Tag Archives: ChangePoint

Three churches, three approaches to Christmas

Last Sunday I attended three separate services. After focusing on Advent this month, I wanted to experience services at evangelical churches not observing Advent. While I believe Advent, rightly observed, can be an antidote to the crass commercialism hijacking Christmas, evangelical churches should also be urging their parishioners to keep focused on the true purpose of Christmas, Jesus.

Anchorage Baptist Temple

This megachurch, Alaska’s second-largest with approximately 2,500 members, is always a feast of sight and sound. Everything seems to be larger than life with an enormous center-stage video screen, flanked by two large video monitors to the right and left. Spirited singing by choir and congregation was underway as I entered the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

The music was a blend of Christmas carols, along with some modern classics such at the “Little Drummer Boy.” Hymnals are not needed as the words are projected on the screens, which use incredible animation to bring the words to life. A vocal group composed of Anchorage Christian Schools youth sang a number of songs, and a singer sang a lovely song.

The stage was decorated with the traditional icons of the season. I counted six decorated Christmas trees on the stage, plus eight more lighted trees in the choir area. There were stacks of presents, teddy bears and candy cane poles all over the stage.

Throughout the service reminders were given about the Christmas pageant to be held this weekend, donations to ABT’s bus Christmas store, and sacrificial giving to the church’s 2016 Christmas Miracle Offering. I was bothered when the Rev. Jerry Prevo mentioned the purpose of this offering as being for employees of the church, the school and church missionaries.

Prevo made a very hard sell for this offering, the likes of which I’ve only seen in one other church — a certain prosperity Gospel church in Anchorage. The goal was $30,000, and I was concerned they were thinking more of each other this time of year than those desperately in need of physical and financial assistance.

Prevo presents well-prepared sermons. He interrupted this one, “Two Kinds of People,” to show a dramatic 12-minute short film to illustrate his talking points. The video illustrated people who respond to invitations to help and those who do not, which he later typified as the “lost” and the “saved.” My ABT visit showed me a “Christmas as usual” attitude with much giving expected, heavy appeals to give to the Miracle Offering, and a significant emphasis on the upcoming Christmas pageant, quite a contrast to my next two church visits.

Baxter Road Bible Church

Less than a mile from ABT, lies Baxter Road Bible Church. The church offers two services on Sunday: 10 a.m. and noon. Arriving at the noon service a few minutes late, I found Communion already being served. The church’s musical group is enjoyable to listen to and sing along with; it presented hymns and carols of the season, typical of non-Advent practicing churches.

Children presented several songs. No matter how good or poor the singing is, this is a time of wonder for the adults. Many of us have been there before, and can only remember the faces smiling back at us.

The Rev. Bob Mather’s sermon, “Preparing for Christmas,” was Bible-based, giving practical advice about preparing our hearts for Christmas. Though this church is a little over a 10th the size of ABT, it’s opened its heart for years to giving during December without urging.

Using the theme, “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’,” the congregation dedicates 100 percent of December church income to community nonprofits and other religious organizations members suggest. These organizations are actively doing the work Jesus referred to in his teaching.

Last year, Baxter’s December’s giving reaped over $90,000, more than twice what ABT has set as its 2016 goal. No sales pitch was necessary Sunday morning for this cause at Baxter. The congregation doesn’t need it; it’s one of those things they do without urging. Mather, pastor at the church, has often told me: “The more we give, the more blessed we are.”


Alaska’s largest church at around 3,500 members, ChangePoint leads by example in the local community. I tend to find the music overly loud at ChangePoint and don’t visit as often as I could. However, the Sunday 6 p.m. service found a smaller crowd, and music easier on the ears than normal. My decibel-meter measured most of the music at 90-98 decibels, a sharp reduction from previous services.

As I entered, I was greeted at the door and welcomed by a member. I noticed the church’s OnRamp life group was collecting practical gifts for children at McKinnell House, Salvation Army’s temporary family shelter, during November and December. What a sensible ministry!

Before the sermon,the Rev. Scott Merriner, executive pastor, introduced Adam Legg, newly appointed executive director of Love Alaska, and Rick Steele, executive pastor of operations. Legg is in charge of an exciting new venture that joins two previous ChangePoint initiatives, Grace Alaska and Priceless.

Grace Alaska took on some major projects in town such as getting the Downtown Soup Kitchen started, and providing automotive services for single mothers and widows through Rightway Automotive. Priceless is a service to women involved in human or sex trafficking. Approximately 70 women have been referred to the program, which provides them access to over 120 trained mentors in 18 local churches.

Love Alaska will now be a separate organization not subject to ChangePoint’s structure. Members of ChangePoint will be encouraged to support these efforts to address areas of brokenness in our community along with members of other churches. A third initiative of Love Alaska will be Chosen, a program which focuses on mentoring youth as they leave the foster care system. ChangePoint’s annual Uncommon Gift Offering will be taken Sunday to support Chosen. These changes are exciting for Anchorage and ChangePoint is to be commended for making them happen.

