Monthly Archives: April 2014

When churches break up, it can be expensive – 4/26/14

When considering a local church home, it may be wise to first consider whether your target church may be looking at breaking away from its national or local affiliation. Considerable breakaway activity is being seen in the church community across the U.S.

Often when churches break away, it can be over theological concerns, such as the right of use of church property, or social issues like gay ordination, to name a few. These can be traumatic times for churches, threatening membership growth and impairing the rights to use local church properties.

Depending on how the breakaway is negotiated, the end result could be a virtually empty church or part of a church looking for a home.

For example, several years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly voted to allow for the ordination of noncelibate gay people. (Please note this article’s focus is not about this issue but merely an example of why many churches are imploding.) As a result of this decision, many Presbyterian churches began leaving the fold. In 2012, a group of concerned clergy and individuals formed an entity to encompass these breakaway churches. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians was formed in response to these challenges. Essentially it’s a denominational structure under the Fellowship of Presbyterians. This reform group strongly feels the PC (USA) has no business changing scriptural authority. As of recent count, ECO encompasses more than 115 churches and congregations nationally, a rapidly growing number.

Last month, the 3,400-member Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, one of the largest PC (USA) congregations, voted to leave and was approved to do so. Christianity Today reported the “PC (USA)’s interpretation of the authority of Scripture was one motivation for leaving. But the other three reasons — mission, governance and property — all hinge on the ability to operate multi-site campuses. MPPC added two new campuses — in nearby San Mateo and Mountain View — in 2007 and 2008. And it would like to add five more.” Menlo Park Presbyterian Church will be responsible for paying PC (USA) more than $9,000,000 for the church property. Menlo’s pastor, John Ortberg, is even selling his home to enable this transition. They are joining ECO as are many other breakaway Presbyterian congregations.

This same type of dialog is heating up in the United Methodist Church, which recently tried one of its clergy for marrying a same-sex couple in violation of its Book of Discipline. Long term, this could promote a similar situation with churches splitting away from the main body.

In a recent story on the United Methodist Church situation, Christian Century interviewed Jack Jackson, professor of mission at Claremont School of theology. “While there is a lot of talk about greater autonomy, Jackson is not sure anyone actually wants it.

Progressives do not want to be in a church in which some parts are allowed to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and conservatives don’t want to be part of a church in which gays and lesbians can be clergy, even if they serve in another region. If conservatives were eventually to lose the vote on changing the language of the Book of Discipline, some would simply leave.”

“Some of them leave the next Sunday, and some of them leave in the next four years, by the next General Conference. I am not sure there are that many people who want to find a middle ground,” Jackson said. Clearly these are polarizing issues.

For some years, the Episcopal church has also been dealing with controversies arising from the ordination of openly gay clergy and over biblical principles. Some breakaway Episcopal churches have affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, a significantly more conservative body. However, many breakaway congregations have found they’ve lost access to their church properties and assets due to property rights being asserted by the Episcopal Church of America. Court judgments often do not go in favor of the breakaway congregation.

To further muddy the water, African bodies such as the Anglican Mission in the Americas have been sending missionaries here as an alternative to the theological liberalism of the Episcopal Church.

This group has been chastised for interfering in the internal affairs of the Episcopal Church of America for these missions. However, its church-planting efforts have been quite successful, and several hundred Anglican Mission in the Americas congregations are now sprinkled across the U.S.

It’s a most interesting state of affairs, when Africa sends missionaries to the United States, instead of vice versa. What a change from 50 to 100 years ago. Africa is also one of the fastest Christian growth areas in the world. When local churches take offense at my questioning why they send large, short-term missions teams to Africa, often places with 75 percent to 80 percent practicing Christianity, they pretend not to notice research data showing Alaska is one of the most unchurched areas in the U.S. The grass always seems to be greener on the other side of the fence.

Breakups happen here in Anchorage too! When looking for a new church home, do your due diligence to ensure you understand the stability of congregational environment being considered. In the event of breakup, it may save you grief in the long run. As the old song says, “Breaking up is hard to do.”

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

Easter asks for our joy, not our spending – 4/19/14

The march through Lent to Holy Week is almost over. Good Friday is remembered for the solemn terror of the crucifixion. As the annual pilgrimage to Easter now concludes, there is only one commemoration day left. That is today, Holy Saturday. Then on Sunday we’ll remember the resurrection of our Lord, with thanksgiving and joy.

According to industry analysts Ibis World, Easter has become America’s fifth most expensive spending season, mostly for candy, flowers, and clothing. It’s unfortunate so many retailers take advantage of this, and Christian consumers let them. Like Christmas, Easter seems to have pagan origins for most of its symbols: Easter rabbits, chocolate eggs, Easter eggs and so forth. Clearly Easter has also been co-opted for commercial reasons just as Christmas.

