Adventures Off the Beaten Path

matt-howard-223043-unsplash.jpg

I’ve been on a mission of sorts over the past couple of years. What is that you might ask? To explore all of the backroads and off-the-beaten-path kinds of places across Oregon. Sure, we have the photogenic coast, the majestic Multnomah Falls and Columbia River Gorge, the Instagram-worthy Crater Lake, and of course our array of volcanoes that dot the Cascade mountain range. On top of that we have hip and livable places like Portland, Bend, Hood River, and more. But I’m not talking about those places. I’m talking about places with names you’ve never heard of …

Once or twice a month we’ll load up in our SUV as a family and head out to explore. This habit was started when we lived in Arizona. We may hit a small town to walk around in and take photos, other times we’ll go on a hike, but it usually entails a road trip, chewing and spitting sunflower seeds while driving, and finding out what makes Oregon interesting and amazing. And it certainly is …

But it’s more than simply being a tourist as I’m always exploring with a mindful eye towards discerning the state of each community’s local economy, interpreting the town’s built environment, thinking through the cultural distinctiveness of each place, and always asking the question to myself as to who lives there … and why. Then my thoughts naturally turn towards Intrepid, church planting, missions, and community economic development. No, this is not from some vantage point or framework of an elitist urbanite swooping in with all of the answers and is the savior. Instead, it’s really from the vantage point of one who grew up in a very uncool little town in Iowa. I get it. I get off-the-beaten-path places and people.

Our journeys and explorations have uncovered treasure after treasure. Case in point, over this past weekend we walked into a general store in a tiny community in Central Oregon. The town might’ve had 100-150 people living there. The store was a treasure trove as it had everything you could imagine … gas, a section dedicated to DVD rentals (reminiscent of video stores pre-Blockbuster), restaurant (corn dogs, hot dogs, etc), a thrift store / clothing section, and more. It was awesome. If that same place was in Portland it would be so ironically ironic that hipsters would flock there in droves. But there probably wasn’t a hipster within 100 miles of the place.

But this isn’t simply about rural Oregon as I continue to explore places around the Portland metro area that are similar. Usually these places too are uncool, a little unkempt, lower-income, and the like. Again, since the narrative in church planting in the U.S. tends to focus more on livable places and desirable communities this is why we’re going in the opposite direction. Not out of angst or anything like that. Instead, to attempt to equalize the geographic implications in church planting and ministry. Right now there certainly is a disparity of where churches are planted and among whom.

Long before I knew any of this I got into church planting because I had thought or assumed it was a pioneer endeavor. Also, that it was framed under the banner of missions. Unfortunately since then I realized how naive I was (to my chagrin). However, for me I still view church planting that way. That’s why when communities start getting an huge bump in church planters I’m already onto another place emotionally. For a short duration that’s what I thought or assumed the city center of Portland was. But like a busy airport church planters are almost lined up in a queue. New ones to the city land in a neighborhood only to find 3-6 other planters who recently moved there as well. Often times church plants will gather only a few city blocks from one another. That’s why my heart and mind wander to life off the beaten path.

Pioneer endeavors are … well, uncool. Why? There’s a reason why these places and people are off the radar. Therefore to plant there means to step into obscurity and to wander off the map yourself. But maybe that’s what we need to wrestle with … is our goal to plant churches and see development in places and among people in need or is it to build and grow our own personal brands?