Monthly Archives: February 2014

Finding the right church can be hard but extremely rewarding 2/22/14

Many have written or talked with me about their difficulties with finding the right church community. Uniformly, they express frustration in finding a group with which they can worship, learn from and fellowship. Several approaches can be used to locate your ideal church.

1. Understand your religious biases. An important first step is to understand what you’re seeking in a religion. If you come from a conservative Protestant background, you’ll probably not be satisfied with a charismatic Catholic congregation. The belief structures of both are diametrically opposed. So, what are you looking for? If you don’t know, there are several excellent and remarkably accurate tools on the Internet to discover what you’re seeking in a religion. I suggest trying eitherChristian Denomination Selector or Beliefnet’s Belief-O-Matic. You will be asked questions about what you hold as a belief, and various religions meeting those selections will be suggested for you.

2. Religious literacy counts. There are many voices shaping the face of Christianity today. Huge shifts away from religion by millennials and others are happening. LGBT wars, Christian sway over education and support of militarization by many religions typify this time. Sooner or later seekers will need to confront these and other issues. Ultimately, these concerns may influence your selection of a faith community.

This week an insightful article on religious literacy was posted on Huffington Post by Andrew Schwartz.

Titled “5 Reasons to be Religiously Literate,” Schwartz acknowledging the decline of religion in America, says “…this trend shouldn’t be enough to let us assume that we can simply watch religion fade into the twilight.” He suggests five reasons to consider as you wrestle with these issues.

3. “Problems caused by religion won’t go away if we stop looking.” Just ignoring religion is not going to make it disappear. Schwartz posits, “The religious and religion will continue to be actors on the world stage no matter how much we ignore them or operate as though they are things of the past.”

4. “It’s important to distinguish between Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Driscoll.” Both MLK and Driscoll were or are Christians, but Schwartz concludes “MLK used his faith in Jesus to fight for equality and pushed history forward, Driscoll uses Jesus to spread hatred and stifle equality. Religion can prove to be heroic or tragic, and it’s necessary to make the distinction so that we don’t lose the good while combating the bad.” We need to be familiar with ways how to detect the good and bad in religious figures, and there are many of them.

5. There’s a lot of good in religion. According to Schwartz, “…religion can offer individuals and communities wisdom that transcends time and context. There is a reason holy books have lasted thousands of years and provided insight to generation after generation.” In last week’s article, I noted a few of the many benefits of religious observance including lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and longer, happier lives.

6. A religious argument is rarely won by using non-religious arguments. People who are religious or nonreligious really speak a different language. Schwartz reminds us, “Religion possesses its own jargon, theology and rationality that typically must be spoken to on those terms. If you want to have a productive conversation with someone who is religious and really engage the issues, then you have to know where they are coming from.”

7. Religion isn’t going away. Summarizing, Schwartz reminds us, “Although there has been a prodigious rise of “nones” and the religiously unaffiliated in the last 15 years, nearly five-sixth of the planet maintains some sort of religious affiliation. … There still remains a deep yearning within people for answers that only religion and spirituality seem able to provide.” Religion is here to stay.

Next week I’ll tackle the importance of getting out in “churchland” to discover for yourself the various flavors of worship and evaluate them with respect to your personal biases and religious literacy.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at Email

Original ADN Article

Churchgoing is good for the body as well as the spirit – 2/15/14

In my many years of visiting churches and writing about my impressions of them, I’ve not mentioned some of the positive benefits of church attendance. Some very interesting research has been performed on this topic and is worthy of consideration. No matter how friendly or unfriendly a church is, hospitable or inhospitable, good sermon or bad, there are many positive benefits from attending church. Here are just a few.


Researchers have discovered attending church lowers blood pressure. In fact, the more often you go, the lower it becomes. This was clinically validated in a Norwegian study published several years ago in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine (“The relationship between religious attendance and blood pressure: The Hunt Study, Norway,” 2011). Similar results have been observed in U.S. research.


