Meet Josh and Reed, an engaged Christian couple who appeared on the popular reality show “Survivor” last year. They attend Hillsong church in New York. Hillsong leaders recently released a public statement clarifying that they welcome LGBTQ+ people but will not allow them to hold positions of leadership. Josh and Reed were asked to step down from their leadership roles as a result, nonetheless, they have chosen to continue participating in this congregation.
In the ongoing social media conversation about this, some people have treated Josh and Reed as heroes, while others see them as brainwashed fools. I thought it might give us more context to hear from other people in similar situations. There are many people connected to the New Direction community who willingly remain in churches with more traditional beliefs on LGBTQ+ matters. I asked them some questions, and I received responses from people across Canada, both men and women, ages 20-60, representing several denominations. Below I’ve shared some of their responses. I’ve kept their identities anonymous to allow them greater freedom to speak honestly.
By posting these responses, it is not our intent to discourage or shame LGBTQ+ Christians who choose to attend affirming churches. When Danice and I moved to Toronto, we felt it was important to attend a church that would affirm and support our marriage. We know many other LGBTQ+ Christians who attend affirming churches for good reasons, not least because these may be the only places where they can use their spiritual gifts. We plan to highlight their stories in another blog post. Our hope in this series is to humanize all LGBTQ+ Christians as people listening to God as best they can in the midst of real tension, and seeking to serve God in the communities to which they feel called.
1. What do you love most about your church?
The space created for me to approach Creator God. As a creative, musically inclined person, scripture/study-based worship isn’t always supportive of my spirituality. My church creates room for contemplative worship and art in the sanctuary, for a corporate and still artistic approach to our God.
The thing that I love most about my church community is that they try very hard to keep God as the central focus. They try hard to make decisions based upon what they believe will honour God. In the past, they have made very difficult decisions after lots of prayer and consideration that have resulted in some difficult financial situations. Still they believe God to be larger then the cost, and seek to honour God as responsibly as they can while still trusting God will provide.
I love the teaching. I want to be in a church that really digs deep into Scripture, which enables me to grow stronger in my faith, deepen my relationship with Christ, and better live out my faith in daily life.
I think the thing I love most is that my values and priorities align very closely with my church’s teachings and priorities. My church places the emphasis on the pursuit of being Christ-like, caring for people’s practical needs, being selfless, and seeking to understand people with differing perspectives. While the church has its own beliefs on many aspects of life, the church recognizes these as being entirely secondary to the basic message of Jesus, challenging everyone to sort these out individually, but not requiring everyone to conform to the conclusions it has reached as a church.
I love the community I have there, which includes most of my close friends. I also appreciate the senior pastor’s teaching. With some exceptions, I find it to be a very balanced and biblically grounded.
I love the way every Sunday service slowly ingrains in us deeply theological truths: the way the whole service is full of richness such that the preaching of the Word is not minimized, but the fullness of what brings us together is also elevated; the way many faces are seen up front so as not to turn our pastors into sensationalized demigods, but rather to learn to each take responsibility for our participation in the Kingdom and to be affirmed in our responsibility as a priesthood of believers; the way our prayers direct us to a daily life of renewing all things in Christ rather than just a Sunday of passive consumption.
What I love is the people. I have cultivated deep, loving, meaningful friendships within my church over the past eight years. They feel like family members to me.
I love that week after week I show up and find myself face to face with the gracious, loving gaze of God. Through the songs I’ve sung dozens of times that have sunk deep into my gut, the people who by simply being in that place—and despite theological disagreements we might have—act as icons of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. And my/our weekly, unconditional gathering around and participating in the broken body in the Eucharist.
I like that my church supports New Direction. A few people are actually genuinely friendly to my partner and myself. Our pastor is great and exhibits hospitality and “generous spaciousness” 🙂 Most importantly, my partner and I feel comfortable and safe there.
