Monthly Archives: April 2009

What’s Under the Hood? Trinity’s Pastor Responds

Struck by the warmth and dynamic character of Trinity Presbyterian Church (click to see 4/2/09 blog review), I wanted to look under the hood of this unusual church to see what makes it so uniquely different from many other Anchorage area churches. To accomplish this, I posed some questions to Pastor Tom Letts. I was intrigued by his responses, and believe you will be too. Oh, by the way, at first I was in shock and disbelief thinking I may have visited Trinity on a good Sunday. However, subsequent visits reveal this overwhelming hospitality and warmth is genuine, a weekly hallmark, and normal behavior for this church.
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ThompsonWhat were your background motives for the recent sermon series based on Reggie McNeal’s book “The Present Future”?

Letts – I don’t want to sound trite but I am simply attempting to remain faithful to what God places in front of us. The Christian church culture of America is on life support (self absorbed and sick). Time to tell the truth. Time to regain our identity. The leadership at Trinity (elders and staff) really are fearless so they stand as one as we speak to what faithfulness looks like today. The worship service is the time when the congregation gathers uniquely before God and receives unique grace. What better time or place to call us to a renewed sense of mission? We have read books, had town halls, done small group work and taught Sunday school classes on the missional church. Now it seems time to ‘go public’ on Sunday mornings. I can’t wait to see what happens.

ThompsonI observed Trinity uses the “meet n’ greet” form of welcome during services. Why?

Letts – Two reasons- it is my personality (and I believe in a community gathering having a personality). I tend to be a warm, friendly, outgoing guy. So…

Second, the congregation as a whole (and the leadership exemplifies this) really sees that hospitality, where it is genuine, is a gift from God to all people. We also understand worship as a participation sport. Put that together with Jesus’ “insomuch as you do to the least of these you do unto me.” [TL paraphrase] and I think we begin to see the ‘least’ in a worship service as the first time folk and the hurting. We teach our congregation to really care, and the greeting time, when entered into honestly, can be a gateway to grace and connection. Sure, there will be those who struggle with genuine care and warm greeting but it is worth the risk. We are either who we say we are, a community of joy and grace, or we are a sham. The greeting time is simply one opportunity of many on a Sunday to exhibit Christ’s nature (rather than sitting back for the show).

ThompsonWhat is the true role of music at Trinity?

Letts – Darrell Guder writes, ‘Worship is the public celebration of the presence and reality of God.’ The quote is from ‘Missional Church’ a formative book for our sense of call and identity here at Trinity.

Music at Trinity, especially in worship, is simply the community’s attempt to put into sound their often indescribable encounters with God through the week. We take this expression really seriously. Our musicians, technicians and up front leaders are close friends (of all ages) who have come to enjoy one another. We pray together, laugh together, and have devotionals with real meat in them at rehearsals. We are in one another’s homes. Many of the musicians are among the mature leaders and servants at Trinity.

Musicians touch truth in ways even poets cannot. There is a language without words that touches their souls. So, regularly, we find one of the band bringing a pre-Christian friend into a rehearsal. They practice with the band and hear the prayers and devotions too. Eventually they may join in participation in worship, and quite often their lives are changed forever. We have had four of our band’s friends come to faith through this ministry and now they sing and play of a Love they know. Look, everything we do at Trinity is about the Kingdom of God. We don’t put up stumbling blocks, we open our ‘home.’ There were about fifty people involved in leading worship on Easter. A few of them are still moving toward relationship with the One we are singing about. We don’t need them in the band because we want to sound better. They play and sing because musicians need followers of Jesus to speak with them in their ‘language.’ We are trying to do that.

I guess the final thought on music in worship is that it really can be the bridge that brings scripture to a human heart. Life is so fractured. A song or hymn offers synthesis, harmony, unity. Music and word focus our hearts on truth. The songs we sing on Sunday at Trinity are tied to our scripture and the talk and our prayers. I hope and pray that they tie to our conversations over coffee as well.
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ThompsonWhat is your vision for Trinity?

