Monthly Archives: March 2014

Research underscores deeper church attendance issues – 3/29/14

It comes as no surprise to religion watchers that church attendance continues to decline.

This week the Barna Group released “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church.” When asked what helped them grow in faith, “people offered a variety of answers — prayer, family or friends, reading the Bible, having children — but church did not even crack the Top 10 list.”

Sadly, half of Americans say attending church is “somewhat” or “very” important vs. half that say it’s “not too” or “not at all” important, according to the Barna Group study.

The report notes that the “divide between the religiously active and those resistant to churchgoing affects American culture, morality, politics and religion.”

I’ve witnessed dramatic declines in attendance over the 10-plus years I’ve attended church services in Anchorage. Some churches appear to have lost at least half of their attendees. Clearly Alaska mirrors the national trend. Although some churches appear to be experiencing attendance increases, on the whole declines are the norm in Alaska.

The Barna study asked unchurched Americans why they didn’t attend church. The top two reasons given were “I find God elsewhere” (40 percent) and “Church is not relevant to me personally” (35 percent). Regardless of age, denomination or background, the major reason (43 percent) people give for going to church is “to be closer to God.”

Being closer to God is a nebulous quest. The report cautions, “Although people cite their primary reasons for attending church as growing closer to God and learning more about Him, Barna Group finds such closeness is a rare occurrence. Fewer than two of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis.

Additionally, while almost two-thirds of those who value church attendance go to learn more about God, fewer than one in 10 (6 percent) who have ever been to church say they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended. In fact, the majority of people (61 percent) say they did not gain any significant or new insights regarding faith when they last attended.

In other words, although people are seeking God or new faith insights, they’re not finding Him or them. During the past seven years, while blogging my church visits, I rarely sense particular churches offering attendees new information or leading worshipers to connect with God. After church, I often feel downright depressed by the experience. That’s not to say it’s all bad, but it suggests this may be an issue.

A report last year by the Pew Forum asked religiously affiliated respondents what kept them out of the pews.

The report found that among religiously affiliated Americans who say that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, but who attend worship services no more than a few times a year, 24 percent cite personal priorities — including 16 percent who say they are too busy — as reasons they do not attend more often. Another 24 percent mention practical difficulties, including work conflicts, health problems or transportation difficulties.

 “Nearly four in 10 (37 percent) point to an issue directly related to religion or church itself. The most common religion-related responses include disagreements with the beliefs of the religion or their church leaders, or beliefs that attending worship services is not important. Meanwhile, almost one in 10 (9 percent) do not attribute their lack of attendance at religious services to anything in particular.”

The Barna Group discovered only four in 10 Americans said they’d gone to church in the past week. Disturbingly, this latest study shows a dichotomy among American seekers. “The data shows two trends, often at crosscurrents. Adults are aware of their very real spiritual needs, yet they are increasingly dissatisfied with the church’s attempt to meet those spiritual needs and are turning elsewhere,” the report said. This is where Americans say they’re spiritual, not religious.

In the Barna Frames project a New York City pastor, Jon Tyson, observed that Americans have virtually every spiritual resource available, including Bibles, electronic access to incredible teachings, and media galore.

Going further Tyson says, “How could the early church capture the imagination of the Roman empire while we, with all our resources and rigor, are slowly losing influence in our culture?

“The early church leaders didn’t have the things we now consider essential for our faith. They didn’t have official church buildings, vision statements or core values. They had no social media, radio broadcasts or celebrity pastors. They didn’t even have the completed New Testament. Christ followers were often deeply misunderstood, persecuted and some gave their lives for their faith. Yet they loved and they served, and they prayed and they blessed — and slowly, over hundreds of years, they brought the empire to its knees. They did it through love.”

I believe our individual and cultural narcissism has to give way to allow this to happen again. We’re looking at the wrong person.

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

It’s time we get back to observing the Sabbath – 3/22/14

Would we be better off for observing Sabbath?

The Sabbath and its observance are deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian belief. Many of us were raised with the belief that the Sabbath is based on the 10 Commandments and that those still apply to mankind. After all, didn’t we also believe in the concept of not murdering (sixth commandment), not stealing (eighth commandment) and not lying (ninth commandment), which are also part of the 10 Commandments?

There are more commandments but these are good illustrations. In many churches, the commandments seem to provide the moral code for adherents to follow.

