“Just work stuff,” I replied, and that was where his curiosity came to an end.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
A few days earlier I had ordered four books to start building a small resource library for our congregation. Trying to stay a few steps ahead has become a mantra of sorts these days, so I’m reading articles, listening to podcasts, and ordering books to stay on top of the sprawling theme of same-sex attraction and Christian faith. I want to learn from the experiences and wisdom of others, and I want to find ways to share what I’m learning with my congregation as we begin what promises to be a very stretching leg of our journey.
These first two books will present a ‘traditional’ position on LGBTQ questions. I started with these books because, of the handful of books I’ve read on this theme over the years, most have advocated for a full embrace of LGBTQ folks into the life of the church. Since reading Stanley Grenz’s book, Welcoming But Not Affirming, a number of years ago, I’ve made an effort to read books that lean in the other direction. And that’s as it should be.
Since I hold a traditional Christian understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, I haven’t really seen much value in further fortifying my position. As far as I’m concerned, why would I keep reading the ideas of people who believe the same as I do? How does that help me grow? How does it help me understand those who believe differently? In the years since reading Grenz, I’ve gravitated to books by authors who believe differently on this issue, trying to listen well to their stories, trying to hear things from their perspectives, carefully weighing their words and holding on to the elements of truth that were there in each and every one of them.
I had a conversation with a co-worker last week and realized that I have a tendency to push back from the opposite perspective of my conversation partner, regardless of what it is we’re arguing about. So even if I’m having a conversation with someone who has a traditional view of marriage as I do, I’ll push back with ideas that I’ve read from the other side of the issue. I don’t do this because I agree with those ideas, but because I’ve learned what questions “the other side” is asking. I’m starting to realize that I have to be careful with this approach, though, because a failure to disclose what I’m up to can make a person think I actually lean one way or another, when at the end of the day, I just want to make sure we’re not answering questions that no one is asking.
This recent book delivery, then, is an attempt to provide balance for those who will need it once we start wading deeper into these waters. It will be important for people to read authors who support their own viewpoint, as well as those who write from a point of view they don’t understand. I’m keenly aware that it’s been a full twenty years since Grenz encouraged the evangelical church to be welcoming, but not affirming, so I’ll be reading these books myself as a way to make sure I am as up to date as possible on how people are articulating the traditional position.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how on earth our congregation has avoided this conversation for so long. How is it possible, given the fact that this is one of the most controversial topics on the Christian landscape, that we can go on from one year to the next without hardly touching it?
One thing I can point to is the high value our church puts on being a community of people with diverse beliefs and experiences. One of our four Key Values is something we call a Journey Mentality, which grew out of our experience as a student congregation, drawing people from all kinds of church backgrounds or with no church background at all. Our introduction to this value begins this way:
We want to be present with people at whatever part of the journey of life they find themselves on, whether they share our faith or not. In the spirit of honest dialogue, we will ask our questions openly and listen for new ideas from others, respecting our different backgrounds and celebrating diversity.
Over the years, we have made a habit of listening to and learning from one another. Our Sunday gatherings are similar to most church services for the first sixty minutes, but then things take a unique turn in that we invite people to gather in a separate space for what we call Discussion Groups. At the end of every sermon, we explain the premise: that we don’t want this to be the end of the conversation, that we want it to continue around tables, with dialogue spurred on by a set of questions that have been written based on the content of the morning’s sermon.
We first started doing this when Elevation was launched in 2001. I really didn’t like the experience of being a ‘talking head’ and always having the last word, which is what it felt like in our growing student church. That was the only practical model given the number of students attending and the space we had to work with, but when we started a separate gathering on Sunday mornings with significantly smaller numbers, I recognized a unique opportunity to try and build dialogue right into the way we gathered as a church.
This habit of ours provides a venue for people to bring their different ideas and beliefs to the table (literally) on a weekly basis. I think that, in some ways, this has provided an outlet for people to state their beliefs about various issues, including questions about the LGBTQ community and the church, and to recognize that, even if the stated position of the church didn’t align with their own, they were still welcome to articulate their own beliefs without being silenced or corrected. Over the years, plenty of people have questioned our model, concerned that we weren’t in control of the ideas and beliefs that were being shared, but that concern missed the entire point: that we were comfortable being a church where people can believe and practice their faith differently and still belong.
