Back from mission, Seattle Christian is culture-shocked by non-religious city

Before service starts, Josh McGrew (left) catches up with friend and fellow Christian, Mickinzi Serles at The Inn at University Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Olivia Fuller)
Before service starts, Josh McGrew (left) catches up with friend and fellow Christian, Mickinzi Serles at The Inn at University Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Olivia Fuller)

Josh McGrew lifts his arms in praise as he proclaims his love for Jesus Christ in song.

18-year-old McGrew has only been coming here to The Inn at University Presbyterian Church to worship for a few months — but that’s not because he’s new to Christian ministry.

Shortly after he finished eighth grade, McGrew and his family relocated from Edmonds, Washington to the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua, where he lived until returning last June to prepare for his freshman year at the University of Washington.

So why would a family of five move to the poorest country in Central America, you might ask? The answer is simple: Jesus Christ.

After traveling several times to Nicaragua on mission trips, the McGrew family decided to pursue mission work full time to establish a ministry of their own there.

You might assume that spending his formative years in a foreign country serving the poor would have been the most emotionally shocking part of his last four years. But the real culture shock, McGrew says, came with his re-immersion into the Seattle milieu.

Josh McGrew often participated in various service projects with mission teams in Nicaraguan communities. (Courtesy photo)
Josh McGrew often participated in various service projects with mission teams in Nicaraguan communities. (Courtesy photo)

He had to get used to the changes in slang, technology, and style, of course. But adapting to the religious (or anti-religious) environment here has been the most difficult part, he says.

“It’s been kind of hard just because you have to be careful about what you say sometimes which I’m not used to,” McGrew said. “I’m used to being able to talk freely about [my religion].”

In King County, just 37.3 percent of people are affiliated with a religious group. In Nicaragua, however, over 80 percent of the population belongs to a Christian denomination of some sort. The contrast between how religion is perceived in both places is easy to see for McGrew.

“[In Nicaragua] they were fine with you talking about it. You didn’t have to worry about offending anybody by bringing it up because everybody kind of knew about and talked about it and it was fine,” McGrew said, “whereas here you have to be really careful about talking about your religion.”

Becca Rennaker, youth pastor at The Inn at University Presbyterian Church, attributes the apathy towards religion in Seattle to our city’s affluence and intellect.

“Because we’re in an educated place, people just don’t think that they need something more. They’re very comfortable,” Rennaker said.

Payton Young, a local student who is also a Christian, has noticed that her comfortable lifestyle in Seattle has an affect on her faith.

“When I’m here, I feel my faith in what God can do shrink because I have dependence on so many other things,” Young said.

Josh McGrew sings-a-long with The Inn’s worship band, lifting his arm in praise. (Photo by Olivia Fuller)
Josh McGrew sings-a-long with The Inn’s worship band, lifting his arm in praise. (Photo by Olivia Fuller)

As a Seattle Christian, Young feels distracted from her faith. She says independence and drive for success is paramount to her life in the city.

It’s shifted from persistence in God to persistence in ourselves and our own ambition and it distracts or even blinds us from seeing the miracles that God is doing around us,” Young said. “I really do believe that God is doing miracles here all the time, but I think sometimes we keep ourselves from seeing it with all the distractions.”

What McGrew experienced in Nicaragua differs quite profoundly. The lack of comfort and need for self-reliance in Nicaragua is something that McGrew witnessed firsthand while living there and serving impoverished people as a Christian missionary.

“We live in Seattle and we see homeless people all the time, but you have no idea what it’s like until you go and you’re walking through a garbage dump and you see people with a dirt floor and their house made out of corrugated metal that someone threw away,” McGrew said. “And they’re digging through garbage cans to eat rotten food that somebody threw away like four weeks ago because nobody will give them anything.”

Experiences like this have not only changed McGrew’s perspectives on poverty and humanity, but also on what religion means to him. Religion was somehow involved in every aspect of McGrew’s life in Nicaragua — from being involved in his home church, to accompanying mission trips as their Spanish translator, to helping his parents with their mission to serve others and spread the Gospel.

