Monthly Archives: August 2014

Blessing can be a beautiful gesture – 8/30/14

Last week’s pictures Erik Hill took of Father Leo Walsh blessing a float plane flooded my mind with the many kinds of blessings we Alaskans are fortunate to have offered on our behalf, or things we consider important in our lives. This week I’ve been thinking about blessings, both those offered by clergy and the kind we bestow to others our lives may touch.

In my contact with churches and clergy recently, I’ve been touched by the blessings I’ve seen given, and saddened by missed blessing opportunities. Some time ago, when meeting with Father Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Parish, I asked him about blessings. He said, with a twinkle in his eye, “We Catholics bless everything.” Later, Father Leo offered this reflection.

“A blessing is a way of reminding us that God is present to every aspect of human existence. In the life of the Church we sanctify (​bless​) three things​:​
* people​, such as clergy, married couples, consecrated religious, etc.;
* time, holy hours, holy days, such as Sunday​s, Christmas, Easter (that’s where the word “holiday” comes from);
* places, such as churches, shrines, cemeteries, and homes.​

​“In addition we bless various objects for prayerful devotion such as rosaries, crucifixes, medals of saints, holy water, etc. We also bless various items for daily use such as tools, boats and fishing gear, and of course, aircraft. When blessing an aircraft (or any means of transportation) the priest asks for God’s protection on those who will use it.

“When a new family moves into the parish, I am often asked to bless the house they live in. This makes sense because the Church exists in its most basic form at home in the life of the family. Thus, it makes sense to bless the home as the sacred place where the domestic Church lives out its primary existence.”

 “A most touching blessing story happened a couple of years ago when I blessed Scott Janssen’s dogs before he ran the Iditarod. You may recall that was the year when one of his dogs collapsed and he revived it with mouth to mouth resuscitation. Scott said that there was just something that would not let him give up on that dog. Perhaps the blessing at the start was part of the mix.”

Recently, I’ve spent considerable time with Orthodox Christians in Alaska. As a result, I’ve come to respect their beliefs and traditions. I asked Father Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River for his perceptions about blessings. Here’s his response:

 “There are many blessings prayers in Orthodoxy. These are found in our ‘Book of Needs’ or in Greek, ‘Euchologion.’ The idea is that every part of a Christian life — everything, every event, every deed — is to be offered to God and filled with His grace. Special prayers of blessing can be requested by people according to what the people are used to. For example the beekeeper in our parish often asks one of our priests to bless the hives at the beginning of the season. At Transfiguration you saw the blessing of grapes, traditionally done on this day. But all Orthodox especially enjoy the Blessing of Homes following the Feast Day of Epiphany (or Theophany) which is celebrated on January 6. This Feast Day remembers Christ’s Baptism. At this service Water is blessed and then the church building and the people are blessed with it. In the weeks following the priest brings this same water into every home of the Church and the family and the priest say and sing prayers together while they go from room to room sprinkling the holy water.”

I grew up in a home where we followed the example of our parents and said a blessing before each meal, thanking God for the food and asking for his blessing upon it. Many Christian families have fallen away from this habit but it sets a powerful example for our children and is passed from generation to generation. Often, when eating in public, folks are embarrassed by doing so in an open manner, but why?

Pastor Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church traditionally ends his services with the following blessing: “Lord, I want to pray a blessing over every person here, every man, woman and child. I pray Your grace would rest upon them, and that they would feel Your presence in their lives. Give them wisdom so that they can make good decisions and wise choices, keep them safe and bring them safely back to us. And in Your name I pray, amen.” Mather notes if he doesn’t pray this prayer, people tell him they really like this prayer of blessing and want him to continue.

St. John UMC choir has a beautiful tradition at the conclusion of each practice. Each member stands facing the rest of the group and sings: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace, and give you peace; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you, be gracious; the Lord be gracious, gracious unto you.” It’s sung a cappella and gives one shivers. It’s based on Judeo-Christian blessings found in Numbers 6:24-26 (RSV).

Regardless of our individual religious traditions, blessings form an important glue in binding us to God and to one another. Every faith has them. Incorporate them in your life and you will be blessed.

Original ADN Article

Five ways for churches to show they really care about guests – 8/23/14

Over the course of hundreds of local church visits, I’ve seen many ways churches — wittingly or unwittingly — discourage guests, and possibly potential members, from returning. Whether you are shopping churches, or part of running them, it’s worth having a look at what makes or unmakes churches’ efforts to welcome guests.

