With more and more churches beginning to extend their welcome to the LGBTQ+ people in their midst, it’s important to make sure that your church is on the right track to becoming a truly welcoming church.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a lesbian couple shows up to Sunday service at a church with a rainbow flag flying out front. Upon arrival, someone says something along the lines of, “It’s SO NICE to have YOU here. You know, my cousin is…you know… like you but he doesn’t go to church.” The couple brushes it off at first, but then they notice that people are staring and smiling awkwardly.
The regulars who talk to them make a show of just how welcoming the community is, but no one makes an effort to relate to this couple as people. One person comes to tell them how glad she is to see them and that she wished more people “like them” would come to that church. Another tries to let them know just how cool he is with “the gays” by telling them about his nonbinary relative who he misgenders throughout the conversation.
As the couple takes in their surroundings, they realize that they are the only LGBTQ+ people in attendance. They hurriedly drink their post-service coffee, leave, and never return.
Maybe you’ve witnessed this kind of welcome in your community but haven’t known how to intervene. If you’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of “welcome” you know that it isn’t welcoming at all.
Hospitality is a central tenet of Christianity. Though this is true, we’ve seen far too many examples of churches practicing exclusion. For congregations invested in building a more just world, justice and liberation should underscore welcome and hospitality. Your church’s welcome needs to be intentional, genuine, and clearly stated. Let’s talk about why.
Religion among LGBTQ+ Adults in the US
With steady declines in religious affiliation over the past 60 years and the fraught relationship between Christianity and LGBTQ+ people, there is a question of whether welcoming churches actually matter in the broader scope of LGBTQ+ inclusion. My answer to this is a solid “YES… and no.”
Religion and spirituality play an important role in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people. A report published by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law in 2020 found that 46.7% of LGBTQ+ adults are religious with 28% of people identifying as Protestant, 24.8% Catholic, and 24.5% “other Christian” (evangelical). Black LGBTQ+ adults are among the most religious of this group, with 71% of respondents identifying as either highly or moderately religious.
Human spiritual needs haven’t changed even if the narrative surrounding religion focuses on decline. People still need to feel connected to each other. They still want their lives to have purpose and meaning. They are still seeking personal transformation. These are all needs that religion and religious institutions can fill.
That said, it’s not enough for churches to “love everyone” without making explicit how they show that love to people in marginalized communities, especially the LGBTQ+ community. The data show a need for religious communities that are committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion in both word and deed, valuing the whole person and encouraging the whole person to show up at services.
More than that, LGBTQ+ people need to know that churches flying the rainbow flag have done the work to prepare for their arrival.
Embark on Becoming a Welcoming Church with These 3 Tips
In preparation for a dinner party, the host gets their guests’ dietary restrictions in advance and prepares foods that will meet the needs of all guests present. In the same way, to ensure a genuine welcome to newcomers regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or presentation, class background, race, ability, or any other identifier that can be met with bias, congregations must do ample work to prepare for their arrival BEFORE they get there.
This article gives you some tips to start your church on its LGBTQ+ inclusion journey. The tips below should be used before any conversations about solutions to make sure your welcome is genuine.
Identify your church’s unwritten rules
Wherever two or more are gathered, cultural dynamics are also present. As such, your church has rules and boundaries that are unknown to newcomers and, most likely, are unspoken among regular attendees.
Some examples of unwritten rules may include:
- How one is expected to dress for services
- Whether infants and toddlers are welcome to make noise in the sanctuary during the service
- Whether moving, clapping, dancing, or singing in service is encouraged or discouraged
Every community has its unwritten rules– it’s not a bad thing. Unwritten rules can be foundational when creating cultures within cultures, helping people feel connected to their neighbors through shared experiences and expectations.
Unwritten rules become a problem when they shift into assumptions and expectations. For example, a church might assume and expect that people will show up in their “Sunday best,” but “Sunday best” isn’t defined. The assumption is that “Sunday best” means suits and dresses. When someone shows up in their best jeans and t-shirt, that person hasn’t broken an explicit rule, yet other congregants treat them as if they have. This is an example of an unwritten rule gone wrong.
Culture can vary between specific demographics within the same larger group. I’ve been to many churches in my life; each one had its own culture and unwritten rules. Just because one church worships one way doesn’t mean that all of them worship that way.
Once your community understands its unwritten rules, it can devise solutions to minimize the friction newcomers face when they inadvertently break one of these rules.
Ask why your community DOES NOT want to do this work
You may have learned to start with your “why” when beginning challenging work. As important as it is to have your “why” in mind, it’s equally important to recognize attitudes and behaviors that will derail change if left unchecked.
Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in 2001 titled “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” that examines the factors that prohibit change in even the most committed people. In their words:
Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. The resulting dynamic equilibrium stalls the effort in what looks like resistance but is in fact a kind of personal immunity to change.
Competing commitments are not conscious commitments. People don’t often realize they have them until pointed out by an accountability partner. In the case of faith communities doing LGBTQ+ inclusion work, common competing commitments are an assumed right to comfort, conflict avoidance, and a fear of a fractured congregation.
Regardless of whether they are conscious or subconscious, they do get in the way of change. Reflecting on why you don’t want to do the work to create change allows these competing commitments to surface, which will make you more aware of them when they come up in your community’s change process.
In terms of creating a more inclusive or welcoming faith community, your competing commitments will likely be uncomfortable to admit. For churches interested in becoming more welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, this requires reflection on individual and collective commitments to attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that prioritize and reward cisgender and heterosexual people. As uncomfortable as it may be, this step is necessary. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate.
Confronting My Competing Commitments
Prior to embracing my gender identity as a transgender man in college, I wanted nothing to do with trans people because I had a competing commitment to hiding from myself as a means of protection.
If someone brought up trans rights in the queer student groups I was part of as a possible issue area to work on, I did mental gymnastics to justify why trans rights shouldn’t be “our” concern. To fully embrace myself and work through this competing commitment, I had to admit that I was transphobic even though it went against the image I had of myself as radically inclusive.
Admitting that you have an allegiance to an anti-LGBTQ+ culture with the goal of deconstructing that culture is necessary. In order to look critically at how systems perpetuate discrimination, we must examine our participation in and allegiance to those systems.
Evaluate the role of certainty in your theology
The kind of certainty emboldened by biblical literalism and fundamentalism seeks to replace faith with a series of exclusionary rules and doctrines that keep people from questioning the authority of the church as an institution.
When I talk about faith, I don’t mean religion; I mean trust in that which is unseen. It is not empirical knowledge or based on tangible evidence. Faith is trust, and it can exist independently of the structures created to celebrate and direct it. The converse is also true: the human-made structures initially created to direct and celebrate faith can exist without it.
Where the other two steps are meant for communal exploration, evaluating the role of certainty in your theology is a deeply personal practice that asks you to distinguish the certainty of God’s promise to human beings from the certainty that God possesses certain human traits.
We all want to feel some semblance of certainty in our lives, and yet faith invites us into resplendent uncertainty. We are called to be bold in our embrace of the mystery, to love and serve while recognizing that we cannot know God’s mind.
If the church is the body of Christ, we must recognize that bodies change. Bodies hold on to trauma and hurt, but they are also incredibly resilient and capable of healing when given the proper resources. By doing this preliminary work, you set yourself and your congregation up to accept solutions that will create a more welcoming atmosphere.
Feeling overwhelmed by the idea of reimagining your ministry to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive? A coach could help you break through those barriers and create a vibrant, thriving LGBTQ+ ministry. Get in touch to learn more about how I can help.
This post is the first part of a four-part series exploring how faith communities can boldly affirm LGBTQ+ people in and beyond their communities.