Is Attending Church Worth The Risk?

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“Church starts at 9:30,” my dad yells into my room. I immediately text my wife, Oh god! Dad wants me to go to church with him! I don’t know if I can do this. I really don’t want to—should I go for his sake? 

Every once in a while my mom goes on a trip to visit family or friends, which leaves my dad home alone. During her last trip, I thought it would be fun to have some father-daughter bonding time. 

We had a really nice visit until I realized my dad expected me to go to church with him on Sunday. 

On Saturday night, we had played this game of sorts where I ignored his hints that I would be going to church with him, and he ignored me saying I would not be going to church with him. Then Sunday morning came, and I purposefully stayed in bed extra long (as adults are allowed to do) so he would be able to see there was no way I’d have enough time to get ready and go with him. It wasn’t that I did not want to go. It was time that prohibited it. 

I have to interject here and point out that I’m a grown, adult woman, and I realize that this story makes me sound as if I’m 12 years old again. But I’m sure each of you can attest to the fact that all it takes is 5 minutes with your parents and suddenly, you’re an adolescent again. 

So back to Sunday morning, I waited until I was sure it was too late for me to go with my dad to church. I came out of my room to get some morning coffee, and my dad said, “We’re leaving in 15 minutes.” “Dad—I’m sorry!” I said, “but I just don’t want to go.” He responded, “It would actually really mean a lot to me if you’d come.”

The old “it would mean the world to me” card—what daughter can say no to that?

You might be reading this and be thinking, Candice, what is the big deal? It’s only one Sunday, for a couple hours—just go to church with your dad.But imagine what it’s like to be an LGBTQ person going to a church when you don’t know their stance on sexual orientation or gender identity.   

If asked whether it would be possible for me to feel at home in a non-affirming church, my first response is typically, “Of course.” But to be honest, I answer this way because I want straight Christians to know there’s nothing that could get in the way of my relationship with God. 

I fear that if I answer “No,” the assumptions some Christians make—that my relationship with God must be a sham—will seem true. I fear that they’ll think I don’t want to “fellowship” with believers who see things differently than me, or that I can’t humble myself and be in communion. 

Let me give you the play-by-play of what it is like for me, a gay person, to attend a non-affirming church.

I step out of the car and am immediately greeted by a smiling face. I wonder: If they realize I am gay, will they reject me? Will they begin quoting scripture and tradition at me? Will they say I have to leave? Will they shame my parents? Will they say they love me, but that who I am is “wrong” or “broken” and inherently sinful?   

I find myself wishing I looked more gay (whatever that means!) so I could at least control or predict their rejection of me. It somehow feels safer when I know the judgment is coming. I can move past the friendly faces, handshakes, and warm embraces to strategize and protect my heart from the wounds that will come. 

On other days, I wish I looked less gay (whatever that means!) so I could more easily blend in.  These desires make me angry because I know I’m not like them, and after all—I’ve already hidden who I am for far too long. I feel angry at this pressure to once again hide.  

By the time I decide to sing along with the congregation and open my heart to God—I really want to connect with him, and I need his wisdom and comfort to get me through. Except by then, I’m so anxious and angry and distracted that it’s nearly impossible to do any of this—thus confirming my worst fears: I’m a bad person and a bad Christian. I leave the service feeling isolated, sad and angry.   

I feel pretty sure that if I asked the typical pastor of a non-affirming church, they would say, with the kindest words possible, that—while they don’t judge LGBTQ people—they do not think it’s a "lifestyle" God condones. They probably would not push me out of the church because I am a lesbian—because "all are welcome"—but yet, they believe being LGBTQ is a sin. 

But how is it loving to tell someone that who they are is sinful? 

The tone of kindness in this type of welcome hides the truth of what people are really saying, thinking, feeling, and believing. In my experience, the rhetoric of conditional acceptance—we love everyone, and you can come to our church, but you have to change to truly belong—actually blocks LGBTQ people from experiencing God’s love and presence in the midst of a church service.  

I find myself wondering why non-affirming Christians get all the power to define who is a good Christian. Somehow, and for some reason, I even allow them to define it for me. I realize I let them define it for me when I begin to feel guilty after church when I know I’ve done nothing wrong. Why do I allow these people I don’t even know to define my heart and connection to God?! This painful dynamic plays out when the person with all the power is guaranteed to reject the less powerful person.   

While I consider myself someone who is deeply connected to God, I would not feel comfortable worshipping in a non-affirming church. To be clear, I love church. I love the feeling of home and familiarity. I love connecting with other people who also want to know God. I love how the wisdom of the pastor brings contemplation and change to my heart.  

