Do you know the spiritual temperature of your city? How do you gauge it? Do you base it solely off of statistics or church attendance? It can be easy to stereotype a particular city or area of the country.
I’ve heard references such as “the least-churched city in America” or the “buckle of the Bible belt,” and that stereotype can live deeply into the hearts of pastors and church leaders without diving deeper into the nuances and crevasses of our context. In each of our contexts, there are much more powerful, subtle forces waging that are important to discover and unearth than a stereotype that has been built up over time.
Ministering in Seattle, a common refrain when I travel is, “What a hostile place to God and spirituality.” To anyone who’s seen the headlines, read the blogs, reviewed the Census reports, it seems as if Seattle just isn’t that interested in God.
Recently, I was sitting with a notable Seattle business owner who grew up in a graceless, rule-based fundamentalist religious home. Eventually, he rejected the faith of his parents and became an agnostic. Highly critical of organized religion, this man has no intention of visiting a gathering of faith-minded God followers.
But there we were, bellying up in a local watering hole for a few hours, discussing God, faith and spirituality. He was incredibly curious to hear that I saw the God of the Bible as a loving entity and not a cosmic tyrant in the sky, baiting us to mess up just for a little sadistic fun.
“I love these conversations,” he told me. “Let’s continue to have them. You respect me and what I say, you listen and ask questions.”
As a lifelong Pacific Northwesterner and longtime pastor, I have had the joy of talking with people across various worldviews, religions, faiths and beliefs who are interested in having spiritual conversations, who want to talk about God — just like my business owner friend.
What’s clear is that there is a particular approach in Seattle — not only in politics, but also regarding God, religion and spirituality. Just as there is the “Seattle process” in politics, so there is a “Seattle process” in relation to faith.
This is a very important to understand, as I would not have come to this understanding through reading books and articles on Seattle, but by talking and connecting with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people in our city from all walks of life and backgrounds.
Seattle is full of people eager to discuss and dialogue about issues of God, but it’s also a city looking to sniff out harsh and unloving rhetoric from the faith community. It’s a city that will roundly reject a “faith” that demeans and dehumanizes people.
Each year at the Seattle Gay Pride Parade, religious folks hold signs saying, “Turn or burn,” “Repent or else” and other slogans that are dehumanizing and disrespectful. There have been threats by Christians to rally boycotts of local companies if they don’t change their stance on social issues. These types of faith-based approaches present God as an entity driven by hate and anger, and disregard the side effects such approaches might have: People would get laid off, families would foreclose on their homes.
But there is another way. In Portland, my friend Kevin Palau, President of the Luis Palau Association, was just featured in the New York Times for working hand-in-hand with Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of a large U.S. city, to rally more than 26,000 volunteers from Portland churches. The group has worked together to serve underprivileged schools, the homeless and other city needs, making Kevin and Sam’s friendship a great example of how religious and political groups can work together for the betterment of a city.
This is a large part of the reason I’ve been working with the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Though clearly a Christian organization with Christian values, they will partner with and serve anyone in our city, whatever their beliefs, positions, background or faith. Currently, Union Gospel Mission is working to develop an app to assess needs and service providers across King County in homelessness, hunger, human trafficking and other areas.