In the shadow of the Space Needle, a symbol of the Pacific Northwest, 250 Christian leaders and scholars took the weekend to discuss how to live in this region — a region often thought to be “unchurched.”
In the Pacific Northwest, settled by entrepreneurs and gold miners who wanted to strike it rich, religion has often taken a back seat. That economic drive still plays a large role in the home of companies like Amazon, Boeing and Microsoft, said Matthew Kaemingk, director of the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture and organizer of the Christ & Cascadia Conference held Friday and Saturday in Seattle.
“People come here for a job. It is a culture based off the American financial dream,” he said. “It is not like the Baptists settling in the South or the Lutherans in the Midwest.”
Fuller Theological Seminary formed its Institute for Northwest Culture 11 months ago, and the Christ & Cascadia Conference, held at Seattle’s First Church, is to be the first of many such planned events. Kaemingk said he wants all branches of Christianity to unite to explore the major cultural questions, challenges and opportunities for the church in this region.
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The goal, however, is not to answer the questions, but to spark conversation about living in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
The main challenge facing Christianity in this region is attracting people who do not identify with a church but instead focus more on alternative spirituality.
“Just as they prefer to make their own software, airplanes, music, organic food and political movements, Cascadians also prefer to make their own religion,” Kaemingk said during a session Saturday.
As a first step to better understanding religious, spiritual and nonreligious communities in the Pacific Northwest, Christians of varying denominations — from conservative evangelicals to more-progressive Protestants — bounced from panel to panel discussing topics ranging from Intergenerational Ministry in an Asian-American Context to Faith and the Environment.
The theme of this conference was “to know and love this place,” and the best way to do that, said Mason Rutledge, senior director for the Western Washington region of Young Life, is to connect with other people in the Pacific Northwest Christian community to understand what they are doing and how they can work together.
“We all live in silos — every church and every community in a different one,” said Rutledge, who drove down from Everett. “We all get caught up doing our own things and don’t know what everyone else is doing.”
What scholars have found, Kaemingk said, is that Pacific Northwesterners are described as freethinking, anti-institution and individualists, making them more inclined to participate in a yoga class, hike a mountain or even attend a Seahawks game to find spirituality, rather than step inside a church.
With so many cultural, political, theological and sexual differences in the same place, Kaemingk said, churches need to reexamine some traditions to appeal to the broader community.
“People don’t like churches, so how important is the building, really?” he said.
Though Kaemingk and the attendees did not leave Saturday’s conference with a list of tasks to accomplish, what they hope will happen next is a continued conversation about Christianity in the Pacific Northwest.
“It was important to help people think about how the world is changing and how we need to change for the changing environment,” said Christine Sine, a doctor and organic gardener who created Mustard Seed Associates, an organization to assist churches and Christian organizations to engage the challenges of the 21st century. Sine was a panelist for one of the sessions.
The conference will continue every other year, with a topical conference in the off years.