Monthly Archives: November 2014

Observing Advent can help set the tone for a wholesome Christmas – 11/29/14

I’ve blogged about Advent in Anchorage for many years. Many pastors have shared their reflections about Advent on my blog, for which I am truly grateful. Last year’s theme was “Does celebrating Advent really make a difference?”

For example, recently retired Pastor Martin Dasler of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church offered, “If you long for a better world, a better government, a better self, Advent speaks to you. Advent is filled with redemptive desires and hopes. In a world filled with too much disillusionment and disappointment, Advent speaks to the profound desires of young idealists as well as to the lost hopes of crusty cynics.”

Rick Benjamin, former pastor of Abbott Loop Community Church and self-confessed “non-Adventer,” shared that “I really appreciate the logic and sequence of Advent: hope, love, joy and peace. Hope came from the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Love was the motivation for God sending his son. Joy happened at the birth event of Jesus. Peace is the result of his coming. I suppose this logic and sequence fits my linear way of thinking.”

Advent can be a time of great joy, infusing the church year with much goodness. With many religions it also signals the start of the church year. Advent, for centuries, has been observed as a time of watchful waiting, as Christians re-imagine the period of time prefiguring the birth of Jesus. In some traditions it was, and still is, accompanied by a period of fasting. Many traditions surround the observance of Advent with wreaths and candles of significance. Church historians generally date Advent’s observance to around the fourth century. More than half of Christian religions in America today celebrate Advent, with more joining every year. Advent seems to provide a helpful balance against the American penchant for observing Christmas as a commercial giving holiday that is generally directed more toward each other than toward humanity in general.

In Advent-observing churches, it is progressively celebrated for the four Sundays preceding Christmas with a theme, an Advent wreath and a candle of significance for that theme. On Christmas Eve, an additional candle, the Christ Candle, is lit celebrating Christ’s centrality to Advent. Advent tradition precludes carol singing until the Christmas Eve service. Instead, Christian hymns of watchful waiting are used. A good example of this is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Advent can be a wonderful time for contemplation, hope and blessing, as worshipers consider the true meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ for the world. Church attendance is not enough to reap the benefits of Advent. Many find that personal preparation, prayer and fasting help keep the mind clear and focused on the true meaning of Advent. Some Christians object to the observance of Advent because it is not mentioned in Scripture. Neither is the observance of Christmas, Lent or Easter, but that does not keep people from observing some or all of these Christian occasions. The venerable “altar call” so prevalent in some religions is not mentioned in Scripture either, but it is practiced every Sunday in many churches.

I’m captivated by a fascinating antidote to the crass consumerism of Christmas. Emerging in the past eight years, it is called the Advent Conspiracy. Created by five pastors, it imagines a better way of celebrating Christmas in communities. Embracing four tenets — worship fully, spend less, give more and love all — this marvelous idea helps reposition Christmas in extremely positive ways. The Advent Conspiracy is not a funnel for money. Rather, organizers direct individuals to work through their churches, using various suggested resources to support efforts to combat significant water and justice issues during the Christmas season.

Advent Conspiracy’s  well-designed website offers a few startling statistics.

29.8 million = Estimated people held in slavery today

$601 billion = Total U.S. holiday retail sales

$25 = the amount to needed provide a family of five access to safe water for a year

Many other ways exist to break the Christmas cycle of anxiety, spending, debt and hurt feelings, especially among the children. Personally, I admire Baxter Road Bible Church’s program of “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’” for overall simplicity and focus.

Some families have adopted the practice of giving only gifts to family members and friends they have made themselves. The process is extremely enriching for the giver, especially as it simulates, to a degree, the gift that God gave us through his son Jesus. This is a practical way to model character-building behavior for your children.

As mentioned last week, most of our community nonprofit social service agencies desperately need funds at this time of year to continue their work. Don’t forget their needs as you plan your spending for this Christmas season. After reading that column, a friend shared that he and his wife were considering doing so this year, instead of pouring it into children and grandchildren.

Many churches will observe Advent starting this coming Sunday. A Google search turned up many congregations, and others will announce their services in Alaska Dispatch News’ “Matters of Faith” section in Saturday’s paper, usually just below this column. Most Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Moravian, Congregational and Orthodox churches offer Advent services. I recommend attending an Advent service if you’ve never done so before.  Please share your personal and observational thoughts about Advent services and their impact on you.

