Monthly Archives: December 2014

Top 10 suggestions for improving Anchorage’s faith community – 12/27/14

Around the New Year for the past five years, I’ve presented my top 10 list of non-theological issues I feel lessen the effectiveness of our faith community. Surprisingly, little changes from year to year, which may contribute to the malaise affecting churches and members; there seems to be little interest in self-examination. A few readers report signs of change. One reader recently noted her large-church pastor announced “meet n’ greets” and “self-identification” will be replaced with pre- and post-service hospitality — a step in the right direction. With best intentions for our faith community, I forge ahead and present my top ten list for 2015, in no particular order.

Reduce proof texting

Many preachers use a form of sermon delivery incorporating “proof texting.” Taking a theme, they support it by dozens of texts from all over the Bible. Recently I attended a service at a well-known evangelical church in town. The pastor spent the majority of his talk time quoting so many verses of Scripture that by the end, my biblically-rooted head was fairly spinning. An unnecessary and defensive practice, it confuses and possibly misleads more than it informs.

Takeaway: Proof texting is not the best practice

Balance social gospel outreaches

Some churches spend so much time focusing on social gospel issues, they fail to inform and inspire membership on understanding the totality of the gospel. While social gospel issues are important, too often they duplicate the work of the state and community dealing with individuals and families with needs, who may have no interest in the gospel or a spiritual life, making churches welfare agencies.

Takeaway: There’s more to religion than social gospel

Adopt customer service attitudes for your guests

After 15 years of visiting area churches, I find most lack in treatment of guests. Usually I’m ignored, not welcomed, and leave with more questions than answers. However, churches tend to avoid self-examination, denying such behavior exists. The untrained serve as greeters, providing poor hospitality. I’m traveling in my ancient truck as I write this. Needing a spare tire I located the appropriate wheel at a wrecking yard, and took it to a well-known Oregon-based tire company. Carrying the wheel inside, I was surprised when a representative opened the door, took the wheel from me, while asking me what I needed. My need was quickly serviced, and I was on my way with a smile. From that experience alone, I’ll go to that company in the future. Despite Genesis 18 counsel, and numerous Pauline exhortations, few churches do this. Greeters need to be similarly trained, pure and simple.

Takeaway: Customer service attitudes are needed in churches

Clean up church websites

Too many church websites are a mess — out of date, poorly designed and maintained, lacking service times and locations on the main page. Beautiful pictures of mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests adorn most church websites. Yes, Alaska is very beautiful but our natural beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the work of any church.

Takeaway: Poorly designed and maintained church websites hurt more than help

Provide guest parking

Too many churches do not provide any guest parking, or if they do, designate a pitiful number of spaces. Signs saying “First Time Guest Parking Only,” translates to “Welcome, we expected you.”

Takeaway: Guest parking is not an option, it’s a must

Stop blasting people

The worst sound I experienced in 2014 was 117db, equivalent to the sound of a jet taking off from 100 yards. This behavior is anti-Christian by its insensitivity. A mother with a newborn was across the aisle from me, about 30 feet from the stage. I believe that child suffered permanent ear damage from it. Here’s a thoughtful take — including a useful chart — on the subject.

Takeaway: It’s un-Christian to blast guests with excessive sound levels

Create a millennial-friendly environment

The millennial generation offers the greatest hope for the church, yet most churches provide millennial-unfriendly environments. Few churches actively study the massive amounts of research on millennials to understand and address their needs. The average member doesn’t know what a millennial is, what their issues are with churches and religion, and seem not to care.

