Monthly Archives: May 2016

Short-term missions have problems. Here’s an alternative

Last week I wrote about the flood of missions tourists coming into Alaska, and those who are leaving Alaska with the same goal in mind. Since then I’ve had an opportunity to speak with a missions representative from Africa visiting Anchorage to support the mission efforts of Faith Christian Community.

But before I share more about Faith Christian Community, it’s important to set the framework.

In his compelling 2011 book “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It),” Robert Lupton wrote: “In the last fifty years, (Africa) has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid. How effective has this aid been? Country by country, Africans are far worse off today than they were a half century ago. Overall per-capita income is lower today than in the 1970s. Over half of Africa’s 700 million population lives on less than $1 a day. Life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels.” Lupton argues that this scenario resulted from created dependency and the destruction of personal initiative, due in part to government aid programs, well-meaning NGOs and missions programs. He also links this to U.S. efforts to eliminate poverty through entitlements, programs and charities, “creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work.”

Many Protestant denominations in Alaska host missions teams, primarily from the Lower 48, to work on churches, ministries and church camps. Often, these well-meaning individuals perform work for which congregations could and should be directly taking  responsibility, but create dependencies because the local attitude is that someone will always do it.

David George, director of missions for the 54-church Chugach Baptist Association (Southern Baptist), calls these groups “partners.” Cleaning up on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers or in Kodiak at the Crab Festival Outreach are important activities for their group of churches.

“In the summer these teams help us in 16 neighborhood parks where we feed children a healthy lunch (they don’t get school lunch in the summer) and conduct Bible Clubs afterwards. Our newer and smaller churches count on the mission teams to help them in promotion, prayer walking and the ministry at the parks,” said George.

“Along with the physical help, the teams bring financial resources that help our small and financially struggling congregations,” he added. “Without their financial assistance, we could not do the ministries noted.”

Some short-term missioners, here and in foreign countries, expect to be tourists, which creates problems. George noted that they’ve experienced this too.

“The only time a mission team has been a hindrance or problem is when they come and expect the local church to host their sight-seeing trip to Alaska. We know those on teams want to experience Alaska and we help them plan a day or two for that, but we need them to work while they are here,” he said. “Some teams, and only a very few, come expecting to be catered to and the churches be a guide for their Alaska vacation. When teams act this way, we make a mental note and never invite them back again.”

That happens in foreign short-term missions too. Many teams are more interested in local sightseeing than the mission itself.

Dayo Obewaya, who is based in Nigeria and serves as the West Africa area coordinator for Community Health Evangelism, told me some ridiculous tales of “short-term missionaries” who were uneasy with local food, water and housing accommodations in the countries he covers. Some went so far as to refuse to drink local water, requiring it be imported from Great Britain — clearly not an inexpensive proposition.

Last year, Southern Baptists announced cutbacks of 600-800 foreign missionaries and support staff due to financial shortfalls. Earlier this year, the total lost was revealed to be 1,132 missionaries. I wonder if any of this is due in part to short-missions adventuring by Southern Baptists, leading to a decline in giving. The saddest part of this story is that many were already the most seasoned, knew the landscape and had made the commitment to serve.

Over the past couple of years, Faith Christian Community has trained more than 100 members in their community health evangelism program, part of the Global CHE Network. They equip local members to serve in their own community, and, if God calls, to other parts of the world. CHE is a worldwide program with training at its core. It addresses poverty in all its forms (physical health, economic, spiritual and social). Obewaya networks with mission organizations and churches in West Africa and beyond. I think CHE and Faith Christian Community have discovered part of the solution and have already put it to work in our local community. I wish more churches were as Alaska-focused as they are.

I’ve come to the conclusion that most branches of Christianity contend with short-term missions problems. Alaska is spectacular and more convenient for Lower 48 churches than other destinations. As such, it is a magnet for people who desire to do a “mission” because it’s such a great place. However, the resources most useful here may not be those being provided. How many come to Alaska to serve without an adequate knowledge of our cultures and their differences from those of the Lower 48? How many think that showing local churches money, hard labor and service projects will rectify our dismal church attendance rate of 1 in 4 attending weekly?

As with foreign-directed short-term missions, we need to seriously think about what is accomplished by missions in Alaska. Is it adventurism, tourism or patching issues? How much good can one week in Alaska accomplish? Proselytizing, or sheep stealing, is clearly not the answer and has provoked distress in many villages. Thoughtful training and preparation of local members, such as at Faith Christian Community, might possibly be the best answer.

