Monthly Archives: May 2015

Christianity is not dying in U.S. or Alaska

My column two weeks ago was next to a New York Times story with the headline “Big drop in share of Americans identifying as Christian.” USA Today headlines blared, “Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar in new religion portrait.” CNN, not to be undone, shouted “Millennials leaving the church in droves, study finds.” Dozens of other headlines tried to outdo each other with hyperbole. But what’s it all about?

These stories sprang from the May 12 release by the Pew Research Center of the results of its 2014 Religious Landscape Study. That report was titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (see The subtitle of the report was “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.” The study compared the similar 2007 study with 2014 study results. Summary comparisons by major religious group brought the results into clearer focus. The change results for this time period were: a 0.9 percent drop for evangelical Protestants, an increase of 6.7 percent for unaffiliated, a decline of 3.1 percent for Catholics, a 3.4 percent drop in mainline Protestants, and an increase of 1.2 percent for non-Christian faiths.

These results were not unexpected, and tend to confirm the much-heralded observation that current generations are “spiritual but not religious.” They seek an experience that mirrors their own quest for meaning in life. For many, this means embracing elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Hinduism, and other philosophies. Two weeks ago I visited an Anchorage church that represented this approach. I believe we will see more such congregations develop over time.

The Pew results, for the most part, are largely accounted for by the 6.7 percent rise in the unaffiliated. The breakdown of this group is that atheists rose from 1.6 percent to 3.1 percent; agnostics rose from 2.4 percent to 4 percent. Those who identified as “nothing in particular” rose 12.1 percent to 15.8 percent. All three of these groups fall into the “nones” category referenced in the USA Today headline.

One very interesting side note in the study is the finding that most Christians are women, while most “nones” are men. Certainly this is evident here in Alaska where many men stay away from church to pursue weekend pleasures such as fishing, hunting, boating, snowmachining, etc. During my hundreds of church visits over the years, I’ve personally observed the lack of men attending church services.

I particularly enjoy reading the various blogs and reports Ed Stetzer releases. As executive director of LifeWay Research, he is up to date on research and observations that hit the nail on the head. In 2012, I heard him speak at ChangePoint. He delivered a persuasive talk, one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. (See my ADN blog post at Stetzer wrote an opinion piece in USA Today on May 13 titled “Survey fail — Christianity isn’t dying: Fakers who don’t go to church are just giving up the pretense” (See 

In it Stetzer argues that “Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.” He further points to a recent Gallup poll (See contending weekly religious attendance is “about where it was in the 1940s — hardly a statistical collapse.” Stetzer does point out that “Evangelical Christianity is growing in America,” but that’s only in absolute numbers, rising from 59.8 million to 62.2 million, while dropping in percentage points as a share of total U.S. population. He points out that nominal Christians, those in name only, are dropping out and indentifying as unaffiliated. Noting the study indicates this rise coming from Catholics and mainline Protestants “religious traditions with high numbers of nominals. Among adults who claim no religious affiliation, 28 (percent) were raised Catholics, while 21 (percent) grew up Mainline.”

The Pew Forum overview itself points out “To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans — roughly seven-in-ten — continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.” Stetzer importantly points out that self-identified evangelicals grew during this same period of time. On Stetzer’s blog last week, in “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey” (See, he lays out an argument with points such as “Convictional Christianity is rather steady … There have been significant shifts within American Christianity,” and “Mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage.” He ends with “Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.”

Stetzer and LifeWay are respected for their research and conclusions. I mentioned his presentation at ChangePoint only because it made sense. It’s hard to say whether or not that community will take, or did take his advice to heart, but despite your personal feelings about ChangePoint, they do typify many of the hallmarks of what convictional Christianity is and can be.

In my opinion, we are in for a wild ride. We may understand this all better when Robert Wuthnow, noted Princeton sociologist whose latest book, “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” comes out Oct. 1. It promises to question “why it has become easy to take all of these results for granted. Response rates have plummeted, push polls done by robotic-calling machines have become more frequent, and sampling has become more difficult. A large majority of the public doubts that polls can be trusted.”

My visits to area churches do indicate a shakeout is taking place. I’ve been fortunate to have visited many congregations where faith is not taken for granted, but is seriously pursued and practiced. Many times it is located in smaller groups where insightful delving and discussion about faith and its origins can take place.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

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)

A visit to the northernmost Hindu temple in the world

Recently, I attended a service at the Sri Ganesha Hindu temple in West Anchorage. I received a warmer welcome than in many Anchorage churches I’ve visited. The service was very interesting, giving me an insight into this major worldwide religious group.