A long-term University of Iowa study looked at death rates of individuals over age 65 who attended church weekly. The results showed that 35 percent of participants who attended church lived longer than those who never went. It also found churchgoers’ immune systems were stronger, they were less likely to have clogged arteries, and had lower blood pressure. “There’s something involved in the act of religious attendance, whether it’s the group interaction, the worldview or just the exercise to get out of the house. There’s something that seems to be beneficial,” said University of Iowa psychology professor Susan Lutgendorf, who carried out the study.


Many parents decide to expose their children to agnosticism or atheism and ultimately allow them to make a religious choice. Pat Fagan, Ph.D., author and researcher of religious practice and its effect on families and society, has documented the many benefits of church attendance.

“Religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and the community,” Fagan wrote. “Of particular note are the studies that indicate the benefits of religion to the poor. Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children. The practice of religion also leads to a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction. In addition, religious practice leads to an increase in physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment. Moreover, these effects are intergenerational, as grandparents and parents pass on the benefits to the next generations.” With so many strong benefits of religious practice and church attendance, it’s unfortunate that more parents don’t accept this, and set a strong example for their children by exposing them to church.


Does going to church regularly help with our moods, even make us happier? A recent poll showed it does. Gallup’s research is published under this catchy title: “In U.S., Churchgoers Boast Better Mood, Especially on Sundays: Those who don’t attend religious services often see their mood decline.”

According to the study, “Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. Frequent churchgoers experience an average of 3.36 positive emotions per day compared with an average of 3.08 among those who never attend. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income. In other words, regular churchgoers seem to do better than non-churchgoers or occasional churchgoers in terms of their daily positive wellbeing experiences. This underscores previous Gallup research that finds very religious Americans do better across numerous dimensions of wellbeing than do those who are less religious or not at all religious.”


In a Gospel Coalition article, author Glenn Stanton corrects a myth that “Christians divorce at the same rate as the world,” citing studies by researchers including W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project.

“People who seriously practice a traditional religious faith — whether Christian or other — have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population,” Stanton writes. “The factor making the most difference is religious commitment and practice.

“What appears intuitive is true. Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes — attend church nearly every week, read their bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples — enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public, and unbelievers.”

I’ve only addressed a few of the benefits of regular religious practice and church attendance. Research clearly supports these benefits and many more. If you find yourself in a church that is not right for you, please keep looking. Pray about it as well and you’ll be directed to the right one.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at

Original ADN Article

Alliance Bible Church – Long Service and Gaps

Last Sunday I visited Alliance Bible Church on Dowling between Seward and Old Seward. I’d visited this church several years ago but never wrote up that visit. In the years I’ve authored this blog, there have been times I chose not to post a visit, either because the service was so disturbing, or some other reason.

I was greeted by a smiling woman who held the door open for me. That’s always nice and a practice I rarely see in Anchorage. There were two younger women passing out bulletins and smiles as I entered the church. The church is boxy inside with unusual contours.  Unfortunately I picked seating I later discovered would not allow me to exit unless I walked in front of the entire congregation.

Until the Meet ‘n Greet time, no one spoke to me. At the Meet ‘n Greet, I had about five individuals approach me, welcome me and subject me to the “20 Questions” routine. You know the kind. “Is this your first visit here?”, “How long have you been in Anchorage?”, “What brought you here?”, “Where do you worship?”, etc. These are lost opportunities for sharing why they come to this church to worship, offers to answer questions about the church, or share some significant activities people enjoy there. Churches and service organizations make huge mistakes by trying to get people to married on the first date, i.e. first meeting. One doesn’t pop the question on the first date do they?

As I reviewed ABC’s bulletin, I was astounded its eight pages did not contain an order of service, a disservice to guests unfamiliar with their services. Additionally, it contained three inserts making it quite a packet. The music service started with a little bit of musical riffing, rewarded by audience applause. They played one song, “Glory to God”, and stopped. Pastor Jeff Wiesinger came up and proceeded to read the announcements already printed in the bulletin. He and a couple of other announcers took over fifteen minutes to cover, longer than some Anchorage church sermons. Good church service practice does not permit double announcing to happen, but it did here.

