Monthly Archives: May 2009

What’s Under the Hood? Amazing Grace’s Pastor Interviewed

Considerably impressed by my initial visit to Amazing Grace Lutheran Church (click here to read 3/13/09 blog post and comments), I asked Pastor Martin Dasler to share some thoughts about what makes this church unique. Hearing they had a great choral group, I attended again to listen to them sing and to see how it augmented their service. Reliable churches are consistent from week to week, and Amazing Grace is just such a church. I saw it again in my additional visits. Warmly greeted, by different people, I enjoyed another service. Although the presenter was not Pastor Dasler, but a young woman recounting her pilgrimage to Taize, France earlier this year, it all worked. The service, congregarion, and choir truly blessed my day. I’m pleased to share Pastor Dasler’s insights.
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Thompson – Although I consider Amazing Grace to be a friendly church, I note it still uses the “meet n’ greet” form of welcome, The Passing of the Peace, during services. Why?

Dasler – We are an example of how some Lutherans play a bit loose with the standard liturgy. The passing of the peace traditionally comes before the offering because of Jesus words in Matthew 5:23-24 “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

In the early church it was also the traditional post Easter greeting. People at Amazing Grace thought it would be better to use this as a welcome nearer the early part of the service. Some people use it as an opportunity to welcome new folks, others use a traditional formula “the peace of Christ be with you” and others take the opportunity to reach out to a child because we have encouraged the concept that “all kids are our kids”.

Thompson – Amazing Grace uses what I typify as a relaxed or more informal style of service, while retaining the Lutheran liturgical style. Could you comment on this?

Dasler – Luther believed that the liturgy form was optional structure for the church, so you can find Lutherans all over the map on this question. Like most Lutheran Churches, Amazing Grace straddles a respect for Liturgy and Biblical Authority. As children of the enlightenment we like to know the reason we worship the way we do and so our worship and music committee tries to ensure that our services maintain both a purpose and direction. I have been aware more recently that our faith is expressed in four types of spiritualities:

(from John Ackerman’s book “Listening to God”)

While all churches express their faith in various combinations, we do tend to specialize, and Lutherans often straddle the thinking/feeling line. I believe it is important to broadcast on more than one channel to speak to people where they are and at the same time encourage growth by experiencing God in more than one mode.

Thompson – What do you consider the true role of music to be at Amazing Grace?

Dasler – Thinking and feeling – good hymns do both. they teach concepts and Bible stories by entering into them like:

“Built on a rock” written by Nikolai Grundvig is based on the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and the call of Peter but calls the church to see Jesus in our midst:

“Christ builds a house of living stones: we are his own habitation;

He fills our hearts, his humble thrones, granting us life and salvation.

Where two or three to seek his face, he in their midst would show his grace,

blessings upon them bestowing.”

Or a simple song of dedication and prayer from the Iona community that captures a feeling:

Take oh, take me as I am; summon out what I shall be; set your seal upon my heart and live in me.

Or a favorite at Amazing Grace is the Daniel Shutte song “Here I am Lord” which recalls the call of Israel’s first prophet Samuel and reflects on our own call to love and service.

It’s not just the words – great music has this power to bridge thought and feeling. That is why the music of Bach has such direction. (Mozart has this wonderful longing) but Bach wanted direction through tension and resolution. Bach’s music declares that the world, while filled with tension and discord ultimately makes sense. That is theology as well as music.

The classic chorales, rich in harmony, were influenced by Lutheran musicians like Bach and Mendelssohn. Garrison Keillor remarks how Lutherans are taught choral harmony on the laps of their parents. While group singing in America is being displaced by “American Idol” type performance music I think it is desperately important for the church to sing our faith and many of our people love to do that in harmony. There is something mystical that happens when our prayers, hopes and griefs are carried to God on the wings of songs that we sing and hear ourselves sing. At a recent service we did not have an accompanist to lead the service and I was surprised at how well the congregation sang. We are blessed to have a building that is acoustically alive enough to encourage singing.
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Thompson – What is your vision for Amazing Grace?

Dasler – Now that I have been here a year it is easier to see the particulars of our mission. There are many natural gifts at Amazing Grace that we need to build on.

* Our healing ministries, directed by an abundance of trained Parrish Nurses, provide a real service to the community especially during this time of economic and medical uncertainty.

