Church Planting

Contextualization in the “None Zone”

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In the first article in this mini-series, we established a theory of contextualization. In the subsequent post, we applied contextualization to the city, providing examples from my church planting journey in NYC. In this final piece, we will apply contextualization to my current place of ministry: the secular “None Zone” of the Pacific Northwest.

I am a seminary professor in the secular city of Portland, Oregon, and I minister in a Chinese church outside the city. Portland is like NYC in at least one way: the percentages of evangelicals in both places are extremely low. But in other ways, Portland is dramatically different. The city feels more secular, more progressive, and much less diverse.

The Pacific Northwest has been termed the “None Zone” because of its high concentration of people who claim to have no religion. It is certainly true that religion (and especially spirituality) is here. People have called Portland the best place in the country to be a witch. If you are seeking cannabis catharsis or mushroom mysticism, then Portland is your place. And yet, with all the neo-pagan alternative religions here, Portland is still a predominantly secular city. Along with Seattle, it’s a major hub in the “None Zone.”

Having lived here only two years, I am still trying to exegete the cultural artifacts surrounding me. But I have learned a few things about contextualization in the “None Zone.” I have discovered three alternative salvation stories consistently told here. Contextualization in my current ministry demands that I demonstrate how the gospel subverts these narratives and tells a better story. This approach is essentially what Paul did in Athens (Acts 17).

All of us, whether pastors, professors, church planters, or missionaries, are called to bring the unchanging gospel to our ever-changing contexts. That requires the challenging task of contextualization.

Salvation in Autonomy

People move to the Pacific Northwest to get away from the world. Here, the rugged individualism and libertarianism of the political Right merge with the progressive independence of the political Left to create a haven of autonomy. “You do you.” Our neighbors celebrate their freedom and indulge in marijuana, magic mushrooms, and strip clubs. On a less obvious level, the food truck culture of Portland demonstrates that we value our choice. We care a lot about what we eat and have crafted a culture that caters to our desires. With food truck pods, the autonomous individual can find satisfaction in free choice.

Here, salvation is wrapped up in autonomy. That means that I must explain the biblical concepts of slavery and freedom. I must labor to demonstrate that what my neighbors thought was an exhilarating good life was a dull form of slavery. I must teach that we are not truly free until we become slaves to Christ. To my neighbors burdened by the demand to save themselves through hyper-autonomy, I can introduce them to One whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

Salvation in Nature

Camping is king in the Pacific Northwest, for understandable reasons. The region is naturally beautiful, with stunning mountains, waterfalls, rivers, forests, and the coastline of the Pacific. Many of my neighbors achieve salvation by jumping in a kayak, hitting the slopes, or hiking a trail. They worship the creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25).

It is hard to live in this part of the country and not have your breath taken away by the sheer abundance of natural beauty. It happens to me all the time. But when I view the towering, but deformed Mt. St. Helens, the powerful Columbia River, or the rugged coastline of the Pacific, I catch a hint of transcendence. I think my neighbors do too, but they find ultimate salvation in the creation, as they cherish its beauty and work to preserve it for future generations. I must teach that the biblical story also celebrates this beautiful planet as a gift from a Creator, who intends to renew this place and transform it into the New Earth. We do not yet live in Paradise. But this place of spectacular beauty whets our appetite for what is to come.

Salvation in Technology

The church in which I minister is in a suburb outside of Portland. It is in an area dubbed the “Silicon Forest.” Here, tech titans conduct innovative research and design. They build computer chips that power our devices and tinker with new technologies. In many ways, they are designing our future. Ours is a society overrun with digital technology, and we live in one of the most technologically forward-thinking regions. Many of my neighbors find salvation in the next upgrade: a NextGen iPhone, a VR headset, or headphones that shut out the world. Others look for salvation in a technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

I must demonstrate from Scripture that technology is a natural outgrowth of the Cultural Mandate of Genesis. But I must also push back against the idolatrous idea that we can save ourselves through our devices. In fact, the reverse is true: we need to be saved from our devices. Thankfully, there is a Messiah who offers us eternal life. It is a different kind of life in the here and now, and it continues forever. This salvation isn’t achieved through digital upload, tech upgrades, or relentless research. Instead, it comes through surrendering to the One who, as a craftsman, wielded the technology of his day without being mastered by it.

Each of these three salvation stories offers my neighbors a deceptive path to shalom. As a pastor in this context, I must learn to adapt the way I teach the gospel. I am learning to focus on telling the good news in a way that subversively fulfills these alternative stories. Contextualization is challenging. I learned to contextualize in NYC. But now, my setting is different, and the hard work of contextualization is underway.

What steps can you take to contextualize the good news so that others hear it well in your place of ministry? How can you design your mission work so that it launches a church that is not just IN your city but FOR your city? All of us, whether pastors, professors, church planters, or missionaries, are called to bring the unchanging gospel to our ever-changing contexts. That requires the challenging task of contextualization. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Check out Part 1 of this article series HERE!

Check out Part 2 of this article series HERE!

  • Church Planting
  • Great Commission
  • Other World Views
Stephen Stallard

Stephen Stallard is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He served in NYC for eight years, where he planted a multicultural church. Stephen earned a PhD in Applied Theology from SEBTS. Trained as a missiologist, he enjoys exploring a rich diversity of cultures. Stephen is married to Sonya, the love of his life. They have four children: one girl and three boys. Stephen's hobby is making hot sauce.

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