ABC’s musical group of seven was good, singing mainly theological accurate songs with lyrics displayed on the screen above the stage. The sound level, measured in decibels, was extremely high peaking out at 117 db! I believe the shape of the sanctuary, and the sound technician’s efforts, contributed to this level more than the musicians, but damage to the hearing is nonetheless inflicted. I timed the musical portions of the service at close to 25 minutes, a long time. Studies show that music of this loudness, and its length, contributes to inability of worshipers to focus on the sermon.

They had a guest speaker J.B. Heckock, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) missionary to Russia. The pastor briefly alluded to some mission meetings held during the week, but as a guest, I really had little idea of what had transpired during them.

Heckock preached a sermon titled “The Imperfect”, a sermon of three parts dealing with Joseph (Jacob’s son), Mary Magdaline, and the Apostles. Preaching for an hour, his transitions between the three sections were rough, making focus extremely difficult.

As Heckock started, he said we didn’t have to get our Bibles out as it would all be on screen. Sadly, the scriptural passages were improperly formatted. Imagine his reading this passage of scripture (below) during the sermon.


In internet parlance, this is the equivalent of shouting. His thoughts were good, but as a missionary, he gave little hint of their mission (JB and wife). I wish I could share his sermon with you but the church website hasn’t posted it yet. Note to all churches. If your sermons are not posted immediately, it’s less likely they’ll ever be listened to online.

I would have left earlier, but as mentioned previously, I was trapped. After the speaker quit, ABC continued with another 15 minutes or so with a presentation of Christian Missionary Alliance funding for missions, and an appeal to commit to a level of giving for the year. At this point, I was beginning to get desperate. When churches do these kinds of presentations, they should be kind and offer a minute or two for their guests to leave, but ABC did not offer this choice. Finally, after two hours, church was dismissed. Unfortunately, no one said a word to me as I leisurely left the church. How many other guests do they let slip through their fingers?

There were things I liked about the service, and obviously things I did not like. This church appears to very friendly to each other but not to guests. All told there were 75-100 attendees at the service. In the critical 5-8 minutes that guests make a decision about returning, I was ambivalent. By the end of the service my mind was made up. Their website contains many pictures of lakes, mountains, rivers, and other nature pictures. Churches have nothing to do with tourism. They should relate “…to the gospel going to all the world”, graphically showing how they are accomplishing that. Sadly, the website does not include, on their all important first page, or splash screen, the address and phone number of the church. You have to hunt for it, but it is the #1 things website visitors are seeking. Several other times the service was dysfunctional for me.

Yet, all told, four or five good service tweaks could produce miracles in their service. I hope they do. Usually, churches do not make the effort. I will go back to see if they have made needed changes and find each visit is the same.

Communion rite can be meaningful or confusing – 2/8/14

In visiting many local churches, I’ve had the pleasure of extending my worship through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Communion or Eucharist. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the single term “Communion” here. This practice, established by Jesus at the Last Supper, is recorded in Matthew 26, Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 13 and other New Testament passages.

Catholics and some others practice transubstantiation, which is the belief that Communion bread and wine are mystically changed into the body and blood of Christ.

In consubstantiation, practiced by reformation churches, including Lutherans, Christ is believed to be present alongside the bread and wine as well as in the gathering.

Most other churches believe the bread and the wine are entirely symbolic.

Communion, in early New Testament times, provoked misunderstanding and criticism by outsiders because of the wording of Christ’s explanation, “As often as you eat my body, and drink my blood, you honor my death until I return.”

To outsiders it suggested cannibalism.

Communion grew to become a key ordinance of the Christian church.

Some churches practice weekly or biweekly Communion. A few celebrate it once a month. Others observe it once a quarter. No frequency is mentioned in Scripture.