Takeaway: Understanding millennials is critical to the survival of most churches

Cultivate hospitality attitude

How many sermons on hospitality have you heard during your years of church attending? Probably none or few, especially compared to the number of sermons you’ve heard on giving, missions, or you name it. Hospitality is a practical application of the Christian life. Guests are stranded in a strange land when they visit a church using non-inclusive language. Compare this with how you would treat someone in your home. Sitting down to dinner you might recognize your guests, and let them know how happy you are to break bread with them. You might say a prayer, noting it’s your custom to hold hands around the table as it’s said. This doesn’t usually happen in churches, but recently I attended a communion service where it was done. It was wonderful — like being part of a family! “Meet and greets” and calls for guests to identify themselves was the topic of a recent column citing a survey by church researcher Thom Rainer as the top reason first-time guests do not return.

Takeaway: Customer service understanding can pay big dividends for your church

Rethink attitudes toward music

Most evangelical and Pentecostal churches devote a lengthy amount of time — perhaps 30-45 minutes — to music. Songs tend to be contemporary, and presented in pop/rock format at excessive decibel levels (see above). Often congregants are so unfamiliar with the songs, there is little singing. In essence, it becomes a concert performance with lyrics that are often theologically dubious or sentimental. A few churches are discovering the beauty of hymnody. Catholics too are going through a renewal of their music.

Takeaway: It’s not about the music wars; it’s about the meaning of the music

The mission field is really Alaska, not elsewhere

Alaska church people still send people to far-flung mission fields on expensive, short-term mission trips instead of recognizing the mission field is here. Most African mission fields, for example, are much more Christianized than Alaska. Why are people and millions going there instead of resources being devoted here?

Takeaway: The mission field is here

Happy New Year and joyful church-going!

Memories of Christmas past highlight reason for season – 12/20/14

As the Christmas holiday season is ending, I’m sharing several impressions of Christmases past.

Childhood recollections

My childhood memories go back to when I was 3 or 4. I was not educated in the Santa Claus myth and only knew that Christmas was a time for celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas was a special time of song and gifts from close family members, including grandparents. The gifts were of a useful nature and helped me understand, from an early age, that Christmas was a time of caring and sharing. My father was the son of deeply religious Christian parents and my mother was the daughter of a divided home. Her mother was very religious but her father was not. My mom and her mother celebrated Christmas mostly with focus on the birth of Christ, not much on gift giving.

As I grew up, I came to realize the season celebrated the birth of Jesus, not lavish gift giving to individuals tangential to my life. Christmas was marked by religious events including church musical presentations and sermons highlighting the significance of the date being marked. It was also a time when family came together to find a Christmas tree under which those few presents were stowed until Christmas Eve. Often my brothers and I would go into the surrounding forests to find a suitable tree. We decorated the tree with items we made, like paper chains, handmade ornaments and strung popcorn.

Christmas Eve was usually tough as we had to wait until Dad arrived — often late, as he was an important medical professional in our town. I’d sit glued to my second-floor bedroom window wondering if the headlights coming down the road were his and Christmas could start. It was like Advent with its attendant hopeful watching and waiting. After Dad’s arrival, we would have a time when the Bible was read, especially the Luke passages, and a few carols were sung. Presents would be opened, many of which we made for each other prior to Christmas. Truly, it was a warm spiritual time of family coming together to recognize this special time of year. My mother, an artist, created a large stained glass window reproduction insert for our huge front window. Displayed there during the Christmas season, it left little doubt in our neighbors’ minds that Christmas was a special time for the Thompsons.

Just before Christmas my mother would have one or two get-togethers for many friends, weighted heavily toward those people whom time seemed to have forgotten, or who were no longer cared for. She’d inject good food, holiday cheer and reflections about the wonderful time of year we were commemorating. These gatherings continued until shortly before her death at age 92. An incredibly musically talented woman, Mom directed choirs in two different churches and presented wonderful musical programs during the Christmas season to direct hearts closer to God, the reason for the birth of Jesus.

Christmas caroling was another huge part of my younger life; friends and family would go caroling in groups, singing in harmony to bring cheer to neighborhoods in my northern Idaho town. It was always a joy to go caroling.

