Monthly Archives: September 2013

Mary Bolin – Cornerstone’s Greeter Extraordinaire

As long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve emphasized warm greetings, conveying a sense of hospitality, and friendliness and warmth as two of the four criteria I look for in my church visits. Greeting members and guests appropriately is one of the most critical things a church can do. It sets the tone for the time people spend at church. Unfortunately most Anchorage churches fail to understand the importance of training and maintaining effective greeters in their churches. A few churches have them and this blog post highlights one such extraordinary church greeter.

Early in my visits, I visited Cornerstone Church and discovered Mary Bolin, a key part of their highly effective greeter ministry. I was shocked when I returned some months later to find she greeted me by name. In the intervening years, I’ve made a number of visits to Cornerstone and have observed Mary at work. I could use many superlatives to describe Mary, but the key one would ultimately be the result. She’s effective!

One Sunday I visited Cornerstone. As Mary warmly greeted me I asked if Pastor Brad was speaking. She indicated that he wasn’t as there was a guest speaker instead. I mentioned I was leaving because I’d come to hear Pastor Brad. Mary countered saying the guest speaker had delivered a wonderful message in the earlier service and that it was powerful. She was so right as it turned out to be one of the most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard in an Anchorage church.

I’m pleased to present this interview with Mary Bolin. The bolded text text are my questions of her. Mary’s responses are non-bolded.

How long have you been a greeter at Cornerstone?
I do not remember when I started to greet officially. I think I started in the ‘90’s. I do, however, remember my motive, and that was to make anyone who came through our doors feel welcome; newcomers and regular attendees alike, early, on time or late arrivers. Most people like to see someone who is obviously glad to see them.

Have you received any special training to be a greeter? Are you or Cornerstone providing any training to keep filling the ranks of qualified greeters?
I have not received any special training. At some point I was on the email list of a famous greeter who put out greeting tips. I forget now who he is, but he did have some good points that I may or may not be using. For me, greeting is not a technique; it is a state of mind, a welcoming state of mind. Even when I goof up and call folks by the wrong names, or put couples together who are not couples (as I did with you the first time we met!), if people perceive the sincerity of a welcome and a genuine interest in them as people, much is forgiven.

My single criterion for anyone with an interest in being a greeter is this: SHOW UP. I do not set up lists, I do not call and remind the greeters, if they say they will greet, I expect they will. Greeting is a wonderful privilege, it is not a task, it is not a duty. It is the best ministry in the whole hierarchy of church ministries. I have been a part of other ministries like teaching Sunday school, heading up women’s groups, serving on church council, serving on pulpit committees, and so forth. This is the best. I do have my new greeters greet with me for a couple of Sundays just to get a notion of my philosophy, but as individuals, each of them will greet in the manner than suits them best.

What kinds of things are guests looking for when they first visit your church and how do you help them find them?
A broad spectrum of things people are looking for: Do you have classes for my children? Youth groups? Women’s bible studies? Small Groups? Prayer teams? Men’s groups? Occasionally someone will ask about the kind of music we have or wonder what denomination we are, but not often. I will answer the questions I can and direct them to others for answers I do not know. Frequently folks will have found us online and will have read our statement of faith. Lots of times people say, “I drive by here every day and just decided to come.”

I understand you are a chaplain in Anchorage. Would you share the nature of your work with our readers? Does your work as a chaplain have any bearing on your mission at Cornerstone?
I am a Police and Fire Chaplain. That ministry is one of the greatest joys in my life. In that capacity, we Chaplains minister to the officers and staff of the Police and Fire Departments, as well as some associated entities such as the Medical Examiner’s Office. We are part of the police team in that we are dispatched, along with the officers, to incidents where we assist victims or friends and family members of persons who are injured or deceased. This allows the officers to conduct their investigations while the chaplains care for the others.

Being a Police Chaplain is kind of a cousin to a “Greeter Chaplain”. Many times, as greeter, I have the opportunity to minister to, pray with, and listen to individuals who come my way.