Open Communion — in which anyone can partake regardless of faith or belief — is practiced by many churches. Other churches request that you profess a belief in Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for partaking. Some churches practice closed Communion, meaning you must be an accredited member of that church before partaking. More than half of local churches say nothing about who may take Communion, which I find a guest-unfriendly gesture.

Astonishingly, some churches distribute Communion without a single word. A few local churches leave the emblems of Communion out, inviting members to partake whenever desired. This is not supported by Scripture. Personally I find both of these practices insulting. They leave Communion takers without an explanation, confusing and perplexing guests. It’s a missed opportunity.

Few churches read the pertinent Scripture and comment on the significance of observing this ordinance. Many churches spend significant time and attention on the details of Communion service, following a prescribed liturgical order. Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestants do this. Evangelicals seem to take the least time.

Methods of Communion distribution vary widely from church to church. The dominant method is going forward to receive Communion at the altar, or in close proximity. There, one receives the bread from one person and the cup from another, both employing Communion language: “The body of Christ broken for you,” and “The blood of Christ shed for you.”

Some church servers distribute wafers or bread throughout the congregation, and then pass trays of small cups of juice or wine. Amazingly, some pass wafers and then Communion juice trays, expecting one to eat and drink as it arrives. The cup is replaced on the tray and passed down the row. This is awkward.

 With congregational distribution, some churches practice holding the bread and wine until a signal is given so all partake at once. Many of these practices depend on familiarity and, confusingly, few churches say anything about their specific practice.

Major liturgical churches tend to use the wafer and drink from a common cup. Variations of this are breaking a loaf of bread, using a common cup and dipping the bread into the wine or juice. This practice is referred to as “intinction” but without Scriptural support.

Wine is controversial. Clearly it was the practice in Christ’s time. Some denominations have strong anti-alcohol rules, so grape juice is substituted. Many liturgical denominations use wine, offering grape juice as an alternative. Often churches offer gluten-free wafers for those with gluten sensitivities.

A few denominations observe foot-washing ordinances, sometimes called Ordinances of Humility. Seventh-day Adventists are one such denomination. They adopted this practice after Jesus’ example, as recorded in Scripture.

While Communion practices vary widely, this service could be more meaningful and less confusing if clergy talked about their specific practices but I have found explanations of practices are rare.

Enlightened clergy follow a tried-and-true formula: Tell them what you’re going to do, do it, then tell them what you did (which is to say, summarize or contextualize).

In a recent Lutheran service, the pastor invited worshipers to partake of Communion by serving one another using “body and blood” language. Not self-serve, it was a meaningful service portraying Christ’s example. It stands as a high point of my Christian Communion experiences.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at

Original ADN Article

Community Covenant – Eagle River: New Leadership, Old Charm

I revisited Community Covenant – Eagle River on January 19. Little did I realize what was in store. Blog posts of the two previous visits to Community Covenant can viewed HERE and HERE. (links not currently available) It had been almost three years since visiting this fine church.

From the time of my arrival, no more than 5-7 minutes elapsed until I had been greeted by half a dozen people or more, including the new pastor. This is a rare occurrence among my many local church visits. (Most guests decide to make a return visit to a church 5-8 minute from arrival.) This created a favorable impression in my mind which I’ll never forget.

A few first impressions to start with. People were friendly to each other and engaged in good conversation. It felt like a happy place. The platform was ringed by “Christmassy” appearing displays which seemed out of place for late January. The musical group of six now occupied the entire top of the platform, although the group was still the same size. It appeared they was now a more important part of the service than the preaching. Nonetheless, the band was still good, singing many spiritually correct songs interspersed throughout the service. I would not place their musical contribution in the same category as last weeks article on song services, but still, they sounded great. Among the hymns performed was “Great is thy Faithfulness” and “Be Thou My Vision”, both great hymns of the church.

Previous Pastor Mark Meredith has moved on and their new pastor is Todd Michero. When he introduced himself to me, I asked why he wasn’t speaking that day. He indicated the speaker would be Curtis Ivanoff, Field Director of Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska, and that he would be consecrated for his ministry at this church later in the service.