* Our partnerships for local service, to bring aid to our hurting neighbors through Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, Clare House, FISH, are important expressions of the Love of God. This next year we are hoping to develop a specific partnership with a mission in Africa that aids children recovering from warfare. My vision is that we better identify and focus these efforts.

* With the wider Lutheran Church, we will be participating in the “Book of Faith” initiative to encourage more Bible study and learning.

* I am also particularly excited about our new director of youth ministries, Tyler Malotky. While he has been with us only since April he is bringing energy to our programs for youth and young adults and already having an impact on the church.

Three areas of particular focus:

Specific mission objectives
We have many partnerships at Amazing Grace to care for hurting people in our community and spread the love of God. I want to narrow our focus to several projects here and one in Africa that capture our congregations imagination and passion.

Lively and engaging worship
Our Sunday worship needs to empower people for love and service as well as connect them to the forgiveness of God. Our service concludes with these words: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” If the love of God in Christ can transform lives in rebirth and renewal we need to be more intentional about being the midwives on Sunday to make that happen. Tyler our youth director and Chris, our Music Coordinator are working on a new worship format for Wednesday evenings this summer that will involve our youth.

Lifelong learning opportunities
My wife and I were trained as parochial school teachers. I enjoy teaching new members classes but hope to do more this fall. Too many Christians try to get through life with an 8th grade religious education. The simple concrete answers they received don’t survive complex and ambiguous questions of modernity. Lutherans maintain Seminaries and Universities throughout the country but this learning needs to get into the local congregations. We like many other congregations in the ELCA are beginning a program entitled “Book of Faith” this fall. These new materials will help our people look at some of the big questions like “Where did the Bible come from” or “How is the Bible the Word of God”.

Thompson – Thank you Pastor Dasler for sharing these insights about what makes your church what I consider to be, a gem on the hillside.

Observations From My First Year of Church Visits

It’s been a year since I started posting accounts of my church visits in this community blog courtesy of the Anchorage Daily News. It’s clear this blog is being widely read here and throughout the Lower 48. My heartfelt thanks to those churches I’ve recognized for their warm treatment of visitors. For the others, there’s much to be learned from these accounts. If your church has not fared well in these accounts, it might be helpful for you to send out teams to visit other churches to see, firsthand, what is working. I offer some observations gained by my visits in this week’s posting.

Friendly Churches are Consistent
They are friendly on the first visit, and every visit. An “off day” is simply not an option for them. Their hospitality consciousness is driven by their faith, motivation, and friendly concerns for the stranger coupled with a strong love for the Word and their fellow man.

Friendly Churches Do Not Assume
Most churches perform their liturgy, rites, and associated rituals assuming visitors will understand them by osmosis. Unfortunately, this leaves most visitors in the dark, less likely to return. A simple phrase such as “In this church it is our custom at this time to receive offerings for the support of our ministry. Visitors should not feel compelled to give.” goes far in putting visitors at ease.

Don’t Overdress
In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a trend toward casual dressing in church. It’s less common to see suits, ties, and dresses in church these days. Blue jeans and casual clothes are “in”. Visitors who overdress draw undue attention. They will more likely be ignored than those who dress more like the parishioners. If you think God judges you by what you wear, you may be worshiping the wrong God.

Bibles Don’t Go to Church Often
It’s becoming rarer to see people taking Bibles to church. Why lug it when most churches displays every text onscreen, in sermon outlines or bulletins? Of course, the corollary is that fewer people are seriously reading and using their Bibles because they are being spoon-fed, clearly getting out of the “Bible habit”.

Bring Coffee Money
Many churches operate coffee concessions. To take advantage of this you’ll need coffee money. Of course, this also means people traipse in and out of church to get their “fix” before and during the service. It’s a disruption but it’s all the “Lord’s work”, isn’t it? Oh, and if you’re sensitive to the smell of coffee, you’ll find some churches with quite overpowering coffee odors.

Church Websites Confusing and Not Helpful
Very few church websites clearly articulate, on the first screenpage, who they are, how welcoming they are to visitors, and when they meet. Many churches also have non-functional, non-existent, or out-of-date websites but are in a state of denial when I’ve called it to their attention. I do not visit churches with non-functional websites. The public depends on them.

What, Invite Visitors to Lunch?
During this past year, I’ve only been invited to a church meal once or twice. I fear that many times visitors to our churches could use a meal, but are routinely ignored or not included. It’s not my case to be needing a meal, but several times, when departing, I waded through a church crowd chowing down, or preparing to do so, without a single member noticing or asking me to join them.

