Back in 2007, the Barna group conducted a survey among 16–29 year-olds, asking non-Christians about their perception of Christians. The study explored twenty specific images related to Christianity, including ten favorable and ten unfavorable perceptions. Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top ten perceptions were negative. 87% of those surveyed said Christians were judgmental, 85% said Christians were hypocritical and 78% said Christians were out-of-touch. Above all, Barna discovered that the most common perception of Christians among non-believers was that Christians were anti-gay with 91% of non-Christians saying they believe that Christians showed excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards homosexuals, and made homosexuality a bigger sin than anything else.
That was 13 years ago though. These days I am assured by many of my church-going friends that Christian churches are much more accepting of members of the LGBTQ community. “Trust me,” they say. “Everyone is welcome at my church.” Apparently, a lot has changed since Barna released the findings of this research. Or has it?
While, it is not unusual to see the words “ALL WELCOME” emblazoned across church signs, I began to wonder if a church would really welcome a same-sex couple into their fold? Sure, they might let them through the doors, and be friendly to their faces — maybe — but would they really allow a gay couple to participate fully in the life of the church? Would they be allowed to serve in ministry? Would they be invited to attend a marriage course? Would they be able to volunteer to teach Sunday School classes to children?
I wanted answers.
That was when I came up with an idea: I would conduct my own experiment.
I wanted to find out how welcoming a Christian church would be if a same-sex couple walked through the door for a Sunday service. Being unqualified to complete this research without help, I first sought the assistance of some friends of mine who are in a same-sex relationship. I asked them if they might be willing to do some spiritual reconnaissance, and rock up to a church service one Sunday, arm-in-arm, in the name of research.
They seemed very interested by the concept, but understandably unwilling to put themselves in a position where they might be judged or humiliated by any of the god-fearing folk who presume they have been appointed by God to police everyone else’s behavior.
Can you blame them?
Not to be deterred by my lack of real-life volunteers, with the blessings of same-sex friends, I devised an alternative plan. I created a fake email account for a fake person — a guy name Jared Davis. Fictional Jared is a gay man who is married to fictional Joel — also a gay man. It just so happens that this young couple have recently arrived in town and are looking for a new church to call their spiritual home.
Knowing that it can sometimes be awkward for same-sex couples to just turn up to a church service, Jared does the prudent thing and decides to send an initial inquiry to a few churches in the area to get a sense of how he and Joel might be received. So he hops online and starts filling out those inquiry forms that you can find on most church websites theses days.
Jared has decided to be pretty honest and up-front with the churches that he contacts, but since Jared isn’t real — and therefore can’t send emails — I take the liberty of drafting this message on his behalf:
My name is Jared and I am writing to inquire about your church. My husband and I have just moved into the area and we are looking for a faith community that is open to same-sex couples.
We are both practicing Christians, but obviously when we attend some churches, it can be awkward for people, which is why we always write ahead. As you might understand, we would prefer not to turn up to a church if it were going to create difficulties. So, we were wondering whether we would be able to attend your church?
We are also looking for a church where we might be able to serve. Joel (my partner), is a very competent guitarist who would love to be part of a worship team.
Could you let me know what time your services are and what your current arrangements are with COVID-19 restrictions etc?
I look forward to hearing from you
As I write the final salutation, I pause and wonder how it will be received on the other end. Will the pastor who opens this email choke on his coffee, involuntarily spray chunks of cookie all over his screen, and, in righteous indignation call the rest of the staff over to his desk so that they can participate in a circle jerk of condemnation? Or will the pastor see an opportunity to repair a bridge that the church burned down and fling wide the gates of unconditional acceptance?
To make sure I got a broad cross-section of denominational responses I decided I would send this email — for Jared and Joel — to around 25 different churches. I chose a selection of Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, Churches of Christ, and Uniting Churches, along with a number of different Pentecostal and independent Churches as well.
Would anyone really welcome a same-sex couple into their fold?
I took a deep breath, said a prayer, and hit the send button. Then I waited.
Churches are very busy places. There are potluck suppers to be cooked, morals to be enforced, the status quo to be maintained and tithes and offerings to be tallied. All of that takes time.