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

Thoughts on Black Friday creep, Thanksgiving and a Christian ethic – 11/23/14

This year will see a growing rush by retailers to advance the sales and eventual profits of Black Friday by what is termed “Black Friday creep,” opening stores on Thanksgiving Day itself. A list of retailers opening on Thanksgiving was published this week by Huffington Post( It included Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, Macy’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney, Target, Staples, Best Buy, Sports Authority, Toys R Us, Office Max/Office Depot and Radio Shack. This comes on top of retailers featuring online and in-store pre-Black Friday sales in order to get consumers to buy yet earlier this year.

The Huffington Post article also listed retailers that will honor family and Thanksgiving by not opening on Thanksgiving, headed up by Costco and Sam’s.

Why is this information in a religion column? Thanksgiving has been under attack by retailers for years and remains a significant issue. Not long ago, almost every store, gas station and restaurant was closed for Thanksgiving. But the retail sector has taken aim at Thanksgiving with a vengeance.

Thanksgiving started as a harvest celebration among the Pilgrims and the local Native Americans in the Plymouth Colony. Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the History Department at Wheaton College and author of  the wonderful book “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History,” notes the key reasons pushing the Pilgrims to our shores:

“In contrast, the Pilgrims’ struggle … speaks to us where we live. Their hardships in Holland were so … ordinary. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. (Can you relate to any of their worries?) And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade.”

Their initial escape from England didn’t solve their needs, so they migrated to the New World. Life in the New World was hard but they found time to celebrate a successful year and give thanks to God. A coming battle for them would be with wealth and abundance.

One key factor weighing against people of faith is consumerism. Consumerism appears to be destroying our national holiday celebration of Thanksgiving and has successfully destroyed the true spirit of Christmas. Advent season 2014 begins Sunday, Nov. 30. A period of religious observance by many faiths, Advent is a period of reflection and realization of the events leading up to the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately for many, the focus of the holiday season is on “us,” rather than the true object of our affection, Jesus. As Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reflects, “It’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’.” The church devotes 100 percent of its income during December toward local nonprofits that help the homeless, the destitute, the hungry and the afflicted. Mather says the church is helped, not hurt, by this yearly initiative.

Local nonprofit organizations such as Bean’s Café, the Brother Francis Shelter, the Downtown Soup Kitchen, the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska and the Food Bank of Alaska are examples of great local organizations that depend on your support now when their need is greatest. Too many resources are unfortunately diverted to personal consumerism.

The Thanksgiving Blessing project has been ongoing for some years. Last year, this wonderful community project provided groceries to more than 10,000 people. The Food Bank of Alaska coordinates this project through six sites. They need your help. Call them directly or get detailed information online at

Another “Beer and Hymns”’ fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 30, 6 p.m. at O’Brady’s. Contrary to a recent blast from a local Pentecostal pulpit calling this a “beer bash,” this is a genuine celebration of community building and a locking of arms to address community needs, a true religious experience. Generally, more than $5,000 is contributed in two hours each time this wonderful celebration of hymnody, good food and great conversation is held. Local Lutherans, spearheaded by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, make this a beautiful and worthwhile event.

Many local churches will have Thanksgiving-focused services tomorrow, Sunday. A number of them will also offer Thanksgiving dinners after the service, the afternoon or the evening. This is a wonderful way to reflect on the joys of Thanksgiving. I’ve been invited to one such church dinner. Often these same churches collect funds to help the local food distribution agencies with procuring adequate supplies to make it through the holiday season.

I recall trying to make a Thanksgiving restaurant reservation years ago. One well-known local restaurant told me this was a time for their workers to enjoy the company of family and friends. I got it with that phone discussion as I’d not previously focused on the issue. The retailers of America are focused on competition and profits at the expense of their employees who must work Thanksgiving to support the advertising-whipped fervor for Black Friday creep and Black Friday sales. American families are imperiled. These types of events tear at the fragile fabric of family instead of strengthening it. I believe if enough consumers refused to give in to the lure of the retailers’ siren calls, they would get the message.

In closing, it’s not often I hear pastors addressing this issue from the pulpit. Part of it is because many of their members own, manage, work in or direct the activities of these retailers. In essence, the pastors should be educating their members to the dangers of consumerism. 1 John 2:15 says: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Scripture is replete with such warnings. The Pilgrims believed strongly in scripture, and let it be their guide. Let’s rediscover the joy of family, friends, food, celebrating our abundance, and stopping to give thanks for what we have, and enjoy Thanksgiving to the fullest. Happy Thanksgiving!