Hinduism’s status among world religions

Numbering over 1 billion adherents, Hinduism is still growing. The four major religions according to the Pew Forum are Christianity (31 percent), Islam (23 percent), Hinduism (15 percent), and Buddhism (7 percent). The two nations where Hinduism is the majority religion are India and Nepal. A recent Pew Forum study of world religions, predicting that Hinduism will decline slightly by 2050. The Pew Forum also documents Hinduism as a minor player in North America with 0. 7 percent of the population — though that figure’s expected to virtually double to 1.3 percent by 2050.

The Sri Ganesha mandir, or temple, started in 1995. Initially meeting in downtown Anchorage, they moved to a new location rented from the Church of Religion Science on Old Seward in 1999. This coincided with the donation of a Sri Ganesha idol donated by Sat Guru Shri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami of the Kauai Aadheenam in Hawaii. In 2002, the temple moved to a location on Blueberry Road, where it stayed for nine years. Temple trustee Neil Bhargava said, “In 2003, I had in my mind to find a permanent place, because it’s hard to get a rental place for temples. One day I found a property for sale on Raspberry Road. With the help of the Indian community and a matching donation from Jerry Neeser, we were able to buy the property. We did major structural renovations to create space appropriate to the Hindu worship and culture. The arctic entry was added to the original structure to provide a place to leave shoes. All of this was done through generous donations from local construction companies and Jerry Neeser. Inside we created a space for our deities located on the south wall with glass doors separating them from the rest of the temple.”

The end result, through personal observation, is worthy of any church that expects to be in the same location for many years. It’s quality construction. It’s simple, clean, carpeted, and affords seating for worshipers, both on the carpet and on chairs.

Hindu worship services

In India, most Hindus will go to the temple at least once a day for a service that can last 15-30 minutes and is led by a priest. Additionally, they will worship their deities at home. At this temple, the services are held only on Sunday and last about one hour. Bhargava said many local Hindus also practice the custom of worshiping at home. The day I attended, the service started at 11 a.m., lasted about an hour, and was followed by a meal brought by those attending. I was told that 25-30 people attend these prayer services on a regular basis but that up to 60 people can attend during Hindu festivals. Entering the building I was instructed to leave my street shoes in the arctic entry.

The front of the temple displays three groupings of Hindu deities, idols as they say. In the center is Ganesha, the elephant deity, carved out of black marble. Flanking him on the right were four deities:
Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and Hanuman (Ram Durbar), carved out of white marble and clothed. On the far left was Durga, also clothed out of white marble, riding a lion.

Trustees of the temple are responsible for providing worship leaders, either themselves or someone familiar with the rites. Worship guides with the service components, both in Sanskrit or Hindi, are provided to participants. The worship leader that day was Neil Bhargava, a trustee. He recited every portion of the service from memory, a significant feat in my opinion, taking about a half hour to do so.

In brief, the service focused primarily on Ganesh, starting with lighting of the Diya. Mantras were chanted inviting the lord to accept the prayers being held in Anchorage. Respect was shown by washing Ganesh’s feet and hands with water. He was also given a shower by sprinkling of water. Sandal paste and vermilion were then applied to the forehead of Lord Ganesha. Sixteen mantras were then recited, followed by chanting or singing the 108 names of Ganesh describing his various attributes. Incense and lamps were then lit in order, followed by offerings of food and water. Water was offered to worshipers to cleanse their hands, followed by flowers to offer to the gods. Devotees circled around Ganesh three times in honor of his residing in them. A final goodbye was said to Ganesh, followed by two minutes of meditation.

After the completion of the recitations and ceremonies, there was a period of sung praises, Bjans (religious songs). Before offering the Prasadam (food offered to Lord Ganesha, sometimes shortened to Prasad) to the devotees, the templewide glass doors separating Ganesh and the other deities were closed in respect.

After service meal

I was invited to share a bountiful meal served after the service, but declined as I had a previous engagement. There was a wide array of delightful vegetarian food laid out. Bhargava noted “The meal is strictly vegetarian. We don’t allow foods that have meat, onion, garlic, and eggs. After prayer on every Sunday, the food brought by the devotees is offered to the gods, and then people share it as Prasad.”

A number of children attended that day, and participated in the services. Bhargava noted they used to have a children’s school, Bal Vikas, but they had to close it down due to the small community and lack of volunteers. Some of the children brought children’s versions of the Bhagavad Gita, a holy Hindu scripture.

