Author "Calling the Rainbow Nation Home"
2006 Welcoming Church Survey
In the Beginning...
From 1990 until late in 1996 I was privileged to pastor Faith Full Gospel Fellowship a Non-denominational church that ministered primarily to the gay and lesbian community. The ministry was rewarding and we saw a lot of miraculous and wonderful things occur within our fellowship and the gay Christian movement during my tenure. Some of these are chronicled in my book “Calling the Rainbow Nation Home” (iUniverse). One of the challenges we faced in our rather unique ministry was getting the word out to the gay and lesbian community (GLBT) that we existed. The second problem we faced was finding other churches to fellowship with. At that time churches who welcomed and accepted gays and lesbians were few and far between. Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) and a handful of other churches such as our own was about it when it came to preaching a message of acceptance and affirmation.
Why the Directory was Born
These were the pre Google and Yahoo years and it was difficult to find someone like ‘us’ out there. We were blessed to find Freedom In Christ in San Francisco, “Hosanna Church of Praise” in San Jose (now called “Celebration of Faith”) and MCC of Sacramento a year or so later (note: there were a few other MCC congregations in the area such as MCC San Francisco that we visited from time to time as well). Members of our four congregations came together once every 3 months for an informal time of fellowship and praise at our church in Hayward, California. In addition we belonged to the Alliance of Christian Churches as well as the Evangelical Network, both of which gathered once a year at informal national conferences for a time of worship, fellowship and teaching.
The ministry could be very taxing and lonely at times with a difficult community to reach, scant resources and few ministers to share the work. Fellowshipping with other churches who shared our vision was critical for our survival and provided a never ending source of encouragement, strength and guidance. I knew other churches may not be as blessed to find other congregations to fellowship with. I also knew that it was very difficult to find a Christian church who would accept you for who you were. It was during this time that the vision for a world wide directory of Christian churches who had opened their doors to the gay and lesbian (GLBT) community was born.
At first the directory consisted of four groups; Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), Alliance of Christian Churches, Evangelical Network and Dignity (a Catholic group that was later banned by the Pope) along with a handful of maverick churches from various ‘main line’ denominations we met from time to time at these groups national conferences. Other groups like Evangelicals Concerned were not churches per say but played a key role in the movement (and still do!) by providing a safe haven for gay Christians to meet and fellowship at various conferences held throughout the year. All told by 1990 there were less than 1,000 Christian churches world wide who welcomed gays and lesbians into their fellowship. Unfortunately no accurate count can be made as the directory consisted of a countless scraps of paper, phone book entries and mental notes.
We Get Organized
The directory was formalized several years later when David Cota created the first database which contained 500 or so churches he had found on the internet. I quickly added to that list and by the end of 2001 we had completed our first annual survey counting 1,998 Christian churches that had opened their doors to the gay and lesbian community.
Since that time the directory has been added to extensively both through the yearly survey and from churches contacting www.gaychurch.org on a daily basis to update entries, add new churches to the list and occasionally remove assemblies from the roll. Between the daily updates and the once a year survey we have a pretty good idea of how many welcoming churches there are, where they are located and the denomination (if any) they belong to. The results are interesting but to properly digest the numbers it’s important to place them in historical perspective concerning the gay Christian movement.
Three distinct phases stand out within the gay Christian movement. The first began with the emergence of MCC in the early 70’s1 and a short while later Evangelicals Concerned and Dignity. These groups were followed in the 80’s by a second wave of ministry through organizations like the Alliance of Christian Churches and the Evangelical Network. All told, this first phase lasted approximately twenty years from 1970 through 1990 at the end of which there were approx. 800-1,000 churches. What set this era apart from the other two was that the movement was still pretty much self contained within the gay community. ‘Home grown’ churches were essential to the movements survival as as every major Christian denomination was officially against homosexuality. There were a few brave churches out there who bucked this trend but by and large the message of hope and love that Jesus Christ brings was being delivered to the gay community by the gay community.
The second period took place during the late 80's and early 1990’s and was marked by the growing national impact2 of groups like the Welcoming and Affirming Baptist, Lutherans Concerned. More Light Presbyterians, UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns and Reconciling Ministries Network (UMC) whose vision was to enlighten their particular denominations stance toward the gay and lesbian community (see "denominations"). In addition, geographically based groups such as Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, Community of Welcoming Congregations (OR and WA) and the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition emerged whose vision was toward a particular geographical community and not toward one particular denomination (see "geographic groups"). These groups coupled with the expanding ministries of the original four denominations caused the number of welcoming churches to double by the end of 2001. More importantly the gay Christian revival had now spread to over 20 different denominational groups. It was from these groups that the 3rd distinct phase of the gay Christian movement began to take shape.
