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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  • I wonder if churches will pander to the lure of God?

  • Jules


    This a conversation that is happening in the LGBTQ community. And there are a lot of variation in thought. I’m on my phone but go to Rachel Swan’s blog The Sweet Bi And Bi. You’ll see those of us who are LGBTQ talking about this issue in our various lens. I’ll come back later when not on my iPhone and share some thoughts I have shared and what has been shared with me on this subject. For me, right now, this issue is more our’s than your’s (straight people) to address. And I think that is what is happening. We are asking ourselves many aspects of questions that come with this and it is not easy.



  • I had a chance to serve a big, wealthy, suburban church. But it was a diverse church, so there would have been pressure to pander to the center in order to be the pastor for “all” the people. Could I have brought some progressive change? Yes. But that change would have happened slowly and with many compromises along the way. And maybe that’s okay. But it didn’t seem like something Jesus would do. So I chose to serve a small, struggling, urban church that is more prophetic and missional. It’s an honor to be able to perform gay marriages, serve the poor, and worship God with this ragtag group of folks. This small church turned out to be a much better fit than the big church. In fact, in many ways, the small church that I serve is more successful than the big one.

  • Keith

    this issue is more our’s than your’s (straight people) to address

    Jules: Yes, very important. In so many situations, it seems what’s most needed from us (straights) is just that we back off & thereby make some room for the folks involved to work through things.

    But one way that straight “allies” of LGBTQs are inevitably involved is that we choose where we’ll go to church (or not to go), and insofar we find ourselves gravitating more toward gay-friendly (or at least less unfriendly) choices , we contribute to certain dynamics that I think we do well to think through a bit.

  • There are some things that LGBT folks alone need to explore. There are some things that LGBT folks and allies need to explore together. And there are some things that allies alone need to explore.

  • Keith

    Brian: Your story reminds me of why I’m so fond of the notion of an individual “calling” that I was raised with. Sounds like you found your calling. And yet, someone else in a very similar situation might be called to stay put and be a force for (often frustratingly slow) change in the big suburban church. It takes all kinds.

  • Wow. Good stuff. Tony, I’ve loved Keith since you first pointed me to him several months ago on issues related to hell. Keith, you’re a jewel to the Church. If I were younger and more wealthy, I’d totally love to study philosophy under you at Yale 🙂

  • Chris

    @ Brian,

    and maybe there are (still) some things that LGBT folks need to explore with their (perceived) adversaries.

  • @ Chris: Such as?

  • Chris

    I’m speaking in the context of church, but…

    One of the things that I originally found very refreshing about emergent was this (ostensible) willingness to cross boundaries in conversation. That seems to be going away more and more. Clearer lines of demarcation are being drawn and good cop/bad cop has crept in and seems to be the trend once again. Traditional/conservative Christians (the perceived adversaries) are to be shunned. That was my take-away from Brian’s post. I read it that way because I saw most every combination of exploration save one. So I thought I’d add that one. What I heard in his comment was “walls.” Again, my comment is in the context of the church. If the comments were meant more in the spirit of the secular, then my bad. But if it was meant in the context of the church I don’t see any support for it anywhere. Not in church history, not in the gospels, not in Jesus. I really don’t see any evidence for a compartmentalized church anywhere. And a women’s bible study is not evidence of a compartmentalized church.
    My interp, from your comment: “such as”, tells me that you believe that there is no longer anything you can learn, nor anything to be gained by hearing t/c Christians. They are now the proverbial “other.” I don’t know that I could really even tell you specifically where or in what areas you might stand to gain by interacting, but it strikes me that you could. Perhaps you believe you have heard it all before and maybe you are right. But somehow I doubt that either you or I are so smart that we couldn’t benefit from listening to people we disagree with. And not just listening, but also opening up and maybe honestly scrutinizing your own presuppositions. But I don’t know you and perhaps you have done this already or perhaps you’ve managed to free yourself of any presuppositions.

    I think I am the eternal optimist. This, I’ve noted in myself, is one area where I part company with the post-modern person. I don’t wear my suspicion on my sleeve and I hope I never do. I prefer to see the best in people. I am not postmodern in this sense.

  • Darren

    Chris, I totally agree with you. As hard as it is for me, I’ve tried very hard not to let my MAJOR disagreements with conservative theologians (not to mention my resentment at being brought up in a home that espoused those views, which was ultimately very destructive to my psyche), get in the way of my quest to know Truth. The only thing I’m pretty sure about is that no group has it all “figured out”. I think that gay people like me probably could learn something from the opposition – and vice versa.

