Monthly Archives: June 2008

Surprised at Abbott Loop Community Church

[img_assist|nid=126362|title=Abbott Loop Community Church’s Sign on the SE Corner of Lk. Otis & Abbott|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=170]June 22, 10:50 a.m., dodging raindrops to get to the entrance of Abbott Loop Community Church before getting soaked, I saw someone coming toward me with a handful of umbrellas. He was spraying out “Good Mornings” exuberantly. I thought “praise the Lord”. But it was not to be. Whoever he was, he had a great idea, but sailed on past me with a fair young maiden in his sights. I assumed she was a known church member. Thus, a visit rich with surprises quickly began.

What, No Greeting?
I was not greeted at all other than to be offered a bulletin and good morning from an older couple at the doors of the worship auditorium. On the surface, Abbott Loop does not seem to care about the visitors reaching out to them. However, as I looked for a seat, a younger woman with a child in her arms greeted me as she headed to her seat.

Abbott Loop worships, theater style, in a large auditorium accented by a huge screen. The band was setting up and Christian rock was playing on the sound system. The screen was flashing the message “PLEASE, NO FOOD OR DRINK IN THE AUDITORIUM”. This was a first in all my church visits and indicated there must be a problem with these items. Rather than this message, I suggest one asking that “CELLPHONES AND PAGERS BE TURNED OFF OR SWITCHED TO SILENT MODE”. I was amazed at the number of phones that went off during the services this day.

Music Show
At 11 a.m. the 9 piece band began playing. Delores Benjamin, the pastor’s wife was playing the grand piano center stage and appeared to be the lead musician. Initially, I became somewhat concerned as the screen only showed live shots of the band, not the unfamiliar words they were singing, which is “entertainment”, not “worship” style. Later, during “Meet n’ Greet”, I asked and was told the screen usually showed the words of the song, which later proved true. An added bit of entertainment was the light show playing on the backdrop behind the band. There was a half-hour of the music, some of which I would categorize as sappy sentimentalism. But…I was not totally disappointed. I loved their rendition of “I Am Thine O Lord”!

A glance at my bulletin showed this was not a normal Sunday. It was REUNION WEEKEND, whatever that meant. As a church reviewer I sensed disaster. All I wanted was a normal service by the regular pastor. As it turned out, Abbott Loop has seeded many churches and this was a reunion, of sorts, of those involved with the seeding, supplemented by additional meetings throughout the weekend.

What Higher Purpose do Meet n’ Greets Have?
During the “Meet n’ Greet” I noted spotty participation by those assembled. Many seemed uncomfortable with the process. I was asked by the people to whom I introduced myself, if I was a member or if I lived here. I felt I was being categorized as a member, a Reunion returnee, or a potential member, but not as a welcome guest. No one really every says, “I’m really glad you came to visit us.”

The remarks prior to receiving the offering used the biblical story of Hannah giving Samuel to Eli for service to God. I could be wrong, but I’m at a loss as to why this passage of scripture was used, almost as a defense, for taking the offering. I will address some current debates about church giving in an upcoming blog post.

Finally, a bright spot. A number of men, came forward, each giving a unique testimony of some facet of the Christian life. I don’t know if this a regular feature of Abbott Loop’s worship, but it worked for me. Who were those guys?

This Man Could Really Preach
Wait, wait…It can’t be true. The visiting speaker was introduced as Dick Iverson, a 79 year old pastor from Portland. He gave a marvelous message on Practical Christianity quoting scripture accurately and from memory. He noted that everyone comes with a problem, otherwise they wouldn’t be here. That we’re putting God in a box and going nowhere. He pressed we must think different, especially we must:
* Love our city
* Love the City of God

Without a doubt, this pastor spoke to me. He didn’t rely on notes, just spoke from his heart, something few pastors do, or even can do these days. Quoting scripture freely, as appropriate, he connected the dots about what makes us real community Christians. This was a wonderful message with meaningful illustrations that really spoke to my heart, especially one about reluctantly leaving his easy chair to go pray for a woman in a hospital with unexpected results. I intend to listen to the sermon again from Abbott Loop’s website.