Make greeters out of bulletin passers

It’s possible your bulletin passer, door side, doesn’t smile or say good morning to entering guests. Be sure first-contact people receive orientations on great ways to meet guests, including smiles, opening the door, and handing bulletins with positive comments like, “You’re in for a treat! The pastor has a beautiful message on grace today.”

A few years ago, I entered Cornerstone Church and immediately had a beautiful encounter with their ace greeter, Mary Bolin, who recognized me. Asking if the regular pastor was preaching, as I’d come to hear him, she said no, there was a guest speaker. When I indicated I would leave, she shared, “his message at the previous service was an excellent one-of-a-kind message, a real blessing.” So I stayed, enjoying a most beautiful worship experience.

Don’t ask for money without excusing guests

Guests dislike when offerings are taken. Some churches just start passing the plates. Others, believe it or not, have offering sermons, 15-20 minutes long to set the stage for the “ask.” Money is a distancing topic for church guests. Pastors don’t address it from the pulpit. The easiest way to handle guests and offerings is to insert a brief sentence in the bulletin saying giving is voluntary, and if you’re their guest, it’s not required to give. The pastor should always say this before the offering, too, without exception. Believe it or not, I’ve seen churches take up two or three offerings. Whatever it’s for, be sure to give your guests a verbal or written pass. Scenic Park Bible Church was one of the first churches I discovered inserting an exception statement in their bulletin. In 15 years of church visiting in Alaska, I’ve only heard a couple of pastors address this.

Deal with the “you’re sitting in my seat” syndrome

Many Alaska church guests, myself included, are consciously aware they are sitting where someone else customarily sits. Some guests have written or told me that person came up, bluntly telling them they were in their usual seats. This behavior generates ill will, making it extremely unlikely a guest will return. Why? Because it’s inhospitable. The pastor should regularly confront this from the pulpit. Humor is a great way. Using deacons or ushers to find seats is also great. Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church does this with style and grace. Even the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts has similar individuals to assist and airline flight crews assist their passengers.

Ensure websites prominently display meeting times and locations

Billions are spent annually on Yellow Pages advertising services, businesses, organizations, etc., to make them visible to the public. Websites are increasingly taking that role. Many times a month, I shake my head after discovering the failure of church website creators and administrators to make them inviting tools for guests. Church locations and service times are often not prominently displayed on the main website page, even though most potential guests are only seeking that information.

Church locations may be hidden in tiny print at the bottom of the page, or not at all. Service times may be two or three clicks down. Here in Alaska, it’s the season for worship schedules to change back from summer to normal. Inquiring guests who find service times or locations listed on a website are blank or out-of-date are likely to move on, rather than play the “guess where we’re at or when we meet” game. Recently, I unsuccessfully looked for an Anchorage church whose website said they were in one location, but upon driving there, discovered they were not there, or in a secondary location found through an obscure web reference. The error still has not been corrected, even though this incident happened months ago, and leadership was directly informed of the problem.

Eliminate pastor queueing nightmare

Too many churches trap parishioners and guests in a queue in front of the pastor while hands are shaken, pleasantries are exchanged, and lengthy pastoral advice is sought. Guests don’t generally like to be subjected to the “20 questions” routine by pastors, or trapped especially if they’re only checking out potential church homes.

Have pastors stand away from traffic flow in the narthex, or in a fellowship room where worshippers and guests can enjoy coffee and conversation. There, more friendly conversations and easy pastoral access is afforded. The Anchorage Baptist Temple has a VIP Room for this purpose. With the exception of emergency exits in churches, people are often stranded with only one way to leave the sanctuary, forcing guests and others into the pastoral receiving line. This is inhospitable and off-putting to guests.

This column keeps the point of view of church guests foremost. Much of this writing also pertains to regular attendees, though. The views churches and their members maintain of themselves, is not always what the public perceives. Assess those perceptions churches, if you desire to be seen as welcoming and hospitable. Membership will blossom, which in turn results in positive community buzz. Dale Carnegie said it best: “Honey attracts more flies than vinegar.”

 Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at

 Original ADN Article

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)

Three flavors of Orthodox Christianity in Anchorage – 8/16/14

In the past several months I’ve visited four Orthodox churches in Anchorage representing three branches of Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox faith traces its roots in Christianity back to apostolic (early church) times. Eastern and Western Christianity mutually separated in the 11th century.

