Spoiler: Your average affirming church might be resting on its laurels
With every passing moment, it becomes increasingly less revolutionary for a progressive Christian congregation to label itself as some combination of open, affirming or welcoming. Denominational schisms notwithstanding, more and more Christians are saying yes to the once-incendiary proposition that LGBTQ+ people not only deserve to a place in the pew — but also a place in the pulpit, at the altar, in leadership, and at the front of the sanctuary exchanging marriage vows.
But as with so many shibboleths, as these bywords and catchphrases lose their incendiary edge, they invariably become so softened at the edges, so shopworn, so singsong, that they roll off the collective tongue and join the ranks of sounds-good soundbites that lose their power precisely because they don’t break through anymore.
In particular, I want to call out the word affirming, because of the three mentioned above, it’s the one that I think calls us to not just welcome the stranger, but to truly be hospitable.
In short, I wonder how many people really understand the true weight of what they’re committing themselves to. I wonder how many understand its true size, shape and impact. I wonder how many appreciate the really life-restoring and soul-saving power of true affirmation.
What I mean by that is this: A true heart-bursting, mind-expanding, soul-piercing commitment to affirmation knows no bounds. It’s not content to rest on its laurels. Jesus didn’t confine his ministry or his message to his own tribe. He announced his ministry to the Samaritan woman at the well. He hungered to touch every human heart on the planet.
Today’s version of that is that we can’t just congratulate ourselves if we have gay couples holding hands in our pews, or sitting on our congregational boards, or getting married in our sanctuaries. We have to understand that the front line of the battle to affirm humanity is fluid, it’s always shifting, and it’s something we have to affirmatively reach for.
Jesus is on that line, waiting for us. If we claim to follow him, we must follow him to where he is now. We must affirm his presence there.
Affirming church? A challenge to orthodoxy
I went to a pastor friend of mine and asked (okay, challenged) them to consider the following scenario with their own “affirming” congregation in mind.
A trans woman starts coming to church. She sits right up front. Her Sunday best is a Dolly Parton-esque ensemble that leaves precious little to the imagination — and a Tammy Faye-level love of all that makeup can do to accentuate one’s facial features.
Also, her chosen profession is to, shall we say, get paid for her very intimate company. I say chosen to confirm that she is not being trafficked or coerced by any other human. In fact, she would tell you that she enjoys bringing pleasure in a radically nondiscriminatory way to any human who can afford her and is respectful.
“How does this fly with you as a pastor — and with your congregation?” I asked.
“Of course we’d have no problem with the fact that she were a trans person,” my pastor friend said, smiling. “And no one would judge her style of dress.”
“But we might want to have a conversation with her about her chosen profession.”
My response? “Then you can’t call yourselves affirming.”
Affirming churches truly follow Jesus
To call ourselves affirming means we’re doing the hard work of putting into action the teaching of Jesus the Christ.
It’s not at all the same as when the average church communicates that you’re saved, but… You’re welcome here, but… You’re precious in God’s sight, but… You’re gainfully employed, but…
When they do that, they place themselves firmly in front of the concept of affirmation instead of lovingly behind it.
When you hear the “buts,” the judgment, the bias — you’re not being affirmed. You’re being held at arm’s length by even the ones who claim to follow a Savior who deeply, achingly yearned to embrace the entire world.
If we as Christians say that everyone is a child of God, created in God’s image and deserving of a direct relationship with God, then we must do better.
If we as Christians claim to be inspired by the teaching of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we must embrace the concomitant freedom that lets the temptation to judge, or to define sin or salvation for anyone but ourselves, roll right off our backs. It’s perhaps the greatest expression of personal, soul-piercing freedom you could possibly ask for in the context of the powerful, loving relationship with our Creator that we are bold to claim for ourselves.
Affirming as a calling
So what does affirmation actually call us to do? Affirming someone is an act of validation that seeks to empower and lift up without judgment. To affirm means to build trust, respect and understanding between two people or with the community of faith, fostering a deep connection of agape.
This means that being a truly affirming church, in both word and deed, shouldn’t be easy, and it should require a bit more from the congregation than a love of marketing wordplay.
Being an affirming church means embracing the truth that the true choice we face in recognizing our place in the body of Christ — God’s family — is not whether or not the stranger belongs, but rather how radically we will include them. If “all” means all, it means we have to create the same degree of safe space for everyone that we would expect for anyone — including ourselves.
When you are looking for that safe church space, that safe church place — where you are recognized to be wonderfully and uniquely made in the image of God — look for these five indicators of true hospitality. And if you find them lacking, shake the dust off your feet as you depart.
Affirming churches: The 5 signs
- Respect: An affirming church recognizes that no person is lesser than another and works to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and honor. This means creating an environment where all people are seen as equals regardless of their background, race, religion, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.
- Inclusion: An affirming church seeks to extend hospitality beyond its own members to include all individuals who seek acceptance and belonging within its walls. This includes making sure that those from different racial, ethnic, or social backgrounds feel welcome and included.
- Support: An affirming church provides support to those who have experienced marginalization or exclusion due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. This involves providing resources and services that may be beneficial to LGBTQ+ individuals such as counseling, mental health services, legal advice, housing, and job assistance.
- Education: An affirming church works to educate others on issues related to inclusion and understanding of individual differences by hosting workshops and seminars on topics ranging from the history of minority groups to promoting LGBTQ+ rights and safety in public spaces. It is also important for an affirming church to create a supportive learning environment in which questions can be asked without fear of judgement or punishment.
- Activism: In addition to providing support and education, an affirming church should also be active in advocating for social justice and equality. This could take the form of writing letters to legislators urging them to pass laws that are inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community or participating in marches and rallies devoted to fighting discrimination.
By embracing the core values of respect, inclusion, support, education, and activism, a truly affirming church can become a safe space for all who seek acceptance and understanding within its walls. Through these practices we can create a world where everyone’s identity is affirmed and celebrated.
Through these practices we will indeed keep the command Jesus gave us when he said:
Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.
Replace “love” with “affirm,” and I think you know what to do.
In a truly affirming church, all means all. Photo by fauxels on Pexels[/caption]
Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever and Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994, have been in a committed partnership since the early 1980s and have been legally married since 2015.