Some Churches Seem to Delight in Having People Stand for Long Periods
Often, the worship leader will start the music, ask people to stand and leave them standing for 20 to 40 minutes without further comment while a variety of hymns, presentations, solo’s, etc. are performed. From the audience it looks like the worship leaders want you to stand in awe of their “big show”. Many people simply cannot stand for these inexplicable lengths of time. You should not feel compelled to remain standing for such discourtesy. God will not look upon you any differently.

Best Sermons Came from Pastor’s Not Reading Them
Extemporaneous speaking is rapidly becoming a lost art. Most pastors read sermons failing to attract sufficient attention to what they are reading. A few can pull off reading the written word as if it was conversational. I feel church attendance in Alaska is the lowest in the nation, in part, because people have discovered they can read on their own and don’t need a preacher reading to them. In those few churches where the pastor actually preached without reading, it was engaging, understandable, believable, and conversational. Pastors, the adages are best. The real “three pointers” are: 1. say what you’re going to say, 2. say it, and 3. say what you’ve said. It’s that simple!

Big Musical Entertainment Churches Tend to Be Less Friendly
This really surprised me. When I’ve found churches with large, sometimes loud, musical worship programs taking big blocks of time, I’ve generally found colder congregations showing less friendly attitudes toward visitors.

St. Patricks: A Happy Family

[img_assist|nid=141154|title=St. Patrick’s Sign|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=179]Summary
A warm and friendly church, Muldoon-sited St. Patrick’s offers a vibrant spiritual community, outstanding folk-oriented music, restful architecture, meaningful homilies, and a reverent atmosphere. I experienced a sense of coming home during a mid-April visit.

A Little Child Shall Lead Them
During a 4th grade teaching stint in April, a young girl in my classroom, upon discovering I blogged church visits for the Daily News, asked if I’d visited St. Patrick’s. After telling her no, she invited me to attend. I moved St. Patrick’s up on my visit list to accommodate her request and I’m glad I did. I was “made” as I slipped into the back of the church just as Mass was starting. She flew back, gave me a smile, a quick hug, and showed me to a pew, a wonderful way for a visitor to be greeted in any church.

Exceptional Musical Experience
The musical portion of the service was seamlessly interwoven by the Praise Group led by Ed Grantier. Situated unobtrusively in the front of the sanctuary but on the right side, this group provided meaningful leadership in liturgy music, and special musical renditions. Clearly not entertainment, but an essential part of the service, voices, guitars, keyboard, percussion, and other instruments gave clear musical expression to the service. Jennifer Hughes’ beautiful vocal solo “Give Thanks to the Lord” lifted my heart early in the Mass. During congregational singing, looking around, I noted many people deeply involved in singing the music as well.
[img_assist|nid=141155|title=St Patrick’s Stained Glass|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=331]
Looks and Feels Like a Real Church
Not overbuilt like so many churches today, St. Patrick’s offers a contemporary but quiet simplicity that invites worship. A wonderfully colorful, modern round stained glass window is centered in the front of the church behind the crucifix. Due to it’s high location, it does not distract but offers a glimpse of beauty. Father Scott started the Mass with a compassionate prayer that you could actually hear. Unlike some other Catholic churches I’ve visited, I observed utmost reverence and respect in this church. An added bonus is an awesome view of the Chugach from a window wall on the east side of the church.
[img_assist|nid=141156|title=St Patrick’s Sanctuary|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]
Interesting Homily
Father Scott noted he would not be delivering a homily at Mass, only the 2nd time in seven years. In its place he articulated the history of the church, and some pressing needs to further St. Patrick’s master plan. Faith formation space, a dedicated youth center, community gathering spaces, a Marian shrine, and a covered drop off area for seniors were important needs he outlined. Specific short-term needs he mentioned were church damage repair, organ replacement, and piano replacement. I’m not offended as a visitor when churches take care of important issues during services. To me it suggests a growing and active community, which St. Patrick’s obviously represents.

Warm, Family-Oriented Mass
Accompanied by more beautiful music, the Eucharist commenced. Quickly and efficiently served, whole families participated in this portion of the service. I was particularly moved by the song during the serving of the wafer and wine, “Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord”, fitting words for the sacraments.

