Affirming: Yay! Welcoming: Pray.

01-backstabberThe other day I tweeted, The diff b/w LGBT affirming & LGBT welcoming is the diff b/w “Welcome!” and “Welcome, you abomination! Did you bring money? (Tweet that yourself.) It brought the usual fusillade of fussing. So I thought I’d take a quick moment to elaborate.

If I’m gay (and perfectly fine with being gay), and thinking about attending your church, learning that your church welcomes me tells me zilch about the one thing in which I’m certainly primarily interested, which is how your church feels about the fact that I’m gay. The only thing “Welcome!” tells me is that it’s your church’s official policy to get as many people as possible to attend there.

Well, duh. It’s a church. That’s like bees hanging a “Welcome, Pollen!” sign outside of their hive. (I mean, you know: if bees could write. And knew how to use thumbtacks. And had thumbs.)

As a prospective parishioner of your church, what I want to know is if all of me is welcome there—my gayness included. Because if it’s not, then … well, then try to imagine you (if you’re straight) going to a church with a sign outside of it that says, “Come on in! If you’re straight, God deplores you! But we won’t bring that up if you won’t!”

That is to a welcoming what a belly-flop is to a swan dive.

Today, all churches know that when it comes to LGBT people, their choice is to be affirming or welcoming. A church that declares itself affirming is telling the world that … well, that it takes the Bible seriously. A church that can only bring itself to call itself welcoming is declaring to the world that, at best, it simply hasn’t yet decided where it stands on the gay “issue.”

And that is the kind of church for which those of us who are affirming should pray.


(Next time I’ll write on my remarkable experience yesterday delivering the service messages at Missiongathering Church.) 

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  • Wes

    bell-flop = belly=flop?

  • Wes

    *belly-flop 🙂

  • yes, right. good eyes. thank you. corrected.

  • Cherie

    I just have an issue with the timing of this article. Have you been reading my thoughts???


  • Laura Bradley

    This is the exact conversation I had with my pastor, along with, “Will we celebrate their growing families with baby showers?” It’s gotta be all or nothing, folks.

  • Rebecca Harrison

    My thoughts exactly, John. I’ve seen lots of mega-churches advertise as welcoming, and I always think, “No, you’re not really welcoming. You will welcome people to sit in your pews, and you’ll take their money, and you might even use their gifts, (if you don’t know they’re gay) but you won’t really welcome them as they are.”

  • Leslie

    This is so true, John. As you know, I was welcomed in my old church, even being gay. But come to find out it was “be silently gay, accept the people telling you it’s an abomination, oh, and by the way, since everyone now knows you’re gay you can no longer serve in the church by feeding the poor and homeless. But sure, we welcome you and aren’t exactly kicking you out.” That’s the kind of welcoming that really feels more like a boot to the butt.

  • Matt

    Or you could be like the church that raised me, which seems to have taken a third option: say nothing. At all. Not welcoming, affirming, condemning, or anything in between. Just radio silence. I’m honestly not sure what to make of it, and it’s not worth the time and energy to find out what the deal is.

    Anyway, I am seriously looking forward to hearing about how things went yesterday, based on your use of “remarkable.” It’s the little things that lift you up so much when you’re not having the easiest time at life.

  • Your litmus test is like mine. Will you accept me and my husband holding hands in the pew? If so, good on ya. If not, see ya.

    There are conservative churches that hold an accommodation view – i.e. being gay isn’t God’s ideal, but committed same sex relationships are the best gay folks can do with the cards we’ve been dealt. To that I say: hey, whatever you have to believe in order to treat me with basic human dignity…

  • I remember being asked a few years ago, if I could recommend a church to a gay couple looking for something close to where they lived. I really wanted to tell them to attend the one I was going to at the time. But when I thought about it, I decided against the recommendation. Why? Because I knew of not a single gay person in attendance. If they were there, they were attending surrounded by the closet they were expected to remain in.