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

More on church “meet ‘n’ greets,” plus religious group warmth study – 11/15/14

Last week’s column featured 10 ways churches may drive away first-time guests based on a Twitter poll church researcher Tom Rainer performed with those who indicated they would not return to that church. The number one issue keeping first-time guests away was the “meet ‘n’ greet” or as Rainer describes, “stand and greet time.” In a later post, Rainer expressed continued surprise this was such a contentious topic, and the source of much discontent by guests, even members. In fact, it’s gone viral in the church community.

In a further post this week, Rainer lists the seven most common responses to this issue, along with a representative brief comment received for each. I could add verbiage to each one but it would only detract from the power of participant descriptions.

– Many guests are introverts. “I would rather have a root canal than be subjected to a stand and greet time.”

– Some guests perceive that the members are not sincere during the time of greeting. “In most of the churches it should be called a stand and fake it time. The members weren’t friendly at all except for ninety seconds.”

– Many guests don’t like the lack of hygiene that takes place during this time. “Look, I’m not a germaphobe, but that guy wiped his nose right before he shook my hand.”

– Many times the members only greet other members. “I went to one church where no one spoke to me the entire time of greeting. I could tell they were speaking to people they already knew.”

– Both members and guests at some churches perceive the entire exercise as awkward. “Nowhere except churches do we have times that are so awkward and artificial. If members are going to be friendly, they would be friendly at other times as well. They’re not.”

– In some churches, the people in the congregation are told to say something silly to one another. “So the pastor told us to tell someone near us that they are good looking. I couldn’t find anyone who fit that description, so I left and didn’t go back.”

– Not only do some guests dread the stand and greet time, so do some members. “I visited the church and went through the ritual of standing and greeting, but many of the members looked just as uncomfortable as I was. We were all doing a required activity that none of us liked.”

I address this issue regularly in my church consulting and in personal conversations with pastors. The refusal of churches to address this issue is beyond me. It’s almost like it’s an inside joke. I hear, “We know people don’t like this, but we have to do something to put them together.” Usually, the “Passing the Peace” portion of services has been less offensive to me, but many guests and members disagree. I’ve experienced all of Rainer’s seven issues in my Alaska church visits. Why would churches risk losing a return guest visit over this practice?

Religion warmth study

This summer the Pew Forum released the results of an interesting study comparing, on a zero-to-100 scale “feeling thermometer,” how various religions are rated by Americans in terms of warmness/coldness. Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Christians were rated the warmest with scores of 63, 62, and 61 respectively. Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons received neutral ratings with scores of 53, 50, and 48 respectively. Finally the lowest ratings were received by atheists and Muslims with scores of 41, and 40 respectively.

Some interesting takeaways were that groups tended to be rated more positively by their own members. An example is that Catholics rated themselves with an average score of 80 versus non-Catholics rating Catholics with average scores of 58. Evangelical Christians, i.e. self-described born-again or evangelicals, rated themselves 79 on average while non-evangelicals rated them 52 on average. Interestingly, 27 percent of non-evangelicals rated evangelicals as cold, while 30 percent rated them as warm.

Jews and atheists rated evangelicals negatively, but evangelicals rated Jews highly. Christians and Jews are rated more favorable by older Americans vs. younger people. Younger Americans rate other non-Christian faiths more favorably. The study indicated that Jews were rated highly by whites while evangelicals and Muslims were rated more favorably by blacks.

Evangelicals tended to negatively rate non-Christian groups with 39 rating averages on Buddhists, Hindus 38, Muslims 30, and atheists 25. Atheists gave evangelical Christians a cold 28 rating. However, atheists gave non-Christian groups positive ratings of Buddhists 69, Jews 61, and Hindus 58. Other religious groups gave negative ratings to atheists.

Personally, I believe these ratings carry through into our interaction with those of various persuasions. In my visiting various faith traditions throughout Alaska, I’ve been privileged to interact with the people of these faiths. I enjoy hearing their stories of how their faith sustains them and guides them through life. There is value in practicing human virtues with people of all faiths.

Many religion choices are made or maintained through lifelong connections. Often people tell me they are a cradle Catholic, lifelong Lutheran, and so forth. By not choosing a particular religion, one is less likely to have a cogent explanation for their faith. I’m intrigued by the Catholic evangelism initiative which focuses, in part, on equipping Catholics with the knowledge of why they are Catholics, and enhances their ability to share these beliefs in ways other than being a “cradle Catholic.” To have friends with and relate warmly to people of other faiths or belief structures does not require you to drop or amend your personal belief structure. It really means exemplifying basic qualities of being human.


