Monthly Archives: June 2015

The changing ways churches use websites

Since moving to Alaska 15 years ago, I’ve seen Anchorage’s faith community rapidly adopt digital media — especially in the past five to seven years. Some churches have been slow adopters, a frustration to those who stay current with technology. Others have rushed headlong into digital media trying to adopt everything in sight with no clear strategy for doing so. A few churches have meaningfully adopted digital media, adeptly providing clear benefits to members and visitors. This column today explores the growing importance of one type of such media — church websites — locally.

Church websites provide basic church information and are an important digital medium. A 2012 Duke University study found only 55.7 percent of U.S. congregations had websites. Today, it’s estimated that closer to 60 to 65 percent have websites. Even in Anchorage there are a number of churches without websites or with only a minimal presence via a mention on their national denominational websites. Churches without websites, nationally and locally, tend to be smaller, and fewer in members.

Three years ago, Grey Matter Research in a study of church website use revealed a number of key findings. They noted three types of visitors to church websites: those who attend that church, those who regularly attend services but at other congregations and those who do not attend services regularly in any congregation.

What church website visitors look for is revealing. Most frequently (43 percent) they look for times of services. Twenty-nine percent are looking for activities offered, such as youth groups, studies or events. Twenty-eight percent looked for maps or church location. Twenty-six percent watched streaming video, and 26 percent listened to streaming audio. Twenty-two percent were checking out the church’s beliefs, 18 percent were requesting prayer and 15 percent downloaded a podcast. The study authors noted that the most basic items looked for, time of worship and location or map, were missing in approximately half of the church websites checked in sample areas of Memphis, Tennessee and Grants Pass, Oregon. The same is true in Anchorage. I’ve written about it many times.

The study also noted that, in the previous 12 months, more than 17 million adults who do not regularly attend worship services visited the website of a church or other place of worship. In other words, if churches don’t do a great job on their websites, they won’t be found or visited — both a huge challenge and wonderful opportunity.

I’ve visited and written about St. Benedict’s Catholic Church several times. From the first time I looked at their website (, it made sense. Commonly sought items are there, on their main website page: service times, location, youth ministry information, bulletin and homily podcasts are all there and constantly up-to-date. Also included are statements about what they believe. It’s clean, functional and certainly satisfies demand for the commonly searched information noted previously. It does not have all the bells and whistles some contemporary Christian churches add to make their websites look extremely modern.

Another church website providing much of what website visitors look for is Baxter Road Bible Church’s ( It’s clean, high-energy and refreshing. Recently updated, it provides worship times, location, sermon replays and information about activities, all on the first page. Like St. Benedict’s, BRBC also allows members to contribute online. This rapidly growing church has used their website to provide much of the same information for years, but have changed the look and feel to enhance its utility.

Cornerstone Church ( has maintained an excellent, current website for years. They are also one of the few churches that allow visitors to watch recent sermons. If a website doesn’t offer watching, a church might still provide a way to listen to a recent sermon. A growing number of Alaska churches now offer apps for the iPhone or Android platforms. Cornerstone’s app offers the ability to listen to sermons or download them. Some church apps only allow you to listen. Few church apps currently offer the ability to watch sermons. I’ll deal with the benefits of church apps in a future column in this series. Clearly, apps are a powerful tool, for much more than just listening to sermons.

If you are a prospective visitor looking for a church, I suggest looking for the following things on church websites. First, look for location and service times. Driving is time-consuming and costs money. Try to locate a congregation that might satisfy your needs in the immediate vicinity. If you do become involved in that church, you are more apt to enjoy a wide array of activities if you live closer to it. That first visit is also a lot closer so you’re more apt to go. Next, peruse their statement of beliefs, which should be located on their first page or one click away from it. Does it align what you are looking for? A virtual visit might be a good next step. You should be able to listen to or watch a recent sermon. Sermons are important as they occupy one-third to one-half of the time of an average church visit.

The churches and websites mentioned above illustrate a cross-section of churches in Anchorage that offer the information on which visitors can rely when seeking a church. There are many churches not offering enough quality information through their websites to allow potential guests an opportunity to assess them for a visit. No slight was intended by not mentioning other churches. I believe each of the mentioned churches do a great service by providing quality websites for potential guests, and for their members. The aforementioned study addressing members says, “Among online Americans who attend worship services once a month or more, 28 percent have visited their own congregation’s website in the last thirty days, 44 percent have done so in the past six months, 57 percent have done so in the past year, and a total of 68 percent have done so at some point while attending that place of worship.”

Happy churching!

