Monthly Archives: November 2009

First Sunday of Advent Begins Today

For many churches, today, November 29, 2009 is celebrated as the first Sunday of Advent. Examples of such churches are Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Anglican (Episcopal). Beginning on the Sunday closest to November 30 (St. Andrews Day), this day marks the beginning season of Advent, i.e. the birth of Christ, and ends on Christmas Eve. The First Sunday of Advent also signifies the start of the liturgical or ecclesiastical year for many Christian religions. Many churches in the Anchorage area will mark this day with special services. Additionally, you will notice an increasing number of celebrations during this season leading up to the Advent.

Celebrated for 1,500 years, it was initially strictly observed with penitence, but has gradually become more joyful in celebration of Christ’s coming, and in preparation for His Second Coming.

As I enter this season of Advent, I request my Christian brethren to join me in sharing the anticipation of celebrating again the birth of Christ and the hope brought to mankind through the true meaning of His incarnation. I thank those Churches and Christians who have been guiding lights and examples of God’s love during the past year. During this season, I’ll visit and reflect on various church expressions of the Advent, sharing them on this blog.

Anchorage Grace: 2nd Visit Disappoints

My first visit to Anchorage Grace Church in April was ill-timed due to our ongoing volcanic events. (click here to read previous visit review) In that review, I expressed concerns about the lack of greeting, lengthy service, and certain aspects of the music. Recently invited to revisit by a member, I tried again last Sunday, November 15. Incredibly, nothing had changed! I received no welcome, and was not even handed a bulletin. Once again there was a substitute pastor, prompting last weeks post on why churches do not announce on their websites who’s preaching. The musical program was highly programmed and lengthy. I was basically disregarded during my entire visit, an antithesis of what Christians are to be. The substitute pastor spent the first 15-20 minutes of his 55 minute discourse explaining and justifying the how’s, why’s and where’s of his preaching on the 3 verses he’d chosen from Hebrews, the focus of his remarks. A test read of Hebrews revealed that the entire book could have been read to the congregation in 35-40 minutes. I was not encouraged by this visit. Surely the intervening seven months under new leadership would have provoked some noticeable changes.

Greeting is Essential!
Unless visitors are warmly greeted on their first visit, they are unlikely to return. I only returned to Anchorage Grace Church because a member wrote, encouraging me to do so. The new pastor in place and changes were occurring. I was not greeted by anyone upon entering the church and no bulletin was handed to me. Some critics of my visits suggest it is my responsibility to seek my own greetings and to search for what is missing, e.g. bulletins. Not true! I’m writing about my experience as a visitor. If it’s happening to me, it’s likely happening to others. Christians should be noted for their warmth and hospitality. It’s not just my words it’s a Biblical injunction.

Musical Service Yo-Yo
The praise team leader started close to schedule, 10:45 a.m., noting we were there to sing and worship in our own way. I relaxed and thought this was going to be great! Amazingly he then told the audience to stand to sing, i.e. in his way! In fact this stand/sit cycle happened a number of times during the service, enough that I felt like a yo-yo being scripted to rise and sit in response to the various contemporary Christian songs they use. Anchorage Grace has a very professional sounding orchestra of approximately 16 or so musicians. That, plus the praise group of five gives their music a full sound. Their huge screen ensures no one is without the words, but for those of a more traditional background, you may not hear any music you recognize.

We sang seven songs, a goodly number for any church. Audience participation was mixed, possibly due to the gym versus standard church atmosphere, i.e. you can’t even hear yourself sing in a building like this. After scripture and prayer, they started singing again while we were seated, and one verse in, the music leader asked us to stand again. We sat for the offering after which the praise group started singing again and yet again, after one verse, the leader asked us to stand. If you dislike being told to stand, and sit, and stand, and sit repeatedly for musical reasons, Anchorage Grace may not be for you. This could have been easily dealt with by the musical leader. It was not audience friendly.

