Monthly Archives: November 2015

Re-examining the meaning of Advent

This Sunday, Advent Sunday, signals two significant events in many denominations. First, the church year for many mainline denominations begins. Second, Advent begins: an annual period of about four weeks before Christmas, which for 1,500 years has been marked by fasting, repentance, hoping and prayerfully pondering the first and second Advents. Advent offers real meaning to the season, especially providing teachable moments for children and those new to the Christian faith. While Advent is primarily observed by Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as mainline Protestant denominations such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Congregational, other denominations are also slowly adopting its observance.

Sadly, for many Christians, Advent only marks the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when expensive holiday decorations go up in, on and around their houses. Then too, parents ponder, and often agonize over, what they are going to give family members and themselves for Christmas. The National Retail Federation survey for Christmas 2015 finds that holiday shoppers plan to spend an average $463 on family members, up from $458 last year and the highest in survey history. Average spending per person is expected to reach $805, with more than half of shoppers planning to splurge on non-gift items for themselves.

Contrast this with the loving charity embedded in Baxter Road Bible Church’s December giving program, where all church income is donated to those in need in this community. Pastor Bob Mather told me this week that, to date, $300,000 has been donated to “to help the poor, the needy and those going through a hard time.” Members suggest which local organizations receive this aid.

“We have found that the more generous we are, the better off we are financially,” Mather says. “You truly cannot out-give God.” BRBC’s program goes under the title “It’s Not Your Birthday.” That’s such an excellent idea. A few other local churches might designate one Christmas offering for this purpose, but December’s offerings? Incredible!

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable,” wrote Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While imprisoned in Germany during World War II, he penned some thoughts to friends reflecting on the Advent season. “It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Advent goes much deeper than much of what we see and experience in most churches.

Changing attitudes are slowly being seen in other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, where Advent is not a core tradition. Joe Carter, communications specialist for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an article titled “Southern Baptists and Advent: Four Things to Know” that acknowledges changing attitudes in that denomination, writes: “With the exception of Christmas and Easter, Southern Baptist congregations in America generally do not observe the days of the Western church calendar. Instead, they tend to follow the pattern of the Puritans, who believed following the liturgical calendar violated their liberty of conscience (many Puritans refused to celebrate any holidays besides the Lord’s Day). Some Baptist churches, however, have begun to incorporate Advent observance in their preparations for Christmas.”

Traditional Advent music looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, and a traditional observance of Advent avoids Christmas carols, which are are reserved for celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve. The watchful anticipation expressed in these hymns — such as “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” or “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” — is part of the attraction of Advent. From the perspective of one observing a traditional liturgical calendar, singing Christmas songs during Advent would be like a spoiler for a movie you were looking forward to seeing. Nevertheless, many congregations do so. Last year, when I asked a pastor why his congregation was singing carols during Advent, I was told they skipped traditional Advent hymns in favor of more cheerful music.

Advent sermons often address the key themes of each Advent Sunday: hope, love, joy and peace. They’re linked to the four purple Advent candles in a wreath of evergreen, lit in order each Sunday as a new theme is taken up.. On Christmas Eve, a white candle in the center of the wreath is lit to signify Jesus, the light of the world.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in a sermon titled “The What and the When of the Christ Child,” said: “People like us have careful work to do in Advent, to weave our way between two big dangers. On the one hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who specialize in times and dates and schedules, who know with precision the time of Christ’s coming and who speak confidently of millennia and pre-millennia and post-millennia. … They know too much and reduce God’s freedom to the timetable of their ideology. On the other hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who are offended by those people, and who in reaction are in love with their comfortable affluence and who imagine that it will not get any better than this, and who expect no gospel arrival at any time ever. People like us live in that awkward place amid those who know too much and those who expect nothing.”

Advent is a wonderful time to challenge and strengthen your faith and can be a useful force for sharing and Christian growth.

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)

Beer and Hymns – November 22, 2015

Beer and Hymns, that fun fundraiser sponsored by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, will be held again Sunday, November , 2015.  Mo’s O’Brady’s restaurant in the Huffman Business Park adjacent to Carrs Huffman store will see the music starting at 6 p.m., lasting until 8 p.m. The format is that you come with family and friends, order a meal and beverage of your choice, and sing hymns led by Pastor Dan Bollerud.  I guarantee you will find new friends at this fundraiser for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA).  Credit cards are accepted and you will have not be sorry you came.

LSSA uses donations to fund food for those in need with weekly distributions in town.  I’m proud of what LSSA does in our community.  Find out more about their mission and objectives on their website

See you there!

