Monthly Archives: February 2016

If you don’t already observe Lent, consider giving traditions a try

Two and a half weeks ago, Lent began for a large portion of Christianity with Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches begin observing Lent on March 13). Some local Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal clergy brought “ashes to the people” in downtown Anchorage that day. I applaud this approach because it brings clergy to the people, instead of people expecting to have to go to clergy. This may be Christianity at its best.

“Sharing ashes on the street is an opportunity for Christians to practice very public theology, said participant Nico Romeijn-Stout, pastor of discipleship and social justice at St. John United Methodist Church and one of those clergy. “Our practice was to take a moment with each person asking their name and how we can be in prayer with and for them. Even in a short moment a relationship was formed. What was striking for me was that the only people who received ashes from me were a couple of homeless men. One said that he hadn’t been ‘blessed’ in years. When we take the risk to do ministry with people where they are, we meet Christ in profound ways.”

Taking “ashes to the street” did not substitute for the Ash Wednesday services those clergy later held in their own churches.

Many Catholic clergy feel ashes should be applied in the church as a rite.

“We take ashes to the homebound, but the distribution of ashes is best done in the sacred assembly at Mass,” said St. Benedict’s Rev. Leo Walsh. “Catholics understand Lent, and all the associated rites, as a communal act of penance by the whole believing community. “It’s possible those attitudes may change over time, as I’m noticing an increasing numbers of news stories of Catholic and Episcopal clergy taking ashes to the street.

Regardless of how one receives their ashes, on the street, in bed, or at church, this rite is an awe-inspiring moment in which one can take stock and recognize we’re mortal and will return to dust.

During my personal preparation for Lent I came across an excellent guide prepared by the Society of St. Andrew, which sponsors a gleaning ministry for food rescue and feeding the hungry. The society’s 44-page downloadable PDF guide offers a wealth of Scripture, reflections, and prayers for Lent.

During Lent many churches host extra evening services or other activities.

First Congregational Church is conducting Tuesday evening Taizé-style services at 5:30 p.m. through March 22. The services will include music, chants, times of silence and readings from the Bible and other sources, but no sermons or discussion.

Many more churches’ Lent activities are offered on Wednesday evenings. Central Lutheran Church has soup suppers, study, and a service through March 16. All Saints Episcopal Church offers a soup supper at 6 p.m. followed by a lesson on spiritual gifts. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is having Lenten soup suppers at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion on the intersection of Lenten themes and immigration. First United Methodist Church is serving Lenten suppers through March 30 at 6 p.m. with a Lenten study following. Anchorage Lutheran Church offers Lenten worship at 7 p.m. with supper at 6 p.m. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church provides a soup supper and fellowship at 5:45 p.m. followed by Holden Evening Prayer worship at 6:30 p.m. Joy Lutheran in Eagle River serves a soup supper at 6:15 p.m. followed by Lenten worship at 7 p.m. Much can be learned from partaking of these simple suppers, and the brief services connected with them. It’s a time for personal growth.

Instead of Lenten suppers and services, local Catholics, focus on the exercising what the Rev. Tom Lily calls the three Ts: “Time, talent, and treasure are common terms we use when talking about being good stewards of all God has entrusted to us. How do we generously give a proportionate amount of our time, talent and material resources back to glorify God through serving our neighbor?”

For example, Lent projects in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Lily is the pastor, address all three T’s by supporting Catholic Social Services’ St. Francis Food Pantry. Each member is encouraged to participate in the Knights of Columbus’ “40 Cans 4 Lent” campaign, where 40 cans of food, one for each day of Lent, are donated. Members also donate funds for perishable dairy, fruits and vegetables. parish members also provide hands-on assistance at St. Francis house, as well as actively advocate support for the federal SNAP program through after-church letter-writing efforts.

Local pastor, the Rev. Rick Benjamin, raised in a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition that didn’t observe Lent calls himself a non-Lenter but connects with the custom of fasting and prayer as performed as Lenten tradition.

“Many important decisions in our church’s history, and in my own life, came out of times of dedicated prayer and fasting,” he said. Rick’s local relationships made him aware of the liturgical calendar and Lent. He became intrigued, saying, “Lent was similar to fasting, sort of an extended semifast, and a time of self-denial and preparation for Resurrection Sunday.” His experience with Lent has been positive. He points out, “I have benefited from Lent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other ‘non-Lenters’ like me out there, I suggest you give Lent a try.”