The fourth commandment deals with the Sabbath. It’s very explicit: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-12 ESV)

From that beginning, the Sabbath was known and practiced as a day of rest and worship. Literally, this was a God-ordained break from most human activity. In all my church-visiting activity in Anchorage over 10 to 12 years, I can think of no local church I’ve visited that truly follows the biblical injunction in Exodus 20:8-12. Most Christian churches in Anchorage have one- or two-hour worship services, some offer Sunday school, which few members attend, and some offer Sunday evening services, which reflect a tiny cross section of members. For the most part, the rest of Saturday or Sunday, depending on the worship day observed, is business as usual. Consequently, most local Christians spend the Sabbath working, shopping, watching television, fishing, hunting, hiking, snow activities and thousands of other activities.

From the development of Christianity in the early church it is obvious the apostles and early believers worshipped on the Sabbath following the same practices as the Jews before them. But it goes even deeper. Well-known theologian Walter Brueggemann observes in his latest book, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”: “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget. … But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devours all of our ‘rest time.’ The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

The 24/7 mentality in our society is ruining our inner health and peace, intruding upon those sacred things many of us grew up with. The practical observance of Sabbath would provide some of what’s missing. This profoundly felt lack is being documented by many who are even beginning to take secular Sabbaths.

An intriguing article by Mark Bittman detailed this approach in a 2008 New York Times article, “I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really.” Bittman documents his struggles with technology and its controlling nature, especially apparent after he checks his phone messages and email on a flight, discovering he’d surrendered his last sanctuary. “Thus began my “secular Sabbath” — a term I found floating around on blogs — a day a week where I would be free of screens, bells and beeps. An old-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief.” Bittman has been joined by thousands who are seeking and finding relief in “secular” or “biblical” Sabbaths. And they are benefiting greatly from the experience.

It’s time for churches to dust off the 10 Commandments and teach about the power of true Sabbath observance. Moral relevance is still powerful, and the observance of the Sabbath offers powerful benefits when rightly presented by clergy who should know. As important as 10 Commandment observance is, I’d love to hear my first sermon from Anchorage clergy on Sabbath.

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

Look deeper into Lent than just ‘give-ups’ – 3/15/14

Is “giving up” during Lent meaningful?

Last week, Christianity Today released a provocative article titled “What To Give Up For Lent 2014?: Twitter Reveals Top 100 Choices.” Based on more than 100,000 tweets, the top 10 of 100 listed “give-ups” of items revealed:

Social networking
Fast food
Junk food

When lumped into categories the tweets are even more telling:


Renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann observed in a Sojourners article, “Lent is ‘Come to Jesus’ Time”: “Lent is a time for fresh decision-making about reliance upon the God of the gospel. Such decision-making in Lent is commonly called “repentance.” It’s a time to reflect on the way in which God gives new life that is welcome when we recognize how our old way of life mostly leaves us weary and unsatisfied. Lent is a time to face the reality that there is no easy or “convenient” passage from our previous life to a new, joyous life in the gospel. The move is by the pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life, an embrace of suffering that comes with obedience, a suffering which comes inevitably when our lives are at odds with dominant social values.”

The lists above reflect belief that giving up something means God will bless us and we’ll become more spiritual. They don’t tend to reflect spiritual values, or the fruit of an annual period of reflection on what Brueggemann terms “life with God.”

I believe rightly observed Lenten observances, even possibly “give-ups,” can enhance the Christian’s life, bringing them closer to God, with a right relationship. But the focus is on internal work that may go undone during the year. Some religions repeat a mantra that they don’t need Lent, because every time they worship they celebrate the life of Jesus, his birth, death, burial and resurrection. Their worships may offer challenge questions such as, “If you died tonight would you have the assurance that you would wake up in heaven instead of hell?,” invoking the “sinner’s prayer” as an instant remedy. Clearly that’s not anything close to true Lenten thought and practice. Lent is entering into a journey, not quick fixes.

Noted religious author Kathleen Norris, reflecting on the purpose of Lent in the U.S. Catholic blog, shared her changed perspective on Lent: “For years I let the word sin slide by without fully engaging my consciousness, or my conscience. I thought of sin as a list of don’ts and should-have-dones, and if I hadn’t committed (or omitted) certain acts, sin was not a problem. It was only when I encountered the wisdom of the early church, specifically the theology of sin that developed among desert monastics, that I gained an understanding of sin that is particularly useful to me during Lent.”

