Why do people change their minds? In the classic work by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn suggests that one does not change one’s mind until one has a good reason to do so. That apparently banal observation is nonetheless critical to the consideration of why Christianity is so hard to commend to Cascadians. One does not change one’s view of something until that view proves to be inadequate, proves no longer to work in a way that is adequate to the challenge it is supposed to meet.

Note that we do not change our minds simply because our views of things are not perfect. We routinely accommodate what Kuhn calls “anomalies” to our views all the time: we explain them away as trivially exceptional; we file them away for consideration later as possibly interesting but currently unimportant; or we simply ignore them in the press of our immediate occupations. No, we don’t change our minds until we simply cannot keep thinking the way we have thought before.

We also do not change our minds merely because an alternative appears on the scene and seems somewhat better. We do not immediately leap to a different opinion because we recall, if only unconsciously, that it may have deficits that are not immediately apparent, and so we hesitate. We also sense, again, if only unconsciously, that there may be a high cost to converting to this alternative, and it is a cost we are loath to pay.

What, then, can we say about the typical outlook of Cascadians? Let us look at five characteristics in particular.

First, Cascadians are postmodern. By this highly contested term I mean that they are suspicious of power, of institutions, of traditions, and of the legitimating narratives that accompany these dubious authorities. Cascadians are highly individualistic: they trust reason and intuition, as good moderns do, but they particularly trust their own reason and their own intuition, which is distinctly postmodern. Moreover, Cascadians are postmodern in that the social differentiation that is typical of modernity — the differentiation of social sectors into quite different experiences andinstitutions associated with, say, business, healthcare, education, spiritual life, family life, and so on — is mirrored in the differentiation, even the fragmentation, of one’s own psyche. Modern people transition from one social experience to another, rapidly changing personae as they do, but they feel a certain strain in all that metamorphosing. Postmodern people typically feel no strain at all, and the various fragments of their lives are experienced happily enough so long as each fragment meets this crucial criterion: “it seems good to me and for me.”

Second, Cascadians are hedonistic. By that, I do not mean to insult them as being all mindless sensualists. One recalls instead the philosophical tradition of hedonism as a principle of life by which one judges things and experiences according to, again, their ability to produce pleasure (and avoid pain), another version of “what seems good to me and for me.”

Third, Cascadians are “spiritual.” Indeed, we generally enjoy describing ourselves this way in contradistinction to the word “religious.” Being religious means being bound by the givens of a particular proper-noun religion: Christianity, Judaism, and so on. Being religious means having to listen to authority figures and authoritative texts and conforming one’s life to their strictures. Being spiritual, instead, means…well, whatever the individual wants it to mean. Spirituality thus can be a rich, thick, life-shaping commitment. And it can also be a tingle in the tummy when one sees the sun set into the Pacific or behind the mountains. The key quality of what counts for the Cascadian as “spiritual” is the quality we have already encountered: “it seems good to me and for me.”

Fourth, it is a dominant characteristic of Cascadians that we are consumerists. By “consumerism” I mean the mentality in which everything is viewed in terms of the shopping experience. Everything, every person, and every relationship is commodified into something I can freely elect or reject. Just as when I am standing in the supermarket aisle selecting breakfast cereal, I don’t consult authorities or look up rules in a holy book. The only sensible criterion in my decision-making is the one that is now familiar to us: “what seems good to me and for me.”

Fifth, it perhaps is paradoxical that given the predominantly consumerist mentality of Cascadians, Cascadians nonetheless tend to be moralistic, even fiercely and intolerantly so. When it comes to caring for the environment, or sexual freedom, or the use of pleasant drugs, or bioethical issues, Cascadians are not, as a rule, pluralistic or relativistic — despite the common, and erroneous, equation of those terms with “individualistic.” Individualism means that each person can and ought to decide things for himself or herself. But the moralism typical of Cascadia would also say that each individual ought to select the one correct choice at least in these areas in which Cascadians typically see there to be a single proper ethical choice. Yes, one is normally to act as a sovereign self, selecting “whatever seems good to me and for me.” But with a certainty borne of strong intuition and peer reinforcement, on at least certain issues, Cascadians believe that only one option ought to seem good to you and for you.

(The paradox might yet be explained in terms of individualism: If you despoil the gorgeous environment of Cascadia, I cannot enjoy it. If you curtail sexual freedom or the legality of my favorite drugs, I cannot pleasure myself as I should like. And if you fence off abortion or euthanasia, I must yield sovereignty over myself, and I am not prepared to abide that. Therefore these issues that threaten personal freedom must be prosecuted in strongly hegemonic terms: only one outcome can be tolerated.)

