Tag Archives: church music

Evensong Selections by Keith & Kristyn Getty Available to Watch, Courtesy of Getty Music & Christianbook.com

In the ancient tradition of Evensong, the church lifts its eyes from a troubled day and turns its heart to face the Lord in worship. The Evensong project by award-winning musicians Keith and Kristyn Getty is an echo of that precious tradition, born from the thoughts and conversations, prayers and songs that fill their home, particularly when the sun goes down. We pray that this special presentation with an exciting selection from the Evensong concert will help you feel the peace of Christ wherever you are.

Click here to access. https://www.revelationmedia.com/evensong/RM13498/

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What makes a church welcoming to new visitors? Answers to some common questions

From time to time, readers write with questions or observations about this column. This week I’m devoting this space to a sampling of questions I’ve received. Many relate to the columns devoted to church visits, so a little context is in order before turning to those questions. My church-specific columns are usually intended to focus on the perspective of a first-time visitor — someone hopefully regarded by that church as a “guest,” and my visit descriptions are intended to document the way any visitor might be treated at that church.

How many visits have you made to any one church without being warmly greeted and becoming aware of a sense of hospitality?

I’ve visited several local churches at least three times without being greeted by anyone, or at least being handed a bulletin or worship guide. At one prominent Hillside church in particular, I was even invited back by a member sure I would receive a warm greeting next time. Unfortunately, it never happened, even though I stretched myself to endure three visits. I could never recommend that church or any other unfriendly church to a potential first-time guest or in my columns. Unfortunately, something in that church’s DNA prevents it from changing.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to determine if you’re welcome at someone’s home. The same is true at church.

I remember a woman from a local Episcopal church approaching me after her service saying she’d recently put on her “visitor” mentality and persona when she visited her hometown church. She said she was astounded at what she noticed; it wasn’t all guest-friendly.

As a church consultant, I’ve recommended for years that multiple teams from a specific church need to visit other churches, every Sunday, to see how they are treated, and look for encouraging practices worthy of emulation. By and large, churches refuse to do this, plain and simple.

Frequently I’m asked about my local “home church.” Do I have one?

I write about congregations representing a variety of religions, though most are Christian. According to Pew Research Center religious demographic data, 62 percent of adults in Alaska profess Christianity. However, as a self-professed religion scholar, I’m also vitally interested in other faith groups in our community. Many non-Christian religions that are represented in Alaska make up fewer  than 1 percent of adherents to any faith, according to the Pew data., Together, faiths including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religions make up another 6 percent of the state’s population.  (31 percent are unaffiliated — the religious “nones.”)

I’m constantly in motion, visiting congregations from a variety of faiths on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday. To maintain my impartiality I claim membership in none, but clearly have certain congregations to which I return regularly.

My church is not listed on your list of churches to visit; why is that?

I maintain lists of good “first-time” churches on my website, churchvisits.com, as I consider them to represent safe choices for people seeking church homes or looking for a solid faith community.

Your church might be one that makes first-time guests uncomfortable. Maybe you do not welcome them in a friendly manner, possibly ignore them altogether, or give them the 20-question test upon arrival. (Example: What is your name?, How did you hear about us?, What is your home church?, Who do you know in our church?, How did you find us?, etc., ad nauseum.) My column two weeks ago gave a real-life example of how one friendly church treats guests with honor and great hospitality.

Your church might be one of the many that insist on having guests stand up and identify themselves, telling the group where they’re from, etc., which by the way, is the No. 1 reason people do not return to a church. Possibly your music may have been 30-45 minutes of insulting, ear-pounding noise where congregants are “told,” not “invited,” to stand, to spend the entire time enduring songs many don’t know. Maybe your pastor preached a really great sermon, at least in his mind, while mostly reading it without inflection. Worse yet, he may have used his main remarks from a popular writer whose book was on the best-seller lists.

But first-time guests usually make a decision about whether to return to a church within the first five to 10 minutes after they arrive. Forget the music, and sermon. It’s already too late. They’ve decided.

Why do you draw attention to beautiful features of some local churches, while ignoring Gospel content or social justice ministries?

For Christians, a theology of beauty is represented in Scripture going back to the creation itself. In the exodus of the children of Israel, God ordained a theology of beauty in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle of Moses. These symbols were deliberately established to be constant reminders of God’s greatness, love and physical presence.

In an edited monograph, “Toward a Theology of Beauty,” systematic theologian Jo Davidson writes, “God pointedly established an elaborate, lavish system of corporate worship in the Old Testament. Yet, over and over again He censured through His prophets the glorious worship that He Himself designed and implemented but that was now being used to disguise a degenerate life. The internal condition of the participant is critical: “‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ (Amos 5:23, 24).”

Beauty is not a final solution; it must touch and heal the heart as well. Many religions believe in a theology of beauty, and express a God-given appreciation of that beauty in their symbols.

As a religion scholar, I’ve made field trips to many religious edifices in various areas of the world. Invariably I’ve been drawn to God through my viewing of the symbolism represented by various features. At Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia, “The Prophetic Quest,” a series of 10 stained glass windows by artist Jacob Landau, brought entire books and chapters of Old Testament prophets leaping to mind.