Further reflecting on the desert fathers’ development of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” Norris observes: “The psychology is ancient but sound; as I recognize a temptation to sloth or envy for what it is, as I haul it out of the depths into the light of day, I weaken it and allow for the possibility of transformation, or what Saint Benedict termed ‘conversion of life.’ This, it seems to me, is the basic work of the Christian: to admit to my most basic temptations to do evil, and resist them. And as I do so, I free the virtues to act on me. My sloth might convert into zeal, my envy into gratitude. This is the discipline — and the joy — of Lent.” Rightly interpreted, Norris says Lent can be serious business, addressing deeper issues than chocolate consumption.

Many Lent-observing pastors and theologians note that Lent is about confronting our own mortality, recognizing our unworthiness apart from a strong belief in Christ’s sacrifice, addressing issues in the life separating us from a “Life in God.” At Ash Wednesday services, the officiate places ashes on foreheads, intoning, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19) and/or “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Foreshadowing Easter following Lent, theologian N.T. Wright, in his book “Surprised by Hope,” shares: “if Lent is a time to give things up, Easter ought to be a time to take things up. Champagne for breakfast again — well, of course. Christian holiness was never meant to be merely negative. Of course you have to weed the garden from time to time; sometimes the ground ivy may need serious digging before you can get it out. That’s Lent for you.”

Lent’s a time to focus on our separation from God, look more deeply and turn back. It can be a powerful force in one’s life but it’s more than a few “give-ups.”

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

First Congregational Church Revisit: Not Bad – Room to Grow

My only visit to First Congregational Church was in 2008, shortly after I began this blog. You can read that review HERE. (link not currently available) I can’t believe almost 6 years have passed since that first visit.

Last Sunday I made a return visit and discovered similar characteristics of that previous visit still present. Arriving a few minutes late, the service was just starting. Grabbing a bulletin and a smile from the greeter at the sanctuary doors, I took a seat just behind the bell choir. From my vantage point, I had a striking view of this beautiful sanctuary. It appeared the congregation was slightly smaller than it had been previously with less than 100 present.

First’s services start at 10:30 and the first hour was taken up by the progression of the liturgy. The sermon and New Testament Lesson took about 10 minutes. The sermon was brief but very good, delivered by Sr. Pastor George Blair, III. It may be read HERE. After the lengthy preliminaries, I was concerned the sermon would make for a much longer service. Most liturgical churches seem to aim for about a one-hour service. However, after a closing hymn we were out of church before 11:45.

Things I Liked
*Ceremony accepting new members to the church
*Bell choir special music
*Choral anthem
*Beautiful sanctuary
*Sound at acceptable levels
*Great, biblical based sermon
*Several members greeted me separately, and kindly

Things I Didn’t Like
*Meet n’ Greet – Was awkward as a guest. 2-3 people greeted me.
*Reading the sermon
*Long pauses and dead air as pastor wrote down special prayer requests
*Call for people to introduce themselves if they chose
*Children’s story seemed above their heads
*Call for offering didn’t except guests
*Queue in front of pastor at door after the services
*Pastoral microphone picked up pastor’s breathing

In all, my visit wasn’t unpleasant. I’ve known some of their congregation over the years, but none seemed to notice me this day. To grow, a church needs to draw. To draw, prospective members need to be attracted. For one of the more beautiful and attractive churches in Anchorage on one of Anchorage’s most heavily trafficked thoroughfares, I’m surprised First can’t attract more members. It can’t be the theology.

The choir had shrunk and was less than half the size previously. A good choir can be a great draw. The website was cleaned up in the interim and is much more functional, especially showing the church address prominently on the main page. The sermon title “Sin Boldly” was prominently displayed in Matters of Faith in Saturday Anchorage Daily News religion section. My lasting impression of First is that it’s staid and proper. A breezy sense of informality could go a long ways here. That can go far in making lasting impressions with potential members.

In closing I’ll add I was asked to come downstairs and join the congregation for coffee and fellowship. Time did not permit me to join them this day, but I’m sure another opportunity will come.