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)

A visit to Alaska’s largest megachurch, ChangePoint

Last week I wrote about my visit to Alaska’s second-largest megachurch, Anchorage Baptist Temple. Following that service, I visited ChangePoint Alaska. With an average weekly attendance of 3,300 according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, ChangePoint is the state’s largest church.

Greeting and welcome

I’ve visited and written about ChangePoint several times over the past seven years. On this visit, I was a few minutes late in arriving. Only one road accessed the church Sunday. Traffic cops and ChangePoint volunteers directed traffic. Despite the volume of advice available to churches about using parking volunteers, ChangePoint and Faith Christian Community, to my knowledge, are the only Anchorage churches using this guest-friendly service.

Regardless of the number of times I’ve visited ChangePoint, I’m always at a loss to understand why it doesn’t capitalize on making friendly greetings at the outside doors and the auditorium doors. The outside door holder wordlessly held the door open as I entered. The bulletin passer did the same. ChangePoint is more casual than Anchorage Baptist Temple, where more formal attire is common. Blue jeans are the rule at ChangePoint.


The music was in progress as I entered. Typically, I sit eight to 10 rows from the front during my church visits and did so this day. A four-person band was already into their first song. There were no drums for the first time of all my visits. Drums clearly add a noise level which helps push the needle off the chart, but the sound levels were still, in my opinion, excessive. The averages were in the mid to high 90 dBs with peaks of 103. Audiologists and sound engineers recommend much lower levels. But the music was pleasing and definitely spiritual. It included Hillsong’s “The Stand” and the old hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Announcements and greeting

An unidentified man, a guest-unfriendly practice, came out and made a series of announcements ending with a command to “Turn to those around you and say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’” Although I had carpal tunnel braces on both of my hands, the woman in front of me turned and shook my hand. These moments are so uncomfortable to newcomers; in fact they are the No. 1 reason many refuse to return to a church after an initial visit. Why churches insist on this practice is beyond me.


The unidentified man then called for the offering, but first described ChangePoint’s practices using a slide. He noted it was a ChangePoint core practice that embraced investing generously, consistently and cheerfully. I do appreciate that ChangePoint is very transparent with finances. Its bulletin showed May giving approximately $35,000 under budget, and year-to-date giving approximately $350,000 behind. Very few churches offer this kind of transparency. Unfortunately, the man did not give a pass for guests, an unfriendly practice. Looking at the numbers just cited, a guest might conclude they have to dig deep to help right the deficit. During the collection of the offering, the band performed a beautiful Kristian Stanfill song, “The Lord Our God.”


The guest speaker was identified by the announcer as Jay Lowder with his website,, underneath his name in the bulletin. Continuing, he mentioned Jay had brought a number of people to a decision in the 9:30 a.m. service. Jay, a tall, lanky Texan hailing from Wichita Falls, told a lengthy story about his life during the sermon time on Sunday. (See to listen or watch.) Using a Bible and striding around the stage during his talk, he recounted a life of sin, including substance abuse, leading up to a decision to take his life. Moments before Jay’s suicide attempt, his roommate, who had recently been saved and was following Jesus, came home unexpectedly, something he never did, and unwittingly intervened. This message was critical for Alaska, where suicide is a major social concern. After years as the state with the highest suicide rate, Alaska dropped to the No. 2 spot, according to the May 2015 annual report by the American Association of Suicidology.

This good message ended with an altar call preceded by a version of the “sinner’s prayer.” Lowder then asked those praying the sinner’s prayer and making commitments to follow Christ to come forward. More than 50 people did. In evangelistic fashion he continued to lengthen the service urging others to come forward. Unfortunately, I developed a serious coughing spell and had to leave the service to deal with it.

According to Lowder’s website, he and his organization provide evangelistic outreaches, adventure weekends, evangelism training, and school assemblies. Clearly his theology is Baptist. This type of evangelicalism is, for the most part, the only growing portion of Christianity in the U.S. in actual numbers. ChangePoint has hosted other Baptist leaders as they did when they invited Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research to address them several years ago. Stetzer gave a fantastic, energizing talk.

There are many similarities between ChangePoint and Anchorage Baptist Temple. Both churches appear to hold many of the same beliefs in common, and are aggressively using many state-of-the-art electronic tools to broaden their reach.

I enjoy worshipping at ChangePoint. ChangePoint’s dedication to extending the gospel to all the world is commendable. Its website states its vision is “Life in Christ for every Alaskan and the world beyond.” I like its mission statement: ‘To live as a community intentionally focused on cultivating the life of Christ in others.”

