When a book such as Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian becomes a smash hit it might lead you to think that there is a large contingent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians out there clamoring for acceptance.
But a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests that this is not the case.
As it turns out Vines’ book (and others that seek to reconcile LGBT lives with fundamentalist Christian teaching) is only a big deal to insiders—or to a voyeuristic public that doesn’t have any real skin in the game.
As for the LGBT community, Pew researchers found that at least 41% could give a rip if the evangelical church welcomes them in their pews, because they’ve given up on religion anyway—at least that type of religion.
Given the media’s attention to LGBT people and religion, it might come as a shock that such a large bloc of the LGBT community does not identify as religious. But within the community it’s simply confirmation that Christianity has already fouled its nest when it comes to trying attract LGBT people back to church.
The reason so many LGBT people have fled the church tracks closely with why millennials in general have abandoned sanctuaries across the country—a perception that churches are filled with judgmental and hypocritical people.
A survey last year by Pew found that 73% of LGBT people perceived evangelical churches to be unfriendly and 79% said they felt unwelcome in Catholic churches. As for non-evangelical mainstream churches, the survey found that only 10% of LGBT folk viewed such churches as friendly while 44% perceived them as unfriendly.
However, according to last year’s data, one-third of LGBT people who are religious said there was a conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexual orientation or gender identity. This, I believe, shows that many LGBT people continue to go to unwelcoming churches simply because they do find religion important—or they remain conflicted about their own sexuality or gender identity because of the mixed signals coming from the pulpit every Sunday.
This year’s survey found that among the 24% who say they believe nothing in particular, 10% say religion is still somewhat or very important to them. This opens a huge opportunity for LGBT religious communities to offer alternative forms of spirituality to this community in particular. Those whose beliefs have slipped, as well as those who are still searching for something—anything—are in desperate need of communities of faith to serve them.
It’s not the churches that LGBT people are leaving, it’s Christianity in its current form that repels them.
Sadly, what they find too often in the LGBT religious landscape is what I call “evangelical lite” churches that offer the same theology, liturgy and worship styles as most non-welcoming evangelical churches, minus the judgment. Having been involved in many of these evangelical lite churches over the years, though, I can affirm that there are still many who remain conflicted about their faith and sexuality or gender identity even in a more welcoming environment.
I believe that’s so because while evangelical lite churches may be missing the judgment they still perpetuate the overall sexual shame that is inherent in much of traditional Christian theology. Even though it may not be overt, that shame is still being taught even in predominantly LGBT churches—so it’s not really the churches that LGBT people are leaving, it’s Christianity in its current form that repels them.
Much of this style of worship and theology continues even in the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Churches—which makes sense, I would argue, because founder Troy Perry was raised in a fundamentalist tradition. His influence remains strong in the MCC and other gay-friendly evangelical churches that still exist (and continue to thrive in some places such as the south) today.
This, however, is where I see a ray of hope for LGBT people of faith. There is a opportunity here, for any faith community up to the task, to truly reform the Christian church into what it was meant to be in the first place—a community that accepts people where they are and offers them genuine love and support.
There are many independent churches that are already doing this. And even some mainline churches are flying under the denominational radar to give LGBT people of faith the connection and community they crave. My own small congregation, Jubilee! Circle, in Columbia, S.C., is offering an alternative theology centered in the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox, that attracts both LGBT and straight people who may otherwise describe themselves as “nones.”
I think the key is to begin our theology in a different place—not in the dark place of original sin (a doctrine cooked up by Augustine to rid himself of the guilt of his own sexual dysfunctions)—but with what Matthew Fox calls original blessing, in which our bodies are “dwelling places of the Divine.”
How revolutionary it would be for the LGBT community, which has already led massive social reforms around marriage, to become the new reformers of Christianity—turning it from a religion of shame and guilt into the living embodiment of God’s beauty and unconditional love.
As Mark D. Jordan has powerfully offered, in these pages: “There is no gay church, there is only church—which is never reformed, only reforming.”
Much respect to Vines and his supporters, but why must we in the LGBT faith community beg for acceptance in an already theologically bankrupt institution when the time for reformation is ripe?