“Welcoming and Affirming”: Like Lawrence Welk Break Dancing?

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!)

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter. If you shop at Amazon, help support John by entering the site through this link right here--Amazon will then send John 3-4% of the cost of anything you buy before exiting the site again.

 

  • http://www.grizzbabesden.blogspot.com Grizzbabe

    My church (a UCC church) uses the phrase “open and affirming” which is an actucal UCC designation.

    http://www.ucccoalition.org/programs/ona/

  • Audrey Equality Smith

    I am a member of the University Baptist and Brethren of State College PA. UBBC is “Welcoming and Affirming” (staement appears in every bulletin and on the church’s website) AND has a very firm position that homosexuality (both being gay AND living and loving as gay) is NOT a sin, and HAS performed same-sex weddings, even though they are not legal in this state. w00t!

    The American Baptists threw my church out of its denomination for this stand. Then the Philadelphia Baptist Association adopted our church. The Church of the Brethren has not kicked my church out of its denomination YET, but seems likely to do so. Their loss.

  • Kara

    My church is “welcoming and affirming,” and though I’ve been there less than a year, I’d be absolutely stunned if they wouldn’t perform a gay wedding. We’ve got gay pastoral staff, gay deacons, gay youth assistants, lots of gay families with kids, and gay me.

    So when I went to college, I expected that everywhere that used that phrase would be the same.

    They’re not. The church I went to near my school, when I mentioned choosing them because they (theoretically) liked gay people, were like… “Oh yeah! That! …about that.” They’d chosen to add the phrase over opposition in the church, and they weren’t actually doing anything about it, and no one there was actually gay.

    So I think some churches that are doing it right – my church back home – use the phrase because it is shorthand for “We like gay people!”. But I’ve learned that there’s more to it than that.

    Basically, I want more than a church that’s “welcoming and affirming”… But I don’t think I’ll ever go do a church that isn’t at least that.

  • Susan in NY

    My home church is also a UCC church. We are an “open and affirming” congregation. Our pastor has performed same sex weddings, even though they are not legal yet in NY.

    We don’t waffle on our stance towards lbgtq people.

    Check out the UCC link that Grizzbabe posted.

    And we bless animals. The kids love it.

  • http://leap-of-fate.com/ Christy

    Maybe “unconditionally” would be a good qualifier. I haven’t personally seen (yet) where churches are “faking it” in their advertising in order to lure (gay) people in in order to “change” them; though while many things upset and dishearten me, nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe that’s cynical, or maybe it’s being a realist.

    But maybe I’m also still naive enough to believe that when a church says “welcoming and affirming” they mean what they say. What you are describing sounds more like “love the sinner, hate the sin” which I hear frequently in evangelical circles and is a decidedly different message. I might have to do something I affectionately call going Samuel L. Jackson on their @$$ (like his character, Jules Winnfield, does in Pulp Fiction when he quotes a bogus passage from Ezekiel) if I found out otherwise. To fein acceptance in an effort to trick people into your fold with the intention of attempting to “correct” them is not only decidedly unChristlike, it seems evil – straight out – pathological even.

    On a practical level, for me anyway, a quick scan of the “doctrinal statement” or the “where we stand” section of church websites can usually give you a pretty good indication of what you might be getting yourself into – that and if they plan to have Ellen speak at their national convention. If they don’t have a website – that might be the first sign.

    • http://leap-of-fate.com/ Christy

      PS: We’re also members of a UCC church in Ohio that performs gay weddings (though not legal in this state) and openly welcomes gay members to full participation in the church community.