I love that my church seems to understand and prioritize a much bigger story in which we all have a role to play, a story that is bigger than our own and gives meaning to our individual stories. Yet my church does so well to listen to individual stories with empathy and often responds with action. I think the leaders of my church embody the Barbara Brown Taylor quote, “To be a priest is to know that things are not as they should be and yet to care for them the way they are.”
2. What is the most challenging/uncomfortable/difficult part about participating in a non-affirming church as an LGBTQ+ person?
Although I hold a more traditional sexual ethic myself, the most challenging part about participating in a non-affirming church is standing beside a church community that continues to hurt my fellow LGBTQ+ siblings. Currently my church holds to non-affirming doctrines and uses them as blinders to overlook the wounds they have inflicted on the LGBTQ+ community. My church is not a safe place for discussion about LGBTQ+ matters, and they refuse to make space for those who wish to honour God but happen to hold a differing sexual ethic. LGBTQ+ people are not treated as members but as attendees.
I guess it would be my denomination’s general stance on homosexuality. Personally I haven’t committed myself to participate in any capacity at the church due to the fact that I do not want to get hurt, since the church hasn’t formally announced that they encourage LGBTQ people to participate in their ministries.
I guess the most difficult part of continuing to attend this church (for me personally) is simply the limitations that are imposed. My pastor said he would happily attend my wedding and that nothing would change in terms of my involvement with the church, but that he wouldn’t be able to perform the ceremony. He equips me in developing as a leader, providing me with all the same resources he provides the other leaders at the church, but is unable to make me an official elder.
As I am part of a congregation flush with newborn babies and engagement rings, I find that signs of celebration for others in my community are often a reminder of the glass ceiling that I worship under on a weekly basis. These small reminders that I would not be as openly celebrated for my future love and devotion are often the hardest thing to come to terms with.
Before I came out, my gifts as a Christian leader, pastoral presence, and preaching of the Word were affirmed by the leadership. After I came out, though I fully understood and respected the limitations of a church committed to the goodness in their larger denomination that is conservative on marriage, I am weekly reminded of the glass ceiling that exists for me despite my willingness to serve. It is painful to know that my pastors trust my leadership, but are not willing to risk giving me the opportunity to preach again. I can play on the worship team and read prayers and Scripture, but I’m not allowed to offer words from my own faith, despite it being about so much more than my sexuality.
The most difficult part is trying not to feel like a second-class Christian. Once I start focusing on those feelings rather than remembering who I am in Christ, I can weigh myself down with resentment, and harbor hard feelings toward others.
I saw a video this week on Facebook of Nadia Bolz-Weber being interviewed by The Work of the People and she made the point that our shared brokenness, not our success, is what connects us to God. I worry whether others in my community judge themselves as more pious and holy—closer to God—for their straight privilege. I struggle to know in my bones that I am loved by God, there aren’t limits on the grace and love of God. (I’m sure part of this is spiritual growing that’s required on my part).
The glass ceiling is difficult: knowing that I cannot participate in my church in leadership roles as I did formerly. The lack of interest in my participating in youth ministry is particularly painful. I also feel alienated in my Bible study/home group by a theology that is so narrow as to make me feel excluded.
Although my church has a very conservative view on marriage, there is very little apart from that issue that is challenging or bothersome. Though most people know I’m gay, I haven’t encountered direct opposition. That being said, there have been some recent developments which make me feel less welcome. When I began attending, there was an affirming pastor on staff. For publicly undisclosed reasons, that pastor has now left the church and this has made a palpable difference for me. It’s never been important to me that the church be officially “affirming,” only that there was space within the church to hold to a different view. That’s what I thought I had found here and it’s frustrating to think that’s been thwarted.
The most challenging part about participating in a non-affirming church as an LGBT person is maybe that I still haven’t quite figured out where my voice belongs and is acceptable. In an affirming church it would be more “anything goes,” but in this context you have to be more careful and ask a lot of questions.
