Tag Archives: Baptist

Greater Friendship Baptist – Warm & Welcoming

Greater Friendship Baptist Church – East Side View

I visited Greater Friendship Baptist Church twice in September (see greaterfriendshipbaptist.org/). This church is not hard to find in its Fairview location at 13th & Ingra. Each time, I was warmly greeted by a number of individuals upon arrival. The first time I was escorted to a pew on the side which offered a view. Several times before the start of their 11 a.m. service, members came up to me, greeting me again and extending my welcome. This is an uncommon experience in most of my church visits. Mostly I get a bulletin and greeting upon entering, and the customary “meet n’ greet” where often true guests are avoided like the plague.

Greater Friendship’s website offers important clues as to their affiliation. “Greater Friendship Baptist Church was founded in the year of our Lord, 1951, thus becoming the first Black church in the state of Alaska. In addition, Greater Friendship Baptist Church was the first Black church in America to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention.”  I was deeply impressed about their status and I’m glad I had an opportunity to experience these worship services.

Their pastor, Michael Bunton, previously served at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, a church destination I’m fond of visiting for their friendliness to guests and each other. Pastor Bunton and his wife, Natalie, who is known as the First Lady, is the 13th pastor of Greater Friendship. First Lady Bunton is heavily involved in their ministry as deaconess, directing their media ministry, choir director, Bible study teacher for elementary and middle school children, and in their women’s ministry.

My latest visit last Sunday, found the church a bit noisier than I remembered from my first visit. It was raucous with loud conversations, laughing, and noise I don’t associate with the commencement of a worship service. When I hear this much noise, I whip out my sound meter to measure the sound level; it was 100 db, equivalent to the sound of a power mower, power drill, blow dryer, subway, helicopter or chainsaw. My point is that’s a marked contrast to the start of a worship service. In fact, Pastor Bunton was going to be talking that day about “A New Approach to Worship”.

At my first visit, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to their choir. Yesterday the choir did not sing. I asked an associate I recognized from the choir why they were not singing. She said they are periodically encouraged to participate in the service from the member pews, which I think is a great idea. For those churches with choirs, I believe few members understand what a significant time involvement and dedication is involved with choir participation. That said, I love the choir’s contribution at this church. Prerecorded music was played during the various parts of the service yesterday, while the choir sang and a small ensemble played at the previous service I attended.

The services tend to follow a “call and response” form of worship, usually led by the pastor. “Can I hear a witness?” or “Give the Lord some praise!” us usually a prelude to a vigorous applause. This is a major theme during all aspects of the service.  The pastor was led in to the platform by a young girl usher. He started the service by leading the singing the old Baptist hymn, “We Have Come Into His House”.  It was a great prelude to his sermon on worship. The youth function as ushers in this church and were ushering people in, handing out fans, and offering tissues to the congregation.

Scripture and prayer was delivered by a woman member who wiped her eyes first because of the emotional beauty of the song just sung. I’ve rarely heard a more sincere and heartfelt prayer, in any of my local church visits, than what she prayed. She was clearly connected to her God.

Like the previous visit, there was a baptism. Baptists practice full immersion water baptism and children and members of the families of those being baptized were invited forward to the platform to witness the baptism. Nine individuals were baptized yesterday by pastor Bunton. Believe it or not, but the early church practiced full immersion baptism until 1311 when the Roman church changed from immersion to pouring.

After the baptism, people were asked to stand and identify themselves if they were visiting. A packet of information about the church was given to each of them. Personally, I think this practice keeps many people from 2nd visits, but it must work for Greater Friendship; it seems to be part of their church DNA.  A  “meet n’ greet” time was then announced, governed by a countdown clock on the monitors, roughly about five minutes. I was warmly greeted by many, although some of those heartfelt crunches were painful for my arthritic thumbs. (Next time I’ll wear a sturdy hand brace.) 