The entire service lasted 1 3/4 hours but the time passed quickly. Abbott Loop is a charismatic church. They need to work on dealing with visitors but I still consider it a good option for the first time visitor. I hope to revisit this church to hear the Pastor, Rick Benjamin, speak.
[img_assist|nid=126365|title=Abbott Loop Community Church|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=166]

N.T. Wright, a New Testament Scholar Worth Discovering

As a follow-up to my story on St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, I want to introduce readers of every religious persuasion to N.T. Wright, a biblical scholar of depth who makes the bible so much more understandable. He is the Church of England’s (British counterpart of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.) Bishop of Durham.
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One of World’s Top Biblical Scholars
Bishop Wright is considered to be one of the top biblical scholars in the world. A New Testament scholar, he is an extremely prolific writer with dozens of books published. A religion professor friend recently observed, “He puts the rest of us to shame for the quantity and quality of his output.” His books are very readable, easily communicating a wealth of knowledge and understanding.

Wow, can he write

Several recent books of note by Bishop Wright are:
The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture
In this book, he shows how both evangelicals and liberals misread scripture and further shares how to restore the Bible’s authority today for guiding the church through its many controversies.
Surprised by Hope
For years Christians have been asking, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” It turns out that many believers have been giving the wrong answer. Wright biblically argues it is not heaven.
Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
Simply Christian walks the reader through the Christian faith step by step and question by question. With simple yet exciting and accessible prose, Wright challenges skeptics by offering explanations for even the toughest doubt-filled dilemmas, leaving believers with a reason for renewed faith. This book is the first book since C.S. Lewis’s Mere Chrisianity that simply explains what Christianity is.

A Treasure Chest of N.T. Wright Resources

N.T. Wright lectures widely. Audio or video recordings are easily available for download over the internet. His sermons, writings, and links to many of these audio and video recordings can be found at the Unofficial N.T. Wright Page. He was featured this week on the Steven Colbert show aptly providing a dynamic testimony despite Colbert’s comedic interjections. This link will take you to the clip. Click here to go to the N.T. Wright/Colbert exchange.

I urge you to step outside the box and explore the biblical insights of this major Christian scholar.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church…Reserved But Warm

[img_assist|nid=125755|title=St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Sign on Tudor Rd Announces Church Entrance|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=208]Years ago, I attended a wedding at beautifully-sited St. Mary’s Episcopal Church located on the small rise on the SW corner of the intersection of Lake Otis Blvd. and Tudor Road. The picture windows behind the modern alter/communion table look out over the Chugach Range, providing one of the most beautiful scenes a church can offer (think clear sunny days for the full effect here). I vowed to return to experience a worship service. Years later on Sunday, June 15, I entered this church to worship at the 10 a.m. service in fulfillment of my vow.

A Brief Observation About the Episcopal Religion
I’m not a stranger to Episcopal churches as my wife was brought up in this religion, and her parents in Florida still worship at the same Episcopal church in Longwood, Florida, a relationship of many years. I tend to associate Episcopal churches with a more formal service, with a set format, but…most churches, including evangelical Christian churches do the same thing. There is a form and purpose to structure. It certainly is comforting to many believers, as an example, when the Nicene Creed is recited, but these formalities tend to put me off. Maybe it’s the up and down, kneelers, when to recite, and when not to recite. Anyway, Episcopalian and Episcopal are terms referring to episcopal polity, the governance of a church by bishops, and adherence to this doctrine.

