Recently, I visited two Anchorage churches on separate weeks. I was struck by how differently I was treated in each church, how the services were conducted and how I felt about them afterward. Previously, I'd visited each of these churches and was familiar with their worship styles and treatment of guests. Both churches have similar-sized congregations but the similarities end there. Although they're not named in this article, detailed accounts of these church visits will be posted in the Church Visits blog at adn.com/churchvisits.
Church A was affiliated with a large national denomination having charismatic underpinnings. It was easily accessible, with a well designed website containing worship times and location prominently displayed. Parking was good and close by. Two women, greeting me at the door, handed me a worship guide, not a bulletin. It mainly contained information and events relating to the church but nothing about the worship service or its order, which I consider to be a guest-friendly gesture. Finding a seat near the front, I was surprised by the loud noise level before the service started.
Promptly at the appointed hour, the praise band of seven musicians got on the glittering stage. The leader said, "Stand," and they proceeded to weigh in with several songs of extremely loud worship music. During the "meet 'n' greet," three people welcomed me, shaking my hand.
The pastor, whom I'd really come to hear, warmly introduced a guest speaker. Wearing sunglasses, a cowboy hat, shirt, boots and jeans and carrying a guitar, the guest strode onstage and proceeded to play music at 100-plus decibels with much showboating. To his credit, he was quite the showman, and an excellent guitarist. He delivered the sermon sitting on a stool behind a computer screen, cowboy hat, dark glasses, and all. I felt his sermon was weak, and he annoyingly kept referring to the pastor as a theologian, even holding him above Luther, Calvin, Constantine and Augustine. Finally concluding his sermon with an altar call of sorts, he asked people to close their eyes and repeat the sinner's prayer. The sermon and singing lasted an hour. A second offering was taken to support sending him and his wife to a number of villages.
There were various Communion stations arranged around the edges of the sanctuary that people could visit during the service to partake of "do it yourself" Communion. Each station displayed a wooden cross on the wall to which people wrote and affixed notes.
As I left, one of the pastoral staff was at my exit door and shook my hand without comment. Driving away, I already knew it would be some time before I visited this church again.
Church B was affiliated with a well-known mainline evangelical denomination. Their website was easy to navigate and very helpful. Parking was easy to find even though many cars were in the lot and on the street. As I entered the church, I was warmly greeted by several individuals and handed a bulletin. I walked in and found a seat in a pew. The bulletin was well done, easy to read, and contained an order of service listing the events taking place, the people involved with them and the names of the songs to be sung.
Compared to all my other church visits in Anchorage, this church outdid itself with the numerous times I was greeted and made to feel welcome before the service started. It wasn't only me. They greeted each other warmly and in the same manner. Some of the pastoral staff even stopped to greet me. By the time church started, I felt so accepted I couldn't believe it.
The worship service started with the women's choir walking in from the rear down two aisles singing a wonderfully spiritual song. After they finished singing and were seated in the front, the Scripture for the day was read: three lengthy but wonderful passages read by a man first, followed by a woman. The woman prayed a beautiful, confident prayer that absolutely thrilled me. There was much music in this service, wonderfully performed, very spiritual, tying to the aspects of the service for which it was sung. Most important, it was not at ear-blasting levels. Everyone in the church seemed to be participating.
One of the pastoral staff delivered a awesome sermon, full of spiritual admonition and hope. He also sang a song of experience relating to his own life. As the service was concluding, there was an altar call, a fitting end to this fulfilling church visit. Leaving this church, I vowed I'd come back soon to experience this congregation's outstanding worship service, tributes of praise and love for each other.
Nelson Searcy, in his great book "Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church," notes: "Seven minutes is all you get to make a positive first impression. In the first seven minutes of contact with your church, your first-time guests will know whether or not they are coming back. That's before a single worship song is sung and before a single word of the message is uttered." This certainly proved true in these two visits. I did know.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.
By CHRIS THOMPSON