About the Author

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who has been visiting Anchorage and other local area churches for over 15 years. Go to his website,, or follow him on Twitter  at or email at

Why short-term mission trips may do more harm than good

Lately I’ve looked at many websites displaying glowing advertisements for short-term missionary activities in Alaska this summer. Many offer a variety of outdoor pursuits, including fishing, boating, wilderness treks and hiking. One featured missionary duties such as cleaning up after messy user who trashed the lower Kenai and Kasilof Rivers with all manner of waste. Is this truly what missionary activity is all about?

It’s intriguing this particular mission’s participants pay $650, plus airfare, to have this experience. Is that what the Gospel is all about? Do atheists, Buddhists, Muslims or Jews do this as well?

Another type of missionary activity is where local churchgoers leave Alaska for other parts of the world to serve on short-term mission trips. A large local church group will shortly depart for South Africa, an expensive trip. What’s really going on here? In a paper published in the journal Trends and Issues in Missions, Liberty University professor Don Fanning makes a powerful case that short-term missions can create dependencies and problems among the very people short-term missionaries are supposed to be helping. South Africa, like Alaska, is about 80 percent Christian.

Church attendance, a key measure of religiosity, shows South Africa’s weekly church attendance at 56-60 percent per week, while recent Gallup data shows Alaska weekly attendance ranks it in the bottom 10 states, with 26 percent attending weekly. The mission field is here in Alaska, as I’ve argued before, not other areas of the world. Many local churches are missing the boat: local member involvement is critical.

The mission trip I mentioned earlier is advertised at this way: “At Salmon Frenzy, we will host service projects for Alaskan residents camping out on Cook Inlet beaches at the Kenai River and Kasilof River. Thousands of Alaskans are dip-netting sockeye salmon as an annual family event. Our ministry approach is gentle servanthood and need-meeting through various methods: Kids Clubs, Bounce Houses, Prayer Walking, Traffic Control, Trash Pick-up and serving free hot dogs, water and hot cocoa. Share Christ in personal, relational ways. We engage the public in secular forum through servant evangelism.”

I’m sure local governments love these money-saving activities. But why are Alaskans and Outside tourists not held responsible for caring for our environment?

Struck by a phrase on that website regarding the demographics of people they serve, I asked the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, Bishop of Sitka and Alaska in the Orthodox Church in America, (formerly Russian Orthodox) for his reaction. He said, “In general, these are Protestants who want to ‘convert’ the poor Natives who are not Christian by their standards. On the website, they specifically state that they are there to convert ‘Agnostic, Russian Orthodox, hints of Shamanism and some Christian influence.’ Note the specific attack on the ‘Russian Orthodox’ as if they are not Christian. This is pure arrogance on their part. On another web page they add ‘Catholics’ to their targets.”

Mahaffey, further decrying this proselytizing, says, “What they are doing is downright sinful in my eyes. The very idea that they have a ‘truer’ faith than the Orthodox Christian Faith is both pretentious and false. If you want proof of the damage done by these groups, just look at the statistical evidence since the arrival in Alaska of the Sheldon Jackson missionary/teachers. The attempt to ‘Westernize’ these ‘ignorant’ Native peoples was based on a complete misunderstanding of their culture and religion. The Russians came and gave them a written language, educated them and treated them as equals, quite a different approach than that used by Jackson’s minions. Not only this, but as you may be aware, in our church in Kenai is a document from Catherine the Great addressed to the Russians who came to Alaska. Part of that document tells them about how to treat the Natives and it is quite different than that of the U.S. representatives.”

I resonate with Mahaffey’s concerns. The mentioned practices continue and amount to “sheep stealing.” Many Alaska villages are too small to support the plethora of churches denominations establish, a divisive and confusing practice for villagers.

Orthodox Church in America sends summer teams to Alaska to repair churches and rectories, and provides vacation bible school teaching in villages. Local Orthodox priest, the Rev. Michael Oleksa, commenting on these mission teams says, “The problem with this ‘help’ is that often they do what the locals could have done for themselves, developing a village attitude that they don’t have to take care of these needs because someone else, from somewhere else, will do it for them. Of course, if the village is itself short of manpower, this is unavoidable, (like repainting the spirit houses in Eklutna). But when there are hundreds of able-bodied men in the town who could have easily repaired the church themselves, this can become an issue of dependence.” A true statement in Alaska and the rest of the world.