    Other than the local Universalist Congregation, I am uncertain of any local congregation that is truly, and without hesitation, lovingly opening their doors to anyone who walks through. My congregation will get there, but they are Methodists in the conservative south. It will take some time to catch up to the rest of the nation.

  • ryan

    This may seem stupid to some but I’m honestly asking: How does a church “declare itself” “welcoming” or “affirming”?

  • Mainly by using those words in any and all of their promotional materials: their hand-outs, church bulletins, the “About Us” page on their website, etc. Anywhere they … talk/write about who they are.

  • Christy

    Some put it on their website. Some put it on their church sign. Some put a rainbow flag on their church sign. Some put a sandwich board on the sidewalk out front that says: “All means all.” Some build a float, march in gay pride parades and tell folks that God loves them and so do they. Some register themselves on gay-affirming church search sites.

  • ryan

    I have to say I’m a pastor and I find this a little frustrating. Either we are going to affirm people when they enter our space or we are not, no matter how we sell ourselves with our advertising (which by the way we don’t have promotional materials except for a website that barely talks about ourselves).

    This does require a risk but isn’t that what this is all about? You’ve got to risk entering a community and not assume something one way or another because of the use of a certain word on a brochure?

  • Elizabeth

    I think at this point in America’s cultural climate, if you need to ask then it’s not. Walk into my recent home churches and affirmation of LGBTQ is crystal clear before you hit the pews. You’re right: anyone can slap a word on glossy card stock. But how else do you protect people from making themselves vulnerable to those who would damage them? Isn’t minimizing the risk a Christian community’s responsibility?

  • Kimberly Knight

    Right on John, incisive as always. I recently wrote about the same concept…

  • ryan

    For sure!

    I think we’d rather people come because they know someone who is in our community who can invite them and talk about what it means to be affirming in all its complexity, rather than throw a word somewhere.

  • Ryan: Words have power. As a man of God, you’ve got to boldly and clearly say who you are, and what you believe in. If you don’t–if on your website you barely even talk about what your church stands for, what convictions it holds, why it feels the way it does about what it does–then you lack conviction. And if you lack conviction, how do you expect to attract people? You’re the pastor. YOU need to take the risk, and tell the world who you really are, up front. Be honest. Be open. Be clear. That’s your job, brother.

  • ryan

    John, agree completely. That’s why I use words every Sunday from up front and every day with people.

    We also have a ton of conviction – but one of those convictions is that we aren’t running a fast food restaurant trying to draw people in by reading our literature. We’re a community of people who want to live like Jesus did – affirming through love and service and relationship of the people we meet all around us every day.

    I get what you’re saying, and I’ll keep thinking. I, of course, don’t have this thing anywhere near figured out. I think it’s just part of my giant frustration that is the American church.

    I”ll stop now. Keep up the good work. Love what you have to say.

  • Susan in NY

    Our Congregational/UCC voted to become Open and Affirming, which is somewhat of an official designation in the UCC. We put those words on all of our literature. Recently, I see that a rainbow flag has been added above our church sign on the street. I like it very much. No reading needed!

  • I certainly wouldn’t argue that slick, “draw ’em in” church marketing is awful. But being clear on your theological stance relative to controversial issues is the opposite of awful: it’s … well, your moral obligation as a representative of God. The bottom line is that in America today every church has a moral obligation to be clear on whether or not they affirm or merely “welcome” gay people. And I know what a terrible price a pastor can pay for clearly and consistently rejecting as unbiblical the notion that God condemns homosexuality. So … yeah. That’s the big car you’re steering down the road. For now, you can safely straddle the yellow dashes on the road. But sooner rather than later, you’re going to have to pick a lane. And may God bless you when you make that choice.

    Thanks for your gracious words to me, which I sincerely appreciate.

  • Lymis

    “Either we are going to affirm people when they enter our space or we are not, no matter how we sell ourselves with our advertising […]”

    I don’t think you have a clear understanding of what it is to be gay and religious in today’s social climate. If you’re waiting to prove to LGBT people that you are affirming until they come into your church, you aren’t going to get very many LGBT people coming in.

