Seattle can seem like one big paradox.
SEATTLE, WASH. – Seattle can seem like one big paradox.
On one hand, it is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Almost 574,000 people live in Seattle proper, and about 4 million in the metro area.
Seattle – also known as the “Emerald City” because of the lush evergreen trees in the area – has been called the most literate city in the United States. The most recent census found that Seattle has the highest percentage of college graduates of any major U.S. city.
Men’s Fitness magazine named Seattle the fittest city in the U.S. The area is home to Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks.
With some 190 different languages spoken, Seattle is a very multiethnic city. Many world religions are represented. It’s a very spiritual city, and more than 80 percent of the residents say they believe in something beyond the physical realm.
At the same time, only about four percent of the 4 million people in greater Seattle are evangelical Christians.
“Seattle has never been a Christian city,” says Gary Irby, churching planting missionary for the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the Puget Sound Baptist Association. “It’s not post-Christian – it’s never had a predominant Christian influence.”
And therein lies the rub for 46-year-old Irby, whose sole mission is to plant new churches to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Puget Sound area, which is about 100 miles long and 40 miles wide.
“One of the important things we’ve discovered is that you cannot presume that people in Seattle have a basic understanding of the gospel,” Irby said. “You can’t assume they’ve ever been in church, that they’ve ever even seen or read the Bible. Many people around the country don’t understand that there’s a part of the United States like that.
“What we have to do is listen in order to share,” Irby continued. “Seattle people want to kow that you genuinely care about them before you can start to share your faith. So when we talk to people, we talk about their beilef systems. We ask them, ‘Where are you in your spiritual journey?’ And as they open up, we gain the opportunity to share our faith with them.”
Irby has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Joyce, for 25 years; they have four children.
As a young minister in Washington, Irby served a church that was growing, but slowly. He became frustrated with himself and with God. He said he prayed and did the things he needed to do to grow the church but it just wasn’t happening. “Lord, what’s going on here? What gives?,” Irby said.
“And God said to me very clearly – the clearest I’ve ever heard Him – ‘Gary, you’ve been adding. It’s time to start multiplying.’ In other words, He meant that it was my turn to get involved in churching planting.”
And during his 20 years as a church planter – nine of them in Seattle – Irby has been answering God’s call to multiply.
“About seven years ago, we had about 100 churches in the area,” Irby said. “We’ve seen that number grow to about 170 different churches, in 20 different languages. Over half of the new churches we’ve started have been churches using a language other than English.” These include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Russian and Spanish.
In addition to planting Seattle churches focusing on nationalities, Irby and the 65 church planters he’s directed over the last nine years have also started churches by targeting groups based on age. And they also have planted new churches in apartment complexes, theaters and schools.
Irby says that while the Scripture is constant and unchanging, church planting methods should be flexible and church planters need to think “out of the box” and adapt to the local culture.
“My role as a church planting missionary is to help recruit and train church planters, to assess them, to help them find partners, and to help them discern where God is leading them to plant a church. A lot of planters come in and say ‘just tell me where to plant a church.’ I tell them I won’t do that. I’ll leave that to God. We’ll show them a half-dozen possible places, and pray with them about where God is leading them.
“It’s a constant struggle to find enough churches to come and help us with the new church plants. It takes prayer support, mission involvement and financial giving. But as much as we need money, it’s more than that. We want supporting churches that will commit to pray for us regularly and consistently, and churches that will send people to come and help us with short-term missions.
“I love to see people come to faith in Christ. That’s why we plant churches. It’s just such a cool thing to see the new churches celebrate every time they hold baptism services. It’s like a big party. People are so excited about their new life in Christ that they practically jump out of the water.”
How does Irby feel about the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering?
“It’s such a huge blessing to know that when I get up in the morning, I can immediately get after what God has called me to do instead of figuring out how I’m going be able to live, survive and feed my family. We need a great deal of resources, and the core of those are the resources that come from the Annie Armstrong offering.”