Church Visits

Visiting Churches: Chris Thompson (stainedglass) is an amateur Alaskan biblical scholar and student of religion, especially as it relates to popular culture. He regularly attends national and regional American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature events to interact with and learn from worldwide religion scholars. Through unannounced mystery visits to churches in Anchorage and South-Central Alaska, he observes how guests (visitors) are treated during this initial church visit. Research indicates guests first visit perceptions affects further spiritual growth and religious attitudes as they search for a church home. Chris' church visits focus primarily on Christian churches. This blog contains accounts of those visits, and related posts about religion in culture. Chris looks for the following in his visits:

•Genuine welcome, true Christian hospitality

•Friendliness and warmth

•Effective, well-delivered, Bible-based, main teaching

•Music deepening the worship, not just entertainment

Google map of churches Chris Thompson has visited.

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Significant 2013 Church Visits Posts

Top Ten Issues Local Churches Must Address in 2013

Ten Things Churches Did That Blew Me Away In 2012

Guest Post: Why Theology Matters to Musicians

Church Visits: What's it like visiting a church with a guest-friendly service? - 7/5/2014 2:08 pm

Church Visits: 10 excuses people give for not attending church - 6/28/2014 11:21 am

Church Visits: Religious pluralism in Alaska here to stay - 6/21/2014 8:28 am

Church Visits: Welcoming churches can reverse attendance slump - 6/14/2014 9:21 am

Crosspoint Community Church Revisit – May 11, 2014 - 6/13/2014 1:44 pm

Church Visits: 5 easy ways to increase your biblical literacy - 6/7/2014 5:23 pm

Church Visits: Cardinal Dolan discusses the pastoral challenges facing Pope Francis - 5/31/2014 1:07 pm

Beast Feast: Great Food and Conversation - 5/30/2014 10:10 pm

First Covenant Unfriendly – Ultimately Impressed Me

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New Church for Church Visits
I’ve been driving by First Covenant for years. Located just off C Street South of the Delaney Parkstrip, it’s convenient to find. Their paved parking lot was only half full when I arrived for their 10 a.m. service on Sunday July 7. I’m always excited to visit a new church but was underwhelmed by my first five minutes at First Covenant. Read on.

No Greeting or Bulletin/Worship Guide
Despite the lobby being quite full with people having coffee and chatting, no one greeted me or gave me a bulletin when I walked in. There was a single greeter who was talking with another person. Entering the sanctuary, I found a seat about half-way back. At no time during or after the service did anyone approach me. This is inexcusable in any church. As a church visitor, I never do the work the church should be doing. Yes, I could have gone back and retrieved a bulletin, or introduced myself, wringing a greeting from someone. However, I’m there to experience how an average visitor is treated, not to train church members how to respond to me. Many pastors tell stories of people coming to church as a last desperate act before they end their life. In Anchorage, I could have gone on to end my life many times after visiting many churches where I’ve been totally ignored. It’s inexcusable!

Before Worship Service
Although I arrived on time for the worship service, few people were sitting in the sanctuary. I’d estimate 10-20. Most everyone was in the lobby having coffee. I don’t know why the service was late starting. Possibly the coffee crowd may have been the reason. I was there at the posted time, where was everyone else? Those sitting in the audience started talking louder and louder, over an organist who was mainly playing delightful renditions of hymns. At 10 a.m. she sat down in anticipation of a service start which didn’t happen. First Covenant’s website talked of a diverse multi-cultural membership but I saw little evidence of it. There were a few Alaskan Natives present this day, but I did like the mix of ages of the worshipers.First Covenant Music GroupFirst Covenant Music Group

Finally the Service Starts
At 10:07 the service finally got rolling with a pastoral welcome. The pastor focused on visitors who were part of a Merge team from the Yakima, WA area who were performing various hands on work and other ministries. Even at this juncture I did not feel he was welcoming me or any other non-Merge guests.

An upbeat group of 3 younger acoustic guitarists, a drummer, and pianist began the first of four hymns, pleasing to hear, and quite theological, a surprise in Anchorage where so much weak theology Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is performed every week. The 15 minutes of singing was a joy.

They sang songs like:
-On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand
-Where Justice Flows Down Like a River (CCM and a bit tricky to sing)
-Come Thou Almighty King (updated and awesome)

The prayer time was lengthy and the prayer was read by a native member. I believe reading prayers takes away their impact. I’ve heard few truly extemporaneous prayers given in the years I’ve been visiting churches. So many are read, seeming to tell God what is going on in this world, instead of relating to God in thanks, praise, and requests. We were then asked to stand to repeat The Lord’s Prayer.

Offering Taken
This was another church that asks everyone, including guests, to give. We were instructed to give with a "joyful heart", as giving was an "act of worship". No exceptions were noted for those visiting for the first time. It’s such a kind act to mention to guests to let the offering plate pass without feeling obligated to give. One of the mission team members from the Yakima, WA area played an offertory on the guitar, teaching the worshipers a new song. I liked this part very much.First Covenant Pastor Cepero PreachingFirst Covenant Pastor Cepero Preaching

But Then Something Happened
Pastor Max Cepero started talking at 10:35. Titled “What Does the Bible Say About Patriotism?” it was one of the best sermons on the topic I’ve ever heard. Cepero preaches extemporaneously, using limited but effective visuals. He raised solid questions about whether it’s truly possible to serve God and country at the same time, pointing out that dissent is our highest form of patriotism.
Pastor Max shared three struggle/questions he had.

1. Why do church members claim this country founded as a Christian nation?
Facts don’t support it.
2. Why do we only pray for "our" people in this country?
Why not others in other countries?
3. When we say God bless America, how do we say it...boastful?
Why just America?

You can listen to Pastor Cepero's excellent sermon HERE .

Communion and Dismissal
For communion a pre-communion hymn, Come Share the Lord was sung. Some readings and a commentary preceded communion but nothing was said about their practice of who may receive communion, a serious omission. The pastor wore a black anorak throughout the whole service, an Anchorage first for me. After dismissal I engaged Rob Williams MD, a member of the Merge team, in conversation and learned Compassion International was the organization directing them to their short-term mission assignments. The team of about ten limited themselves to budgets of approximately $1,000 each, a huge departure from the many Africa-bound short-term missioners from Anchorage last summer where $5,000 to $6,000 was the average for a similar length trip. There are other ways!

Why Did I Ultimately Like This Church?
I was conflicted by this visit. Although they don’t seem to have a guest-welcoming ethic, they have a great website, one of the best in Anchorage, one that drew me in. The music was a pleasant surprise. The variety of ages represented was very comfortable and a bit unusual for a church of this size. I estimate approximately 75-100 worshipers were present.

The sermon was Biblical, well-delivered, and easy to follow. Clearly this group is well cared for by an insightful pastor. They had a potluck after church to which all were invited. As I hadn't had any interaction with a single member, I was uncomfortable staying. I’d visit again and would recommend this church for a visit by someone looking for a good church. It may have been a bad day for the hospitality. After some time has elapsed, I’ll check out First Covenant again.

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