What does it mean to be welcoming?

Pastors’ Conversation Live Stream from Flexweb Multimedia on Vimeo.

Thank you to all who tuned in and participated with us in our pastors’ conversation. Despite some technical glitches in the live stream, I was grateful for the conversation overall and pleased to see how many are accessing the video. My sense is that some will feel that it was biased towards an affirming perspective. Perhaps it could sound that way to those who are used to only talking about this topic from the expectation and assumption that people are struggling and seeking transformation and mastery over their same-sex attractions. When this is your focus in the conversation, the priorities sound different from the priorities that emerged in our conversation.

In our conversation, we spoke more about gay Christians who have come to terms with the reality of their sexuality, embrace self-acceptance, profess faith in Christ, and are seeking authentic places to connect and belong in the Body of Christ. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge that there are those who are struggling and seeking wholeness by experiencing mastery over their same-sex attractions. But it would seem to me, that Exodus and its member ministries are already focused and speaking to this group. New Direction, on the other hand, acknowledges the reality that there are many Christians who do accept the reality of their same-sex orientation, some who do identify as gay, who do care deeply about their faith, who may be wrestling with Scripture – or have come to terms with their sense of Scriptural guidance for their life, and who are looking for a place in the church.

In our conversation, we wanted to particularly address some of the tensions that arise when gay Christians attend churches that have clear boundaries limiting sexual intimacy to heterosexual marriage. But these tensions do not just affect the lives of gay Christians. Many pastors are impacted as well. Given the reality of these tensions, remaining static isn’t a particularly effective response. This is not to say that the movement that is needed must be towards a fully affirming theological stance. But it is to suggest that we need to better learn how to welcome people who are different into our church communities. Different, not only in terms of sexual orientation, but potentially different in how they approach scripture, how they view the character of God, how they engage mission, and what they prioritize in a worship experience etc. The Body of Christ isn’t meant to be a monolithic group. It is meant to be a Body with different parts, different gifts, different experiences, and different strengths. Having to navigate tension isn’t something to avoid. As we actually willingly do this together, we have the opportunity to grow together in the fruits of the Spirit – perhaps the most significant being self-control, patience and humility. We learn to be gracious with each other. We become enlarged in the capacity to be generous with one another.

Pastoring a congregation towards such a mindset of hospitality can be a challenging process however. We are accustomed to expectations of conformity in the church. This can be couched in language of sanctification or holiness – but sometimes there is a significant element of simply, “We will be most comfortable if everyone in our church acts in a certain way.” What this can boil down to is to at least pretend that we all act the same way. The kicker is, even some of our most conservative, strict church communities have their own built in exceptions. A common one is turning the blind eye to those who are not experiencing mastery or freedom in the arena of their own health stewardship. This may be noticeable by body size, onset of diabetes, high blood pressure or heart problems. Another common area is the privatization of our use of financial resources. We lack transparency with one another in relation to our spending priorities. We tolerate great diversity in levels of extravagance in housing, modes of transportation, vacations, and entertainment. Yet another is our commitment to stewardship of creation. We don’t often speak with one another about minimizing waste, recycling, energy management to name just a few. Then, of course, there are the morality issues. We know that internet porn addiction is rampant in the church – yet very few fellowships are safe enough places to invite mutual accountability and support. The alcoholics among us hide well in our pews and leadership councils. Spouses enduring abuse stay silent. Infidelities become compartmentalized aspects of our lives.

The reality is, if we did fixate on these matters in one another’s lives, our precious sense of unity might become quickly eroded. We might discover how very difficult it is to love one another through this kind of messiness. And we might realize that our patience, grace, maturity and humility need to be enlivened by the Spirit’s presence if we are to be able to remain in community with one another.

However, when we intentionally choose to welcome diversity with the recognition that we all have areas of strength and areas of weakness, that we all need space and grace to grow, that we need love and acceptance extended to us in the journey, that we are mutual pilgrims with those who differ from us, we are positioned to take the risky steps needed to begin to experience real and authentic community with one another. And it is in this kind of community that we can find ourselves most receptive to experiencing both the freedom and the increasing mastery that every Christ-follower needs in their walk of faith.

I think this is summed up so well with the ethos statement that is read at Highlands church as they gather together for worship:

Married, divorced or single here, it’s one family that mingles here. Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here. Big or small here, there’s room for us all here. Doubt or believe here, we all can receive here. Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here Woman or man here, everyone can here. Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here. In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and all of us, let us live and love without labels.

The conversation about extending hospitality to LGBT people is really just the conversation about being a community that humbly recognizes and welcomes people who are searching for a way to embrace faith in Christ in the midst of the challenges of our lives. The conversation is about becoming friends, seeing one another’s humanity, sharing meals, being in one another’s homes, praying for one another through the joys and struggles of our every-day lives. It is quite different from a discussion trying to figure out at what point should people be removed from fellowship because of a lack of alignment with a particular set of beliefs. In our fragmented, individualistic and isolated culture, I have often articulated that church discipline, in the spirit of working towards restoration, shouldn’t be about removing people – but actually saying that, “We’re going to stick with you. You can’t get rid of us unless you remove yourself…. Because we are committed to walking with you¸ committed to trying to grow in faith together.” This is messy and difficult. It means we’ll be uncomfortable both with other people’s choices and our reactions and responses to such choices. It means we’ll feel that inevitable temptation to withdraw from one another and retreat back into an artificial unity and niceness. It means the potential pull towards power-plays will cause us to consider how to protect the purity of our church.

This doesn’t mean there will never be times when separation seems to be the best way to move forward. If a church does have a clear boundary related to same-sex unions, a gay couple may journey for a time with such a church – but may come to the point that they feel they need to experience greater freedom and space to use their spiritual gifts in service within the Body. This may catalyze a season of discernment in which the couple comes to the conclusion that they need to be in a community that will welcome their leadership contributions. My hope is that this process of discernment will be shared with the community they have been a part of. My hope is that their current pastor will have built relationships with other pastors in the neighbourhood in whose congregations a gay couple would be welcome to serve and grow in their gifts and calling. My hope is that if a transition seems to be the best next step – that it would take place in the context of relationship – both a grieving and a celebration of past relationships and an anticipation and welcome into new relationships. And my hope is that beyond particular congregations, friendships would cross such boundaries and people would continue to share their lives with one another and be willing to humbly learn from one another as we see God at work in one another.

Outside of relationship, I’m not sure there will be tangible growth beyond the polarity of many of the typical conversations on this subject. Without humility, I’m not sure there will be the kind of spaciousness that is needed to move forward. Apart from entrusting one another to the leading, correction and nurturing of the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure we’ll learn to embody the unity Jesus prayed for.

But with these commitments, with relationship, humility, and trust, I deeply pray that we, the church, will find ourselves more in step with the Spirit of Christ as we welcome diversity and embrace an ethos of hospitality.