Inaugural Conference Ignites Conversation about Christianity and Northwest Culture

Christ and Cascadia Conference 3Over 250 Christian leaders and scholars came together for a time of lively discussion about spirituality in the Pacific Northwest at the inaugural Christ and Cascadia Conference, held September 26 and 27 in Seattle, Washington. The event was hosted by the one-year-old Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture, in conjunction with Fuller Seminary Northwest and several other institutions.

“What does it mean to embody the gospel in the Pacific Northwest?” asks conference organizer and Northwest Institute director Matthew Kaemingk. “How should Christians respond to the region's emerging challenges and opportunities? How can Christians better engage, understand, love, challenge, and create Northwest culture themselves?”

The symposium delved into these kinds of questions, ushering in what Fuller hopes Christ and Cascadia Conference 2 will be many conversations about the unique challenges of reaching the unchurched in the Pacific Northwest. It was the first major event hosted by Fuller’s Theology and Northwest Culture Institute, with plans to continue sponsoring annual conferences.

A feature article in the September 27 Seattle Times, by Coral Garnick, highlighted the conference and the work of the Northwest Institute.

Conference Reflections from Matthew Kaemingk

Matt Kaemingk of the Fuller Northwest Institute for Theology and Northwest CultureIn the following interview, director Matthew Kaemingk reflects on the conference and his commitment to the Pacific Northwest.

On the website, your tagline for the Christ & Cascadia conference was to “know and love this place.” What does that mean?

We want to help the church understand the hopes and heartbreaks of the Pacific Northwest, and that can only occur if knowing and loving become intimately connected. By knowing we mean a deep listening of the culture. But it’s possible to understand a culture and walk away. We want to respond to the cultural longings, and that’s why we also love the culture. True learning requires love, and to truly understand a place you have to love it.

How did the Christ& Cascadia conference specifically address knowing and loving?

With this conference we gathered together a collection of scholars from different disciplines, denominations, locations and history, theology, and ministry experience, and we asked them to use their gifts and apply them to our specific context. We didn’t want to hear an abstract lecture on justice or mission—we asked for lectures on justice in Seattle, on missiology in the context of Portland. My role as director was to simply bring folks together, cultivate conversations, and help us figure out the larger questions together. We were very intentional to make this conference a launching pad for a much larger and ongoing conversation about understanding Christian faith in the Pacific Northwest.

Why is this important for the larger church?

The Pacific Northwest represents the future of the United States. If you want to know what Christianity will look like in 30 years, go to Seattle or Portland. You’ll see creative evangelical minorities partnering with people they never would have expected (in one breakout session, an evangelical theologian dialogued with a leader of the Wiccan church). In Portland, for example, evangelicals approached the gay, secular mayor and said, “We want to be a part of the flourishing of Portland. How can we help?” He was floored, and they’ve started an ongoing relationship. It’s fascinating to see what discussions and alignments happen when evangelicals are dispossessed from the dominant culture.

John Stackhouse, a conference speaker and theologian, reflected on a theme he saw during the presentations: the tension between “learning from and enjoying the culture while also bringing the gospel to bear on it—a gospel that judges, adds to,condemns, and replaces elements of the culture even as it also fulfills and is wonderfully expressed by elements of the culture.” Could you respond to this?

This was a big discussion during the conference. It’s not as simple as deciding what the church should affirm or critique in the larger culture. The better question was, “In what ways does the church need to be a counterculture or model a different way of being in the Pacific Northwest?” What are the prophetic words of critique?

Our individualism is a huge problem, we have no care of the poor, and there’s very little communal solidarity. Because we’re so mobile, we lack strong towns and cities, and we’re not committed to where we live. We’re nervous about community, because it limits our freedom. The most important thing is self-actualization, and this has had a huge impact on the life of the church. What we need in this region is an ecclesiology—that’s what we came out with from this conference. What actually holds us together?

But then, equally important is what should we celebrate? There is so much in the Pacific Northwest that Christians haven’t given thanks for. I remember in one talk on a theology of abundance, the presenter said that rather than seeing this region as “non-zone” (where all the non-affiliated people are), we can see it as a region aflame with the glory of God and an inspiring place to be a Christian. It’s a question of posture: we’re trying to encourage a posture of possibility and excitement rather than a posture of critique or martyrdom.

What’s the takeaway for Christians in other regions of the US?

The Pacific Northwest might be one of the most spiritual regions in the country. Tons of people believe in God or a higher power—they just don’t think they’ll find it in a text or a church community. So, there’s a shift in perception that can happen.

Also, as much as we talk about globalization and the international church, we need to also think locally and train our pastors to meet local needs. Wendell Berry said, “You can’t act locally by thinking globally,” and I think that’s right. We need to listen and pay attention to where we are and commit ourselves to where we actually live. Isn’t this the Incarnation? God meets us in the local. If I’m doing ministry in Pasadena, I need to look for and serve God in Pasadena.

Finally, I think people who come here will learn what it means to be a faithful evangelical minority in a secular culture and what it means to befriend secularized progressive people. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, and I’m grateful that the conference could be a part of it.

Visit the Christ & Cascadia page to participate in this ongoing conversation, and our Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture site for more information on our initiatives in the Pacific Northwest.

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