Bright Anchorage memories

During 15 years in Anchorage, I’ve collected many wonderful Christmas memories. Some Advents have been especially wonderful times of connecting with God. A particularly bright spot was the presentation of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at St. John United Methodist Church, with Karen Horton leading the choir and chamber orchestra. It brought me so close to God, I was amazed. Last Christmas, I had the opportunity to sing with the Anchorage Concert Chorus at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s celebration of midnight Mass. That wonderful service was most fulfilling. Many churches offer candlelight services on Christmas Eve. They are wonderful events and worthy of attending, no matter the religion. Christmas at church tends to bring out the best in music, liturgy, children’s understanding and the poignancy of scriptural affirmation. If you have children, I urge you to let them enjoy this special time.

A sad Mexican Christmas memory

About 20 years ago, I celebrated Christmas in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I was thrilled to participate in a Las Posadas procession, in which villagers ritually go from house to house asking for room for the Joseph and Mary figures in the front. Las Posadas processions are accompanied by ritual singing, prayers and readings. As I joined the procession, I discovered a number of American tourists had also joined and were attempting to inject a jovial air to it by spinning around, dancing, loud talking, laughing and other absurd attempts to make it very festive. I was saddened by this “ugly American” behavior and left the procession.

Martin Luther and Christmas

Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther redirected the practice of giving children gifts on St. Nicholas’ Day (Dec. 6) in favor of celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. In so doing he directed people to the true meaning of Christ’s birth. Luther also preached excellent Christmas sermons. One of these wonderful sermons is available on Beliefnet.

Purpose of Christmas

Scriptural interpretation is unclear when Jesus was born but many scholars lean toward 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. Times of year vary, but I lean toward early November. Christmas is a wonderful time of year to reflect on the plan of salvation and God’s love for man to provide a way of escape (a gift) for the price of sin. It’s a time we can emulate that gift by giving to the unloved, just as God did. The various ways of doing so have been shared in this column all through December. Let’s stay focused on God’s gift to us, and pay it forward to those who need our love. Remember, it’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’.

My wish list for 2015

Over the years, my list of items for churches to address in the coming year has been one of my most read and shared pieces of writing. If you have thoughts about this, I urge you share them with me by email at

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

Faith community giving offers local help during the holidays – 12/13/14

In my last column, I mentioned the outrageous sums people spend to celebrate Christmas by extravagant giving to one another, especially children, as well as alternative fundraising efforts by our faith community. Today’s column features fresh updates and reader comments about giving, plus some brief Advent music thoughts.

Advent Music Miscues

Advent began on Nov. 30 and many churches, including mainlines, began singing Christmas carols, just as the commercial radio stations commenced broadcasting them too. Traditionally, Advent is considered a mini-Lent, a symbolic period of hopeful watching and waiting for Jesus’ birth. Under this tradition, hymnody is restrained and songs such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “O Come, Divine Messiah,” are used. Unfortunately, many churches unabashedly burst into carol singing as if Christmas had already arrived, echoing the offensive commercial push that makes Christmas happen from before Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. Part of what makes the Christmas season unique, religiously, is observing a period of looking and longing for the Messiah. To make it an accomplished fact seems to play into the hands of commercialism. Ultimately, by Christmas Eve, many are sick and tired of the sacred and secular Christmas music of the season.

Readers Voice Advent Concerns

One reader comments, “While I have donated years of cash payroll deductions to support charitable organizations, I don’t think it helps our children learn the life lessons of charity. My girls baked cookies, turkeys, vegetables, etc., to take to the shelter. The joy and excitement they felt was real, the handshakes and smiles of homeless patrons was real.”

I recall my parents taking their four children to hospitals, nursing homes, shut-ins, and church events to actively participate in sharing the joys of Advent with those in need. Toys were minor considerations. Our real needs and those of others were paramount.

Giving Updates

Last Sunday I attended four events in our faith community, three of which I mentioned in last week’s column.

