This past Sunday, I attended an open and affirming church. I found it online through a news article that described this church as a "haven for the LGBT community." When I clickedon their website, the home page declared that they are welcoming to "persons of all sexual orientation and gender identification." I was always curious to see what a church like this would be like, so I decided to check it out.
When I arrived at the church, I noticed that many of the cars in the parking lot were sporting worn-out "I'm With Her" bumper stickers. You don't see many of those in conservative churches. When I entered the hallway that led to the church sanctuary, I was greeted at the door by a middle-aged man. He was huge (at least 6'3) and looked like he could play in the NFL.
He also happened to be wearing a white dress and red lipstick. Again, this isn't something you see in conservative churches.
As I took a Sunday program and a palm branch from him (it was Palm Sunday), I sat in the pew and thought to myself, "I wonder how the rest of this day will go..."
Observations of The Church Service
To my surprise though, the Sunday service was fairly normal. Contrary to what our 1st generation parents and pastors may have warned us about, there were no rainbow flags being paraded round or sexual orgies taking place at the altar. Instead, this church had an old-fashioned, liturgical worship. Call to Worship. Opening Prayer. Praise. Sermon. Benediction. Very typical Sunday.
There were a couple of things though that surprised me. First was the age of the congregation. For some reason, I thought that the LGBT movement was a millennial thing. However most of the people here were between ages 40-60. I was also surprised that most of the church seemed straight. I thought a church like this would primarily consist of members from the LGBT community. And while I did notice a few same-sex couples holding hands, most of the congregation were husbands and wives.
When it came to the sermon, I admit that I was expecting them to use the Bible to promote a "gay agenda." However, this wasn't the case. The preacher read from the Bible and taught a simple message about Palm Sunday. To be honest, it was a bit shallow and quite boring - but no different than any other mediocre sermon I've heard. Perhaps the only unusual thing about the message was that it was preached by a woman, which kind of rattled my complementarian sensors.
So while there didn't seem to be any type of "gay agenda" in the church's message or liturgy, I did sense it in the church's culture. For example, a transexual woman was manning the welcoming booth. There were a couple of cross-dressing teenagers singing the offertory song. There was an announcement about a LGBT rally in a local neighborhood. Though the LGBT community was a minority in this church, their members seemed to be platformed for the majority to see.
By no means do I think my experience at this open and affirming church is a universal one. I'm sure if you ever visit one, you'll realize it's shaped more by its denomination, size and race than by its stance on this issue. However I do believe if you ever visit one, you may share certain thoughts that I had throughout the service.
For example, it was definitely strange being the minority here - and I don't mean racially (I'm used to being the token Asian guy). Rather I'm speaking theologically. I'm used to being surrounded by Christians who believe the same thing I do about this issue. And to be frank, it's really easy believing you're right about something when everybody around you holds to the same belief as you do. But when you're surrounded by people who believe in something totally different, you definitely reexamine your convictions.
It was also interesting rubbing shoulders with members of the LGBT community. Though I'm friends with people who experience same-sex attraction, I've never met people who are explicitly transgender or in a same-sex relationship. So they've always been more of an idea than real people. But this experience put a face to them. I realize when we disagree about principles, it can come off as curt and cold. But when disagreeing with a person in mind, you can't help but be a little more compassionate.
And perhaps this is why so many conservative Christians not only disagree with people in the LGBT community, but seem to disagree so harshly: Because they've never interacted with any of them.
Don't get me wrong: I still disagree with any open and affirming church's stance on gender and sexuality. I just can't reconcile the progressive views of sexuality with the biblical text. Additionally, I have strong reasons to believe that the Bible says marriage is designed to be between one man and one woman. But as I was worshiping with this at LGBT church, I couldn't help but ask myself some challenging questions.
For example, throughout the Sunday service, I kept wondering if it was even right for me to participate in the liturgy. Should I praise God with Christians who affirm same-sex marriage? Should I hold hands in prayer with a lesbian couple? Can I call a transsexual believer a brother in Christ? Was my visit to this church like visiting a church of a different denomination where I politely partake in its practices? Or is it more like visiting a Buddhist temple where I observe but stand disengaged?
In other words, should Christians consider LGBT-affirming churches as being heretical? Or are they simply brothers and sisters in Christ whom we disagree with? On the one hand, is a church's view of sexuality something that separates them from the larger body of Christ? Should we pronounce "anathema" on believers who place their faith in Jesus Christ?
But on the other hand, LGBT churches aren't just affirming a different doctrine like infant baptism or Arminianism; they are affirming what many Christians consider to be a sinful lifestyle. They are promoting the indicatives, but they are ignoring certain imperatives. So I don't think it's as simple as seeing this church like a church from a different denomination. It's a tough question that I think churches and Christians need to have more discussions about.
I think a lot of Christians don't like the idea that there are liberal churches out there to specifically minister to the LGBT community. But are there any conservative churches out there that's willing to minister to this group? If not, then where do you expect members of this group to go on Sundays? Think about it. If you saw a same-sex couple holding hands as they entered your church's front doors, how would you react?
Or if you saw that huge NFL dude walk into your church wearing a white dress, how would your church welcome him? More likely than not, we'd freeze. We'd gawk. We'd be weirded out. In other words, we'd make him feel really uncomfortable. That's because most churches are willing to welcome sinners into their front door - but not that sin. It's still too novel and weird for us. And so long as this remains the case, conservative churches are simply unprepared to minister to the growing LGBT community.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not sure if churches should just let cross-dressers enter their front doors. I mean, will this cause too much distraction? Is this allowing "sin" to flaunt itself? I'm not sure. But I wish churches would be more prepared to answer these types of questions. Otherwise we can't really critique the existence of LGBT churches that are out there because there are individuals searching for Jesus - and they'll only go to places that will welcome them.