Monthly Archives: July 2015

Church apps gain a foothold among local churches

Since Apple first released its game-changing iPhone in 2007, apps — and smartphone apps in particular — have changed the way we access the Internet and the way we use our smartphones.

I’ve written about apps in the past (you can find my previous coverage at (, but as different churches adopt the technology or adapt the ways in which they use it, the subject is worth revisiting.

In April 2011, I first became aware of local church apps when ChangePoint staffer, Adam Legg, ( excitedly showed me the church’s new app. ChangePoint may have been the first Alaska church to release an app, but slowly other churches began rolling out apps. During this developmental period I asked many churches, obvious targets for app use, why they were not developing them. Consistently I heard money cited as the No. 1 reason, though I suspect in reality churches failed to understand apps and their potential value for their faith communities.

Adam — now ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor — recently shared the congregation’s changing vision for their app noting. “In over 4 years since rollout, our app’s been downloaded on almost 9,000 devices and used hundreds of thousands of times,” he said. “In the spring of 2011, when we launched our app, it was estimated that 35 percent of Americans owned a smartphone; that number is now around 70 percent. A recent Forrester Research study showed 85 percent of the time people use their smartphones, they are using apps. We see this as an area continuing to provide big opportunities for our church to reach people where they are.”

But it’s not all about the app.

“While we are incredibly pleased with the growth and usage of our app, we must remember it’s only one tool in our church’s digital communication strategy,” he said. “Social Media, website, video storytelling, and many other tools are used here at ChangePoint to bring a message of ‘Life in Christ’ to thousands of people every week. Digital media is changing how people communicate, and in turn, the church must take note and adjust our communication as well. The ChangePoint app has been a huge step in helping us do just that.”

Using Apple’s app store, I searched for Anchorage and Alaska church apps. I found 12 in Anchorage, and 10 outside of Anchorage. You can find the Anchorage listing on my website at showing various features each church has implemented. Most of the listed church apps also have Android counterparts, and some have been released for Windows phones. Churches with apps usually have app links on their websites. Grace Christian School was listed under Anchorage churches, and St. John United Methodist uses a generic app, which depends on you entering a special code to locate their portion, not a sure methodology.

Most apps offer archived sermons for replay. A few allow users to watch those sermons, and fewer still offer live streaming of a sermon as it’s being delivered. Anchorage Baptist Temple recently added this feature. Many apps offer Bibles, Bible plans for reading, church calendars, and access to blogs or social media. Online giving has become an important option for apps, and bulletins are very helpful.

Baxter Road Bible Church, a rapidly growing East Anchorage church, recently added an app and updated its website. Both are attractive and functional.

Asked about the genesis of their app, BRBC’s ( associate pastor, John Carpenter said, “We saw how this technology worked. Phones have become more than just phones anymore. Our website’s purpose is to get information out to the body of the church. We see apps as an extension of our website. I refer to our website and app as BRBC’s Costco-like sampler approach. It gives people a taste of what we offer; it’s easy and convenient. We find that listening to our messages/sermons is probably the key driver for its use. We also find our people appreciate up-to-date information on what’s happening in our church community. Donating via app and website is certainly growing. When my family and I took our vacation this summer, it was a great way to stay in touch with our church family.”

A church plant, True North Church, ( effectively used apps as part of their church growth strategy. Unlike most churches, they developed their own app in 2011 aided by a local Christian developer.

True North is growing and attributes some heartwarming stories to their app.

“A young woman began attending True North several years ago. Coming out of a divorce caused by her infidelity, she began the process of healing and restoration while attending True North,” the Rev. Brent Williams told me. “Through this process, she realized her need to reconcile with her ex-husband and take ownership of her sin. The ex-husband began listening to our sermons through our iPhone app while living in the Lower 48. By God’s grace, one year ago, the husband and wife reconciled and were remarried during one of our church services on a Sunday morning.”

Brent concludes, “Our app enhances our ministry by making the Gospel accessible to a culture entrenched in technology — a culture that is on the move. The app allows those inside the church and those not yet part of the church to stay connected to the weekly teaching and weekly updates of True North Church.”