Baxter Road Bible Church Service

I like this Bible-based church, and its friendly members. Rev. Bob Mather’s message on Sunday dwelt on the key themes of Christmas. As he observed, “It’s all about surrender.” When the offering was taken, Mather noted this was the fourth year all December offerings would be given directly to charity. BRBC confidently believes this year will push them up over $250,000 given over the past four years.

Mitzvah Mall

Attending the Mitzvah Mall was more fun than writing about it. Congregation Beth Sholom opened their synagogue from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday to 24 local nonprofit organizations with primary interests in our area. The few exceptions were Malawi Children’s Village and Helping Hand for Nepal, locally based but outwardly oriented. Nothing was sold. Donations were given, many in the names of others, to fund these organizations. I peeked at some of the checks being written and they were substantial. It was a crazy good time seeing the vibrant energy flowing from this event. Over $15,000 was given to these organizations in those 3 hours. I checked out every nonprofit and discovered some new to me. One great idea I learned was the concept of Tzedakah money. Each week the Jewish youth bring this Tzedakah (charity) money to Religious School where it is pooled. When Mitzvah Mall rolls around, the money is split up and given back to individual youth as Mitzvah Bucks which they spend for those organizations where they believe the money will do the most good. Congregation Beth Sholom transfers the money to those organizations, and is also willing to talk about their Tzedakah program with other faith organizations that might want to start their own youth giving initiatives. What a wonderful energizing way to involve the youth in giving to charity!

First Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Market

Arriving at First Presbyterian Church Sunday afternoon, just as they were closing, I had an opportunity to observe this new event. Approximately 10 “vendors” were there with holiday gift items. Bean’s Café was there with soups and coffee as was the Downtown Soup Kitchen. The Apparent Project had well-crafted handmade Haitian items for sale. The group’s purpose is to help parents take care of their kids, avoiding relinquishment and abandonment. I’m sure this event will grow next holiday season.

First and Samoan United Methodist Church free community dinner

These two congregations provided a tasty dinner for all called “A Place at the Table.” Served buffet style in the fellowship room of First United Methodist Church, many meals were gladly enjoyed, a great number by homeless and street people. It was a meaningful event for me personally as I met two delightful members with separate personal missions, which you’ll read about later.

Downtown Soup Kitchen connection

As a result of last week’s article, Sherrie Laurie, executive director of the Downtown Soup Kitchen, introduced her organization to me. This remarkable organization provides daily soup meals, showers, and clothing to many underserved residents of Anchorage. For years, ChangePoint and City Church have provided heavy lifting for this great organization, a load now being shared by 27 congregations in our faith community. BP, ConocoPhillips, and the Boy Scouts of America are also huge supporters of Downtown Soup Kitchen, as are hundreds of volunteers. In their beautiful new facility, they feed 350-500 people daily, provide showers for 400 people per month, do more than 300 loads of laundry, and distribute more than 700 pieces of clothing. All of this is supported by more than 1,800 monthly volunteer hours. Currently they’re distributing about 350 backpacks, purchased for $20 by individual donors who then fill them appropriately with supplies for men or women. For a truly worthy cause, I suggest putting Downtown Soup Kitchen on your giving list.

Personally, I’m cheered by this faith community outpouring for those in need. Clearly, I’ve not covered all local projects and fundraising but I’m rewarded to mention these and have a personal opportunity to be a part of giving to these worthy organizations. Keep those stories coming in directly to so they can be included in future columns.


Faith community giving offers local helping opportunities during the holidays – 12/6/14

It’s an amazing time of year, one in which various members of the faith community collect money to support various local charitable causes. These actions form the basis of what I term “living faith” or faith that “practices what it preaches.” Yet not all faith communities support local needs during this time of year. Some are preoccupied with staging elaborate productions of pageants created to support perceptions of what people need to see during this season. Others are collecting money for causes in other areas of the world, while Alaska itself remains one of the greatest mission field opportunities in the world. I’m puzzled that Alaska faith communities often show more concern with far-flung world areas than the neighbor in need in their own backyard.