The Denominational Movement
In spite of one of the harshest anti-gay political climates we’ve seen in awhile the “Rainbow Revival” has clearly entered a third and distinct phase. This phase is marked by an explosion of mainline denominational churches that have opened their doors to the gay and lesbian (GLBT) community. This parabolic growth can best be understood in this context:
· By the end of the first 20 years (1970-1990) there were 1,000 churches
· In 10 more years (1991-2001) there were 2,000 welcoming churches
· In 5 more five years (2002-2006) there were over 4,200 churches. As of the end of 2006 the directory contained 4,230 churches!
This parabolic growth trend was first noted in the 2004 Welcoming Church Report titled “Thirty in Three”. In there it was noted that in just a three period from 2001 and 2003 we saw almost as many new churches open to the gay and lesbian community as there had been in the previous thirty years combined. Leading the way was the United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination. Clearly the Holy Spirit was at work, rapidly opening up doors and hearts(!) that many organizations and denominations had labored years to budge.
As of this report we have 4,230 churches and the yearly survey the growth rate looks like this:
Width and Breadth of the Movement
The other key trademark of this current phase of the movement is its width and breadth. No longer is the movement limited to a handful of denominations as it has in the past. Currently the directory contains fifty six different denominations, led by the United Church of Christ with over 785 churches who responded affirmatively to our survey, up an astounding 34% from 2005. Second on our list are the Episcopalian churches followed by the Presbyterian and then Catholic (Roman Catholic and eighteen other offshoots of the Catholic faith such as Reformed Catholic, United Catholic, Old Catholic, Orthodox-Catholic etc.).
The emergence of the mainline denominations as a driving force in the gay Christian movement can be seen in the following chart. It’s interesting to note that the early forerunners of this movement have dropped to 7th (MCC), 8th (Non-denominational) and 12th (Alliance) respectively.
Note: Only denominations that self-identify as being "Christian" are contained in the church directory.
As of January 1st, 2007 the welcoming Christian church directory stands as follows:
Where do we go from here?
I try to always end the annual church survey with a brief look at the major trends I see taking shape and some thoughts on how they may affect the movement in the near future. So what do I see over the next couple of years?
UCC’s Leadership Role
First I think UCC’s numerical leadership role will continue to grow. A ‘pro-gay’ stance hasn’t come without cost however and signs of discontent are evident within the denomination. There is a fairly large contingent of congregations within the denomination that are firmly against UCC’s ‘pro-gay’ stance. Will this result in a substantial number of congregations leaving UCC? I don’t know however the passage of time and the softening of the political climate may alleviate some of the divisions that currently exist.
Predicting what will happen within the Catholic community is a tougher proposition as past history has shown that the Vatican will step in and replace ‘rebellious’ priests with strong conservatives whenever a parish gets a little too friendly with the gay community. Issues such as this account for the growing number of Catholic off-shoot denominations. Currently we count nineteen different Catholic groups represented in the directory. Most of the non Roman Catholic groups accept and affirm homosexuals within their ranks. These Catholic off-shoot denominations make up the fastest growing group within the welcoming directory.
Thanks in large part to legislation that has made it legal in Canada for homosexuals to marry. Churches all across the provinces are reassessing their stance toward the gay and lesbian community. Because of this we may see a large number of Anglican and United Church of Canada congregations open their doors to gay and lesbian community over the next few years.
Changing Political Climate
Another interesting development has occurred in the political climate with Democrats starting to reassert their political strength. This may encourage churches who have been sitting on the fence concerning this issue to step forward. Change, for the most part, can only occur as fast as congregations allow it to, no one likes to see their church split apart due to controversial issues such as this. The more an issue recedes into the realm of universal acceptance the easier ‘sell’ it is for pastors to gently move congregations forward. I’ve traded numerous emails with pastors who see that their denominations formal policy toward homosexuals is scripturally and morally incorrect but their hands are tied until their congregants catch the same vision.
The gay Christian movement has undergone massive growth over the past few years with no slowing in sight. Currently the growth is taking place primarily in the UCC congregations, Catholic groups and across Canada (Anglican and United Church of Canada). Non-denominational and UMC continue to grow as well. In addition the movement is spreading across numerous denominations and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon especially with the thawing political climate.
I'd like to add a special THANK YOU to Eric who has contributed so much of his time to the directory over the last several months. Thank you Eric for helping to open so many doors for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
1 MCC was founded in the late sixties however their impact and emergence upon the national scene was truly evident in the eighties. For a look at some of the historical leaders and the groups they founded see the "LGBT Religious Archives Network."
2 While many of these groups were founded in the seventies and eighties their impact and emergence upon the national was undeniable by the early nineties. For a look at some of the historical leaders and the groups they founded see the "LGBT Religious Archives Network."
Copyright © 2007 by the author