Student ministry pastor Adam Brown’s message was the second in a series titled, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His particular message was subtitled, “The Wonder of Real Treasure.” Using Matthew 6:19-24, he said “real treasure is what we think it is,” noting we must each choose our treasure — temporal or eternal — and to chase our master whether it be God or money.

I thought this was a powerful message from a church that is making a difference in our community. As we look at the consumer-driven brokenness of Christmas, it was refreshing to hear this message on Sunday, a real antidote to consumerism.

Many church websites missing chances to attract visitors

When I’m looking for churches to visit, I almost always look at accompanying websites with my “church visitor eye.” These sites should be well-designed. They should show the ministry, rather than pictures of the church or beautiful surroundings. They should contain the basics: location, service times, phone number.  And they should be up to date. Unfortunately, with the explosion of social media, many churches mistakenly believe websites are no longer important. Consequently some churches desperately try to push much about their church to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and in doing so risk becoming invisible to prospective guests.

Recently, while planning to visit a local Orthodox church for Great Lent, I found its website not up to date. The most current calendar was August 2015, with nothing on the main webpage about Great Lent. I discovered they pushed most church activities to Facebook. How would a prospective guest find them?

This week I looked at several local church websites, finding good and not so good. I’m sharing my impressions in this column not to belittle or embarrass any church, but to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches these churches take. ( Churches are presented in alphabetical order.)

Abbott Loop Community Church www.abbottloop.org

I found this homepage — dominated by a scrolling slideshow of five coming events — overly long. Although service times are shown on one of those slides, prospective visitors might not wait to see it. The church location and phone number are at the bottom of the page, way down. Easter and Good Friday were still showing as events at the bottom of the page. Abbott Loop makes its Sunday sermons available via audio. Thinking they might be viewable as well, I clicked the “multimedia” tab only to discover they were just audio. Abbott’s website was too busy for me.

Amazing Grace Lutheran Church www.amazinggracealaska.org

One of the simplest websites I viewed, this one turned out to be one of the best. It shows times of service, location, and phone number in full view at the top of the screen. Simple, moveable graphics show parishioners and themes without resorting to a church picture. A pulldown menu allows easy access to most information one would need about this South Anchorage church. I particularly liked the up-to-date and complete church calendar located under the heading “news.” I wish more church websites used this simple but extremely effective approach.

Anchorage Baptist Temple www.ancbt.org

Pictures of the church and its pastor adorn the top of Anchorage Baptist Temple’s first page, a website no-no according to church web designers. ABT’s website is incredibly busy to the eye, requiring a significant amount of scrolling to reach the bottom of the page to see all they offer. Some of the best websites in the world have only one main page, the amount shown on one’s computer screen. ABT’s schedule of services at the top is a positive touch, but unfortunately one must scroll to the very bottom to find the church’s location. I got dizzy scrolling down through the vast array of pictures and links.

Anchorage Bible Fellowship www.anchoragebiblefellowship.org

I like ABF’s straightforward one-page construction with service times and location prominently displayed. Unfortunately, however, it’s dominated by changing pictures of Alaska wildlife, mountains, and scenery. The purpose of churches is to spread the gospel, not serve as tourist bureaus. How much more effective these pictures would be if they showed this church and members at worship and work in the community.

ChangePoint www.changepointalaska.com

Artfully designed webpages offer easy navigation to show visitors ChangePoint’s service times. Their location is not shown, however, and I could not find it. ChangePoint offers particularly useful media replay options of past sermons for viewing or listening which are usually posted the same day as they’re delivered. I particularly like ChangePoint’s blog where pastors post follow-up questions to Sunday sermons as a means of driving home the applicability of the message.

Cornerstone Church www.akcornerstone.org

Cornerstone’s attractive website is well-laid-out with one main page and nicely categorized pulldown menus for necessary information. Service times are shown on the main page, but one has to hunt for the church’s location. On closer inspection, I found it at the very bottom of the page, along with the phone number, but it is faint and easy to miss. Cornerstone has been effective at providing viewing access to their Sunday sermons. Their website is always clean, adorned with graphics central to their mission, and easy to use.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox www.transfiguration.ak.goarch.org

This beautiful church has a simple but effective website. It gives access to most activities in the church. Part of the beauty of Holy Transfiguration lies in its considerable iconography tied to many religious figures in its ancient faith. A rolling slideshow display of the interiors of the church depicts these icons. Clicking on any picture brings up a detailed description. The slideshow could be more effective if pictures of parishioners, working to support the mission of this church, were interspersed. It’s unfortunate Rev. Vasili Hillhouse’s pragmatic but engaging homilies are not captured and shared with the public here also.

We live in a culture dominated by clicking on web pages. If a website doesn’t deliver, visitors click to the next one and it becomes a lost opportunity.