The replies started to trickle in. I decided to allow churches four weeks to get back to me, after my initial inquiry, before reporting my findings here. I though this was both reasonable and generous.
So, what did I discover?
Of the 25 churches who received the email inquiry, only eight honored Jared and Joel with a response. The other 17 lacked the common decency to even bother replying.
I shared this finding with a friend and he suggested that churches, in general, are fairly slack at replying to messages and proposed that perhaps I was not being ignored, as I had supposed. Maybe they simply hadn’t gotten around to replying yet.
Fair point. Perhaps four weeks wasn’t long enough?
To test this theory, I created another fake email account for another fake person — a guy name Steve James. Unlike Jared, Steve is as straight as they come. Steve is so straight that he makes an arrow look bent. Fictional Steve is married to a woman, has three teenage kids, and is living the white, middle-class, male, heterosexual dream.
Now, it just so happens that Steve and his traditional family have also recently arrived in town and are looking for a new church to call their spiritual home — just like Jared and Joel. So, Steve also decides to email a number of churches as well.
In fact, as luck would have it, Steve just happened to email the 17 churches who ignored Jared and Joel. Here is the email that Steve sent to those 17 churches:
My name is Steve James. I have recently transferred to Brisbane for work and we are looking for a good local church. My wife and I have three teenage children, so we are particularly interested in your youth programs.
Could you give me a bit of information about that, as well as your service times etc during corona-virus restrictions.
Look forward to hearing from you
Well wouldn’t you know it! Within three days, more than half of the 17 churches who ignored gay Jared and Joel had replied to heterosexual Steve. In fact, no less than ten of the 17 church had rolled out the welcome mat for Steve and his family. Some of them responded to Steve’s email within minutes!
What the heck?
I suppose these Christians glossed over the part of the Bible that expressly forbids partiality — that is, favoritism. I am reminded of James 2:1–4:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Sure, this scripture is talking explicitly about not favoring the rich over the poor, but the principle applies to all. We ought not favor one over the other. In fact, that is a real sin. I can’t even being to tell you how appalled I am that so many churches would ignore the same-sex couple and acknowledge the heterosexual one. Both should be acknowledged equally.
The Best of the Rest
Credit where credit is due. Eight churches did respond to Jared’s initial inquiry about finding a church for himself and his same-sex partner, Joel. Of the churches that did reply, two were Baptist, two were Churches of Christ, one was Anglican, one was Presbyterian, one was a Uniting Church, and one was an Independent Church.
None of the Pentecostals, Catholics, Methodists or Lutherans could muster up a response and typically, the larger a church was, the less likely they were to reply.
Of those who did respond, many shared a number of common threads. For example:
- Every single email started with the line, “Thanks for your email.”
- Every single email said, “Yes! You are definitely most welcome to attend our church,” or words to that effect.
- Several of the emails praised Jared for his openness saying things like: “I really appreciate your openness” and “I respect the intentionality and sincerity in your inquiry,” and even, “I must applaud you for your openness and stated intention.”
- Everyone who replied was courteous and friendly — if not always accommodating.
From there the response tended to head in one of three directions:
The first group of churches seemed unable or unwilling to state any position at all — at least in written form. Rather, they wanted to chat about it in person or on the phone.
Three of the churches either offered a phone number to call, or asked for Jared’s phone number, and two pastors offered to catch up face-to-face for coffee. Here were some of the typical responses:
- “We would love to get in touch to discuss your questions. Can you please send us a contact number?”
- “I’d like to help if I can. Here’s my personal number and you’re welcome to call me anytime…” (This one left Jared wondering if he was being hit on?!)
- “I’d love to catch up and chat through any questions you may have”
These replies were typically quite short and to-the-point. Maybe I’m just a really bad investigative reporter and these churches were onto me, but for whatever reason, they weren’t willing to discuss the details of their policies or beliefs about same-sex couples over email.
“You are very welcome, but…”
The second group of churches were a little bit more forthcoming. Once again all of these churches said that Jared and Joel were more than welcome to attend, but with respect to participation, unfortunately their same-sex marriage would be prohibitive to them serving, leading or being involved in ministry.