    We’ve been burned before. Any LGBT person trying to maintain their connection to God via church has likely been burned repeatedly, and badly.

    And frankly, I think it’s lovely that you think that personal witness and invitation from the members of your congregation is going to make a difference, but it’s likely not to, not without that explicit statement of support and affirmation.

    You might, or might not, be surprised by how little straight Christians who are affirming of gay people often pay attention to the message their church sends out. I’ve had people from some of the most explicitly anti-gay denominations tell me that “Oh, our church is nothing like that! Nobody has a problem with gay people.” Because they themselves don’t have a problem, and nobody at church talks about it much. But walk into that church as a gay couple, and the story changes FAST.

    In the current environment, a church that DOES explicitly take a stand, puts affirming on their literature and puts a rainbow flag out front has had to take a clear and concrete – and often risky – stand that they will side with their gay members against anti-gay views and behaviors.

    And even then, for a gay person, attending THAT church is still a risk, because often, there’s a huge difference between thinking you are affirming and actually being affirming, and you still get blindsided a lot by unthinking prejudices.

    But expecting people to just guess that you might be affirming with absolutely no outward indication of it, and asking them to “risk” finding out whether or not you’ll be treated like a vile abomination and eternally condemned and shunned is asking a lot.

    I’m sure you do find it frustrating. Imagine how the LGBT people feel.

  • Dan(Chicago)

    That’s called fear. If they were at all affirming, they would say it, but hatred/fear/ignorance can hide for a while — until someone like you overhears something in a room where people thought nobody was listening.

    Churches which persecute gay people have a problem in some parts of the country. Their leaders say hateful things from the pulpit and face few challenges in the isolated world they live in, but their membership has to go to work on Monday morning, and often they work with gay people and work for companies with gay affirming policies. While they may feel the same way about gay people as their pastors do, they don’t want it known in the workplace, or in their neighborhood, and they don’t want the church they attend to get a Westboro Baptist reputation. That doesn’t look good if you’re a marketing exec..

  • Jill

    My church says it, I think, in every sermon. And we’ve got plenty of gay and lesbian couples, some transgender and intersex people, and at least one transvestite. It wouldn’t be church for me without everyone there.

    Open and Affirming (ONA) United Church of Christ, all the way baby.

  • I totally agree with your clarification of “welcoming” versus “affirming” John, however I would add that it would be false for anyone to assume that a church that declares itself “open and affirming”, has all members in agreement and doesn’t continue to confront resistance within it’s wall. I say this because following the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, the church leadership (laity) made the decision to hang a small sign out front our church that had a rainbow with two wedding rings and words that said something like “You are always welcome here, so is your wedding.” Though the church went through the process of becoming “open and affirming” more than 10 years ago, participants in an annual gay-affirming worship service with other churches in the area, hosts a PFLAG group, and has about a half dozen gay couples in the congregation, there were a number of church members who opposed the sign and were quite vocal about it. Those who hung the sign, supported by the pastor, have chosen to keep the sign up while “the conversation” continues but just that there was any resistance at all has definitely left us feeling discouraged and saddened. It would have been nice to have lived in the fantasy world a bit longer that being gay simply wasn’t an issue for those in our church. Now we know better (?)

  • So exactly and perfectly right, Lymis. Thank you.

  • Yes, just as you say, Anita. It seems that in every affirming church there’s at least one pocket of people–usually long-time church members–who feel that it’s their duty to stay at the church and fight for its … moral integrity. Despite myself, I often find myself feeling sorry for such people; I always want to say, “It’s okay. Relax, already. It’s church. This is the wrong place to be fighting and full of stress.”

  • Dan(Chicago)


  • Just so you know… “Welcoming Congregation” is an official designation for congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association (like the one I serve). It’s equivalent to the “Open and Affirming” (ONA) designation for UCC churches, and I would argue that our “Welcoming Congregations” are open and affirming, even if we don’t use the words. My colleague in ministry and I work at ensuring the “Welcoming” congregation we serve is affirming.