Mass concluded with a wonderfully bouncy and singable song, “Resurrection Day”. If you are of the Catholic persuasion, you will not regret visiting this vibrant congregation. I was warmly greeted by many people, and made to feel at home as in a new church. Thank you St. Patrick’s community.
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Anchorage Grace: Hillside Cool

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No greeting, a goodly amount of expected standing for the musical part of the service, and a disappointed crowd expecting a sermon from a no-show prospective pastor, marked my visit to Anchorage Grace Church on March 29. The gymnasium setting didn’t feel like a church setting for me. A senior pastor, Ron Whitt, let the crowd down gently with news the potential new guy would not be there due to the recent eruptions at Mt. Redoubt. Marooned on my feet by an overly long musical service (over 30 minutes) with a fairly good worship band and singers, I fought a strong temptation to leave.

The sermon by Pastor Whitt was read, not extemporaneous, but had valuable information. Due to the circumstances of Whitt’s preaching, it felt as though his sermon was a last-minute retread from a previous delivery. I was disappointed by the lack of attention to visitors and felt let down by attending. It may have been an off day for Anchorage Grace, but no church can afford to have these kinds of off days. Simply put, visitors don’t tend to return to unfriendly churches.

Suggested by a Friend
I can’t claim to know much about Anchorage Grace, but when a good friend asked if I’d ever attended Anchorage Grace Church, I said no but made plans to do so in the future. Easily accessible off Huffman on the lower Hillside, my initial impression was of a school with a church as an afterthought. Clearly the school dominated. With no clear entrance markings, people were going in and out of the school. Finally detecting an entrance further north, I walked in. Expecting a warm greeting, I discovered no one there to greet me. I flowed into the auditorium and was not greeted except to be handed a bulletin. I made a mental note to ask my friend if he had any real experience with this church.

A big fan of low cost church spaces, I found it hard to connect this gym as being a church setting. Granted, there was a sparse crowd that day, 1/4 full for the 10:45 a.m. service and barely 1/2 full by the time services were underway.
[img_assist|nid=141009|title=Praise Team & Pastor Whitt|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=186]
Musical Mystery
The musical setup baffled me. There was a twelve piece orchestra, a mixture of all kinds of instruments, and a four person praise team. The music was mainstream contemporary Christian music, i.e. quite possibly unfamiliar to visitors. As the music started, the praise team leader asked the audience to stand, and there we stood for 30 minutes. Looking around, I found many audience members singing automatically, not at all or visibly lackluster. Few in the audience seemed to be happy with the experience of this singing. One praise team member did appear to be emotionally involved with the music. Thirty minutes is a too long a time to stand for this type of experience: song after song without letup. In all fairness, several band members, including the keyboard artist, were awesome.

What do Visitors Know Anyway, Really?
Churches should assume visitors know little about their practices. It is kind to share information about:
– Who is preaching and why.
Certainly important this day. If this is a visiting pastor or layman, especially so.
– What is your practice regarding taking communion?
Open, closed, how taken?
– Offering expectations?
Visitors should NOT be made to feel pressured to give, especially on a first visit. Let them know this.
– Distinctives in the order of service?
Baptism, altar call, offering, welcome?
No such help was offered at Anchorage Grace. In all fairness, communion was not served but the comment still applies to this and any other church practice.

I was able to surmise, the senior pastor at Anchorage Grace had departed, leaving a hole. A potential pastor was unable to reach the church this day due to the air travel disruptions we experienced in the Mt. Redoubt eruptions, so a senior pastor was filling in. Pastor Ron Whitt delivered a sermon titled “Danger!, Danger!, Danger!” (click to listen). Based on Mark 6:30-34, it warned of the danger of apathy. Tied to his sermon notes, Pastor Whitt hit his stride when he finally stepped out from behind the pulpit to deliver heartfelt concluding remarks. On cue, the keyboardist helped the pastor finish with the traditional altar call, an emotional decision moment supported by “decision music”. I’ve learned to forgive churches of this part of the church service which, like tear jerking music in a movie, serve to bolster decisions but more often comes across as emotional blackmail.

I left Anchorage Grace without a single person speaking to me, and quite letdown from my visit experience. I certainly hope it was a fluke, but like many visitors to unfriendly or cool churches, may never know whether or not this was the case.
[img_assist|nid=141008|title=Anchorage Grace – Exterior|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=145]