My concern for the preaching was that yet again, I found another speaker placed in front of me who was not the regular pastor, a problem not unique to Anchorage Grace, but a regular occurrence in my church visits. The name given was only Randy. I don’t know where the new regular pastor was but he was not there (and I had no bulletin). Visitors appreciate being told who told who the participants are. I looked at Anchorage Grace’s website before leaving home. No clue was given as to who was preaching this day. This is a shortcoming of Anchorage Grace and many other mainline Anchorage churches. The internet is rapidly replacing most other types of media. Why this information would not be posted on their website is beyond me. I don’t like surprises and many other churchgoers feel the same way. (See last week’s post about this shortcoming)

As mentioned at the beginning, I was irritated by Randy spending the first 15-20 minutes of his 55 minute sermon justifying why he was preaching on the three verses from Hebrews upon which his remarks were based. If the entire book of Hebrews, not terribly dense, was read to the audience in 35-40 minutes (it can be done), it could have exposed them to the sway of God’s word with room for pastoral reflection at the end.

Randy also mentioned, in quoting a text from 2 Peter, that he could identify with it because it was written by Peter, a fisherman, as Randy too had been a fisherman. Most Biblical scholars are fairly agreed that Peter was not the author of 2 Peter. (click to view Wikipedia reference) The sermon was closed with prayer. I thought church was over but another participant came up, commented upon the sermon and other matters, and closed again with prayer. Two closing prayers, in a couple of minutes, seemed a bit awkward.

Maybe Anchorage Grace has made some positive changes with their new pastor, but I saw no evidence of them. For me, it remains an unfriendly church with a lengthy, uninterrupted music program prone to unnecessary calls to stand and sit. The preaching I’ve heard has not touched my heart, something I look for in every church visit. In both sermons I’ve heard there, I was most touched when both pastors finally stepped out from the pulpit and actually got closer to the crowd. Christian services need to be real, believable, and touchable. Otherwise they become dry and sterile. I’m open to visit this church again when I have evidence they embrace the visitor.

As often mentioned in this column, consistently hospitable churches are just that way. They don’t tend to have bad days. Every church, no matter how consistent, should be out visiting other churches to see what works and what doesn’t. Trinity Presbyterian, just up Huffman from Anchorage Grace, is a great example of gracious Christian hospitality, never missing a visitor with a greeting, a bulletin, short and concise Bible-based sermons, and an awesome musical program that does not have people jumping up and down. Trinity’s pastoral team is not pulpit bound, avoiding the pulpit and going into the audience to make their points. Trinity is certainly worth a visit for any church seeking fresh ideas.

Missing Comments?

If you notice comments to any blog post are missing, please don’t think I take down comments because I don’t agree with you. Usually, when a blog post shows a certain number of comments, but there are none available to view when you look, it means that a commercial spammer or poster of a vulgar comment has had their comments blocked. If this type of poster has been blocked previously and attempts to post another comment, they will be automatically be blocked. Sorry, but it’s the name of the game. It’s out of my control. I think the ADN controls on spam are appropriate and do not interfere with true reader sentiment. I appreciate your readership, and comments. Thank you! Chris Thompson

Why Are Churches Not Sharing Speaker Names/Topics in Advance?

Today I made a 2nd visit to a church I’d blogged earlier this year with a less than positive account. I recently received an invitation from a member to revisit suggesting I’d see a difference this time. I’ll blog this visit experience soon, but was unsettled by being subjected to yet another “pinch hitter” speaker whose 1-hour sermon was ok, but painfully long. It included a 20 minute justification of why and how he was preaching this sermon. The church website made no mention of the guest speaker or the subject of the talk. No mention. either, of why the regular pastor was missing. This is a disservice to any church visitor virtually guaranteeing they will not return.

Omission Common in Anchorage Churches
I spent time today looking at a number of church websites for churches I’ve visited in the past year. Only one mentioned their featured speaker for today.

November 8, the previous Sunday, I visited another local church, (visit report pending), that also had a guest speaker. No mention was made of why the regular pastor was not speaking or when he could be expected back in the pulpit.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in Anchorage churches. With potential visitors being lured to churches in hope of hearing the regular pastor, but only hearing a stranger, it’s is clearly not fair to them. How does your church measure up? Your church may believe any visitor will receive a friendly welcome, and a well-delivered sermon on a typical worship day with the main pastor(s) missing, but my visits to Anchorage churches indicate otherwise, especially when a guest speaker is involved.

What’s the Problem?
Many external church signs routinely list the name of the speaker along with the topic of their message. Additionally, the Anchorage Daily News allows churches to announce special sermons in Saturday’s Matters of Faith page. Churches lose valuable visitor support by not being more forthright and posting this information. Isn’t the website just as important as these other means?

