Five Reasons Why (Affirming) Christians Say they Stay at their (Non-LGBTQ-Affirming) Church
Should Christians who affirm LGBTQ people stay in their church, even though it's not open and affirming?
I’m an affirming Christian who does my best to be a good ally for the LGBTQ community. However, my church—which has been my community and family for years— is much more conservative, and does not hold to an affirming theological position. I’ve continued to attend and serve because I want to help move our church in a more accepting and loving direction. Plus, I want to be someone who’s a safe place where LGBTQ people in the church can come and find non-judgment and affirmation. But lately I’ve been feeling like our pastor won’t ever change his mind, and I’m starting to wonder if staying in my church is ultimately doing more harm than good.
What do you think I should do?
Stay and help be a force for change? Or leave and find an affirming faith community?
This fictional email is an example of the myriad non-fictional times I’ve been asked the following question: Should affirming Christians attend non-affirming churches?
Over the years my responses to this question have evolved and become more nuanced. If you were to review every correspondence I’ve had around this issue, or perused the transcript of each time I’ve answered it in spoken form, I could easily be painted as a flip-flopping politician.
In one moment I might come down hard on a zero tolerance toward the idea of staying. No! Never! Leave now! But then fast forward a year down the road and suddenly I’m saying, Well, actually, I can see the value in remaining kinda, maybe, sorta...
It’s a complicated matter, and one that I continue to ponder. I still have strong feels about it, but I’m also less sure that I really know what I’m talking about. Even less so do I think I know what other people should do in their situation—which has been a big part of the growth for me in this, recognizing that each situation and context is different, and this deeply personal matter (albeit one with deeply collective tentacles) can’t reasonably be flattened in to a one-size-fits-all answer.
Since writing has a way of helping me articulate my thoughts and organize my arguments, I’m going to attempt to outline some of the factors at play in this issue. To do that I’ll break it up in to two sections: Five Reasons a Person Might Stay (today’s article), and then Five Reasons a Person Might Leave (next week’s article). These won’t be exhaustive lists, but I do think they capture the essence of the most often stated Reasons people either give as to why they think they should stay, or, why it might be best that they leave.
In today and next week’s article I will:
state the gist of a Reason given,
offer my take on it, then
provide a sort of verdict on the merits or value of that Reason.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “UNDERSTANDABLE” AND “VALID”
Before I get on with it, I need to differentiate between the words “valid” and “understandable” (H/T to Alice Greczyn for this insight).
These words are often used interchangeably, yet they carry important distinctions. When I’m giving my thoughts on people’s rationale to stay (or leave), I want to make sure I’m clear between saying that Reason X is understandable, as opposed to valid.
To say a thing is understandable is to acknowledge that such a feeling or response makes sense, i.e., of course you would think that or feel that way. Things that are understandable can be held with a posture of openness and compassion, even if the core sentiment is not shared. I can understand why you do a thing AND I can feel like it’s not a valid or good choice to make.
For a thing to be valid, then, requires that it be sound, just, and well-founded. Beyond the initial “that-makes-sense” of an understandable Reason, the bar must be set higher for it be a valid Reason to do (or not do) a thing. There must be a robust and well founded logic to give it an effective legitimacy, to make it clearly the right, good, or appropriate choice.
An example might be something like: A person says, “I was betrayed by my previous pastor and shunned by the church. Therefore, I’ll never step foot in another church again, including yours, Colby. Pastors are untrustworthy and religious institutions are power hungry, greedy scams.”
Now, all those feelings of theirs makes total sense. Their reasons for not ever wanting to attend another church again, or trust another pastor, are entirely understandable. Most likely anyone in that scenario would feel the same way. However, does that make their assessment of me (as a pastor) and Sojourn (as a church) valid? No. One (or even multiple) bad experiences with a pastor/church does not then guarantee that all future experiences will be the same.
Anyway, I don’t want to get lost down that rabbit trail anymore than that. Hopefully you understand what I’m saying about the difference between the two words/concepts. You may not agree with how I use them below (you might consider something valid that I don’t, and vice versa), but hopefully it’s at least clear that I’m trying to differentiate between them.
Finally, as I offer my thoughts, please remember they are only that—my own personal opinions. Don’t blindly take my advice as though they’re the best or final words on the matter. Far more intelligent people than me have different and/or opposing ideas on this topic for all sorts of reasons. And if you disagree with me, that’s totally fine, I’d love to hear it in the comments below. As I said, my own thoughts on the matter have been evolving for years, so I’ll likely disagree with myself a year from now anyway.
Okay, that’s enough preamble, let’s get to it!
FIVE REASONS AN AFFIRMING PERSON MIGHT STAY AT A NON-AFFIRMING CHURCH
Reasons #1) For Community and Relationships
Gist of the Argument:
You want to stay at your church because that’s where your community is. You’ve built meaningful friendships and/or have family that also attend. Not only do you not want to leave your friends and family, but you fear you won’t be able to find such life-giving community elsewhere. (Note: This Reason is given both by LGBTQ individuals as well as allies.)
