When our pastor walks babies around the sanctuary for dedication, he always says this important line: “We pray that this child would have a good life, not an easy life.” The reason, of course, is that to live a life of meaning is not to live an easy life. A good life is not an easy life.
This is an important lesson for churches and denominational bodies to learn as they consider one of the most challenging questions of our time: how to address the inclusion of persons who are gay, lesbian, transgender or otherwise nonconforming to traditional roles. Taking up this question is not easy, but it is necessary.
Yet most pastors and churches would rather talk about almost anything but human sexuality, and for good reason: “It’s just too hard.” “It’s too divisive.” “I’ll get fired.” “We’ll lose financial support.” “We’ll lose members.”
When it became clear that having “the conversation” was necessary at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, where I serve as associate pastor, our congregational leaders were intent on putting together a thorough and fair-minded plan for these difficult discussions. We undertook an 18-month study process to understand the need for LGBTQ inclusion. Ultimately, we voted to have one class of membership, so that if you follow Jesus Christ and have been baptized – regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity or any other label – you are a full member of the church. No second-class members.
Here’s one of the important things we learned from our shared experience: The avoidance of conflict that appears to be a good life is actually only a substitute for an illusory easy life. And in this case, easy is not good. In hindsight, our church is better for choosing the good over the easy. We are better for having had the conversation.
Whenever I reflect on Wilshire’s journey, this passage in Hebrews often comes to mind:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2, NRSV).
For the sake of the joy that was set before him. We learn from the life of Jesus that we can and must take on difficult tasks for the sake of the joy that will come later, and even when the repercussions are painful.
This has certainly been our experience. The joy we have found in welcoming into church life those who have been rejected and expelled and maligned by the church is beyond measure. Yes, we lost nearly 300 members because of our vote. But we also gained more than 350 new members because of our vote.
“Why should you take the risk of having a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion?”
Congregations that open themselves to full participation by those in the LGBTQ community are likely to begin hearing the other side of the story they have missed for so long, and that story includes a lot of hidden pain. Individuals and families who have faced exclusion but want to be part of a community of faith carry emotional and spiritual pain that cannot be simply washed away in a moment.
After our vote, we had a visit from a couple who drove 30 miles to get to our church. On the line of our guest card we ask, “Are you a member of another church?” They wrote, “Yes, but we were asked not to come back.”
I mourn the loss of most of the folks who left our church over the LGBTQ vote, but I also realize there are a hundred other churches in Dallas where they can land and find community. For those who are coming to us now, there aren’t five other churches in our part of Dallas where they could be restored to faith and know the joy of their salvation. That’s a trade-off I would make again and again.
As a pastor or lay leader in a church, why should you take the risk of having a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion? The negative answers are obvious: You could lose your job. You could lose financial support. You could lose your friends. You could be embarrassed publicly. You could be kicked out of some other group. But the positive answers should be equally obvious: You could help more people find faith in Jesus Christ. You could set an example of the love of Jesus. You could become a beacon of hope to other churches. You could gain members and gain finances. You could save someone’s life.
Evangelical Christians love to preach and teach on Philippians 2:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (verses 3-8, NRSV).
Following the example of Jesus does not guarantee your retirement funds, does not ensure keeping your friends and does not assure you of an invitation to the denominational awards banquet. Following Jesus requires humility to the point of death – maybe not just physical death, by the way, but perhaps death of standing or acclamation in the eyes of others.
I’m not going to say this is easy to do. I and others in our church leadership have physical and spiritual wounds to show for the road we’ve taken. It is exhausting. It is nerve-racking. It is hard work. But it’s also the right thing to do. It’s the road to a good life, but not an easy life.
“In hindsight, we are better for choosing the good over the easy.”
My plea to you is not that you should follow the exact road our congregation has taken. It’s not even to beg you to become inclusive of the LGBTQ community. My plea is for you and your church to have the courage to have the conversation, not to hide in fear of hard questions. You may come down in a different place than we have, and that’s OK – so long as you know why you believe what you say you believe.
This is a hard conversation. Have the conversation anyway.
– This opinion article is an adapted excerpt from the new book Why Churches Need to Talk about Sexuality, published by Fortress Press.