In the pilot for the television show Portlandia, lead characters Peter and Nance grill the waitress at a hip restaurant in Portland to find out if the chicken on the menu is truly local. This interrogation quickly takes on absurd proportions as they press for information about whether the hazelnuts the chickens eat are also local and how many square feet of space the chickens have. Hoping to bring some closure to this conversation, the waitress brings out a case file on the aforementioned chicken (named Colin) including a picture and extensive detail on his activities and treatment. But this only leads to further questions, Peter wants to know if Colin has, “a lot of friends—other chickens as friends”? Eventually Peter and Nance decide to put their dinner on hold as they head out to check out the farm where Colin was raised.
As Portlandia seeks to explore the comedic absurdities of Portland (as well as the Northwest as a whole), the issue of localism is a recurrent theme. While the localist movement as a response to the ‘McDonaldization of culture’ is really an international concern (see the Slow Food Movement), it seems to have a particularly strong following in the Pacific Northwest.
As residents of this region seek to ‘buy local’ and purge from their lives anything that has been targeted for mass consumption,the Christian community in the Northwest needs to be asking ourselves how we can communicate the Gospel in such a way that it capitalizes on its inherent localness. How can we convince our friends and neighbors that this Jesus we worship is truly local?
As residents of this region seek to ‘buy local’ and purge from their lives anything that has been targeted for mass consumption,the Christian community in the Northwest needs to be asking ourselves how we can communicate the Gospel in such a way that it capitalizes on its inherent localness.
We can think about the question of communicating a local Jesus from the perspective of what goes on inside the church as well as outside. Inside the church, we can consider how we preach Jesus to those who gather at the local church. Outside the church, we can explore notions of evangelism and public theology.
Serving as a pastor in Tacoma, it is my experience that faithful preaching is always local. It is local because the preacher is involved in the lives of the congregation and the community and in preparing the sermon he/she brings their questions, concerns, and struggles to the text. Preaching is local because it is tied to a particular gathered people who are at least somewhat geographically constrained.
It is local because the preacher is involved in the lives of the congregation and the community and in preparing the sermon he/she brings their questions, concerns, and struggles to the text.
If faithful preaching can truly be considered to be a localist action, then one question we can ask is how effective simulcast preaching is in the Northwest? Oddly, at two of the more successful churches in our region (Mars Hill and Bethany Community Church) many congregants will not encounter the preacher as a live person, but will rather view a live or pre-recorded video of the sermon. How is it that such a decidedly non-local method of communication plays well among at least some communities in this region?
Perhaps this simulcast phenomenon taps into an unresolved tension between the value of rootedness inherent in the localist movement and the value of constant connectivity promised by social media. This tension while by no means exclusive to this region is certainly being played out right here in the Northwest. As we wait to see whether the growth made possible by simulcast preaching will be sustained, it will be interesting to find out if any churches in the Northwest find a different path to growth by playing into the localism of preaching.
Since the Northwest is also characterized by a very low percentage of church attenders, the question of localism and the Gospel really ought to begin with the question of how to do effective evangelism in the Northwest. This question should include both a consideration of our rhetoric (persuasive speech) as well as our visible practices.
Since the Northwest is also characterized by a very low percentage of church attenders, the question of localism and the Gospel really ought to begin with the question of how to do effective evangelism in the Northwest.
With regard to the question of rhetoric, it is interesting to note that the massively popular Youtube video “Why I Love Jesus, but Hate Religion”, was filmed at Stadium High School right here in Tacoma (my home town). In this spoken word poem, Jefferson Bethke does a masterful job of leveraging the widespread animosity towards the institutional church of this region in order to make a strong case for Jesus:
See, because when I was God’s enemy and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said, “I want that man!”
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see it’s so much better than just following some rules?
Now lemme clarify: I love the church, I love the Bible, and yes, I believe in sin
But if Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in?
See, remember he was called a “glutton” and a “drunkard” by “religious men”
But the Son of God never supports self-righteousness; not now, not then.
It strikes me that Bethke’s poem has much to teach us about how to speak about Jesus to our unchurched neighbors in the Northwest. Especially those of us whose livelihoods are tied up with the institutional church, we would do well to make a distinction between our allegiance to a particular form of the local church and our allegiance to Christ for whom the local church purportedly exists.
While there is much to learn about how to use words effectively to communicate the Gospel in this region, we also have to keep in mind that words are not the only (or even the best) way to make inroads with this recalcitrant population. A case could be made that certain practices can have a more positive impact on how people in the Northwest perceive Jesus and/or the Christian community than words alone could accomplish.
One interesting example of what this could look like can be found at Community Dinners in Seattle. Community Dinners is the new name for the body formally known as Westlake Community Church, which was one of Seattle’s first Assembly of God churches. In their current iteration they have taken the word church out of their name and no longer focus on a particular building. Community Dinners serves free dinners four nights a week in four different neighborhoods. Their goal is to sponsor dinner churches in each of the 27 Seattle urban villages. By putting the focus on gathering local residents around a shared meal and de-emphasizing the cultural baggage associated with church jargon and buildings, Community Dinners strikes me as an intriguing model of how we might begin to communicate the Gospel to people who aren’t interested in hearing that message.
One final direction to explore with regards to localism has to do with public theology.
This question can be framed in terms of the kind of language we might employ for public discussion of theological concerns in this region.One could begin this inquiry by asking how to describe a concept like shalom using language that has credibility in the Northwest. While shalom is normally translated ‘peace’ in the Bible, this word conveys much more than simply the absence of conflict. Shalom is probably better understood as human thriving or wholeness. It involves each person living out her or his life to the full in the context of loving and healthy relationships with others, as well as a harmonious relationship with the rest of creation.
The idea of shalom is probably best understood not as an abstract theological concept, but rather as a concrete reality experienced in the context of one’s local everyday life.
The idea of shalom is probably best understood not as an abstract theological concept, but rather as a concrete reality experienced in the context of one’s local everyday life. So the question of shalom can begin with the notion of what does human thriving look like right here in the quirky distinctives of our own neighborhood?
One really interesting case study towards this end is Pemco Insurance’s ‘We’re a lot like You’ ad campaign. This for-profit company has done a fantastic job of capturing the ‘soul’ of this region in an endearing and whimsical way. We would do well to examine what ‘Relentless Recycler’, ‘Urban Chicken Farmer’, and “Skis in the Rain Guy” might tell us about the ways shalom is imagined in the Northwest and then key our advocacy for shalom to those kinds of images.
So, is this Jesus local? Of course He is. The very fact that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” in a particular place and time should answer that question once and for all. If that isn’t enough, the fact that Jesus carried out most of His public ministry in and around small towns and villages in the backwater region of Galilee before landing in Jerusalem should confirm Jesus’ localist ‘street cred’ to the most ardent skeptic. Jesus of Nazareth is irrepressibly local.
For those who care about sharing the good news in the Pacific Northwest, our job isn’t to figure out how to make Jesus local, but rather our job is to try to stop sequestering Jesus into our abstract and start universalizing imaginative frameworks that allow Jesus to reveal Himself clearly to our microbrew swilling neighbors and friends. If the Jesus we follow is truly local not just in His presence, but also in the method He’s adopted for carrying out His mission in the world; then it should have an impact on how we preach the gospel, how we share our faith with others, and in the ways we advocate for the values of God’s kingdom in the public realm.