What the Portland church needs

Portland vs. Dallas

I grew up in Portland, Oregon.  When I moved to Dallas, Texas and told people I was a Christian from Portland the response was often, with some amazement, “What’s it like being a Christian there?”  I never knew how to respond.  The question arose from oft-quoted statements that the Portland area is the most unchurched place in the country.  Portland’s paper, The Oregonian, ran a story, Sorry, Oregon, you’re no longer the most ‘unchurched'” when we apparently lost the title to the New England area.

Portland State’s motto is, “Let knowledge serve the city.”

What’s it like to live in an unchurched area?  For the most part, the same as living in a churched area.  I always had a hard time responding to the question.  I landed on the answer that I really didn’t feel like there were more or less practicing Christians in either area but did feel a large difference between the baseline knowledge of the faith between the Bible Belt and the Pacific Northwest.

As soon as I moved to Dallas and started talking to any Christian, or really most anyone, I noticed they knew far more about the study and practice of Christianity than I did.  They would talk about Calvinism, about authors and a variety of ministries, none of which I’d heard anything about.  I grew up in a good church in Portland where seminary professors were leading the church so was confused why I had so little knowledge.

Once I moved back to Portland after graduating seminary I noticed the difference again.  I started going to a good church with many highly educated, lifelong Christians and seminary graduates as leaders.  I still noticed a striking difference in the general knowledge of Christianity of the church attendees between Portland and Dallas.  No longer could I go to my church group and discuss the same topics I studied in my advanced seminary classes with my friends at my church.  I was lucky if more than one person had even heard of the authors or theories I was talking about, let alone having an in-depth discussion.

What’s unchurched mean?

In the Aris 2008 survey (pdf) referenced in The Oregonian article above the question for the survey that was asked was, “What is your religion, if any?” and left open ended.  Those that said something along the lines of ‘none’ were defined as unchurched.  On the not-so-open ended side the Barna Group defines unchurched as, “not having attended a Christian church service, other than for a holiday service, such as Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months.”

In the 2008 Aris survey 15% of the US population falls under the unchurched (none) category. According to Barna’s 2007 data 33% of the population is unchurched.  It’s clear based on their definitions why there is an 18% discrepancy.

Barna numbers are quoted often and are useful if you understand their definition of unchurched. In a more recent Barna article they state, “Several interesting insights define the self-identified Christians among the unchurched…. Close to one out of every five (18%) can be considered to be “born again”….”  I contend that while a rising number of people would never attend church, more than we think do identify with a church and would go if they found somewhere that overcame many of their issues.


I did a survey myself.  It may not be as statistically accurate and formal as the ones above for the unchurched data but I feel it’s representative.  I looked at 14 church websites in the Portland area and 14 in the Dallas area.  All were mid to large-sized churches and of an evangelical persuasion.  What I looked for was any documentation for the education of the head pastor of the church.

Overwhelmingly in Dallas education was noted and in Portland not. Nine of the 14 Dallas churches listed the education of their pastor and I found the education of all the other pastors by a quick Google search.  Six hold doctorates, three a Master of Theology, three a Master of Divinity, one a Bachelor of Arts in Bible and only one doesn’t have a degree.

Only two churches in Portland listed the education of their pastor.  By searching online I was able to find the education of five other pastors.  Four pastors of the ones I found hold a doctorate, two a Master of Divnity and one a Bachelor of Arts. I would assume the others, or at least most of them, don’t hold a degree.  That’s 50% of the pastors in my survey of Portland that don’t hold any degree, let alone one related to Christianity.   More of them could hold degrees and I just couldn’t find the information anywhere.  But, with my experience in the Christian community in Portland I think the number is accurate.

According to the 2010 Census the percent of people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (Dallas and Tarrant counties) with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 28.5%.  The percent in the Portland metro area (Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties) is 36.5%.  This is a large enough discrepancy to really make me wonder.  Portland does value education and knowledge but for some reason has left it out of their church culture.

Children’s games and drive-thrus

Ever play telephone when you were younger (or older)?  The first person starts with a word or phrase and whispers it to the next person and so on.  The game is fun when the person at the end says what they think the first person said.  It’s never right and always amusing.

Usually the first person who hears the word has it correct.  Perhaps because it hasn’t passed along enough down the chain to get too mixed up?  Or it may be that the person often sitting next to the first person knows them and is used to hearing how they talk.  Hearing how they pronounce and enunciate words and therefore can more easily understand what is being said.

I worked at a drive-thru Starbucks.  Sometimes people would order a Diet Coke even though Starbucks doesn’t sell soda.  None of us could ever understand what was being ordered at the speaker.  We all knew the words “Diet Coke” but it was out of the realm of what we were used to hearing for orders and thus we had to ask the person to repeat it several times before we could understand.

I do not believe everyone has to go to seminary or bible college.  I think if you want to be a pastor or are taking a leadership role on in the church you need to get some training.  Seminary is a great and logical way to do so.  But this training can take different forms.  It does need to be serious training from a good source. I know it’s not a magic potion that will make everything better, but it won’t make anything worse. Just like in the game of telephone the further down the line the knowledge goes the more likely it will be misinterpreted or misunderstood.


This misinterpretation and misunderstanding of Christianity by many attendees and leaders in Portland I believe is a key reason many people here don’t attend church.  I’m not claiming everyone teaches heresy.  I’m claiming that when a Portlander with a master’s degree in their field starts asking intelligent questions of their leaders or fellow church attendees they get poor answers.  Even if the pastor can answer the questions many find it hard to keep attending church when everyone else around them doesn’t know or seem to care about the answer.  Most non-Christians I meet around Portland know far more about the Bible than people I meet in church.

What’s all this mean?  Portland is a smart city with many well-educated individuals, formally and informally.  I see a huge disparity between the general education in Portland and the education of Christians toward a Christian worldview in Portland.  In Dallas, where eight percent fewer people hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, the culture of the church clearly promotes much more Christian education.

Will solving the education disparity here magically get everyone to go to church?  No.  I do believe it will go a long way to bringing many back to the church and show that Christians take themselves seriously and value education toward understanding Christianity just as we do for any other area of our lives.

In many ways knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and that power gives people the ability to be more secure in their faith and beliefs and therefore to overcome judgmental attitudes and ultimately to speak out toward the Truth clearly and effectively.

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)