Monthly Archives: January 2013

First Presby – Another Look, Guess What?

I’ve visited First Presbyterian, a downtown church, many times over the years, commenting in this blog after those visits. In fact, FPC was the very first church I reviewed when this blog premiered almost five years ago. My previously-stated general feelings have been that they are reserved, cool, unfriendly to the average visitor, and not a great church for a first visit.

Most recently I visited First Presbyterian on December 23 for the 11 a.m. service. Upon entering I was greeted by two “good mornings” and handed a bulletin. Even the “Passing of the Peace” did not dispel my feelings of being an outsider. The members warmly greeted each other with friendly hugs, and energetic greetings, but I received perfunctory handshakes only.

My first impression was of a greatly diminished congregation from my previous visits, less than 100. That day being the final Sunday before Advent, I was eagerly looking forward to the lighting of the Advent candles. Unfortunately, they were already lit, with the exception of the Christ candle in the center. A family did come forward at the appropriate time to do a reading and lighting of that candle.

In previous visits, the choir was huge, but this Sunday there were only seventeen choir members present. They presented several musical selections which were nice, but merely a shadow of previous years.

I was surprised about the children’s story which related to Advent, the candles, and what the children were doing to get ready for Christmas. The woman presenting the story lost the kids when she switched to using adult language, which might have totally averted the tussling between the two boys in the back, almost under the altar. In my experience, the children’s story can be more powerful than the regular sermon. To me it was a lost opportunity.

First Presby is under interim leadership. The senior pastor gave a sermon embracing an extensive review of internet courtship. He linked it to God’s speaking through the prophets, which resulted in the abuse of the prophets by the hearers. He further likened it to human love letters from God. For me, the sermon lacked impact because it was totally read. The pastor abruptly ended his sermon by saying “…in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

During the liturgy there were periods of uncertainty when people didn’t know whether to stand or sit. Before this visit, I attempted to connect with either the interim pastor and his assistant over the internet, but when I clicked on their names on First Presby’s website, I was dumped into the Yukon Presbytery website, an extremely unfriendly Web gesture. I didn’t pursue it further; previous emails to the Executive Presbyter have gone unanswered. This is the same issue my next blog post addresses. Many Anchorage churches or church organizations hide behind centralized email addresses so that communications to a specific person may never reach them.

The special music of flute and violin was very pleasing to hear, two days before Christmas. This is a beautiful church with great potential for being one of Anchorage’s premier churches, but they are still not visitor friendly. In fact, there was no mention of visitors or guests at all. This church needs lots of energy from new clergy to survive, which I hope they do.

Blue Christmas Services: New Anchorage Tradition?

Blue Christmas and/or Longest Night services are proliferating in the Anchorage church community. These non-traditional services usually coincide with Winter Solstice. They can offer relief from the overt commercialism that has overtaken a Christian tradition and perverted it. In our community many struggle with issues of literal and spiritual darkness, grief, or depression, especially during the dark solstice period.

In this blog just before solstice (click here) (not currently available), I mentioned those few Blue Christmas/Longest Night services I was able to locate in our publicity-shy church community. I attended the service at St Mark Lutheran as it was one of the services announced in ADN’s Matters of Faith listings in Saturday’s paper.

It turns out I was greeted by the pastor in the lobby and handed a liturgy booklet, with a beautiful cover, for their service titled “When Christmas Hurts: 2012 Liturgy for the Longest Night”. At the time I did not realize it was Rev. Carol George, St. Mark’s pastor, greeting me. It would have been appropriate for her to have used her name in greeting me. This sometimes happens in churches, but should not. Guests, especially first time attenders, should always be greeted warmly by any pastor in any church. I believe pastors are often following the wisdom of some outworn book or article advising pastors to be scarce before or after the service to keep up the mystery. This is not and should not be true!

The service followed a liturgical form, all read by the pastor or another woman reader. The music, beautifully rendered on harp by Dr. LiuHsiu, and flute by Christine Reichman, was individual verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” interspersed among the various readings by the leader, reader, and the congregation.

