Church Search (Part 3): Beyond the “Welcome” Sign

Note: This entry is part of my Church Search series. Of course, you can read it as a stand-alone document, but I encourage you to check out the others for the fullest context.

What do people look for when searching for a church?
Denominational affiliation, Bible preaching, doctrinal positions, views on spiritual gifts, type of worship/music, etc., might figure into their equation. Of course, I have opinions on all those elements, and we had our own criteria for finding a church, but our one NON-NEGOTIABLE factor was knowing the church actually wanted us to be there. And while some might think “The church welcomes everyone!,” it’s actually much more complex.

Here’s the reality: many churches have a Welcome sign on the front lawn, but that applies only to visiting the church. To be considered for membership, there are additional requirements, which vary among churches and denominationspersonal profession of faith in Jesus as Savior, baptism (in some cases, by immersion only), confirmation, attendance at mandatory membership classes, agreement with church teachings, commitment to tithe, etc.

For the gay person, a church's view of homosexuality in relation to "sin" will also be a factor. There are congregations that will reject a gay person or couple outright, on the first visit. ("We don't even want you in our midst.")  However, in most mainstream churches, visiting is one thing, but if the gay person is interest in joining, there's an expectation they will change (or "renounce") their sexual orientation, or at least agree to lifelong celibacy, before they are eligible for membership. Sometimes it’s overtly clear in discriminatory creeds, but often it’s subtle and cloaked under the surface of polite hospitality.

There are other churches that are more “welcoming.”  Some take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, but there's usually an unwritten "don't join" clause as well.  Often these "welcoming" churches will see the gay person as potential conquests/converts, targets (i.e., Prospects) for “friendship evangelism." This means they’ll be "nice," and appear "understanding," even "compassionate." But at some point, the gay person will be asked to talk with the Pastor, or Counselor, or a "reparative" ministry. Repentance will be essential. If they refuse, church membership will not be an option. (Are you beginning to see that it's not as easy as just visiting the church down the street?)

Many years ago, I made the decision to come out as a gay man because I believe integrity is an essential part of my faith. I am a Christian, who happens to be gay. I'm also in a loving, committed same-sex relationship (16 years), and someday we hope to be a legally married couple. I won’t go back in the closet every Sunday, or pretend my partner is just the person who sits next to me in the pew. It's disrespectful, and it's dishonest. (Do we go to church to lie?)

I won’t invest (presence, time, energy, money) in a church that views me or my relationship in any way as “less than” other Christians. If I am not valued for who I am...Who God created me to be...then it’s not a place for me. I have no intention of trying to change my sexual orientation (Been there, done that...still gay!), and I don’t believe God is interested in that either.

I’m also not interested in trying to change the theology of the church; it would only be a source of conflict for both parties. (If I want drama, I’ll go to the theater!) There are those who might suggest we attend with a "hopeful, prayerful expectation" the church will change...over time. They would contend our presence could open up dialogue on the subject, and we could help bring change. As one person told me, be "salt" and "light."

I actually do believe change will come...eventually. I've been part of that effort and those conversations for many years. But there's not a lot of "fight" left in me. I'm old and tired. Moreover, these days, I'm really not sure I could participate in a civil, "holy" manner, which would only cause problems. (And label me a rabble rouser...again.)

I'm too opinionated to "hold my tongue" while listening to a defense of religious dogma or historic creeds over human rights.
I won't remain quiet when the Bible is used as a tool of discrimination, exclusion or condemnation.
I know too much to be swayed (or silent) by claims of absolute Truth ("The Bible clearly says...”).
I’m too secure in my own faith to passively settle for any variation of “love the sinner.”
I'm too impatient to exercise tolerance for resistance based on convenience (i.e., “Not yet” "Later" "Someday").
I certainly would not sit by while ministers lied/exaggerated about the LGBT community, or misrepresented what it means to be LGBT. ("Gay lifestyle" "choosing to be gay")

I know gay and lesbian Christians who will only attend a “gay church” so they can avoid such conflict. And there are plenty of those in our area, though none are close. But frankly, I like straight people and enjoy being around them. (As long they don’t try to force their lifestyle down my throat.)

I also know gay and lesbians Christians who choose to attend mega-churches where they can essentially be “invisible.” That way, they can enjoy the music, listen to the Pastor’s message, and not be bothered (hassled) by religious discrimination or uncomfortable confrontations. (In talking with them, they tend to "tune out" any anti-gay messages that might occasionally come from the leadership.)

I will respect their decision, but ours is different.
We won't visit a church that we know doesn't want us there. Period.
More than that, we wouldn't join a church if we would not be allowed to serve in the church, as openly gay Christians. (e.g., leadership positions, teaching, etc.).
We don't want to merely attend church.
We want to be involved!
We want to be...connected.

The Inclusive Imperative

There’s much terminology around this issue (e.g., affirming, welcoming, reconciling, accepting, diversity, inclusive), and I’ve been in numerous discussions and heard many opinions about the specifics. For us, we don’t just want a church that “welcomes” LGBT people, we want a church that welcomes and embraces ALL people, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, gender identity, age, income, sexual orientation, etc. I believe it’s as simple as the song we learned as children: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight...”

“Inclusive” is not easy to define, and describing what an “inclusive” church looks like in actual practice is complicated and subjective. (But I think it's very evident when it's absent!) There may be a "Welcome" sign on the outside, but that may not be the only...or the most accurate...sign! It may not tell the full story of what's inside.

Because most churches don’t hang a rainbow flag outside, the decision to visit (or not visit) comes down to a combination of research, historic data, intuition and speculative assumption. We won't accept on face value the church's statement "We love everyone" without tangible evidence that includes gay Christians and as a gay couple.

We must look beyond the “Welcome” sign.

Speaking of “signs,” in my next entry I'll respond to a question Shakespeare posed: What's in a Name? I want to show how the Name on the church sign can often tell what I need to know before I go visit.