My tradition was also a non-Lent observing one. Over the years, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve been exposed to this meaningful time of the church year dedicated to self-examination and rethinking one’s relationship with God. The music I hear in Lent-observing churches during this time becomes more thoughtful and intense. Like Benjamin, I encourage you to explore Lent, by attending any of the church activities I’ve noted above. I think you’ll be glad you went.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.

Personable follow-up with guests is crucial to churches

The manner in which churches respond to guest visits can determine whether or not those guests make a return visit. This column frequently focuses on how guests are treated at area churches during visits In reality, most church guests decide whether or not they’ll come back based on their perceptions within the first five to eight minutes. But if they stay for the service, afterchurch follow-up can be a critical factor.

In a recent podcast, church consultant Thom Rainer shared what guests have told his organization about how churches should not have followed up with them. I’ve seen some of these in my years of church visits. In this column, I’m using Rainer’s categories to group this follow-up mistakes, but describing my own experiences.

Do not show up unexpected at my house

This has all of the hallmarks of a “cold call,” the dreaded sales technique where a salesman shows up on your doorstep or business wanting to make a sale. I was in sales for a good portion of my career and discovered this was terrible technique.

Once, a local Baptist preacher, his wife and the church secretary showed up on my doorstep unannounced, wanting to be invited in. I was away on a business trip and my then-wife had no desire to discuss anything with them. Despite a previous connection to this church, it was the last straw to me, and certainly for her.

Do not neglect follow-up completely

I’ve visited many of Anchorage’s churches, sometimes filling out guest cards, and often not. Out of hundreds of visits, I’ve had only a couple of churches actually follow up with me in any way at all.  Rainer found out many respondents to this survey had the same experience, and did not return as a result. Several years ago I visited a large fundamentalist church here, and filled out a guest card. I never heard from them. (I later made the acquaintance of a then-member and discovered she wrote their visit thank you cards, but said she did not recall seeing mine.) Incredible! That’s similar to placing a call for home service, and then never hearing back. It’s no different with church. Guest follow-up is critical.

Do not wait a long time to follow-up

Rainer tells of a person who waited for four months before receiving a follow-up. By that time she’d forgotten about the visit, and subsequently never returned. The urgency of follow-up, whether its churches or business calls, is measured in days, not weeks or months. At the minimum, a warm and friendly note from the pastor can go a long way toward establishing a solid connection.

Do not act like a visit is merely obligatory

The church guest should never be left with an impression that a personal visit is obligatory because you just have to do it with every guest. Years ago, I visited a local evangelical church and was contacted by a member who wanted to come over to bring me a plate of cookies, something they did for all new guests. I was incredibly busy traveling statewide in my job, and literally did not have time to meet with him. After repeated calls, the member became exasperated with me and made a rude comment.

Years ago, my then-wife and I visited a church for the first time. We were asked out to lunch and, surprised, said yes. While waiting in the foyer after the service, the husband of the inviting couple let slip they were the “official couple” to ask guests to lunch. We quickly made an excuse and found a delightful meal at our hotel instead.

Do not do hard sells

Many times churches doing guest follow-up visits perform “hard sells” to try to get the guest to affiliate with the church. Some churches are not happy unless they are able to get guests to commit to return and become part of the member structure. If you are pressured, tell your visitors the way you feel and kindly ask them to leave. This type of behavior should not be condoned by any church.

Do not send a form letter or an email

Form letters and emails are disingenuous; they don’t have the ring of authenticity. There are better ways to convey the willingness of the church to be a resource in the life of the guest. That’s why we toss the majority of our junk mail out. If you do use a form response, make sure you’re prepared with a personable follow-up. Once, after visiting a local church, I received a warm form letter from the pastor. I wrote and called him back, but neither yielded results, because his secretary blocked people from reaching him.

Do not ask for money

As unbelievable as this sounds, some churches actually solicit money from guests. It’s totally unacceptable, especially when they are sitting in your congregation. Instead, they should clearly be told, in the bulletin and at the pulpit, they’re not expected to give because they are your guests. Sunday, I visited a Pentecostal church but heard no exception before the buckets, literally, were passed down the rows. It’s even more flagrant when churches ask guests to contribute money in a follow-up visit or  mailing, yet it happens.

