Why Have an LGBTQ Study Team?

boekenWhen people find out City Church Long Beach has a Study Team dedicated to LGBTQ issues, and that the Study Team consists of people who do not agree with each other theologically, I get some interesting responses.

First off, a lot of people just think we’re crazy. I find that people who move towards either end of the theological spectrum sometimes struggle to accept that others hold informed perspectives different from their own. So the fact that we have a Study Team has upset some people because the studying, learning, and discussing imply that there might be multiple perspectives on these issues (contrary to their sentiment).

For example,

Recently, a City Church leader was asked with a sneer, “Why do you go to that gay church?” by someone who had heard of our Study Team.

Meanwhile, a neighbor from another church told me our church was oppressive to gays because we had no rainbows on our website and no links to organizations that fight for justice for the gay community.

Many people have told me that they think we are wrong to have a Study Team, that these are not issues that should be discussed.  The matter is closed so decisively for them that discussion would be destabilizing. I often wish I could understand more of these folks’ stories. What are their fears and where did they originate? What’s at stake for them in this conversation? What stirs in them the need to tell someone else what they can and cannot discuss?

With that being said, I have a number of friends for whom this is a settled matter because of a thoughtful conclusion they’ve reached; thus, this is not an arena in which they wish to spend more time and energy.  I totally get that.  I don’t feel the need to convince them they need to discuss it again, and I respect them for valuing both sides and for deciding on one of them.

Secondly, some people are fascinated.  Within the last few days I received an email from a professor, whom I’ve never met, at a midwestern university.  She’s a friend of a friend and through that connection got the syllabus and emailed me just ecstatic to have someone to talk to about these issues.  Time and time again I run into Christians who are dying to talk about these things but are scared to death that if they do they would be judged by their church or their friends or their family. So many people are looking for a safe space to have these conversations.

Third, I often get a thoughtful, “Hmm, that makes sense.”  Typically this comes from church leaders, both traditionalist and progressive, who recognize the value in conversation and who know that hearing from multiple voices helps us all discern God’s leading.  As the Second Council of Constantinople declared in 553AD:

The holy fathers… have followed the examples of antiquity. They dealt with heresies and current problems by debate in common, since it was established as certain that when the disputed question is set out by each side in communal discussions, the light of truth drives out the shadows of lying.  The truth cannot be made clear in any other way when there are debates about questions of faith, since everyone requires the assistance of his neighbor.

So why do does our church have a Study Team?

There are four reasons that have to do with our context and four reasons that have to do with our ethos.

Our Context

  1. The five past presidents of our denomination (the Reformed Church in America) sent a letter in early 2016 expressing their desire that churches have this conversation, particularly with people who see the issues differently. We have a Study Team because we’ve been invited to do so by the leadership of our denomination.
  2. Our denominational subgroup (the City Classis) entered into a 2 year intentional dialogue about LGBTQ issues in the Spring of 2015.  We have a Study Team because our group of churches is having this conversation.
  3. Our church (City Church of Long Beach) resides in Long Beach, which consistently ranks highly as one of the nation’s most gay-friendly cities (ranked #5 nationally in this study).  We have a Study Team because our missional context requires it.
  4. Our congregation is remarkably diverse, including a significant number of LGBTQ people (like my son, Timothy) – some who came to us as Christians, some who are investigating Christ, and some who have become Christians at City Church.  We have a Study Team because there are practical implications for the membership and leadership of people in our midst that depend on how the church views these issues.

Our Ethos

  1. We’ve always been a church that values authenticity and asking the real questions.  We have a Study Team because the people in our church really wonder about these issues and want to discuss them.
  2. God’s church has a long history of wrestling with difficult issues and not deciding them quickly.  We have a Study Team because it is the habit of the church through the ages to discuss difficult issues and, in community, to discern  the leading of the Spirit .
  3. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church (per the Nicene Creed).  We have a Study Team to embody and promote Christian unity and to discern and encourage Christian holiness. 
  4. We’ve seen a lot of division and pain across the church in the U.S. over these issues, and we are just crazy enough to believe that by loving each other well in the midst of our disagreements we could bring a measure of healing to the greater church and some hope to the world.  We have a Study Team to model constructive dialogue across differences.  

It’s been an incredible honor to be on the Study Team. Each of us on the Study Team have our own unique journeys, and my purpose in this blog is not to speak for them, but rather, for myself. So next week I’ll share some of the story about when my son came out to me.

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How My Journey Started

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Porter and me in Washington D.C., New Year’s Eve 2016

There were no gay people in Richmond, Virginia when I grew up.  That is, until my brother came out to me over Christmas break during his junior year at Georgetown.  That was December, 1990.

Apparently there was a whole world I didn’t know anything about, and my ignorance was about to be on display.

I had never met a gay person, had never heard of a gay person, and had never thought of a gay person.  We were raised in the South, lived on 11 acres of forested land, and went to an elite private school.  Sporadic church attendance didn’t mean we lacked good traditional Southern values, and everyone knew that men were supposed to be men and girls were meant to be asked on dates properly.  I was shocked by Porter’s revelation.  I couldn’t get my head around my brother liking guys.

From that conversation I mostly remember the two questions he asked me.  Shamefully, I don’t remember his determination or my insecurity.  Just the two questions.  And my poor replies.

First, he asked, “So what do you think?”

Since I’d gotten involved in Christian ministry a few years before, I immediately knew he was asking the moral question – what other question could there be after all?  I missed that opportunity to tell him how courageous he was to share that with me, how proud I was of him as his brother, and how much I loved him.  He laid his heart out on the line to me, and all I could think to do was pronounce a moral verdict on his confession.  Sigh. By God’s grace, my misdirected response wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  I said, “Well, I’ve always thought homosexuality was wrong, but I’ll need to go back and think about it and see what the bible says.”

Next he asked, “Do you think Mom and Dad know?”

Again, I missed hearing the real question.  I just thought he was dumb.  Are you kidding me?  They are going to be crushed!  I didn’t say that; I just said, “No, I don’t think so.”

What I didn’t say, because I didn’t hear the question, was this:  I hear you longing to be known and feeling a stranger in your own family.  That must be so hard.  What’s that like for you?  I’m sorry for not noticing that part of you, for not really seeing you all these years growing up together.  I grieve that, most likely, our parents missed that, too.  I think they missed some things about me, too, and I still don’t know how to process that very well but I know enough to say that it really hurts.  I’m here with you on your journey.  

Porter asked me to be a part of the conversation the next day with Mom and Dad.  It didn’t go well.  But I felt honored to be there, and his courage and resolve began to dawn on me. It also dawned on me that I didn’t know anything at all about these things.

The next day I left for the Urbana Missions Convention, where I proceeded to go to every seminar related to homosexuality and to buy every Christian book I could on the subject. What I didn’t do, however, was actually talk to any gay people.

So, that’s how my not-so glorious journey of connecting to LGBTQ persons and thinking about these issues began.