Meet n’ Greet Time – Greater Friendship Baptist

While the offering was taken up, the congregation began to spontaneously sing the traditional gospel song, “I Know it Was the Blood” which in nine verses describes the crucifixion. The pastor joined in with a call and response form of singing. (see lyrics below)

Another prayer was offered at this time, by another woman. It was a spirit-filled prayer that one rarely hears prayed in church services anymore. It was followed by the song “The Battle is not Yours”, sung by a woman who sang sincerely and wonderfully. There is so much talent in this church.

Pastor Bunton Singing – Greater Friendship Baptist

By this time, an hour had passed and it was time for the pastor to speak.  Bunton restated he’d be doing a series on worship, and yesterday’s installment was “What’s Stopping You from Worshiping God?”.  Beginning with Hebrews 10:25, he continued on to pose some key questions about things stopping congregants from worshiping God. He mentioned:

  • don’t feel like it because we’re fearful
  • we’re embarrassed
  • we feel condemnation
  • we feel a lack of worthiness

I enjoy Bunton’s method and style of preaching.  He’s a good speaker and has an easy to follow outline for his thoughts. The monitors display his points, and Bible references to them.  He’s very direct, telling it like it is and does not soften the blows.  He is an encouraging pastor helping his congregation to live a more Christian life, and to grow in the knowledge of the word.  They are putting their youth front and center in Christian service.  He said the solution to many of the problems in their neighborhood was not criticizing the youth, pimps, prostitutes, and addicts, but getting them into the church house and into the Word of God.

You can watch the entire 2-hour service through their Facebook link. Apparently they do not feed the audio from the sound system into the live video so it is incredibly difficult to follow as the microphone must be located in the back of the church. I hope they fix this soon, as I find the feed distracting from and otherwise worthy church service.

Bunton ended each service with an altar call, which ultimately included more than half the church. He mentioned that several people he’d hoped would come up didn’t. I heard Rev Patterson of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church use the same remark at my last visit there.  It’s one of the things that makes me personally leery of altar calls. They come across as being somewhat manipulative.  That’s a hallmark of Southern Baptists and many other evangelical religions.

Overall, I really enjoyed my second visit to this fine, growing church.  I felt more welcomed and accepted there than I do in many of my church visits locally.  They enjoy their music and so do I. If you are ready for a spiritual vitamin B-12 shot, I recommend a visit to this church !

I Know It Was The Blood lyrics

Chris Thompson


Thanksgiving’s a time for thanks—what are you thankful for?

Thanksgiving will be celebrated soon. This started me thinking about local faith community practices at this time of year. Last week, I noted Thanksgiving Blessing, a huge effort by the faith community and the Food Bank of Alaska. It takes many people to make this event a success and I’m thankful for those in our community who lead or participate in these efforts.

The story of the Pilgrims offers a teachable moment.

It’s a familiar story: After a harrowing transatlantic voyage and a disastrous winter, the surviving Pilgrims were grateful for the bounty offered by their first harvest and Native American neighbors.

Although Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, the story of the Pilgrims links it to American faith traditions. Few of us have ever suffered the privations they endured. It is a proper time to truly give thanks, and to teach others the spirit of the day. Some faith communities show their thanks by emulating that early Thanksgiving by incorporating those around them in that practice of celebrating and sharing.

The Pilgrims fled Europe because they were restricted in free practice of their religion, and sought to return to worshiping as they believed the early church did. I’m thankful for the four freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated in 1941 that symbolize what our country represents to the world: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. These were artistically and forcefully expressed by illustrator Norman Rockwell in four paintings, used as covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

Many people in the world do not have these freedoms as we celebrate Thanksgiving. According to Freedom House’s 2016 assessment of liberty, “Of the 195 countries assessed, 86 (44 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 50 (26 percent) Not Free.”

Few non-Catholic churches in Anchorage seem to be offering Thanksgiving services this year (Most Catholic churches do offer Thanksgiving Mass. Check your local schedule for times.). I would guess it’s probably due to preoccupation by families with dinner, football, etc., but many people of faith have found value in using this day to take time to be truly thankful for the gifts God has placed in their lives. And a few churches are offering Thanksgiving dinners prior to Thanksgiving, but just a few.