  • I guess I’m still unsure about the question behind this blog article.

    When does a gay-affirming church slip into pandering? Is the concern that churches will become too focused on gay people?

  • @ Chris: FWIW, I’m trying to be charitable here. I very much might learn something new from t/c Christians, but I’m not sure how safe it is for me or my family to carry on such learning conversations. My family and my identity as a Christian is the frequent punching bag of t/c Christians. My marital relationship is routinely compared to adulterous relationships or child molestation or murder by t/c Christians. My role as a parent is minimized by t/c Christians because we adopted our sons as a male couple instead of me spurting my semen on a woman’s eggs.

    It is what it is, but I’m not sure what I’d hope to gain from this type of disrespect.

  • Darren

    *Nods understandingly at Jon* Yeah, there is THAT to consider . . .

  • There is a real enemy of LGBT folks. It’s a deep and profound prejudice that infects everyone to some degree – including LGBT folks themselves. While I understand the value of listening to all the different perspectives around the table of ideas, I also understand the importance of addressing prejudice when it lifts its head. In that vein, here is an important website to consider as we’re considering to different perspectives:


  • Jim

    Dear Jon Trouten,

    I understand that you must have many negative experiences with traditional and conservative Christians. I am sorry for that. Deeply sorry. But to be so categorically dismissive of a whole group of people whom you do not know is not, in fact, charitable, nor godly.

    I am a t/c Christian. Worse, I’m a Calvinist. But I am a real person. I teach literature and take profound enjoyment in Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton. I like watching old Cary Grant movies (“Charade” is my favorite). I have a sister who is an actress, and whom I love very dearly. I have a friend whose father has cancer, but we don’t think that he will die. We hope very much that he doesn’t. I struggle with sin in my life, and I’m constantly horrified at my own pride. But God is very gracious and merciful. I have very wise parents, who taught me as much as I could learn. I have real friends with real names and problems. Some are straight, some are gay, some I have no idea, but we talk and we laugh and we trade mystery novels. I ran out of toothpaste yesterday.

    I know that you are a real person, Jon Trouten, with real loves and sorrows, even though we disagree about this (and no doubt a thousand others!) not unimportant issue. I believe I can learn from you, more than just “something”, but a whole world of understanding and experience and wisdom that I had no idea about.

    Are you willing to believe the same thing about me?

  • @ Jim: My statement about being charitable came after editing my original response. My response might not seem terribly kind. Then again, families like mine are being actively threatened (yet again) in another election cycle by t/c Christians. It’s tiring and defeating, which I guess is the point.

    I’m sure you’re a nice guy, Jim. Maybe I’d be more interested right now in having conversations if I didn’t have t/c Christians pissing on me and my family and justifying their lies and mischaracterizations in the name of Christian piety.

    Now go buy some toothpaste or your breath will stink today.

  • There was a post yesterday on Internetmonk.com very relevant to our discussion:
    It’s in large part about a recent book. A bit from the post:

    It is called, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. One of its findings was summarized in an article by Anthony B. Robinson with these words:
    “Religious Right Drives Young from Churches.”
    Based on their research, Putnam and Campbell found that in the past several years there has been a significant decline in religious participation among younger Americans (those who have come of age since 1990). About 30% of them are now classified as “nones”—people claiming no religious affiliation. Folks, these are my children (my youngest was born in 1990), so this finding got my attention immediately.

    What lies behind this shift? The research supporting the findings of American Grace led its authors to conclude that the “culture war” approach and conservative political agenda of evangelicalism over the past 30 years has turned young people off and prompted them to walk away from church. And the one issue that has been particularly troublesome for them is the church’s attitude toward homosexuality.

  • Jim, I appreciate your humility and kindness. It’s truly a breath of fresh air.

    What I think what Jon’s getting at (and what Keith’s post above confirms): we can’t pretend like there isn’t a “war” going on. There are probably many fundamental things that must be established before effective communication can be fostered, but safety is probably the most important one. People can’t come to the table if they feel like it’s an ambush, and someone’s gonna drop a bomb the moment they sit down.

    The fact of the matter is that so many t/c Christians have done so much to hurt, demonize, and castigate gays and lesbians, that it’s terribly difficult for us NOT to dismiss the entire group. From my vantage point, it’s not like t/c Christians DESERVE to be trusted. If I do happen to sit down long enough to talk with someone like yourself, and receive from them, it’s probably going to be because you earned that trust and respect. So while it may be sad that you as an individual may have NEVER done anything bad to a gay person ever, you come with a disadvantage because of the people with whom you associate (or at least the people who associate themselves with the label you use for yourself).