“I don’t think that the importance of a church website can be overstated” said Adam Legg, ChangePoint’s creative arts and communication pastor. “Now, does that mean it has to be your church’s primary digital communication tool? No. But is it important for your church to have one? Yes. Why? Because a website is the primary way that people find you online, and in a digital world that is incredibly important! We know from research that as many as 8 or 9 out of 10 church visitors will visit your church’s website before visiting your church. If they can’t find you online, that makes it difficult for them to connect with you.”

Social media is another important component of a church’s online presence, and I’ll write about that in an upcoming column.

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

How local churches use — or don’t use — traditional Christian creeds

Christian creeds, developed during the early days of the church, are summary statements of Christian belief.

One of the earliest, the Apostles’ Creed, had developed by the fourth century from predecessors that may date as far back as the first or second century. In its current form it reads: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”

A number of creeds have developed over the course of church history. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, has a creed named after him, the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.), which clearly distinguishes the doctrine of the Trinity.

Visiting local churches, I find creeds commonly used in liturgically oriented churches such as Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Orthodox. Most evangelical churches that don’t use creeds tend to have statements of belief, sometimes quite lengthy ones. The Seventh-day Adventist church, one of the fastest growing evangelical denominations in the U.S., uses “28 Fundamental Beliefs” as its core statement and test of fellowship.

A local evangelical exception is ChangePoint.

“We do believe in and express the Apostles’ Creed in its original form without the statement ‘He descended into hell,’”  says teaching pastor Dan Jarrell. “We do it because we agree with its theology and believe it has been a unifying creed in the church for almost 2,000 years. It is a ‘focal statement’ of orthodox theology, and singing it and reciting it are ‘focal practices.’”

Southern Baptists comprise the largest evangelical Protestant denomination in the U.S.

“Southern Baptists do not subscribe to a creed and firmly believe in the Priesthood of the Believer,” says Dr. David George, director of missions for the Chugach Baptist Association. “This means that we do not rely on any hierarchy to decree how we are to interpret scripture, but it is left up to the individual, his church, and the Holy Spirit.”

Evangelical pastor Mike Merriner of Clear Water Church says his congregation occasionally recites the Apostles’ Creed as they sometimes borrow material from the Book of Common Prayer.

“I like the idea of creeds, because a community of faith should share core beliefs,” he said. “In fact, it would concern me if a member of our church was not in agreement with the Apostles’ Creed.”

Episcopal churches generally use the Nicene Creed before the Eucharist and the Apostles’ Creed before baptisms.

“The Apostles’ Creed is probably the least controversial creed of the Christian faith since it does not contain the Filioque clause that the Nicene Creed in the West has — a point of continued difference between the Church of the East (Orthodox) and the Latin Church(es),” says All Saints Episcopal Church’s pastor David Terwilliger. “Filioque” is a Latin phrase added to the Nicene Creed essentially indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father “and Son.”

“At various seasons of the church year, we also use the ‘Jesus Creed’ in worship, a devotional prayer first shared by Brian McLaren at a conference in Nashville in 2004,” says Rector Michael Burke of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “It has evoked strong feelings and some deep thought among participants in worship, as evidenced by many follow-up conversations with people and in small groups. Because of this experience, I believe that people are also interacting with the traditional Nicene Creed in a new way, and not just reciting it in an unreflective or rote way.”

“The ancient creeds are still relevant today in a world where new and old Christian denominations invent and rearrange their understanding of the faith,” says pastor Rick Cavens of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla.”They fought for a common understanding of the faith around 300 A.D.; we still do, and need to.” He notes they use the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday, and, “once a year we may use the Athanasian Creed; which means you get a long service. It’s all about the Trinity and the historical tie to the early church.”

Rev. Anthony Patalano, pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, says the Nicene Creed is basically the only one used at that congregation, where it is said by the priest and congregation after the homily.

“When I got to Anchorage in 2011, the translation of the Nicene Creed was changed to be more faithful to the Latin text,” he added.

For an Eastern Orthodox view of creedal use I turned to Rev Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River.

“We say the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every Sunday as part of our Liturgy,” Dunaway said. “It is sometimes called just the Nicene Creed or commonly in Orthodox Churches simply the Symbol of Faith. We recite the Creed in the original form it was written by the first and second Ecumenical Councils, that is, without the phrase which was later added in the western Church, known in Latin as the ‘filioque.’ Orthodox hold it was wrong to unilaterally change a Creed written by Ecumenical Councils, and also this change diminishes the understanding of the role of Holy Spirit in the Church.”

“More importantly, we use this Creed first of all as a profession of faith when one prepares for Baptism. Within the Divine Liturgy, it is also an ongoing affirmation of what we believe about certain essential doctrines.”

I like creeds and choke up sometimes when I repeat them. They are meaningful expressions of what one believes. Too many churches and denominations use hundreds or even thousands of words to be explicit about their beliefs. I enjoy hearing and saying core Christian beliefs expressed in minimal words.