Clear Water Church, First Baptist Church and Skilled Missions Alaska are embarking on an innovative approach this year. They will be ministering to displaced families with relatives in Providence Alaska Medical Center. They will accomplish this by providing a Thanksgiving meal and fellowship at the Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel House.

For those unfamiliar with Hickel House, it offers an affordable, comfortable “home away from home” for outpatients and their families receiving medical attention at Providence. I think this is an exciting opportunity to show some true Thanksgiving spirit. (If you’d like to participate, call Clear Water member Brian Whitson at 268-8659.)

Joy Christian Center is holding a Thanksgiving service at 7 p.m. followed by a pie social on Thanksgiving Day. It’s located at 4335 Laurel St. A few local churches are offering Thanksgiving services during the week, but I was unable to locate others offering services on Thanksgiving Day through an internet search.

Bean’s Café and Brother Francis Shelter will serve Thanksgiving dinners Thursday. The Downtown Soup Kitchen is closed on Thanksgiving Day. Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission serves Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because People Mover doesn’t run buses on Thanksgiving.

Bean’s, Brother Francis, and the Rescue Mission would sincerely appreciate donations of items such as turkeys, canned vegetables, mashed potatoes, hams and yams to support these special events.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving this coming week, take time to consider things you are truly thankful for. The “Four Freedoms” are a good place to start. Whether or not you are a person of faith, Thanksgiving is an ideal time to pause and reflect on those things for which we are truly thankful.

Merton lecture series was well-attended

The recent Caroline Penniman Wohlforth Lecture Series held at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Nov. 4-6 was well-attended and introduced participants to the prayer and meditative concepts of Thomas Merton. Many people are seeking deeper spiritual relevance and time for reflection in their daily lives.

The Rev. Hugh Grant from Washington state delved into the life of celebrated Trappist monk Thomas Merton in a Friday evening talk to a capacity audience. The lecture, captured by church staff on video, can be viewed at St. Mary’s website. Grant summarized Merton’s life, writings, brief time in Alaska and his relevancy to our everyday lives.

Saturday’s lecture was a time of reflection, training in centering prayer, personal meditation, and practical instruction about how to slow down to perceive God’s speaking to us. Sunday’s lecture focused on observations about what nature can tell us, especially about ourselves.

Coming just days before the election, the lectures offered insights about how to deal with stress and contentious issues. Merton, writing about the spiritual life, said “We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”

A key lecture topic was contemplation and centering prayer. Merton, writing on the subject, said, “Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.”

This lecture series was a gift to the community, and a good number of people took advantage of the opportunity. Thank you, St. Mary’s, and the Wohlforth Lecture Series.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

A welcoming surprise in my neighborhood

When I visit churches, I often find I can enter and leave without anyone greeting or talking with me. This represents discourteous behavior to guests. I believe members or regular attendees perceive this is someone else’s job, taking no personal responsibility for involvement. Entertaining guests in our homes, we personally greet them, making them feel at ease, don’t we? Frequently, I hear members refer to church as their church home. Why then, do so few churches welcome people to their church home?

Before I share some details about the surprise I found in my neighborhood, I want to share a few thoughts of Christian author and social critic Os Guinness. In his recent book “The Last Christian on Earth,” Guinness writes, “We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. All too often we have trumpeted the Gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the Church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential and religious happy talk, each of which is indistinguishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.”

In previous columns, I’ve commented on churches exhibiting some of the same hallmarks Guinness attributes to evangelicals. Personally I’ve seen these behaviors stretch to other strains of Christianity beside evangelicals. Regularly I receive passionate emails from those seeking a truer Christian experience than what they’re finding, describing entertainment-based worship services, churches as businesses, guest-unfriendly congregations, and bland sermons.

