Solus Jesus
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Solus Jesus

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The New Hip Churches are Fooling Google. They Pop Up as “Gay-friendly” — it’s a Hoax.

In our town, a Google search for “gay-friendly church” proves dangerously misleading. Most of the churches that pop up on page 1 will have (cleverly hidden) policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people (no weddings, no clergy). These churches consider themselves “friendly to gay people” — but they mean, “We’re happy to have you so long as you live celibate or marry someone you’re not attracted to.” Same story if you change the search to “LGBTQ inclusive” or even “affirming.” It’s likely the case in your town too.

Most of these churches use descriptors like “non-denominational” or “contemporary” or “culturally relevant.” Their pastors (men) wear untucked shirts and the sermons are filled with pop culture references and are ably-illustrated with video clips (PowerPoint is so 1990’s). These are some of the most savvy churches known to Google. The websites are littered with words like “welcome,” “diverse,” and “loving” — all true if you believe gayness is “intrinsically disordered” (the modern lingo that replaces “perverse”) or don’t care how the church regards its LGBTQ+ members and visitors.

This is the new normal (more on that in in a minute) so chances are the newer and hipper churches in your town that advertise on the busses (“finally, a church for young professionals!”) — hide their policies. They may even tell the inquiring gay couple, “Of course you’re welcome!” while failing to inform them that, in the eyes of the church, their relationship is something to repent of. The unsuspecting couple enjoys the awesome culturally-current church, falls in love with the people. A year or two later they learn of the polices that discriminate against them — the age-old bait & switch. I have heard such stories over and over from credible witnesses. Often the effects are devastating (more on that too).

And here’s the thing: the better the church is — with engaging worship, relevant sermons, great kids programming, wonderful outreach — the more likely it is that the church will hide its policies. That means the LGBTQ+ people who come into the church’s spiritual orbit feel more connected when the other shoe drops … and the psychological harm is even greater. So it’s the good churches you have to look out for — not the lame, boring ones.

What happened to make this confusing state of affairs possible?

What had been a growing market share for “evangelical” — the second largest sector of Christianity — started to flatten in the early 1990’s, followed by real decline thereafter. Smart leaders realized they had to attract people despite a growing sense of religious aversion, a reaction to the rise of the Religious Right. Remember, “evangelical” has accrued lots of cultural stink, so many evangelical churches don’t flaunt it on their websites, advertising, etc. (If the church advertising is good it’s probably an evangelical church.)

But here’s the thing: this newer breed of churches are not just great marketers. They are often really good at doing church. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls their pastors, “social capital architects” who are genius at helping people make social connections. These high-functioning newer churches survive in a highly competitive (and shrinking) space, while others that didn’t learn the same lessons decline, especially after the the well-capitalized mega-church comes to town — or launches a nearby “satellite congregation.”

These growing churches dialed back their rhetoric on the hot-button issues, because they were interested in reaching people who didn’t care about the issues like they did. And then the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality happened. At the same time, the polling (especially among younger people) was shifting dramatically. Now lots of people who might be attracted to these great-if-you’re-straight churches believe same-gender sex can be healthy and life-affirming for gay people. So the policies — still in effect — became a little embarrassing and now they are shared only on a “need-to-know” basis.

Well, your LGBTQ+ loved ones need to know. Anyone who doesn’t want to be party to a bait & switch needs to know.

If you attend a church like this here’s some things to consider. It may be that you support the policies that ban gay weddings and ordination because they fit your religious convictions. Fair enough. But we’re all responsible for the effect of our sincerely held religious convictions on the human-beings-in-the-image-of-God who are affected by our convictions. People should know what they are getting into before they get into it. They should not be tacitly misled. We owe them honesty — “let your yes, be yes” said Jesus (not “yes, properly understood”).

Yet, an increasing number of straight people in these churches pat themselves on the back for their love of the LGBTQ+ community, their support for marriage equality, and so on. If that’s you, just be honest with yourself: you are willing to enjoy a faith community that is great for you, even though it is potentially hazardous for your LGBTQ+ friends — the ones you love so much and are so supportive of. As a straight person you are free to make that bargain, but at the very least, you could let your LGBTQ+ friends at church know what the church policies are that affect them.

In case you’re not sure what the policies are your church are, do a little research for your LGBTQ+ friends. Ask the lead pastor “Do you perform weddings for gay couples?” If the answer isn’t, simply, “yes,” … if it begins with a lengthy prelude like “Now that’s complicated issue, let’s step back for minute to unpack it,” you have your answer: NO.

If you are still prone to give the church the benefit of the doubt (“well, we are not one of those homophobic churches you hear about”) do a little empathy experiment. Imagine how you would feel if you fell in love and wanted to get married and the pastor said, “I’m sorry I can’t perform your wedding” — knowing that he can’t because, push has come to shove, and he actually believes (or is willing to enforce policies based on the belief) that your relationship is some version of perverse (disordered, not up to the biblical ideal, etc.).

And all this is the case, even if the pastor has done a public “apology to gay people” (that’s a thing in some of these churches). Yes, even if your pastor gave a sermon titled, “The Separation of Church and Hate” — these churches have great sermon titles — check the fine print. The pastor means, “Hate is always bad, but upholding ‘biblical standards of holiness’ is never hateful.” In effect, “no open gay-bashing allowed here” but when pressed, we do believe that same-gender sex is perverse. Even if your pastor feels “conflicted” about the traditional teaching and has “a real heart for the gay community,” know this: the largest givers are the most conservative and even if the pastor feels ill-at-ease with the policies, those big funders won’t let him cross any lines without penalty. That’s a huge incentive to keep the pastor “wrestling” over the issue until retirement.

How do I know all this? I was a national leader in a denomination with lots of these churches. I was involved in broader evangelical initiatives, interacting with many such churches with a wide range of affiliations. I may be the longest locally-serving pastor here in my home town, Ann Arbor. (I started young, so I’m not quite as old as you think — I know what UNTUCKit is, for example.) And I used to think like the pastors in these churches do. I know what constraints they are under. I can appreciate how well-intended pastors, skilled in the art of expressing welcome and warmth, can implement policies that are absolutely harmful to the people involved, and how that harm is usually invisible to the pastors.

About 30% of our church, Blue Ocean, would identify somewhere among the LGBTQ+ initials. I co-pastor with Emily Swan, a talented queer pastor, many years younger than I am. Yes, we’re known as the “gay church” now — though 70% of the church is straight (how does that work?). I’ve had the honor of pastoring LGBTQ+ people for four years as an ally, rather than a mere sympathizer. I know things that are simply invisible to pastors who are not open allies — like what it does to a person to know that their beloved pastor (who represents God) thinks their physical love for their mate, or their desire for a mate to love like that, is perverse, whatever euphemism de jour is employed to replace that word. Most of us feel shamed when we are shamed, especially by people we love and admire. We especially feel shame around anything to do with sexual desire. And we’re savvy at feeling how people regard us, even if they shame us with a sympathetic hand on our shoulder. It is a form of slow-fizz torture to be subjected to this, on top of a lifetime navigating the grinding, always-around-the-corner homophobia of this world. Which is e x h a u s t i n g. If you sense an edge to my writing, it comes from too many stories of this “let me get close to you” shaming and its effects on the human psyche. And maybe just a little frustration with myself for taking so long to wake up, see the suffering, and stop it.

So yes, for the love of God and LGBTQ+ people, spread the word that Google is not a good guide in such matters. The algorithms are no match for the savvy churches that keep their policies on the down-low.

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