n the small town where I pastor (population 4,000), there are 24 wineries, five breweries, five bars, and 17 churches. Several times a year, our entire downtown is closed off and booths are set up for wine-tasting festivals. Groups stagger from booth to booth in drunken stupors, celebrating the sophisticated enlightenment of Washington wineries. Shuttle buses between downtown and area hotels provide a safe way for tourists to drink as much as they want without needing to drive.
The American Northwest is as far from the Bible Belt culturally and socially as we are geographically. Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska have far more in common with British Columbia, Alberta, or the Yukon Territory than with states like Alabama or Mississippi. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, Oregon and Alaska have the lowest percentage of church attendance for any American state (31%), with Washington being next (32%). Contrast this with church attendance in Mississippi (63%) and Alabama (58%). Throughout the Northwest, it is common to see church buildings that have been converted to art studios, wineries, bike shops, or other commercial businesses.
The numbers for the Northwest are actually worse than they look because they reflect attendance in any type of religious service—Christian, Muslim, pagan, and so on. For instance, in Washington there are more professing Wiccans than Pentecostals. Protestant church attendance in the Northwest ranges from 3 to 10 percent.
Perhaps where you live, coffee is simply a drink. In this region, drinking gourmet coffee is chic. Starbucks is in our grocery stores, airports, bookstores, and virtually every mall. Some type of gourmet coffee is available at almost all restaurants— including drive-through vendors on many street corners and at most gas stations. The person who orders the most complicated drink is considered superior to the old-fashioned latte or cappuccino drinker. For instance, a true coffee gourmand might order “iced venti, five shot, half calf, three pump, five sweet and low, nonfat, no whip, white chocolate mocha,” while sneering at the customer who orders black coffee. Coffee shops are places to socialize, work, and to see and be seen. They have become the “churches” of the Northwest.
When you walk into a typical medium to large size church in the Northwest, you will find a barista making gourmet coffees in the foyer. You might think you walked into a Starbucks, because the look, feel, and smell will be the same. Popular church culture in our region has opted into coffee culture. Pastors are adding coffee bars, bookstores, and free Wi-Fi to their churches to maintain cultural relevance. This is fine, of itself.
However, in this region (across denominations) the moving of the Holy Spirit, strong emphasis on the Bible, and deep meaningful prayer have largely been forgotten. Too many churches focus their time and attention on popularity and staying current with the latest fads in the church world.
This connects with a problem in our area: People are approaching church with the same consumer mind-set they use for their trip to the mall. I suggest churches have done this by presenting themselves in the same light as a retail business rather than as the called-out body of Christ. The result is that small churches are shrinking and megachurches are growing, but overall, the body of Christ is disappearing from the Northwest region.
A second major societal influence in this area is computer culture. Seattle is the heart of the Northwest, where Bill Gates and the Microsoft headquarters are at the center of a technology boom. Technology is everywhere, and it is important to be seen using the most popular tech. The first step for a family looking for a new church is to check the church’s website and Facebook page. If the church has neither, it is seen as not worth visiting.
Sharp pastors are podcasting and livestreaming as they preach from iPads. Their outlines are downloadable through the in-church Wi-Fi, and the sermons absolutely must include multimedia. In thriving churches, one will see more people using their smartphones to read the Bible than printed Bibles. For small churches, it is impossible to compete with well-funded larger churches. Consumer-oriented Northwest “church shoppers” will not settle for a low-tech church.
A third significant social force influencing the Northwest is alternative lifestyles. Washington has the third-highest percentage of homosexuals of American states, at 5.7% of the population (the national average is 3.5%, according to Gallup). Homosexual activism has become a politically correct and socially affirmed cause for many Northwesterners. In countless communities, Martin Luther King Day has become a venue for gay-pride events.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal in this state, it is a very divisive issue in our churches. I live in a conservative town, by Washington standards, but the biggest issue confronting our church and our students in the public schools is homosexuality. Public schools have a definite pro-gay agenda, and our young people are wrestling with issues that were never even a thought for most of my generation.
A family recently visited our congregation looking for a new church. They were leaving their old church because that group had decided to stand against ordaining homosexuals, so this family was out shopping for a more tolerant congregation.
The state of our society in the Northwest has caused me to recently reconsider my role as a pastor. A traditional job description for a pastor seems to be entirely irrelevant to my community.
An African pastor sponsored by our church came to preach for us. As we conversed, we both realized that he came from a community with far more traditional Christian values and norms than my town, and a significantly greater percentage of his community are Christians. That is when I began to realize I need to become a missionary here in Prosser. The words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 are never far from my mind: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (NKJV).
The Northwest is a beautiful place to live and a prime mission field for the harvest; the situation of the church is very appropriate for the words of Christ in Luke 10:2: “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (NKJV).
Dan Eason is pastor of the Prosser, Washington, Church of God.