  • Derek

    My partner and I were the first same sex couple legally married in our congregation of the United Church of Canada (largest protestant denomination in the country). The United Church also has an official designation of “affirming”, and more details can be found here:

    http://www.affirmunited.ca/englishindex.htm

    That said, the church to which we belong has not sought that designation, yet is open and welcoming. Our church is suburban, predominantly 50+ demographic, and we are among only a few gay members that I know of. Our congregation is very involved with social justice issues of all kinds, and made many efforts to become more welcoming to gay Christians. The United Church of Canada allows congregations and ministers to decide these issues independently, on a church by church basis. Although this initiative predated our involvement, I have since learned that the issue was a difficult one for our congregation, and that many people (not just the elderly members) struggled with it. The minister felt that this was a critical civil rights issue, particularly since sexual orientation falls under our federal charter of rights and freedoms. She did a lot of one on one work with individual congregants to help them to understand the importance of being welcoming, and the congregation finally voted by a large majority to follow this path.

    In the three years that we have been members, we have never felt less than completely welcome. Although we did feel as if we were a bit of a novelty at first, and we were aware of people being “super careful” not to offend around us, we knew going in, that it was not a “gay” church, and that as an open couple we could not predict whether we would really feel at home there. We are both active on church committees and my partner is an officer on the church council. We are no longer the gay church members, we are the church members who happen to be gay. By becoming actively involved in all the day to day activities of our congregation, my minister tells us that we have helped people to understand that we are gay, but that’s not all we are. Many of those who join us in Christian fellowship have told us that they have a gay brother, sister, son, daughter and that they appreciate our participation in the community.

    I have always felt that living my life out and proud is the best way to help others to live their lives honestly, and to increase acceptance. I think that a congregation can be welcoming and/or affirming, and can take all sorts of steps to achieve that, but the efforts will not be fully realized until gay Christians also become actively involved in the church community.

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com/ Ric Booth

    Oh man. Everyone is starting their comment with, “My church uses phrase blah blah blah and we actually are that.” Okay, here goes.

    My church (a very conservative, non-denominational church) uses two catch-phrases (tag-lines?):

    A place where friends become family.

    An open door for all people to know Christ.

    And (lifting the comment template from others) I would be shocked if gay couple came in, checked their children into the nursery, got a cup of coffee, asked for and received information on bible study resources, and then sat in the front row.

    Pleasantly shocked.

    And there would probably be an emergency prayer meeting of the elders back stage.

    • http://www.barnmaven.com Barnmaven

      I guffawed picturing that, Ric.

  • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty

    My church doesn’t say anything about it, and would prefer it to stay that way. Not because they’re confused — they know exactly where they stand theologically (they believe homosexuality is a sin and all gay people are hellbound). It’s just that they’d rather this stance not be explicit, since that would possibly spoil the good news of God’s (conditional) love.

    I despise the paragraph above and am trying my best to live differently while in that system.

    It won’t change until they put a face and a soul to the issue and actually make some gay friends. It worked for me!

    • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com Ric Booth

      Hey Redlefty, I like your last 2 sentences. The church does needs to stop calling it “an issue” and and stop using words like “agenda” … these are only serve to remove the face of the people being hurt. Which, of course, is the unwritten, unacknowledged intent. That is the only reason we humans have ever done this.

  • Allen

    Wow, John, you’re even more bitter about this than I am! Bitterness aside, your core message is right on: figure out who you are as a community of faith (another way of saying “what’s your theology?”, then you know how to describe yourself.

    Gay Christians face a basic forked road when it comes to joining a church. 1. Find a Metropolitan Community Church, which is GLBT-founded and focused, but “welcomes” straight people, or find a Straight Church that “welcomes” GLBT folks. There are a very few churches in the grey area in between, that don’t differentiate at all anywhere in their culture, those are my personal faves. (Would that make me a Centrist?!?!) As long as church is about being comfortable, we’ll be having this kind of discussion.

    And there’s no way you can tell anything about a church from their tag line — you have to find out whether they mean it, which requires some involvement. I think that’s also true if you’re looking for a gay-hating hellfire church, there are going to be a dozen folks who quietly love their GLBT relatives.

