Queer Christian, have you ever found yourself in a non-affirming church?
I’m guessing you have. In the U.S., 4.5% of individuals (and 8.1% of Millennials!) identified as LGBT in a 2017 Gallup poll. Pew has found that 25% of Americans identify as evangelical/non-denominational Christians, and 21% identify as Catholic – both largely conservative traditions.
And beyond the numbers, we know the overlap firsthand. Many of us are living in the tension created when a church that we love doesn’t love us back. Embracing my own queer identity left me with three options for responding to the tension I felt in these non-affirming communities. Most of us facing the same situation have the same three options:
A. We can challenge the tension by advocating for change.
B. We can walk away from the tension and find an inclusive church.
C. We can stifle the tension and withhold our disagreements while we still give our presence and resources.
Option C is frequently billed to us as the Christian option: the other cheek turned, the other shirt given. But Option C is no long-term solution. Many of us adopt Option C like we hold a breath: temporarily or accidentally. I stayed at the same non-affirming church through my college years and kept quiet about my affirming beliefs because I didn’t have the emotional space or the number of Sundays needed to find a new church.
But Options A and B can be the toughest to choose from and the narrowest to walk. I chose A when I challenged InterVarsity’s definition of who was allowed at the table in our college fellowship. I chose B when Ada and I wanted a church home where we could grow as individuals and as a couple.
If you are an LGBTQ Christian discerning whether to stay in or leave your non-affirming community, I hope the following five questions help you find your way.
1. Right now, is God calling you to fight for justice or retreat to justice?
God is still speaking. Mainline and evangelical Christians agree on that. So, have you heard Them recently? (They/them/their are pronouns for God that I’m trying to use when I can. These pronouns are both gender-neutral and gender-inclusive, and I think God must fall in one of those camps.)
I’ve felt God’s call through strong gut feelings, dreams and visions, and the advice of friends. God’s call should never lead you to harm others or harm yourself. God’s call should never exempt you from obedience to God’s deepest desires for us. A pastor, mentor, or trusted friend might be best suited to help you distinguish between God’s and other voices.
If you sense a call to fight for justice or if you aren’t sure, continue to the next question. If you sense a call to retreat to justice, then begin a search for an affirming Christian community.
2. Is your church leadership amenable to positive, congregant-led change?
Has your church been amenable to changes in the past, like allowing women to fill their calls to pulpit or embracing people who have been divorced? Have leaders ever publicly admitted that an old way of doing things was wrong, repented, and turned the church down a healthier path?
If your answers to these questions are a firm no, then it’s less likely that church leadership will take your LGBTQ-inclusion goals seriously. Still it might be worth pursuing depending on your answers to Questions 3-5.
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, consider meeting with a pastor or other church leader to talk through them. You can prime a conversation about change while holding your LGBTQ-inclusion goals close to your chest.
If you answer these questions with a solid yes, hold on to that church. That is a church with good soil ready for the fruits of LGBTQ inclusion.
3. For how long are you willing to engage non-affirming opposition?
Changing church policy can take years. Changing church culture can take generations. How much time are you realistically willing and able to commit to establishing LGBTQ inclusion at your church?
If you’re a newly affirming queer Christian, I urge you to safeguard your time, energy, and well-being. The fight will be long and dogged, and though you may be Samson-strong from enduring years of heteronormativity and homophobia, you might also be Sara-tired from those years.
4. Who can you count on as allies in your quest for change?
Are there other affirming queer Christians in your congregation that will partner with you? Are there straight ones? (This is a great opportunity for nimble allies with privilege to step forward.) Will friends, family, or mentors outside of your church community cheer you on?
If you feel you’re on your own, then tread lightly. Church leadership generally consists of more than just one pastor. Most churches have deacons and leadership teams and long-time loud congregants. Do you have a big enough team of allies to engage those who hold influence and power in your church?
5. What wounds might you incur, and how will you heal from them?
Pause to envision the best- and worst-case scenarios. If your church becomes affirming because of your efforts, what good fruit will the transformed community bear? If your church remains non-affirming despite your best efforts, what wounds will you have incurred, and how will you mend them? Will you have mentors, guides, or friends to help you retain your self-worth and reinforce affirming theology?
Social justice and individual safety are both paramount. Will you be safe if you walk this path?
. . .
These questions aren’t all-encompassing; for your church, you may have more specific questions. But these five questions provide a foundation for your discernment.
- Right now, is God calling you to fight for justice or retreat to justice?
- Is your church leadership amenable to positive, congregant-led change?
- For how long are you willing to engage non-affirming opposition?
- Who can you count on as allies in your quest for change?
- What wounds might you incur, and how will you heal from them?
There is a season for everything under the sun. It is important not to exclude our own spiritual safety while we work for justice. And, there is a season to gather our courage and our allies and to push for justice in our churches. Look for the signs of that good and coming season.
P.S. If you’re an ally looking for advice on opening church doors for LGBTQ-folks, check out this piece by Ada: “Calling All Allies: 4 Steps Toward Opening Closed Church Doors.”
Artwork by Elisabery