In our Generous Space Groups across Canada, we open our meetings with a vision statement about “seeking the unity for which Jesus prayed.” We know our deep need of one another, even when we disagree – we see tensions as opportunities to learn to love across difference. Lately, we’ve seen tensions surface not so much about the expected topics of same-sex marriage or gender identity, but about the seemingly innocuous subject of church attendance.
Several LGBTQ+ folks in the Generous Space community choose not to attend church at all (their stories are varied and important, but that’s for a different blog!). Some attend affirming churches, where there are no restrictions on ordination or marriage for partnered LGBTQ+ people. And there are also Generous Space members who choose to attend churches that aren’t fully affirming, even though these churches would not bless their marriages, ordain them, or in some cases, allow them to take on certain lay leadership/service roles. (Note: Non-affirming churches do fall along a spectrum of relative welcome/freedom, but for the sake of this blog, they are grouped together.)
As the Director of Community, I believe our community is ready to dig deeper and practice generous space on this topic – to “own” our differences, pushing ourselves to share vulnerable, risky things, and to listen carefully, in hopes of better understanding and loving each other.
This blog is a first (and limited) step in that process – it’s a randomized compilation of anonymous email interviews with several LGBTQ+ people who are connected with GS across Canada – some from affirming churches and some from non-affirming churches – who agreed to answer a few risky questions anonymously and honestly. The intent behind this exercise is to unveil our own hidden assumptions and judgments, as well as expressing our sense of call/resonance in our choices around church involvement.
It may be that some of these interview responses offend or even anger you. Responding well to offense or anger is a difficult but necessary part of practicing generous space. Here’s what I invite you to do as you read:
- Pay attention to any negative or uncomfortable mental or physical reactions you have. When you feel something, try to dig down to the thought or personal experience behind your reaction. Pray for God to replace shame or fear with love for yourself and for your siblings in Christ. Try to pray for these people you disagree with (even though they’re anonymous), remembering they’re also the beloved of God.
- Practice the art of giving the benefit of the doubt to the person you disagree with. Make the absolute best assumptions about their words and intentions. When one interview quote confirms your stereotypes, try to find another quote that challenges your stereotypes.
- Remind yourself that we all have a common goal of bringing more empathy, understanding, and flourishing for LGBTQ+ people within the church, even though our methods may be different, and sometimes seem at odds with each other.
1. What are one or two reasons why you love your church and choose to attend there (whether affirming or non-affirming)? Do you feel a sense of call or purpose there?
NON-AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“The church I am part of now has enabled my faith to grow and deepen in ways I’ve not experienced elsewhere… I do feel that being in our church for years as an LGBTQ+ couple in a long-term relationship has in fact changed people’s perception of what it means to be gay and a Christian…I decided years ago to set aside whatever privilege I might find in being affirmed by people, and instead focus on following where I felt Christ was leading me and where he would have me go. The radical changes I have seen in people’s attitudes, hearts, and lives where I am now (including my own) have been well worth the small sacrifice for me personally.”
“I love that our church, led by its leadership, is so open to learn and led by humility, awe, and willingness to be challenged rather than ego, insecurity and defensiveness…I value being at a church I can get behind, take ownership of, connect with, serve and serve with.”
“I love the value that my church places on connecting people to God through worship – I have been serving on the worship team as an out gay man for a year now and honestly it just feels so refreshing to use my gifts and serve on a team while living my truth. I can’t imagine life without the friendships I’ve made at my church. To be fair, no one has ever said anything offensive or unaffirming or hurtful to me from my church which has also aided in my pleasant experience.”
“At my church, I get to help others enter into a place of worship and praise of the Lord, thereby strengthening their relationship with Him… My sexuality is only one aspect of who I am, and I don’t believe it should dictate or limit my life choices like which church I attend…I feel a specific call to use my ‘insider’ position within the Church to assist in its education related to the LGBTQ+ community.”
“I feel like I can contribute my voice to the church’s ongoing discernment and try to push people to being more comfortable with affirming LGBTQ+ people, particularly in my unique identity as a lesbian transgender woman.”
AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“The initial reason that I started attending an affirming church was because I was asked to leave my leadership positions at my non-affirming church…My new church is the only place that I feel like I can really bring my whole self…The folks in my church don’t love me in spite of my gender identity or sexual orientation – they love those parts of me too, and they love the way they see God meet me there.”
“What I love most about my church is the warmth and hospitality people show one another, especially visitors, across intersecting identities. Safe space is a process, but our church is committed to ongoing listening and learning, both within the church and in the community.”
“I love my church for its complete lack of focus on theological uniformity, rather there’s a focus on building community and allowing people to “belong before they believe”… At this stage of my life and journey I am committed to attending a church where LGBTQ+ people are affirmed in every way, accepted in any leadership role, without reservation or caveat, where our relationships are valued and seen as whole. This, to me, is modelling for the world a glimpse of the wide embrace of God, of what the Reign of God looks like.”
“The thing I like the most about attending my church is that I can be fully and authentically me. Our church really values authenticity…Simply attending a Sunday morning service is not all that important to me – I want to be fully involved in the community, so I need to be in a space that allows me to use my gifts of teaching and leadership.”
“By attending a church that affirms LGBTQ+ people and relationships, I feel like I am participating in the future that I want – where the conversation about sexuality and faith doesn’t have to hinder a person’s experience of either their sexuality or their faith.”
2. What’s challenging about attending your church? If you’re in a non-affirming church, do you ever wonder if you should attend an affirming church? If you’re in an affirming church, do you ever wonder if you should attend a non-affirming church?
NON-AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“The most challenging thing is knowing that I am attending a church that doesn’t perform same-sex marriages. I believe this is a form of oppression of LGBTQ+ people and it grieves my heart. I also feel like I am careful in my desire not to become a poster boy for being gay and celibate, or a “model minority,” because I too want to be married one day… Still, if all LGBTQ+ people retreat to only churches that are officially affirming, I often question if that is actually helpful to encouraging any sort of change in the evangelical church. By being present, and living our truth, we are dispelling lies, and being the change we wish to see.”
“Sometimes I’ve felt very alone as an LGBTQ+ person at my church (although that is starting to change)… But for the most part, I am content where I am and experiencing a vibrant spiritual life, so I don’t know what more an “official” affirming church would offer me; although I have nothing against it. When I have been a part of some affirming churches, I discovered my “traditional” Christian beliefs often precluded me from being allowed to fully contribute in the church.”
“I have no desire to attend an affirming church on a regular basis. I see it as being similar to the segregation of white and black people decades ago – people often don’t change their minds or take something to heart unless it has a personal connection to them… I serve faithfully and joyfully at my church in order to be a living example to the non-affirming Christians around me. I want my presence to cause others to ask questions, and when they do, I will be there to provide answers.”
“There is no affirming church I have attended that I would stay at for much else than that it was affirming. I view church as far more than a place to affirm my sexuality, so I have chosen to attend the church I love for a wide array of reasons…This is not to say that it isn’t still at times a point of pain for me that I can’t preach or be on the lead team, but the positives outweigh this fact.”
AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“What’s challenging is knowing that my church’s non-coercive environment means some people will choose to leave their faith. It’s hard to watch them walk away from God when my relationship with God has brought me such life… Sometimes I would like to help bring about change in non-affirming churches. I know that change often comes when there is activism from within. But I don’t think I could ever go back to attending a non-affirming church.”
“In terms of what’s challenging, I have found that, for whatever reason, the age of affirming church members skews high (at least the affirming churches I’ve been to), and it’s hard to find people are at my younger age/stage in life.. But the Jesus I know stands with the oppressed, and I can’t imagine going to a church that wouldn’t stand with trans women or homeless LGBTQ+ youth.”
“When I first came out, I spent a long time investing in a community that didn’t see me as a beloved, and I did so in the hope that I could change their minds. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t a healthy choice for me. I do my best to be open and available in spaces that are safe, but as a trans* person I know that I need to be in a place where I am honoured in order to be able to connect with God.”
