On June 15, 2013, The Star published a beautiful article called “Welcoming worship; Local churches talk about open worship and the county’s gay population.” As the new pastor of First Christian Church here in Anniston, I was interviewed. I recently dug up this article and read it again, and I feel I have more to offer now that I’ve been here over four years.
I remember that writer Sara Milledge asked me how my congregation felt about welcoming members of the LGBTQ community to worship with them. I have to admit that I was uncomfortable answering that question at the time because I simply didn’t know the answer (having only been here a handful of months, I hadn’t had a chance to discuss the topic with everyone in the church). So, I ended up speaking on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination instead, and kept it very general.
Since then, a lot has changed in our sweet church. Shortly after the article was published, the denomination passed a resolution to welcome all people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, disability, etc., into all aspects of the life of the church. While the dialogue at the General Assembly was heated, the response to the vote around the country was relatively peaceful. In our congregation, it freed up members (who had wanted to all along but weren’t quite sure how they would be received before) to invite their gay friends to church.
As a congregation, we’ve learned to be more and more intentional about how we live out the love of Christ in our day to day lives. And since then, we’ve become a stronger congregation because each person who walks through our doors is offered (even more confidently than before) the right hand of Christian friendship and love. We’ve grown diverse in age, race, culture, sexual orientation, economic status and disability. Every day it’s feeling more and more like the Kingdom of God.
I admit that this isn’t always easy. It’s hard to get along with people who are so different from you. It’s challenging to welcome into your midst people who have been so deeply harmed by other Christians who sincerely believed they were living as Christ called them to live. The amount of pain and damage people carry with them when they are systematically condemned by people who are supposed to be sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is devastating.
I must admit that, as a pastor, I am still learning how to best serve such hurting people. And I don’t just mean the LGBTQ community. I’m talking about poor or homeless people who have been turned away at the door on Sunday morning, when all they wanted to do was worship God. I’m also talking about people who have certain mental illnesses. These individuals need the love of Christ as much as (if not more than) the rest of us, but because of the misunderstandings that exist in our world, they are also turned away from worshipping communities. I do not believe that the people who turn these individuals away are bad people. But I do feel that we Christians have been misinformed about what it means to be the Body of Christ.
I wanted to update the community on where I stand on the topic of Welcoming Worship today. I stand alongside this congregation and joyfully open my arms to all people who want to worship and serve the Lord with open hearts because, as Christ loves me, I am called to love, well, everyone else in the world. I pray every day for the Body of Christ, that it grows stronger, more loving, more generous, more charitable, more compassionate, more united and more passionate about sharing the Gospel with every person who wants to hear it.