3. What makes you want to remain in your church despite their position?
In addition to the great community I have, I’d say it’s difficult to find a church that I consider to be both doctrinally sound and affirming. I’m an odd duck of sorts. While I’m affirming of gay marriage, I’m quite theologically conservative. In my search, I found most churches that espouse an LGBT affirming view to be weak theologically. It’s as if the only way to argue for an affirming viewpoint is to water down other scriptural tenets which I found to be frustrating. At the end of the day, sound biblical exegesis is more important to me than an affirming church; until I can find both I will choose a church that prioritizes the former. I’ve also come to realize that no church is perfect and we’re bound to disagree on one issue or another, and this just happens to be mine.
When I am at church, I am among God’s people. My congregation, though theologically non-affirming, are a group of people strongly convicted in the way of love. Though sometimes I am filled with my own despair, the individual people in my community fill me with hope. Through their love for me, I am more freely able to approach God better than if I were to attempt the journey alone.
I love the people. They are family. That doesn’t go away. I also know that they love me as best as they can. I have a feeling that if I leave then all of their f***ing awful assumptions about LGBTQ+ folk and Christianity being incompatible will be affirmed in their eyes. I don’t want to give them that ill-informed satisfaction. Also, my church will continue to produce gay babies. I don’t want the gay babies to grow into an environment as unfriendly and unwelcoming to gay-affirming Christians as my church can be. The problem is that they think they are more loving and welcoming to LGBTQ+ people than they are. If I stay, then I fear subtly affirming that their treatment of LGBTQ+ people is okay because I am the token gay person. It’s a catch-22. It’s very difficult to navigate this decision.
There are two main reasons I choose to remain in this church. The first reason is that it helps me to grow as a Christian and provides me opportunities to help others grow in their relationships with Christ (i.e. it does what a church is supposed to do). And the second is that I hope to continue to create space and opportunities for increasing levels of inclusiveness for LGBT people within the church.
What makes me want to remain in my church is that I want to help my community to grow in understanding and also to help those who are currently in hiding within the church. It is also the church that I grew up in (since age 8) and I want to stick it out with the church that raised me into the Christian I am today. If at all possible, I want to be able to give back to the community that cares for me and loves me. Leaving is a last resort for me in case the environment becomes too toxic for my growth and development.
God has shown me that there is a season to give and a season to receive. I guess The Lord has given me the understanding that He has a reason/purpose for me to be in the church for His purpose. I hope that me being in the church would be an invitation for people to get to know a LGBTQ Christian. The goal is for relationships to be built and I pray that the future of the church will be a different place. God did not give up on me and I will not give up hope on the church, at least not yet 🙂
I think it’s a church with a lot of potential. And as I said before, I want to be part of a church that sees the bigger story and doesn’t get distracted by the temptation to be fundamentalist and petty about certain topics. It’s focused on seeing the Kingdom come, in the world and in each other. I want to be a part of that.
Our liturgies (words, songs, prayers) have an uncanny ability to put a frog in my throat or a tear in my eye week after week. A vision of community and shared life that shakes me from the individualistic ways of the empire and turns me outwards toward neighbours and towards God. And I was baptized into this community—a sacramental action that gave me a birth as a new person—and with it came these brothers and sisters with whom life together isn’t always easy, but it is still a Spirit-filled life together.
For me, I don’t want to walk away from things just because I may feel uncomfortable at times. What might be the cost of leaving? Perhaps my own emotional and spiritual maturity, any potential for bridge-building between the church and us as a gay couple, and the opportunity to be supportive to any others there who might be struggling with their sexuality.
I am more than my sexuality. I am more than a single identity. And despite the fact that Christians are constantly trying to make my whole life about the fact that I’m gay (by saying I cannot do this or that or by tokenizing me because of one aspect of my life), I will battle that false narrative by offering the fullness of who I am. This includes the gift of my sexuality and how that has specifically blessed and enhanced my ability to minister to others in Christ–and I wish Christians would see how inseparable these gifts are. I am willing to stay as long as those around me are willing to grow in faith alongside me.