Christianity — by which I will mean for the rest of this essay “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity — can and does share some of these values, concerns, and outlooks. Christianity is also distrustful of worldly power and metanarratives that are deployed to justify it. Christianity is also a strong defender of individual responsibility and liberty. Christianity also, of course, emphasizes the spiritual and not just materialistic. Christianity also commends moral absolutes, and among those moral absolutes is, indeed, “creation care.” And, perhaps surprisingly, we recall that Christianity has a significant measure of hedonism in it, at least in terms of receiving pleasure, including physical pleasure, as gifts of God so long as pleasure is enjoyed in its proper dimensions.

Thus, Christianity can appear to be culturally acceptable in Cascadia. One notes the internationally famous author Margaret Atwood recently endorsing the emphasis on creation care of the Christian A Rocha conservation movement —demonstrating an ethical affinity. One sees aesthetic overlap, to move to a quite different sphere, as one notices how “cool” church services pick up on various cues from hipster culture. And one sees a general Christian accommodation to the resistance Cascadians put up to authorities making demands of them: churches invite Cascadians just to “come as you are,” “do only what you want,” and “leave when you like.” The practice of “church discipline” in any form here seems as relevant and as welcome as the Inquisition itself.

This overlapping or sharing of values, concerns, and outlooks, however, risks allowing Christianity to be co-opted by the dominant culture of Cascadia. The practice of Christianity can become simply “part of my sovereignly chosen lifestyle,” a nice accessory to the groovy life. “Don’t ask too much of me!” Accessories make only small demands, and as one fulfills them, one yet receives more enjoyment. The same goes for hobbies. That’s what many Cascadians want in their spiritual lives as well: accessories, hobbies, nothing that will alter the overarching shape and thrust of one’s life.

Yet Christianity is also divergent, even confrontational, when it comes to the chief values of Cascadian life. Christianity forthrightly offers a metanarrative in the gospel. It forthrightly calls everyone into a single community: the church. It forthrightly sets out ethical demands in the law of God. And as much as it validates and enjoys the world, Christianity is oriented more to the world to come, as it speaks of the kingdom of God and eternal life as the focal points of Christian concern.

Indeed, this is the way Christianity always comes to a culture. It is willing to learn, borrow, and receive good things from that culture — whether that culture is ancient Hellenism, or Gothic Europe, or the Enlightenment, and so on. But Christianity also adds what it says is missing to that culture. It corrects and transforms what it sees to be deviant or deficient in that culture. And it unapologetically repudiates and resists what it sees to be wrong in that culture. So Christianity comes to a culture generally with a “yes” but also with an “and also….”

Christianity therefore always requires conversion, not mere adaptation. Conversion is always a major undertaking, and not merely the addition of a “lifestyle element.” Conversion entails changing one’s view of reality, one’s morality, one’s aesthetic, one’s social relationships, even one’s family — in the sense that the Christian church now becomes one’s primary social group, trumping the importance of even ones nuclear family. Conversion is not only a conversion of what you think and do, huge as those categories are, but also of who and what you love.

Recalling Kuhn, then, as well as John 3 (“You must be born again” — which is radical terminology indeed), conversion is attractive only if my paradigm is no longer working properly, and noticeably so. It may be that I am experiencing acute suffering, whether my own or that of others who matter to me. It may be that I am experiencing relational problems that my previous coping devices cannot remedy. It may be I am asking questions of meaning and significance for which I have no adequate answers. And it may be that I am experiencing explanatory deficiency over some important intellectual domain — which is clearly where Christian apologetics is mostly concentrated, even as the very language I’m using here indicates that such a problem is typical of relatively few people!

So, I must be experiencing a significant breakdown, or at least a painful inadequacy, in my ability to cope. I am open to changing my way of thinking, and being, to something else — and the something else will most likely win my allegiance if it is offered by someone attractive and trustworthy who can both tell me and show me an alternative. Furthermore, if the alternative is significantly different from my current paradigm, I will be all the more likely to convert to it if it is presented to me within a community of attractive and trustworthy people who believe and practice it, thus forming a “community of plausibility” in which what I previously would have found difficult to take seriously now can appear worthy of serious consideration.

Christianity in Cascadia, therefore, must offer an alternative that is plausible and attractive in ways corresponding to one or more elements of that previous list of serious concerns: suffering, relational problems, and so on. The alternative must be different enough to make conversion worthwhile, even as it also must be similar enough to make conversion imaginable. This is one respect in which Christianity must be “in the world, but not of it.”