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 to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

Church apps gain a foothold among local churches

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

I’ve written about apps in the past (you can find my previous coverage at (tinyurl.com/nfch7xn), but as different churches adopt the technology or adapt the ways in which they use it, the subject is worth revisiting.

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

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

But it’s not all about the app.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A visit to Alaska’s largest megachurch, ChangePoint

Last week I wrote about my visit to Alaska’s second-largest megachurch, Anchorage Baptist Temple. Following that service, I visited ChangePoint Alaska. With an average weekly attendance of 3,300 according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, ChangePoint is the state’s largest church.

Greeting and welcome

I’ve visited and written about ChangePoint several times over the past seven years. On this visit, I was a few minutes late in arriving. Only one road accessed the church Sunday. Traffic cops and ChangePoint volunteers directed traffic. Despite the volume of advice available to churches about using parking volunteers, ChangePoint and Faith Christian Community, to my knowledge, are the only Anchorage churches using this guest-friendly service.

Regardless of the number of times I’ve visited ChangePoint, I’m always at a loss to understand why it doesn’t capitalize on making friendly greetings at the outside doors and the auditorium doors. The outside door holder wordlessly held the door open as I entered. The bulletin passer did the same. ChangePoint is more casual than Anchorage Baptist Temple, where more formal attire is common. Blue jeans are the rule at ChangePoint.


The music was in progress as I entered. Typically, I sit eight to 10 rows from the front during my church visits and did so this day. A four-person band was already into their first song. There were no drums for the first time of all my visits. Drums clearly add a noise level which helps push the needle off the chart, but the sound levels were still, in my opinion, excessive. The averages were in the mid to high 90 dBs with peaks of 103. Audiologists and sound engineers recommend much lower levels. But the music was pleasing and definitely spiritual. It included Hillsong’s “The Stand” and the old hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Announcements and greeting

An unidentified man, a guest-unfriendly practice, came out and made a series of announcements ending with a command to “Turn to those around you and say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’” Although I had carpal tunnel braces on both of my hands, the woman in front of me turned and shook my hand. These moments are so uncomfortable to newcomers; in fact they are the No. 1 reason many refuse to return to a church after an initial visit. Why churches insist on this practice is beyond me.


The unidentified man then called for the offering, but first described ChangePoint’s practices using a slide. He noted it was a ChangePoint core practice that embraced investing generously, consistently and cheerfully. I do appreciate that ChangePoint is very transparent with finances. Its bulletin showed May giving approximately $35,000 under budget, and year-to-date giving approximately $350,000 behind. Very few churches offer this kind of transparency. Unfortunately, the man did not give a pass for guests, an unfriendly practice. Looking at the numbers just cited, a guest might conclude they have to dig deep to help right the deficit. During the collection of the offering, the band performed a beautiful Kristian Stanfill song, “The Lord Our God.”


The guest speaker was identified by the announcer as Jay Lowder with his website, jaylowder.com, underneath his name in the bulletin. Continuing, he mentioned Jay had brought a number of people to a decision in the 9:30 a.m. service. Jay, a tall, lanky Texan hailing from Wichita Falls, told a lengthy story about his life during the sermon time on Sunday. (See tinyurl.com/qazcpr8 to listen or watch.) Using a Bible and striding around the stage during his talk, he recounted a life of sin, including substance abuse, leading up to a decision to take his life. Moments before Jay’s suicide attempt, his roommate, who had recently been saved and was following Jesus, came home unexpectedly, something he never did, and unwittingly intervened. This message was critical for Alaska, where suicide is a major social concern. After years as the state with the highest suicide rate, Alaska dropped to the No. 2 spot, according to the May 2015 annual report by the American Association of Suicidology.

This good message ended with an altar call preceded by a version of the “sinner’s prayer.” Lowder then asked those praying the sinner’s prayer and making commitments to follow Christ to come forward. More than 50 people did. In evangelistic fashion he continued to lengthen the service urging others to come forward. Unfortunately, I developed a serious coughing spell and had to leave the service to deal with it.

According to Lowder’s website, he and his organization provide evangelistic outreaches, adventure weekends, evangelism training, and school assemblies. Clearly his theology is Baptist. This type of evangelicalism is, for the most part, the only growing portion of Christianity in the U.S. in actual numbers. ChangePoint has hosted other Baptist leaders as they did when they invited Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research to address them several years ago. Stetzer gave a fantastic, energizing talk.

There are many similarities between ChangePoint and Anchorage Baptist Temple. Both churches appear to hold many of the same beliefs in common, and are aggressively using many state-of-the-art electronic tools to broaden their reach.

I enjoy worshipping at ChangePoint. ChangePoint’s dedication to extending the gospel to all the world is commendable. Its website states its vision is “Life in Christ for every Alaskan and the world beyond.” I like its mission statement: ‘To live as a community intentionally focused on cultivating the life of Christ in others.”

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.