    • http://briansp.com Brian

      I think that’s a false dichotomy. Folks in the congregation where Alan (poster #1) and I attend would take issue with the label that we are a ‘straight church’ that ‘welcomes’ LGBT folks. We are a congregation comprised of mostly straight-identified folks, with a handful of (very active) non-straight folks in the mix, but the identity of the congregation is soundly-grounded in a sense of radically inclusive welcome and living out Jesus’ call to identify with ‘the least of these’.

      The fact that the ratios are “mostly straight” is the reality that LGBT folks, in general, aren’t interested in church, for lots of reasons, mostly fairly obvious. You can evangelize all you want, but its just really hard to get queer folks in the door. I think in our case when they do come in the door we deliver on what we promise, or at least try hard to.

      • Derek

        Well said Brian.

  • Jeff

    http://pilgrimstjoe.org/what.html#oa_stmt

    That’s our church’s Open & Affirming statement, arrived at after a year-long process. It’s not perfect; some might take issue that we seem to lump sexual orientation in with a bunch of other ‘labels’. I.e., which is more condescending: “It’s okay that you’re gay” or “It’s okay that you’re poor”? :-/

    In any event, we felt like we had to have an explicit statement, because our implicit welcoming behavior may not be obvious from outside the building, and there seemed to be Christians-in-exile that wanted that promise before they felt safe inside.

  • Alan

    My $0.02.

    If you want LGBT people to think you’re welcoming and affirming, you’ve got to say the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.” True story: Our church used to play the whole “welcoming and affirming” game too until several years ago our church secretary got a call from someone who kept asking the same question, “How welcoming and affirming are you?” The secretary dutifully gave out the party line, “Oh, we’re welcoming and affirming of everyone!” The caller kept asking, “Everyone?!” Apparently this went on for several minutes until the secretary astutely figured out that the caller was too embarrassed to say what he was really asking: “Do you actually mean teh gays too?!?” So she made it clear “We mean gays.” The caller responded, “Oh, OK. Thanks!”

    Or if you really want to be clear and do some dirt cheap advertising to the gay community, ditch the words and hoist a rainbow flag outside. *gulp* (Note: Prepare to have it stolen. Prepare to have eggs thrown at your church. You want to see some tiny little glimpse of what the world thinks of gay people? Fly a rainbow flag outside a church. I think our church is on our 4th or 5th one.) If you’re welcoming and affirming you’ll have the stones to fly a flag. And if you’re bent out of shape because I used the colloquialism “stones” and would rather focus on that, then you’ve missed the point. ;)

    And as John says, don’t over-promise. If you’re not the sort of “welcoming and affirming” church that ordains LGBT people, or who will marry us, then you’re neither welcoming and affirming. So knock off the false advertising. If you’re the sort of welcoming and affirming church that actually welcomes people into leadership and the full life of the church community including marriage, say it. Strike that. Shout it!

    About screwing up the words. You *will* screw up the words. If the folks who visit you are adults, and if you are as earnest in real life as you are in your letter, they won’t be offended as long as you make some effort to understand that you screwed up. When our first transgender member started attending our church there was a very steep learning curve (even among us gays who should have known better.) Pronouns were mishandled, directions to the ladies room were botched, etc., etc., etc. But we kept trying, and she kept being patient and it all worked out and now we’re pros.

    Seriously, we’re just gay; we’re not made of glass. And if someone gets all bent out of shape because you accidentally said “wife” instead of “husband” or because you continue to spell “women” without two “y’s”, or whatever, may I politely suggest that someone’s oversensitivity and immaturity is not your church’s problem? You need to do what you can reasonably do to make people comfortable. Other people’s issues aren’t your problem.

    (In a completely related issue I won’t get into… Let me just say that, regardless of the phrase you use, or the flags you fly, don’t be surprised if no LGBT people show up at your church. I guarantee you that regardless of your advertising, your church is in absolutely zero danger of becoming a “gay church” unless you are in the Castro, Boystown, or Chelsea. Otherwise, you’ll be lucky to get more than a few.)