Pastors mark start of Lent by taking ashes to the people – 3/8/14

Lent commenced this week with Ash Wednesday and ends with Holy Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday, which marks the start of Holy Week. An early church tradition, Lent is credibly traceable back to the Apostle John through early church fathers Polycarp and Irenaeus, and recorded by early church historian Eusebius.

Originally celebrated as a severe fast leading up to Easter, Lent’s purpose was to prepare the mind and body for symbolically experiencing the last days of the life of Christ. Over time, Lent has become less sacrificial and more connected with what Christians give up. Lent can be powerful, reminding adherents of the power of sacrifice and their own mortality.

Today Lent is observed by most liturgical churches, including Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Congregationalists. Recently a groundswell of support for observing Lent has developed among a growing number of evangelicals. Many evangelicals previously avoided observing Lent because of its origin in the early church and ties to the papacy. They counter that the ideals of Lent are held high throughout the church year, yet Lent observance is growing year by year because of its hold on the imagination.

Ash Wednesday, an ancient church practice of placing ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross, requires people to seek out a church and clergy who perform this rite. Lately, perceptive churchmen are starting to take ashes to the people. In San Francisco, Sara Miles, director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, has been doing this for three years in the Mission District. A recent Christian Century article by Miles, “Witness to the Dark: Ashes in the Streets,” was an excerpt from her latest book, “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” which describes how this practice of taking ashes to the streets began.

This effort symbolizes taking the gospel to the people, as opposed to expecting people to come to church to receive the gospel. The hallmarks of the gospel, visiting the sick and those in prison, caring for widows, and taking the “Good News” to the world, as commanded by Jesus, were never intended to be a church-bound imperative.

Local Lutheran pastors Martin Eldred (Joy Lutheran), Dan Bollerud (Christ Our Savior Lutheran) and Julia Seymour (Lutheran Church of Hope) followed Sara Miles’ example on Ash Wednesday by distributing ashes at Town Square and the Downtown Transit Center. Although takers were few, it clearly caught the public’s attention. Those accepting ashes were exceeding grateful. Interestingly, the pastors saw no people with ash on their foreheads during their visit.

Pastor Julia, who first suggested their outing, offered several observations.

“Ash Wednesday is a church institution, not something instructed by God or done by Jesus. It is a day the Church decided that people should reflect on their mortality and humanity before entering a season of fasting and penitence. When I think about those three things, I think:

“1. Church isn’t limited to a building or to the people who show up in a building.

“2. Plenty of people are very aware of their mortality.

 “3. Fasting and feasting are not always things we choose. Sometimes they are put upon us by the choices of others.

“We came as people from on high with answers. We also came as fellow human beings, seeking life and fearing death. We brought ashes as a reminder of our connection to one another, our connection to dust, and our connection (acknowledged or unacknowledged) with God. The ashes remind us of the brokenness in those relationships — with each other, creation and God. Only God knows what will result from our presence. We trust the Holy Spirit to make and keep us ready for it.”

 Pastor Dan added: “Ashes distribution in public is a way to take the gospel to the world and remind people they are loved where they are at, not for any great spiritual accomplishment on their own. The 40 days of Lent should be used as an opportunity to give up ingratitude, replacing it with gratitude. It takes 40 days to establish a new habit. Aim to recognize one thing you’re grateful for each day. Lent speaks to God’s presence in the dark times of life. Christianity is getting more real.”

 I believe Anchorage is better for this selfless outreach. These three have started a new Lenten tradition here. Thank you, pastors, for leading the way.

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

Abbott Loop: Incredibly Loud Music – Great Sermon

Third Visit to ALCC
I made a return visit to Abbott Loop Community Church on February 16. My previous visits are posted HERE and HERE. (These hyperlinks currently unavailable) In many respects this visit was very similar to my first visit with respect to having loud music but presenting a great sermon.

ALCC has two Sunday services: 9 and 11 a.m. I attended the 11 a.m. service.

It’s been nearly 2 years since their ceiling collapsed, but the rebuild turned out well. Church was meeting in the gym this time. I was greeted with “Good Morning!” by the gentleman who opened the outside door. A bulletin was handed to me but no one else greeted or spoke to me until former Pastor Rick Benjamin came over to greet me. I’ve since come to know Rick better and have an intense respect for him and his service in the community.

