Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Northwest and Church Attendance - Urban Myth?

So, here I was driving around the thick suburban neighborhoods just north of Seattle with my friend Christian. Everything looks like Starbucks up there. I have been told for years that the Northwest is the most unchurched region of the U.S. Yet as we drove around large churches popped up out of the landscape like freckles on a redhead boy's face. There were storefront churches, and buildings which looked like real churches, and mega-churches meeting in warehouse type buildings, and signs pointing the way to newer churches meeting in schools. This looked like heaven for the church goer. We don't have nearly the number of churches in my city, or any of the cities surrounding Salem. So what's up? Is this an urban myth? A set of old statistics needing a recount, or just bad statistical techniques? Or was I in an anomalous region of the Northwest? Whatever the story - it was a surprise to me. Whadayathink?


Anonymous said...

I've heard the same thing about the northwest. The vibe I get is that there are a lot of new churches there. Statistics may need updating. The northwest has always been mysterious to me.

Lainie Petersen said...

FWIW, I never trust church statistics. For one thing, institutional churches/denominations always inflate membership numbers: Churches will count as "members" anyone who is still on the church rolls, even if the "member" only attends once a year (or hasn't attended in several years, even!).

I'd be interested in finding out who the pollsters are surveying when they do their research. Are they only approaching denominational churches? Are they looking at total number of churches for the whole state (ignoring that populations might be concentrated in some areas with other areas just not having a lot of people, hence, not as many churches)? Are they just asking people "Do you go to church?", (which doesn't include people who are not attending an institutional church, but are still in fellowship with other Christians)?

Erin said...

Hey Phil - I didn't have a chance to meet you at OTM last weekend, but I was in the workshop you did with John (think pink hair)...

Anyhow in 2002 there was an article published in the Oregonian citing research done by Glenmary. This research stated that Oregon was the state with lowest percentage of "religious adherents", and Washington in a very close second.

There are probably many factors; for one, we have never had a dominant religious culture like many parts of the nation. Also, there is a great deal of spirituality here that does not fall into any of the "normal" categories. These two factors are probably very closely related; it's probably been more culturally acceptable to have some kind of "undefined" spirituality around here because of the lack of dominant religion.

There probably have been similar studies done since then, but this is the one I'm familiar with and everyone in church culture was talking about it for several years.
I think it is the one which is primarily considered when it is said that Oregon and Washington are the most "unchurched" states.

The only reason I know this is, at the time, our church did a huge campaign around this study when it came out, and I happen to still have a copy of the newspaper article in my possession. So what I have told you here is based on that.

And as Carl pointed out, things are likely changing around here. This study did show that the churched population in Or and Wa was declining far less slowly than other states, so maybe we were on the forefront of change back then. The concept of "postmodern relevance" has been going a long way in this deeply liberal culture.

Which is why your workshop interested me...although I'm not dealing so much with Witches, per se, but a broad variety of undefined spirituality that often has vague Pagan/Native American roots and clearly does not fall into any typical religious category.

We are also the eclectic bunch where Environmentalism could be considered a religion, as could Burning Man and Hemp. Oh and we're big on Pastafari, too, considering it was founded here.

For what it's worth. :-)

Megs said...

OK - Snohomish County ... where do i begin! (By the way, i like that you like tommy emmanuel, whom i've seen live in sydney!) ... sno county is where i first moved, with bens, and experienced culture shock which was pretty intense. the diving line between liberal blue states and red conservative states runs between sno county and king county - seattle has the population weight, therefore the defining factor in perceptions about wa state. eastern wa is even more kind of 'we're conservative and we aren't counted in all the big decisions...'

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Carl,

I could not believe how many new churches I saw, and then that was followed by mega-churches. Surprise, surprise...I told Christian he was living in the next Colorado Springs - he seemed to agree.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Lainie,

I not sure wat I think of the stats either. A couple years ago, they cut the stats of weekly church-goers in half, and it had ot do with the way the questions were being asked, and how people perceived the questions.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Erin,

I was thinking, 'I should know her.' Oh well, sorry we didn't formally meet. Thanks for hanging in the workshop.

I wonder if the terminology of testing factors in the issue. We have lots of religious adherants who do not actuallt practice what they adhere to in the NE, and so we would rate high as a religious location, but low in actual practice I am sure. Whereas it may be that in the NW people are not attached to religion, but do practice spirituality - thus the proliferation of church plants. Those church plants typically say they are not religious, but relational, and this is probably a motivasting factor.

During my years in Foursquare, these stats were commonly heard, but the biggest and largest number of churches were still in WA, and OR.

Complex thing this counting is. Thanks for the good info.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Meghan,

Interesting point on politics which may have to do with the area I was driving around in. Although I have seen BIG churches develop all over the NW in the last 20 years. So who knows what that all means.

Anonymous said...

I have four churches on my street. There are way more churches where I live than when I am back east. I think part of the reason it is unchurched is because, well, some of the people here are just hard nosed against church (the same way they are hard nosed against working for someone else, having a job in general and taking showers everyday)

Anyway, there are churches here. I just know some people who would rather roll their own cigarettes, complain about politics, and whittle sticks. They aren't unchurched. In the same way I am not a displaced Ethiopian. It is a totally different breed here.

With that said, there are some HUGE churches here that swamp anything I ever saw back east. Its the NW and yup, its weird sometimes. It can be cutting edge and ridiculously backwater, uneducated at the same time. I have met some really sophisticated folks and also plenty of displaced blue hills types who think its an infringement on their rights to have to flush after they go. Seattle and the area in general has several faces. It has the Scandinavian, conservative vibe, The California side and then it has the Appalachian, Carolina side of drawl tongued, unwashed types that dont have time for church or manners for that matter. And it has its share of liberals who will launch into me for speaking the obvious (but wouldn't be caught dead asking the smelly ones to take a wash or watch their manners) And that is Seattle and the NW. Some forward thinkers, some really Deliverence Movie backwater types and plenty of good people in between.

Pastor Phil said...


Thanks for a primer on the good ol' NW. Sounds quite fun actually.

ded said...

not all Appalachian Carolina types have a drawl nor could they be extra's in a Deliverance remake. Take me for instance.