It’s Pride month, and here at Williamsburg Baptist Church we are wearing rainbow stoles in worship, hanging our usual rainbow banner out front and have rainbow origami butterflies hanging all about our sanctuary. It is a delightfully colorful season in the life of our church. (The origami butterflies are more or less incidental to Pride and were actually hung for Pentecost, but we do tend to err on the side of rainbows around here.)
Our open and vocal support for our LGBTQ siblings in faith and the broader LGBTQ community earned us a bomb threat recently, which was a scary moment in the life of our church. It rattled our sensibilities and reminded us there is a cost to aligning ourselves with people who are marginalized and oppressed. But it also reminded us this is what it means to follow the way of Jesus.
Thankfully, the overwhelming response among our members and friends has been positive, and we feel newly emboldened in our resolve. Weekly attendance has gone up, and one of our beloved deacons wisely quipped, “Are you even following Jesus if your church doesn’t get bomb threats?”
It’s not a great selling point, I understand, for trying to convince your congregation to become an openly welcoming and affirming community. But there are a whole host of reasons to consider expanding your welcome and inclusion for all people in your church. I invite you to consider the following:
1. LGBTQ people are made in the image of God. This is where we should start with our understanding of all people — ourselves and others. This is a foundational message from the very beginning of Scripture. Scripture as a whole testifies to a God who invites people from the margins to the center, with the dream that all might flourish. Our churches should be welcoming and affirming of all because all people bear the imago Dei.
“Scripture as a whole testifies to a God who invites people from the margins to the center.”
2. Good biblical scholarship that supports the full inclusion of queer people in Christian communities has existed for decades. Being faithful to Scripture does not have to mean believing LGBTQ people or same-sex relationships are inherently sinful. Far from it. Plenty of biblical scholars and ethicists and theologians have argued compellingly that one can be in a loving, consensual, same-sex relationship and also be a faithful follower of Christ.
There is even sound scholarship to help understand transgender and nonbinary people in light of Scripture and God’s faithfulness in the world. I have a whole shelf of resources I could share with you. Our failure as churches to reexamine Scripture in light of historical context and translational questions amounts to sticking our collective heads in the sand.
Shame on us. Lives are at stake — spiritual lives and physical lives. While plenty still cleave to the “traditional” interpretations of these Scripture passages, I will always err on the side of love and acceptance. It seems to me Jesus did exactly this.
3. While congregations are dwindling, there are throngs of LGBTQ people of faith out there who are eager for safe places to worship and fellowship with other Christians. I get emails every week from people who found our church on the internet, asking if I can help them find a safe and affirming church near where they live. Unfortunately, I often struggle to connect them, simply because there aren’t a lot of churches that are openly welcoming and affirming. Plenty of churches say “all are welcome” but still have unspoken expectations and limitations to full participation.
Moreover, queer people and families don’t feel safe going in most churches simply because of the deep pain and trauma inflicted by other Christians. Without obvious and explicit indications that a church is a safe place (like a rainbow banner out front and a statement of welcome on the website), the assumption is that churches are not safe.
There are plenty of people out there who are just looking for a place to belong. What better place than your church?
4. Our church is growing! Since COVID has loosened its grip, we have seen a significant influx of visitors and new members. We often go several Sundays in a row where we welcome new members in worship. We jokingly say the title of “newest member” is one you don’t get to enjoy for long at Williamsburg Baptist.
And when we ask why our new members came to our church, more than 90% say they are here because of our welcoming and affirming status. I know it’s hard to believe, but not one person has mentioned the amazing preaching. And we see a lot of diversity in who is coming: people of all ages, different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and straight allies and queer folk alike.
“The influx of people joining our church is bringing life and vitality and creativity that is sorely needed in so many of our congregations.”
The influx of people joining our church is bringing life and vitality and creativity that is sorely needed in so many of our congregations. Our biggest challenge at Williamsburg Baptist is integrating new people fully into the life of our community of faith. I suspect a lot of churches would love to have that problem. For us it is fully a result of our welcoming and affirming status.
5. I read in a recent poll that nearly one out of five members of Generation Z identify as LGBTQ. That suggests five out of five members of Gen Z know and love someone who identifies as queer. They are our friends and family and coworkers. One of the No. 1 reasons young people don’t attend church is they perceive Christians as “anti-gay.”