Greeting Mostly Missing
I was not greeted upon entering St. Mary’s ten minutes before the service was to begin, but I was warmly greeted and handed a bulletin as I proceeded to the sanctuary. Upon entering their simple, but beautifully modern sanctuary I was struck by an almost total absence of the trappings of what I’d come to associate with Episcopal churches such as gothic styles and dark tones. Here there was much light and the added bonus of seven person folk group singing sweetly as I entered. I discovered later they were doing their practice run-through before the service.

Powerful Message
The Presider, think priest here, was Rev. Bob Thwing. The sermon was delivered by their Pastoral Minister, Sara Gavit. The theme of her remarks was the centrality of food and hospitality in Jesus’ ministry, noting this was always done outside of his home, in the spaces of others. Sara shared the story of author Sara Miles whose recent book Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (Ballentine Books, 2007) is a wonderful story of life change wrought by experiencing the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Sara Miles wandered into a church by chance one day, took communion, and her life changed. As a result of this experience, she transformed an interest in food to working in her churches’ food pantry, linking the food bank with the eucharist. Before the holy communion, Sara Gavit shared the exitement of a child at a previous communion: a touching reminiscence. She closed her brief but well-delivered remarks with:

“A lttle bread, a little wine, a lot of love, a lot of life.”
[img_assist|nid=125756|title=St. Mary’s Unassuming Entrance Hides a Treasure Within|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=214]
Meaningful Sharing
The prayers of the people were a clear time for sharing and participation. Episcopal “meet n’ greet” time is the Peace. You introduce yourself and share “Peace be With You” with other worshippers in your vicinity in the church. I was warmly greeted by a number of people during this time. The time of the Blessings was a service aspect I really liked. During this time there was formal recognition of birthdays, anniversaries, work transitions & retirements, etc. It was great congregational glue. The visitor introductions felt uncomfortable to me as you are expected to rise and introduce yourself, which I chose not to do. I wonder if I was the only one? A few churches I’ve visited have created a culture of a member introducing the visitor. This implies the introducer needs to know a bit more about a visitor than just their name.

Music That Works
The musical group director, Wade Hampton Miller, had written a song titled “The Time of the Saints Isn’t Over” which was sung in closing. A lengthy song, I was particularly struck by the 4th verse.

Saints in the hospice and on soup kitchen lines,
Saints in the oilfields in frigid northern climes,
Saints in the prisons and clearing out land mines,
The time of the saints isn’t over,
No the time of the saints isn’t over.

One visit is much too brief to embrace the whole of Episcopalianism, but this church clearly has “The Right Stuff”.

Is it Unrealistic for a Visitor to Expect a Warm Welcome?

When blogging, you open yourself up to the world. Some recent blog comments and communications stated strong personal biases against my evaluation of churches using my posted criteria.

What About My Welcome
One commenter noted that my “…search should be for truth – the ONE truth – not a warm and fuzzy welcome.” But, that’s not what my visit criteria states on the right side of this webpage. The commenter further went on to state “Jesus’s walk on the earth had nothing to do with warm greetings, music quality, or his ‘personal walk’.”

The gospels show us that Jesus lived a life of hospitality which played out in other peoples spaces. In his relationships with those whose lives he touched: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, the woman at the well, and the disciples, for example, it is inconceivable he did not bestow warm greetings on these and others he met. The same with churches one visits. Aren’t “first impressions, lasting impressions”?
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How One Church Addressed Visitors
Myron Augsburger describes in Maintaining Momentum, a chapter from the excellent book Mastering Outreach & Evangelism, how his church addressed the issue of what he terms “Fringe Churchgoers”. “On any Sunday, as many as 25 percent of those attending are what we call fringe. Not yet involved in the life of the church…[these]are the unconnected visitors, the occasional churchgoers, the “church-hoppers.” A church that desires a strong outreach ministry needs to start inside its own walls by reaching these people.”

They do this with a 3-step program: offering a warm welcome, linking newcomers with regulars, and ensuring future contact.