Some readers maintain the friendliness of the welcome of guests to a church has nothing to do with whether or not they will choose to return for another visit at that church? Do you agree with this statement?
Well, I think it is in the nature of human beings that we desire to be in relationship. A warm welcome can be the start of a relationship. Whether or not a person returns to our particular church does not concern me, other than if they do not return I miss out on getting to know him or her. I do not greet in order to attract people to Cornerstone Church. I greet because of what I said earlier. I want people to know someone is glad to see them who are interested in them as individuals valuable to God. Often I have said to people who say they are church shopping,”There are a lot of good churches in Anchorage. Try not to be swayed by your feelings, the music, the preaching or the youth programs. Rather, listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit places you in a church body, not only will you be fed, but the wonderful gifts God has given you will be used in ministry to others.”

Greeters in some churches ask seemingly endless questions of guests. “How did you find us? What church do you normally attend? etc.” Would you comment on the relevance of these questions?
It is helpful to me to know how someone has found Cornerstone. It is not an easy place to get to, at least for first timers. So I often do ask that question. It is a nice point of engagement for further conversation and helps me (sometimes) remember them the next time I see them. I deliberately do not ask about other churches because that is information not relevant to me. I wouldn’t want to participate in hearing anything bad about another church. Usually I ask people their names and try to connect in a way that I might remember them, as well as give them the lay of the land, i.e., “We have coffee, tea and water here in the foyer and you are welcome to take it into the auditorium during the service”.

What do you think when you approach a new guest(s)?
Usually I’m thinking, “Have I met this person/family before?” I usually approach that situation pretty directly by asking, if I’m not sure, Have I met you before? It would be unusual for me to ask, Is this your first time here? People are very gracious and whether I have met them before (several times, even) or it is a first time meeting, they are kindly to me and friendly back.

Cornerstone is unique in that guests are offered a gift. Would you comment on your welcome gift and what is given?
For a few years we did give gifts, and good stuff too like chocolate bars (large and good quality), coffee mugs, travel mugs, good books. Now we do not. The idea behind the gifts was to meet the newcomers. However, it became apparent that the gifts started to become the focus, and the meeting of someone was not important. Sometimes I would be talking to a person, turn around to find all of the gifts had disappeared, while I had not met any of the persons who had them! Enough with the gifts.

Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts with Church Visits readers. It is my hope your insights might take root in more Anchorage churches, giving a new dimension to the proclamation of the Gospel. The “Field of Dreams” philosophy no longer works in churchianity. Many Christians and their churches have lost their sense of uniqueness that marked them, effectively, for hundreds of years. Effective greetings and conveying hospitality go back to Abram, thousands of years ago. God bless you as you continue to touch guests and members at Cornerstone.

Amazing Grace – Always Amazin’ Me

Strongly Recommended
One of Anchorage’s consistent churches is Amazing Grace Lutheran at Elmore & O’Malley. They’re consistently friendly, always have a great sermon, and provide a close personal experience with communion. I recommend them often and there is a reason. This is a tight-knit congregation that is willing to open up and let a guest in to be a recipient of their fellowship.

During my revisit of them on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, September 1, I had another opportunity to experience their fellowship in a warm and welcome way. Pastor Martin Dasler has switched to half-time and they now have a new full-time pastor, Adam Barnhart. Obviously the congregation knew what they were looking for, choosing a pastor who replicates the same easy thoughtful and impactual manner of leadership they are accustomed to.

Late But Always Welcome
I came in a few minutes late but slipped right into the rhythm of the service. This was one of the last of the 2 per Sunday summer services. They have returned to 3 per Sunday now.

From the Gathering Song to the Confession & Forgiveness, to the Sharing of the Peace, I felt once again I was one of them. Keying in on the Gospel reading in Luke 14:1, 7-14, Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, Pastor Adam had an unusual treat. His wife had cooked vegetarian pozole and it was available to the congregation during the remainder of the service. There was a deeper lesson in this sharing but I found it emblematic of the wonderful events that bind this church together.

Easy to Follow – No Mumbo Jumbo
Lutheran services usually follow a set liturgy, but it has a purpose and is extremely meaningful. The church is simple inside, not fancy, but everything has real significance.