Aside from follow-ups, churches can acknowledge their guests by welcoming them from the pulpit, yet many churches neglect to do so. A welcome token, such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, or invitation to lunch with the pastor are also great. Mike Merriner, pastor of Clear Water invites guests to his house for lunch once a month.

The key in all of this is thoughtful Christianity in practice.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.


Does your church overuse Christian jargon?

Jargon infects most groups, but is particularly concerning in religious ones.

Defined as “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand,” jargon can also be thought of as “shoptalk.”

Imagine, for example, you were hospitalized and happened to overhear your doctor tell another, “He had a syncopal episode last night without any evidence of arrhythmia. I don’t think it was vagal but I ordered a 2D echo and holter. I still can’t rule out a vertebrobasilar event.” You’d probably struggle to make sense of what you heard. Yet this is what some church members and all church guests experience on a regular basis; during most of my church visits — regardless of denomination — I hear Christian jargon. (And though this column deals with the problem from a Christian perspective, I’ve heard jargon used in many other religious contexts too.) Jargon needs to be replaced by plain and simple speaking.

This week I’m sharing some clear examples of how religious jargon can confuse and confound many who hear it.

If you were a new church visitor and heard the term “love offering” for the first time, what would you think? Maybe offering oneself in some love ceremony? Yet many churches use this term shamelessly in services and mailings without thinking what it might mean to those who hear it without the benefit of a church background. Sometimes it’s used to describe taking an offering to support a visiting pastor. Or it may be used to signal this is a time to donate for a special gift for the pastor, usually on an annual basis.

And while we’re still on the term love, how about hearing “we just want to love on our pastor” or “love on our kids”? Those phrases give me the willies. One can only imagine what must be going on in the minds of first-time guests, especially with sexual misconduct and pedophilia issues these days. Use plain English, not these code words.

What do you think about when you hear Gospel? Many people use this term in everyday conversation having no idea of what it means, besides saying, “it’s the Gospel truth.” They’ve just heard it before so they’re repeating what they’ve heard. However, Jesus used this term to describe his ministry of reconciling man to God.

How about “washed in the blood”? Have you ever tried to wash anything in blood? The symbolism isn’t readily apparent to those without a Christian background, but it’s commonly heard in many churches, especially evangelical ones. The intent is to say that Jesus’ shed blood purifies us in the sight of God, a ritual cleansing. I’ve heard evangelists repeat this over and over. “Have you been washed in the blood? If you haven’t, why not? This is your chance.” I have visions of people running for the door.

Many churches and pastors use, or overuse, the term “missional.” What does that mean? In a wonderful blog post, titled “Meaningless Church Jargon,” Nadia Bolz Weber, a pastor and author, says, “Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing, or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional. Try it at home. Go ahead. Type that (expletive deleted) and see.” Bolz-Weber is a bit irreverent, but makes an excellent point.

Other examples of frequently recurring Christian jargon are: “the Bible says,” “saved,”  “witness,” “propitiation,” “salvation,” and “make Jesus your Lord and personal Savior.” There are other ways to say these things that clearly communicate to people with  limited knowledge of and exposure to religion. So much church language needs to be unpacked and made clear to people, allowing them to understand what’s intended.

Last Sunday, I heard a wonderful example of a pastor communicating without jargon. Communion was offered to all who attended that day, and the pastor clearly stated how the church believed in open communion, that the elements used, the bread and the wine, were symbols of the ministry of Jesus and were intended for all. He took time to explain their meaning and exactly how they celebrated communion, including how the bread was received and the words that would be spoken in extending the bread and the wine. He explained  use of a common cup of wine and that one could choose alternately, to  dip the bread in a smaller cup of wine, the practice of intinction. All were then invited to celebrate the great feast of communion.

What a loving and thoughtful contrast this was to churches who start serving communion without a word of explanation of what is happening, or even “serve yourself” communion when the “Lord places it upon your heart.” What does that mean?

Just as doctors, as in my opening example, owe patients a clear explanation of the terms they use to describe their condition, pastors and church members should do the same, avoiding the use of jargon in communicating about religion and religious experience. It might make a huge difference to the listener.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.