Is your church driving away guests? – 11/8/14

(copied from the ADN daily electronic paper as the online edition with commenting capability is still not available for this column as of 5:30 p.m. Saturday)
After visiting Alaska churches constantly over the past 10 years, I’ve come to the conclusion many of them just don’t understand how to retain those guests, visitors, church shoppers or whatever churches call them. Takeaway: They should always be called guests.

Last weekend, noted church consultant and author Thom Rainer shared the results of a Twitter poll he conducted of first-time church guests who did not return to a particular church. He summarized the 10 ways churches drive away first-time guests as self-reported by them. Trust me; I’ve seen them all here in Anchorage and across Alaska.

Rainer’s reasons list is below; his published reasons are in bold, while my observations follow.

Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service.
Oh yes, almost every church has them. It is one of the most awkward times a church guest will ever have to endure. Too many churches even enhance this distasteful experience by asking guests to stand up and identify themselves. In some churches the passing of the peace makes this time easier.

Unfriendly church members.
I’ve seen this so many times. No one speaks to me, introduces themselves or even greets me in their church. Attending a church with “friendly” in its name, I was virtually shunned. People in churches generally seem to be friendly to those they know but not friendly to those they don’t.

Unsafe and unclean children’s area.
This can be an issue in any area of the church children might frequent; from bathrooms to children’s worship areas and Sunday School rooms. If a church expects to attract young families, it needs to take special care that these areas are above reproach or families will go elsewhere. Children’s security procedures also go far to relieve parents’ minds.

No place to get information.
Few churches offer visitors center areas where knowledgeable and friendly church members offer personal and written information about the church. If present, they are also a great place to share a welcome gift. In my church consulting, churches often bristle regarding the thought. They counter that their few literature racks are sufficient. Revisits bear out they make no changes. Worse, if a church offers a visitors’ table, it is usually so low that one’s back hurts to bend over to write down requested information. Everything should be at walk-up height. (I’m also surprised at the number of churches who serve coffee at low tables, once again forcing visitors to bend down to fix their coffee.)

Bad church website.
I frequently comment on this problem. For prospective guests, only two pieces of information are needed from a church website: location and time of services. Many church websites absolutely fail to provide this information upfront and instantly. Often, many aspects of church websites are sadly out of date. This may be partly due to churches using a kind member to support their website.

Poor signage.
In this day of branding and identification, after figuring out the location of a church and going a few times, it’s easy to find. But too many churches have poor signs, out of date, and hard to read at the posted speed limits. Sadly, a missing key ingredient is the church Web address. Many have service times, pastor name, and even the title of the coming sermon. What a waste! The sign needs to point the visitor to the church to establish its identity.

Insider church language.
Yes, every church has it. When the pastor mentions the MOW will meet in the CRW for ACT training, guests are confused. But wait, it gets better. When mind numbing theological terms are thrown in, it creates unnecessary confusion on the part of guests. Jargon is bad in business, but when it becomes a part of church services, it is deplorable.

Boring or bad service.
Rainer noted he was surprised this didn’t rank higher. It certainly does on my list as I’ve experienced them over and over. For example, several years ago I took a close friend to a church service that evolved from a regular 75-minute service to almost 2.5 hours. My friend said, “I’ll never visit this church again.” The whole problem should have been solved by an astute ministerial team.

Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew.
A number of readers have told me it’s happened to them. It’s happened to me, and my family, over the years. For hundreds of years, selling pew seating was a way the church could afford to stay open by covering operating expenses. Today, it’s inexcusable for any church member to suggest or infer, to a guest, they are occupying the place where they usually sit.

Dirty facilities.
Many churches I visit have poorly maintained restrooms, some of them foul-smelling, stalls with missing latches, wadded paper towels strewn on the floor, and junk in the corners. I’ve even observed pews with disgusting stains on them, stains on the carpeting, dirty carpets or flooring. Often the narthexes of churches are poorly maintained, with piles of books, papers, leftover festive ornaments, unclaimed clothing and similar. All of these things detract from the main purpose of visitors coming to a church: to seek an encounter with God and those who follow him.

Rainer’s poll observations are sad but underlie a basic problem. Guests should be treated extremely well. As church people, we need to put ourselves in their shoes to try to understand them. A pastoral call to come forward or to join hands can be distancing for a first-time guest. Let them know they are accepted and don’t coerce. Many are on a true quest for discovering Jesus, and a group of followers who exemplify Christian values. It’s interesting to see how first-time guests see our churches.

