My first visit to Anchorage Grace Church in April was ill-timed due to our ongoing volcanic events. (click here to read previous visit review) In that review, I expressed concerns about the lack of greeting, lengthy service, and certain aspects of the music. Recently invited to revisit by a member, I tried again last Sunday, November 15. Incredibly, nothing had changed! I received no welcome, and was not even handed a bulletin. Once again there was a substitute pastor, prompting last weeks post on why churches do not announce on their websites who's preaching. The musical program was highly programmed and lengthy. I was basically disregarded during my entire visit, an antithesis of what Christians are to be. The substitute pastor spent the first 15-20 minutes of his 55 minute discourse explaining and justifying the how's, why's and where's of his preaching on the 3 verses he'd chosen from Hebrews, the focus of his remarks. A test read of Hebrews revealed that the entire book could have been read to the congregation in 35-40 minutes. I was not encouraged by this visit. Surely the intervening seven months under new leadership would have provoked some noticeable changes.
Greeting is Essential!
Unless visitors are warmly greeted on their first visit, they are unlikely to return. I only returned to Anchorage Grace Church because a member wrote, encouraging me to do so. The new pastor in place and changes were occurring. I was not greeted by anyone upon entering the church and no bulletin was handed to me. Some critics of my visits suggest it is my responsibility to seek my own greetings and to search for what is missing, e.g. bulletins. Not true! I'm writing about my experience as a visitor. If it's happening to me, it's likely happening to others. Christians should be noted for their warmth and hospitality. It's not just my words it's a Biblical injunction.
Musical Service Yo-Yo
The praise team leader started close to schedule, 10:45 a.m., noting we were there to sing and worship in our own way. I relaxed and thought this was going to be great! Amazingly he then told the audience to stand to sing, i.e. in his way! In fact this stand/sit cycle happened a number of times during the service, enough that I felt like a yo-yo being scripted to rise and sit in response to the various contemporary Christian songs they use. Anchorage Grace has a very professional sounding orchestra of approximately 16 or so musicians. That, plus the praise group of five gives their music a full sound. Their huge screen ensures no one is without the words, but for those of a more traditional background, you may not hear any music you recognize.
We sang seven songs, a goodly number for any church. Audience participation was mixed, possibly due to the gym versus standard church atmosphere, i.e. you can't even hear yourself sing in a building like this. After scripture and prayer, they started singing again while we were seated, and one verse in, the music leader asked us to stand again. We sat for the offering after which the praise group started singing again and yet again, after one verse, the leader asked us to stand. If you dislike being told to stand, and sit, and stand, and sit repeatedly for musical reasons, Anchorage Grace may not be for you. This could have been easily dealt with by the musical leader. It was not audience friendly.
My concern for the preaching was that yet again, I found another speaker placed in front of me who was not the regular pastor, a problem not unique to Anchorage Grace, but a regular occurrence in my church visits. The name given was only Randy. I don't know where the new regular pastor was but he was not there (and I had no bulletin). Visitors appreciate being told who told who the participants are. I looked at Anchorage Grace's website before leaving home. No clue was given as to who was preaching this day. This is a shortcoming of Anchorage Grace and many other mainline Anchorage churches. The internet is rapidly replacing most other types of media. Why this information would not be posted on their website is beyond me. I don't like surprises and many other churchgoers feel the same way. (See last week's post about this shortcoming)
As mentioned at the beginning, I was irritated by Randy spending the first 15-20 minutes of his 55 minute sermon justifying why he was preaching on the three verses from Hebrews upon which his remarks were based. If the entire book of Hebrews, not terribly dense, was read to the audience in 35-40 minutes (it can be done), it could have exposed them to the sway of God's word with room for pastoral reflection at the end.
Randy also mentioned, in quoting a text from 2 Peter, that he could identify with it because it was written by Peter, a fisherman, as Randy too had been a fisherman. Most Biblical scholars are fairly agreed that Peter was not the author of 2 Peter. (click to view Wikipedia reference) The sermon was closed with prayer. I thought church was over but another participant came up, commented upon the sermon and other matters, and closed again with prayer. Two closing prayers, in a couple of minutes, seemed a bit awkward.
Maybe Anchorage Grace has made some positive changes with their new pastor, but I saw no evidence of them. For me, it remains an unfriendly church with a lengthy, uninterrupted music program prone to unnecessary calls to stand and sit. The preaching I've heard has not touched my heart, something I look for in every church visit. In both sermons I've heard there, I was most touched when both pastors finally stepped out from the pulpit and actually got closer to the crowd. Christian services need to be real, believable, and touchable. Otherwise they become dry and sterile. I'm open to visit this church again when I have evidence they embrace the visitor.
As often mentioned in this column, consistently hospitable churches are just that way. They don't tend to have bad days. Every church, no matter how consistent, should be out visiting other churches to see what works and what doesn't. Trinity Presbyterian, just up Huffman from Anchorage Grace, is a great example of gracious Christian hospitality, never missing a visitor with a greeting, a bulletin, short and concise Bible-based sermons, and an awesome musical program that does not have people jumping up and down. Trinity's pastoral team is not pulpit bound, avoiding the pulpit and going into the audience to make their points. Trinity is certainly worth a visit for any church seeking fresh ideas.