This is the second of a two-part exposé on consumerism and Christianity in Cascadia. 

Churches will try just about anything to stay relevant. From music to mochas, countless attempts are made by churches to appeal to culture, especially the next generation. Don Draper, the famous advertiser from the hit TV show Mad Men, says, “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness.” And like Draper with his marketing savvy, churches often stop at nothing to make people happy. But with such a reality comes a warning:

We must learn to exist in a consumer culture but not forfeit our souls at its altar.

-Skye Jethani

To retain the “soul” of the church, as Jethani incites, engaging millennials must move beyond consumeristic attempts at church retention (see part 1). Instead of competing for millennials, the Cascadia church needs to find ways to connect with millennials. The paradigm of “faithful presence” is one such way.

Contrary to slick marketing efforts, faithful presence roots discipleship in the character of God and the reality of everyday life. James Hunter Davison, in his book To Change the World, describes faithful presence as the church’s task to “bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God,” where Christians function practically as “a different people and an alternative culture that is…integrated within the present culture.” Deeply theological and necessarily practical, such a view challenges faith and consumerism in Cascadia, particularly when it comes to cultural engagement and local relationships in daily life.

Cultural Engagement

Churches’ attempts at relevance with millennials can distance faith from culture. Faithful presence offers a model for cultural engagement that embeds discipleship in culture. Very practically, Christians are participants in culture. And noting this reality doesn’t have to be complex. As Hunter writes, “The call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us—the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted.”

Such presence connects with the value millennials already place on authenticity and meaning. For example, millennials’ strong desire to be difference makers in the world can be encouraged in tangible ways. Creative volunteering opportunities (e.g. non-church events) and venues for face-to-face interaction on faith and culture (e.g. local philosophers clubs) are simple ways millennials can engage culture with faithful presence.

Such participation does result in a certain tension – the balance between accommodation/acceptance and challenge/rebuke.

Such participation does result in a certain tension – the balance between accommodation/acceptance and challenge/rebuke. Hunter calls the church to be present in the “dialectic between affirmation and antithesis.” For a generation as culturally diverse and socially minded as millennials, navigating this tension may be easier than previous generations of Christians. At times this will involve challenge to culture. And at times this will involve collaboration.

Engaging this tension is part of faithful cultural engagement. Roundtable conversations on faith and sexuality is one example where churches can foster participation with millennials in grappling with difficult topics. Additionally, Cascadia churches already participating in various forms of social enterprise, environmental stewardship, artistic expression, and social justice advocacy are well placed to lead millennials in the coming years. Cascadia churches need to push further into these areas of cultural engagement.

Local Relationships and Daily Life

Too often discipleship is seen as an abstract subject of universal appeal and practice. Little attention is given to the particularities of time and place.

From this posture of embedding discipleship in culture comes a need for local expressions of faith. If consumerism fosters shallow faith, alternative practices are needed to sustain the depth of faithful presence. Too often discipleship is seen as an abstract subject of universal appeal and practice. Little attention is given to the particularities of time and place. What will work in Portland, however, won’t necessarily work in Seattle or Vancouver. The problem, Hunter cites, is the acceptance of a “geography of nowhere” – a pervasive mistrust in the connection between belief in God and daily life. By ignoring place, the church unknowingly mirrors its surrounding culture, as part one illustrates with consumerism. And the result, we’ve seen, is an incomplete vision for discipleship. Attention to the role of place can help address this problem.

In Cascadia, then, instead of marketing a generic faith in moments of certainty, experience, or relevance, local relationships become critical to millenials’ faith development. Hunter elaborates:

Faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places they experience directly…It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of the people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, coworkers, and community—where we find our authenticity as a body and as believers. It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible within which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context from within which shalom is enacted.

Millennials get this. Despite a propensity towards individualism, millennials value relationships as essential for personal fulfilment. Hunter calls this being “fully present” with others. To engage millennials, then, space must be created to allow presence with others to develop in day-to-day life. Beyond isolated programs and events, face-to-face relationships are needed in a variety of contexts – an experience of authentic community to sustain faith through the many seasons of life in young adulthood and beyond. Stories in Cascadia of potlucks and informal peer-to-peer mentoring are examples of such local relationships.

Bored at WorkThe day-to-day experience of work ought to be included here. To connect faith to daily life, work must be seen as more than just “putting in time.” For Hunter, daily work is a valuable context for discipleship – “Faithful presence requires that Christians be fully present and committed to their tasks.” This is challenging in Cascadia, where the paths to personal fulfillment are many for its citizens, millenials included. Cascadia cities attract artisans and recreational enthusiasts who are willing to work so they can play, even if such work is unfulfilling itself. Churches typically place an emphasis on discerning spiritual gifts, but neglect providing constructive life direction. Discernment is often left to schools and families to process with millennials. Missing is intentional community prayer and discernment. Life coaching, mentoring, and discernment groups can create space for millennials to share openly about their hopes and dreams related to their career aspirations. Cascade Fellows or Regent College’s Marketplace Institute are examples of Christians exploring aspects of faithful presence and work that could greatly benefit Cascadia millennials.

No doubt questions of Christianity and cultural engagement will persist. New generations of young adults will bring different perspectives and challenges as churches explore discipleship in Cascadia. Facing such challenge, faithful presence provides a paradigm for discipleship able to adapt to whatever cultural situation the church finds itself. Instead of reacting to a consumeristic culture and in turn consuming millennials, engaging culture in local relationships and daily life invites a participation with millennials needed to adapt to the ever-changing context of Cascadia.