What, then, of the strategy, followed by at least some leading churches and other organizations in Cascadia, of what I would call “chasing the cool kids”? There are, to be fair, inspiring models along these lines in the history of Christian missions. To go back just one generation, Bill Bright, formerly an excellent Californian car salesman, founded Campus Crusade for Christ and gave it, at least for a while, the missionary strategy of chasing the so-called Big Man on Campus (and his female equivalent). The Oxford Group Movement, of a generation earlier, sought to win the hearts and minds of upper-middle-class and even upper-class North Americans and Britons through gracious supper meetings in elegant homes at which a speaker would encourage people in these pleasant and plausible surroundings to consider adopting a more vital Christian faith than they had heretofore experienced. If we go back several centuries, we see the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and his cohort attempting to convert the middle class of China by educating the sons of the bureaucratic elites to do well on the crucial civil service exams. The general sense is this: If you get the chief, the tribe will follow. If you convert the key 20%, the remaining 80% will fall into line.

The difficulty, of course, is finding some “felt needs” among those who are already prospering. Why would they convert if the system they are currently experiencing has put them into comfortable positions of power and security?

Furthermore, Jesus himself said that he came to seek and to save those who were lost, the sick who recognized that they needed a physician. Jesus certainly can be understood in these sayings as manifesting compassion, but he also demonstrates wisdom about basic motivational psychology. The chiefs will change only when they have to: when the traditional magic is not working. Yet the cool and the comfortable in Cascadia by definition are enjoying a paradigm that seems to be working very well. So who in this region does feel the need for change?

The poor do: this region is increasingly expensive, even punishingly so. The lonely do: all this individualism, distancing from family and friends, and occupational churn produces tremendous and widespread loneliness. The frightened do: economic uncertainty, war, and personal suffering suffuses many lives with anxiety. The new do: they experience many of these things all at once, and a significant proportion of Cascadians are indeed new at any particular time. Finally, the older do: they have made their money and now want meaning — or they have seen their money diminish and they worry about state of the remaining years of their lives.

It’s hard to be Christian, and hard to invite people to become Christian, in Cascadia because of the powerful combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces. These forces draw us apart from other people, traditions, and communities; and also from considering our shortcomings and sins; and therefore from serious engagement with God. These forces draw us toward recreation in the natural beauty of the landscape; focus on the self; the next cool thing; and overwork to pay for it all. This is a very difficult matrix in which to ask people to sit still and listen to the gospel.

The sweet spot of Christian life here is going to be what it is everywhere, and what it always is in coaching, teaching, parenting, rehabilitation, and training of every kind: moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar; combining acceptance and transformation; and exerting the loving pressure to improve within the loving context of belonging. That is the balance we must strike, even as we recognize that only as people feel the need to undergo extensive education of this sort will they submit to the discipline required, no matter how winsomely presented.

Service organizations, friendships, and family life are here, as they are everywhere, the main connectors that draw people toward the ultimate things in life. To be sure, we must not engage in service, friendship, and family life merely to produce converts. These are, from a Christian view of things, good in themselves, of course. But they are also “plausibility places” in which we are showing, as well as telling, what it means to live life in Christ. And they are the relationships in which, when someone’s paradigm no longer suffices to cope with life in Cascadia, she can turn to the Christian beside whom she has served, with whom she has long been friends, or to whom she is related in a loving family. And in this crisis, she can say, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how do you live the way you do?”

Perhaps you were hoping for advice that was more interesting than what I have offered here, the rather pedestrian advice, in fact, of participating in life with other people, caring for them and caring with them, day by day, such that you are present in their lives when their ultimate needs surface — as life inevitably causes them to do. But the polls show that that is how most people, including people in Cascadia, end up in church, in membership classes, and in baptismal waters. And so does the history of evangelism throughout the world from the Book of Acts onward.

The hard part in commending Christianity in Cascadia, therefore, is not figuring out what to do, but doing it: forming those relationships; maintaining them over time; being able and willing to speak up about Jesus when the occasion calls for it; and then having a good church to which you can invite your friend or relative to experience the plausibility and the pleasure of the life of the age to come.

So how many Christians does it take to convert a Cascadian?

A decent church’s worth — but the Cascadian has to want to change.


  • John Stackhouse

    John Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and wrote "Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century." His most recent book is “Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology,” and he blogs at johnstackhouse.com, tweets as @jgsphd.