I love the rough hewn altar of 6 x 6 lumber simply laid in a square. Communion is served in a circle around this altar, and concludes with prayer while congregants hold hands in the circle. It may take two or three servings of the Eucharist to serve the entire congregation, depending on attendance, but it is one of the most meaningful communions in the Anchorage Bowl. I also like the way they invite members up who have a birthday or anniversary and the pastor has a special prayer for their special day. I always feel blessed to worship here and know their congregation does too.

Baptism Close & Personal
There was a baptism of three individuals this day; an infant, a young boy, and a woman. This was a special moment in these people’s lives and signifies a changed relationship within the church. I enjoyed witnessing this ceremony.

Amazing Grace’s website is up-to-date and colorful. My only suggestion would be they put worship times on the very first page instead of forcing potential guests to hunt for it, as that is the #1 reason people access a church website. Regardless, I recommend this church highly among the many churches I visit and urge if you’re looking for a special church, give them a try.

Why is Church Attendance Still Declining?

It’s a Real Problem
In so many churches I visit, it’s obvious that church attendance is really suffering.

Numerous research studies have been performed on this issue over the years, and documented many of the reasons for this. The reasons change little over time, but too few churches, clergy, and members take them seriously and address them. Well-known church researcher Thom Rainer PhD, in his book The Unchurched Next Door, notes three observations which strike at the heart of this behavior.

1. Most people come to church because of a personal invitation.
I’ve been in Alaska since 1999 and have never received a true invitation to anyone’s church. In an Outreach magazine article in 2007, Thom and Sam Rainer are quoted as saying “Perhaps one of the most underestimated reasons people return to church is that someone simply invited them back.”

2. 7 out of 10 unchurched people have never been invited to church in their whole lives.
If invited, 8 out of 10 unchurched men and women would come to church. I belong to a well-known national service organization and member behavior is documented to such an extent that we are aware only 15% of our members have ever invited someone to join our organization. The same thing is happening with churches and their members but bare knowledge of this does not yet seem to be affecting behavior.

3. The top “rational” reason adults seldom or never attend church is they don’t agree with organized religion or what they preach.
Another way of saying this is the “talk doesn’t match the walk”. This is unfortunately one of the major reasons coming out of studies of why the 18-29 year-old set is deserting church. It’s quoted over and over again. This younger set talks about the inconsistencies in the lives of church people surrounding them noting their preoccupation with pornography, gambling, and entertainment, to name a few, while decrying the issues the younger set is realistically dealing with such as premarital sex and alternative views of science.

In future posts I’ll continue sharing more of the latest research and trends affecting church attendance. As always, I’m interested in your ideas about church attendance. I appreciate each comment that appears on this blog.

Rabbit Creek Revisit – Good Experience Overall

Second Visit
My first visit to Rabbit Creek Community Church was on June 8, 2008. (Click here to read) (Previous blog post hyperlinks not available at this time)  After the passage of five years, I was curious to witness noticeable changes as my first visit had been mainly positive. I can’t believe five years had elapsed between then and my second visit a week ago on August 25, 2013. This also was a positive visit, but saw some notable changes from that first visit.

Greeting & Hospitality Changed
This time I was met with a friendly greeting by middle-aged couple who held front doors open for me. The man shook my hand and both welcomed me. There were plenty of friendly smiling faces as I pressed forward into the auditorium, but outside of the greeters, no one else spoke to me during the entire service and after. The previous visit I was greeted multiple times before I reached my seat. The table where people were given a name badge was swamped. I went on by without anyone noticing me. It was clearly understaffed. Maybe a couple other helpers with clipboards and badges could do it on the fly. I think name badges are a great idea, and great leveler.

Noisy, Confusing Service Start
The worship band started promptly at 10 a.m. but there was much noisy visiting after the music started. It lent a confused sound. Many people were loudly talking over the music, especially a table of women at the rear of the sanctuary. I believe this type of behavior is disrespectful. The seven musicians sounded good and were not loud. In fact they were a comfortable 10 to 15 decibels lower than many other churches in Anchorage. It is sheer disrespect to worshipers in Anchorage churches that boost sound levels to 100-105 decibels when one can go to Anchorage’s performing arts center (PAC) and measure the sound of most concerts at 20-25 decibels lower, yet comfortably hear every word and note.