Several of these churches referred Jared to written denominational statements regarding human sexuality, and helpfully provided hyperlinks so Jared could read all the reasons why he was welcome to sit in the pew and give his tithe, but could not actually help with the work.
One of the documents I read was quick to draw a distinction between people who struggle with and manage sexual temptation by remaining celibate, and those who give themselves over to it, whether it be fornication, adultery, or homosexual practice. Basically, if you’re gay and you want to be involved in the church, then your only option is subject yourself to life-long singleness and celibacy. Hooray for the ‘good news’ of the gospel!
Some of the other comments in these emails included:
- “As for serving in the church and ministry, I do believe this presents a few issues for us.”
- “We do have, as a Presbyterian church, a theological commitment to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, so we anticipate that this may be difficult for you and Joel.”
- “With regards to engagement in leadership roles, which include those who form part of our services team and worship, we have in place a position statement (attached) which sets out boundaries.”
At least these churches were honest enough to state their position — as much as I disagree with it.
“You belong here!”
The final group of churches — if one could refer to just two congregations as a group — restored my hope in the humanity of Christians. These two churches — one Anglican and one Uniting Church — unequivocally welcomed Jared and Joel into their community with no strings attached, and no hoops to jump through.
The Uniting Church described itself as a safe place for all people to worship, regardless of age, ability, gender, race, cultural background or lifestyle, and then added, “We affirm and celebrate the place of LGBTQ people in the church, and welcome the decision of the Uniting Church Assembly to allow same-sex marriages to be celebrated in Uniting Churches.”
The Anglican Church went one step further, offering an admission of its past failures — an apology of sorts — and a commitment to full inclusion both now and in the future. It’s so good that I just had to include this except:
Christians have not always been loving towards LGBTQ people. Christians have persecuted LGBTQ people resulting in damaged health, disrupted families, spoiled lives and death. In many places the name of Christ continues to be used in this way.
But know that you are welcome here! LGBTQ people have important roles in the life of this Cathedral community: they are as open or private about
their relationships as they see fit. Without its’ LGBTQ people this Cathedral would be poorer in every way.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-sexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Asexual — We value the rich diversity of God’s gifts to the LGBTQ community. This is a safe, holy and beautiful space.
Safe, holy and beautiful indeed.
What do we make of all this?
I suppose it falls to me to draw some conclusions from my little foray into the world of investigative writing.
First of all, it would be remiss of me not to mention that I came to this experiment with two biases that probably became evident as you moved through this article and are, to some extent, in conflict with each other. Firstly, I am a Christian and part of me really wanted the church to exceed my expectations and surprise us all with its gracious acceptance of difference. However, I am also a staunch believer in full inclusion — holding to the view that anyone ought to be able to participate fully in the life of a church — and, in that regard, I wanted to expose where the church is failing.
Therefore, I suppose I was hoping to be joyfully surprised but expecting to be painfully disappointed. In the end, I got both. As such, there are some uncomfortable conclusions that must be drawn from this experiment:
- Firstly, some churches will intentionally ignore an inquiry from a member of the LGBTQ community
- Secondly, a person is more likely to get a response from a church they are in a traditional marriage rather than a same-sex relationship
- Thirdly, while many churches will say that members of the LGBTQ community are welcome to attend, they are not able to participate in serving, ministering or leading on account of their sexuality
This third point is particularly distressing to me. In these circumstances, what are the options for a member of the LGBTIQ+ community, who happens to have a faith in Christ and wants to serve their church? To fully participate in the life of the church, they must suppress, deny or ignore their deepest longing for human connection — for their entire lives. How unimaginably horrible.
Yet, along with these painful realizations, there were some joyful surprises from my experiment as well. I am heartened to see that there are some churches who have made a conscious decision not to exclude on the basis of human sexuality. I stand with churches who, in humble apology, acknowledge the appalling treatment by the church towards the LGBTQ community — both in the past and present — and resolve to distance themselves from those attitudes and behaviors moving forward. And, I am glad that there are now safe places appearing for members of the LGBTQ community to practice faith in freedom and full acceptance. On behalf of Jared and Joel, thank God for these churches!
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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