Anchorage has great diversity in religious cultures. Hinduism is just one of them. I was warmly accepted by this community and am glad I attended.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

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)

Local church veggie gardens are an extension of compassion

What would this community be like if some churches were not growing vegetable gardens to benefit those less fortunate? It’s worth pondering. If you’re unaware of this growing movement in the faith community, please give it your consideration. Last year during one of my church visits, a man approached me to suggest I focus a column on this topic, and encourage the entire church community to participate. After digging into it, I’m convinced there are significant benefits for everyone doing so from the churches, gardeners, local charities and other recipients of fresh locally-grown produce.

The first garden I noticed was at Turnagain United Methodist Church. Planted on the west side of the church and nicely tended, it produces a relatively bountiful harvest of produce for its size. Pastor Bob Smith shared some details about their garden. Managed by a gardens committee, with congregational help, it produced 300 pounds of produce last year for Bean’s Café and the Downtown Soup Kitchen. They call it the “Jesus Food” garden and are exploring expanding it onto more church property. Smith recognizes the generosity of the participants, tying it directly “to the ministry and mission of the congregation. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the time it takes because they are always focused on the goal of helping feed others, including meals for Clare House, or food for FISH. The garden is just another extension of their compassion and drive to feed the hungry.”

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Café says, “We are so appreciative of the support of our local faith community. They help in so many ways but one significant way is through the donation of locally raised produce. Fresh, local grown foods are such a treat for our clients and provide a meaningful connection to our community.” Other local charity directors echo Lisa’s observations. Both Alan Budahl, executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, and Mike Miller, executive director of the Alaska Food Bank note the value of locally grown fresh produce to recipients of food items their organizations deliver. Alan and Mike are currently helping churches obtain grants to facilitate food growing by churches. It takes money to get started.

Churches involved with or evolving veggie growing

East Anchorage United Methodist Church

According to Pastor Karen Dammann, EAUMC makes gardening plots available to residents in the neighborhood who want to garden. Now in their third planting year, they have space for 124 4-by-8-foot plots but currently use just a fraction. They may have up to 50 in use this summer. No food goes to the local food banks yet, but they’re considering using some open plots to do so. They’re applying for a grant for moose fencing. Neighborhood children are encouraged to eat produce, such as green peas, grown for them. Julie Riley of the Cooperative Extension Service of UAF has provided guidance, staff training and resources for EAUMC.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School

This prominent lower Hillside school has an annual “faith in action” project where outgoing fifth graders who will be incoming sixth graders in the fall, grow potatoes in plots at the school. They are tended during the summer and harvested at its end. Last year they delivered 90 pounds to Bean’s Cafe. The growing area was created by a scout who made it his Eagle Scout project. Before the potatoes are delivered, the students pray over them, take them to Bean’s and are given a tour.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Anchorage’s largest Episcopal church has just completed its first growing area for vegetables. According to Rector Michael Burke, they intend to donate the results to local food banks. St. Mary’s children were heavily involved in their creation.

Joy Lutheran Church

This Eagle River Church has just started their church garden. Pastor Martin Eldred says they intend to give their fresh produce to the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry where it is a highly requested item. The church received a small grant from their synod to start the garden.

St. John United Methodist Church

Growing their produce for the Downtown Soup Kitchen, this lower Hillside church will host Downtown Soup Kitchen board members on June 6 for a blessing of their garden.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — Alaska Synod

This group recently had their annual synod meeting where the theme was “HUNGER, The Fast I Chose” which focused on world hunger with an emphasis on solving hunger issues through the sharing of individual church involvement. According to local Synod Bishop Shelley Wickstrom, many of their churches are involved in gardening programs. Dr. Stephen Brown of UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service spoke with the group and addressed considerations in starting church gardens

Many local churches growing food for charity are not represented on this list, but their contributions are essential to their faith commitments to their neighbors in need.

Useful resources for church gardens

Some helpful resources to utilize in starting church gardens are listed below:

Dr. Stephen Brown, with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in Palmer is an excellent resource and offers an excellent guide called the Community Garden Toolkit. His email is

The Episcopal Church has an excellent webpage full of information about nine churches that started food-growing programs in their churches (see

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America offers ELCA churches grants to develop food growing programs. For information contact Alan Budahl, Executive Director, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, 272-0643

“Why Every Church Should Plant a Garden…and How” is the title of a free pdf guide ( made available by A Rocha USA

A local group called Yarducopia matches up yard owners with people who need space to garden to learn how to garden, build gardens, and co-garden — sow a community garden in patches across Anchorage! More information is available at They are eager to help faith-based groups too.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

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)

Church visit observations reveal friendly practices

Among my many local church visits, certain practices stand out, making some visits more memorable than others. As a result, I often make mental notes to revisit that church more often than others; positive practices are likely to remain in place, as are negative practices.