I believe Alaska church apps provide better missional growth opportunities than, for example, expensive short-term mission trips. I applaud these churches for their vision and hope many more will join them soon. Their growth is due, in no small way, to their deployment of today’s technology for today’s generation.

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)

Alonzo Patterson marks 45 years preaching at Shiloh Missionary Baptist

It’s extremely unusual to read a headline like that these days.

Baptist church consultant Thom Rainer writes in “Breakout Churches” that the average tenure of pastors is 3.6 years. Church statistician George Barna offered a similar figure: “The average tenure of a pastor in Protestant churches has declined to just 4 years — even though studies consistently show that pastors experience their most productive and influential ministry in years 5 through 14 of their pastorate.”

Last Sunday afternoon, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church celebrated the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Patterson’s 45th anniversary as the congregation’s pastor. (According to Shiloh, Patterson has been a pastor for 66 years). I counted over 10 additional visiting pastors present to offer their thanks and tributes to Pastor Patterson for his long-standing service to Christianity and our community, giving heartfelt tributes to his leadership. In a two and a half hour celebration I was treated to music, tributes, prayers, and hospitality I never receive, much less see, in Anchorage churches. If you’ve never visited Shiloh, I urge that you visit them to see how they exemplify the traits of churches and members I’ve sought in over seven years of blogging and column-writing for ADN. I lost track of the hospitable actions by Shiloh’s members during my time there.

Sunday’s celebration was interspersed with much music. Shiloh’s Voices of Praise was peopled by a colorfully dressed chorus primarily of women, assisted by a few male voices dressed in black. Led by Robert Heartwell, they were accompanied by a six-piece sanctuary praise band. I particularly liked the message of the stunning and heartfelt “Break Every Chain”: “There is power in the name of Jesus, to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.” Also “God is My Everything”: “God is — God is my everything, He’s my joy — He’s my joy in sorrow, He’s my hope — He’s my hope for tomorrow, He’s my rock — He’s my rock in a weary land, a shelter — a shelter in the time of storm.”

During a beautiful Al Green song, “I Feel Like Going On,” a male voice started singing the lead and fairly quickly people noticed that Pastor Patterson, sitting on the front row with his wife, was singing the lead using a handheld microphone. “I feel like going on, yes, I do; I said, I, I feel like going on, ohh; Ohh, I, I feel like shouting for joy; I don’t know about you; Ohh, I, I feel like shouting for joy, yes I do.” The effect was electric, galvanizing those assembled. Clearly it was a theme song for Patterson’s continuing ministry. The children’s choir sang a riveting, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a staple of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ethel Waters, and Mahalia Jackson. It was beautiful. Finally, a beautiful rendition of the Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams tune “The Prayer,” was sung by the Rev. Michael Bunton and his wife Nathalie.

Julie Fate Sullivan, and Constituent Relations staffer Sharon Jackson read a letter from Sen. Dan Sullivan to Pastor Patterson. In it, referring to the South Carolina shootings, the senator wrote, “On June 26th, I had the solemn honor of traveling to Charleston, South Carolina to attend the funeral service for the Honorable Reverend and state Senator Clementa Pinckney, which also honored the eight other victims of the heinous acts of violence at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). I want to thank you, along with Pastor Leon May and leaders of the Anchorage Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, for setting your time aside to write such a beautiful note sharing your wisdom and prayers with the people of Charleston and the parishioners of Mother Emanuel Church. Prior to the service, I delivered your letter to my friend and U.S. Senate colleague, Tim Scott of South Carolina. He was very moved by all of the expressions of sympathy and wanted me to thank you for him.” (You can read the full text of letter at

The Rev. D. Edward Chaney, pastor of Second Baptist Church-Las Vegas, was the featured speaker. After he was introduced, he entered the pulpit to an updated version of the Doris Akers song, “Lead Me, Guide Me.” He sang the lead with a powerful voice. It was a great beginning to a exceptional sermon on Matthew 16:13: “Who do you say I am?” In it he examined who we think Jesus is, and how He affects our lives. I wish I could share a recording of his sermon, but it’s not available. Pastor Patterson clearly loves to preach, and seems to enjoy hearing great preaching too, as he was animated during Chaney’s sermon. Sitting up, he leaned forward to catch every word, raising his hands and pointing in agreement. Chaney’s preaching reminded me of the Revs. Clay Evans and James Cleveland, whose preaching was half talking, half singing. Chaney ended his sermon to the strains of “Send Me,” a Lecrae tune.