Ivanoff’s wonderful talk titled, “Jesus More Real, God’s Work More Evident”, outlined the history and work of their denomination in Alaska stretching back into the 19th century. It was replete with artifacts and historical pictures of the early days with their Alaska ministry. Click HERE to hear his wonderful sermon. Curtis ended his talk by singing, in Inupiat – Kobuk dialect, this outstanding song.

Aarigaa (Inupiat for Fine! Good! An expression of enjoyment.)

Verse 1 of 5 Verses
Jesus will come again his promise to fulfill. Christians, only those who accept it, He will receive, Good! Fine!

Good! Fine!; Good! Fine! It’s a good land. When we enter, the trail, the path is bright, Good!
Fine! It’s a good land He has given.

This was a wonderful song and affirmation in native tongue. The Inupiat translation is not complete, but it rivals most Christian hymns. Such feeling!

After Ivanoff’s talk, the leadership team was called to the platform, and prayed for incoming Pastor Michero, connecting to him through corporate laying on of hands. It was a touching and fitting end to this wonderful service.

I highly recommend this church for their guest-friendly services, warmth and hospitality, good music, and worthy sermons. They have the right stuff. I look forward to listening to Pastor Michero’s teaching in the near future. You can listen to some of his sermons already through the sermon link above.

Great hymn singing is not dead in Anchorage

Many readers have written asking for names of churches offering music formats not harsh, overly loud, consistent with Scripture and based on spiritually uplifting hymn format singing.

Many evangelical churches used to offer hymn singing formats where a 10- to 15-minute period of congregational singing, called “song service,” commenced the worship service. This style is dying out for lack of gifted song leaders and musicians who can perform this music in a spirited, uplifting and inspired fashion. When done well, a song service can be the most member-active portion of a church service.

Liturgical churches Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist and similar congregations may offer some of this style of music interspersed throughout their services, but it is often performed in a doleful, draggy funereal manner. I recently received an email from a new Anchorage resident, transplanted from another Alaska city, looking for a good song service music format.

Who has the Best Song Service? 

“I have so enjoyed your running commentary on local churches. I’m new to Anchorage, and looking for the church with the best song service. Any “flavor” will do. I’m looking for a mighty Spirit here. Being a missionary kid, I’ve learned to keep my spirituality my own business. I can attend almost anywhere, realizing the kingdom of heaven is within. I do love traditional hymn singing, such as “Like a River Glorious,” “He Hideth My Soul,” “A Mighty Fortress,” etc. I grew up in an Alaskan church in another city. The only thing I miss is their hymns and Scripture songs. My former church plays their hymns at double speed now due to a new pianist since I grew up there. It would be nice if a search of “best church singing” would yield a result. God bless you for your continued service to Anchorage!”

Not many Anchorage churches offer what you are looking for. Many churches have dumped people-friendly song services for entertainment-format praise bands and choirs. I personally know several Anchorage churches that offer what this reader is looking for, and do it well.

A great song-service and a well-delivered sermon are what many people seek in a church service. Instead of offering a search of “best church singing” send an email request to ChurchVisits@gmail. com to obtain a list of churches offering great song services. One of those churches is Great Land Christian Church, which offers one of the best song services in town. It is led by a group of young singers who present an a capella group of hymns and songs that are theologically strong, not Bible camp-style music and so well done that virtually every person in the congregation can be heard following their lead and singing.

The two “Beer and Hymn” sings offered by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church in 2013 offered some of the best hymn singing I’ve heard in many years. More than a hundred people sang great hymns of the church for several hours with unrestrained joy in a restaurant setting while raising close to $10,000 to support the Lutheran Social Services food bank.

 Only a piano delivered the musical accompaniment, while the singing was led by a talented pastor who knew how to sing and lead the music. Occasions like these are infrequent but indicate many seek participative music, not theologically weak “music as entertainment” delivered at eardrum blasting levels. Seek and you will find!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at Email him at

Original ADN Article