Six research interns arrived in Portland last summer to help shape the souls of city residents, but they realized toward its conclusion that the project dramatically shaped their own souls. "We learned how to invest in a community and how to bless a community rather than expecting people to come to a church," said Matt Jolley of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jolley and his young adult counterparts were part of Parachute Project, a joint effort between the North American Mission Board and state conventions. The program takes its name from the way it "drops" students into strategic urban locations where they research the area and try to form small groups that have the potential to become new churches.
Northwest Baptist Convention regional church planting strategists Wes Hughes and Ken Harmon worked with NAMB leaders to recruit the six-member team and orient their summer ministry to Portland's diverse, urban vibe. Ministry research organizations typically list Portland as one of America's "least churched" cities.
Hughes described the effort in simple terms: build "redeeming relationships" and live "missionally and incarnationally."
The team included Jeff Gard*, also of NOBTS; Ashley Esquibel, Robyn Galloway, and Austin Phillips of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas; and Callie Herring of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. They took part in everyday activities of Portland residents, trying to initiate spiritual conversations in coffee shops, parks, community centers, and at other crossroads of casual interaction.
"We went to do the stuff they were doing rather than what we normally do," said Jolley. "We went to where the lost people were hanging out and did what they did."
"We were reaching out and being intentional with people that we met in the places we frequented," said Galloway.
It took a while getting used to, but the informal approach eventually made sense to the group.
"You're not going to find a lot of lost people in the church," said Esquibel. "It's about applying your passions with God" and connecting them with the interests of others.
They developed a number of friendships as they set about on their journeys.
They met Noah at a local bakery. They listened as he gave them a friendly tour of a nearby Buddhist monastery and meditation center. Later, he listened as they talked about biblical spirituality.
Roland, who they met at a local gym, initially expressed cynicism toward God. As the group befriended him, however, he talked longer about Christianity and began talking about theological questions over coffee.
There were on again off again spiritual conversations with Kevin at a local vending stand.
Marissa from a local coffee shop talked openly about her life and seemed interested in talking about Jesus described in the Gospel of John.
Lizzy from a local community center told members of the group about her spiritual background and her rebellion from the religion she felt was forced on her as a child.
There were friendly conversations with Jacob, Megan, Jessica, and others as they shared the love of Christ through ordinary conversations and activities.
All of the team members grew up in traditional Bible-belt cultures, so working in Portland was a new experience that took some adjustments.
"I didn't know that you could have culture shock just moving halfway across your own country," Phillips acknowledged. "The people here act, behave, and operate completely differently than where I'm from."
But he noted it was a refreshing change. "It's so easy here to start a conversation and start solid relationships." It's a matter of truly listening to others and being interested in their lives, he added.
Doing so allows God to bring surprises, said Herring. "So many times you don't have to try to further conversations on your own. You just have to have openness and see what God has all around you."
That requires investments of time, however.
"Being available in a place like this is a huge deal," said Jolley. "When you think less about trying to get people to come to something and think more about being a blessing to a community — that shifts the direction of your feet right there."
Each team member also agreed about the need to let go of expectations about easily leading large numbers of people to Christ during the short period of time they were on the field.
"Here, [evangelism] is just such a long process," said Esquibel. "It's about moving people close to another step. It's not always that you're going to lead them to Christ, but you can be part of the process here."
That's not to say it's hard to interest people in conversation, they noted. But the conversations don't usually follow traditional evangelistic formulas.
"I found that a lot of people were open about learning why you believe what you believe," observed Esquibel. "They're really interested and want to ask a lot of questions."
As is the case in many places in the United States, they met many people self-described as spiritual but who don't want entanglement with conventional religion expressions.
"There is a lot of spirituality," said Phillips, but turning conversations to Jesus proved difficult at times.
"Jesus may be in the conversation a little but He's not a major focus for people," Phillips added.
Galloway agreed. "The idea of Jesus as Lord — He's not for people here."
The interns highlighted the importance of genuine relationship in making spiritual headway with Portland residents.
"The only bridge is friendship," suggested Phillips. "You have to have that relationship because they're very open, but it's a culture that's very well-schooled. They've heard all the words; read all the arguments. They have the knowledge, but it's a time where they need to see it. It's past time for hearing it, to seeing it.
Jolley affirmed that sentiment. "How can they see Christ unless they see Him living in community with them?"
The summer experience taught the group important lessons they took home.
"Here you can see people almost every day and consistently invest in their lives," Esquibel said. "This is how you live missionally every single day of your life."
The group also affirmed the need for churches to learn how to minister in a way that enables believers to get out of the so-called "Christian bubble" and spend more time with non-believers.
"One thing the church needs to try to do is to reduce how many activities it expects Christians to get involved in," said Patterson. "We need to learn to create community that's not based around the church building but around Christ and what hope in Him is in life."
"To us, of course, the Gospel is credible," noted Jolley. "I hate to say it, but it doesn't have credibility for a lot of people because they can't link it to something they know already. I think the idea that we can sacrifice church activities for activities with the lost is a huge part of the approach that's changed for me."
That said, the group stressed the importance of remaining linked with a church. "A faith community is still important-we need that accountability," said Herring. "But here it wasn't bringing them to a church but bringing them into a community."
* not his real name