Before all adjourned to the fellowship hall for food and drink, Pastor Patterson took time to recognize, by name, the people of Shiloh, a beautiful gesture. He also recognized Dick Sanchez of the Arctic Roadrunner who early on offered Pastor Patterson assistance, monetary and otherwise, to address community problems. Asked to stand, Dick struggled for words to describe what Shiloh and Patterson meant to him. Patterson asked his wife of almost 60 years, Shirley, to say a few words, asking her to keep it brief. She said “thank you” to applause.

Many speakers expressed hopes Patterson would continue on for years. I applaud Patterson and Shiloh for doing so much in our community. This celebration was wonderful, and I was fortunate to participate. (Selected celebration pictures at

Shiloh, a member of the American Baptist Churches, and National Baptist Churches has created important outreaches in Shiloh Community Housing, and Shiloh Community Development. Shiloh telecasts Sunday morning services — a traditional one at 8 a.m. and a contemporary one at 11 a.m. — live.

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, emailcommentary(at)

Selected Photos from Pastor Alonzo Patterson’s 45th Pastorate Anniversary

Alaska Senator Sullivan’s Letter to Rev Alonzo Patterson

The attached letter was read by Senator Sullivan’s wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, and Constituent Relations staffer Sharon Jackson, to Rev Alonzo Patterson at the 45th anniversary of his pastorate at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church last Sunday.  The absence of any other congressional congratulations was sad.

7.12.15 – Pastor Alonzo Patterson (copy of official letter)

Archbishop Schwietz honored in extraordinary gathering

Last Friday was an unusual day in the Anchorage Archdiocese. Catholics from all over Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and across the Pacific, converged on Our Lady of Guadalupe, the local co-cathedral, to celebrate Archbishop’s Roger L. Schweitz’s 75th birthday and his 25th anniversary of elevation to the episcopate. Eleven bishops, four archbishops, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo from the Philippines, and a representative from Schwietz’s order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, were present and participated in the celebration of the Mass. Former Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey of Sitka and Alaska, and numerous parish priests rounded out the group.

The co-cathedral was packed with celebrants and well-wishers. At the start of the service, an Alaska Native contingent went through the church fanning incense, contained in large shells, using bird wings. The long procession of clergy entered led by the Knights of Columbus. A Samoan man blew a conch shell, and a procession of Samoan men, in traditional garb, entered bearing the scripture on a raised platform. (A Samoan contingent also presented leis to the assembled clergy and draped the altar with an extremely long lei.

A special printed program was prepared for this Mass of Thanksgiving, which contained the music and readings. The front and inside cover contained an interesting description of the archbishop’s coat of arms ( ). The music was heartfelt, at times spectacular. Much of the music used was taken from the Mass for Renewal composed by Curtis Stephan. Piano, organ, percussion, trumpet and choir blended harmoniously, adding great dignity and joy to the service. The singing of the “Alleluia” by the Samoan Catholic Community was beautiful. All music was linked to specific portions of the service and was done well. I particularly liked “A Prayer for Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz” performed by Kevin and Regina Barnett. In rhyming couplets it depicted various attributes of his service. For example, “A person who can hear and cure, The sighs of rich and cries of poor,” and “A spiritual man who never spares, His ministry of pastoral care.”