For the welcome several strategies were developed:
-They ensured the church building was user friendly
-Pastoral staff lead by personally welcoming newcomers
-They changed the model of pastoral availability by:

1. Doing the unexpected – Think Mickey Mouse here. You don’t enter a Disney park and expect Mickey to be shaking everyone’s hand. Neither are they similarly available before and after services. This pastoral staff roams the parking lot and greets visitors at their cars. One group of seminary students from this church shared their excitement at visiting Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. They said they were welcomed five times and that was before they reached the front door!

2. Pastoring by walking around – They roam the foyer, parking lot and pews before and after the service. Their informal contact brings them a wider range of service opportunities.

A warm welcome is not the only reason I go to church. However a quality welcome will help ensure my initial visit is not the last. In line with this, well-informed churches are taking welcoming seriously. They train people how to warmly welcome and deal effectively with visitors.

Rabbit Creek Community Church: Warm and Welcoming

[img_assist|nid=125315|title=Rabbit Creek Community Church Sign|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=197]A recent story about Rabbit Creek Community Church in the Anchorage Daily News, Church expansion sends city to court, piqued my curiosity. Consequently I moved my visit to this church forward on my visit schedule. I’m very glad I did!

Wow! What a Welcome!
Without a doubt this is the friendliest church I’ve visited so far in Anchorage. During my visit on June 8, I was warmly and genuinely greeted four times before I reached my seat. Within minutes of being seated I was greeted again by a man who, making his way to his seat forward, was shaking hands in greeting as he moved forward. I really was impressed by the sincerity of each greeting.

Badges? We don’t need no badges! Or do we?
Another first for me is that one of the greeters, seated at an elevated table just outside the sanctuary, asked for my name and neatly printed a badge, first name only. I must comment this was a first for me in my church visits. Many of the churches visited have preprinted badges for members who wear them with authority. I fear many visitors, like myself, are left with the thought, “I must be a nobody because I don’t have a badge.”

I can already hear some new member evangelists out there thinking, “But, we’re told that visitors prefer to remain anonymous, so we don’t bother with names.” In a previous post, I observed that most salesmen around town do a better job of identifying themselves and getting names than does the average church. Must be a reason for this. Hmmmmm….

Music That Really Worked
Rabbit Creek Community Church has a nine person band that started promptly at 11 a.m. They led out with about 6 songs. At first, I started keeping count of familiar vs unfamiliar songs. Pretty quickly it became obvious that I recognized about half of the songs and was singing along. The music, unlike many churches, was only about 20 minutes of the service and really added to the worship experience.

I’m not a fan of “meet n’ greet” segments of any church service. For some reason this morning it was almost tolerable. I suspect this was due to the overall friendliness of this church which had already established a climate of welcome. The pastor, Terry Hill, urged people to single out folks they’d not already greeted that morning. This was also a first among my church visits in Anchorage.

Offering Call a Surprising First
Another first was noted when Pastor Hill called for the offering. He explained visitors were not obligated to give; But it was something their members did. Pastors don’t tend to mention this I feel there is a tension with a visitor when this is not mentioned. Personally I also like the practice of one previouslly mentioned church of having offering recepticles in the foyer of the church for the collection of their freewill offering and the tithes. In the future, I intend to cover practices, conceptions, misconceptions, and deceptions about giving in a post on this blog.
[img_assist|nid=125316|title=Rabbit Creek Community Church|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=140]
Bible Based
The sermon, Using Your Abilities, was Part 4 of a multi-part series “Using Your Unique S.H.A.P.E..”, an acronymn for Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experiences. Pastor Hill’s remarks were bible-based, with a practical bent. Hill shared the sermon delivery time with their Transitional Pastor, Mark Goodman. Pastor Goodman will succeed Pastor Hill in August as he steps down from pastoring this church, moving to a mission role in August in Mexico. Although both pastors communicated well, I felt the transition was a bit uneven and disrupted the effectiveness of the delivery. My remaining concern was that the LCD projector did a poor job. A strong yellowish cast interferred with the readability of the material being projected on the screen.

