In recent news, a massive exodus of the church has come into focus. A New York Times series by Jessica Grose tracks and analyzes why “the largest and fastest religious shift is under way,” and back in the fall, Pew Research projected less than 50% of U.S. Americans will identify as Christian in less than a decade.
To explore this decline, I conducted research with 1,200 participants, asking them why they left church. One quarter said they were leaving because of LGBTQ issues. With the political polarization of queer rights, it’s not hard to see why.
In 2023, more than 520 anti-LGBTQ bills went up for vote across the United States, 350 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault were reported, a state of emergency was declared by the Human Rights Campaign, and discrimination against queer people was ruled a constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court.
We are reaching a boiling point as a society, and young people are leaving Christianity in droves, which begs the question: How will the church respond to this exodus? What will pastors do as Millennials and Gen Z leave their doors? Draw a line in the sand and let people leave? Change their theology that’s thousands of years old? Remain silent?
In hopes to help, here is my open letter to any pastor who will give me the time of day, written from the hands of a gay man who grew up in evangelicalism.
I do not write this letter to slam pastors or stand on some moral high ground. I write this to offer practical and real steps every pastor can take to best adjust for this exodus, even the ones who can’t, in good conscience, approve LGBTQ inclusion.
For perspective, I worked in a nationally renowned megachurch since I was a teenager, evangelized to my peers Monday through Friday in high school, went to Bible school as soon as I graduated, became a youth pastor at the ripe age of 19, worked in multiple parachurch organizations, and eventually moved overseas to become a missionary.
I drank deep of the evangelical waters, a good Christian who loved Jesus. Except for one problem — I liked guys.
“I drank deep of the evangelical waters, a good Christian who loved Jesus. Except for one problem — I liked guys.”
No matter how much I prayed, no matter how many times I went down to the altar, no matter how many times I emailed my sponsor at Exodus ministries, I couldn’t shake these attractions, and I needed to reconcile my unchanging sexuality with my faith. I picked up books, poured through research, attended queer conferences and had countless conversations to find answers for myself.
After coming to terms with my sexuality, I helped co-found believr, an LGBTQ Christian dating app, to help facilitate meaningful connections and foster a safe place for queer people of faith.
It is from that perspective that I come to you, asking that you take some practical steps, steps any pastor can take, even if you can’t support who I love.
So for the sake of the queer kid in your youth group (and there is at least one queer kid in your youth group; they’re likely the really passionate one), please read on because 1.8 million queer youth will attempt suicide this year and they’re more likely to attempt if they’re religious.
Get an educated opinion. A conversation with a Christian Missionary Alliance pastor forever changed me.
While eating hummus at one of my favorite Syrian restaurants, this pastor shared how his son came out when the pastor was in his 60s. He had been the pastor of his congregation for two decades and a chaplain at his local hospital.
Instead of assuming he knew the answer, he decided he needed to get an informed opinion because this was no longer some abstract issue. It was personal; it was his son, and whether he found out that he couldn’t support his son or not, he needed to know for sure. So he started reading, reading from all sorts of perspectives because it wasn’t enough to have an inherited perspective. He needed to know for himself, and he was humble enough to admit he could possibly be wrong.
“Who am I to assume that I know better than a theologian from Harvard, or an ethicist who’s given years of his life to study this issue?” he reasoned. His ability to learn, even now into his 70s, astounds me.
Explore the research. Pick up books from multiple perspectives. Go listen to some gay Christians. Watch a documentary on survivors of conversion therapy. Listen to a podcast. You may disagree. But at least now you have an informed opinion you can support.
What harm is there in learning? Is truth so weak and timid that it is scared of different thoughts and opinions? Is truth too weak to undergo examination? Truth has nothing to fear.
“After you’ve done your research, you can have a meaningful conversation with the kid who comes out in your youth group.”
Then, after you’ve done your research, you can have a meaningful conversation with the kid who comes out in your youth group. You can tell her what you learned. You can show him you cared enough to read, to learn.
Or are you so presumptuous to claim you’re absolutely correct? Isn’t that pride?
Some resources: Changing our Minds by David Gushee is a brilliant book where you don’t have to become affirming. He gives multiple “outs” to affirmation along the way. It’s a great starting place.
If you’re not a book person, go check out The Reformation Project. They have a list of resources, including videos, where you can learn more. Plus, their whole ethos is helping people consider an affirming theology.
Learn the language. To help you orient where you land regarding LGBTQ inclusion, there are four “sides”: A, B, Y, X.
Side A is Affirming. This means you believe LGBTQ people were created queer, that God delights in how they were made, and that they should act on their attractions. People of this theology encourage meaningful relationships, in light of the verse in Genesis 2 that “it is not good for man to be alone.” These relationships should be endorsed and supported by the church, welcomed and empowered in the community of believers, and all queer people should have access to every level of leadership in the church because their sexuality does not disqualify them.
A few organizations empowering queer people in this space are The Reformation Project, Q Christian Fellowship and nuFoundation. Some books include God and the Gay Christian and God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.
