Reaching Portland requires different mindset

By Sheila Allen

PORTLAND – A majority of young adults are moving into core urban areas of Portland, according to Wes Hughes, Northwest Baptist Convention church planting catalyst. Although nearly 65 percent of Portlanders claim to be either religious or spiritual, church planting is not for the faint of heart in the largest urban center in Oregon.

“It’s going to take all kind of models of church in Portland,” said Hughes. “It really is like those moving to North Africa and adopting the local customs. But Portland is great because there is a 35-year master plan for the city with lots of data for those willing to take the time to research it.”

For now, Portland is the middle of a “doughnut hole” for Northwest Baptists, as churches in the suburbs dominate the scene. With 95 vibrant neighborhood associations comprising the city, many older areas are undergoing revitalization and attracting people.

“We have no strong churches in Portland currently,” noted Hughes. “I have been praying to the Lord of the harvest, asking him to send disciples back into the city. It is a dream of mine to have a church in each of those 95 neighborhoods. That will take pastors and lay leaders who will move into these neighborhoods, begin to make friends and become an integral part by learning what the values are. Just moving here doesn’t necessarily mean that people will trust you or your message.”

Several church planters are laying foundations in a few areas around the city, and it is crucial for those leaders to see themselves as pastors of the local communities, not just a church, stated Hughes.

Recruiting those with missionary zeal is a high priority for Hughes and Clay Holcomb, also an NWBC church planting catalyst who is also the North American Mission Board’s “Send City” coordinator for Portland.

“We have spent the last two years creating some momentum to bring church planters and their partners in to get the ball rolling,” said Holcomb, who first came to the metro area as a church planter himself. “We have a good mix of Anglo and ethnic church starts in the works, and I try to communicate that we know the value of working together and we support each other. We are definitely building on the shoulders of those who have come before us.”


As a former church planter from the South, Holcomb understand the needs of planters and helps bridge the gap between them and the sometimes high expectations from church partners in other areas hoping for quick results. Holcomb is anxious to see Northwest churches partner with Portland area church plants and is planning a Northwest leaders-only vision tour in September.


“I want to show them how their church can get involved and recast it as a mission opportunity that is in their backyard,” Holcomb remarked. “It will help us, but also help them see a different culture and potentially infuse a mission DNA into their students, who could be future church planters.”

Hughes is currently is conversations with those interested in serving in Portland that may be three to five years out from an actual church plant.


“We don’t tell people what neighborhood to go to – we show them around and they choose it and what model of church they will use,” Hughes added. “Church planters go through a coaching-style assessment with us at that time. Sometimes it is determined that they shouldn’t come right now, based on their own personal circumstances. I try to help those who do come to find a good alignment for their church model and their funding sources. I operate off of a currency of relationships and try to meet with these guys at least once a month, as it’s an investment in them and our mission. I also help them with a development plan, and try to coach, connect and encourage them to move forward.


“There is no magic formula to this,” Hughes said. “We have to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit and lay people sometimes do this better than pastors, as we cannot duplicate others success stories. We must also ask ourselves how we are going to reach the 60 percent of the population that doesn’t want anything to do with us. It is all about trust — learning how to do that with your neighbors and it is a lot of hard work.”


Portland is built around 20 minute-walk communities, and the love affair with bicycles among Portlanders is legendary.


“I have researched and found the top 15 ‘walk score’ areas in Portland and those are priority areas for me,” Hughes stated. “Public transportation, light rail, bicycles and walking are important values here, and that can be adopted by those wishing to make a difference in the lives of people in our urban neighborhoods.


“We are looking for disciples who are going to be missionaries, rather than church planters,” Hughes said. “People in Portland want to find peace, and we have that to offer in Jesus Christ. We just have to go and find that context and begin to build trust and then friendship.”


Interested parties may find more information about Region 3 (Portland metro area) church planting efforts at


(Photos by Cody Hughes)

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