Anchorage Orthodox churches represent Greek, Antiochian, and Russian Orthodox. It’s like eating ice cream. You can have many flavors of ice cream, but it’s ice cream nonetheless. I’ll attempt to describe some of the flavors of each in this column.

Greek Orthodox

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church is located on O’Malley Road just east of Lake Otis Parkway. Moving into their new church just months ago, they eagerly await consecration by their Bishop in September. Built in the Byzantine style, its richly decorated interior is light and comfortable, displaying beautiful pictures of the saints in outstanding iconography. Services start Sundays at 9 a.m. with Orthros, and Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse is pastor.

During my recent visit, I witnessed two firsts among my many Anchorage church visits. Fr. Vasili’s homily was based on practical advice to the parishioner attendees regarding their physical, mental, and spiritual health. I’ve not heard a similar down-to-earth sermon in 15 years of visiting churches here in Anchorage. Secondly, during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, it was first spoken in English. Then Vasili called on various ethnic tongues in attendance to recite it: Romanian, French, Arabic, Spanish, Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian, and Greek. Another spine-tingling first. Their renowned Greek Festival runs Friday-Sunday this weekend, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Bishop Maxim of the Serbian Archdiocese will celebrate Divine Liturgy Saturday at 9 a.m.

Russian Orthodox

Russian Orthodox missionaries first arrived in Kodiak in 1797. In 217 years they’ve grown from a single mission there to an Alaska diocese of 89 churches. Anchorage has four, Wasilla and Tyonek each have one, and there are six on the Kenai Peninsula. I’ve had delightful visits to St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral and St. Alexis Mission (meets at APIA building 1131 East International Airport Rd.) in Anchorage. Their services, with the exception of the homily, are usually standing services where the service is chanted by the priest, with choral and audience responses. Both of these churches have choirs who serve as the liturgical glue to keep participants on tune, and in the right place. The music is beautiful and often ancient. Sung in English, Yupik, and/or other native tongues, Slavonic, and Greek, most present participate with heart and soul. Preferring to simply be called Orthodox, a part of Orthodox Church in America, rather than Russian Orthodox, their churches are filled with multi-cultural attendees. Divine Liturgy services start at 9 a.m. Most worshippers fast from midnight until noon the next day, so the Eucharistic bread will be the first food they have in more than 12 hours. Invariably, each congregation has an after-service fellowship meal of sweet treats, coffee, juice, and other dishes. During my visit to St. Alexis, Rev. Michael Oleksa invited me to sing in the choir, an experience I’ll never forget. I truly understood their service after singing it. Oleksa gave a brief practical homily, a sermon delight. In less than 20 minutes he said more than many pastors labor an hour to achieve. Addressing the “are you saved?” challenge so many confront, he noted their assurances of salvation, but that it required more. They also needed to be “doing”, demonstrating that growing in their salvation means you will show it by working for others. I was treated graciously by both congregations.

Antiochian Orthodox

In north Eagle River, a beautiful woodland setting contains St. John Cathedral, an Antiochian Orthodox church in Alaska. Rev. Marc Dunaway is pastor and the congregation is multi-cultural. He shared two new congregations have started in Wasilla and Homer. I look forward to visiting them in the future. My first experience with St. John dates to 2009 when I received an email from a Church Visits blog reader by the name of Phoebe who invited me to explore the beauty of the Orthodox faith at St. John. Making a surprise visit, I was astounded by the simple grace, simplistic beauty of the church, and the musical flow of the service. Attending recently, in conjunction with the Eagle River Institute, an Orthodox conference, I was awestruck, once again by the beauty of their services, the reverence displayed by her people, children included, and the strong community she comprises. The congregation is composed of all ages, millennials included. I was invited to sing with the choir during the conference and found great value in doing so. St. John Sunday services begin with Matins at 9 a.m., Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m., and Vespers at 7 p.m.


Orthodox churches offer meaningful services. Some are more welcoming than others, but all extend hospitality. Music is clearly not entertainment, but part of liturgy. Divine Liturgy starts at 9 or 10 a.m. Homilies are usually 10-20 minutes offering memorable takeaways. These Orthodox churches are peopled by Christians who have sought and found meaningful faith.