While your feelings of not wanting to leave your community are understandable (who would want to up-and-leave friends and family you’re close with?), I want to push back a bit. First off, if you’re truly that close to these friends/family, then they ought to be able to hold that you can no longer attend the church because of your commitment to LGBTQ inclusion. Furthermore, even though it’s really hard (speaking from experience), you can maintain relationships with people even though you don’t attend the same church. I get it, it’s not the same, but it can be done. Plus, again, even though it’s really hard (and, again, speaking from experience), you can find new community elsewhere. It’s a lie of scarcity that only at your church does their exist the kinds of people you can be close to.
I think this is a very weak Reason to stay. Scary though it may be, you can (and will!) find new and even better community on the other side. While there might be some exceptions, most conservative/evangelical churches are filled with the idea that to be affirming, or to be LGBTQ, renders you unfit to be a Christian. So what are you hanging on for? If your small group, or your friends at church don’t know that you’re affirming, what do you think will happen when you tell them? Also, please trust all of us (who’ve left non-affirming churches) when we say: the community you find on the other side, filled with people sold out on the idea that all humans are loved Children of God, is almost guaranteed to be better. There is a type of belonging that can (and does!) exist, where there isn’t any sort of prerequisite beliefs. And seriously, it is life-giving in ways you can’t imagine.
Reason #2) For Familiarity and Convenience
Gist of the Argument:
You want to stay because it’s all you’ve ever known, and/or because it’s near your house and convenient. You realize the church doesn’t affirm queer people (or, affirm you yourself, if you identify as LGBTQ), and that does bum you out, but in the end it’s just too overwhelming to consider finding a new faith community.
Similar to Reason #1, I totally understand where you’re coming from. When you’ve been a part of something for so long it can feel far too stressful to imagine changing. But just because it’s always been a certain way, or just because something feels familiar and comfy, doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice. After all, you changed your theology to become affirming, right? That was probably scary for you, too, but you did it! Perhaps now it’s time to take tangible steps to put some “works” to that “faith,” if you wanna get Biblical about it.
I think this is one of the poorest Reasons to stay. Choosing your own comfort or security, over the justice-driven matter of another human’s belovedness, feels like an antithesis to the Way of Jesus. If you’re only staying at your non-affirming church because it’s where you’ve worshipped for all your life, or because that’s your home and your family, or because you can’t imagine starting over at a new church, then, well, that’s really sad to me. Perhaps you need to hear more stories of LGBTQ people and the damage done to them by pastors and churches like yours.
Reason #3) To Be a Change Maker
Gist of the Argument:
Whether its because you’re in a leadership position yourself, or close to those who are, you believe that if you stick around you can help move your church toward an affirming position. You stay to be a voice for inclusive theology. You stay hoping they might one day let you lead a Study or a Seminar that explores LGBTQ inclusion. In short, you believe that your church might some day become affirming, and you know it will take people like you to make it happen.
You’re not totally wrong. If (or when) your church ever does change, it will be good and helpful to have people like you in the church who are already affirming. In that sense I totally understand where you’re coming from. However, in my experience (as well as others like me who’ve seen this stuff up close), such a scenario happens so infrequently that it’s damn well a fool’s errand. Most churches resist change (especially on inclusion), even doubling down on their efforts if the question gets seriously raised. Some churches will pretend to, or, give a performative gesture of openness to “explore” the matter, but rarely does it go anywhere. It usually feels like they’re just trying to hold some imaginary middle position so as to not rock the boat. If you’re sticking around because you think you’ll somehow succeed in changing your pastor’s mind or move your church to become affirming, while your idealistic goal is noble and understandable, ultimately I suspect you’re in for a Sisyphean quest.
I sympathize with this reason, truly, I do. I know that people change (hello? I did!). So I know that it’s possible that your church leader(s) can change, too. And I know that it takes people to help people change. Transformation such as shifting-toward-inclusion doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes multiple conversations and stories and study. So, yes, it makes certain sense to “stick around to be an agent of change.” However, here’s my counter: I strongly suggest that people who use this as their Reason to stay in a non-affirming church create a firm timeline. Do not stick around indefinitely. Tell your pastor, your community group, your Self, whoever, that you’ll give it six months or a year. And if things aren’t progressing, you’re moving on. Don’t let pastors weasel out of it by staying in a “season of discernment.” If you want to help make change, great, go for it. But have an exit strategy so that you’re not wasting precious time, energy, and resources on pushing the same freaking boulder up the same strenuous stretch of the mountainside.
Reason #4) To Be a Safe Person
Gist of the Argument:
You desire to remain at your non-affirming church so that LGBTQ people—especially young folks—have a safe person to go to. Often times this isn’t hypothetical, meaning, many people I hear from have specific relationships with actual people, or even ministries in the church, that include queer people. If that’s you, then you believe that if you leave the church then that queer person/people will no longer have an ally.
