mountain dreamer

The church plays a unique role in the life of the Pacific Northwest.

This particular coffee appointment wasn’t all that unlike the twenty or so other similar coffee appointments I’d had in the last five years. As a church planter, I suppose I’m to blame. When you’ve planted a church, incoming church planters are likely to get your name from someone and contact you. I’m not complaining. They always buy. This time around, before me sat a young, excited, Reformed, dark-rimmed glasses, tight-jean wearing church planter who’d recently transplanted with his new family to Portland from Middle America to start a new church in the heart of the urban core. Not surprisingly, his questions were the same as others (the same questions, mind you, I’d been asking at their stage in the journey): what had we learned, what worked, what didn’t, what would we do differently?

Virtually identical to the countless church planter coffee appointments are the scads of young people I’ve encountered in the recent years who moved to Portland from Middle America or the East Coast. This group—not necessarily religious individuals—has moved simultaneously to Portland in order to discover something. For these youth, coming to Portland was about being freed, about finding themselves, and about escape.

Portland, alongside many other Northwest cities like Seattle, is a city made-up of non-natives, a fact that reveals a great deal about the religious mindsets of the region. Most Portlanders, myself included, grew up elsewhere. Native Portlanders are actually hard to come by in my experience. Portland is a city of transplants; a city of people looking for a new life, a chance to start over, to acquire a fresh start, and experience something new. I’ve heard it said that Portland is the place young people go to retire. And while that is true in many senses, it doesn’t capture the whole spirit of Portland. People come to Portland, often, to escape. It is telling, therefore, that Portland is a city with ten different bridges (with more to come). People are crossing over, finding new lands, discovering a new future, they are heading somewhere.

Professor Patricia Killen of Pacific Lutheran University has written pointedly about this reality in an article entitled “The Religious Geography of the Pacific Northwest.” She writes,

Few people come to the Far West seeking what they left behind. Most hold dreams of a better life. Physical mobility and psychological mobility reinforce each other. When people move west they must choose to reconnect to social institutions, to be part of communities. Having left one community, they find it easier to leave another and harder to reconnect.

What Killen aptly points out is that this transient population who have transplanted themselves to Pacific Northwest are susceptible to experience a great deal of loneliness and isolation. This loneliness is only amplified by the fact that many of the kinds of communities that one can find in Portland are counter-cultural, going against the grain of the norm. But, sadly, these kinds of expressions are shallow pools of communal life. While one may connect with a specific counter-culture community for a time, that expression, in time, will lose its value to the transplant.

As Matthew Kaemingk writes, “Counter-culture movements can get old…they get lonely.”

Perhaps this may assist the church of the Pacific Northwest to begin to understand its role more clearly for the kinds of people who are moving to its region. To learn that one of the more integral ways it can serve this population is to provide the kind of long-term, covenant community that is needed for the overall health and well being of searchers and worshipers alike.

What kind of community do exiles need?

I’m currently in the process of undertaking a church-wide “listening tour” of the church I pastor. Unsurprisingly, many in our church are transplants from elsewhere. And, without question, they are clear about what they desperately need. During the discussion, I ask a question that goes something like this: what is something that you value in the life of a church? As though on cue, without fail, their answer will be:

We value community.

Because I’ve become used to the answer, the follow-up question pushes a little deeper: When you say community as you do, you are using a word lots and lots of people are using these days? What does community mean to you?

Just then, the conversation gets quiet. Nobody knows how to answer that question. Not knowing how to define community, they’ll say something like: well, you know it when you have it.

What is the kind of community that an exile desperately needs?

For pastors like myself, questions like these make or break our ministry. Every pastor I know is struggling through this question because more and more, it is easy to find life outside the life of a worshipping community. The issue is forcing us to ask what community actually is and how we can help people connect to it. And our pastoral answers are not getting to the heart of community. Some think community is the result of inordinate amounts of time spent with others. But I argue that community isn’t the sum total of time spent together. I remind people of Lewis and Clark. No two people should have, based on time spent, been so filled with community as these two. But, history reminds us, that Lewis was deeply depressed and would eventually take his own life after his experience of traveling across the country to find the new land. Time doesn’t necessarily secure one life-giving community. Nor do programs ensure community. Nor does the right curriculum. So many non-Christians in Portland claim to have found community who without question do not have orthodox curriculum at the heart of their community.

So then, what is community?

In developing relationships with these people, I’ve developed a theory over the last five years. I may be wrong, but if I’m not, I think I’ve figured out what community is. Community, at its core, is much more simple that we’d expect. Here it is:

Community is what happens when one person reveals himself or herself in relationship to another by sharing their sin, their depravity, their brokenness, their real self, and finds their selves still being loved.

Community is, plainly put, the result of being known and loved at the same time. Think about it. Even if you can’t define community per se, think of one person you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you share community with? Did they see your brokenness and still love you? Did you see theirs and you still love them?

I’ll bet they did and you did.

In a very real way, the opposite of community is the opposite of what I’ve suggested above. To be absent of community is to be known yet not loved at the same time. We would call this isolation, or, possibly, hell.

The church in the Pacific Northwest has the theological and gospel infrastructure to understand and embody this kind of community. As a kind of “city of refuge,” the church in the Pacific Northwest can be a place of protection and safety for transplants to develop relationships, find solace, and hopefully, experience the good news of Jesus. Not to mention that it is in the gospel of Jesus that we come to understand where true community is most possible. Certainly, humans can experience community on earth inside and even outside of the church. One can experience community with other people and not necessarily experience it with the communal Godhead of the Father, Son, and the Spirit.

The gospel news says that in Jesus, we can, and are, and will be known and be loved by God.

“…when Christ appears, we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

That is the true yearning of the human heart, isn’t it? To experience community not only with fellow humans but the inventor and the Creator of those fellow human beings. And in that triangle of relationships between us, others, and God, we experience the fullness of community life. Timothy Keller was right. “To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”

As we read Jeremiah, we find something very interesting (and seminal) to the Jews return to their love of God. We find that it was there, in Babylon, during their exile, that they find God again. Exile does something to you. It causes one to search, to think, to have time to ponder. And in the silence, the loudness of God becomes evident.

Make room for transplants and exiles. They are all over the place. And they are dying for community.


  • A.J. Swoboda

    Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical and Fuller Seminaries. He is the founder and director of Blessed Earth Northwest, a center that helps think creatively and strategically around creation care issues in the Pacific Northwest. A.J. is the author of "The Dusty Ones," "Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology," and "Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology." You can find his website and blog at, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.