In “Shopping for God: How Christianity went from in your heart to in your face,” James Twitchell documents the rise and fall of religious movements over the years, many of which were pure “sell jobs.” He summarizes by writing, “Who knows where the long and winding road of American Protestantism is going? Certainly not me. But it seems likely that it will retrace the same terrain over and over again, losing steam as it becomes repetitious and then recharging as it gloms on to some new delivery system. When this happens, we’ll think we are becoming more religious, but in truth religiosity is simply becoming more compelling as it shifts media to appeal to consumers once again.”

Which brings me to last Sunday’s surprise. Biking in my new neighborhood, I passed a Baptist church, one I’d never visited. Intrigued by the “independent” in its name, I made a mental note to visit them in the near future. I’ll admit I don’t eagerly visit Baptist churches because many of them use the same format, and guest-friendly is not the first term that comes to mind when I visit. Sometimes I’ve been ignored, while at other times subjected to hellfire and damnation sermons, and endless altar calls. Now I realize some of this is what I call denominational DNA, but it’s off-putting to a first-time guest. I hoped this visit would not be a replay of some of those previous visits.

As my usual practice, I timed my arrival to enter the church about 10 minutes before the start of services. Its website prominently listed service times, something not all churches do. However, their address, which I already knew, was at the bottom of the webpage, which is not guest-friendly; it should be at the top on any church site. Service times and location are the two main things potential guests seek.

Plenty of parking was available as I arrived; I slipped into a nonvisitor space. There were about three visitor parking spaces in front of the church, clearly marked. I noticed there were additional open spaces to the right of the visitor parking which, if intended, is an additional guest-friendly gesture.

As I entered the doors someone said hi. Going up the steps to the sanctuary level, I was greeted by a man named Roy who offered his name first, a guest-friendly practice. I responded with my name. Spotting me as a guest, he invited me to sign the guest-book, indicating no one would call on me. I mentioned that was not my experience and preferred not to do so, whereupon he seamlessly shifted to offering to find me a seat even though the church was not full. I believe this was the only time in all my local church visits someone offered to see me to my seat. This is very guest-friendly, relieving anxiety about sitting in “someone’s seat,” a fear of many guests.

Several people stopped to greet me before the service started, including the pastor who introduced himself as “pastor McGovern” (I later learned his first name was Terry). This is so rare, I almost fainted. Just kidding. But few pastors tend to do this.

The service began with a hymn, started first by the choir and then joined by the congregation. A color guard came in with a U.S. flag, a Christian flag and a man holding a Bible. In turn, the congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Christian pledge and Bible pledge. This was another first in all my churchgoing. A man dressed in a sailor suit gave an inspirational reading and sang a special song. During the service, the congregation sang three hymns, all accompanied by piano. People really sang. A wide variety of ages were represented by this congregation.

The sermon was delivered extemporaneously about the Christian principles upon which our founding fathers established our country, and supported by Scripture. You can watch replays atibca-alaska.org/messages. Their sermons are also live-streamed. The pastor concluded with an altar call, after which a final hymn was sung and church dismissed. Announcements revealed this to be an active church with many activities involving all ages. All were invited to lunch at the church following the service. As I was departing the church, pastor McGovern went out of his way to say goodbye. The component themes I seek in my church visits were all present last Sunday. I really enjoyed seeing so many guest-friendly practices.

Oh, one last thing; the church was Independent Baptist Church of Anchorage.

About the Author

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, churchvisits.com, or follow him on Twitter  at twitter.com/churchvisits or email at churchvisits@gmail.com.

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,churchvisits.com.

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)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com 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,churchvisits.com.

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

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 churchvisits.com)

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 churchvisits.com)

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)alaskadispatch.com.

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)

A visit to Anchorage Baptist Temple

As I visit various faith communities, and write about them, I attempt to avoid delving into beliefs, which aren’t the focus of my writing. I focus on how congregations present themselves to guests and members by evaluating their welcome/greeting, sermons, and music. Since 2008, I’ve visited Anchorage Baptist Temple several times separated by long intervals.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, defines a megachurch as “… any Protestant congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services,” and by this definition, ABT qualifies as a megachurch.