For example, after I’ve blogged about the unfriendliness of a particular church, I may receive comments or an email inviting me to do a return visit because they felt my experience was atypical of their church. Usually revisits reveal the same unfriendly practices were still present in those churches. Church pastors tell me it takes a long time to change church cultures.

Positive church practices make me smile as they often require minimal effort.

Personal pastoral greetings work

Some pastors are gifted at identifying and greeting newcomers to church. I’m always impressed whenever I see it in action. Yes indeed, pastors are busy people with multiple church roles, but it is gratifying to see in action. It is leading by example. Of course, some pastors are more comfortable behind the pulpit than face-to-face with people, but from a human perspective, direct approaches are effective. More importantly, pastors should be connectors trying to connect newcomers with someone in the congregation who might sustain that connection. Surprisingly, many pastors even fail to greet guests from the pulpit. Warm greetings should be given to members and guests at every service. Unfortunately, too many pastors depend on the queue filing past the past them at service conclusion, but it’s not enough.

Great coffee before and after the service creates smiles

Culturally, coffee is a great social lubricant. Many great friendships have been struck up over a cup of coffee. I connect with people more easily before and after services this way. Often, the coffee is located in some out-of-the-way place only known to insiders — a huge mistake. Space permitting, great coffee should be prominently available shortly after entering the church. Another mistake is that too often churches brew the cheapest coffee they can buy. Anchorage is known as a coffee town. There are many local roasters with excellent roasts. Members and guests will appreciate you serving the finest coffee in your church. Coffee mugs for guests are a great welcome gift, but I’ve seen only one church in Eagle River and another in Anchorage take advantage of this practice.

Name badges facilitate friendships

Name badges for guests and members alike are great levelers. Hospitality personnel should make and offer them to guests; saving guests the trouble of making their own. Members should wear them if already provided or make their own to wear if that is the practice. Some members may give a reason for not wearing a name badge as “everyone already knows me.” This is always wrong, as many members, and certainly guests, may not know that person. Part of being a friendly church is to drop the elitist title that can become easy to wear. Name badges facilitate conversations with anyone on a first-name basis.

Nazi-persecuted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

Guest recognition gifts are memorable

Recognizing guests is an art and should be done when they enter a church. This is easily done, except in the few megachurches we have in town. Guests tend to stand out. Once recognized their visit should be noted by a token of recognition. Several churches in town give a small spiritual book, some offer freshly baked bread, and others may give a packet of information about the church and its congregation. A few offer coffee cards to newcomers. At larger congregations, church personnel often ask people to identify themselves to distribute these tokens. It’s understandable and should be tolerated. However, asking guests to stand, identify themselves, and say where they are from is a practice that tops the list of reasons first-time guests give for not choosing to make return visits to a specific church.

Reserved parking for guests says you were expected

I always smile when I find churches with designated guest parking in sufficient quantities to satisfy first-time guests. This shows guests they were expected, and that the church treats their guests with the utmost concern. No church should be without designated first-time guest parking. If members are parking in those spaces, they should be tactfully reminded of their true purpose. Sometimes, when arriving at a church late, I find guest spaces occupied even when the flow of the service reveals there were no guests that day. If I’m a first-time guest at a church, I use guest parking.

Explanatory service language warms the heart

Churches using explanatory language during their services are delightful. Many pastors are skilled at doing so. It’s easy to spot, and so reassuring. When an offering is taken up, they always explain to guests they are not expected to give, it’s just a normal practice for their members. Service participants are introduced or introduce themselves when performing their function. When insider language is used, it should be explained. In other words, the person using it should interpret it for guests in a way that’s inclusive and conversational. Communion and Eucharist are where this language is most effective.

Renowned theologian Karl Barth wrote, “Jews have God’s promise and if we Christians have it, too, then it is only as those chosen with them, as guests in their house, that we are new wood grafted onto their tree.” Every worship day, churches have an opportunity to share our respect for that relationship with others. I love it when church practices warm my heart and make me smile.