Easter is here — let’s celebrate

By the time most read this, Lent will be over, capping a period of self-examination, possibly prayer and fasting, and maybe taking up something new or giving up something truly harmful. This weekend Western Christianity celebrates Easter, while Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter (Pascha) a bit later due to differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars.

Does Easter need to be connected with spending?

One of the first things that came to my mind as I wrote this column is that Easter, despite its strong religious overtones, has become a major spending holiday for many Americans, with narcissistic displays of self-gratification. Easter is really not about us, is it? But according to the National Retail Federation, Easter spending places it in the middle of major American holidays. NRF notes shoppers are expected to spend more than $16.4 billion this year — or about $141 per person — with food, clothing, candy, and gifts heading the list. Easter spending positions it immediately after Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. That is a huge amount of money ostensibly honoring an event of religious significance, but really honoring oneself. In reality Easter is a celebration of the heart. Clearly Christmas and the other related winter holidays, which also have religious significance, score first place, topping $600 billion. Together, Easter and Christmas spending in the U.S. represents an amount larger than the national budgets of all but the nine wealthiest nations. Neither event really needs to be more than heartfelt commemorations expressing gratitude to the Godhead for dealing with the problem of sin.

What is Easter about?

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the event distinguishing Christianity from all other faiths. In the events of Holy Week, culminating in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the very last events of Jesus’ life are noted and commemorated. Easter is the capstone following the last week of Lent. The prophecies and the predictions of Jesus are fulfilled in the empty tomb. For Christians, Easter represents the ransom paid for sin, and believers in the promise can live without the burden of sin and guilt. Therefore on Easter, we celebrate this wonderful event with music, song, rejoicing and sharing the good news of a risen Lord. Some celebrate with Easter sunrise services patterned after Scripture references to the resurrection being early, and some celebrate in their churches at regular worship times. An excellent volume about the resurrection is theologian N.T. Wright’s weighty and exhaustively researched volume “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” If you are a doubter, this is book may well contain your answers. Wright notes in this book that “resurrection is never a redescription of death, but always its overthrow and reversal.”

Should Easter be only a one-day celebration?

Some faiths do not observe Easter, claiming their faith daily observes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. A few other faiths note Easter’s pagan origin, or development over time that may have incorporated other non-Christian practices, as a reason they do not observe Easter.

Again, Wright —  in his wonderful volume “Surprised by Hope” — writes, “Easter ought to be an eight-day festival, with Champagne served after Morning Prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias, extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” In this book, Wright devotes many paragraphs to the ways we could be celebrating Easter. Few faiths maintain such enthusiasm for the celebration beyond the day itself, but it’s a worthy goal.

Easter celebrations of note

The Thursday, April 2 edition of Alaska Dispatch News features a two-page ad of various Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter celebrations being held in our community. I’ve found it a reliable source of information about the many service options being offered locally.

I discovered that ChangePoint and ChangePoint NE were holding Easter services at UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center with services at 9:30 a.m. and noon. Five services between the two congregations can be collapsed into two at this new and spacious event facility at UAA. Reaching out to Adam Legg, ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor, I asked why they chose this venue for Easter services.

“First, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for our church family to invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers and family to join them on Easter Sunday,” Legg said. “Our vision at ChangePoint is ‘Life in Christ for every Alaskan and the world beyond,’ and we absolutely believe that every person who calls ChangePoint ‘home’ is involved in that vision. Second, this amazing facility allows us the space to welcome the community to join us. Last Easter we were at max capacity at two of our four Easter services. Third, we have already found that a neutral location may cause people who are typically averse to attending a church, to reconsider. For us to step out of our building, and go to a prominent location in our city, makes it easier for people to check us out. We absolutely cannot wait to join thousands of people at the Alaska Airlines Center next Sunday as we celebrate the risen Jesus!”

I plan on attending one of ChangePoint’s services, and also a sunrise service. If you recognize me, please come over and introduce yourself.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his startling poem “Easter in the Very Belly of Nothingness,” concludes with, “O Friday God — Easter the failed city, Sunday the killing fields. And we, we shall dance and sing, thank and praise, into the night that holds no more darkness.”

That’s what Easter’s about. Happy Easter!

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Faith community giving offers local helping opportunities during the holidays – 12/6/14

It’s an amazing time of year, one in which various members of the faith community collect money to support various local charitable causes. These actions form the basis of what I term “living faith” or faith that “practices what it preaches.” Yet not all faith communities support local needs during this time of year. Some are preoccupied with staging elaborate productions of pageants created to support perceptions of what people need to see during this season. Others are collecting money for causes in other areas of the world, while Alaska itself remains one of the greatest mission field opportunities in the world. I’m puzzled that Alaska faith communities often show more concern with far-flung world areas than the neighbor in need in their own backyard.

Additionally, I’m absolutely amazed with parents who go in debt up to their eyeballs to show their children they love them and want to give them their heart’s desire for Christmas. The Gallup spending forecast estimates that the average Christmas spending this year in the U.S. will be $781, up from $704 last year. Overall, the National Retail Federation projects this spending will top $600 billion this year.