HIRR’s online database currently contains 1,668 congregations in the U.S. that meet this definition. ABT, with an average weekly attendance of about 2,200, according to HIRR, makes this list. ChangePoint, Alaska’s other megachurch is listed with 3,300 average weekly attendance.


ABTs sprawling campus offers bountiful parking, though many spaces require hikes of about a block to reach the church. Entering via the Baxter Road entrance I spotted a sign indicating a large section straight ahead for guests or visitors. However, individual spaces were not designated, and there wasn’t a parking lot attendant directing guests to spaces, a missed opportunity. No guest spaces being available, I parked quite a ways from the church entrance. Considerable caution was required to walk as cars whizzed by, an unsafe condition, especially without parking attendants.


Entering ABTs north entrance I was met by multiple individuals and handed a bulletin before I reached my seat. Choosing my seat eight rows from the front, I entered while the choir and a soloist were singing a rousing praise song. The screen behind the platform was alive with the words and animation during the song. Gigantic screens were also located high on the right and left sides of the stage. ABTs auditorium is a huge television set with cameras capturing every facet of the service from many angles. TV is important here as the Rev. Jerry Prevo’s sermons play many times during the week on KCFT and Channel 13. Today I discovered ABT has entered the ranks of churches streaming their services live on the Internet (at www.abtlive.org).

After the song I entered on, visitors were greeted from the pulpit and asked to identify themselves for the purpose of receiving a token gift. During the meet and greet several people greeted me pleasantly. After the greeting, the morning offering was received. No one, including guests, was told they were not expected to give, usually an uncomfortable time for a first-time guest.

Bus ministry

Then Prevo recognized ABT’s bus ministry, some leaders, and a number of kids who ride those buses. Personally, I think bus ministries are useful, providing the parents consent and churches don’t apply undue pressure on children to convert. Obviously, it’s better for parents to bring their children rather than having them ride a church bus, but that could come later.

More music

ABT’s performance group of eight men and women provided two musical selections. They sang naturally, with good eye contact, and smiling faces, something I find missing in many church praise group performances. “Lay Me Down, Lay Me Down,” a Chris Tomlin song, and “Overcome,” a Jeremy Camp song, were presented in a likeable and professional manner, although I have must say, a tad too loud for me. My decibel meter registered peaks of 103 decibels on both songs, and averages in the mid-to-high 90s. Looking around me, many worshipers were in their 50s and 60s and may have found the music a bit loud as well. Sound professionals recommend church sound levels not exceed 80 db at peak, and 65-70 db during the service. No longer are elderly persons the majority experiencing significant hearing loss. A University of Florida study revealed 17 percent of middle and high school students were experiencing some degree of hearing loss. As a church guest, I believe ministering kindly to attendees includes protecting the hearing of all.

Prevo’s sermon

After the last song, the music group left to much applause. Taking the pulpit, pastor Prevo launched into announcements highlighting upcoming events and other items, some of which were already in the bulletin. His sermon topic was “Two Types of People.” Beginning by highlighting the differences between people, Republican vs. Democrat, union vs. nonunion, Southerner vs. Northerner, etc., he continued by noting the Bible says there are only two types of people: those of the kingdom of God, or those of the kingdom of Satan. His points were illustrated with Scripture projected on the big screen at the back of the stage. Using an electronic device, he highlighted, in red, key words from Scripture passages being used. This was one of the most effective uses of Scripture projection I’ve ever seen, and it was augmented by the clarity of the screen system ABT is using. A recording of Prevo’s sermon is available here: (tinyurl.com/npzyym4). I’ve heard many such sermons, developed, as this one was, along Baptist thematic lines, but it was effectively delivered.

Altar call

Prevo concluded his sermon with an altar call. Regardless of the number of altar calls I’ve heard in my life, I’m usually left with the impression no matter how solid one’s personal spiritual life is, it’s never enough for that pastor. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are usually interjected. I’ll address altar calls in a future column. Like other questionable practices, they are a recent invention.

