Eugene Peterson paraphrased John 1:14 – The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Jesus fully related to everything we experience by fully becoming human and dwelling in our space. I’ve been learning how to do that for many years, first as a youth pastor, then a church planter and now a church re-planter. I’ve learned to do the very thing every pastor must learn to do. Be with and Be-come.
In 1991 I moved to Seattle from Michigan to take a youth pastor role. The church that hired me was a very welcoming and hospitable community, but the city we ministered in was not known for warmth. In fact, many call what they experience in Seattle the Seattle Freeze. It’s not necessarily colder here, (though wetter), rather it’s the social and emotional chill you encounter. The freeze is especially compounded if you’ve come from a part of the country known for it’s hospitality. Transplants are often deeply discouraged when seeking to press into the lives of radically introspective, often emotionally disengaged, Pacific North-Westerners. It’s not that we are non-emotional. All you need to do is go to a Seahawks or Sounders game to rid yourself of that conclusion. We are full of passion. However, our passion is hidden behind a passive aggressive skepticism and passionately disguised angst.
Whether in the Puget Sound or the South for that matter, how do we truly love and serve the people in our place?
Become one of us.
Hudson Taylor was famous for being a British missionary who embraced becoming Chinese for the sake of the gospel. He dressed Chinese, ate Chinese, lived in Chinese housing, observed the local customs and etiquette and even refrained from receiving protection from British consular authorities. He was known to have gone to China a British man and returned to Britain a Chinese man.
I have been in Washington long enough now that when I return home to visit my family in Michigan, it is clear I do not belong there anymore. I am a PNWer. However, this did not happen overnight. I have immersed myself into this place for a very long time. I drank the coffee (yes, we’re all coffee snobs). I’ve got the rain gear (sans umbrella – sure way to tell who’s not from Seattle). I’m into natural medicine (I eat paleo or keto, depending on the season; I take my vitamin D and apply essential oils). I practice Blue Friday (I prefer jersey #25) during football season (go Hawks!). I raise my Sounders Banner and sing the songs. I’m religious about recycling and preservation of all God’s creation. I even have a dog (to be honest I was pressured by my wife and kids to get him). I could go on, but I think you get it.
I’ve watched many church planters and pastors move here from other parts of the country seeking to maintain what they had back home, wearing their ASU jackets or A&M rings, only to find themselves heading back home to warmer climates and warmer people. I’m convinced you won’t effectively reach and make disciples here unless you’re willing to stay long enough to become one of us. This is likely true everywhere, but I’ve found it’s especially the case out here with the freeze.
Recently, I was standing on the side of the football field watching my son Caleb’s practice. Next to me stood another father. As we struck up a conversation he asked me what I did for work. I thought to myself, I could tell him I’m an author or a consultant or a community developer…technically all are true of me. However, the Spirit wouldn’t let me.
“I’m a pastor.”
“I’m sorry for you” he said. “We hate you out here in the Northwest.”
I asked him why and he went on to say that most people out here are secular skeptics or burned out on religion. He told me that when he lived in Texas, he pretended to be a Christian because everyone is a Christian there. “I had to pretend in order to get and keep business.” As a result, he was very jaded about Christianity.
For the rest of the practice I asked him several other questions about his life, his marriage and work. At one point I asked him why, if he hated pastors so much, he kept talking to me.
“Well, you seem different than most,” he responded.
This is not the first time I’ve heard that statement here. Unfortunately, most people’s experience of Christians or pastors has repellent effect. We can tend to be overly talkative, pushy, judgemental, and lousy at being present and truly listening. Francis Schaeffer said, “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first fifty-five minutes asking them questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.” We need to cultivate an ability to be truly present with people and really listen. Through regular time in solitude and silence before God, I have learned to quiet my heart and mind enough to be fully present with another human and truly listen – not just to their words but to their hearts. I listen for the longings, the pains, the disappointments and the hopes. The more I do, the more open doors I get to show the good news of Jesus in tangible forms of serving as well as share the good news through words. I find the visible must precede the verbal here. People will not trust what you have to say unless they’re convinced you’re genuine. People can sense whether you really care or if they are a project. And, once convinced, they will gradually open up their lives no matter how cold their exterior might be.
I love the Pacific Northwest. It’s not as cold (or wet) as people think. If you stay long enough, become one of us, and work to bring warmth and listen to hearts; you become acclimated. You’ll see we’re all longing for the same love and mercy found only in Jesus. We just need his grace to break the ice and melt the freeze.
I expect the people near you are not so very different.