Here’s an email I got in yesterday:
I attend a small-ish, urban, Christian church of a denomination that includes churches encompassing the whole spectrum of conservative to liberal. We sit pretty soundly on the liberal end of that span, and our congregation includes gay, lesbian, and transgender persons. Our church has been implicitly accepting of people without regard to their sexual or gender orientation, and now the church is considering making this an explicit position. The phrase we have heard used most often is “Welcoming and Affirming.” During a recent discussion, after acknowledging the ways some misunderstand the word “Affirming,” we listened to one person who takes exception to the word “Welcoming,” because it can imply in a condescending way that we wield some higher power to decide to welcome. This led to a lengthy discussion about language with regard to this issue.
To try to keep a long story short, we’re wondering if you have insight into or examples of ways that language, even that of friendly and well-intentioned people, can be unexpectedly offensive to or understood differently by GLBTQ people (assuming any constructive generalizations can be made).
We wish we lived in a world where none of this was an issue.
The raw earnestness of this letter kills me. It’s so almost heartbreakingly thoughtful. That even one person is this sensitive to the full implications of language in this matter—let alone that a whole church cares so much about it—is very deeply affirming great affirming.
Do let me say about this issue, right off: You have a better chance of safely pogo-sticking across a live land mine field than of saying anything about gays and Christianity that doesn’t unexpectedly offend someone. It’s a wonder anyone can think on the matter at all without spontaneously combusting.
The good thing about “Welcoming and Affirming” is that people know what it means. Those words have become signifiers for … well, actually, whenever I personally see them, what I read is: “This church is hip and cool, in the way Lawrence Welk might appear if he tried to break dance. We’re keen on the idea of gay people worshiping here—but let’s not get carried away. We don’t do gay marriages, or anything like that. And when it comes to the actual theology of this issue, we waffle like Mrs. Buttersworth. We have to. This is a business, and businesses needs customers. And if we came right out and said, ‘Homosexuality is no more a sin than is being straight,’ the bulk of our customers would bolt out of here like zombies escaping an Up With People concert. But come on in! We have this really cool service where we bless animals!”See? I’m crazy about this issue, too. I’m too bitter about it, is why. And I’ll be staying that way, thank you, until communion wafers no longer come with a side of maple syrup.
But back to your problem.
Which I’m afraid brings us right back to my problem. (Whoo-hoo!)
Before determining what language your church uses relative to the LGBTQ “issue,” it must do the work of determining where exactly it stands on the matter theologically. What does your church really believe about homosexuality? If it did adapt the phrase “Welcoming and Affirming,” what would it actually mean by those words? That it flat-out rejects the notion that homosexuality is a sin? That it sort of rejects it? That it doesn’t reject it at all, but feels better about itself if it at least pretends to? That it’s got a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy? That it’s really only “Welcoming and Affirming” this week, because it’s looking for a new choir director?
See what I mean (besides the offensive stereotype, I mean)? Don’t waste your time trying to attach language to something before you’re entirely sure of what that something is. Discern, pray, read, study, look into your hearts. Decide where, as a church, you really do stand on the gay issue. Then, trust me, you’ll know what language to use.
(Hey, if your church already has arrived at a firm position on the LGBT question, forgive my presumption. If you have, I’m certainly all in for helping you with the language to properly express that. Write back and lemme know! Thanks!)