But social justice initiatives are also an ongoing feature of this column. Many churches ignore their importance. I do not.

I appreciate the dialogue this column offers in the religious community. Not everything I write will be appreciated, nor do I expect it to be. However, I enjoy hearing back from readers. More questions are welcome either in the comments  or by email, at churchvisits@gmail.com. As time allows, I try respond personally to each. Happy questing!

About the Author

Top recommendations for churches — and church members — in 2016

When I write about churches I visit, I am really visiting congregations or assemblies of people. They may or may not meet in a dedicated building. For Christians, the biblical term for church is taken from the Greek word ekklesia, which is defined as “an assembly” or “called-out ones.” When people refer to their churches, often they’re referring to a specific building, but my columns tend to focus on churches as a congregation made up of its members, including leaders — and this column is no exception.

In this year’s top 10 list, I’m offering  recommendations that can strengthen and maintain strong Christian congregations. But they’re not only for church leaders: Individual church members must also take responsibility for their congregations. Leaders alone cannot achieve what their church’s members are not willing to tackle.

Resolve to attend church regularly

Attendance patterns for Alaska churches are some of the lowest in the U.S. Regular church attendance has strong physical, mental and spiritual benefits.

Study the Bible and its origins

Regular, personal Bible study has significant benefit for believers. Don’t depend on what your minister feeds you. I highly recommend studying Bible origins and translations. Several readable scholarly study books might help: Bruce Metzger’s “The Bible in Translation,” Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” and just published, Robert Hutchison’s “Searching for Jesus” will add to your confidence level in scripture.

Measure, discuss and confront loud music at your church

Many smartphone apps provide the ability to measure the loudness of music in your church. Loud music can damage your hearing and your family’s through repeated exposure. In many churches music is played at 100-105 decibels. My highest reading this past year was 117 decibels. A papercovering 43 studies of hearing loss published by McGill Journal of Medicine demonstrates how preventable it is. It’s foolish for churches to promote physical, mental and spiritual health but create hearing damage. Be proactive and communicate with your church leadership. Your church’s sound people and worship team must understand the gravity of this issue.

Be part of the greeting solution

Why support missions halfway around the world and be dismissive of the stranger who is visiting your church? Be friendly. Introduce yourself to strangers and welcome them. You’d do the same in your home, wouldn’t you? Church is your spiritual home. The number-one reason church guests vow to never return to a particular church is that they are made to feel unwelcome. Every church should adopt the 10-foot rule — meaning every member should be encouraged to welcome those within a 10-foot radius.

Learn about and observe the concept of Sabbath

Christians, for the most part, observe a day of worship limited to a few hours on Saturday or Sunday. A quick read of the Bible reveals Sabbath to be a 24-hour cessation of work. Its intent is for a physical, mental and spiritual R&R. Devoting only a few hours to the observance of Sabbath cheats you of the benefits God gave us at creation, and underlined in the 10 commandments. “Sabbath” by Dan Allender, “Mudhouse Sabbath” by Lauren Winner and “Sabbath Keeping” by Lynne Baab are excellent books about the benefits of reserving a day a week to worship, rest and restore.

Support community needs with direct action

Many Christians in our community avoid helping others. Evangelical churches here often ignore helping the poor, sick, needy and downtrodden. Appeals are often made to support world evangelism and missions, but the greatest mission field is here in Alaska. It is hypocritical to think otherwise. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and liturgical churches regularly care for and support community-wide needs. Why this divide exists puzzles me. The Bible says “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Use group study to replace dying Sunday schools

A distinct national trend has developed about Sunday schools — they’re dying. Some churches have replaced them with small groups that meet at various times during the week or sometimes on Sunday. A tendency of many groups is to read and discuss various “flavor-of-the-month” spiritual books rather than to delve into the Bible, digesting it and learning from it. Don’t neglect the Bible for these types of groups. Be courageous and form your own Bible reading and study group instead. Radical church transformations can occur.

Be comfortable inviting someone to worship or study with you

It’s a wonderful thing to sing about the “good news” of Christ, and be effusive over his presence in your life. If this is true, then share it with someone who may not have a connection with Christ or may possibly be unfulfilled in their current church experience. Offer to personally study with them or accompany you to a meaningful service at your place of worship.

Give back financially

Christians believe a key response to the value of the gift they’ve received merits a heart response in giving. Scripture tells us “God loves a cheerful giver.” If you believe your church is spending too much on overhead and not enough on the “good news” of spreading the gospel, get involved. Ask to be included in discussions of church finances.

Pray more, complain less

Prayer is one of the healthiest things you can do. A recent Psychology Today article listed five benefits of prayer. National polling data indicates that more than half of us pray every day, and more than 75 percent believe prayer is important to our daily lives. Prayer is not posture. One can pray anywhere and everywhere. Very few pastors talk about prayer in their sermons. It should be stressed.

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.