I feel sad that some parts of this experience are gone now for me unless I attend a welcoming and affirming congregation. Like me, many LGBTQ Christians long to connect with other Christians and find a welcoming & affirming church community.  

Unfortunately, the experience of going to church can be too risky, and too painful.   

And then, there can be so much internalized badness, learned through a lifetime of exclusive theology, that LGBTQ people leave the church all together. When a LGBTQ person leaves a non-affirming church community, it is important to consider if they might be leaving because they feel scared and hurt and want to avoid continued rejection.   

My hope in sharing this is that straight Christians will be able to better understand the courage it takes for a LGBTQ Christian to walk into a church. I also hope it helps name an experience that many LGBTQ Christians have, but many times are unable to name for themselves.  

May our empathy for the other and our empathy for ourselves increase, bringing even if just an ounce of comfort to our hearts and strengthening our connection to God.  

Find a welcoming & affirming church near you.

Photo via flickr user Froschmann

Comments (18)

"My hope in sharing this is that straight Christians will be able to better understand the courage it takes for a LGBTQ Christian to walk into a church." Thank you for sharing. I got to a United Church Of Christ church, but it's not labeled ONA yet, but there are people who want to fully include people of any sexuality. Hopefully, it can be the perfect place for an LGBTQAI Christian to feel safe in, not just all of us who are straight.

It is not easy to go into just any church, but there often is love. In one case for me however there was not. In time, there was public disapproval during a sermon. I now go to All Saints Church in Pasadena where there is no question. God Loves You Gay. I wrote a memoir about my experience in the church and there is a Facebook page there as well. It's called God Loves You Gay. Come check us out sometime and safe spiritually safe out there!

I am an Episcopalan and in my church's welcoming statement we say: "We believe everybody is welcome and belongs at God's table - regardless of race, ethnic background, gender identity, sexual orientation, capability or circumstances of life. " Come join us!

This is why I love Metropolitan Community Church! Never a reason to worry or fear how your sexuality will be
judged...

I agree Candace - there is a definite distinction of discomfort when going to a non-affirming congregation. I call it "waiting for the other shoe to drop". . . I want to fit in, and truly be welcome but let's face it, often within the first 5 minutes or less, the love the sinner hate the sin feeling shows itself. The flip side - not all affirming congregations are TOTALLY welcoming to all. I went to one affirming congregation a couple of years ago that I won't go back to. My gaydar went off as I looked around, so I knew that my orientation would not be an issue. However, the fact that I'm more butch old school skater looking pretty much excluded me from being part of the community. I was not dressed for a day at a government office like everyone else.
I did find a church that accepted me as a whole person - regardless of presentation and orientation. They make welcoming more like live and let live. Check your preconceived notions of differences at the door, and embrace diversity. Scary - heck yes especially if you're not comfortable with the one person who comes occasionally and speaks in tongues. But truly welcoming? Oh yes.

Used the map function for finding a welcoming church. Map was empty. What a surprise!

I live in Tucson, AZ. I am a member at an Open and Affirming Church-- an ELCA church that is very welcoming. We aren't listed currently on the map. And frankly I am sure that is the case for A LOT of welcoming churches-- especially because a church has to have someone savvy enough to apply and wait to be listed. Sometimes the reality is you have to take a chance to check out churches to see what is really the case. We aren't fussy, even though many folks wear good clothes. I personally wear shorts half the time to church-- no one cares. I come from Hawaii-- I take my shoes off at the door if possible. They totally accepted me. my wife and I are totally involved, as are other Straight and LGBTQ couples and families. We've been attending for nearly 8 years, and yet its like this "best kept secret" because people in the LGBT community are just as judgmental by saying " well I don't have to guess if I go to *insert denomination* churches-- I don't want to have to worry." Well, that's not really accurate. Plenty of churches who are those denominations aren't the only ones around. Lots of churches that are accepting, affirming, open and inclusive are there, get out there and find them! We aren't all listed on a webpage. Sometimes you have to be willing to find churches that are there in your community.

I've been a church musician all my life, and never was there even a whisper related to my preferential orientation. I recently moved to another state and was invited by my plumber to attend his church, the mega-Baptist, windowless structure on the edge of town next to the Interstate. While not mentioning the "gays" specifically, the travelling evangelist who spoke went through a telephone directory of all major denominations that he declared "used to be" holy. It was somewhat of a freedom moment, being ridiculed together with Methodists, Episcopals, Lutherans (me), and all the other churches with spires! My comment to my plumber was that, as a visitor, I found the evangelist's ridicule of my denomination and its sacraments unfortunate, and that I would be in prayer for the evangelist.