The archbishop’s homily, brief but charged with thankfulness, reflected upon early priestly memories and his appointment as bishop of Duluth by Pope John Paul II. The calling papal nuncio’s instruction to select a ministry-guiding motto was followed by Schwietz in choosing “Jesus is Lord” from Philippians 2:6-11, which contains an early Christian hymn. The archbishop’s priestly ties are with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, ( which has close to 4,000 missionaries working in 60 countries around the world. After his ordination, noting the reality of the world in which he was ministering, he observed, “It soon became evident that so many people were so busy chasing after so many different gods, that they had little time or interest for our calls to conversion in the following of our self-sacrificing Savior.” Striking at the heart of emulating the life of Christ, he continued, “… it has become more and more clear to me that the life of service for Christ in His Church is not about self-aggrandizing, but about self-giving.” (It’s unfortunate more Christian pastors and leaders can’t avoid the temptation of self-aggrandizement.) He ended with a warm memory of his first Mass as a priest, presided over by the Rev. Francis George, a future cardinal, whose homily encouraged then priest, but future Archbishop Schwietz. He said he’d recently received that homily from Cardinal George’s former secretary.

The Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated in a traditional manner, but contained gestures and music presented specially for the day. All bishops and archbishops were present at the altar as the Mass was consecrated. It was a sight many of us will probably never see again in our lifetime. The bishops of Juneau and Fairbanks, and deacons Mick Fornelli and Jim Lee participated in the preparation of the sacraments.

Mahaffey presented a beautiful gift to Schwietz on behalf of the Orthodox people in Alaska (formerly known as Russian Orthodox). It was a reproduction of an icon which is one of the most revered by Orthodox in North America, the Sitka Mother of God, also known as the Sitka Madonna. The original is permanently located in the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Sitka. It depicts the Theotokos (mother of God), Christ child, and the image of God the Father blessing from above (

During the service the archbishop said that according to church law, he’d mailed his resignation to Pope Francis that morning. When bishops reach the age of 75, they’re required to submit their resignation. The pontiff will ultimately appoint a new archbishop of Anchorage, but Schwietz will remain in the position until his successor is announced.

It’s my understanding that after Hurley submitted his resignation, it was two years until his replacement, Schwietz, was announced. Schwietz is a very active archbishop, maintaining a vigorous schedule of visiting parishes and ministering to people. He recently told me after retirement, he plans to minister in a local archdiocese parish.

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)

Vacation Bible school season in full swing

Growing up, I fondly remember attending vacation Bible school. I remember a positive experience with singing, crafts, exercise, and Bible stories, and retain memories of making bookends from quartz and plaster of Paris during crafts. Many local churches offer vacation Bible school experiences for kids today. In fact, in a 2013 report on vacation Bible schools, a Barna group study found more than 68 percent U.S. churches held them in 2012.

Vacation Bible school season started early in the Anchorage area, shortly after public school was out. Many programs were conducted in June. VBS programs are scheduled into August, though, so there are still opportunities for families to access them before summer’s over. I talked with three local churches this week in North, East, and West Anchorage, as a representative cross-section of various VBS programs.

Holy Cross Parish: Weird Animals

A large Catholic parish, Holy Cross Parish has offered VBS for 20 years. Theresa Austin, director of youth ministries, said their chosen theme package “Weird Animals: Where Jesus’ Love is One-of-a-Kind”, is a Catholic-specific package from Group Publishing. The parish chose a theme the other churches will not be doing. Holy Cross holds classes at Kasuun Elementary School from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 20-24. It charges $25 to defray expenses. Austin said 50 to 100 kids, mostly Catholic, will attend.

Each day starts with praise and worship songs, proceeding to various activities underscoring the Bible themes for the day. As an example, the daily themes are: Even when you’re left out Jesus, loves you; Even though you’re different, Jesus loves you; Even when you don’t understand Jesus, loves you; Even though you do wrong, Jesus loves you; and Even when you’re afraid, Jesus loves you.

