Most have heard that the church in Seattle is dying, but is that the whole story?

Dr. Christopher James answers questions about his new book, Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil, and also shares his hope for the church in Seattle and beyond.

What initially inspired you to write this book?

Having grown up in Seattle, I knew there was a different story to tell about that place than the decline narrative, which dominates national headlines about religion. As one of the most post-Christian cities in the nation—and also one of the most progressive, urban, and technological—I had a hunch that attentive research could unearth some good, hopeful news for the U.S. church as its context becomes increasingly urban, technological, progressive, and post-Christian.

What does the term “post-Christian society” mean? How does Cascadia qualify?

Post-Christian can mean a lot of things, but I use the term to describe the reality that the West, including the U.S., is seeing marked declines in Christian affiliation and practice. Weekly church attendance has fallen steadily in the United States since 1972. The last four decades have seen the number of those with “no religious preference” more than triple. More broadly, these trends create social conditions in which identifying as a Christian or going to church no longer earns you social credit, but the opposite—especially among younger generations.

Cascadia has some of the highest percentages of religiously unaffiliated “Nones”in the country. The 2016 American Values Atlas found the Seattle metro to have the highest percentage of religiously unaffiliated inhabitants among major metropolitan areas (40%). Barna’s Cities survey, which includes questions ranging from Bible reading and prayer to church participation, also ranks the Seattle-Tacoma area among the nation’s more post-Christian metros. The greater Seattle area is home to a higher percentage of atheists—10%—than any other large U.S. metro area.

Interestingly, though, Cascadia’s post-Christian society isn’t a post-spiritual society. Two-thirds of the Northwest’s “Nones” believe in God and half of them agree that God helps them personally.

Interestingly, though, Cascadia’s post-Christian society isn’t a post-spiritual society. Two-thirds of the Northwest’s “Nones” believe in God and half of them agree that God helps them personally.

Moreover, the institutional weakness of Christian in Cascadia has counter-intuitively resulted in making it an “open environment” where alternative and sectarian religions often thrive (this has benefited a diverse range of groups, including Wiccans, Mormons, Adventists, and Holiness-Pentecostals, all regionally overrepresented) and where the minority status of confessional Christians serves to make them more fervent rather than to demoralize them.

 

What is the difference between people who describe themselves as “spiritual” or “religious?” Why is this distinction important?

Understanding the “spiritual-but-not-religious” (SBNR) group is important, but a bit tricky because it doesn’t mean what we easily assume. SBNRs, unlike “Nones,” aren’t defined by their religious affiliation but by their responses to two separate survey questions: Do you consider yourself to be spiritual? and Do you consider yourself to be religious?

As sociologist Nancy Ammerman has clarified, those who occupy the spiritual-but-not-religious category are rarely the freewheeling, Eastern/eclectic practitioners that people tend to imagine. Their spirituality may be a patchwork, but the scraps of cloth at hand for many are well worn and patently Christian. Indeed, a significant number of the spiritual-but-not-religious hold recognizably Christian beliefs (about God, the Bible, and Jesus), engage in central Christian practices (Christmas and Easter services, prayer, Bible reading), and may even identify with a local congregation, all while eschewing self-identification as a “religious person.” This is despite the fact that fully two-thirds of the spiritual-but-not-religious are religiously affiliated. Often, when a person identifies as spiritual but not religious, it’s because they want to distance themselves from the perceived evils perpetrated by organized religion (especially Christianity); this often tells you precious little about their religious beliefs and practices. When it comes to being spiritual and/or religious in practices, it is usually both or neither, since spiritual practices are spiritual outlooks are what religious communities offer.

What was the most surprising thing you learned through the course of your research?

I was surprised by just how polarized the ecclesial landscape is in Seattle, with the evangelicals on one side and the mainline liberals on the other. I suspect Mars Hill added to this polarization, but it was crystal clear in the survey responses I received from fifty-seven church-plant pastors. Virtually every significant feature of evangelical churches was counter-indicated by mainline churches, and visa versa. So, everything that was notably important to emphasize in the one group is notably underemphasized in the other. This reality of not just antipathy, but identity-in-opposition drove me to begin thinking about how to make theological sense of the church as an ecology of churches living in various ways in competition and collaboration with one another.

What has the process of writing this book taught you about Cascadia?

I knew Cascadia was a progressive and post-Christian place, but it took a while to realize how important it was to not let these descriptions of the majority overshadow the reality that there’s another side to the coin. Most Seattleites are progressive, but conservatives have had to work to develop and sustain their conservative positions, and as a result they have a high degree of ownership of these views. The same is true for confessional Christians in the midst of a non-Christian majority. So, in the same breath as stating that Cascadia is a progressive and post-Christian place, I’m quick to sat it’s also a politically and religiously polarized place.

In fact, it was this realization which propelled my current research, looking at all the churches in Dane County, WI, which includes Madison (another progressive, post-Christian urban area) as well as some conservative, rural communities.

What are your hopes for this book? How do you think it will impact the church in Cascadia?

My central hope is that this book will give the church hope for the future, based in the reality that the Spirit is giving birth to new life even in this place that many see as a God-forsaken ecclesial wasteland. The reality that our nation is becoming increasingly post-Christian does not mean that God is absent or that churches can’t be faithful and viable. The 105 church plants I found in Seattle demonstrate that a wide range of Christian communities can take root in post-Christian soil. So, we should quit the handwringing and get to the work of discerning how to join with what God is doing in the midst of these significant cultural shifts.

So, we should quit the handwringing and get to the work of discerning how to join with what God is doing in the midst of these significant cultural shifts.

Also, more particularly, I want to highlight the promise of what I call the “neighborhood incarnation” model for the wider church. This model takes a hyper-local approach to Christian life and mission in, of, and for the neighborhood. When I compared the four models I found to the insights that emerged out of reflection on the last two-hundred years of mission work, it was clear that this “neighborhood incarnation” approach was the clearest embodiment of a trust that God is at work out ahead of us. The result is a refreshingly balanced assessment of the context as both broken and beautiful, as well as a proactive approach to mission that’s bigger than either saving souls or serving the city, but aspires to participate in the renewal of all things, locally.

Tell us a bit about the event you have planned for October 12th with PivotNW.

On Friday, October 12th, we’ll be exploring the life and neighborhood of one particular “neighborhood incarnation” church: Sanctuary in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle. The event is hosted by PivotNW, an initiative housed at Seattle Pacific University that’s helping churches explore the challenge of connecting with young people. I’ll speak at the beginning, providing a little setup. Then we’ll take a walking tour of Greenwood and have a conversation at the Green Bean Coffeehouse (run by Sanctuary) after.

If this topic has sparked your interest, please join us on October 12th to learn more and participate in the discussion. You can find details about the event here.

To learn more about Chris’s award-winning book and to see purchasing options, visit Amazon or Oxford University Press.