Some years ago, I was in a church council meeting, and I guess we were talking about evangelism or some related topic.
At that time I was working in retail, among predominantly unchurched and nonreligious coworkers. I'd never hid my church life, neither did I ever press my coworkers about their faith or lack of it. This kept the workplace pleasant but sometimes also led to religious conversations that I didn't instigate. Once in a while someone would say they might try church again someday, and I'd give them the worship times at my congregation, but that's usually as far as it went. I might hear attitudes of disdain for all things religious or I might experience some mild bemusement that a gay man would be so religious, but overwhelmingly, most just didn't perceive a need or interest in church attendance, much less membership. Church simply wasn't a concern for them.
I related most of this at that council meeting and then asked, "Most of you have secular jobs, surely you have unchurched colleagues. What do you hear?"
I was met with blank stares. Understanding that some work environments allow for religious chitchat more than others, it became apparent that most of my fellow council members hadn't even thought about having conversations like this at their work.
+ + + + +
At another council meeting, we were discussing possibly steering the congregation toward making a public statement of welcome to LGBT folk, thereby joining a network of congregations that did so. It was not the first time we'd had this conversation and the man cover question/resistance to it was, Why do we need to make a specific statement about gay people? We welcome everyone!":
That night I pushed back a little bit harder than usual. I said, "Do you see any news items about gay rights? Who is blocking gay marriage? Who is protesting pride parades? It's not secular organizations, it's religious organizations and churches. Unless you say specifically, 'LGBT folk are welcome here,' you look no different from any other church that is protesting the gay pride parade.:"
One member asked, "Why is it our responsibility to do something for them if they're going to judge us before they even try us?"
I replied, "You can sit there and feel defensive about being judged unfairly all you want, but your defensiveness doesn't change the fact that you are indistinguishable from the Westboro Baptist Church unless you make the first move."
While that congregation eventually did make a public statement of welcome, it was a year or more after I had left it.
+ + + + +
More recently, there was a gathering of clergy at which they were to discuss how to talk to the "nones," the growing demographic of people who claim no religious affiliation. They hit upon the idea that maybe they could get a panel of "nones" to answer questions from the gathered church leaders.
There was one problem: None of the people planning the event knew anyone who didn't already go to church.
Eventually, they got together a panel (thinks in part to one of my clergy friends who is active in her community, beyond her congregation's campus), but the point was driven home---Christians and Christian leadership aren't very proactive in getting to know anyone who isn't already one of us. We want people to come to church, but we aren't very good at going to them.
Oh, and another thing? Almost half of that panel turned out to be queer folk.
+ + + + +
We who have been condemned by the institution and nonetheless can't help but answer the call of grace, can't help but respond to the Good News of the Reign of God manifesting at hand are a sign and a wonder to those who want nothing to do with religion. And yet, we have the experience of knowing why someone would not want to be part of the church. We have experienced first hand the ways the church does not work.
When I think of the gifts LGBT people might bring to the church, one is this understanding, this awareness that not all things that come out of the Christian tradition are helpful, that some are downright harmful. Hopefully, we maintain our unchurched friendships better than most Christians, hopefully we listen with more empathy and care to the stories of those bleeding from wounds inflicted by the church. Hopefully, more than most, we are able to listen without offering platitudes or prescriptions for overcoming those hurts---hopefully, we know that it is the working of the Holy Spirit to bring us into the Body of Christ, not the arguments of other Christians who have had a better time within the church.
I say "hopefully," because it is so easy to become complacent once we are "in." Really, that's what is happening in the stories at the top of this essay. It's easy to become so involved in church life that we become salt without flavor, light hidden under a basket. I've been there and if you've been part of the church for any length of time, it's possible you have, too.
So my call to you this day is that if you recognize yourself in the people who don't have conversations with "nones," or if you want to be defensive and have the wounded make the first move toward reconciliation----Turn away from this behavior. The Reign of God is not found there.
Coming to church, and inviting others to come to church, is good and we shouldn't stop. I'm just saying we can't stop there. We have to go out among people not like us and be that sign and wonder that is in our power to be.
[ My novella, Cary and John, is now available on Amazon.com or from the publisher.]