During the portion of the liturgy where the four Advent candles were lit, an opportunity was given to speak out the names of people who had died, and name losses, aloud or in our hearts. The leader read:

Each of us comes bearing our own hurts, sorrows, broken places. I want to invite each of you to offer your personal wound to the God who loves each of us deeply and wants to carry our pain. God waits patiently, gently calling out. “Give me your pain, come to me…, all who labor and are heavy laden, I will refresh you!”

Toward the end of the service, participants were invited to come up and light an individual candle in front. The candle lighting was made difficult by the use of a hard-to-operate mechanical lighter. The woman in front of me finally picked up a candle, lit it from another, and lit her individual candle, handing it to me when she was done. It would have been far simpler to have made tapers available for this meaningful part of the service. People were also invited to come forward for a blessing at the altar.

The service was lightly attended by twenty-five or thirty people. With only four women leading the service, I felt it lacked a male presence which might be a deterrent to some men attending in the future. Gender leadership balance is always an important consideration for all worshipers. This was a relatively somber service. There was little conversation and no one spoke to me, even though I recognized a face or two among those present. The lengthy readings, while good, for me were hard to follow. I kept longing for a few sentences, unscripted, that spoke to my heart. I probably would not attend this particular service in the future but still agree with the concept of Blue Christmas/Longest Night services. Scout one out next year for a meaningful experience during Advent.

Ten Things Churches Did That Blew Me Away In 2012

When I post my annual Top Ten list of things I urge churches to address in the coming year, I inevitably hear from individuals complaining I never find anything right with the local church scene. Not true! The Church Visits blog is full of references to churches who do wonderful things for our community, resonating well with guests too. This week’s post summarizes Ten Things, for the year just ended that were superb, showing what Anchorage churches are capable of doing.

Robin Meyers’ Presentations at St Mary’s Episcopal
I, along with many others in our community, was challenged to think about the way we “do church” by Robin Meyers, pastor, author, and theologian. Author of The Underground Church, Meyers delivered strongly assertive thinking to reexamine the way our churches fulfill the mission of Christ, and what it would really be like to “do church” today as the early Christian church did. These forward-thinking but under-attended presentations were funded by the Caroline Pennimann Wohlforth Lecture Series.

Ed Stetzer Presentations at ChangePoint
Pastor/Researcher Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeways Research, presented a research-driven message to all of ChangePoint’s services in September. His pointed messages about doing church and doing mission, were surprising to hear in Alaska’s largest church, or in any Anchorage church for that matter. It is uncommon to hear pastors challenge any aspect of doing church or doing mission in Anchorage and was refreshing to hear.

Moravian Church Evening Meeting
I attended a Sunday evening singing meeting at the Anchorage Moravian Church early in 2012. What a feast of heartfelt singing and testimonies I’ve never heard in an Anchorage church! Pastor William Nicholson gave a brief but meaningful sermon as well. It seemed as though all members present participated once or twice during the service. If you want a real lift to your life, visit this church; you’ll never forget it..

JBER Chaplains Providing Multi-Faceted Ministries
Chaplain Rick Cavens of the Alaska Air National Guard provided me with two Sunday opportunities to attend multiple worship sessions, a yellow ribbon event, and a commanders meeting. I was impressed with the caliber of the services, the interest and participation of the officers and enlisted men, and the caring attitudes of the entire staff of the chaplain’s office on behalf of the 1,400 personnel comprising the 176th Air Wing. Our service men and women are well cared for here. I’ll be blogging more of this story in an upcoming post.

Baxter Road Bible Church Gives to Anchorage!! Wow!
In December 2011, I became aware of a December giving program where this 350 member eastside church, motivated by Biblical principles and a love for God, gave all of its December church income, approximately $55,000, to local charitable causes. Under the theme “It’s Not Your Birthday”, they did it again this year, raising over $68,000 for causes such as Love, Inc., Gospel Rescue Center, Kid’s Kitchen, Northern Frontier Ministry, AWAIC, and more. God’s Spirit truly motivates this dedicated group of Christians. They don’t do much in the way of short-term missions. Instead individuals in the church send $150/month to native missionaries in India who support their entire family and ministry on these amounts for an entire year. Over 30 families of this church support a similar number of missionaries in India this way. That’s about the same amount each short-term missionary spends going abroad on a 2-week “mission trip”.