We’ve known for a long time that our community is diverse, but over the past year, there was a growing interest in finding out just how diverse we actually are. After about six months of planning and editing, we invited members of our congregation to take part in a lengthy survey that was part census, part opinion poll, and part inquiry into the kinds of things that our congregation valued. We wanted to use the survey to gather data that would help us consider future facility options, but also realized that it would be beneficial to get a snapshot of our diversity to see how that might speak into how our community might grow and take shape in the years to come.
A handful of questions were pulled from a 2010 survey that had been conducted by a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo. Our hope was that we would be able to measure the responses against one another to see in what ways our community had changed in the past seven years. We learned a lot from the survey, like the fact that the proportion of students in our congregation had declined over this period, and that the median income of our community had risen substantially—both natural signs of a congregation that was emerging from adolescence into young adulthood.
Those were observations that I probably could have guessed at going into the survey, but one area that I wasn’t so sure about was the theological piece. When we repeated questions from the 2010 survey about homosexuality and faith, would the responses be similar or would we see a marked difference from when they were first asked?
I’ll share the questions and responses here, with a disclaimer that language from the 2010 survey was maintained for consistency, even though we would have chosen different words ourselves.
Please indicate your level of agreement with each statement...Marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman without exception.
2010 - 82% Generally or Completely Agree
2017 - 60% Generally or Completely Agree
Please indicate whether you agree or disagree that it is OK for Christians to do the following things...Participate in homosexual activity.
2010 - 8% Generally or Completely Agree
2017 - 38% Generally or Completely Agree
It didn’t take long to determine that there had been quite a shift in attitudes over these seven years. Prior to seeing the results, I had told our Staff that I expected the numbers would fall somewhere in the neighbourhood of 70/30 in favour of a traditional view of marriage, while in reality the numbers had shifted even further, closer to 60/40, which isn’t far off from being split right down the middle on the hottest of all hot button topics in the church today!
While the survey intentionally pushed people to respond to these statements as they were written, we also provided an opportunity for people to expand their thoughts in the comments section:
On issues pertaining to same sex or alternative relationships....I don't know what I think or believe anymore. I hate the "love the sinner hate the sin" line of reasoning...It comes from an attitude of judgment and criticism I'm uncomfortable with. And I now believe some people are "born that way" and I'm not comfortable trying to force someone to be something they are not. As a lifelong evangelical Christian, I am uncomfortable with my new position on LGBTQ but would far rather err on the side of being loving and accepting…
I don't have a stance on homosexuality (if this is right or wrong), but I don't feel I have the right to judge either.
Our church's general 'non-affirming' stance on same sex marriage is problematic for me. It seems to be a big old elephant in the room that we just need to talk about.
I believe homosexual behaviour within the confines of a committed marriage relationship is okay.
I understand he bible speaks of homosexuality as wrong. But I just have such a hard time with this because I cannot fathom that God would want this issue to cause such division among us and therefore I want to say I don't hold any judgments because that's between God and the individual. It's a complicated issue that's so hard to answer. I am still learning.
I take exception to the framing of the question "participate in homosexual activity" as it does not accurately describe what is meant by this...Does it mean have a monogamous homosexual relationship? If this is the case I would generally agree with the statement.
I didn't answer the question about marriage as it is more nuanced for me than the question allowed.
I think the homosexual issue is a bit more black and white, but many churches and Christians have done a horrible job of loving LGBT people even if they disagree with their lifestyle. On the other hand, society in general doesn't have much 'tolerance' for any view that doesn't accept the LGBT lifestyle as inherently good and healthy. I would say the majority of young people (i.e. 25 and under) and many adults in the Elevation population would support gay marriage...I see this as becoming a very contentious issue for Elevation if it's forced to the forefront. I'm also not 100% sure what Elevation's official stance is on these issues and/or if those stances would change how I felt about being part of the Elevation community.
I really hated this section and almost stopped answering. I'm very concerned with how this information will be used.
Comments like these illustrate the mosaic of beliefs that exist within our church community. They also serve as a good reminder of the complexity of the issue itself and the anxiety that many people experience when asked to express what they believe.
What’s going to happen when these questions aren’t being asked in an anonymous survey but in actual conversations? This is not going to be easy.