The friendliness continued after the dismissal prayer, with multiple goodbyes being offered as I left. If you are interested in visiting a very active church, both here and abroad, loves their God as much as they care for each other, and treats visitors like treasured friends, this church is for you. I will long remember my visit here, and plan to come back to learn more about the fire that burns within their congregation.

Gentlemen Start Your Engines
Warning: This church is on Rabbit Creek Road, a downhill speedway. I followed a younger couple in a late model car out of the parking lot toward the Seward Highway. Unfortunately,they went 25 mph for a block or two even though traffic was bearing down on us. I was concerned about being mowed down. Both members and visitors need to quickly get up to the posted speed limits to avoid an automobile tragedy here.

It’s About Time…To Post Worship Service Times Prominently on Church Websites

In previous posts I’ve noted the importance of determining the church service time options for the church you intend to visit. The yellow pages are not a great option due to schedule changes, e.g. summer worship schedules, and once-a-year updating. This leaves each churches website as the next best option for finding this information.

My findings
I took an indepth look at the websites for the six church visits posted so far and found a mixed bag. I urge every church webmaster or web designer to make prominent posting of church worship times a first priority in design and updating. I’ve listed my findings below. I took the liberty of scoring website performance for church service time availability by church. By clicking on the bolded church name, you will also be taken to each website to see for yourself.

St. John United Methodist Church
Church worship times shown on the first screen in your line of sight without requiring scrolling or clicking to find.

Anchorage Baptist Temple
No church worship times listed on initial screen viewing area. Located on a Fathers Day link far down the initial page, they could also be located via a clickable link toward the top of the initial page Very busy screens make it difficult to find what you’re are seeking. The many illustrations remind me of those supermarket register tapes with all the advertising printed on the back.

First Presbyterian Church
No church worship times listed on initial screen viewing area. You must scroll to the very bottom of the screen to find them. They are shown in a tiny typeface.

No church worship times listed on initial screen viewing area. They are located at the bottom of the page in small type. I clicked all over this site without success until I finally scrolled down and found them. Their website uses a lot of small type making it harder to read which may have contributed to this dilemma.

Faith Christian Community
No church worship times listed on initial screen viewing area. They are located by clicking FIRST TIME GUESTS and selecting the Come Visit Faith! option. I liked the Google map opening up at the same time. This was the only church employ a map like this. Faith’s first screen takes forever to load which may be due to the loading of active content. Other than these things, their screens are uncluttered, very readable, and well laid out. Faith’s website proves “less is more”.

First Congregational Church
No church worship times shown anywhere on the first screen. Located by clicking the Worship & Music button. Very small typeface thoughout and hard to read.

Faith…It’s Not Just a Religious Term

[img_assist|nid=125040|title=|desc=This simple sign on Wisconsin Ave. identifies Faith Christian Community’s complex.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=248]In West Anchorage on Wisconsin just north of Lake Hood, there is an unassuming building going deep into the lot. The only identification is a simple sign with Faith Christian Community displayed. Close to that sign is another with the times of worship noted. On March 16 I turned my car into the parking lot for the 11 a.m. service. There is ample parking here, although I was quite a way back in the rear parking lot.

Warm greeting, beautiful music upon entering
Coming through the rear entrance, I was warmly greeted and given a bulletin by a mother and her two younger children. Once in the worship auditorium I was struck by the beauty of a musical duet accompanied by guitar. This was a treat and well before the service started. Promptly at 11 a.m. a 9 piece band started playing. They played fairly upbeat tunes the words of which were projected on a huge screen in the front of the church. I like the way Faith displays the words, as they tend to be against inspirational pictoral backdrops. Thankfully some of the music was familiar prompting me to sing along.

