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 www.abtlive.org).
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.
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.
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.
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: (tinyurl.com/npzyym4). I’ve heard many such sermons, developed, as this one was, along Baptist thematic lines, but it was effectively delivered.
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.
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.