These Aren’t the Evangelicals You’re Looking For

A few years ago, I was invited by a Lutheran friend of mine to take part in a group of church planters.  I knew these folk came from an evangelical background and my “shields” went up.  Would these people accept me?  Did I have to go into the closet here?

After a while, the woman who was leading the group noticed my hesitancy.  “Dennis, are you gay?” she asked.  She didn’t ask the question in a mean or menacing way, but more to get at what was making me so shy.

Having grown up in an evangelical culture where being gay wasn’t good, the old tapes were playing in my head.  But this woman never turned me away after I told her.  She and her husband welcomed me.

I learned a important lesson that day.  I learned that not every evangelical is out to get gays.  I learned that things had changed in the nearly 20 years since I left evangelicalism.  I learned that there is far more nuance of evangelicals than most progressive Christians are willing to admit.

Recently, evangelical author Skye Jethani wrote a blog post about the reaction of evangelicals after the two Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.  Jethani was fascinated by the media coverage because it didn’t match what he was experiencing:

One would assume from media reporting that evangelicals are obsessed with two things: politics and homosexuality. In my 30 years of involvement with evangelical churches, parachurch ministries, and mission organizations, I cannot recall hearing a single sermon about homosexuality. In addition, my role with Christianity Today connects me with evangelical congregation all over the country. Politics and gay marriage may arise in my private conversations with pastors, but I’ve never heard them engaged in a worship service. That does not mean these topics are never broached in a church setting, but they reside very, very far from the spotlight. And what about this past Sunday after the “culture shaking” ruling by the Supreme Court? Nothing. I did not hear a sermon, a comment, a prayer, or even a conversation in the church foyer about it. And this silence isn’t limited to LGBTQ issues. In three decades I’ve not heard what I would classify as a political or partisan sermon. Given the lack of politics in my evangelical church experience, why do 75% of young non-Christians say evangelicals are “too political”? How do we explain this gap between what actually happens in evangelical communities and the media’s portrayal of evangelicals? There are two possible explanations. Either my church engagement is wildly outside the norm, or perhaps evangelicals aren’t as devoted to political social engineering as the outside culture seems to believe we are.

So why is there a disconnect between what he has seen and what culture perceives?  Jethani thinks part of the problem is media perception:

…the presence of socially conservative, politically rabid evangelicals fits the narrative advanced by the news and entertainment media. With 24 hours of airtime to fill each day, finding more extreme voices, to say more outrageous things, and incite more conflicts has become the mission of the news media. That’s why last Sunday’s “Meet the Press” pitted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow against the founder of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed. Are these the two people you want on your news program for an intelligent, respectful conversation about gay marriage? Not likely. These are the people you want at the table when making the news is more valued than reporting it.

I think Jethani is on to something here.  For mainline Protestants, most of our perception of evangelicals tends to be from what we see from the media.  We don’t really hold much interest in getting to know evangelicals with the exception of those that tend to be more progressive.

Last spring, writer Brandon Ambrosino wrote a touching essay of his coming out experience, which happened to take place at Liberty University- the institution founded by Religious Right superstar Jerry Fawell.  If you are expecting a horror story of how Brandon was mistreated by fundamentalists, you will be surprised.  Many of the adults he encountered were incredibly loving towards him.  They might have disagreed with the whole gay thing, but they loved the flesh and blood being standing in front of them.

Last fall, I wrote about how my opinion of social conservatives has changed.  I still disagree with them, but I stopped looking at them as abstractions and more like real people, people you might think are wrong, but people you will still welcome at your table.

I wonder at times if the church needs to be a place where we are able to reach out and befriend each other.  I know it’s hard for lesbian and gay folks who were traumatized by the church to turn around and be forgiving; but I wonder if part of our healing and reminder that God loves us includes reaching out to those that might disagree, not with the intent to change their mind, but to just be present with them.  What if we could spend some time listening to them and visa versa.  Minds might never be changed, but hearts just might be.

I wonder what might happen if we let go of the need to be right and try to be more loving of those with whom we disagree.  I’m not saying we abandon our work for justice, but what if we were able to chat with someone who doesn’t see things like you do and yet remain friends?  What would that say to the world?



3 thoughts on “These Aren’t the Evangelicals You’re Looking For

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  1. This was so encouraging to me. As an evangelist myself, I am so often discouraged with how many people have such a hostile attitude towards the church due to this issue because of what we have done in the past and are even doing now. This post has encouraged me so much to continue to change my own heart and pray for the hearts of the people in my church and the churches of the nation.

  2. Thank you for highlighting that not all evangelicals are anti-gay. And can I also say as someone who considers themselves an evangelical because I prize scripture highly – I also don’t think you have to have a so-called (because in fact there is no such thing!) ‘literal interpretation’ of the bible to be an evangelical!

  3. Dennis, I was so happy to read your last two paragraphs. Very similar to what I have been writing. It’s a tough thing to say, a tough thing to consider, and not always well received! Very difficult to live into, and I thank you for your courage in saying it and making it a tenant of your personal ministry.

    I do feel compelled to highlight one issue implied in Mr. Jethani’s post that I think you may have overlooked. He wrote, “And what about this past Sunday after the ‘culture shaking’ ruling by the Supreme Court? Nothing. I did not hear a sermon, a comment, a prayer, or even a conversation in the church foyer about it.” His implication here is that the DOMA decision was such a non-issue that no one even thought to bring it up. I don’t think this is what’s going on. The fact that there was no discussion means something else entirely. The DOMA decision was one of those “where were you when you heard” moments in the history of our country. Everyone I know, especially evangelicals who have are supportive of LGBTQ equality, couldn’t stop talking about it.

    The silence at his church speaks volumes.

    Mr. Jethani’s contention that the silence meant that LGBTQ equality is a non-issue, is simply nonsense. All that silence really meant that people who believe we must remain “other” are now feeling uncomfortable enough to be unwilling to open their mouths about it.

    Dennis, I am your ally in trying to urge everyone to be more loving and kind, and in trying to encourage LGBTQ people to practice the radical forgiveness necessary to heal ourselves. I also am with you in your desire that we build relationships with people who do not believe that we are worthy of the same rights and responsibilities as they are. I mean that sincerely. And I think we do this by calling upon God’s love and grace to lead us.

    But it is important to me that we are clear about what the silence in Mr. Jethani’s church meant, because I have experienced this silence in other places, like the Justice Conference last February. Silence prevents healing, prevents progress, prevents reconciliation. Silence is easy. This messy business of encouraging healing and forgiveness through discussion and dialog is much more daunting. But I am convinced we are all equal to the task.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful essay and your good work.

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