Note to readers: I’ll offer individual visit reports churches, including those mentioned in this article, on my new Church Visits website which will mirror and archive my ADN articles and blogging. That site is now active at

Original ADN Article

How Do Alaskans Study the Bible? – 8/9/14

National surveys show that despite Americans’ love and great respect for the Bible, its reading and study frequency is down. The American Bible Society’s “State of the Bible” survey for 2014 showed the extent to which this is true. Even though 88 percent of American households own the Bible — to the tune of 4.7 copies per household — ownership is not enough. Only 39 percent of Americans read it once a week or more.

Some of this is being driven by a shift away from people believing that the Bible is sacred literature. In 2011, 86 percent of Americans believed the Bible to be sacred, but by 2014, that number had shifted downward to only 79 percent.

Doug Birdsall, former president of the American Bible Society, has been widely quoted regarding why Bible reading is declining:

“I see the problem as analogous to obesity in America. We have an awful lot of people who realize they’re overweight, but they don’t follow a diet. People realize the Bible has values that would help us in our spiritual health, but they just don’t read it.”

Those who are Bible engaged are now equal with those who are skeptics, at about 19 percent. The study, performed by the Barna Group, defines Bible engaged and Bible skeptics as follows. Bible engaged: those who “Believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with no factual errors, or believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with some factual errors, and read the Bible daily or at least four times per week.” Bible skeptics: those who “selected the most negative or non-sacred view from five options, saying they believe the Bible is just another book of teachings written by men, containing stories and advice.”

This shift toward skepticism is being led by millennials, i.e. 18- to 29-year-olds. In an upcoming article about millennials, I’ll include some of the reasons behind this trend.

Although the study revealed 26 percent of Americans never read the Bible, many more are reading and studying it. Here are some ways Alaskans study the Bible:

By themselves

Most people read and explore the Bible on their own. Some start at the beginning and read straight through to Revelation. Others, more New Testament-oriented, read that part only. Listening to the Bible in your car and online is also a great option if you study along. You can obtain most popular versions of the Bible from firms such as Audible for only one selection. These recordings generally run from 75 to 100 hours depending on the speed of the narration. There are also Bible apps for your smartphone. Many are free or minimal cost. My app has dozens of translations and I use it during sermons to compare how the same text is rendered in another translation. Many churches too offer electronic Bible access on their apps. TrueNorth Church and ChangePoint are two examples of this.

Bible study correspondence courses, sometimes aided by DVDs, are wonderful ways to read and study Scripture by yourself. Be aware that these courses can steer you to a particular denomination, But on the whole, they are great choices. Some of these courses offer quizzes with instant answers to test your comprehension.

Group study

Some groups read, study and comment on the Bible unassisted. Group leader Dean Southam sends out a brief reminder, often humorous, a few days before each meeting. In the July 22 email, he wrote: “This Thursday 6:30-7:30 am at Trinity, we will be tackling (reference to tackling is remembering NFL training camps open this week) 2 Thessalonians 2.” I’ve been pleased to join the Trinity Presbyterian men’s group over the years as time allows. Meeting at the church at 6:30 a.m. Thursdays, they usually read and discuss a chapter each week. A diverse group of professionals and some retirees, only about half of whom are Trinity members, they transition through each chapter with ease and grace. I enjoy their fellowship. Often, there are as many translations present as men. Similar groups for both men and women are available within and outside many local churches.

Some Bible study groups are large, facilitated groups. One such group is Bible Study Fellowship, which meets in large churches and is well attended. Separate groups are held for young adults. The format is small-group study using a workbook and coming together for a spiritual talk after. (Use search term “Bible study groups Anchorage” to bring up many options.)

Pastor Ray Nadon shared that Great Land Christian Church offers “customized” Bible studies, men or women, based on individual need and where they’re at. This is a great option. If I was a pastor, I’d say to a group, for example, “Say, I’m getting a group together for an hour of fellowship and Bible study for six weeks. We’ll be digging into the parables of Jesus to discover how they can affect your Christian walk and witness.”

Pastor John Carpenter of Baxter Road Bible Church is planning a group men’s Bible study based on Joe Gibbs’ “Game Plan for Life Volume II,” having covered Volume I last year. The studies last six to eight weeks and are a comfortable commitment.

The hardest part of Bible study is getting started. But remember, it takes two weeks to adopt a new habit, and this will be a habit you won’t want to break. Whether you study by yourself or in a group, you’ll discover it is a welcome activity. Studies are emerging about how intense study halts declines in mental acuity. I believe intense Bible study may be one of those activities.