Side B is celiBacy. This means you believe LGBTQ people were created queer, that God delights in how they were made, but they should not act on their attractions. God made LGBTQ people to remain celibate — it is their vocation, and they are not lesser than their straight counterparts for being single but should be supported by their faith community as well as have access to every level of leadership in the church.
Two organizations empowering queer people in this space are Your Other Brothers and Revoice. Some books include Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity and Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church.
Y is Yearnings. This means you believe LGBTQ people were not created queer. Yes, God delights in who they are, but their yearnings are not their identity, and they should not act on them. People with this ethic believe their yearnings are “their burden to bear,” “their thorn in their flesh.” While they cannot change their yearnings, they never should act on them, and it is their job to resist them.
Regarding this side, I think it’s important to note the Bible is clear that we are called to bear each others’ burdens. So if this is the stance you take, how is your church supporting these people rather than pretending they don’t exist? How are they “enduring this burden” with the support of their religious community?
Two organizations specifically supporting pastors and parents in this space are The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender and Living Out. Some books include Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality and People to Be Loved.
(It is important to note that B and Y can sound nearly identical. The main difference is that Y believes your yearnings are not your identity. You were not made queer. It’s a product of the brokenness of the world, while B believes queer people were made that way; they’re just not meant to act on how they were made.)
X is eX-gay. This means you believe LGBTQ people were not created queer, that God wants them to be straight. Their queerness comes from brokenness in this world, and they should work to transform their attractions.
An organization talking about stories from this space as well as Side Y is Living Out.
While I’m trying to remain unbiased in my presentation, X has some serious consequences to mental health, and there’s a lack of evidence in its credibility. The organization Exodus Ministries is a prime example of this practice, and they closed their doors, apologizing for the harm they caused. Also, there’s a lot of research revealing LGBTQ people are more likely to commit suicide when exposed to conversion therapy.
“You are going to have queer people in your church, whether you want them there or not.”
Make a plan. You are going to have queer people in your church, whether you want them there or not. In fact, one in five queer youth identify as religious. Maybe they’ll grow up in your youth group or attend a special Christmas service or seek answers in a moment of despair. What are you going to do when they come? What are you going to tell them?
If you’re Side Y, how are you going to support people in your congregation to “resist this temptation”? Will people feel safe talking about their attractions or will they be terrified because they’re ignored or demonized? What type of conversations and education will you have?
If you’re Side B, how will celibate people feel in your church? Like second-class citizens? Or will celibacy be honored, even celebrated? Will you build community around them where they will not miss the nuclear family? Or will they have to figure it out all on their own, never truly able to fully participate in your church?
If you’re Side A, how are you educating your congregation so they’re all on the same page? How will you deal with discrimination from your congregants? What about your youth group? What do overnight events look like when you’re being inclusive of queer kids? How will you talk about sex? Are you making assumptions that everyone is straight? Can you partner with an LGBTQ after-school program to better help support your students? (Regarding youth, Beloved Arise is a great organization specifically for queer youth of faith. They have lovely resources I highly recommend.)
Be honest. After you’ve done your due diligence, be honest on your website about your stance on LGBTQ issues.
You being “welcoming of all” while not allowing queer people to be in leadership or work in the children’s ministry is not welcoming. It’s a bait and switch.
“A queer person should have informed consent when attending your church, and they shouldn’t be deceived.”
Be very clear and concise about what queer people can and cannot do in your church and give them reasons, right on your website. A queer person should have informed consent when attending your church, and they shouldn’t be deceived. As the Bible says, deception comes from the Devil. Don’t be his child, as Jesus once said.
Love. What I do not understand is that a religion meant to be known for its love (John 13:35), is most known for what its against.
Videos circulate the internet of pastors talking about arresting LGBTQ people as they quote Leviticus. Christian parents continue to kick out their kids, resulting in 28% of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
Even if after you’ve done your due diligence of exploring all the answers and you believe someone being queer is a sin, remember Jesus never once treated sinners the way the church has. He never judged the woman caught in the act of adultery. He never screamed or shouted or made a sign calling the tax collector evil. He never did any of that. Instead, he washed their feet; he brought them close; he shared a meal.
When looking back at my research on why people are leaving Christianity, the second reason people are leaving is the behavior of believers.
People are not leaving Christianity because of Jesus. Quite the opposite. In fact, 22% of people said they are more capable of loving like Jesus by not being a Christian.
What does that say regarding the state of the church? Of the state of Christians? Of the state of shepherds called to tend their flocks?
As a desperate gay man who grew up in evangelicalism, I believe it’s time to do some serious work. The question is, are you willing?
If you happen to be curious about the intricacies of my story, specifically my reasons for leaving evangelicalism, I have a memoir coming out Aug. 22, and it’s currently available for pre-order — Stumbling: A Sassy Memoir about Coming Out of Evangelicalism.
Brandon Flanery is a gay ex-pastor who has written for Baptist News Global, the Colorado Springs Indy, and the University of Colorado’s Scribe. He often writes about the intersection of faith and sexuality and is a signed author with Lake Drive Books. Read and learn more about Brandon at BrandonFlanery.com.