From Outlier to Forerunner

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, The Presbytery of the Cascades

They are watching!

Before you skip this blog as just another one of those anti-government, Big Brother, paranoid diatribes let me assure you I am not trying to scare you. I am actually trying inspire you with an extra-large double-scoop serving of hope!

Last week I came across an article that confirmed a hunch that I have carried for many years. Those of us in the Pacific Northwest are being watched. When it comes to religious trends, spiritual entrepreneurship and hints at what is coming next we in the Pacific Northwest are on people’s radars. The title of the article simply stated, “The Pacific Northwest is the American Religious Future.”

Their premise was that the rise of the Nones (those who claim no religious affiliation) continues to be a national trend that only seems to be gaining momentum. In 1970 5% of the U.S. population claimed no religious affiliation; today 23.1% of Americans claim no religious affiliation. In Oregon and Washington that number is 31% and 32% and it continues its regular and persistent rise.

The truth is that Vermont and New Hampshire actually bypassed the Pacific Northwest in the percentage of unaffiliated religious adherents a few years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the perception that the Pacific Northwest is unique when it comes to religious loyalty. That perception has probably been earned by the low religiosity that dates back into our 19th century pioneering days. The Northeast is only a recent arrival to this party.

OutliersBut I especially want to highlight that this article makes the point that Oregon and Washington are increasingly being seen as forerunners to the rest of the country. This is important because for most of our history we have been seen as outliers. Now we are seen as the folks who are standing in the front of the line.

Nobody is predicting that the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated is going to decrease. Any reputable religious futurist will tell you that America seems to be following the trends in Europe and Great Britain where only 22% of Europeans attend church at least once a month and 53% of Brits are religiously unaffiliated.

The growth of the religiously unaffiliated in our country is an established and accepted fact. It is no wonder that people are thinking of Oregon as less of an outlier and more as a possible forerunner to a new religious America. People are watching and asking, “What can we learn from how the Pacific Northwest creatively addresses and engages with the increasing percentage of “Nones” in our communities.”

Of course this is probably not news to most of you. And it is not a sudden realization to me as well.

I write this because we in Cascades Presbytery are searching for the compelling vision that will draw us all together on a shared journey of Christian mission, witness and ministry. I think this is part of our story and part of the emerging vision that is unfolding before us.

It would arrogant of me and of us to proclaim to our brothers and sisters around the country that we have anointed ourselves as the pioneers and the incarnation of the future church. I don’t think it is our place to claim that we necessarily are the forerunners of a new religious America. But I do think it is our responsibility to answer the call that has clearly been placed at our feet.

The fact of the matter is America is steadily seeing growing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated. And the fact of the matter is that this beautiful area of the country we call the Pacific Northwest has led the nation in that demographic for more than a century.

The rest of religious America is asking the question, “How are we going to address and engage with the increasing numbers of religiously unaffiliated in our communities?” As they ask that question they naturally turn their attention to Oregon and Washington and ask, “How are they doing it and what can we learn from them?”

puzzle piecesAt this month’s presbytery meeting the Presbytery Leadership Commission will be making their report. Part of their report is to communicate to the presbytery that one of two major mission priorities for the 2019-20 period is to nurture a culture of innovation in this presbytery in an initiative that we are calling INNOVATION LAB. Based on the parable of the talents and the ministry “to the least of these” both in Matthew 25 we are going to encourage our congregations and our presbytery to become a lab for creative ministries and spiritual entrepreneurship.

Of course, this is nothing new for us. What is different is that we in Cascades have often been seen as outliers—doing ministry a little differently and being not quite in step with the conventions of the rest of the denomination. We need to get used to the fact that increasingly the rest of the country may be looking to us more as forerunners and pioneers leading us to a new religious America. We are no longer just the weird ones in a state most of the country still can’t pronounce correctly (Ora-gone!).

Personally, I don’t care all that much whether the rest of the country sees us as forerunners and leaders in this emerging new time. What I do care about is doing ministry faithfully in our area and with our people. What I do care about is addressing and engaging with the community in which we find ourselves.

It just happens to be that who we are is what the rest of the country is becoming. And they seem to know it.

We have a responsibility to clear the path and pave the way. We have a responsibility to be pioneers.

Thank God, pioneering is a way of life for us here.

5 thoughts on “From Outlier to Forerunner

  1. Brian,   Nice piece.  Of course this is the center of our PneuMatrix wheelhouse – Working with congregations on how to engage the Nones, and to do and be Church in innovative ways.  You had mentioned when we last spoke that you thought this Fall you might be ready to talk about the potential for PneuMatrix engaging with Cascades.  This article triggers that discussion again.    Is now the time to talk?   Let me know,    Deborah

    Deborah L Wright, PrincipalPneuMatrix202 Headlands CtSausalito, CA 94965


    1. Deborah, so glad that PneuMatrix is available for congregations/presbyteries ready to have this conversation. I’ll kick off an email to you soon.


  2. One big cause of our PNW perception of leading the nation in “Noneness” is a study done some years ago that indicated we have the lowest churchgoing rates in the country. What most people aren’t aware of is a follow-up study done more recently that indicates that this is probably wrong: what we likely have is the most honest answerers of surveys in the country.

    The original study drew from self-reports on a survey. The followup measured church attendance in other ways (like actual church attendance reports) and correlated them with survey results. Turns out that folks in the Deep South etc are likely not quite as honest about their churchgoing as here, even on an “anonymous” survey.

    I can’t find the primary studies I’m thinking of offhand: one was likely the 2006 Gallup survey, but the other one I can’t seem to spot. Here’s an older link to an article summarizing some of the issues (you should be able to read it for free via JSTOR through a local library).


  3. That is so interesting and tells us a whole different story. Less shame about not attending church in the PNW than other parts of the country, maybe. Having served in the Midwest I would venture to say there might be some truth to this. Thank you for sharing another angle. Fascinating!


  4. Thanks as always, Bryan. Innovation is essential. Just wait to see what CPM will be suggesting within the year. The “same old same old” just doesn’t work for most of our candidates.

    Abundant grace, abiding peace!


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