A Catholic group from Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, a 1,000-family parish in Herrin, Illinois uniquely serves here approximately every fourth summer. This year they’re bringing 66 people, aged 14-18, to work locally. Group leader Jeff Goffinet shares, “Each of the trips has been a remarkable experience for our young people. Coming from Southern Illinois, we have nothing to compare to the Alaskan lifestyle. However, service is universal. While in Anchorage, we have had young people work both in nature and serving those in need. While the experiences are widely different, they have been awesome. We have helped clear downed trees in Earthquake Park, served food at Beans Café, and helped in various homeless shelters. All have been meaningful to our youth.” They’ll be sleeping on the floor of Lumen Christi’s gym. What a great example!

They also make their own arrangements. Meanwhile, many mission websites are commercial. Goffinet says they tried one such group last year. “Every year, except last year, we plan our own trip. We make our own arrangements, we do our own budgeting, we feed ourselves, etc. Last year, for the first time, we used a commercial company. We were very disappointed. Money was not going to the clients who needed it, and we were clearly not wanted to work as hard as we did. Any chore we finished meant that they had to find more work for groups coming in after us. I’m sure not every group that sponsors these kinds of trips is like that, but I will certainly be very unlikely to use those kinds of groups in the future.”

Next week, I plan to write about Protestant summer mission activities in Alaska.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

Visiting Anchorage? There’s a plethora of worship services to sample and savor in our diverse city

Alaska receives more than 1 million visitors each summer. If you are a person of faith, you can locate many worship options in our community. All major religions are represented. Our churches meet in places ranging from beautiful cathedrals to school facilities and shopping malls. There are many ways to locate interesting churches here. In this column I’m sharing a few of these ways and offering pointers for enriching your stay in our beautiful city.

Finding a Church:

The internet is usually the easiest way to find a church. Leaning toward a particular denomination? Search for the denomination and Anchorage. You will find many choices. Be cautious about selecting churches where the pastor and church’s pictures are the main pictures shown. Unfortunately, some of those church pastors and members seem to be prouder of themselves and the church building, than of their  members’ hard work exercising their faith in the community. Conversely, pictures of church members at worship, play and community service speak volumes compared to sermons or grand church buildings.

Beware of church websites showing only pictures of the splendors of Alaska’s mountains, lakes, rivers and other vistas. From my extensive church visiting experience, many of these churches have forgotten their mission. Some churches mistakenly believe Facebook is their new webpage. If you encounter one of those listings, move on, as they’re out of touch with the purpose of social media; it’s not intended to replace church websites; both are important.

The Matters of Faith page in Alaska Dispatch News, on which you find this article, contains notices of various church offerings, often not just those pertaining to the Christian faith. You may be able to find a special event or service of note by perusing the listings of this community service. I’ve often found a service there of which I’d not been aware.

On my blog, I’ve posted a list of 10 local churches I consider to be safe choices for first-time visitors seeking warm, welcoming worship services. In that list, I evaluate various service aspects to help you choose a great church. During many years of visiting churches, I’ve looked for and evaluated churches by four distinct criteria. First, I look for a warm and friendly greeting. Next, I quickly determine if this church was hospitable or not. Was the sermon delivered in a “listenable” manner and did I learn some new truth from it? Finally, was the music a big show or entertainment, or did it appropriately support the sermon theme? Too often, many modern churches present 30-45 minutes of earsplitting, high-decibel music that jangle eardrums and senses. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Alaska’s Orthodox  churches pleasingly incorporate music and liturgy for the entirety of their service.

Churches worthy of visits for outstanding features

All of the churches listed below have an unusual feature or two worth going out of the way for. Check with the church office to inquire if they’re accessible for viewing outside of worship hours; many also have explanatory pamphlets.

Holy Family Cathedral

This downtown Roman Catholic cathedral was the site of a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1989 during his trip to Anchorage. They recently installed six beautiful stained glass windows made in Bavaria in 1889 and rescued from a shuttered church. An instant local treasure, they’re a tribute to congregation and clergy desiring to place beautiful reminders of the Gospel story into their worship space. Newly restored Stations of the Cross are also now in place.