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, email commentary(at)

A visit to Anchorage Baptist Temple

As I visit various faith communities, and write about them, I attempt to avoid delving into beliefs, which aren’t the focus of my writing. I focus on how congregations present themselves to guests and members by evaluating their welcome/greeting, sermons, and music. Since 2008, I’ve visited Anchorage Baptist Temple several times separated by long intervals.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, defines a megachurch as “… any Protestant congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services,” and by this definition, ABT qualifies as a megachurch.

HIRR’s online database currently contains 1,668 congregations in the U.S. that meet this definition. ABT, with an average weekly attendance of about 2,200, according to HIRR, makes this list. ChangePoint, Alaska’s other megachurch is listed with 3,300 average weekly attendance.


ABTs sprawling campus offers bountiful parking, though many spaces require hikes of about a block to reach the church. Entering via the Baxter Road entrance I spotted a sign indicating a large section straight ahead for guests or visitors. However, individual spaces were not designated, and there wasn’t a parking lot attendant directing guests to spaces, a missed opportunity. No guest spaces being available, I parked quite a ways from the church entrance. Considerable caution was required to walk as cars whizzed by, an unsafe condition, especially without parking attendants.


Entering ABTs north entrance I was met by multiple individuals and handed a bulletin before I reached my seat. Choosing my seat eight rows from the front, I entered while the choir and a soloist were singing a rousing praise song. The screen behind the platform was alive with the words and animation during the song. Gigantic screens were also located high on the right and left sides of the stage. ABTs auditorium is a huge television set with cameras capturing every facet of the service from many angles. TV is important here as the Rev. Jerry Prevo’s sermons play many times during the week on KCFT and Channel 13. Today I discovered ABT has entered the ranks of churches streaming their services live on the Internet (at

After the song I entered on, visitors were greeted from the pulpit and asked to identify themselves for the purpose of receiving a token gift. During the meet and greet several people greeted me pleasantly. After the greeting, the morning offering was received. No one, including guests, was told they were not expected to give, usually an uncomfortable time for a first-time guest.

Bus ministry

Then Prevo recognized ABT’s bus ministry, some leaders, and a number of kids who ride those buses. Personally, I think bus ministries are useful, providing the parents consent and churches don’t apply undue pressure on children to convert. Obviously, it’s better for parents to bring their children rather than having them ride a church bus, but that could come later.

More music

ABT’s performance group of eight men and women provided two musical selections. They sang naturally, with good eye contact, and smiling faces, something I find missing in many church praise group performances. “Lay Me Down, Lay Me Down,” a Chris Tomlin song, and “Overcome,” a Jeremy Camp song, were presented in a likeable and professional manner, although I have must say, a tad too loud for me. My decibel meter registered peaks of 103 decibels on both songs, and averages in the mid-to-high 90s. Looking around me, many worshipers were in their 50s and 60s and may have found the music a bit loud as well. Sound professionals recommend church sound levels not exceed 80 db at peak, and 65-70 db during the service. No longer are elderly persons the majority experiencing significant hearing loss. A University of Florida study revealed 17 percent of middle and high school students were experiencing some degree of hearing loss. As a church guest, I believe ministering kindly to attendees includes protecting the hearing of all.

Prevo’s sermon

After the last song, the music group left to much applause. Taking the pulpit, pastor Prevo launched into announcements highlighting upcoming events and other items, some of which were already in the bulletin. His sermon topic was “Two Types of People.” Beginning by highlighting the differences between people, Republican vs. Democrat, union vs. nonunion, Southerner vs. Northerner, etc., he continued by noting the Bible says there are only two types of people: those of the kingdom of God, or those of the kingdom of Satan. His points were illustrated with Scripture projected on the big screen at the back of the stage. Using an electronic device, he highlighted, in red, key words from Scripture passages being used. This was one of the most effective uses of Scripture projection I’ve ever seen, and it was augmented by the clarity of the screen system ABT is using. A recording of Prevo’s sermon is available here: ( I’ve heard many such sermons, developed, as this one was, along Baptist thematic lines, but it was effectively delivered.

Altar call

Prevo concluded his sermon with an altar call. Regardless of the number of altar calls I’ve heard in my life, I’m usually left with the impression no matter how solid one’s personal spiritual life is, it’s never enough for that pastor. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are usually interjected. I’ll address altar calls in a future column. Like other questionable practices, they are a recent invention.

Final thoughts

My visit to ABT was better than most. The huge side monitors seem to be unnecessary, making Prevo three or four times larger than life, in an auditorium where all had excellent views. People were friendly; the music was good, but loud. This evangelical type of church, as noted in a previous column, is one of the few growing in the U.S. It’s easy to see why. As Prevo noted, you have to make a choice.