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

Alaska’s Presbyterians – 11/1/14

The Presbyterian denomination traces its roots to the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. Reformers like John Calvin of France and Switzerland, and John Knox helped frame the theological framework of a movement which reached America’s shores in the early 1700s. Key principles included strict interpretations of scripture, a doctrine of predestination and austerity in the lives of the godly. It’s often said that what Martin Luther started, Calvin refined. These beginnings birthed the religious underpinnings of the Presbyterian, Reformed, and Congregational denominational movements.

Three major Presbyterian organizations across the United States and Alaska, include the Presbyterian Church (USA), Presbyterian Church in America, and ECO, a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Each are represented here in Anchorage and, to a greater degree, across Alaska. I will briefly describe these groups of Presbyterians. I’ve visited them and written about them in my ADN Church Visits blog for years.

A few of the major issues swirling around these organizations are the authority of God vs. man, abortion, same-sex marriage, and gay clergy. The impact of culture on Presbyterian denominations is also a significant factor in some of the dissonance. Reformed Theologian David F. Wells, in “No Place for Truth” writes, “The disappearance of theology from the life of the Church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today, but oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world — in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational.”


Presbyterian Church (USA) is the largest Presbyterian body in the U.S. numbering 1,760,200 in 2013, but with 200,000 members lost recently, it appears to be rapidly fading. PCUSA is known as the liberal arm of Presbyterianism. In Alaska, PCUSA churches fall under the presbytery of Yukon which lists 20 church congregations between Anchorage and Barrow. There were nine churches of presbytery of Alaska, covering the Southeast, but last year six churches in this presbytery were dismissed and allowed to join ECO. That presbytery has been incorporated with one in Washington as it no longer meets the minimum number of congregations required to be a presbytery.

During the past six years I’ve mostly attended worship services at PCUSA-affiliated Trinity Presbyterian, and First Presbyterian Church. Trinity experienced significant membership decline during this time, and currently operates with an interim pastor. I believe some of the national issues affecting PCUSA have affected Trinity. I’ve been puzzled by First Presbyterian and its persistent unfriendliness during my visits, except for my recent visit where more members than ever greeted me. It was the first church I reviewed in my ADN Church Visits blog. Over this period, I’ve seen multiple interim and regular pastors at FPC. With significant member loss, they are down to one service. There is talk of incorporating contemporary Christian music in their services. It’s never a fix. At one point FPC was known for its fine choir, but it’s smaller these days.


The second-largest Presbyterian body in the country is Presbyterian Church in America ( They numbered 367,033 members in 2013, but unlike PCUSA, it is growing. My search reveals only two PCA churches in Alaska, both in Anchorage. I’ve attended Faith Presbyterian and commented on the congregation in my blog. They were cool to me during a worship service visit several years ago. I found the service to be a bit uncomfortable — not in theology, but in format. No one but the pastor and pianist were involved during the entire service, an unusual experience among all of my Alaska church visits. Nonetheless, this church is allied with a rapidly growing branch of Presbyterianism that is both conservative and reformed. Biblical scholars such as Tim Keller, R.C. Sproul, and Ligon Duncan are partly responsible for this surge.

ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians

This new evangelical Presbyterian denomination was created in 2012 by former congregations and members of PCUSA churches. Currently more than 160 congregations with more than 60,000 members are affiliated with ECO ( Its theology is reformed and Presbyterian practices are followed. ECO’s creation was spearheaded by the Fellowship of Presbyterians, an umbrella organization of Presbyterians concerned about the increasingly liberal tendencies of PCUSA, including the adoption in 2011 of lifting the ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. Conceived as a PCUSA alternative denomination, it is rapidly growing. At present, a group of local, concerned Presbyterians is forming an ECO congregation. They meet once a month Sunday evening. Recently, I attended their meeting and was pleasantly surprised. A friendly lot of about 40, many from Trinity Presbyterian, started with a simple but adequate dinner, followed by a service of music, formation updates, missions talk, and a timely and interesting sermon from military chaplain Ted McGovern.

Anchorage Presbyterian Fellowship

This growing body incorporates Presbyterians from First Presbyterian and elsewhere who left for some of the reasons stated earlier. Meeting as a group for almost two years, they hold services at the University of Alaska Anchorage Fine Arts Recital Hall. Local community pastors served their needs until permanent pastor, Bernie Van Ee, arrived in early 2014. APF ( is a conservative, back-to-basics group offering traditional services with hymnody, choir, communion, and sound messages. They consider themselves to be a non-denominational church and their services are well-attended.

Many Presbyterians are stepping up to the plate with alternatives. There are more than these four Presbyterian-related groups in Alaska, but space does not permit covering them. The final chapter on local Presbyterians has not yet been written.