“Personally I would rather fight for change alongside my faith community, not among them. I’m a big fan of allies pushing for change in their churches, but I think that LGBTQ+ folks in non-affirming churches do a disservice to all the LGBTQ+ folks before them who have been pushed out. Why would you want to continue to and participate in a community that oppresses people like you?”
“I feel that participating in a non-affirming church would be a sign that I have accepted that change is not possible, or that I’ve accepted their inability to see queer folks as fully human or fully Christian or whatever… I want my faith community to be a place that at bare minimum agrees that my sexuality does not disqualify me from any level of participation. There are plenty of things to fight for and work towards, and if I need to argue for my own voice/existence, what a distraction and waste of time.”
“A church that judges me and others, and believes that we are excluded from the Kingdom, is, to me, a pale imitation of what we are called to be, and is not where I choose to put my energy.”
“I attended non-affirming churches for most of my life, and the theology, attitudes, and behaviour of the some leadership and fellow congregants triggered trauma that I’m still working through. Apart from that, my beliefs have shifted away from the kind of spiritual discourse that’s typically happening in non-affirming contexts. I need something different to keep growing in my faith.”
3. In your worst moments, what are your reactions toward (or stereotypes of) LGBTQ+ Christians who attend the “other kind” of church?
NON-AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“I have more stereotypes about churches than I do of specific individuals that attend them… I know I carry the stereotype that affirming churches are typically lax on theology and therefore likely not a place I would feel spiritually fed.”
“My observation is that those who claim to be more progressive and inclusive of others can often be just as judgmental, non-accepting, and sometimes as condescending as many of those who are non-affirming have often been towards them.”
“I’ve found myself thinking that it’s hypocritical of Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ to boycott non-affirming churches — they talk about the Church needing to accept them as they are, but then they don’t accept non-affirming Christians.”
“One of my initial thoughts is that they are creating a small world for themselves by staying inside an LGTBQ-defined box. The first time I heard an LGBTQ+ believer rant about the Church I remember thinking, ‘No wonder other Christians don’t want to talk to you, all you want to do is beat them over the head with your rainbow flag!’”
“I wonder whether they choose to sit in bitterness, or have chosen to allow the wrong voices to steer them away… I recognize that not everyone has the personality type to be a bridge-builder and to deal with the vulnerability of having someone potentially say something that might offend (whether with good intentions or not). But in my experience, some of the most critical voices towards my church haven’t been from people who don’t identify as Christian – rather, it’s been from affirming church people. They seem to almost take offense that I would choose to serve in an environment that doesn’t perform same-sex marriages, and lack appreciation for the community, the spiritual experiences, and the life I receive in serving and participating in worship.”
“I see their absence as a loss to non-affirming churches and a bit of a cop-out. How are these traditionalist Christian communities ever going to learn and/or change their views on LGBTQ+ believers without the latter interacting with the former? “Bible thumping” and “flag waving” don’t constitute respectful, civilized discourse nor do they build healthy relationships.”
“It has also been my experience in chatting with affirming church people that there doesn’t always seem to be a high value for scripture or even conversation about God, rather the conversation is always about social justice. While this is important, I think we should always go back to the person of Jesus.”
AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“Certainly when I am most angry or hurt, my biggest judgment for folks who go to non-affirming churches is that they are enabling a system that hurts other less-privileged LGBTQ+ people, who may not feel as safe attending those same churches (e.g. those who are trans, people of colour, partnered, or who lack good support systems outside the church).”
“I actually respect wherever LGBTQ+ folks feel they need to be, because people have many different reasons for where they go to church, and it’s not appropriate for me to make a value judgment about it.”
“In my worst moments I simply don’t understand, and I feel impatient with them. When is it time to shake the dust off their feet?”
“In the case of someone who struggles with feeling safe or seen at their non-affirming church, I feel concern for them. I recognise that they need to work through that for themselves.”