There will be some who mock and scorn those who commemorate Easter and the resurrection, but Christian faith in the Biblical record is strong. Christians are entitled to our strong beliefs in the resurrection. Too many Christians roll over and play dead when Internet trolls attack these themes. Stand up and be proud of your beliefs.

In his book “Surprised by Hope: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,” N.T. Wright shares that Easter “ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems.” He goes on to ask: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.”

Sadly, one large, well-known local church is preying again on the human mind by reminding parishioners in special mailings that it’s time for the “30 pieces of silver” offering, as if one could pay for salvation by loosening up the purse strings. “Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Easter is the time of year we honor Jesus by giving a ‘Thirty Piece Offering.'” “To betray Jesus is unthinkable,” it adds elsewhere. Interestingly, this church does not observe Lent, so they’ve not gone through 40 days of self-examination of the life and encountering our mortality. It might be different if they adopted Lenten practices.

Curiously, Jesus answered, when asked what one must do regarding the great commandment of the law, saying “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus wants our hearts, not our money. The “30 Piece Offering” sounds to me a bit like what Tetzel was peddling in Germany when Martin Luther proclaimed “The just shall live by faith.”

In addition to the Bible, several books have significantly built my faith the past several years, especially with regard to Biblical testimony and the resurrection. In addition to the book mentioned above, there is N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God,” and Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.”

Try to educate your family that the multiplicity of Easter practices you will observe do not really begin to represent the true significance of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Truly celebrate the meaning of Easter. Try those glasses of champagne as Easter’s worthy of celebration.

Finally remember theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words at a recent Church of the Brethren conference. “Act like Jesus was raised from the dead” and to “soar in Easter freedom.”

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

What do millennials look for in worship? – 4/12/14

For some years, churches have been wrestling with how to attract millennials. This term refers to those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are sometimes referred to as Generation Y. Or, they are characterized as the boomerang generation. This is because they’ve exhibited tendencies of moving back in with their parents, marrying late or having difficulty starting their careers.

Several years ago, Pew Research Center in its research study “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” documented the fact that millennials are less religious, with only 15 percent of the study participants indicating that “living a very religious life” was one of the most important things in their lives. By comparison 52 percent felt “being a good parent,” and 30 percent indicated “having a good marriage” was important.

Millennials number 79 million in the U.S. and represent the critical 14-34 age segment of the U.S. population. Churches are duly interested in this group as it constitutes the next generation of those who could be a significant part of church life now, and in the future. Thom Rainer, who researches church life and effectiveness with an organization called LifeWay, recently commented in a blog post, “What Worship Style Attracts the Millennials,” on what three things matter most to millennials with regard to worship. Rainer points out that “style” of worship is not their focus.

1. “They desire the music to have rich content. Millennials desire to sing those songs that reflect deep biblical and theological truths. It is no accident that the hymnody of Keith and Kristyn Getty has taken millennials by storm. Their music reflects those deep and rich theological truths,” Rainer wrote.

As a result of the worship services I attend in Anchorage, I often comment about the weak theological content of the music being performed in these churches, often contemporary Christian. In some cases it’s musical pablum, invariably with endless repetition.

By contrast, here’s an example of a Keith and Kristyn Getty lyric for a beautiful contemporary hymn:

“When trials come no longer fear/ For in the pain our God draws near/ To fire a faith worth more than gold/ And there His faithfulness is told/ And there His faithfulness is told

“Within the night I know Your peace/ The breath of God brings strength to me/ And new each morning mercy flows/ As treasures of the darkness grow/ As treasures of the darkness grow.

“I turn to Wisdom not my own/ For every battle You have known/ My confidence will rest in You/ Your love endures Your ways are good/ Your love endures Your ways are good.

“When I am weary with the cost/ I see the triumph of the cross/ So in its shadow I shall run/ Till He completes the work begun/ Till He completes the work begun.

“One day all things will be made new/ I’ll see the hope You called me to/ And in your kingdom paved with gold/ I’ll praise your faithfulness of old/I’ll praise your faithfulness of old.”

 2. “The Millennials desire authenticity in a worship service. They can sense when congregants and worship leaders are going through the motions. And they will reject such perfunctory attitudes altogether.”

Often I find and write about local worship services lacking authenticity. There’s no spontaneity, and participation by clergy and participants can be rote. Often it feels as though the church has an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours to fill and they’ll do it any way they can. In my last column, I wrote about a church service where Church B exhibited a truly authentic, godly service, and many contacted me to find out who they were. People are hungry for a truly great worship service.

3. “This large generation does want a quality worship service. But that quality is a reflection of the authenticity noted above, and adequate preparation of the worship leaders, both spiritually and in time of preparation. In that sense, quality worship services are possible for churches of all sizes.”

