By Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson | Director of Strategic Faith Community Development

In a 2015 report, Professor James Wellman of the University of Washington, noted that more than 60 percent of the population in the Northwest are “Nones” or “Dones” — those who are spiritual but not religious, and those disconnected from the church out of frustration. Through our work of creating new places for new people, we can see our ministry context as either the greatest challenge or the greatest opportunity. Wellman argues that the “None Zone” should be renamed as the “Abundant Zone.” I agree with Wellman. God has blessed us with a unique, abundant opportunity.

The work of starting new churches in the None Zone of the Pacific Northwest just got a bump. In the wake of Annual Conference, we are off to a creative, new start in many neighborhoods and communities, in our efforts to reach marginalized and disconnected people. Many of these efforts specifically target millennials, which make up the largest demographic in the U.S., falling between the ages of 18 and 35.

With the onset engagement and release of the new Pokémon Go App for smartphones, Casey Banks, who leads a new church expansion site initiative out of First United Methodist Church of Vancouver, recognized a unique intersection of technology and community.

A screen capture of the Pokemon Go game taken outside Vancouver (WA) First United Methodist Church.

“I’ve never played Pokémon in my life, but I am a new church planter trying to reach younger generations, and Niantic, Inc. just handed churches across the nation a surprising opportunity for outreach,” explained Banks. “I downloaded the Pokémon Go App and quickly learned that Vancouver First UMC is a Pokémon Gym, which means that people will show up at our doorstep at all hours of the day for Pokémon battles.”

According to a recent USA Today story, the Pokémon Go App has been downloaded more than 7.5 million times since last Thursday, taking social media by storm.

“As I was sitting on my front porch a couple of nights ago, two young men who were playing the game crossed the church parking lot,” Banks continued. “I started asking them questions about certain features of the game and then asked if I could walk with them. We spent the next hour and a half walking the downtown strip of Vancouver, engaging in great conversations, and joining with many other groups playing the game — all pure spontaneity because I simply happened to be sitting outside and was willing to walk alongside people I didn’t know. We cannot just cast this off as a lame game for kids. Instead, we have to recognize its missional potential as a new language and intersection point for new people, especially millennials.”

Getting out into the community

In south Tacoma, Paul Ortiz, who leads a new church project birthed under the movement Create Commons, invited everyone to the table as he shared Holy Communion at the city’s annual Pride event for the LGBTQIA community and allies. Along with rainbow-colored Communion bread, the Create Commons’ tent offered a creative space where participants got to custom design their own colorful tote bags.

Paul Ortiz, appointed to Create Commons, preparing to share a colorful communion with the community. Photo by Patrick Scriven for the PNW Conference.

“Our Create Commons booth was a huge hit at the Pride Festival!” said an enthusiastic Ortiz. “Over 200 folks joined us to print tote bags with our homemade stamps that celebrated Pride and the city of Tacoma. At 4 p.m. we transitioned into a time of celebrating Holy Communion, and we set up a small table in front of our booth with rainbow-colored bread and a chalice of grape juice. It was there I consecrated the elements for the first time as a pastor, and I had the privilege to serve over 50 people, many for the first time in years. One person teared up and said, ‘I think Jesus would be here at Pride,’ to which I responded, ‘Jesus is here at Pride!’” concluded Ortiz.

Create Commons represents a syndeo (Greek for “to connect”) cohort-partnered initiative of three projects that are committed to working together to share and live the Gospel in south Tacoma (The Syndeo Project is a new foundational strategy in the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area). In addition to Ortiz, the two remaining projects are led by Nathan Hollifield (Fircrest community) and Abigail Perez (south Tacoma community). Perez recently became the first person of Hispanic/Latina heritage to be commissioned in the PNW as a Provisional Elder.

“Visitors to our booth were lined up nearly blocking the street to get in and create a rainbow-printed tote,” explained Perez. “Away from our tent, there was a guy who told Nathan (Hollifield) about this great church with this great booth, not knowing that Nathan was one of the pastors. That was awesome,” added Perez.

The new work of Create Commons is focused on serving and loving the people of Tacoma, welcoming everyone to God’s table.

“We love Tacoma and she loves us. It’s obvious, already, that God is working to take us to places we need to be so we can see and be Jesus,” concluded Perez.

New Church Development is a go!

Whether by way of rainbow-colored Communion bread in Tacoma, or vividly colored and animated Pokemon creatures in Vancouver, or out-of-the-box steps of faith taken in other new projects across the conference, we are off to a creative, new start to engage new people.

There are 10 new church development projects that officially began July 1, marking a new season in the PNW conference. These projects — four in the Tacoma District, three in the Seattle District, two in the Seven Rivers District, and one in the Vancouver District — are implementing various strategies, including: multisite expansion, hybrid repurposing, and a cohort-based approach.

No project is operating by itself, but instead related to another project or anchor church in a syndeo cohort. We believe that we are better together than alone — sharing resources, strategies, and gifts in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

How will you take a creative, new step outside and into the greater community you serve? How will you faithfully foster relationships with new people?

It’s the perfect time to start. There is an abundance of opportunities!


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