    Yes – please do hold hands with your partner/spouse! We know that it’s still rare to have your affection for one another met with smiles and acceptance. Same-gender weddings – yes, of course we are glad to officiate. And, while the congregation as a whole doesn’t do baby showers for anyone, children of same-gender couples are joyfully dedicated alongside children of opposite-gender couples all the time. I want to note that some people come to us from other churches when one of their children comes out as GLBT. Being in a place that is affirming is important to some straight folks, too.

    There is a rainbow flag on our church sign on the street – I’ve heard from a few folks that they’d never have taken a step inside our building if that rainbow hadn’t been there. And we do march in the Pride parade every year, with other UU congregations in our area.

  • ryan

    Hey Lymis,

    You are right that I don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be gay and religious in today’s climate.

    I had a bunch of rebuttals or clarifications typed out, but, honestly, it’s probably best to just say thanks for writing your words and they’ll continue to be on my mind as I think seriously about them.


  • Lymis

    Good to know! Thanks for doing so!

  • Anonymous

    My favorite is a church I walk past on my daily commute near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. It just has huge rainbow flags flying outside of it. Nothing subtle or ambiguous about that!

  • Lymis

    Can I also encourage you to not only choose to not type out rebuttals and instead, think seriously about this, but to go the next step and actually ask questions about people’s experience?

    Your posts make it seem likely that you feel the responsibility is completely on the LGBT Christians to take the risk of coming into your space and finding out whether or not you are welcoming – on your terms, in your way, to meet your own needs and priorities the way you see them.

    I encourage you to actually take the next step and find out what THEIR needs are, why they aren’t coming into your church in the first place, what THEY are seeking, under what terms, and in what form, and then see if there is anything you are willing to do to make them feel welcome, rather than the “this is what you get, take it or leave it” sort of thing your previous post hints at.

    It’s okay if you don’t. The vast, vast, vast majority of churches in the US adamantly refuse to do so. Just being nice to the people who happen across you, or refusing to help in the hurt and oppression of LGBT people puts you ahead of most. And it may well be that your call is to help other oppressed or hurting people rather than witnessing community to LGBT ones, and every bit of light into darkness makes a difference in the world.

  • ryan

    Hey Lymis,

    Of course! The next step. And not just for the LGBT community but for students who have been burned by the church for all kinds of reasons including those whose parents were elders and sexually abused them as they grew up in the church as well as adults who feel like the church let them down when they became pregnant in high school or when they got their divorce or when they just didn’t find certain things to be true anymore or when they wanted to ask certain questions that they weren’t allowed to ask. (all of whom I talk to regularly)

    This whole church screwing people over thing is not limited to the LGBT community and we are seeking all of those who no longer find the church to be beautiful (which is my own story as well – but that’s a long one).

    I still find it too easy to simply change some verbiage on a website. It has to be who we are and no matter the verbiage everyone who enters will have to take a risk that whatever community won’t burn them like the last one and that this community means what it says – because plenty have been burned in the past even with all the right verbiage on the website. (And maybe as I’m typing this I’m realizing that I am possibly rebelling against the whole verbiage thing because I’ve seen what lies have been there in the past. That could be my own problem – admittedly.)

    I have probably miscommunicated (or it’s just hard via blog comments) but my heart is not anything close to my way or the highway. Ugh. Or “waiting to see who crosses my path”. Ugh.

    Or all the responsibility is on the LGBT Christians. Ugh.

    So I’ll continue to ask, to seek, to talk to my gay Christian friends and see what we can do. Honestly, I wish you and I could have a coffee or a beer (whatever you prefer) as I know I would learn a lot and it would be much easier than communicating this way. : )

    Thanks again!

  • Anakin McFly

    Agreed on the underlying concept, but not sure how much of the wording difference is semantic and/or cultural and/or denominational. One of be most affirming churches I know (the congregation is actually majority LGBT and the head pastor is gay) bills itself as ‘welcoming’. Meanwhile in Methodist churches they use the term ‘reconciling’.