Casual and comfortable
The auditorium is comfortable and spacious, aided by a balcony. It is a very casual church with lots of blue jeans, and few coats/ties. The typical “meet n’ greet”, which I do not particularly enjoy, was held. I shook about five hands and sat back down. They do not take up a regular offering at Faith. It is totally free-will and there are receptacles for it in the foyer. What a great idea and better use of church time!
[img_assist|nid=125041|title=An unassuming exterior hides Faith’s warm sanctuary.|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=138]
For God so loved…
Steve Holtsinger is the senior pastor and he spoke this day. The theme of his sermon was John 3:16, a beloved text of hope. The title was 3:16, a takeoff on Max Lucado’s latest book 3:16. As this was the Sunday before Easter, I felt this was a most appropriate theme for the sermon. There was a large cross lying at an angle in front of the pulpit, a tangible reminder of this time of the Christian year.

Pastor Holsinger helpfully had key lesson thoughts projected on the screen. The keywords he employed were “Whoever”, “However”, “Whenever” and “Wherever” tying the theme of the sermon to Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard. It was a beautiful sermon and well presented.

This do in remembrance of me…
The service concluded with communion as is offered at each Faith service on the weekends. I always feel that the offering of the bread and wine, especially at Easter, is a meaningful expression of the Christian faith. This time was no exception. The band came back up to play worshipful music during communion.

Faith is fortunate in that they maintain a coffee shop in their fellowship area in back of the sanctuary. Many of the parishoners gather here either before or after the service for their favorite coffee beverage and some good conversation. It’s been my experience Faith treats newcomers well, but is uneven in that regard. That being said, this is a warm and comfortable church, worthy of a newcomer visit.

Five Church Visits Down – Pause for Reflection

Comments have been surprising
After posting five church visit writeups, I thought a blog post for reflection was appropriate. Overall, there has been a positive reaction to this blog. A number of readers have shared that the blog helps them in their search for a church, and what they might expect when they attend a new one. [img_assist|nid=124700|title=Aurora Play by Chris Thompson|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=233]I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the overall balanced tone of many of the comments to my posts and the comments of others. It seems as though there are genuine Christian attitudes out there. Unfortuantely a few commenters have used the blog as an attack vehicle. However, I think it underscores some of the dysfunctionality I experience in the churches I visit. It’s there and it’s real, but on a relatively small scale.

Back to the books
Your comments have driven me to study and research more than anticipated. This will have a positive impact on the quality of my visits and their writeups. Recently I discovered the observations of Calvin Ratz, a well-known writer and minister. [img_assist|nid=124707|title=Growing Your Church Through Evangelism and Outreach|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=350]In the book Growing Your Church Through Evangelism and Outreach (Wipf & Stock Publishers March 1999) his chapter on Ministry to Newcomers is a classic, observing:

Newcomers don’t come with the glue already applied. It’s up to the congregation to make them stick.

But that’s easier said than done. Experience shows that not everyone who attends church once wants to return.

Visitors arrive at a church’s doorstep for a variety of reasons. There are disgruntled church hoppers, unsaved people genuinely seeking either spiritual or material help, newcomers to town, recent converts, and spiritual prodigals returning to God. Each comes with a different set of fears and expectations. All must be handled carefully if they are going to come back a second time.

At times, church insiders fail to realize how intimidated newcomers feel when attending church. Insiders, familiar with the traditions, the rubrics of worship, the machinery of church programs, and even the layout of their facility, tend to forget that outsiders see these smoothly flowing activities as intimidating barriers to becoming part of an unfamiliar church.

Let’s stay positive
We’ll continue to examine what works and what doesn’t. I do try to be fair and balanced with my remarks. And…remember, my criteria for the visits are:
• Is the church friendly and warm? Did I truly feel welcomed?
• Was the main teaching relevant to my personal walk and was it delivered effectively?
• Did the music merely entertain or did it deepen the worship experience?
It is not the intent of my visit to evaluate finer points of theology. Just like any well-meaning reviewer, my whole intent is to give each reader a good mental picture of what they might expect in the churches I visit.