Ash Wednesday and Lent open the door to sustaining spiritual practices

My first Ash Wednesday service was in Chicago, some 45 years ago. In a new career position, I’d just been trained by someone who’d formerly followed my beliefs, but had discovered the joys of being Episcopalian. Jack, who enjoyed shocking me with belief practices foreign to my way of thinking, encouraged me to join him for Ash Wednesday services at a large Episcopal church. I was invited to receive the imposition of ashes, but, overwhelmed by the music, liturgy and unfamiliar practice, declined, unable to grasp it all.

Since then, I’ve received the ashes and over time, this spiritual practice became very important to me. The service marks the beginning of Lent, and focuses worshippers on Lent’s meaning and relationship to  Easter. Ash Wednesday falls 40 days, plus six Sundays (nonfast days) before Easter, a period based in part on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Services draw on Genesis 3:19, God’s statement to Adam and Eve about the consequences of their sin.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, based on that Scripture verse and traditionally spoken by clergy, as ashes are traced in the form of a cross on one’s forehead. Traditionally ashes were made from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds  (now they’re often purchased from religious supply stores). Lent is a time for prayer, meditation, reflection, repentance, redirection and sometimes fasting, which culminates in Easter. It can be a solemn time for refocusing one’s life.

Some churches offer Lenten services during the week; Sunday sermons focus on Lenten topics. If you don’t have a regular church home, a quick Internet search will turn up many local services. Churches offering Ash Wednesday and Lenten services mainly include Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran. Some Baptist churches are adopting Lenten practices. A North Carolina Baptist Convention article, “Why the Baptist Church Should Celebrate Lent,” is useful, offering ideas for making Lent meaningful. Author Kenny Lamm writes, “In my opinion, unless we truly experience Lent, Easter is not nearly as great a celebration, but for many who have never been exposed to the ‘real’ church calendar, the idea may seem somewhat foreign.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church offers a similar perspective on Lent. “There are many ways of looking at Lent. One is to view it as a spiritual journey into the wilderness,” he said. “The image works well here in Alaska; we are very familiar with going into the actual wilderness. We also know the importance of getting prepared. Few people would head into the Alaskan wilderness without a tent or a sleeping bag or bug dope or food, etc. How you prepare will be determined by the terrain where you are going and the length of the trip. It’s the same with Lent. The time to start preparing is now, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday. The two themes or goals of Lent are repentance/conversion and preparation for the celebration of baptism. We prepare to pursue these goals by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I usually ask folks to plan to do something significant in each of these three areas. It’s also important to remember the essential connection between fasting and almsgiving. Whatever you are abstaining from, you are supposed to take the money you would have spent on that and give it to the poor. Fasting without almsgiving is called a ‘diet’ and is of limited spiritual or practical benefit.”

Consider adopting a practice during Lent to grow as a Christian. Lax in Scripture study? Consider renewing this life-giving habit. Never fed the hungry or visited prisoners? Many church-led opportunities here can help. Need a break from the constancy of your electronic life? One day per week respite, shutting everything down, might be perfect for you. Sound a bit like Sabbath? Maybe it is, i.e. a cessation of all work for an entire 24-hour day. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Lent could establish some significant change in your life.

As in years past, a group of local Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, to impose ashes upon request. One of those pastors, the Rev. Martin Eldred, says, “It gets us out of our comfort zones. Ash Wednesday in church is easier to set up; you wait for people to come. But taking ashes to the people is very visible; it’s good to shake up complacency and bring the Gospel to the people.”

“Taking ashes into Town Square Park and the downtown area reminds everyone we meet that we’re in the same human boat together,” says another Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour. “We are of the same dust and we are destined for the same end. Church buildings (and, sometimes, church leaders) can be barriers. Out in the open, we are there for conversation, for prayers, and for the reminder that we are all dust-made by God, loved by God, returning to God one way or another.”

These pastors aren’t proselytizing, but serving God’s children, reminiscent of the work of Sara Miles, director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. In her book “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” Sara tells of taking ashes to the people on Ash Wednesday.

“God meets God’s people all over the place: by the side of a lake, in a city square, an upstairs room, a manger, a burning bush, a human body,” she told National Catholic Reporter. “The idea that liturgy should only happen inside church buildings is fairly recent: in fact, faith is practiced everywhere, in homes and public places as well as in temples. Taking ashes outdoors is just one example of contemporary worship beyond the building: you could also look at street churches, unhoused congregations, outdoor processions and vigils.”

I encourage you to explore Lent and its many meanings.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.