All along as I have worked on my social entrepreneurship people have asked one question before all others: "Has your church been supportive?" This is an important question because most of my week is actually not spent helping teenagers find life through work. It's spent doing somewhat traditional youth ministry for about 60 hours a week. The answer to that question is that my church has been incredibly supportive. I would even say they are cheering me on and the most common reaction I have received is understanding of what I am trying to do and unabashed curiosity. It has been wonderful, but it has caused me to ask why this has been true at my church. I think at least part of the answer lies in my context: The Pacific Northwest.
I am not a native Northwesterner. I grew up a couple of blocks from the ocean in Southern California where the water temperatures and coastal breezes WON'T kill you with hypothermia sand laced gale force winds...in July. My only connection with the Northwest before moving here was that I had hung with a variety of Northwestern types while in seminary. The Left Coasters tended to hang together with a smattering of folks from Colorado. We just seemed to get each other. Part of that was that I went to a Presbyterian Church and Presbyterianism is way different from the Rockies westward. So, I had no experience of Cascadia until I moved here. There are some things that make this place fertile for social entrepreneurship and new forms of ministry. Why?
My sense as an immigrant here is that part of the openness to experimention and innovation is that it has existed in relative independence from other areas for a long time. The Pacific Northwest (until maybe the last 10-15 years) has been relatively unknown for most of the rest of the country. You get the sense here of a kind of pioneer mentality. People are into figuring out things for themselves and kind of expect others to make it on their own. They are open to alternative ways of thinking of just about everything. I work at a relatively centrist church. It is a fascinating combination of slightly conservative theology, but politically it is more left than you might expect in such a church anywhere else. I also find this is true East of the Cascades as well. Sure, they are more conservative politically and theologically but there is that same kind of independent spirit. It can even seem unfriendly when you move here. People are warm at first, but it takes a while to break in. But, what it does in the church is beautiful.
Over the course of my life I have worked at 4 congregations and been apart of 6 in earnest. I have never been at one that has been more open to trying new things as Columbia Presbyterian Church. You wouldn't see them as radical from the outside. They aren't. The church itself looks pretty normal and ordinary. But, they always surprise me in terms of how open they are to trying new things in terms of ministry. I think this is the direct result of the culture of the region and I benefit from it at every turn since I am a pretty independent soul. Every time I have proposed a new way of thinking about ministry that requires adaptive change, people have seemed to jump on board. Don't get me wrong, it takes a ton of work, but if there has been thorough preparation and explanation the answer seems to be, "Let's go for it." So, if you are looking for fertile ground to break out into new avenues of ministry, this might be the best (and greenest) petri dish you could ever ask for. And that is what we need right now. We need a TON of innovative experiments in the church. This isn't because the church is dying. It isn't. It is certainly changing painfully though. But, there is a remarkable opportunity to create new ways of embodying the love of Christ that the world deeply needs. My hope is that the church is starting to recover some of its early witness as a place of deep welcome and hospitality. The question is whether other churches in other regions that have very different cultures when it comes to innovation can embody some of this same Northwester spirit. I believe they can and they must.
In my next post I am going to take a look at what might be some specific steps to launching an innovative idea in any context. Hint: It's going to take time and patience.