Cool Advent Reception at First Baptist

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A recent visit to First Baptist Church, one of Anchorage’s largest congregations years ago, helped usher in the Christmas season but not in a way I expected. As a former choir member and regular attendee, I was not recognized or greeted by anyone except two members who used to greet me by name. Both greeted me as a total stranger. Just before the service, my old friend Pastor Keith Bennett, the minister of music, came by and acknowledged me but that’s it. Also, as experienced in some other Anchorage churches, I did not receive a bulletin, although they were evident. The “Hanging of the Greens”, a Christmas tradition at First Baptist, was a major feature of this day’s service. From the theater-like screening of church advertisements before the service, the 3-point sermon, to the final trademark Baptist alter call and baptism, the service felt cold and impersonal, which may account for what appeared to me to be a decreased number of attendees.

The Beginning
A few years ago I attended First Baptist Church, sang in the choir, and participated in a number of their activities. Initially, it took some time to get their attention but there was usually a warm welcome when I attended their sole Sunday morning service. During the oil boom days, this church had a huge congregation and was very active. Conveniently located at 10th and L Street, First Baptist offers great access.

It has been several years since I last attended First Baptist. I felt it was time for a revisit to see how they compared to the other Anchorage churches I’ve been visiting. Entering by the front door at 10:50 a.m. on December 7, I was surprised to be neither greeted nor to be offered a bulletin. Except for being visited at my seat by two members who knew me from my past association with the church, I was left alone. The minister of music did stop by to acknowledge me but I was not particularly greeted by anyone nor welcomed. This is particularly strange as this was an advent service. What better time to reach out to one’s community than this. Members were greeting each other however. Christmas music played over the sound system and theater-like advertisements for church activities were being flashed on the screen in front.

Music Pleasing
First Baptist has offered a terrific music program as long as I’ve known them. The piano/organ prelude was quite nice. From the strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on violin and piano, to the children wandering in with candles, to the choir’s entrance with white poinsettias, this was clearly an advent service. The adult and children’s choir sang beautifully, as always, except they were largely unsmiling with the exception of a couple of children’s soloists who did smile. The choir’s song, “I Have Seen the Light”, should have been reflected in the faces of the singers but sadly was not. Maybe the music was not felt by the singers.

Television Taping
First Baptist’s services are taped for replay on Anchorage Baptist Temple’s TV station at various times during the week. To facilitate this, several elevated TV cameras with operators are at work during the service. Consequently, First Baptist is more punctual in their order of service than other churches.

Pastor Ed Gregory had interesting remarks, accented by PowerPoint slides onscreen, about “The Tree of Christmas vs. The Christmas Tree”. He noted the Christmas tree came from pagan roots, but observed “Let’s not let them take away a beautiful symbol.” Continuing, he noted trees decorate our homes, but behind them stands another tree, the tree of the cross. Although this is a great sentiment, Christmas trees do have pagan origins, as do many other religious traditions. Because pagan traditions have crept into church services, it might be better to dispense with referring to them altogether than explaining them away during the advent season.

Pastor Gregory ended the service with the traditional Baptist alter call, and a baptism.

First Baptist is not as warm as I remembered it. They certainly could be as attentive to visitors as they are to each other. This may have been a fluke, but Christmas and Easter are two times in the church year that see an increase in the number of visitors. Why miss a tremendous opportunity to show visitors that they are welcome?
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