Letts – Trinity is to become a community poured out for others as Christ was poured out for us.

* I believe in the incarnational (God in flesh) identity of the church. We exist as God’s mission in and to the whole of creation. We exist to serve this community of Anchorage sacrificially (and with joy!). We are to exist as a community of grace and reconciliation. We exist to exhibit the very character of Jesus by our activity in the world.

* We will not prioritize facilities. We will not prioritize programs. We will not be driven by ‘getting more people to come to church.’ We will decide to live our faith seven days a week, choosing sacrifice over comfort, the faithful thing over the easy thing, making disciples over creating ‘adherents’, and the Kingdom of God over Trinity.

* We have a bunch of stories about how this is beginning to happen. Our staff spends 20% of their paid time outside of church business (helping at schools, Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich table at UAA, volunteering at the nature center, helping with recycling efforts, cross country ski events and food drives in the community, visiting the elderly and shut-in…). Our goal is to spend more than half of all money we receive outside of Trinity (we are currently above 25%). We regularly hold 30 minute services and then go out into the community in groups to serve. All groups at Trinity (home groups, youth and children’s groups, elders, deacons…) have an active missional component and mandate.

My thanks to Pastor Tom Letts for his candid and revealing sharing. Trinity’s story is still unfolding. They have just started seventeen house groups to focus on Phillip Yancey’s awesome book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”. Surely there will be further sermon emphasis to cement the knowledge gained from these studies, and a renewed sense of mission and mandate.

ABT: Illusionary Service – Did you miss it too?

Intrigued by Anchorage Baptist Temple’s TV advertisement for a performance by an illusionist, I attended their 11 a.m. service on March 15 to see how this related to ABT’s Christian mission. The illusionist, Brock Gill, was introduced by Dr. Prevo after some artful deception on Gill’s part, masquerading as a choir member. Gill proceeded to solicit keys from six audience members. Placing the keys in his hand, he had the six adience members cover his hand with theirs. After they removed their hands, he unclenched his fist, revealing the keys had been bent. He further demonstrated the bending of a single key on camera. The audience was advised they would have to come to the 6 p.m. service to see the rest of the story. I didn’t bite, and frankly, I left puzzled.

While Prevo delivered a fine sermon relating to the theme of death, a repetitious theme at ABT, I left with mixed feelings. Has the preaching of the gospel at churches such as this deteriorated to the point where entertainment must be used to snare people in to come to services? A brief survey of the internet reveals a plethora of “Christian entertainers” who specialize as drawing cards. Magicians, musicians of every stripe, illusionists, story tellers, puppeteers, dancers, dramatists, comedians, etc. are being used to draw people into churches, much in the same way that medicine shows of the past used similar entertainers to bring people to the sellers of medicines of dubious value. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be interested in hearing from fellow Christians who might help me understand what this was all about. Even Brock Gill’s wife, writing on his website, made great fun of his “trick” of masquerading as a choir member at ABT during his Alaska trip. Hmmmmm……..

Good Friday and Easter Services: A Two Church Perspective

Normally I don’t focus on new church visits during major religious holidays as many present special programs atypical of week-to-week routines. Also, they’re flooded by throngs of once or twice-a-year attendees. Instead, at the conclusion of Holy Week, I attended Good Friday and Easter services at two churches which consistently show they are visitor-friendly. This blog post is intended to give a flavor of those services.

Good Friday
[img_assist|nid=140555|title=Golgotha|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=125|height=62]Trinity Presbyterian – Dark and Mysterious
Held in a side-chapel, this service in a darkened room began with each worshiper receiving a small candle upon entering. This candle was then lit and placed on one of two round tables with a single taller candle in the front of the chapel. The short services consisted of scripture readings (Mark 14-15), silent reflection, and prayer, punctuated by two songs: “Were You There?” and “Love is Here”. When the last reading indicating Jesus’ death was completed, the room was plunged into total darkness. Exiting in silence, we remained silent until out of the church. An impactual service, I felt the cold truth of the crucifixion as never before.