No Service Information in Bulletin
A bulletin/worship guide had been handed to me as I entered. Perusing it I was astounded it was chock full of coming events and information about small groups, but not a word about the service that day. Church guests like to know what is happening and in what order. Typical with many charismatic services, when church started, there were still many empty seats which slowly filled until the preaching started.

Punishingly Loud Music
ALCC’s praise band of seven started promptly at 11 and pummeled our eardrums with up to 117 decibel music for almost half an hour. Their lyrics were generally theologically sound but the music was rock turned up to 11. I love rock music, but I now know how problematic it can be in church services. Glancing around me, I noticed that few people were singing. When the music is too loud, people figure it doesn’t matter if they sing or not, and because the auditorium was blacked out, the praise band appeared as “stars” presenting what essentially amounted to entertainment. I was shocked to glance across the aisle and saw mother holding a newborn whose delicate ears, statistically, were being damaged as this music played.

Many of the songs they played and sang were unfamiliar to me, but elicited charismatic responses from those in attendance. Music lyrics were shown on a screen behind the stage. I liked the endless numbers of individuals portrayed holding signs with sayings such as “Finding joy in Christ”, “Giving God Control”, “What if I Don’t go to Heaven?”, etc. The real gotcha for churches is that it’s been proven that an overly loud music service, affects worshipers ability to focus on the sermon and retain that information.

Meet ‘n Greet – Why?
A meet ‘n greet was announced after the half hour of music. It was very long and many people around me seemed to be embarrassed with greeting others. For the most part, those who greeted me did so only with their names, and nothing else. I’m guessing many people did not know each other.

Worthwhile Sermon
The sermon that day was delivered by Mark Drake, who everyone seemed to know but was not really introduced to those present. From the internet I gained he got started in the Jesus Movement, but found no information about where he currently lives. He appears to head a ministry preaching God’s plan of salvation, plus printing and delivering related books and literature in the U.S. and various countries around the world. South Africa, Zimbabwe, and SE Asia were given as examples.

Mark’s sermon was well delivered, lasting close to an hour. You can listen to it by clicking HERE. ALCC took over 1 ½ weeks to post this sermon. Last time I went to ALCC, I also heard a fantastic sermon, but it took several months to post it. When I queried ALCC when it would be posted, I was told that work was done by a volunteer and that they had no control over the process. Many Anchorage churches post sermon recordings the same day or in one or two days. If not posted immediately, people lose the urge to listen to a sermon again or share it with friends. Maybe this practice is deeply ingrained in ALCC’s corporate DNA.

ALCC Website Not Helpful to Guests
When I went to ALCC’s website to view their service times, I couldn’t find this information easily. I finally scrolled down to the bottom of the page and found it there. That’s a sign of poor website design. Potential guests visit a church’s website for two things: church location and service times. What a shame this information is not more prominently displayed on every church website. I believe ALCC’s sermons can be top notch. Personally, I recommend skipping the music, to save your hearing, and showing up at 11:30 for the preaching.

Tools for finding the right church for you – 3/1/14

Last week I promised to offer advice on making that all-important first visit to a church. I also shared information about selecting a group or denomination consistent with core beliefs you might already have about religion.

My personal results, after using those tools, were surprisingly accurate for many of my beliefs.

The premise is to target churches that mirror the religious community you’d like to ultimately be a part of. There is also value in visiting churches you’ve heard about or have been suggested to you, as much can be learned from particular faith groups by observing their worship practices.

Selecting a church to visit

By now, you may have already selected a church you’d like to visit. Look it up on the Internet using Google or another search engine. You’ll want to find out where it is and what time they meet.

Be forewarned that many churches fail to list their worship times and meeting location on their home page. You’ll have to hunt for it. Sometimes you might have to call the church.

You can also check whether the Church Visits column has reported on a particular church. I’ve visited most of the larger churches in Anchorage, and my reviews can offer a general idea of what to expect.

The Anchorage Daily News archives stretch back longer than I’ve been visiting churches. Over the years I’ve observed that when visiting a church more than one time the dynamics of that church are usually the same.

If a church is unfriendly on the first visit, it’ll likely be unfriendly on the third visit. You can find these reports on a search engine.

For example, if you’re looking for Methodist churches I’ve reviewed, you can enter “ church visits chris thompson methodist”. [Please note this feature is not active at this moment since I wrote this article.]

Original ADN Article