How Did an Evangelical Church Embracing LGBT Members Manage to Upset Just About Everyone? June 27, 2015

How Did an Evangelical Church Embracing LGBT Members Manage to Upset Just About Everyone?

Most American churches seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to LGBT rights: conservative churches that dig in their heels to defend their bigotry and welcoming ones that build progressive politics into their core beliefs.

But what happens when a Southern church finds itself stuck between these two stereotypes, embracing equality while clinging to its evangelical roots? As part of its Pride Week coverage, the Nashville Scene‘s Kim Green spotlights the struggles of a church facing this identity crisis.

GracePointe Church, near Nashville, first attracted attention in 2012 when parishioner and country music superstar Carrie Underwood discussed her support for same-sex marriage with The Independent:

“Our church is gay friendly,” she said. “Above all, God wanted us to love others. It’s not about setting rules, or [saying] ‘everyone has to be like me’. No. We’re all different. That’s what makes us special. We have to love each other and get on with each other. It’s not up to me to judge anybody.”

According to Green’s article, Underwood’s endorsement of GracePointe led the congregation to a series of intense discussions and, eventually, to a three-way division:

A few years ago, [Pastor Stan] Mitchell saw a schism emerging. The church membership of slightly more than 2,000, he felt, was beginning to cleave into three almost numerically equal parts: conservative evangelicals who enjoyed the music and sermons and had little desire to pursue his deconstruction plan; progressives who’d already been there and back on that path (and folks of Pilny’s generation who were basically born there), impatiently waiting for everyone else to catch up; and a moderate group Mitchell describes as “smack dab in the middle of deconstruction.

We expect the most conservative members of a congregation to jump ship when a church embraces LGBT members and equality, but part of GracePointe’s struggle has been the loss of progressive members who didn’t feel the church was moving fast enough. This is a fascinating, and overlooked, side effect. And while it’s presumably easy for the too-conservative camp to find a church more in line with their views, unhappy progressives have probably wound up attending churches whose traditions are unfamiliar. LGBT-welcoming churches have become increasingly common, but most are mainline Protestant, with services and structures radically different from the ones that people with evangelical backgrounds would find comforting.

Pastor Mitchell’s original mission, when he founded GracePointe twelve years ago, was to provide a safe haven for people raised in evangelical traditions to “journey from rigid dogma and fear of damnation to discovery” in “a place that would offer ‘recovering’ evangelicals the comfort of a Sunday service that echoed the style and structure of their childhood churches.” Indeed, many of the GracePointe members interviewed in the article recall upbringings in which they were berated and even threatened when they dissented and asked questions.

Despite GracePointe’s current struggle to retain membership and establish an identity, it represents a promising future for nondenominational churches with evangelical roots. The most recent Pew survey on attitudes toward same-sex marriage shows 73% of Millennials and over a quarter of evangelical Christians supporting marriage equality, and these numbers will probably rise further now that the Supreme Court has established that restrictions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Evangelical Christianity is a culture as well as a set of beliefs, and more and more “recovering evangelicals” are likely to seek churches like GracePointe that provide a loving and accepting community. Now that GracePointe has worked through its identity crisis (and attracted some positive press), let’s hope it inspires copycats across the United States.

(Thanks to Virginia for the link)

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