Will Gay-Friendly Churches Pander to their Clientele?

Will Gay-Friendly Churches Pander to their Clientele? October 26, 2010

Keith Keith DeRose, Yale University

Keith DeRose is a philosophy professor at Yale, and a friend of, reader of, and occasional guest-poster on this blog.

He wrote me in response to my post, “How Fast Is Public Opinion on Same Sex Marriage Changing?“, and here are his thoughts, which are worthy of your consideration and comment.

The second chart (the PEW numbers that Sullivan cites) doesn’t seem quite as positive as the first.  Still, yes, the direction and other basics of the trend are undeniable–plus, it’s a very long-standing trend (which has seemed to accelerate in recent years), and a broad one: on just about all controversial matters involving the gays, not just gay marriage, America has been slowly but surely get more gay-friendly for a long time.

“My question, as usual, is how will the church respond?”

Excellent.  But also: Individuals do well to think through how they might respond to how the church responds.  Here, one doesn’t have to play the prophet, foreseeing with any confidence and at any level of detail what the various church groups will actually do.  All we need to see is that these trends point to various reactions that the church *might* well have, so we can think about how to respond, in case those reactions do materialize.
I often find it handy to imagine that within various church groups, there are “marketing experts” who are watching trends among actual and potential church-goers, trying to figure out how to capitalize on those trends and attract a lot of “customers.”  Maybe at some places there are things resembling that fantasy to a disturbing degree that are actually going on.  But even if not, I think the model helps to point to things that might well happen.  Within churches, there are all sorts of ideas about how to do things.  Those whose ideas “work” (bring in “customers”–esp. paying ones!) tend to survive & proliferate in the church biz; those whose ideas don’t “work” tend to lose influence.  (For my part, I often prefer worshiping with the losers.)  The result can be various parts of the church acting as if they were guided by a marketing plan, even if nobody is intentionally doing that.

So, one can expect (at least to the point that it’s worth thinking through how to respond *if* this happens) that various churches will in various ways become more gay-friendly.  (One can also expect some reactions against this.)  Of course, there have for a long time been gay-friendly options within the smorgasbord of American Christianity.  But, especially within certain regions of the country, such options have been quite limited.  Those living in certain regions and with certain other preferences for how they like church to operate, but who would also like the church to be gay-friendly in various ways, may have not found any good options.  And soon that might be changing–or, at some places, that’s happening already.

Younger Christians (since attitudes here tend to be correlated with age) who have been going without church may soon be finding attractive (from their point of view) options;  those presenting such options will find “success”; and cycles (whether vicious or virtuous is for everyone to judge for themselves!) will get going.  Listen, to lay my cards on the table (though I’m pretty sure you know this about me already), I’m a very gay-friendly Christian myself, and I very much want the Christian church to become much more gay-friendly in various ways.  But even I worry about the kinds of church situations that might be generated by such a process.

I worry about what churches will be like that are driven too much by a single issue (other than the single overarching matter of how to love & serve Christ)–even when that single issue is a cause as worthy as inclusiveness in sexual orientation.  So, without presenting any individual policy suggestions, what I think it’s a good idea to to is to urge folks–esp. those who are “progressives” on this issue–to give a little thought to some of the situations they might be facing in the coming years, and to think through how they might best respond.  The hope is that such forethought might at the relevant time result in their behaving a bit less like “customers” of churches.

Well, actually I do have one particular suggestion for my fellow progressives.  Various segments of the Christian church in America have been pointing to enrollment numbers to make the case that they’re where it’s at, while other denominations, etc. are described as “dead” at least in large part on the basis of their declining numbers.  Not too many years down the line, we may be at a place where we can see certain changes (perhaps even reversals) in where numerical “growth” is taking place.  Now, my suggestion: If (and this is all hypothetical!) someone finds herself somehow in a numerically growing segment of the church, tempting as it might be, she should strive to not reverse the argument and aim it at the new “losers”.

If  LGBT Christians and their allies are able to find fellowship and real personal growth in your church, then by all means celebrate that.  But we should all resist any temptation to cite numbers as evidence of where the favor of God–who is, after all, the God of the losers–rests.

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