The activities are “Bible Adventures” with a different daily Bible story; “Games” with different games played; “Kid Video,” linking to Bible points, and “Imagination Station” where Bible-linked science experiments are performed. To make things visually stimulating, sets incorporating weird trees, flowers, and animals plus waterfalls, balloons and a rainforest have been prepared. High school kids help her create the sets. Wanting the church’s VBS to be unique, Theresa explained “Protestant churches tend to do New Testament themes. We like to cover both the Old and New Testament, and also expose the children to Catholic Relief Services, or clean water initiatives for African villages. The kids bring donations which go to CRS.” VBS plays an important role in faith formation at Holy Cross.

Lutheran Church of Hope: Shining Star

After looking at VBS offerings from various publishers, the Rev. Julia Seymour of Lutheran Church of Hope chose “Shining Star,” an Abingdon Press package. The church expects the program, held July 27-31, to attract 70 to 80 kids, ranging in grade from pre-K to sixth grade, of which only 25 to 35 percent will be Lutheran. Running from 9 a.m. to noon, the church’s VBS program is free of charge and has five daily themes: Listening; Studying; Taking Action; Forgiving; and Being Stars for Christ. Its overall theme is taken from Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world.” The program rotates kids through Bible stories, games, music and crafts. On the final day parents are invited to a potluck. During the week the kids participate in a canned food drive for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska.

“We hope attendees will hear a message of grace, that God’s love exists, and that it’s for you to take advantage of your whole life,” Seymour said. “We want people to know about the love of Christ. It’s a taste experience. A week is a short time. We hope the Holy Spirit will come alongside.” She also advised “Parents need to do due diligence. Take five minutes and look at the church website to know where you’re sending your kids. See what we believe. Look at my blog to see what I believe.”

Lutheran Church of Hope’s VBS relies on volunteer staffing during the week, from seventh graders to retirees.

Baxter Road Bible Church: Journey Off the Map

Growing Baxter Road Bible Church has offered its VBS for seven years. In talking with Director of Children’s Ministry Kelly Carpenter, I was impressed with the importance of VBS for BRBC. She noted that it’s the church’s biggest outreach, with 50 to 60 church staff and members involved during the week of presentation. Many more help prepare. Planned for 4-7 p.m. July 13-17, it’s Indiana Jones-themed and called,“Journey Off the Map.” Presented inside and outside the church, the staff is preparing sets of jungle scenes, boulders, waterfalls, caves, and creatures. Kelly said two-thirds of the anticipated 100 kids are from BRBC, with the remainder coming from the community. All rotate through the various sections: Overlook, the opening sessions; Boulder Bridge, Bible study; Shady Grove, crafts; Rushing Waters, music; and Survival Springs, games and recreation. An added bonus will be pony rides and petting zoos before the start of each day.

“Kids come to us having attended other VBSs but tell us ours is the best. It’s a churchwide effort,” Carpenter said. “We want them to know Christ, start with His birth, and move to Daniel. If kids can see that living for Christ is a positive thing, a safety net, I believe it will change their life.”

The Barna group study cited earlier says, “… children’s summer Bible programs have committed their efforts to one goal: the spiritual development of children, who will hopefully grow into spiritually developed adults. In fact, previous Barna research indicates nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43 percent), and two out of three born-again Christians (64 percent) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday.”

Anchorage churches are investing heavily in providing faith formation opportunities for community kids. It’s good for the kids and ultimately for the community. I’ll keep an updated list of all the VBS opportunities I’m aware of at my blog:

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, emailcommentary(at)

Vacation Bible Schools – July & August 2015 – Anchorage

Here is a list of Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) scheduled for July & August 2015.  It may not be complete but is the result of a Google search going down to the first 5 or 6 pages of the search results. Clicking on the name of the church will take you to the church website. If your church is not listed and should be, email me at and I’ll add you.
7/13-17/15 St John UMC
7/13-17/15 First Baptist – Eagle River
7/13-17/15 Baxter Road Bible Church
7/20-24/15 First Christian Methodist Episcopal
7/20-24/15 Holy Cross Catholic
7/27-31/15 Chapel By the Sea
7/27-31/15 Lutheran Church of Hope
7/29-8/2/15 Anchorage Lutheran
8/3-8/7/15 Peace Lutheran – Eagle River