Additionally, I’m absolutely amazed with parents who go in debt up to their eyeballs to show their children they love them and want to give them their heart’s desire for Christmas. The Gallup spending forecast estimates that the average Christmas spending this year in the U.S. will be $781, up from $704 last year. Overall, the National Retail Federation projects this spending will top $600 billion this year.

Christmas has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even though its roots are Christian, it’s become largely secular, altering a wonderful religious tradition. And our children, what are they to think? Who hasn’t seen a child opening a vast array of presents, only to see them sad and dejected minutes later because they didn’t bring the happiness they hoped and wished for?

I believe faith communities can foster false expectations by vast toy drives for children going into the holidays. What many of these families need is food and shelter security. Children can’t eat toys. It’s ludicrous that this is not better understood from the get-go. Faith communities could do more to help people during this season by providing basic foodstuffs and de-emphasizing toy giving programs. Food and shelter are critical to families in need. A sleeping bag might be a much higher priority than a toy. Toy giving indicates, for the most part, that Christmas is identified with consumerism and things we like, as opposed to things that are basic to life. It’s the wrong lesson to teach.

Jewish Community Initiative

I’m impressed with several local faith-based organizations that are bending over backwards to help at this time of year. One that caught my eye recently is the Mitzvah Mall, a project of the local Jewish community at Congregation Beth Sholom. Mitzvah means a command to do good deeds and is very ancient in practice. Mitzvah is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. When at the Simchat Torah dinner and ceremony at Congregation Beth Sholom recently, I learned about this unique fundraiser, but Congregation Beth Sholom’s website says it best. “Think about a bizarre bazaar: an alternative gift fair. There are rooms filled with booths, but the ‘vendors’ are nonprofit organizations and charities. Instead of buying more material gifts and stuff, shoppers can donate to local nonprofits on behalf of friends, family or others on their holiday gift list. Give a gift that keeps on giving. The ‘gifts’ are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Shoppers receive decorative gift cards to present to the person in whose honor the gift was purchased. What a mitzvah: resisting holiday consumerism, doing good deeds, bestowing a wonderful gift and having fun doing it.”

Mitzvah Mall is happening Sunday, Dec. 7, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Sholom, 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Come prepared to donate to one or more of the 25 nonprofits that will be present. Congregation Beth Sholom has had fantastic success with this brief event, raising over $14,000 in three hours last year. I’ll be there to observe this event in person.

ChangePoint Giving Programs

ChangePoint, Alaska largest church, has a number of life-giving programs it supports with holiday giving by its members. The congregation uses three avenues of giving during the holiday season.

1. Participation in partnership with Cornerstone Church to provide hundreds of Christmas shoe boxes to Samaritan’s Purse and its effort to bless children, particularly in the villages of Alaska.

2. Participation in two “Angel Tree” projects to benefit both the students of Alaska Christian College and the residents of the McKinnell House here in Anchorage.

3. The primary fundraiser is what they call the uncommon gift offering. This is collected the last Sunday before Christmas and always goes to support or advance a local charity. Over the years, they have done many things with it. Examples include raising around $120,000 for Alaska Christian College to graduate all its seniors without debt and giving over $130,000 one year as the launching gift for the Downtown Soup Kitchen’s new facility.

Lutheran Giving Initiatives

Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides food and shelter for thousands of recipients in our local community. Last Sunday’s Beer and Hymns fundraiser by Christ Our Savior Lutheran raised close to $5,000 for LSSA. Other Lutheran congregations are involved with a series of local giving initiatives touching local lives.

The holiday season is a wonderful time to plant the right seed about the proper use of money. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. Churches can effectively use the holidays as ways to draw attention away from the individual and place the emphasis where it belongs.

I’d love to hear your stories about your church’s holiday giving efforts. Please send them to so they can be shared with other readers of this column.

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

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, email commentary(at)