St. John United Methodist – Light to Dark
Hosted in the main sanctuary, this service followed the traditional Tenebrae Service [6th century] pattern of moving from light to darkness. A formal service consisting of 27 parts with unison readings, beautiful choral anthems with piano, string quartet and solo cello, hymns, scripture readings, and a brief homily by Pastor Dave Beckett. Altar items, cross, candles, etc., were gradually removed during the service, culminating with the draping of the altar in black. Ultimately the church was plunged into darkness. And in that darkness we sang Twila Paris’ beautiful contemporary hymn Lamb of God which brought tears to my eyes and those of others around me.

Lamb of God
(verse 3) I was so lost, I should have died, but you have brought me to your side, to be led by your staff and rod, and to be called a Lamb of God.
(chorus) O Lamb of God, sweet Lamb of God, I love the holy Lamb of God! O wash me in His precious blood, my Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

A most unique and moving experience, I was amazed the church was only half full, considering St. John is one of the largest Methodist churches in the Pacific Northwest.

Easter Sunday
[img_assist|nid=140556|title=Empty Tomb|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=100]St. John United Methodist – Bright and Joyous
Dodging snowshowers, worshipers in their Easter finery streamed into St. John to celebrate the resurrection. Overflowing services offered worshipers a feast of music accentuated by organ, piano, choir, and brass quartet. During the children’s time, shrieks of delight were heard when Pastor Dave Beckett pulled a rabbit out of a seemingly empty box, alluding to the empty tomb. Although the order of service was traditional Methodist, it was highlighted by Pastor Beckett’s upbeat Easter sermon, entitled “Happy News” which can be found here. This service ended on a high note with happy worshipers leaving St. John with hearts full.

Trinity Presbyterian – Warmly Celebrating
Warmly greeted by many of Trinity’s awesome welcoming team, I entered a church blazing with light and accentuated with countless baskets of tulips. The service started with a marvelous video, composed of black and white animation, depicting Jesus’ last days, death, burial and finally the resurrection, and accompanied by members of the band with an evocative oboe solo titled ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’. I still can’t shake the images from my mind. The praise band music, a blend of traditional and contemporary, was beautiful, appropriately setting the tone for the service.

Pastor Letts uses guided prayer to assist worshipers out of prayer ruts, suggesting ways to approach God. The pastoral message, “There’s a Place for Us”, used Lett’s inclusive style of inviting other members to share thoughts or readings. Lett’s use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was intriguing in that his selfless behavior earned him death at the hand of the Nazis, for speaking out against crimes against humanity, in the closing days of WWII in Germany. Better yet, why not listen to Lett’s Easter remarks here? The final song, ‘Who Paints the Sky’, a danceable toe-tapper, ended the service on a high note with the choir boogying out, tambourines in hand. The bell choir played music in the lobby as worshipers exited. A wonderful service, filled with happy memories.

Palm Sunday is Here

This Sunday many Anchorage area churches celebrate Palm Sunday. What is the meaning of this day? Palm Sunday is observed on the Sunday before Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. As a point of interest, Palm Sunday is noted in all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This day commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem just prior to the events leading up to his death and resurrection.

When and where available, churches often use palm leaves or branches to pay homage to the honor given Jesus as noted in the Gospels where people lay garments or cut rushes in the street. John’s Gospel does indicate palm fronds, a symbol of triumph and victory in the Jewish tradition. There’s much more. If you are interested click here for more.

Palm Sunday is a day of reflection and ceremony with many churches offering special music and pastoral messages of deeper significance. I encourage you to visit a local church offering these services to learn more and share in the deeper significance of these commemorations of Christ’s final days prior to his Passion.