Of all the Reasons to stay, this one pulls at my heart the most. Oh how it pains me to think of all the young queer kids out there dying on the inside (and sometimes, just plain dying) because of loneliness and shame. Because their parents are raising them in a faith community that does not see them or love them or affirm them. If given the choice between that young kid having a safe person in their church or not, I’d absolutely prefer that they did. That’s a no brainer. But when it’s just a hypothetical “in-the-event-that-one-day-there-might-be-someone-who-needs-me,” I don’t know. That doesn’t feel like a strong or valid enough reason to stay.
If right now this is your context, and you’re staying because you’re the safe space for a vulnerable person/people, then staying at your church might be a good choice. In such a scenario, perhaps you’d consider what it can look like to remain in a way that still gives expression to your values. Meaning, are you open and clear with your church about your stance? Have you be outspoken about your convictions? (BTW, if you are the safe person for queer people in your church, do NOT ever, EVER, reveal someone’s orientation without their permission. Ever. Not even—especially not even—to the pastor, as some sort of example as to why you’re sticking around.) Furthermore, maybe you consider ceasing your financial support of the church and instead donating to an organization that supports LGBTQ youth, or give to another church that is open and affirming. If you feel you must stay, can you stay in a more aligned way? And then, if you’re staying at your non-affirming church on the off chance that somebody down the road might need you as a safe person, I’d say just let it go. Sure, that might happen. But (and I’ll get in to this next week with Part II of this post) I promise you that you can do just as much—if not more... actually, very likely more—good once you’ve left your church.
Reason #5) Because the Church—While Not Perfect—Provides Things You Like
Gist of the Argument:
Sure, you totally acknowledge your church doesn’t affirm LGBTQ people, but they provide so many other services that still benefit you, or that you like, so you stick around anyway. For example, you might really enjoy and connect with the worship ministry, so you go on Sundays for the music. Or you might really love the preaching (except when it’s on a handful of topics, of course), and it fills you up and encourages and inspires you. So what if my church isn’t affirming, you say, they don’t need it to check 100% of the boxes in order to still offer really cool things.
I actually hear this Reason from LGBTQ people more often than from allies. And on one hand I get it... I think... as much as I can (as a straight, white, male). They tell me that they don’t need to be affirmed in that specifc way, or from that person or group of people. They are fine as they are. They love themselves and they know they are loved by God. And, also, they just really, really like X,Y, and Z about their church. So who am I to try and convince them otherwise? Yet on the other hand, my heart hurts every time I hear this Reason. I feel like they’ve been convinced somewhere along the way (by culture, their family, the church, all of it) to accept crumbs. Which I fear sounds patronizing (and maybe it is, though I don’t intend it to be), but you shouldn’t have to settle for anything less than full acceptance and belonging. You deserve to be in a place where you won’t suddenly be caught off guard when the preacher starts talking about the sinfulness of homosexuality, or when someone starts praying against the gay agenda. Sure, that rocking worship band might give you all the good feels, but is that really worth it? Finally, if you’re an ally using this as a Reason, I’m not sure I have any patience for it. At this point you’re just choosing to get your own needs met instead of living in integrity. Quit calling yourself an ally. And maybe re-read a Gospel or two. If the church is only there to make you feel good, or serve you and your needs, then you’re doing it wrong.
I won’t tell a queer person what to do on this one. I’ll never know what it’s like to have to navigate a world that only accepts part of you, so you’ve adapted to learn to accept and appreciate and enjoy only parts of it in return. As with Reason #4, my hope is that you’re not actively tithing, or volunteering. It would be extra odd to me if you supported the sustainability and growth of an organization that refuses to acknowledge your full humanity. And if you’re not queer, then staying at your church for this reason is just selfish. I don’t know how else to think about it (please tell me in the comments if I’m missing something).
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
There you have it.
A summary of the five most common reasons people give when they explain why, as an affirming Christian, they continue to attend or support non-affirming Churches. Come back next week for part II, “Five Reasons Why Affirming Christians Should Leave their Non-Affirming Church”
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What about you?
Have you had to navigate this particular issue?
How did you handle it?
Do you know people who are still in non-affirming churches? What have they told you as to why they’ve remained?
Are you affirming of LGBTQ people, but attend a church that isn’t? If so, would you be vulnerable enough to share with us why?
Read this Post, then Watch Our Conversation
My friend Josh Lee, the new community pastor at Forefront Church in Brooklyn, recently shared an experience where he and his fiancé went to a Christmas service at Willow Creek, one of the nation’s largest evangelical mega churches.
Josh wrote about how he used to go to Willow back in the day and, in fact, endured some gay conversion therapy while doing so.
Clearly it was (and is) not an affirming church. Not a place where Josh was free to be himself.
Yet just a couple weeks ago he chose to return to the site of so much pain.