Church-challenged Alaska

Church, and religion in general, is not a big part of most Alaskans’ lives. Spend a little time here, and you’ll probably notice that soon enough. Though we have our share of churches here in the Mat-su Valley (I would guess more than most other places in Alaska), what gets me every time we drive to worship on Sunday mornings is that by 9:15 a.m. our local sports bar is already packed with football fans (the NFL games start early in Alaska Standard Time). And for every person in the bar on Sunday mornings, there are hundreds more relaxing at home, or snow machining, or doing housework, or engaged in some other non-church activity. Sure, we have churches, but faithful church-going Christians are definitely a minority here.

Gallup survey I came across earlier this week testifies to this secular-mindedness. According to this nationwide poll, Alaska is the fourth least-religious state in the Union (actually, it’s tied with Massachusetts for the honor). Gallup says that “40% of Americans [are] very religious – based on their statement that religion is an important part of their daily life and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week.” So, while 40% of Americans in general are “very religious”, only 28% of Alaskans are that way.

Here’s a map from the article that shows the relative strength of religion in all 50 states (the darker the green, the more religious):

One interesting thing is that the very question posed by Gallup may say more about our society than any of the answers given to it. Surely there are few times in history (and probably few places today) where it was not simply taken for granted by everybody that religion is “an important part of their daily life.” Religion has always been part of the very fabric of our human existence. Imagine asking a person in Medieval Europe, or in any given Muslim nation today, if religion is a big part of his life. The question would sound as rational as, “Is breathing an important part of your daily life?” Only in our hyper-secular culture could people even conceive of the notion of life devoid of religion.

Another interesting thing is that Alaska is a bit of an oddball for unreligious states. Almost all of the states that rank low in religiosity lean heavily to the left politically. But Alaska, where religion is relatively unimportant, is quite conservative. This Gallup study shows that, for the category of “Republican/Lean,” Alaska ranks 7th overall. So, unlike the other irreligious states, Alaska is not politically liberal but conservative (New Hampshire also fits this unusual profile).

Actually, this same Gallup study showed that Alaska is below the national average in the percentage of people who identify themselves as conservative (33.4% versus the average of 40%). But despite that, I still think it’s safe to call Alaska a politically conservative state (think Sarah Palin). Interestingly, the percentage of people in Alaska who consider themselves politically liberal is also below the national average (19.1% versus 20.6%). So, apparently people here don’t think of themselves as especially conservative or liberal. Consistent with this, of all 50 states, Alaska ranks second overall in the percentage of people who consider themselves moderate (40.6%). I guess you could say Alaska is an extremely moderate state!

What does this lack of religiosity mean for the church’s ministry and witness up here in “The Last Frontier”? Here are a few thoughts:

We need to meet people where they are, not where we think they should be.

When almost three-quarters of the state’s population are not counted as those who are “very religious”, should we be surprised that their lives are hardly Christian-like? What a shock – pagans who live like pagans! As Christians, without excusing sin or compromising our call to holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16), we need to be willing to interact with unbelievers in an understanding way. Remember – but for the grace of God go we. Let us make the gospel of Jesus Christ known to our unbelieving neighbors, and trust that God will grow in grace those whom he saves.

We should take care that our worship service is more or less accessible to most people.

This doesn’t mean we should dumb down our services, or make them “contemporary” or “seeker-sensitive.” But by “accessible” I mean the average non-church going person who is paying attention should be able to grasp the meaning of what is happening. We shouldn’t assume they’ll understand what being in church is all about. Our teaching and preaching should be clear, and the elements of our worship service should be explained from time to time.

We need to remember that conversion to Christ will mean, for most Alaskans, a radical lifestyle change.

Of course, as a minister of the gospel, my concern is not to make people more religious. My desire is to see sinners brought to eternal salvation by believing in Christ. But being united to Christ by faith for salvation means being joined to Christ’s body. That means those whom God saves by faith in Christ ought to be actively involved in the worship and life of the church (and not Lone Ranger Christians).

But church has its own culture distinct from the world around it. In church we speak a certain language, hold to certain values, practice certain traditions, and share certain customs. These facets to church culture are not, or at least they should not be, opposed to the gospel. Rather, they should serve to edify believers in the knowledge of Christ.

In a very religious state like Mississippi, there is much more overlap between the culture at large (where church plays a big part in most people’s lives, whether or not they are genuine believers) and church culture. A conversion there may look something like this. A  person grows up in a liberal mainline Protestant church and attends regularly, along with almost all of his friends and family, but then he comes to saving faith in Christ. As a result, he finds a church where the gospel is preached and begins worshiping there faithfully. The transition to active involvement in a Bible-believing church is relatively easy, because he grew up in a church-going culture.

But things will be different for the typical Alaskan who comes to faith in Christ. He didn’t grow up going to church, and so in his first visits there he found it a strange and vaguely threatening place. His friends and family probably won’t understand why he wants to go to church on Sunday instead of doing what he’s always done on Sundays. They may question his allegiance to a new group of people (those “religious” people). In general he’ll find it hard to make church an important part of his life when the only way of life he’s ever known had nothing to do with church. We need to keep this in mind.

Alaska’s low religiosity is a challenge for us here. But it’s also an opportunity. Against the background of a secular society, the distinctive life of God’s people, who worship and serve together out of love for Christ and love for one another for the sake of Christ, will (hopefully) stand in stark contrast (see 1 Peter 2:9). Perhaps, by the grace of God, this may compel Alaskans who are not saved to seek the Redeemer who indwells in the midst of his people.

Pastor Scott