Advent Reflections by 14 Anchorage Pastors
14 Anchorage pastors answered my call to share their thinking on the theme of Advent as an Antidote to Acquisitiveness or Consumerism. They were shared each day during 2012 Advent in this Church Visits blog. What beautiful writing and reflections from the heart were shared! They were made available in a free eBook last week and available by clicking here. Sad to say, many Anchorage “name” pastors did not respond to my requests, were too busy, or totally ignored my invitation to share. Another reason for this blog! But I thank God for this dedicated group of fine Christians who shared the contents of their hearts.

St. John UMC’s Vivaldi Gloria
Under the direction of Karen Horton, retiring long-time choir director and organist of St. John UMC’s choral department, a musical gift to the community was given for the last time. With a 35 voice choir, harpsichord, and 7 piece chamber orchestra, this free gift, beautifully rendered, shared Vivaldi’s praise to God, sung in Latin, but translated thematically means “Glory to God In the Highest”.

Gospel According to John Mark
This portrayal of John Mark touched my heart. Presented by Hope: worldwide and Great Land Christian Church, it was performed at the Wendy Williamson in March. As I’ve said many times before, some of the very best spiritual presentations in Anchorage are presented without broad multi-church support. Sadly, the audience that night was a mere shadow of what it truly deserved to be. I’ll never forget this performance which brought me into touch with New Testament events as related by a “first-person witness”.

Caring Ministry of Christ Our Savior Lutheran
I found myself at Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church many times this year. This under-attended South Anchorage church offers so much. A warm congregation and a pastor who cares is a good starter. The Superbowl Sunday service rocked my boat with its 4 quarters of worship service, cheerleaders, and closing anthem of “Dropkick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)”. Easter Sunrise Service was sparsely attended but rich with meaning. Foodstock’s IV and V brought evenings of folk entertainment, food and donations for Lutheran Social Services and friendly members getting better acquainted. Weekly, Pastor Dan Bollerud produces fabulous electronic church newsletters and 10W, a 10 minute dose of liturgy and music to give you that church connection if you missed church, or just need something spiritual to savor during your commute. I wish there were more Anchorage churches like this who built true community, have fun, nourish real relationships with God, and help the less fortunate in our community consistently..

Dimond Grace Fellowship
My visit to this little church on the upper floor of the Dimond Center made a big impression on me. They had it all. Warm welcome, coffee and donuts, good music, a great sermon! It doesn’t take a multimillion dollar budget to “do church” in this town. It takes heart, a bit of caring, some talent, and people are being blessed. Their lives are being changed too! Dimond Grace Fellowship, I’ll never forget you. Try them. It works!

Top Ten Issues Local Churches Must Address in 2013

Happy New Year 2013! Here’s my annual blast of issues I believe the majority of local churches are totally missing. As a professional church visitor, I see these or their effect in virtually every church visit. I invite your comments about them.

During the remainder of January I’ll tackle a few of these issues each week and flesh them out with examples. Gulp…really? Yep, I’ll showcase them with actual church examples. Please keep up with my blogging, and by all means, follow me on Twitter to know when I post each of my reports. Thank you for visiting my ADN community blog. Keep coming back!

2013 Top Ten Issues List

1. Get Friendly, Show True Christian Hospitality
After almost five years writing this blog on ADN, I’ve seen little improvement in this area. Most Anchorage churches are unfriendly, hoping a bulletin passer will suffice instead of a true greeter. “Good Morning” is not a Christian greeting. If you are visiting an unfriendly church, you should leave immediately! Unfriendliness can be a barometer of the people in that church. Most people make that choice to return in the first 5-8 minutes anyway.