Churches should feel a sense of urgency. We are at risk of losing a whole generation if we can’t have hard conversations and find a way to reconcile our interpretations of Scripture with our lived experiences in the world.
6. Although more work has to be done, much progress has been made with regard to support for LGBTQ rights in our country. According to Gallup, more than 70% of people think same-sex marriage should be legal, an all-time high. These are people in our pews and pulpits who hold affirming views — and I know many who would love for their church to be fully inclusive so that it aligns with their own theology and values. At the same time, new laws are putting transgender and nonbinary people at risk. We often jokingly say churches lag 20 years behind culture. What if churches were to take the lead for a change in advocating for protection and full acceptance of LGBTQ people in our country and world? What a beautiful witness to God’s radical and inclusive love that would be.
7. I am a better person because of my relationship with my LGBTQ siblings in Christ. I am a straight, white, cisgender, male pastor. I have just about every privilege one can have as an American. But being the pastor of Williamsburg Baptist Church means I am constantly growing and learning new things. It’s exciting.
Take me out to coffee sometime and I’ll tell you all the things I didn’t learn in seminary. There were no classes on pastoral care for LGBTQ persons, or resources for how to do same-sex weddings, for example. We didn’t talk about pronouns and gender identity and how to advocate for inclusion. I am having to learn not only how to be an ally, but also how to equip my congregation and my key leaders to be allies as well. And it has been entirely life giving for me.
“I am having to learn not only how to be an ally, but also how to equip my congregation and my key leaders to be allies as well.”
8. Being welcoming and affirming opens up opportunities for an awful lot of fun and celebration. We love having rainbow flags and banners out front of our church. We’ve had some delightful worship installations in the sanctuary as well. We host monthly board game nights in partnership with our local LGBTQ-affirming organization.
And we set up booths at our local Pride events to hand out buttons and stickers and wear our WBC shirts with pride! (You’ll be surprised how often you hear, “Wait, what is a Baptist church doing here?”) Several of our young adults even went up to D.C. recently to participate in Pride events there.
9. There are a lot of resources out there for welcoming and affirming congregations. Once you make a decision to have a conversation in your congregation, you can find support. There are good resources on the internet and several excellent books out there — and our church would love to be a resource as well. Moreover, there are wonderful organizations such as the Association for Welcoming and Affirming Baptists to offer encouragement and support for your church as you learn how to be more inclusive.
10. Finally, being welcoming and affirming is simply what the kingdom of God looks like. This is who we as Christians are called to be. I believe this with all my heart. Christ invites us to participate in the work of God’s reign in the world.
This is precisely what Jesus was up to in his ministry: Welcoming people from the margins into beloved community, and rejecting the exclusionary practices of the religious power brokers.
Opening your doors to LGBTQ siblings in faith as full members is just the beginning. Becoming welcoming and affirming can energize and empower a congregation to move forward boldly into the future.
There you go: 10 reasons to consider becoming a welcoming and affirming congregation. Our church made the official leap about six years ago, and as hard as it is to believe, we haven’t had any stray lightning bolts strike our pulpit. In fact, quite the opposite.
We are flourishing in just about every way. Our members are flourishing. Our membership roster is flourishing. And as pastor, I am flourishing, too. And I can’t help but think this is what the kingdom of God looks like on earth.
One of our lifelong members recently said to me, “You know, Art, I’ve been coming to this church my whole life, and it feels like we are finally following Jesus.” Indeed we are.
I realize this is not an easy step for most congregations to make, however. Some members will leave — although others will leave if you do not make this step. Regardless, we are called to do what is right. Can you commit to taking one step forward? Commit to hosting an adult discussion group on the book UnClobber by Colby Martin. Have your key leaders read God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, or Torn by Justin Lee. Maybe a small group can read Austen Hartke’s Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.
Just take one step forward, trusting that in due time God will show you the step after that. I hope you’ll consider joining us as we continue to share good news about God’s radical acceptance and love for all.
Art Wright serves as senior pastor of Williamsburg Baptist Church in historic Williamsburg, Va. Read more about the congregation’s welcoming and affirming stance on the website.
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