“Honestly, I often have to deal with a lot of anger towards queer folks I know that choose to attend non-affirming spaces. I see them as privileged folks (often they seem to be single, white and cis) who don’t need to think about their children or partner, and are not questioned about their gender expression. It feels as if they are helping these non-affirming spaces queer-bait other LGBTQ+ people into a community that will not fully value them, perpetuating a system that teaches queer people that they are a problem to be solved – a conversation to have – rather than people with gifts and abilities to offer the community.”
“I guess I assume an internalized homophobia, that these, my LGBTQ+ siblings still harbour doubts about God’s view of their value and legitimacy, based on what they’ve been taught.”
“I do find it frustrating, as a liberal Protestant, when queer evangelicals stereotype, fear, or dismiss my beliefs. I’m able to have a sense of humour about it, but it’s hurtful and reductionistic.”
“Sometimes I think of them as trapped or unable to think for themselves. Sometimes I tire of their theological arrogance when they claim that affirming churches are all watered down or not ‘biblical.’”
4. In your best moments, when you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, what do you think of these same people?
NON-AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“I might consider that their sexuality is of particular importance to them and/or that they are intending to serve at a level of leadership that requires affirming doctrine.”
“Foremost, I think they need an environment where they can feel safe because most of their past and/or current experiences have been unsafe.”
“I honestly feel that we all have the right to choose what we believe, share our faith, and go to whatever church we desire; and I think most people would agree. Could it be that the divisions we encounter with one another have a deeper underlying cause far beyond an issue as to why anyone should or shouldn’t attend a church with either particular label on it?”
“I guess that many of them have also lived ‘isolated’ in some fashion (i.e. at work, at church, in their family, within their circle of friends, etc.) due to their sexual identity, therefore, finding a gathering of others who can relate to that facet of life would be encouraging and life-giving to them.”
“Best moment or worst moment doesn’t change anything about what I think of someone who attends an affirming church, nor even what I think of someone who isn’t affirming for that matter. We are all created and loved by God, and should be loved and served unconditionally.”
“I think that they are just trying to serve God like me, and while their context is a bit different, we are all part of the family of God – “born of His spirit, washed in His blood.” Affirming environments are important and essential and I’m grateful for the work done to ensure these spaces exist to serve and love those who need it most.”
AFFIRMING CHURCH PARTICIPANTS
“I suppose sometimes I might see them as refusing to leave, and continuing to be a model for potential queer youth growing up in these churches. Some are fighting for change, and that is noble.”
“I feel some solidarity with queer people in non-affirming churches, because I regularly interact with conservative Catholicism in my workplace. I get that leaving can be a loss, and have mad respect for people who are struggling to affect change from within (not something I feel able to do), am aware that some people can’t leave without coming out, and know some queer Christians who are determined to hang on, because that’s where they find meaning.”
“I admire people who care deeply about the relationships they have with people in their non-affirming church. They want to keep those relationships strong, so they’re willing to sacrifice some of their own security and freedom.”
“They must love their church, both the people and the style of worship, so much that they are willing to suffer on its behalf, believing that if they are a loving and faithful witness, they can change the church from the inside, and are knowingly prepared to pay the price.”
“I definitely understand the choice to stay in community with folks you don’t agree with all the time- I think that’s a lot of what church is about, and I really admire the ability to sit in that uncomfortable space.”
POSTSCRIPT FROM BETH
As I reflect on these responses, I see a common love for the church. I see a common recognition that our existence as “out” LGBTQ+ people in any Christian space is a beautiful, prophetic act. I see how we can hurt one another and make assumptions about each other’s theological perspectives, relative capacities for enduring tension, and motivations behind our church choices. I long for my friends in non-affirming churches to carry with them the stories of their LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ who cannot easily inhabit those spaces, and to refuse complacency in their work for change. I long for my friends in affirming churches to tangibly support and spur on the “generously spacious” efforts of their LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ who remain on the inside edge of the systems they’ve left behind. There is much work to do to move forward together, and I have hope for this.
This blog and these interviews are only the first step in this conversation. As a next step, we intend to host a less-anonymous, more conversational chat between two people who attend different kinds of churches. Please stay tuned for more!