The greatest gift of attending a welcoming and affirming church is in knowing that you don't have to expend energy to combat potential threats and can concentrate on what you're there to do--to worship.

I typically found with myself, when I settled my relationship with God, no more was I in fear of going to my parents church. I answer to know one about my faith than God. At the same time once I settled my own relationship and standing with God, then I was able to be productive in discussions with pastors, leaders and people of faith who didn't agree with me being a gay Christian man and through those conversations I've found there is a real shift taking place in the church...they aren't all as bombastic as they used to be. Shift Happens!

Todd, can you say more about what it meant for you to "settle your relationship with God"? How specifically did you go about that? I resonate with the results you've had after doing so, but I can't quite wrap my head around the specifics. Thanks so much.

As a gay couple, when on holiday my partner and I often visit churches without knowing whether they will be "friendly". It is rare that the answer will be obvious one way or the other (though we did once have to sit through a 45-minute sermon on the inferiority of women). Sometimes, usually during the refreshments afterwards, we will speak to someone who has realised we are together; I have to say that we have never been made to feel unwelcome, although we do tend to avoid churches that are obviously OTT.

Thank you for sharing a heartfelt experience. The majority of Christians (C of E anyway) are pro-LGBT, but I don't think many people understand how serious an issue it is, which results in this sluggish attitude toward change.

I've attended the same church all my life (I'm 22) and struggled hugely with my homosexuality until last year. That attitude came from teaching at school, the issue of homosexuality has never been raised at church - so I don't know what fellow members of the Congregation think about it.

It is horrible to think the people I know and class as good friends might reject me if they knew I was gay. But I think the truth is that the majority of them have just not given the issue much thought, and they know me well enough that - if I came out (I am only out to close friends and family, due to extra difficulties) - they would see that it's perfectly possible to be gay and have an honest connection with God.

The other church in the Benefice, however, is more Evangelical and I know many there would reject me instantly. I go there daily for Morning Prayer on weekdays, and know almost everyone there. I eat with them, take Communion with them, and yet I know they would see me as a deep sinner if they knew I was gay.

Unlike gay marriage and gay clergy there's no clear answer to this. Those two issues have simple remedies - allow any member of the clergy willing to peform a same-sex wedding to do so, and allow gay priests to be in a full sexual marriage. But changing wider attitudes is a much harder task.

It might not be easy - but think 'WWJD - What Would Jesus Do?'. He challenged hypocracy and hatred when the time was right, but he also sat quietly and ate with his 'enemies' when that was more appropriate. We don't always have to be on our soapbox, so long as we have it ready when we need it. Sometimes it's better to be quiet and ignore the issue, sometimes it must be tackled.

But if there's one thing I've learnt it's that God DOES love me the way I am, and no one - no matter how hard they try - can come between us. Anti-LGBT Christians (a contradiction in terms..) try to mentally shut people out of the church - but I won't let them succeed with me. Until they physically block me from entering I'll still be there.

I can resonate with this story. Thank you for sharing it and expressing what I also often feel. My feeling is that part of the reason we and other lgbt people would hesitate to go to a non affirming Church is that we find it difficult to reconcile a deep relationship with Christ and a homophobic heart. In short, perhaps we no longer find them to be credible witnesses of discipleship.

For some of us, we've just given up on religion. Thank you for your thoughts on this. My two cents are here:
http://jesushas2daddies.blogspot.com/2012/05/end-of-spiritual-violence.html
Tom

A couple of years ago, a gay friend went with me to a mega-church. We sat near the back and all felt ok until part-way through the sermon,when the minister for no reason I could figure out announced that gays were trying to do away with Mother's day. We looked at each other, shrugged helplessly, and left at the next hymn.

We at Faith in America are always working to help end the harm caused by religion-based bigotry! Join with us by visiting our Facebook page at http://on.fb.me/17ERxJU

Hi Candice. Thanks for sharing. Your story rings true for many gay Christians. I am a Christian also. But I don't describe myself as a straight Christian. Our identity is in Christ and not our sexual desire. God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die in our place. He is our reward. And worth dying to this flesh. And yet live. You say you are moved toward a change of heart hearing the your pastors wisdom. Some lesbians choose celibacy because the preached Word is clear to them that homosexual acts are sinful. Every Christian should volunteer to subject themselves to the refining fire daily. In the process of Being purified by the living Word. Can both a celibate lesbian and an active homosexual be interpreting Gods Position correctly?

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