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.
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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.
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