The group led off with Sing, Sing, Sing, a Chris Tomlin tune that is quite spiritual. (Lyrics attached below)

Meet n’ Greet Self Serving
No one approached me during the Meet n’ Greet. I observed it as a time friends sought out friends with great demonstrations of affection for one another. At least one guest was ignored, me, and probably others as well.

Announcements Well Done
Rabbit Creek’s announcements were delivered by a laid back layman, and also utilized video. I especially liked the humorous one about “Socks in September”. The Small Groups announcement was very good. Small groups are a great way to strengthen a church. This time was a nice change from the typical boring run down the list of every church announcement that week, assuming people cannot read.

Stand & Sing, Sing Loud, Clap Your Hands
The band said these words to the worshipers, but oddly enough many were not singing, not singing loudly, and not clapping their hands. I believe it was because the music group had the congregation singing an unfamiliar set of three songs with uniquely different rhythms. Christian songwriters are beginning to discover their music is difficult, unfamiliar, and quickly passes off the scene. A new breed of songwriter is beginning to emerge that is writing fewer, but more singable and memorable songs. I’ll be focusing a blog post soon on this current trend. The band might pay more attention to this trend and present the church with slightly more familiar songs. They sang a group of three songs during this time: O Happy Day, He is Jealous for Me, and Beautiful Things. Beautiful Things (lyrics attached below) is not a theologically strong song. It has so much repetition it is almost a trance song including 20 repetitions of “You make beautiful things” and 14 repetitions of “You make me new”.

Great Sermon, Biblically Strong
Pastor Mark Goodman started preaching around 10:30 and continued for 25 minutes. He started by noting that going to church was not enough. One also needed devotional time, and staying in the Word. Titled “Integrity in Faith”, Goodman did a deep dive into three chapters in the Book of Judges. A good speaker Dr. Goodman stayed mostly in the biblical text, talking extemporaneously holding only a bible, and not resorting to the use of a podium. It was one of the best biblical sermons I’d heard in years. So much of preaching these days is read sermons, many non-biblical stories and illustrations, sharing thoughts of contemporary authors, and repetitive social justice themes that are elevated about all other biblical learning. To me, the members of Rabbit Creek Community Church are coming together to study scripture and learn the lessons the bible contains. You can watch this excellent sermon by clicking here. The object lesson of this sermon was that just like the experience of the children of Israel’s backsliding and reform, we follow the same, unnecessary tortuous path in our lives. Goodman then turned the remaining time over to a new-found friend, Ron, who briefly told a similar story of his life, moving away from God, and then returning to Him. It was a fitting conclusion to Goodman’s teaching. I enjoyed it.

Offering Changed
In my previous visit, guests were told they were not required to give. I was floored because it was the first time in all of my Anchorage church visits I’d heard that. I’ve only seen a couple of other churches say this orally or in print since. Last Sunday, I’m sad to report, this practice has been discontinued. I strongly believe this conveys a message to guests that it’s all about the money. Maybe it was forgotten just this once, but I fear for the worst.

In Conclusion
The musical group concluded with “Lord I Need You”. About half the service was via the music group, which I believe to be a bit much. Less is more. Better audience participation is critical.

Final Thoughts
The bulletin was good, honoring the elements church members really want in their bulletin. A major change had been made by having two projection screens in the front of the church, a substantial departure from the single screen, with the yellowing image projection as noted in my previous visit.

If you’re looking for a spiritual service, respect for scripture, bible-based sermon, and a good greeting, go here. This church seems to have backslid away from being hospitable to guests, and some of its music seems theologically unsound. I enjoyed the majority of the service. Part of the reason I revisit churches regularly is that they morph over time. All in all, I believe this church is a safe haven for a visitor seeking a sound service.

Sing, Sing, Sing