I’d love to hear Anchorage churches and their members post their thoughts about why they are ignoring this visitor-friendly practice. In a period of declining church attendance, both nationally and especially in Alaska, churches need to put their best foot forward to inform potential visitors about the speaker and their topic.

Central Lutheran: Warm and Caring

My recent chilly, early morning visit to Central Lutheran, a near downtown church, was delightful. They offer warm greetings, solid music, a meaningful liturgy, and brief but meaningful homilies. Serving a diverse ethnic and socioeconomic congregation, they have established and maintain a significant Christian presence in their neighborhood. I intend to revisit to sample the atmosphere of their other congregations at their two other Sunday morning services. [img_assist|nid=145237|title=Central Lutheran Sanctuary Interior|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=166]

Ignoring the Lutherans?
So far I’ve now officially visited four Lutheran churches in the Anchorage area. Two were wonderful visits in every respect, one ignored me totally but offered a good service, and one was a painful experience I never did write up. Lutheran churches tend to have smaller but better utilized facilities than many denominations. Where some denominations may have a huge church, you’ll often see only one service. Lutherans may have two or three services in a significantly smaller church building. Outwardly, they may not be as visible but when you get inside, you’ll notice strong markers of the Christian faith.

Appropriate Greeting
Arriving a few minutes before Central Lutheran’s 8:15 a.m. service on October 25, 2009, I was warmly greeted inside the foyer by an older gentleman in my line of sight. Entering the sanctuary I was greeted again and handed a bulletin by two greeter/usher/bulletin passers. The church was spacious and brightly lit. The smaller group of worshipers at this service filled one-quarter to one-third of the church. They tended to be more mature worshipers dressed in suits, or certainly more nicely dressed than in many churches.

The bulletin detailed the order of service and liturgy for the day. To my recollection, the 20 page bulletin was the largest I’ve received in my visits. However, it contained the whole of the service, including the words and music for the songs used. Only three pages were devoted to schedules and announcements.

Service Moved Well
Starting promptly at 8:15 a.m. with an organ prelude of a beautiful Pachelbel tune, the liturgical service commenced, lasting for about an hour. Lutheran liturgy tends to be structured with Confession and Forgiveness, Greeting, Prayer of the Day, First and Second Reading of the Word, Gospel Reading, Sermon, Nicene Creed, Prayers of Intercession, Eucharist, Benediction, and Dismissal.

Central Lutheran has co-pastors who work well together, alternating key responsibilities. On this Sunday Rev. Glenn Petersen served as preacher, and Rev. Lisa Smith served as presider. As presider, Rev. Lisa led out in many of the responsorial readings. Unusual for a pastor, she offered clear diction, and a strong and pleasing voice, easily heard and understood by her primarily mature audience. I appreciated this. Rev. Glenn also had clear diction and was easy to understand as he delivered his brief sermon titled “Standing Under”. Mention was made that this was Reformation Sunday, the day commemorating Luther’s inauguration of the Reformation by his nailing the 95 Thesis to the church door in Wittenburg. As the actual date of Luther’s action was October 31, the coming Saturday, Lutheran churches were celebrating this date on Sunday, October 25, a great commemoration.

Final Thoughts
I very much liked this service because the church, atypical of most Lutheran churches I’ve visited, was bright and brightly lit. I consider this to be a warm and friendly church. The Eucharist was served only after the pastors clearly invited all to the table, a strong departure from most churches. They pointed out that this was God’s table, not a Lutheran table. It was an emotional moment for me because so many churches do not freely invite the “stranger within their midst” to God’s table. Finally, I loved the Benediction and Dismissal being done by both pastors from the rear of the church, thus enabling them to be in position to greet departing worshipers. I was warmly greeted by Rev Glenn who also asked my name, an unusual departure from most churches, even if you do happen to shake the pastor’s hand. Clearly Central Lutheran is a church with good tradition, warmth of fellowship, and a clear articulation of Christ’s ministry. I’m sure all comers would receive a warm welcome here.

After this visit, I received a warm email from a Central Lutheran member couple, offering to bring me a loaf of bread if I provided my address. Typically I only use my address when filling out visitor registration cards, but I sincerely appreciated their offer. Regardless of how many times I fill out a visitor card at any Anchorage church, it is rare I receive an acknowledgement of my visit, a sad commentary on contemporary Christian practice. I believe I’d have a much higher response rate if I also indicated I wanted to become a member.[img_assist|nid=145238|title=Central Lutheran Exterior|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=126]