2. Forget Short-Term Missions, Be Missionaries Here at Home
Many area churches are already planning their 2013 short-term mission trips. Research indicates many of these short-term trips are long-term failures and primarily a feel-good device. Meanwhile local needs go unmet because of the huge dollar commitments required by these short-term missions. Often foreign country involvement about their true local needs is misguided or totally lacking, rendering these trips lacking in true benefit.

3. Expect More from Your Pastor’s Sermon
It’s my personal observation that few pastoral sermons I hear use words or ideas that really change people’s lives. Often this is due to the way sermons are delivered, reliance upon story instead of scripture, extended Christian book reviews, focusing on a “hot” author and covering many weeks of sermons, and/or personal harangues or ministerial diatribes instead of Bible-based Christian truth. The number one reason the unchurched visit a church is to learn about what that church believes, and to study the Bible. What are your guests hearing?

4. Clean up Your Websites
The average church website locally is a ringing endorsement of Alaska as a tourist destination, not a communicative device to connect people with God and build Christian community. Lakes, streams, woods, and mountains are shown, one after another, as if churches are in the tourist business. Tourists come to relax and play. Is that the Christian message we should portray? Many times websites are out-of-date, maintained by someone who has no idea of what they are doing; Sad commentary for something that has replaced the traditional Yellow Pages.

5. Confront the Issue of 18-29 Year-Olds Leaving the Church
A huge issue for the church is the documented flood of young adults leaving the church, in all likelihood forever, because of some pretty deep issues created by the church, its leadership, and individual members. Few churches are confronting these issues, but are hoping these young adults will ultimately return. Hope is not a strategy!

6. Understand Why the Rise of the “Nones” is Happening and Address it
Pew Forum and other research adequately documents the numbers and the why’s for the incredible rise of those with no profession of religion (Nones), now at 20%. There are reasons for this, ways to confront it, and people i.e., Nones, who might respond. Many area churches are totally ignoring this phenomena hoping it will go away. Once again, hope is not a strategy.

7. Don’t Surrender Control of Your Church’s Music to a Worship Leader
Too many area churches have totally surrendered control of their worship music to a well-paid worship leader (larger churches). This person often promotes an entertainment format, offensively loud music (105+ decibels), and the use of bland and/or trance-like lyrics devoid of meaningful, life-giving content. Often this music consumes more worship time than that taken by the pastor to share the Word. Studies indicate worshipers are less apt to concentrate on the sermon after such hearing such music. Many studies of the unchurched show they come to learn, not for the music. Is this a conspiracy, or lunacy at its best?

8. Pastors, Stop Hiding behind General Church Email Addresses
Many Anchorage pastors hide behind a general church email box, instead of making themselves available to the public who may need to approach them. Communications to these pastors are screened by a bevy of others deciding if they will trouble the pastor with this or that communication. From personal experience, I can document the exact churches in Anchorage following this disingenuous practice. They have not responded to my communications at all, such as my recent requests for Advent Reflections as mentioned in the post just previous to this one.

9. Stop Being Afraid to Share Information of Worthy Presentations
Anchorage pastors tend to discourage information sharing of other worthy Christian presentations in the community, possibly at another church. Over the past few years I’ve seen many great Christian presentations go wanting for lack of a supportive audience because pastors blocked mention of them, either at the pulpit, church newsletter, or in their bulletins. If your pastor is doing this, they are fearful of something. What could it be?

10. Effectively Announce What Your Church is Planning on Presenting
For some unknown reason, many churches do a poor job of showcasing or announcing what they’re doing or presenting in the community. The Matters of Faith page in Saturday’s Anchorage Daily News does a marvelous job of giving free publicity to churches with important things to share. For the most part, there are only 10-15 listings each week, often with multiple listings for the same church. Non-Christian churches are accorded the same right, so often there are only a few Christian churches with something to share. Why is this? The same goes for direct mailings. I only get 4-6 per year in my mailbox, usually from the same church.