A friend of mine forwarded a link to a recent Huffington Post article about the most and least religious cities in the United States. Interestingly – but hardly surprising – you have to scroll waaaay down the list to find my current city of Portland, Ore.
“Looks like you have your work cut out for you,” he said. He’s right; I’ve met folks here who work in churches that tell people they work at a nonprofit when asked what they do, leaving the bit about the nonprofit being a church until they get to know each other better. And of course, we knew this when we came to the Pacific Northwest.
In fact, that’s part of what made me want to be here.
For some, there is great appeal in coming to an “unchurched” community, mainly because of the notion that this means there are that many more people in need of saving. And while this may or may not be true, there’s a lot of presumption that goes into saving those without religion, while assuming those who claim a faith are the ones to do the “saving.”
Personally I tend to come from the perspective that we all have opportunities to enrich one another’s perspective, and when I have the opportunity to be in an environment where the majority of people around me don’t share my views, that’s a good thing. And not so much for them as it is good for me. Such difference challenges me to really know what it is I believe, to be able to explain it in plain terms if asked, and to be open to other ways of seeing the world.
Where we run into trouble as Christians, I think, is when we determine that we have something the rest of the world needs, and that such need is necessarily a one-way street. Do I think I have a great opportunity to present the Christian faith to people in a fresh way who may have different understandings about what it means to follow the path of Jesus? I hope so. But to presume that, just because someone isn’t Christian – or isn’t even religious at all – they must not have anything worthwhile to teach me is culturally insensitive at best; at worst, it is a discredit to the faith we claim to represent.
Even Jesus was changed by people unlike him during the course of his ministry. I know some people believe the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus asking for healing for her daughter is actually a conscious test of faith Jesus is putting her through, but I don’t agree. Basically, he refuses to help her the first time she asks, because she is not a member of the “chosen people.” To add insult to injury, he basically calls her a dog. But in her persistence, his heart softens and he offers the help she requests.
I understand the appeal of arguing that Jesus simply was testing the woman. This keeps Jesus in the role of perfect teacher, which some desire to maintain for him. But for me, the exchange is an important glimpse into the utter humanity of Jesus who, as were his peers, a product of his culture. For me, the only context that helps me understand this situation at all is to imagine an Afghan Muslim coming to a Christian minister immediately after 9/11 and asking for help. I can understand why someone might be resistant to go out of their way in such a case, especially when there is so much need already right in front of us. But the convergence of the woman’s faithfulness and Christ’s love for her as a human person (not just a Canaanite) was what changed the whole game.
If you’re into the prophetic nature of scripture, I think it’s a microcosm of the larger story told by the New Testament in particular, which is: LOVE WINS.
What does this have to do with me, a Christian author and church leader living in one of the most secular places in the nation? It would be easy for me to spend all of my time tending to the needs of those already within the walls of my church, or even extending that favor to those who showed some possible promise of coming to the church eventually. But what about those who will never darken the doors of the church? How about the ones who have spoken only with disdain about the faith I claim? Should I show any less regard or compassion for those who mock, ridicule, or even attack my beliefs? Granted, there’s a degree of self-preservation that is a natural response to such negativity, but if someone honestly comes to me in need, with questions or simply seeking someone to listen, who am I to hold anything from the past against them?
In fact, given stories from the Gospel like the shepherd going out of his way to reach the one lost sheep, leaving the other 99 behind, a case could be made that it’s the most important work I could be doing.
Will I change their hearts? Will they come to believe what I believe? Will they attend my church? Maybe, and maybe not. But that’s not really the point. Despite prevailing sentiments about religion in Portland, I’ve already noticed a profound desire for meaning, community, justice, and growth in the people I’ve met. I share those values, and in as much as my faith can help me get there, I believe it’s important to employ it.
But what if my involvement in a religious institution actually gets in the way sometimes? What if it’s precisely the voice of an outside perspective that shakes me from my slumber, awakening me to the barriers I’ve been complicit in constructing between myself, others and God, all supposedly in the name of a faith that claims quite the opposite?
I know our church brought Amy and me here in large part to help reach out to people they’ve not been able to connect with in the ways they hope to. But unless and until I engage the culture around me with an equal degree of openness, trusting God’s spirit to move even within such unlikely relationships, I think I’m limiting the potential of faith to be so much bigger than religion ever can be.
Because of that, I can’t imagine a better place to be doing ministry than right here, where I am, today.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
Portland skyline, JPL Designs / Shutterstock.com