Christmas has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even though its roots are Christian, it’s become largely secular, altering a wonderful religious tradition. And our children, what are they to think? Who hasn’t seen a child opening a vast array of presents, only to see them sad and dejected minutes later because they didn’t bring the happiness they hoped and wished for?

I believe faith communities can foster false expectations by vast toy drives for children going into the holidays. What many of these families need is food and shelter security. Children can’t eat toys. It’s ludicrous that this is not better understood from the get-go. Faith communities could do more to help people during this season by providing basic foodstuffs and de-emphasizing toy giving programs. Food and shelter are critical to families in need. A sleeping bag might be a much higher priority than a toy. Toy giving indicates, for the most part, that Christmas is identified with consumerism and things we like, as opposed to things that are basic to life. It’s the wrong lesson to teach.

Jewish Community Initiative

I’m impressed with several local faith-based organizations that are bending over backwards to help at this time of year. One that caught my eye recently is the Mitzvah Mall, a project of the local Jewish community at Congregation Beth Sholom. Mitzvah means a command to do good deeds and is very ancient in practice. Mitzvah is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. When at the Simchat Torah dinner and ceremony at Congregation Beth Sholom recently, I learned about this unique fundraiser, but Congregation Beth Sholom’s website says it best. “Think about a bizarre bazaar: an alternative gift fair. There are rooms filled with booths, but the ‘vendors’ are nonprofit organizations and charities. Instead of buying more material gifts and stuff, shoppers can donate to local nonprofits on behalf of friends, family or others on their holiday gift list. Give a gift that keeps on giving. The ‘gifts’ are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Shoppers receive decorative gift cards to present to the person in whose honor the gift was purchased. What a mitzvah: resisting holiday consumerism, doing good deeds, bestowing a wonderful gift and having fun doing it.”

Mitzvah Mall is happening Sunday, Dec. 7, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Sholom, 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Come prepared to donate to one or more of the 25 nonprofits that will be present. Congregation Beth Sholom has had fantastic success with this brief event, raising over $14,000 in three hours last year. I’ll be there to observe this event in person.

ChangePoint Giving Programs

ChangePoint, Alaska largest church, has a number of life-giving programs it supports with holiday giving by its members. The congregation uses three avenues of giving during the holiday season.

1. Participation in partnership with Cornerstone Church to provide hundreds of Christmas shoe boxes to Samaritan’s Purse and its effort to bless children, particularly in the villages of Alaska.

2. Participation in two “Angel Tree” projects to benefit both the students of Alaska Christian College and the residents of the McKinnell House here in Anchorage.

3. The primary fundraiser is what they call the uncommon gift offering. This is collected the last Sunday before Christmas and always goes to support or advance a local charity. Over the years, they have done many things with it. Examples include raising around $120,000 for Alaska Christian College to graduate all its seniors without debt and giving over $130,000 one year as the launching gift for the Downtown Soup Kitchen’s new facility.

Lutheran Giving Initiatives

Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides food and shelter for thousands of recipients in our local community. Last Sunday’s Beer and Hymns fundraiser by Christ Our Savior Lutheran raised close to $5,000 for LSSA. Other Lutheran congregations are involved with a series of local giving initiatives touching local lives.

The holiday season is a wonderful time to plant the right seed about the proper use of money. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. Churches can effectively use the holidays as ways to draw attention away from the individual and place the emphasis where it belongs.

I’d love to hear your stories about your church’s holiday giving efforts. Please send them to churchvisits@gmail.com so they can be shared with other readers of this column.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at 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.

Alaska church apps can have huge impacts – 9/20/14

Apps have revolutionized the ways we access information, play games, or use various utilities to change and improve our lives. Churches have adopted this rich technology. Alaska churches were not the earliest adopters of apps but have jumped in nevertheless.

In July 2008, over 800 apps were available for the iPhone. As of September, that number had exploded to 1.3 million. A much smaller number of apps are available for Android devices. Alaska churches with apps report the majority of their downloads are for the iPhone app. Using the search term “church” in Apple’s iPhone App store, 2,199 apps are found. Some are Bible apps, but the majority are apps for churches across the U.S.

Early Alaska Church App Adopters

On April 20, 2011, Adam Legg, ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor, showed me the functionality of their just-released app. Adam was excited about this huge step forward. I was astounded at the range of information ChangePoint now provided with this new app, and its potential to expand their ministry far beyond their walls. It offered replays of sermons, an online Bible, blogs, church calendars, schedules and more. Adam showed me app download numbers and hours of use by users.

In the years since, a slowly growing number of Alaska churches have seen potential in releasing apps. Currently, 10 Alaska churches have their own apps. Churches as far south as Juneau and far north as Fairbanks have adopted this exciting technology, but most are Anchorage-area churches.