    • Derek

      Alan,

      thanks for making the point about the rainbow flag. When I was researching churches I noticed a rainbow flag on our churches’ website and that’s what made me look further. When I met some of the other new young members of the church, they also said that the rainbow flag spoke to them, not because they were gay, but because they had friends who were, and they did not want to be part of a church that was not inclusive. Also in the summer when we travel, we have a “second” church that we visit in a small town in rural upstate new york that drew our attention because it flies a rainbow flag. When I talk to straight people in the congregation, most of them know that the rainbow flag is a symbol of inclusiveness and that it includes gay people, but some do not fully appreciate that a rainbow flag on a church is like a clarion call to gay Christians LOL.

  • http://farfromthisshore.wordpress.com Don Whitt

    “You’re different and we’re the same, let’s all be uncomfortable together in Jesus’s name”

    • http://farfromthisshore.wordpress.com Don Whitt

      Amen.

  • http://sus4th.wordpress.com Paul Ardoin

    Before reading this post, I thought “Open and Affirming” went far enough. But after reading some of the ONA statements out there, I’ve gotta say I side with John on this one. These “open and affirming” statements say that LGBT individuals are welcome to serve the church, and be part of the congregation. But many LGBT folks have been tricked into feeling welcome and then asked to change. I think these “ONA” statements need to clearly say that the church does not believe homosexuality is a sin, and will not seek to change the orientation or transgenderness of anyone. They need to clearly say they perform weddings of all couples, including same-sex couples, and celebrate all marriages and unions equally.

    And I, too, wish I lived in a world where none of this was an issue.

    • http://sus4th.wordpress.com Paul Ardoin

      To clarify—many LGBT folks have been tricked *throughout their lives*; I didn’t mean for it to sound like the UCC or ONA churches were doing the tricking.

  • Brother Bob

    A word of experience, here. Even when the congregation, with approval/ encouragement from its denomination votes to be affirming, open and welcoming, those terms mean that the people who are not comfortable sitting in the pew next to you have to leave. ALL are welcome; ALL should be tolerant and loving; ALL can be members. The biggest complaint that i have heard about “The Liberals” is that we are intolerant of the “others.” Well we love the resistants but hate their resistance does not sit well with them, but it is the only answer we have……….

  • http://jmsmith.org JM

    John,

    Though you and I are likely light-years apart when it comes to hermeneutic and theological presuppositions, I must say that this is an EXCELLENT post and I echo your encouraging people to get past slogans and mission statements and find out where their church actually stands theologically. I believe the reason there is so much confusion surrounding the topic of Christianity and the GLBT community is because churches and denominations are trying to accommodate two mutually-exclusive positions…and then wondering why people get so upset.

  • Mark

    In the United Methodist corner ‘o the kingdom, a common label is “Reconciling” meaning nearly the same as what I think “Open & Affirming” is meant to convey. Of course, the UM slogan is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” which is definitely a lie with regard to a great many congregations.

    My home church is the only officially “reconciling” congregation in the Texas Annual Conference (“annual conferences” are the geographical divisions of the United Methodist Church) but we know other churches (urban, mainly) that are GLBT-friendly but haven’t taken on the “welcoming/affirming/reconciling” label for whatever reason.

    Taking on the label, even if the execution is poor, at least communicates to potential congregants that at least the church has an intention of making them feel welcome. That’s a hell of a lot better relative to the defacto position in many (most?) churches where it’s assumed we’re going to hell in a hand-basket and most definitely are NOT welcome.

    • Karen

      Hi Mark, I have noticed the banner that said “Open Minds – Open Hearts – Open Doors” on our local Methodist Church. I have also noticed the banner has been taken down. Having grown up Methodist and missing the true openness of my home church, I have been tempted to attend, but haven’t gained the courage yet. (The church’s I have attended in this area have been SO hateful and anti-everything.) To further explain what I refer to as true openness of my home church, I grew up attending a Methodist Church led by Pastor Gregory Dell who taught us that the love of Jesus was not exclusive to straight people. Our family followed him to whatever chuch he was led to lead. To read a little bit about him and his life’s work. http://www.iwu.edu/iwunews/magazine/pastissues/Fall_2008/DELL.shtml

      With that in mind, I am hopeful that that banner I saw on our local church means they really have open minds, open hearts, and open doors.

      • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com Ric Booth

        Karen,

        I attended a UMC with that same banner. It does not mean what it says. This ia a corporate marketing campaign. It depends almost entirely on the senior pastor. By all means, check it out. Just prepare yourself… however that done.

  • http://blueberrypancakesfordinner.wordpress.com/ Erika

    my church is a “welcoming congregation”

    http://www.uua.org/leaders/idbm/lgbt/welcomingcongregation/

    and we use this to share our love:

    http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/

  • http://gooseberrybush.wordpress.com gooseberrybush

    This is such a great post. I really agree with the comments you made here. The reconciling churches movement in mainline Christianity is at least a step in the right direction. We should applaud these people, but it’s not really effective if they won’t acknowledge that homosexuality isn’t a sin and afford gays the same rights as heterosexuals.

  • http://gooseberrybush.wordpress.com gooseberrybush

    This is really, really good.

  • Kim

    The Episcopal church we attended in Tucson, (we’ve moved to Missouri) had a rainbow stained glass window right beside the front door. They were welcoming and affirming and blessed gay unions and animals! Now I’m Missouri and rarely attend. Sucks.

  • Susan Golian

    My UCC/Congregational church does not designate itself as open and affirming, despite huge pressure from our conference. Our former pastor’s stance was that we are open to every Christian, but are not specifying because we don’t reach out specially any group – except the group of people who sin and want to move closer to Christ. We don’t reach out to Asians, or accountants, or alcoholics, or…well, you probably get the drift. Former pastor has married at least one gay couple in our church. Current pastor…not so much.

  • http://www.barnmaven.com Barnmaven

    I think its pretty well known that the Anglican and Episcopalian Church have people and parishes on both sides of the question of whether being gay is a sin (I believe it is not) or whether it is simply another expression of sexuality within God’s creation (which I believe it is). Our presiding bishop Katharine Schori sent the linked letter to all congregations in response to the Bishop of Canterbury’s letter about an openly lesbian being ordained as a bishop: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/78695_122615_ENG_HTM.htm

    I only wish that the church as a whole could move together into a new understanding of the human condition, that we could understand that the need for God is universal, that His love for His creation is unequivocal and that having a loving partnership that nurtures the spirit of both partners, regardless of their sexuality, is something God created for us. For all of us. Then we could just move beyond this and do what we were meant to do: Love God, love others.

  • Don Rappe

    Oh theology, would a waffle by any other name not taste the same? John puts his finger right on it. Either homosexual loving is inherently sinful, or it isn’t. The question needs to be resolved on a theological basis, not by taking a vote. For me personally, this revolves around whether or not sexual orientation is a personal choice. Since I don’t think it is, I don’t think its responsible exercise is a sin. I do think that irresponsible exercise of sexuality is sinful, frequently doing people much harm. I believe the question of whether gender orientation is “chosen”, which is a spiritual question may rightly be debated, even though I have personally made up my mind. (I won’t live in this world forever.)

    • Don Rappe

      And then again, I’m not sure whether it would matter if it were chosen. Whose business is it? It’s just that I’ve never met anyone who really seemed to do much choosing on the matter. The one person whom I know who “goes both ways” as she says did not seem to choose to have that ability.

  • StraightGrandmother

    Well I had never actually heard the words “Welcoming and Affirming” before as it relates to gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgender people. But I am herosexual so I wouldn’t be looking for it. It is kind of a code message like John writes about, like you ahve to know the code in order to undertand. Since the person wrote to him with a specific request, what words should we use, I’ll just throw my suggestion out, it leaves no doubt.

    “Gay, Straight, Black, White, all are precious in His sight.”

    • Diana A.

      I like this!


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