Are we really through with religion in Anchorage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 suggestions for improving Anchorage’s faith community – 12/27/14

Around the New Year for the past five years, I’ve presented my top 10 list of non-theological issues I feel lessen the effectiveness of our faith community. Surprisingly, little changes from year to year, which may contribute to the malaise affecting churches and members; there seems to be little interest in self-examination. A few readers report signs of change. One reader recently noted her large-church pastor announced “meet n’ greets” and “self-identification” will be replaced with pre- and post-service hospitality — a step in the right direction. With best intentions for our faith community, I forge ahead and present my top ten list for 2015, in no particular order.

Reduce proof texting

Many preachers use a form of sermon delivery incorporating “proof texting.” Taking a theme, they support it by dozens of texts from all over the Bible. Recently I attended a service at a well-known evangelical church in town. The pastor spent the majority of his talk time quoting so many verses of Scripture that by the end, my biblically-rooted head was fairly spinning. An unnecessary and defensive practice, it confuses and possibly misleads more than it informs.

Takeaway: Proof texting is not the best practice

Balance social gospel outreaches

Some churches spend so much time focusing on social gospel issues, they fail to inform and inspire membership on understanding the totality of the gospel. While social gospel issues are important, too often they duplicate the work of the state and community dealing with individuals and families with needs, who may have no interest in the gospel or a spiritual life, making churches welfare agencies.

Takeaway: There’s more to religion than social gospel

Adopt customer service attitudes for your guests

After 15 years of visiting area churches, I find most lack in treatment of guests. Usually I’m ignored, not welcomed, and leave with more questions than answers. However, churches tend to avoid self-examination, denying such behavior exists. The untrained serve as greeters, providing poor hospitality. I’m traveling in my ancient truck as I write this. Needing a spare tire I located the appropriate wheel at a wrecking yard, and took it to a well-known Oregon-based tire company. Carrying the wheel inside, I was surprised when a representative opened the door, took the wheel from me, while asking me what I needed. My need was quickly serviced, and I was on my way with a smile. From that experience alone, I’ll go to that company in the future. Despite Genesis 18 counsel, and numerous Pauline exhortations, few churches do this. Greeters need to be similarly trained, pure and simple.

Takeaway: Customer service attitudes are needed in churches

Clean up church websites

Too many church websites are a mess — out of date, poorly designed and maintained, lacking service times and locations on the main page. Beautiful pictures of mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests adorn most church websites. Yes, Alaska is very beautiful but our natural beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the work of any church.

Takeaway: Poorly designed and maintained church websites hurt more than help

Provide guest parking

Too many churches do not provide any guest parking, or if they do, designate a pitiful number of spaces. Signs saying “First Time Guest Parking Only,” translates to “Welcome, we expected you.”

Takeaway: Guest parking is not an option, it’s a must

Stop blasting people

The worst sound I experienced in 2014 was 117db, equivalent to the sound of a jet taking off from 100 yards. This behavior is anti-Christian by its insensitivity. A mother with a newborn was across the aisle from me, about 30 feet from the stage. I believe that child suffered permanent ear damage from it. Here’s a thoughtful take — including a useful chart — on the subject.

Takeaway: It’s un-Christian to blast guests with excessive sound levels

Create a millennial-friendly environment

The millennial generation offers the greatest hope for the church, yet most churches provide millennial-unfriendly environments. Few churches actively study the massive amounts of research on millennials to understand and address their needs. The average member doesn’t know what a millennial is, what their issues are with churches and religion, and seem not to care.

Takeaway: Understanding millennials is critical to the survival of most churches

Cultivate hospitality attitude

How many sermons on hospitality have you heard during your years of church attending? Probably none or few, especially compared to the number of sermons you’ve heard on giving, missions, or you name it. Hospitality is a practical application of the Christian life. Guests are stranded in a strange land when they visit a church using non-inclusive language. Compare this with how you would treat someone in your home. Sitting down to dinner you might recognize your guests, and let them know how happy you are to break bread with them. You might say a prayer, noting it’s your custom to hold hands around the table as it’s said. This doesn’t usually happen in churches, but recently I attended a communion service where it was done. It was wonderful — like being part of a family! “Meet and greets” and calls for guests to identify themselves was the topic of a recent column citing a survey by church researcher Thom Rainer as the top reason first-time guests do not return.

Takeaway: Customer service understanding can pay big dividends for your church

Rethink attitudes toward music

Most evangelical and Pentecostal churches devote a lengthy amount of time — perhaps 30-45 minutes — to music. Songs tend to be contemporary, and presented in pop/rock format at excessive decibel levels (see above). Often congregants are so unfamiliar with the songs, there is little singing. In essence, it becomes a concert performance with lyrics that are often theologically dubious or sentimental. A few churches are discovering the beauty of hymnody. Catholics too are going through a renewal of their music.

Takeaway: It’s not about the music wars; it’s about the meaning of the music

The mission field is really Alaska, not elsewhere

Alaska church people still send people to far-flung mission fields on expensive, short-term mission trips instead of recognizing the mission field is here. Most African mission fields, for example, are much more Christianized than Alaska. Why are people and millions going there instead of resources being devoted here?

Takeaway: The mission field is here

Happy New Year and joyful church-going!