Another early adopter of this exciting technology was Anchorage’s TrueNorth Church. TrueNorth’s app was designed locally by Michael Blakeny of Acts 1:8 Technology. Blakeny also functions as a youth minister at Grandview Baptist Church. Commenting on the app, TrueNorth’s Pastor Brent Williams shared “Our app enhances our ministry by making the gospel accessible to a culture entrenched in technology. We are a culture on the move. The app allows those inside the church and those not yet a part of the church to stay connected to the weekly teaching and updates of True North Church.” Initially, I was surprised that a smaller, fairly new church like TrueNorth Church had deployed this amazing technology, when most churches, especially large ones, don’t deploy it, citing cost, and concerns this technology is not here to stay. Now I fully understand the wisdom of Williams’ statements.

ACF Church in Eagle River was also an early adopter. The Rev. Brian Cook noted the app’s popularity with ACF military members. “We have a high military population at our church. The app is one of the key ways deployed church members follow ACF Church,” says Cook. “Our app is intended to give people ‘one touch’ access to life at ACF Church.” he added, “one of many ways we use technology to help members engage in our community.”

Anchorage City Church released their app close to two years ago. Melissa Parkhouse, who oversees their app and church website development, was most pragmatic about why City Church deploys an app. “A 2013 study stated that 74 percent of cellphone users in the USA use smartphones, and predicted 2014 would see that number rise to 80 percent. One would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a cellphone these days, so a smartphone app is a simple way for us to connect with people on a platform they are already using,” she said. (http://wallstcheatsheet.com/stocks/study-u-s-smartphone-penetration-is-a…)

Although I approached all 10 Alaska churches offering apps for more information, only the four mentioned above responded to my request. Other churches with apps include Cornerstone Church, Apostolics of Fairbanks, Juneau Apostolic Church, Soldotna Bible Chapel, Abbott Loop Community Church, and Church on the Rock – Homer. Too often churches think sharing this information is hush-hush or highly confidential requiring pastoral or trustee approval before releasing any details. The spread of the Christian gospel is a joyful job, one we all should do without fear of anyone appropriating “proprietary information.” Then too, several churches feel it’s a “prideful thing” to reflect on how well apps help churches grow. Information sharing is a fact of life in science, and should be with churches too.

Church app success stories

Those churches responding to my request for information indicated numerous app success stories.

City Church mentioned that members missing sermons can stay current with them and replay them. They also are excited about their Bible reading plans, recommending them to members. TrueNorth Church noted a story of healing and restoration in a divorced couple through the husband’s listening to sermons via TrueNorth’s app, and of their eventual reconciliation. ChangePoint shared the story of a member who couldn’t recently attend due to recovery from surgery, who watched each missed sermon. Yes, you read that right. She watched. Changepoint’s app gives you the option to listen or watch. Amazing. ACF Church mentioned people outside Alaska also connect with their church and messages finding they meet their needs.

Churches with apps often find their congregation size can double, virtually, through app usage. I’m excited about churches who have adopted this exciting technology. It’s one more example of how churches can grow by offering hand-held connections to their ministry.

Good Friday Services & Art Show: ChangePoint

Yesterday I did something out of the ordinary for Good Friday. I attended what may be considered a contemporary style service at ChangePoint, a non-liturgical church.

However, before the service, an art show under the theme “Redeemed” was held in their commons area. The art show was a first for me in my Anchorage church visits. More churches should offer this form of religious expression. Most of the pieces on display were by women artists, an oddity to me. Very few men were on display, and the one key male artist was busily selling his art at this showing. From what I saw, he was alone in his commercialism. Many artistic expressions were photographs of non-religious themes. Although the art was good in many cases, I was disappointed that the Good Friday “Redeemed” theme, the locus of show, was almost totally lacking. I was told ChangePoint had about 100 artists among its members.

Several pieces caught my eye and I captured them with my iPhone camera. Shown above and below, I apologize for the quality of the images, but these artists were crisp in their dedication to the theme of the show.

Before the 8 p.m. service a poet standing off to the side of the art show, recited, slam style, an inspiring poem.

Slated for an 8 p.m. start, the service started late as many people were late arriving. It’s interesting that attendees to church services figure they can always arrive later than the announced starting time, holding up the start of the service for those who planned ahead. Pastors encourage this behavior by waiting until all are there and in their seats. Try that with a train or airline. Doesn’t work at all. I had the same thing happen at the last church I attended.

For one of the holiest and solemn church days of the year, the disrespectful din from the audience was disconcerting. I measured 80-85 db before the service with the peak decibels at 106. I’ve attended concerts at the PAC where 85 db was the normal concert sound level. Many other churches in Anchorage have extreme reverence on Good Friday with scarcely a sound to disturb the decibel meter. A church can set and manage expectations for noise during services. Normally Good Friday services begin and end with worshipers arriving and departing in silence, and in darkness.

