that include series of sermons based on popular books, or filled with interesting, but nonpertinent stories linked loosely, or not at all, to the theme for that day’s teaching. Ask a regular member if they feel they are being regularly fed there. (Of course, the church should not be the sole source of your Bible study; individual and small group study are critical, too.)

Will this church care for my soul, the souls of my family, and make it a priority?

The spiritual leadership team of a church should be vitally interested in the spirituality of each of the members entrusted to their care, including yours. It’s not an easy task, but one you should expect to be taken seriously. That does not mean expecting the pastor or team member will show up every time you call. Talking to members of the church will help you determine if this is actually happening at this church. They’ll know if it is or not.

Does this church invest in the needs of the local community?

Too many churches burden members with the needs of people on the other side of the world and neglect their neighbors. In Alaska, many churches send short-term missions teams to the far side of the world at great expense, often with no tangible outcomes but a nice vacation. Our local communities provide practical, countless opportunities for helping our neighbors. Is the neighborhood surrounding the church happy with its presence? You can ask. Does the church garden on behalf of hungry ones in the community? Ask about church involvement with the homeless, the sick, those in prison, victims of domestic abuse and violence, and those who are in need of food. You may be surprised at what you hear.

Can your particular gifts be used to further the mission of the church?

The worst thing to happen would be for you to possess many gifts — time, money, talent, etc. — and not have them used in the mission of the congregation. Cheerful givers need outlets; they should be put to use. Talk to members or the pastor about needs related to your specific gifts to determine if there may be potential fits for them.

Will the various programs of the church meet your and your family’s needs?

If you have children with special needs, does the church have programs to assist with them? Sunday school programs can be helpful providing Christian education for various age levels, including adults. Determine if they do a children’s church or let them know you’d prefer your children enjoy church as a family. If you are single, divorced, bereaved, or a new Christian, are there resources in place to address them?

Churches are growing dynamic entities that are God-, community- and person-focused. They provide unique opportunities to enable and support your spiritual growth, and that of your family. Most growing churches in our community embrace many of these elements. You can find an article posted earlier this summer about unusual church places at tinyurl.com/lxq4gqh.

God bless your church searching!

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.

Bible falls far short of being available worldwide

Last week a study released by the Barna Group and the American Bible Society, “Is the Bible Available to All People?,” revealed a huge misperception among Americans about the availability of the Bible in the world’s 6,900-plus languages. Almost three-fourths of Americans believe the Bible is available in all languages, but in fact, the report said, less than half of worldwide languages have complete translations of the Bible, or even a completed portion. Some other numbers worth noting: Barely 21 percent of Americans think all languages are not covered by Bible translations; 98 percent of Americans believe people should have access to the Bible in their own language; 31 percent of world languages have no Scripture translation started; and 26 percent have Scripture translations in process. In the U.S., 60 percent of Americans express wanting to study the Bible more, despite the average household having more than four Bibles.

This latest study, released as part of the American Bible Society’s 2015 State of the Bible report, shows just how much more needs doing to make the Bible more accessible worldwide. Last year I commented on the 2014 State of the Bible report. The focus of that report was biblical illiteracy among Christians. People do not have the advantage of reading the Bible if it’s not available in their native tongue.

The role of Bible translation in Christianity’s history

Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity, professor of history and professor of international and area studies at Yale University, writes in his book “Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West”: ”Being the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. … Since Jesus did not write or dictate the gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. The missionary environment of the early church made translation and the accompanying interpretation natural and necessary. … Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder.”

I heard Dr. Sanneh, in a Maryland conference I attended about eight years ago, posit that the spread of Christianity in Africa was successful so quickly because Scripture was translated into vernacular languages — in contrast with Islam, which was rooted in its original Arabic text. He further recounted the story of a church organization in the British Isles sending many English Bibles to Ethiopia to “help” them. Humorously, he noted that the Ethiopian churchmen sent the Bibles back to Britain saying, “No, thank you,” but that they’d already translated the Bible into their own language.

Scripture in Alaska Native languages

In Alaska, some portions of the Bible are available in Yupik, Haida and Inupiaq. The only complete Bible portion I’m aware of is a New Testament translation into North Slope Iñupiaq. Culturally, English is dominant in much of Alaska, though recent court rulings that voter materials be made available in Alaska Native languages reinforced those languages’ cultural importance

Could Bible translation replace costly short-term missions?

Many Alaska church members of all ages take short-term missionary trips to various areas of the world for one to three weeks to help locals with projects, support and money. These trips cost millions of dollars for uncertain returns. Often missiologists note these trips could be more productive if one or two highly skilled people in specialized areas go on these trips to do technology transfer, training the locals to acquire specialized skills to help themselves. Most often, local natives in these countries are amazed the trippers make no attempt to speak or even learn their language, are focused on giving things, and do work that natives would love to do if only they could be financially rewarded for doing so. A common example used is where short-term missionaries will paint or rehabilitate a church, providing materials or labor to make it happen. This translates into a lost opportunity for locals and a truly productive venture in helping out needy people.

As we approach summer, we find the same things happen in Alaska. Churches across the U.S. send teams of people to Alaska to repaint, repair and rehabilitate churches or church buildings. Where this happens, local members do not have the necessary buy-in to appreciate what they are receiving.

I suggest that Bible translation is a worthy goal that could pay bigger dividends in the long run than short-term missionary ventures. Paul, in his missionary journey to Athens, took advantage of language and culture to inject new meaning using their own terms; “… as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17:23).

Of course there is much more to translation than I convey here. But certainly a worthy goal could be the translation of key scriptural passages into the languages of regions where no Scripture exists. This study offers new insights and challenges for Christians believing the Bible has gone out to most of the world.

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