Final thoughts

My visit to ABT was better than most. The huge side monitors seem to be unnecessary, making Prevo three or four times larger than life, in an auditorium where all had excellent views. People were friendly; the music was good, but loud. This evangelical type of church, as noted in a previous column, is one of the few growing in the U.S. It’s easy to see why. As Prevo noted, you have to make a choice.

Grandview Baptist Church – Some Rough Moments

I’ve often driven Debarr Road in the Airport Heights area but haven’t visited churches in that area as much as I’d like. On November 10 I decided to visit Grandview Baptist Church located just east of Alaska Regional Hospital. Grandview Baptist has been in my view and on my mind for years, so I thought it was time. Although I enjoy visiting churches to survey their guest friendliness, and to worship, a bit of trepidation also accompanies me as I enter each church door. This visit was no exception.

Moderate Welcome
I was greeted by the bulletin passer at the door, and two people in my pew introduced themselves immediately. The congregation was quite noisy as I sat, in fact, it was so noisy I had a hard time hearing the announcements initially. A general greeting to visitors was given from the pulpit which was appropriate. I rarely hear Anchorage churches even greet their guests from the pulpit. It seems to indicate those churches are holding services for their own benefit, not also for guests who may happen to wander in. Guests often can become members, and to not greet them with warmth and courtesy is akin to shutting the door in their face.

Veteran’s, Meet ‘n Greet & Embarrassment
The person making the announcements asked all veterans to stand to be recognized. He then proceeded to ask everyone to go find veterans and greet them. It was a bit of an awkward moment for me. This emphasis was incorporated in a general Meet ‘n Greet, which I feel is one of the biggest and most embarrassing wastes of time in any church. During this time, the announcer came up and greeted me. I asked him if he was a deacon, as deacons often make announcements at the start of Baptist services. To my shock, I discovered he was the pastor! I mentioned it might have been helpful to guests had he introduced himself, so that people unfamiliar with him might understand his relationship to the church. He then found a deacon to introduce to me. It felt as if he was intentionally trying to embarrass me for my comment, which I felt was absolutely appropriate.

Music Program Done Well
The music was rendered by a band of eight, and a choir of 12-16 (singers came and went so I never knew who was really there). However the music was skillfully led, performed well, theologically correct, and sounded great. The music director also led the church in the singing.

Good Dramatic Presentation – “Lazarus”
A teenager, dressed in simulated grave wrappings, came out after the prayer and gave a monologue as though it were Lazarus speaking. His lines were well rehearsed and I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation even though it seemed a bit “flip” in places. This was well worth the price of the trip.

Sermon Typical Baptist
Pastor Randy Graham gave what I considered to be typical Baptist fare. He’s a relatively good speaker but the sermon didn’t really grab me. Parts of his remarks were based on 1 Corinthians 13. No title was given in the bulletin for his sermon, and no replays are available at the church website. Pastor Randy ended with the traditional Baptist altar call but no one came forward.

Hand Holding Awkward Closing
A closing chorus, “On Eagles Wings”, was sung. I quickly discovered their practice was to hold hands during the singing of this. The person to my left took one hand and the person in the pew in front of me turned sideways taking my other hand. I audibly discovered I was saying “awkward”! If this church was truly visitor friendly they would have mentioned this practice in advance. Another visitor friendly gesture would have been for them to say they were taking an offering, but guests were not required or expected to give.

Although Grandview Baptist fared well on some points I always look for, in other areas I felt they were unprepared for guests when they arrive. Their website was designed so one had to hunt for worship times, buried under two pull down menus. A church’s worship times are the main reason potential guests visit their website. They should be prominently displayed so one does not have to scroll down or click other menus to find them. The splash screen on their website displays a changing cornucopia of coming events, but sadly nothing about the time of worship or the pastor’s topic.

To me, the lighting in the church seemed to detract from my ability to see what was transpiring during the service. It was quite dim. I found it made for some difficulty in reading my Bible and the bulletin. In some ways Grandview felt very family oriented, with a good mix of ages and programs. It seemed to have some of the “right stuff” but I left to brave the trip home on ice-slicked roads without anyone saying goodbye.