Anchorage Thanksgiving is cornucopia of community effort

This coming Thursday, Thanksgiving will be celebrated across the U.S. Our community goes out of its way to ensure everyone has a place at the table for a hearty and filling Thanksgiving meal. One way this is accomplished is through the local Thanksgiving Blessing, coordinated by the Food Bank of Alaska with the support of the local faith and nonprofit community. Over 8,000 families will be served in this year’s Thanksgiving Blessing in Anchorage, with an additional 2,000 in the Valley.

Thanksgiving meals, including turkey and all the fixings, will be distributed Monday, at six Anchorage locations. From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. families in need can go to the following locations (based on zip codes; visit or call 211 for more information):

Crosspoint Church at the Burlington Coat Factory mall on Dimond Boulevard
New Season Christian Center at Spenard Recreation Center, 2020 West 48th Ave.
Central Lutheran Church, Cordova Street and 15th Avenue
St. Patrick’s Church, 2111 Muldoon Road
Joy Lutheran Church, 10111 E. Eagle River Loop Road
From noon to 8 p.m., Mountain View Community Center, 315 N. Price, off of Mountain View Drive

Mike Miller, executive director of Food Bank of Alaska, underscored the broad base of support, saying, “Each one of these partners is partnering with many other community organizations and churches to make this happen with money, commodities and volunteers. The entire Southcentral Alaska area pulls together to make this happen.”

This is in significant contrast to the manufactured buying frenzy that begins that day, and the next, Black Friday, with families plunging further into debt to supply gifts their kids and families do not really need, financed by firms all too ready to help satisfy consumers with credit, layaways and high-priced merchandise.

Local examples of stores bucking the trend to open on Thanksgiving are: Babies R Us, Cabela’s, Costco, Game Stop, H&M, Jo-Ann Fabrics, Nordstrom, Pier 1 Imports, Petco, REI, Sam’s Club, Staples and TrueValue. Additionally, REI has courageously decided employees and family life are more important than opening on Black Friday. According to, a professional human resources organization, “most businesses (76 percent) plan to be closed on the day after Thanksgiving, Friday, Nov. 27.”

Some organizations suggest Black Friday and Cyber Monday lessen charitable giving at this time of year. A national effort, Giving Tuesday (, has arisen to counter these big consumer spending days with charitable giving on Dec. 1. It’s been building steam, now claiming a 470 percent increase in online donations since 2012, and counts more than 30,000 partners in 68 countries. Clearly an effort like this cannot hope to cultivate  the level of awareness among consumers generated by the  advertising efforts of ravenous retailers.

The evening before Thanksgiving, the Interfaith Council of Anchorage will hold its annual Thanksgiving Gathering at First Congregational Church at 7 p.m., featuring music and reflections from Anchorage’s many faith traditions followed by a reception with light snacks.

Muldoon Community Assembly ( is the only church I located offering family and friends dinner and a wide variety of activities throughout the day on Thanksgiving Day. Activities start with karaoke at 11 a.m., and dinner is served at noon. This reflects the true spirit of early Thanksgivings celebrated by the pilgrims.

When I caught up with senior pastor, the Rev. Kent Redfearn, I discovered it goes deeper than that. He grew up in Barrow, where he learned the importance of feasts, recalling several times a year the whole village stopped and had a feast. Moving to Anchorage for ninth grade, he noted a lack of feasting. Everyone seemed to be isolated in their homes for holidays like Thanksgiving. Redfearn related that the Bible notes seven feasts, and joined this to the Inupiat feast concept. He further noted the New Testament contains accounts of Jesus performing miracles at feasts, where everyone was included.

“The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray starts with ‘our,’ not ‘I,’” Redfearn said. “The Father, Son and Holy Spirit was the first community, and the essence of faith is to live that type of community. The theology of ‘at table’ is powerful. In Psalm 23, it says ‘Thou preparest a table before me.’” Muldoon Community Assembly is to be commended for its inclusiveness and community sharing. Wouldn’t it be great to see a few more churches following its fine example?

According to  Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, donations have been down substantially, despite an ongoing need for gloves, hats, hand-warmers, and socks due to the cold temperatures. Coffee, tea and toilet paper are especially needed. They’ve started offering hot oatmeal in the mornings when normally a cold breakfast is served. Additionally, an afternoon snack of soup for core intake is being offered. They expect to serve up to 1,200 meals starting at 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Over 80 people have been sheltering overnight at Bean’s, where 400 meals are served for breakfast. Bean’s posts critical needs on on Thursdays.