The service started with three popular contemporary Christian anthems played and nicely sung by seated guitarists. Oddly enough, people were told to stand immediately when the singing started except the guitarist/singers remained seated. The tone would have been more reverent if people were not told to stand. This is a conditioned reflex in so many churches that do not consider the true role of music in worship.

The songs sung:
—When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
—How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
—Amazing Love

The commons where the service was held was darkened but not dark, with candles aglow in the front. I’d estimate the crowd to be 300-350, a tiny fraction of ChangePoint’s members. This is merely an observation, not a criticism. Many Anchorage churches attract only a small fraction of their members on Good Friday, one of the major Christian observances.

Teaching Pastor Dan Jarrell then proceeded with a brief sermon capped with a request to take a moment to consider the consequences of sin most grievous to one, to reflect on the cross, and its meaning, recording those thoughts on provided 3 x 5 cards. He encouraged individuals to share those thoughts. A nurse, alcoholic, college professor, middle school student, preschool teacher, soldier, and businessman briefly shared their thoughts. They were all good and brought me back to “testimonies” given in church back in my youth. People are rarely encouraged to share their faith in church anymore, and I applaud Jarrell for doing this.

The service ended with communion distributed from the front of the room.

I considered this an important service for a church wrestling with unaccustomed liturgical forms. The noise, and informality, however, distracted me from the true purposes of Good Friday.

ChangePoint Hosts Ed Stetzer – Noted Church Growth Expert

September 23, 2012 found me at ChangePoint in response to an invitation to hear author, researcher, pastor Ed Stetzer of Nashville.

Stetzer’s primary responsibility is Vice President of Research and Ministry Development for LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the world’s largest Christian Resource Providers, and affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville.[img_assist|nid=162775|title=Ed Stetzer|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=235|height=400]

I’ll spare readers the pain of my description of ChangePoint’s lengthy and loud (105+ db*) musical service which I’ve commented upon before, except to note the first of five musical selections, ” I Am a Friend of God”, lasted 8-10 minutes.

Stetzer, in town at the request of the local Southern Baptist Convention to do a training conference, spoke with a strong message titled Engaging All Gods People in Mission. He opened his remarks with a reading from 1 Peter 4 using it as a template for his remarks.

He shared that according to a study of 7,000 churches, most people who come to church are passive spectators rather than active participants in the mission of God, further noting that in large churches many people come for the ‘show’ but don’t come for the ‘serve’. They come to watch but not to be a part. “God has called all to be a part of meaningful ministry and mission”, he said. These are brave remarks and would likely get him driven out the pulpit in some Anchorage churches I’ve visited.

Stetzer followed this up with four key points.

1. All have gifts. 1 Peter 4 v. 10
He cautioned serving won’t make you a Christian but that Christians serve. Citing the 80/20 rule he observed that 80% of the work of the church is done by 20% of the people. Noting that large churches like ChangePoint can fill up the church with customers or consumers, who consume religious goods and services. He pointed out that his is not what this verse says. Each is given a gift to use, but the “passage and practice are not aligned”. Churches set clergy apart from the laypeople. He further opined that when churches build theater-like spaces to worship in, we should not be surprised if people act like ‘show goers’. Our language, terminology, and worship places work against this Biblical principle of God-given gifts.

2. God intends all to use these gifts. 1 Peter 4 v. 10 – 2nd part
All called to the ministry. Where and among whom is your ministry? God has called you to be a co-laborer not customer at ChangePoint, good managers of the grace of God. What does it look like to be a missional community in the service of God? Don’t have the attitude that you come to pay, pray, and stay out of the way so other people can do the work.

3. For which he empowers us. 1 Peter 4 v. 11
Gift of the Holy Spirit empowers our speech, a spiritual gift. All believers are chosen, gifted, and called. We are to speak AND to serve by the strength God supplies. Too many people are riding in the wagon instead of pulling it.

4. To bring God glory. 1 Peter 4 v. 11 – 2nd part
The church should be filled by people who are gifted by God and are using those gifts for his glory. God has called all of you to make a difference for His kingdom. We can’t do it under our own power. God will provide the strength. 80% of people are spending their time being the object of the ministry. God is to be glorified by the use of these gifts in service.

To listen to this entire well-delivered Bible-based message, click HERE and select the September 23 message.

My brief synopsis here does not give just attention to Stetzer’s remarks and delivery. Please take the time to listen to this well-delivered and much-needed sermon. I applaud ChangePoint’s courage in asking Stetzer to speak. Some mega-churches in America are experiencing significant declines, due in part to many of the issues Stetzer outlined. Whatever you think about ChangePoint, I feel they are a brave church to address this very real and thorny issue. Virtually every church in Alaska has this problem.

* At the ABBA and Anchorage Symphony performance last night at the PAC, I took a sound meter reading during a typical rock number. It was 95 db! 2,500 concert goers were hearing the music perfectly at significantly lower and less punishing levels than many Anchorage churches deliver every Sunday.