Sexuality conference not your parents' Baptist church

It seems appropriate that the [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant met in Atlanta, home of columnist Lewis Grizzard, author of Shoot Low, Boys: They’re Ridin’ Shetland Ponies.

By Joe Phelps

I followed Grizzard’s advice, assuming this gathering, co-sponsored by Mercer University’s Center for Theology and Public Life and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, would haggle once again over selective Bible verses cited to refute inclusion of Christians from the LGBT community.

As pastor of a congregation that is welcoming and increasingly affirming, I made plans to attend the meeting in order to defend our space from possible low-riders. Suspicious that the framework of “covenant” within which the conversation was to occur would be little more than a smokescreen, I wanted our voice to be heard.

To my great delight, I must report how wrong I was, how narrow my vision was and how undeservedly pessimistic I was about Baptists talking meaningfully about divisive issues. This gathering, attended by as many as 500 people, was part conference, part dialogue and part renewal weekend. It was chock full, from the first presenter to the last amen, of depth, honesty, information, hard questions, harder testimonies, painful realities, and hopeful possibilities.

We spoke -- and everyone was invited to speak in breakout groups -- and we listened. And we prayed. Laced between each presentation was song and silence for prayer, not as filler or to break the monotony, but as a sacred catalyst for what was happening: God’s transforming love was becoming palpable among us.

The sessions crackled with energy. People seemed excited to be there and anxious to meet each other. It was a far younger crowd than most denominational gatherings (a good thing in church life, I concluded, once my ego recovered), confirmation that this generation is deeply invested in this matter, and not just because it has to do with sex.

What makes this “sexy” for this generation is not the sex part as much as the recognition that this is a matter of justice. This is their civil rights moment. This is an important value upon which to test the mettle of the faith they’ve been given.

It felt daring and courageous. This mostly younger crowd was going for broke, taking talk of Jesus and Scripture into what many consider the belly of the beast: sexuality. They went there trusting the command to love God and neighbor, and believing the way, truth and life that is Jesus had the capacity to move them beyond rigid categories into a deeper, bigger and more honest-to-God faith.

And it did. The 14 presenters spoke from prepared texts, but with a freedom and winsomeness that kept listeners engaged and enthralled. The line-up was a collection of brilliant young and used-to-be-young ministers and lay persons, some gay but mostly straight (not that orientation was listed on the conference name tags) who recognized that the matter of the church and the reality of sexuality cannot be dispensed with by dueling interpretations of the usual proof texts.

They covered a range of topics from changing mores in culture; to the church and reality of LGBT persons among us; to the nature of marriage; to the challenge of divorce and broken covenant; to senior adults and sexuality; to the horrors of human trafficking.

Those whose convictions and conclusions differed from others did so with such a spirit of vulnerability and humility. This made it easier to grant the validity of their points of concern and to ponder a perspective previously dismissed because of disagreement. “I might be wrong” became frequently repeated mantra, said in a spirit of openness rather than false humility.

It is tempting to call the conference a “historic” moment, but that language too quickly places it in the past. Rather, I wonder if someday we’ll look on this event as a launching pad from which we were propelled to boldly go where we’ve not gone before, to riff on a television show intro from a day before many of these bright and Christ-committed people were born.

Which brings to mind another television oldie from a car commercial: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” That’s a good thing. The old one got us to where we are today, thanks be to God. But the old one was a gas guzzler. It was unsafe, not designed for today’s needs, and wore out after 150,000 miles.

Thanks be to God, this is not your father’s, or your mother’s, Baptist church. It’s a new day.

Bring it on.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.