“We couldn’t keep our doors open without the support of the community,” says Lisa. “If you’re unable to drop off donated items directly at Bean’s, they can also be dropped off at Tastee Freez (at Jewel Lake and Raspberry roads) or SoYo Yogurt Shoppe on Huffman Road. You can also donate funds online.”

The Downtown Soup Kitchen serves lunches Monday through Friday. “This year DSK is very thankful that we can provide a cold weather shelter for homeless women starting Nov. 30,” Sherrie Laurie, executive director, says “It has been a long process to get the permitting to do this but we are finally ready to open and provide a warm, safe shelter for these women.”

Other religious organizations also provide meals and shelter for those needing assistance: Brother Francis Shelter, Gospel Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. Your financial help is critical at this time as well.

I’m pleased with the strides the Anchorage faith and nonprofit community has taken to provide assistance to all over the Thanksgiving holiday.

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)

Alaska’s clergy turnover problem

I recently revisited a local mainline church I’ve attended off and on for the past eight years. A new team of clergy — including people I’d never met — was leading. During the service, I began remembering different faces I’d known and heard in years past at this church; three permanent senior pastors, and two interim pastors who each served a year during the transition. Five pastors in eight years is not a great track record. Admittedly, the first of the five pastors to leave had been there for a few years prior to transitioning into a new role in local governance, but tragically this church averaged 1.6 years per pastor for the years of my attendance.

Church researchers say five is the magic number of years for a pastor to start becoming effective, and five to 14 years is the period of their greatest effectiveness. Lifeway researcher Thom Rainer, addressing pastoral tenure, writes, “Pastors generally don’t stay long at churches. The average tenure is between three and four years. But, as our research has shown consistently, longer tenure is needed for church health. Longer tenure does not guarantee church health, but a series of short-term pastorates is typically unhealthy.” ( I believe this is a serious issue demanding attention from many of the churches I visit.

It’s also typical for many churches to use interim pastors for 12-18 months while a pastoral search is underway. Not all interims are good for churches stressed with the loss of their pastor for one or more reasons. Sometimes congregations discover their current pastor isn’t meeting their needs, ultimately asking them to move on. Their interim may or may not meet their needs before a new pastor is secured. Often interims have a difficult task of keeping things steady but not committing to programs and projects, which may impede a new pastor. As a case in point, I developed a consulting report at no expense for an interim pastor addressing a number of key deficiencies. They did not begin to address these issues until the new pastor arrived, even though a number of them were hurting the church, and still do. I fear most good church consulting is buried before it can do much real good.

I reached out to several church administrators to get a handle on the difficulties of short-term pastorates. It’s not an easy issue to solve. Sometimes the issues are beyond their control. For example, one evangelical church organization head said the average tenure in his statewide group is four years, saying it’s a problem with his denomination, but especially in Alaska.

Another church administrator, Rev. Carlo Rapanut, superintendent of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, notes three dynamics at play in Alaska.“United Methodist clergy are appointed for a year at a time. Even long-term UMC pastorates are yearly reappointments; The United Methodist Church also believes in pastoral longevity and subscribes to the outcome of the research that pastoral effectiveness is between years 5-14. Relating this to my first point, if pastors are effective in their settings and there is not a ‘greater need’ for them elsewhere, they are ‘retained’ in their appointment. However, this decision is revisited on a yearly basis; All our clergy appointed to churches here are from elsewhere in the Lower 48 and hold their clergy membership in annual conferences outside of Alaska. The Alaska Conference, being a missionary conference, does not have clergy membership. In layman’s terms, one might say that the clergy here are ‘on loan’ for missionary service from their home conferences. When their home conference Bishop deems it necessary for them to go back home and take a church in their home conference, then they move. When they feel like their time in Alaska has come to an end, then they ask for a move. When there is a change in family needs and dynamics (kids going to college, grandkids being born, elderly parents needing care, etc.), then people ask to move. Very few have moved within Alaska to another church.”

I appreciate Rev. Carlo’s frankness. Sometimes there are issues seemingly beyond the  control of local pastors and church organizations. A pastor friend at another evangelical church in Anchorage had difficulty retaining an assistant pastor from Outside, due to pushback on the part of his wife, who was not charmed by Alaska. Admittedly, Alaska has its strengths, but also weaknesses.

Reaching out to Dr. Mike Proctor, executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention, I asked how retention fared among its constituency. He confirmed my understanding that Southern Baptist congregations call/hire their pastors independent of the convention or denomination. Proctor explains, “In the denominational structure of Southern Baptists, each entity (local congregation, association, state convention and national convention) is autonomous and able to make their own decisions. While we are independent, we are also interdependent and work cooperatively in areas of mutual concern.”