First Presbyterian Church

The modern architecture of this downtown church houses a fantastic wall of stained glass. Composed of dalle, or slab glass panels, this wall of light and color is filled with spiritual themes; a wonder to behold.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Sited among the high-rises of downtown, this small church houses beautiful stained glass panels on three of the four sanctuary walls. Sen. Ted Stevens lay in repose here before his funeral.

Resurrection Chapel – Holy Spirit Center

This upper Hillside Catholic chapel offers 180-degree views of the mountains to the west and north of Anchorage. The view of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, is breathtaking here.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Sweeping vistas of the Chugach and Kenai mountains are offered from their east and south facing sanctuary windows. A wonderful Bach-type organ in the sanctuary is used on Sundays.

St. John United Methodist Church

The Rev. David Fison at United Methodist carved two totems, representing several Christian traditions, during his pastorate in Southeast Alaska. One, a replica erected outside, depicts the Christmas story. The other, also in replica outside, depicts the Easter story, while the original, more than 20 feet tall, is inside the sanctuary of this lower Hillside church.

United Methodist Church of Chugiak

If you’d like to see Denali through a church window, there’s no better place to see it than in this church. With floor to ceiling glass facing Denali, it’s a delightful way to worship God, bringing nature right into the church.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church – Eklutna

A short drive north of Anchorage is the small Alaska Native village of Eklutna where you’ll find an old log Russian Orthodox Church, a graveyard with traditional native spirit houses, and a new Orthodox church. Guided tours are available, and donations are requested for maintenance and upkeep.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This Russian style cathedral contains beautiful iconography and is a delight to visit.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

Housing a diverse congregation, this new basilica style church contains icons that are a part of this ancient faith. If you are here during August, the congregation’s  Alaska Greek Festival, with music, food, and dancing, is not to be missed.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral – Eagle River

Located in a quiet area north of Anchorage, this striking Antiochian Orthodox cathedral is a beautiful site for pictures externally, and internally a feast for the eyes of architecture and icons. While there, look for the small chapel, St. Sergius of Radonezh Chapel, a short hike away from the main cathedral.

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 to or click here to submit via any web browser.

Reflections on Orthodox Easter

Easter celebrations for this year are now past. I started the week observing Palm Sunday at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Yakima, Washington. I was truly treated as a guest. The week ended with Pascha (pah-ska) services early Sunday morning. Attending similar services at Holy Transformation Greek Orthodox Church and St. John Orthodox Cathedral, I sought to witness the joy experienced by those of the Orthodox faith at this peak experience of their church year. (Unfortunately, timing precluded my attending an Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) service.)

I believe Orthodox Lenten practices, termed Great Lent, are more intense than most of their counterparts in Western Christianity. Adherence to feasting and fasting is markedly different than in Catholicism and other Lent-observing traditions in Western Christianity.

Fasting, prescribed during the Orthodox church year, is most obvious during Great Lent. Originating early in the Christian church, fasting continued practices the Jews had previously followed.

In the Orthodox tradition, fasting means not eating certain foods, during specific days, or periods. Abstaining from other practices, such as marital relations or entertainment, may also be an implicit part of fasts. The focus is on clearing the mind and drawing closer to God, a practice rooted in antiquity. During the first week of Great Lent total fasting is observed weekly, Monday through Wednesday.

“From the second through the sixth weeks of Lent, the general rules for fasting are practiced,” explains the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. “Meat, animal prod­ucts (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard), fish (meaning fish with backbones), olive oil and wine (all alcoholic drinks) are not consumed during the weekdays of Great Lent. Octopus and shell-fish are allowed, as is vegetable oil. On weekends, ol­ive oil and wine are permitted.” According to the Orthodox Church in America, “The Great Feasts (major feasts) of the Orthodox Church are the major celebrations throughout the liturgical year. While various saints and events are celebrated with significance on the local level, the entire Church celebrates together thirteen feasts above all the rest, Pascha and the Twelve Great Feasts.” (The term “feasts” here designates major celebrations during the church year, not a meal.)