Frequently I experience churches with quantity worship services. Huge amounts of music are presented with the volume turned up to 11, lots of show and spectacular showmanship. It’s not uncommon to hear 30 to 45 minutes of such performances. The sermons are overkill with an hour or more of rhetoric, by pastors too busy to adequately prepare for them through adequate study and prayer. Rainer is saying millennials are passing these churches by.

 Instead, they’re going to “churches where the teaching and preaching is given a high priority. They are attracted to churches whose focus is not only on the members, but on the community and the world. Inwardly focused congregations will not see many millennials in their churches.”

Rainer’s thoughts offer huge challenges and opportunities for churches to attract this significant group. Will it happen? I surely hope so.

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

Visits to 2 Churches lead to 2 different impressions – 4/5/14

Recently, I visited two Anchorage churches on separate weeks. I was struck by how differently I was treated in each church, how the services were conducted and how I felt about them afterward. Previously, I’d visited each of these churches and was familiar with their worship styles and treatment of guests. Both churches have similar-sized congregations but the similarities ended there. Although they’re not named in this article, detailed accounts of these church visits will be posted in the Church Visits blog at

Church A was affiliated with a large national denomination having charismatic underpinnings. It was easily accessible, with a well designed website containing worship times and location prominently displayed. Parking was good and close by. Two women, greeting me at the door, handed me a worship guide, not a bulletin. It mainly contained information and events relating to the church but nothing about the worship service or its order, which I consider to be a guest-friendly gesture. Finding a seat near the front, I was surprised by the loud noise level before the service started.

Promptly at the appointed hour, the praise band of seven musicians got on the glittering stage. The leader said, “Stand,” and they proceeded to weigh in with several songs of extremely loud worship music. During the “meet ‘n’ greet,” three people welcomed me, shaking my hand.

The pastor, whom I’d really come to hear, warmly introduced a guest speaker. Wearing sunglasses, a cowboy hat, shirt, boots and jeans and carrying a guitar, the guest strode on stage and proceeded to play music at 100-plus decibels with much showboating. To his credit, he was quite the showman, and an excellent guitarist. He delivered the sermon sitting on a stool behind a computer screen, cowboy hat, dark glasses, and all.  I felt his sermon was weak, and he kept referring to the pastor as a theologian, even holding him above Luther, Calvin, Constantine and Augustine. Finally concluding his sermon with an altar call of sorts, he asked people to close their eyes and repeat the sinners prayer. The sermon and singing lasted an hour. A second offering was taken to support sending him and his wife to a number of villages.

There were various Communion stations arranged around the edges of the sanctuary that people could visit during the service to partake of “do it yourself” Communion. Each station displayed a wooden cross on the wall to which people wrote and affixed notes.

As I left, one of the pastoral staff was at my exit door and shook my hand without comment. Driving away, I already knew it would be some time before I visited this church again.

Church B was affiliated with a well-known mainline evangelical denomination. Their website was easy to navigate and very helpful. Parking was easy to find even though many cars were in the lot and on the street.  As I entered the church, I was warmly greeted by several individuals and handed a bulletin. I walked in and found a seat in a pew. The bulletin was well done, easy to read, and contained an order of service listing the events taking place, the people involved with them and the names of the songs to be sung.

Compared to all my other church visits in Anchorage, this church outdid itself with the numerous times I was greeted and made to feel welcome before the service started. It wasn’t only me. They greeted each other warmly and in the same manner. Some of the pastoral staff even stopped to greet me. By the time church started, I felt so accepted I couldn’t believe it.

The worship service started with the women’s choir walking in from the rear down two aisles singing a wonderfully spiritual song. After they finished singing and were seated in the front, the Scripture for the day was read: three lengthy but wonderful passages ready by a man first, followed by a woman. The woman prayed a beautiful, confident prayer that absolutely thrilled me. There was much music in this service, wonderfully performed, very spiritual, tying to the aspects of the service for which it was sung. Most important, it was not at ear-blasting levels. Everyone in the church seemed to be participating.

One of the pastoral staff delivered an awesome sermon, full of spiritual admonition and hope. He also sang a song of experience relating to his own life. As the service was concluding, there was an altar call, a fitting end to this fulfilling church visit. Leaving this church, I vowed I’d come back soon to experience this congregation’s outstanding worship service, tributes of praise and love for each other.

Nelson Searcy, in his great book “Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church,” notes: “Seven minutes is all you get to make a positive first-impression. In the first seven minutes of contact with your church, your first-time guests will know whether or not they are coming back. That’s before a single worship song is sung and before a single word of the message is uttered.” This certainly proved true in these two visits. I did know.