    On principle, I get you. And that’s why I personally strive to not dismiss an entire group for the actions and words of some (most?) in the group. I try to treat people as individuals. But we can’t pretend like that’s not a monumental task on the part of the gay person. It would be tantamount to saying that I as a black person should really consider how much I could learn from racists who’d be perfectly OK with me being hanged if they could have their way. It may be technically true, but is it reasonable to think it would be practically accomplished? So long as animosity is expressed by those in the class of people that could be identified as “racist”, no ethnic minority will ever feel safe enough to come looking for what they could learn from them.

  • yeah,

    The Top Gun volleyball scene is still going through my head, so this made for an odd coupling of ideas.

  • Albert Howell

    I am not an expert on this subject. I am a member of a church that is “open and confirming.” But, we don’t really have active members from the LGBT community. Being Latino, I know that I always feel more comfortable in any community when I see other friendly Latino faces. We have members of the LGBT community visit, but unfortunately they rarely come back and when they do its usually for special events. Again, I am not an expert on this subject, but I am guessing that it’s because they don’t see other LGBT faces. I say this because I know of other “open and affirming” churches in the area that do have significant numbers of the LGBT community and because of this positive reputation they seem to be successful at continuing to grow those numbers.

  • James Mills

    I recently read an interesting quote that made me think of the many issues that seem to polarize certain segments of the church.

    “It’s interesting to contrast the market now to the Stax period when the music was created by black and white people — integrated musicians — in a segregated society. Now society is integrated, but music is more segregated than ever.” – Huey Lewis

    I think @Albert raises an interesting observation that we tend to feel most comfortable where we see others like ourselves. I fear that as we continue to add descriptive adjectives to the word friendly (e.g. LGBT friendly) we lose the ability to simply be friendly and then, just as Huey Lewis observes in music, we find ourselves in the strange situation where our culture is increasingly integrated but our churches are more segregated than ever.

    None-the-less, the conversation is important and I love that there is healthy, friendly, and faithful conversations taking place, not just in this area, but in many other important areas as well.


  • Bo Sanders

    I just wanted to thank everyone that has posted on this thread so far for helping me to think through some things that I clearly needed to think through.

  • I too want to thank everyone who has posted comments. A very nice discussion, I think.

    Re: Jon T (#22): Yes, in a way, there’s no real point to the original post. (So it was probably pretty hard to give a title to. (Tony provided the title.)) It was like, “Here’s something (or some kinds of things) that might be coming down the road, so…” So, what? So, mostly just: think about it. We often respond to situations better if we’ve been aware they might be coming and have given some thought to it than we do if they blindside us. Or at least that’s true of me. So, for the most part, rather than recommending ways of responding, my goal was just to get some folks thinking a little about the types of situations they might soon be facing.

    On the one small positive suggestion I do make at the end of the post: Here’s a suggestion as to *how* to avoid the temptation I there write about: Many of us know of churches or church groups that are wildly successful, as that’s measured by the numbers of people coming, even though they do things horribly badly from our point of view. (To each her own on the choice here.) Just get a handy mental image prepared of the throngs of people gathered at such a church to do everything all wrong (from your point of view), and call that image to mind any time you might be tempted to cite the numerical growth of some part of the church you like as evidence that that part of the church must be doing things right.

  • david hume

    We have anti-gay churches, no gays allowed. 2nd class citizen gay “friendly” churches, where gays are tolerated, but told to control their perverted ways. We have “progressive” churches that openly allow gays, as well as just about anyone, with an “inclusive” policy. Then there’s gay churches with almost all gays. They’re changing, pandering to straights. It’s LGBT at first. Then it’s LGBTS, openly having straight pastors in a gay church, with significant numbers of straight people. This is different from black churches which remain almost exclusively black.

    Gay churches need to stop pandering to straights. That’s the problem. The problem isn’t straight churches pandering to gays. Straight charities have most all the world to support them. Gay charities are more limited. Gay churches and gay secular organizations should focus on supporting gay charities, and not pander to straights.

    Don’t give your money away to straight pandering churches. Straights have enough. Enough is enough. Churches have to be “inclusive”? That’s like saying restrooms should be inclusive and let male rapists into the women’s restrooms. Pandering to straights is like paying extortion. Don’t they have their own churches? Can’t they get a life? This article has it all backwards. Straight churches supposedly pander to gays out of love. No, it’s out of love for gay money. Follow the money. It explains a lot.

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