Josh McGrew, his two siblings, and his parents shared this one-story house on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua for four years while doing mission work. (Courtesy photo)
Josh McGrew, his two siblings, and his parents shared this one-story house on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua for four years while doing mission work. (Courtesy photo)

Although he is now involved with his church here and lives in Christian housing at UW, his experience as a Christian in Seattle has felt like much more of a risk to McGrew than it was in Nicaragua.

“I’m glad that I was in that Christian community though because I feel like it’s given me the ability to talk about it,” McGrew said. “I have the confidence to be able to share what I believe with people who may not believe the same thing and discuss with them why I believe that.”

Culture impacts people’s systems of belief. In Nicaragua, where 42.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, more people believe in a higher power than in Seattle. Does Seattle’s prosperity make it less spiritual? Does Nicaragua’s poverty make it more spiritual?

Both may be true — but in either world, McGrew says he’ll stay committed to sharing his belief in Jesus.

7 Comments

  1. We are more spiritual here due to understanding reality. As spiritual beings in material bodies we do not need cults. We do not subject ourselves to false prophets nor false religions. If you want to that’s fine, just don’t expect us to join you nor appreciate your misinterpretation of our ideals as being dangerous to you.

  2. from what authority are you able to claim revelation of true reality compared to those in “cults?” I’m actually asking

  3. Glenn, that is a great question! I would first look into the origins of the religious groups that we consider cults for the most part, look into historical certainty. Mormonism has no historical evidence to support itself and its a adaptive religion that no longer hates blacks because its not culturally acceptable. So they changed their beliefs to fit modernism. Scientology is literally a scam for rich people to spend money. Islamic Judaism and Christianity all Focus a lot around one focal character/theme and the same “God of Abraham” 90% of religions have Jesus as a reference or a deity of some sort. If this is all intriguing you please email me at adamjmcneil@gmail.com I would love to talk to you about it I have several friends that share Muslim and Mormon beliefs that I have frequent conversations with! Have a nice day!

  4. I would be like to see the statistics that shows only 34% of people in your county have a religious belief. That statistic does not sound accurate to me. Even in Scandinavia (the least religious countries in the world) the number of non religious is at most 40%. Please show me where you got this number. Secondly the reason so many people in Seattle are atheist most likely isn't apathy. Being an atheist in this country is still very unusual. It often takes a great deal of thought and consideration to arrive at this unpopular opinion. The atheist population was between 1-3% until recently which means most people were raised in religious families. It's not apathy that drives people to reconsider their childhood beliefs. If a person were to go with the flow it would be far more likely that person would be religious because that is the majority position in this country.

  5. Okay I took the time to research this and apparently 37% is the number of people affiliated with a church. It's estimated 25% are atheist. Therefore 38% that have some kind of belief but don't belong to a church. I find this statistic very interesting.

  6. It seems to me, that what Mr. McGrew is expressing is his surprise over the the obvious intolerance of Christianity in the culture he’s returned to.
    This is also commonplace in the media, where Christianity seems to be the ONLY religion that it’s acceptable to ridicule or make fun of.
    Having lived in the San Francisco area for seven decades, I have also noticed the heightened intolerance here. When my kids friends were in the Universities, I would often hear such reports, as how on the first day of class, the students were told by the professor that if they were Christians, they might as well leave now, because he would not find them credible, and would give them a failing grade.
    We also had a foreign exchange student from China who was so anticipating the experience of open minded exchange in the classroom.
    She was saddened and shocked to find that her professor used every opportunity to belittle Christian thought, and the two admitted Christian students. In tears, she told me that it was even less open minded than in China.
    So, my dear, it is not in your imagination. But as a student I assume, of the Bible, you know that Jesus, most of disciples, and many of his followers were killed for their faith. Jesus said that because He was hated, so would his followers be. There are more people in prisons and enduring persecution for their faith in Christ right now, that in all of history combined. Many count it an honor to share in his sufferings. It’s not right, but your Bible tells you that this intolerance is to be expected.

  7. Awesome job doing mission in Nicaragua Josh! :)

    I agree, unfortunately Seattle has become more and more intolerant towards Christianity, just these replies above make that pretty clear. However, at the same time it just proves the Bible right, “…in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God.” 2 Timothy 3.

    Once again, I am proud of what you are doing Josh, never lose faith ;)

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