Original ADN Article Link

Are church websites tracking you? – 8/2/14

Are church websites tracking you?

An article by Adam Tanner in Forbes magazine online instantly got my attention. Titled “God Is Not The Only One Watching Over Your Church’s Website” (July 28), it revealed astounding information about the extent to which many churches and other religious websites allow “trackers” to collect information about who visits them, and what they look at while there.

Tanner describes using the tracker discovery and blocking software Disconnect ( at the request of an Anglican priest friend. He discovered the priest’s church website contained 10 trackers. Going on, Tanner looked at various religious websites and found a wide range of examples of website trackers, from the Vatican, which had none, to 48-49 for the Church of Scientology. A synagogue in Manhattan had eight, a Protestant church organization revealed 14 and an Islamic shrine in Mecca had four.

Tanner obtained an eyebrow-raising quote from a well-known megachurch researcher. “It does seem invasive of personal privacy,” said Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary. “I am absolutely certain that very few religious leaders know their sites have this form of tracking… nor do most small secular businesses. They barely comprehend the basics and haven’t even considered tracking technology or the ethical implications of these features with their members.”

Trackers and tracking data, rarely identified, are used by religious organizations and marketers to potentially target you for advertising in the future. After visiting the site, you might receive pitches for books, videos or contributions to specific causes based on the types of websites you visited.

Our security-conscious environment, spurred by recent revelations about the vast amounts of data the National Security Agency has been collecting, suggests people need to understand what they can expect when visiting church websites. Adept Internet researchers can build amazing profiles of who you are and what you do. I question, as did Adam Tanner and Scott Thumma, the necessity and validity of such tracking.

Before writing this article I selected a cross-section of Anchorage-area church websites — including Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Baha’i. Analyzing each website using Disconnect, I found trackers are prevalent here, too. About half of the 34 local church websites I checked revealed one or no trackers, but the remainder had more than one. Saint John United Methodist Church had the most with 12, followed closely by First Church of Christ Scientist at 10. Saint John Orthodox showed nine. Interestingly, some of the Catholic churches had them, while others did not. Holy Cross Parish had seven, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish showed six and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had two, while St. Benedict’s Parish had none. For the Jewish community, the Lubavitch Center showed eight, while Temple Beth Shalom had seven. The Anchorage Islamic group had four, while the Buddhist group only had one. The Baha’i group showed none.

Anchorage’s two largest churches, ChangePoint and Anchorage Baptist Temple, showed two and one, respectively. The central Mormon website for Anchorage had four, as did Muldoon Community Assembly. Finally, of two Hillside churches, Hillside-O’Malley Seventh Day Adventist Church had eight trackers, while Trinity Presbyterian had three.

True North, a growing Anchorage church, uses technology heavily. “We don’t use a lot of tracking purposely,” said Brent Williams, True North pastor. Indeed, they don’t, as they only have one tracker. In a future article, I’m going to share the experience True North Church and ChangePoint have had with implementing apps to grow their churches.

Tracking is a relatively new technology for churches and website visitors to understand and deal with. Many churches are adopting privacy policies and posting them prominently on their websites. Here’s one example of such a policy used by an Outside church (whose identity I’m not disclosing); identical statements appear on many church websites: “The Site may use cookie and tracking technology depending on the features offered. Cookie and tracking technology are useful for gathering information such as browser type and operating system, tracking the number of visitors to the Site, and understanding how visitors use the Site. Cookies can also help customize the Site for visitors. Personal information cannot be collected via cookies and other tracking technology; however, if you previously provided personally identifiable information, cookies may be tied to such information. Aggregate cookie and tracking information may be shared with third parties.”

The privacy of a person’s relationship with their religious organization is an assumed fundamental right. Churches need to post their privacy policies prominently where people can access them easily on their websites. I suggest you use a piece of software like Disconnect to unmask tracking on all websites you visit, but most importantly on church websites. exposed me to 10 trackers as I wrote this article. Tools like Disconnect can show you who the tracker is, and in most cases these trackers can be blocked.

Churches must avoid all appearances of wrongdoing, which can start with that first contact a potential visitor has via their websites. Newer and more sophisticated tools are on the way, which will make this write-up look like child’s play. I commend those churches with little or no tracking. Churches with heavy tracking scores need to take a deeper look to protect the interests of those they come in contact with.

Original ADN Article Link…s-tracking-you/