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church was the site of my first Pascha. At 11:30 p.m. Saturday, I found the Vigil of Holy and Great Pascha underway with prayers and singing. Around midnight the Orthros of the Resurrection began in darkness. A candle flame, lit by the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, went from person to person until the entire congregation held lit candles. Clergy, celebrants, and congregation processed outside with banners, icons, candles, and the Gospel, and gathered in the courtyard. After the Gospel reading and singing, Hillhouse pounded on the church door with a mallet demanding entrance. A shouted conversation, based on Psalm 24 took place with a challenging interlocutor inside asking, “Who is the King of Glory.” Vasili responded with “The Lord, strong and mighty.” At St. John Orthodox, the service started at 4 a.m. We proceeded out of the church around 4:15 a.m. led by the Rev. Marc Dunaway who passed the flame for all candles. Instead of gathering in front of the cathedral, all proceeded around the church, returning to stand in front of the now closed doors. Similar singing and readings occurred except Dunaway pounded on the church door with a heavy brass cross. He too had a similar dialogue with an interlocutor inside before we were admitted back into the church.

Once back in the church the service continued with the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, including a reading of his famous homilyduring which all stand. Both services, replete with choirs and cantors interspersing choral and congregational music with the spoken liturgy, lasted several hours. The music was beautiful, and shouts of “Christ is Risen,” “He is risen indeed,” echoed joyfully through both churches. At Holy Transfiguration, Hillhouse handed out the traditional red eggs at the conclusion of the Eucharist. At St. John, Dunaway generously blessed participants and Pascha baskets with splashes of holy water at the conclusion of the service.

Newfound friends, Chris and Allison Lineer asked me to sit with them during the St. John service, allowing me to ask questions as I followed the liturgy with liturgy guides. Several other new friends, John and Lesa Morrison, invited me to a post-Pascha breakfast at their nearby home along with three other younger friends. I was introduced to tasty Pascha foods like kulich, traditional Russian bread, spread with Pascha cheese, hot-cross buns, red eggs and other breakfast fare. We sang the Resurrection troparion, a hymn of the day with words relating to the church calendar day it’s sung upon, before the blessing over the food before eating.

For the Orthodox, the week after Pascha is called Bright Week. Reflecting on Bright Week, Lesa Morrison said, “Bright week means to me: a special week of intense enjoyment of the gift of the Resurrection. It seems to stay more in the forefront of my mind during this week than at other times. Bright Monday always literally and figuratively seems brighter than any other day of the year. It truly seems the sun shines brighter during this week. It is also a time of peace and rest after all the intenseness of Lent, Holy Week, and all the services/celebrations of Pascha.”

“After the exuberant blowout festivity of Pascha, it really is impossible to just shut it off and plunk back into ‘the World’ mode,” John Morrison said. “The cognitive and emotional dissonance would simply be too great. My human weakness will eventually prevail and Satan will continue with his campaign of ceaseless distraction. But at least in Bright Week and the remainder of the Paschal season, the veil between our dark world and the bright realm of heaven seems thinner, and the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ more closely felt.”

By the time I got home Sunday morning, I’d been awake 26 hours and attended two Pascha services. But, exhausted as I was, I too felt the joy and meaning of Pascha, and still feel it. Pascha is truly a memorable and important time of year joyfully celebrated by Orthodox Christians genuine in their beliefs.

More Pascha links, references, and music are posted on my website,

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 to or click here to submit via any web browser.

Orthodox Great Lent and Pascha Information

The following links connect to major Orthodox websites for Pascha information.
Music (this site is maintained by an OCA priest but broadly represents aspects of most Orthodox faiths)

The Troparion in short is a hymn of the day, the words relate to which day in the Church calendar it is sung upon.
This first English variation is the slow version, we sang a faster version Pascha morning for prayers for breakfast. There are 8 tones (melodies) for our music, and many variations that we sing: Byzantine, Georgian, Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, etc. So each is a bit different in melody, but the words are the same. (courtesy of Lesa Morrison)

Holy Pascha Music (from Greek Orthodox site)
Listen to the music used in Pascha with the resources on this website.

Pascha Feast
The Great and Holy Feast of Pascha –

The above site contains informative descriptions, from a Greek Orthodox perspective, of the celebration of Pascha.

Easter Sunday: The Holy Pascha

Orthodox Church in America’s (formerly Russian Orthodox in Alaska) website about Pascha observances.

Great and Holy Pascha

Antiochian Orthodox website describing Pascha from their perspective.

The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom
This sermon is a part of most Pascha services.

Fasting and Great Lent
This Antiochian site describes fasting in general and with a great degree of specifity during Great Lent and ending at Pascha.

Complete Russian Orthodox Pascha Service – 2016
This video, over 3 hours long, shows the Russian Orthodox Pascha service in Moscow earlier this week.  It was attended by the Russian president and illustrates the beautiful blending of music and liturgy during these services.