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November 17, 2013

Standing Up to Quiet Down


“Local Churches Leave Denomination Over Homosexuality”

This is a headline I’ve been dreading ever since my church began the discernment process to determine whether we should leave our denomination. The last thing I want is for our congregation to be known in the community as “the church that hates gay people.” For a church in a city that was recently voted “The Gayist City in America,” such a reputation could have a negative impact on our mission.

I don’t believe it’s wise to soft-pedal Jesus’ radical call to discipleship to committed Christians. However, for the non-believers whom we hope to draw into our community of faith, such a reputation functions effectively as a “non-believer repellant.” A typical resident of our neighborhood would be unlikely to give the Gospel a fair hearing from the pulpit or from individual testimony if he or she thought that homophobia was in any way connected to what we are advocating through our church.

Additionally, a brief admonition against homosexuality in the context of a worship service can be extremely discouraging to someone who is struggling with same-sex attraction. I do believe it is possible to preach against homosexual activity in a pastorally-sensitive way, but it takes time to develop a message that is balanced and pastoral.

Clarifying the confusing messages.

Over the past 20 years as a pastor, I’ve cringed every time I had to clarify for the congregation some confusing message about sexuality coming from our denomination that they may have heard or read about in the media. While I felt it was important enough to prevent our members being misinformed about this vitally important topic, I was keenly aware of how this message would sound to various people who were in our worship services when the announcement was made.

While I feel that our decision to leave our denomination and join ECO has been an extremely positive and life-giving move for our congregation, I also feel the process was somewhat costly from a missional and pastoral perspective. Over the course of a year, we had to make numerous announcements explaining what we were doing and why we were doing it. And in many of these announcements I had to mention the issue of homosexuality. While that was certainly not the only reason we ultimately decided to leave, it was the issue that pushed us to enter into a discernment process, and it would have been disingenuous not to mention it.

There were many aspects of the discernment process that made me proud of our church as well as of the governing body of our denomination. We disagreed over some substantial issues, but we acted lovingly and spoke respectfully to one another throughout the process. However, I dreaded making the announcements about the discernment meetings as well as giving reports from the meetings to the gathered church in worship.

But what will other people think?

If I felt some trepidation over the internal communication that was necessitated by the discernment process, you can imagine the anguish that I felt about how the local media was going to communicate our activity to the community. Fortunately, the local newspaper had just one story, and since there were six churches leaving our denomination at the same time, our church wasn’t specifically mentioned until a few paragraphs into the story.

Even so, in the months that followed, I had a number of somewhat strained conversations with acquaintances in the community who had painted me and our church with a fairly broad brush of homophobia. These conversations were not so much invitations to dialogue as thinly-veiled jeremiads against narrow thinking. I mostly tried to avoid getting defensive and to listen respectfully. Fortunately, as time has passed, those conversations are getting increasingly rare and I am able to make reference to my church home without feeling that I may be prejudicing anyone against me.

Telling the Gospel’s core truth.

What is even more notable is that now that we are in a denomination that has taken a more clear and consistent stance on sexuality issues, I haven’t mentioned homosexuality from the pulpit once. There may come a time in which I will talk about sexuality when preaching on a text that calls for it, but in that case, I hope to do so in a way that is pastorally-sensitive and loving to those who struggle with this topic.

Part of the reason we joined ECO was its clear stance on homosexuality. But contrary to what some might think, we don’t see this aspect of ECO as freeing us up to take a more aggressive public stance on this issue, but rather just the opposite. Our desire is to make this issue a less visible aspect of our public face to the community so that we can do a better job communicating the core truth of the Gospel to our neighbors.

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