Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

Tell Yourself: Why Congregations Need to Stop Looking for External Affirmation

By Derek Penwell

We walked to the YMCA yesterday, my four year-old son and I. The snow fell on us as we made our way to the entrance.

“That’s called a snowflake,” the boy said.

“That’s good,” I observed. “You’re pretty amazing. Has anyone ever told you that?”

He stuck out his hand to catch a snowflake, and said, “I tell myself that.”

If true, at four he’s further down the road to maturity than a lot of people I know—myself included sometimes.

Indeed, he’s further down the road than most congregations I know, which seem constantly to pursue the kind of affirmation that comes from some external source.

“We’ve got xxxx people. We have a bazillion dollar budget. Our new parking lot features a helipad. We’ve got dedicated space for Christian Aerobics, a Starbucks in the vestibule, and an anointed unicorn that cries magic jelly bean tears that have little Jesus fish embossed on them. Please tell us we’re amazing.”

It’s hard. Human beings—even (perhaps, especially?) suitably zealous Christian ones—look for a sign to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the signs they’re busy reading often have as their goal a destination the gospel finds unintelligible.

I think about the recent pageantry surrounding the exodus of Pope Benedict XVI. The Roman Catholic church, which has undoubtedly done some wonderful things to meet the needs of the world’s poor and oppressed, has enough wrapped up in real estate and financial holdings to end world hunger. People on the outside looking in read the Gospels and hear Jesus speak about a commitment to those on margins, then they look at the ostentation of grown men (and I say “men” advisedly) draped in gold and finery roaming about multi-billion dollar ecclesiastical compounds, and they wonder how did the church get from “store not up for yourselves treasures here on earth” to … well, this.[1]

The Catholic Church is an easy target, right? However, popular Christianity has its own versions of conspicuous ecclesiastical consumption—only, rather than museums, the Evangelical Protestant versions look like consecrated shopping malls or sports arenas.

And the mainline church doesn’t get off easy either. Mainliner’s need the external affirmation that comes from believing they’re on their way to reclaiming the societal hegemony that abandoned them in the 1960s. They like to track their contemporary worth against the sepia toned memories of their moment in the cultural sun.

Ok. I’m piling on. But here’s the thing, those are precisely the sorts of accoutrements that make for a winning scorecard in the estimation of many looking to demonstrate success on the road to Christian faithfulness. The problem, as I say, is that according to Jesus these things are difficult to explain as faithful to a world already skeptical about Christian intentions. Consequently, if you look to most external measures to know whether or not you’re succeeding as a congregation, you will very probably alienate the very people who already view the church with a gimlet eye.

This morning I read an article about Michael Jordan turning fifty. I’m a huge MJ fan, but I must confess, this article left me feeling sorry for a man tortured by his need to recapture the glory of his, admittedly, much celebrated youth. The articles paints the portrait of a man for whom no good thing is ever good enough, no amount of success ever satisfies, no affirmation quite brings peace.

In the final section of the article Michael is pictured sitting alone in the media room in his home after everyone else has gone to bed, reflexively turning on the Western channel to escape the silence. Apparently, there is no peace in the silence, no way to measure a life without the input of of human voices to recount his superhuman feats for him. Given all he’s accomplished, even Michael Jordan appears to need someone else to tell him him he’s amazing.

How many churches sit around replaying the old game tapes, wanting a glimpse of what made them great all those years ago, needing someone else, some external measure to reassure them that they’re still valuable, that somebody thinks they’re amazing?

The problem is there aren’t enough “young families” to fill the new family life center to make a church successful. There isn’t a church budget big enough to assure meaningfulness. And, without question, there’s no future in the past.

External affirmation, the way the church is accustomed to keeping score—with numbers, and bodies, and dollar signs—leaves very little room for the cross. And that’s deadly because the church ultimately measures itself against the cross, against its willingness to die to all the external affirmation that its worth is rooted in something other than its commitment to following Jesus down a dark alley in search of peace, justice, and love.

“Somebody, please tell me I’m amazing.”

Tell yourself. Or at least try to remember that that’s what God was trying to tell you in Jesus.

If you need external affirmation, that’s a pretty good place to start.

  1. Look, again, I know the Catholic Church has an argument about why all this accumulated wealth is necessary. All I’m drawing attention to is the fact that to most onlookers it doesn’t make any sense, given the other commitments Catholic Church purports to hold.  ↩