As we have seen in this issue, many “mainstream” churches are opening their doors to gays and lesbians. This action is undoubtedly being blessed by God as evidenced by the growth and other miracles these churches have experienced.
It’s good to see these churches finally taking a stand and welcoming our community into their congregations. But long before their doors opened, Rev. Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church … an organization aimed at getting gays and lesbians back into the pews. Today, there are MCC churches all around the world, ministering to the outcasts of every culture.
One of the biggest success stories of the MCC is the Cathedral of Hope. The Dallas church is what is commonly referred to as a “mega-church.” These types of churches are known chiefly for their size. The Cathedral boasts a membership of 1900 people, with 30,000 people on a regular mailing list. On any given Sunday, 1700 people will pack into the Dallas sanctuary for services.
While many MCC churches around the country struggle to hit 100 members, the congregation in Dallas has grown by leaps and bounds, and has lost more members to AIDS (1100) than many MCC churches have ever seen come through their doors.
What is their secret? What makes this church different from any other MCC in the world? Whosoever had a chance to talk with the Cathedral’s Senior Pastor Michael Piazza about his church’s success, and the future that lies before it.
WHOSOEVER: How do you explain your church’s phenomenal growth?
PIAZZA: Some reports have suggested that it’s because Dallas is in the Bible Belt, but there are a lot of cities in the Bible Belt with large gay and lesbian communities that do not have churches as large. People do value church here, but because this is the Bible Belt, people who come here, like school teachers, risk losing their jobs. Some teachers sing in the choir every week and our services are televised. They literally risk their jobs to be able to sing in the choir. We have had people lose their jobs because they go to church here. So the Bible Belt cuts both ways.
People give me a lot of credit for it, but I’m not sure that’s it either. Except, in as much as, it has been a good marriage between a church and a pastor. We share common core values and common passions. This is a church that wants to reach the world and to let every gay and lesbian person know that they can be gay and lesbian and Christian and that is a huge ambition. That’s my value. I won’t be satisfied until everyone has heard that while the fundamentalists have their version of Christianity, it’s not the only version.
W: You say your church’s services are televised. What a blessing to have a gay and lesbian church on TV!
P: We actually are just about to launch a whole new TV ministry. We are on in more than 30 cities now, but beginning the first of the year we hope to be on nationwide. We’re negotiating now with the networks. That’s the next phase.
To some extent there is no lower form of life than a television preacher. It’s not my ambition, but I don’t know any other way to reach gay teenagers or lesbian and gay people in small towns. Those are the people that I have a passion for this church reaching.
W: You also have a great site on the World Wide Web.
P: Our next goal for that is for people to be able to access the website and be able to see the worship service live. I don’t know of any churches who are doing this. It makes sense that a church like ours should be on the cutting edge.
W: So many churches have trouble maintaining memberships under 100 people. What is the key to keeping 1900 people members in one place?
P: I don’t think that a mega-church is the only model for doing church, it’s just the model that this church feels called to. I think there needs to be mega-churches because with a church this size, other churches can’t ignore us or pretend we’re just a cult or sect. Because of our church’s growth and size we’re doing what other churches say they ought to be doing. We are really reaching the unchurched, we are converting people and baptizing people. It’s hard for them to point a finger at us and say we’re wrong when we’re doing what they say they should be doing but aren’t. There needs to be some mega-churches to give our movement a different sort of visibility and, to some extent, some credibility.
So many people in the lesbian and gay community come out of broken families. When they get to church they discover a new family there. Growth really threatens that feeling of family. One of things we try to do is create a sense of family for people. Our church is divided into hundreds of small groups called “Circles of Hope.” In those circles they have an experience of family. Their sense of family isn’t lost as the church grows. On Sunday morning, we come together for a big celebration of life and faith and worship. As with any celebration, the more the merrier. We’re able to experience the joy of having a lot of people in a giant celebration and still retain the intimacy and sense of family.
W: Tell me about your latest book, Rainbow Family Values.
P: The basic premise of the book is that the current idea of the nuclear family is one of the most disfunctional concepts to come along. It doesn’t work for heterosexuals so it is a mistake for gays and lesbians to try to emulate a failed model. What we really need to do is to claim some more ancient and basic models of family. The idea of tribes, of clans, of extended families and communities is what we really need to be working on, not finding a mate and settling down to live in a suburb. That’s not working for heterosexuals, why should we think it would work for us?
W: Your church is currently building a new church, tell us about that.
P: Ultimately it will be a 20 acre site. We are all very clear that we’re not building a palace or something grand and extravagant. What we’re really doing is building a 20 million dollar billboard on which we will communicate our passion and belief that God’s love includes lesbian and gay people. The attention that this building is getting has enabled us to do our mission. The building is really very secondary compared to what it allows us to accomplish. I’ve done interviews around the world on just the very idea of doing this building. It’s such a unique building that it will appear in every architectural journal and book for the next few decades. Everyone who sees this building will have to grapple with, on some level, our message; these are gay and lesbian people and this is a church.
W: What’s your response to those who say you can’t be gay and Christian?
P: I rarely have to say anything, because we are. Here is a church that functions in every way as a church in terms of the number of needy people we care for and the number of people being reconciled to God. By every measure we’re simply doing it. It is our most powerful message, here we are. You have to argue with our existence, not our theology.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians,” was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.