Commenting on Baptist pastoral longevity, he said, “Of the approximately 120 congregations affiliated with the Alaska Baptist Convention, 17 of our pastors have served 15 years or longer, and 18 have served less than three years with the others in between. I am convinced that our pastors tend to stay longer because of the decision-making being on the local level and not denominationally driven.”

Some denominations select pastors for their churches, while others allow churches to select their own. In either case, short-term pastors are not good for churches, even as interims. Unfortunately, ministry has assumed a career, or professional, status, for many pastors — a far cry from the early church. Many divinity schools across the U.S. turn out pastoral candidates by the tens of thousands, where demand is weak, creating pastoral churn. Churches must choose pastors wisely to avoid the short-term church-weakening muddle.

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)

Are we really through with religion in Anchorage?

The other night I visited a local church for a music extravaganza where I was taken aback by statements I heard about religion. The onstage announcer said several times they didn’t follow religion, but were driven by Jesus Christ. And all the people said amen, vociferously shouting their approval. I know many of those present came from churches organized around strong religious principles. It started my thinking about what religion really is. Most dictionary definitions of religion are stated along these lines: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” It was interesting that many songs sung that night expressed those same thoughts. Maybe it’s a problem of whipped up enthusiasm for a false idea, or liking to hear the sound of one’s own voice. What do you think?

Many of the faith traditions represented in this interfaith gathering fall under the umbrella of religion and religious traditions. Some of them are extremely strict and unyielding regarding the issues swirling in religion today. Oops, there’s that word again.

In a recent Odyssey Networks article by Jaime Clark-Soles, a New Testament professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, raised similar questions. First, she noticed the ignorance and intolerance of other religions around the world, then suggested readers Google this phrase — “Christians protest mosques.” I was shocked by the flood of news stories about anti-Muslim protests, primarily in the U.S.

Dr. Clark-Soles then posed these questions. “Is it possible to fully embrace my religious tradition, to be able to articulate eloquently what is distinctive and true, and holy and meaningful, and beautiful and life-giving and even genius about it without denigrating or playing off of another one? Does my tradition have to be superior to another in order to be true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Does it have to be the only one that conveys what is true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Do we have to compete, or can we cooperate?”

What I heard the other night was a case for exceptionalism, accompanied by 100-decibel music that left my ears ringing.

I see this dialogue play in our community in other ways, ways that involve dignity, charity and human rights. The latest Pew Research released this week, “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” another cut of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which goes into depth regarding the evolution of religious faith here in the U.S. found people of faith are slightly more accepting of LGBT adherence, but are declining to self-identify with specific religions. The rise of the “nones,” atheists and those not identifying with any specific religion is attributed to the influence of millennials and dying of older generations. However, researchers found “a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape. … Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. Indeed, by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago.”

Absolute certain belief in God showed a major drop from 71 percent to 63 percent from 2008 to 2014. The “silent generation” and baby boomers are in the 70th percentile while millennials are only in the 50th percentile in this measure. Part of the millennial position may be due to the narcissistic tag they’ve inherited. A recent Time magazine article expanded this theme. “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982. They’re so convinced of their own greatness that the National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60 percent of millennials in any situation is that they’ll just be able to feel what’s right.”

Contrary to the outburst against religion I described at the beginning of this column, the Pew survey indicates two-thirds of religiously affiliated adults say religion is “very important” in their lives, and one-quarter of them also say religion is “somewhat important” in their lives.

There has also been no decline in religiously affiliated adults who say they pray daily, 65 percent in 2008 and 66 percent in 2014. Attendance at religious services shows little change as well with 2007 weekly attendance at 46 percent and 2014 weekly attendance at 45 percent. Christians as a subset showed 66 percent in 2007 and 68 percent in 2014.

By most measures — importance of religion in their life, frequency of prayer, frequency of religious service attendance, and belief in God or a universal spirit — analysis of the data shows the “nones” are becoming more secular.

Finally, study data clearly shows most Americans see organized religion as a force for good in American society. In fact, 89 percent of adults indicate churches and other religious institutions “bring people together and strengthen community bonds,” while 87 percent say they “play an important role in helping the poor and needy,” and 75 percent say they “protect and strengthen morality in society.”

I believe the outburst against religion was misplaced and ill-timed. We’ve a long way to go in Anchorage before taking such strong stands against religion. One of the purposes of this column is to expose the community to the multifaceted ways belief is expressed in our community. More cooperation and less dissension ensures the strength of our community through the practice of religion.

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)