Trinity Presbyterian: Melted by Warmth

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I was blown away by the warm greeting I received at Trinity Presbyterian Church on March 22. Eight people were there to warmly greet me from the outside entry to the sanctuary. This mid-Hillside church on Huffman offers a contemporary service engaging all of the senses. Worshipers are treated to a feast of music by a member-led band and praise team. Offering a musical blend of old and new, there is something here for everyone. A good mixture of all ages worship in a contemporary church setting of warmth and openness, further accentuated by light and color. The stained glass is a feast for the eyes. The preaching by Pastor Tom Letts was upbeat, and insightful. The “7 Minute Party” at the end of the service was a wonderful interactive hook. It hooked me and will hook you too if you try this church. You’ll have to read more, but I think you already get the point.

A Different Greeting
No Anchorage church I’ve visited greets like Trinity Presbyterian Church. The two outside doors were open and staffed by two friendly greeters. In the lobby I passed through two lines of three greeters each, of which one cheerfully handed me a bulletin. This is great. Having lots of greeters ensures everyone receives a greeting easily accommodating those floods of church goers that seem to happen. I was ready for more after entering, something I cannot honestly say in many Anchorage churches.

Lots of Smiles
I was struck by the smiles of the worshipers and the praise team/band in front. These people were extremely happy to be there, no doubt about it. In so many churches people are so sober and unsmiling, as if they are not really happy they came. Hey, there’s lots to be happy about. As far as I can see, Christianity offers the only true hope and assurance among all the religions the world has to offer. I’m not talking smug here but only that we have much to be happy about, especially as we enter Holy Week.

Awesome Music
The band and praise team set a positive tone for the worship experience by leading the worshipers in singing a wonderful blend of traditional and newer songs. A dynamite brass section, piano, keyboard, drums and singers explored the beauty of “The Church Has One Foundation”, “Your Grace is Enough”, and “Prophet Song”. No syrup here, just pure Christian love. Clearly not entertainment and intended to be as essential as the worship. Even Pastor Tom Letts participates by playing great trombone in the four person brass section.

Family Centered
Trinity is obviously very family oriented with lots of children and youth. All ages were represented with older worshipers rubbing shoulders with singles. It was pleasing to see the mix. Even the “Meet ‘n Greet” was actually warmer than I usually experience.

Pastoral Team
Pastor Tom and his Associate Pastor, wife Tamara, present a unified front in addressing the congregation. She led out in various parts of the service. I very much appreciated her prayer. It is indeed unusual these days to find ordained couples working together in the ministry. This was gratifying to experience.

Challenging Message
The church is currently reading, studying, and applying the six realities Reggie McNeal details in his recent book The Present Future.
1. Recapturing the spirit of Christianity
2. Replacing “church growth” with a wider vision of kingdom growth
3. Developing disciples instead of church members
4. Fostering the rise of a new apostolic leadership
5. Focusing on spiritual formation rather than church programs
6. Shift, from prediction and planning to preparation for the challenges in an uncertain world

Pastor Letts employed three young adults to read brief passages from The Present Future during the sermon, another example of a participative church. He observed a prevalent question asked by many churches, “How do we get them to come to us?”, is wrong. The real questions we should be asking, he noted, are “How do we grow Trinity to care for them?” and “How do we transform our community?”. Wow! That’s powerful!

Another young adult was brought on stage as Letts showed the following statement on screen.

“I am seeking to follow Jesus’ life of caring for others as he cared for me.” Megan H. UAA PB Sandwich Stand

The young adult was Megan H who described the Peanut Butter Sandwich Stand she helps staff at UAA. One day a week people like Megan give out peanut butter sandwiches for free at UAA because it is the right thing to do. No witnessing is expected, but the results are incredibly positive. This simple act epitomizes what Jesus was trying to demonstrate with his ministry.

The service ended with the beautiful hymn “How Wonderful, How Marvelous”. After a meaningful worship like I had just witnessed, this hymn underscored how thankful Christians can be for what they have. And did people sing in response.

And the “7 Minute Party”? You’ll have to attend Trinity Presbyterian to find out what it is.
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