I grew up spiritually confused. As the youngest of four children, my parents had long given up trying to wrangle us all into dress clothes and into the pews every week. I didn't really know the Bible. But every summer, I'd get sent off to the local church's "Vacation Bible School" because it was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The Southern Baptist VBS was heavy on the religion, and made me scared that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity if I so much as told a small fib. The Catholic VBS mostly let us run around their playground all day, and I don't think they had any desire to instill their baroque belief system in young minds who couldn't fathom the idea of transubstantiation. My favorite VBS was the Methodist one. I got the sense that they didn't believe too strongly in anything, except for arts and crafts. I'll never know what pine cone and peanut butter bird feeders had to do with the death and resurrection of Christ, but it made me feel good when they told me Jesus loved me, no matter how messy I was with the Elmer's glue.
Seeing all these different denominations showed me that there is not one spiritual truth. I felt really bad for the kids who only got to go to the Baptist VBS (and even worse for the kids who had to go every week to that stuffy church with their tacky modernist stained glass). They were scared. In that church, god was little more than a power-hungry scold who disdained anything fun and interesting. But, for a lot of people who only see one spiritual tradition, they believe what they're told is the truth. This can actually be quite damaging to your mental health if you’re gay. I've seen many LGBT friends struggle with this type of spiritual upbringing, and the mental health problems it causes can last for a lifetime.
Zach Rawlings and Michael Hidalgo use the same Bible quote to explain the relationship between the modern Christian church and homosexuality: Matthew 7:18. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”
Rawlings, a mental health counselor, gay man, and “washed-up Christian” views the church with doubt. He grew up in a conservative Christian environment and received his Master's in clinical mental health counseling at Denver Seminary. Rawlings thinks there still exist too many churches with a view of god as vindictive—especially when it comes to homosexuality. “Not only are you as an LGBT person born as unequal, but they think you will burn in hell for eternity. Gay people are told they are unlovable by both their family and by god.” The fruit born of these churches cannot be anything good, Rawlings contends.
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Michael Hidalgo, lead pastor of Denver Community Church, agrees that the pervasive message has been around for too long and he wants his church to change it. “Research just came out that the of the 100 largest Evangelical Churches in America, zero are publicly inclusive of our LGTBQ friends,” he tells me. “This is significant because research has shown that LGBTQ teens who come from a Christian tradition that rejects them are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.”
This link between Christian homophobia and mental health problems among LGBT people is undeniable. A report by the UK-based Christian charity the Oasis Foundation tells us that the Church is one of the biggest sources of direct discrimination against LGBT people and the biggest contributor of negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media. This has a hugely distressing impact on large numbers of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and leaves countless numbers of them living lives of forced secrecy and dishonesty. “The church must accept the role it has, however unintentionally, played in the in the poor mental and physical health of LGBT people,” the report states, “including anxiety, depression, and ultimately a risk to their physical health and even their lives.”
The Oasis report suggests that LGBT-inclusive churches need to be more public about their stance, and be bolder in hosting open conversation—featuring the voices of LGBT-accepting Christians—and find new ways to support and uplift the LGBT community.
Hidalgo's Denver Community Church may be leading the way in doing just this. His non-denominational evangelical church attracts an average of 1,500 people to its two campuses every week. Moving toward LGBT inclusion was a big deal for DCC; Hidalgo and his church elders spent nearly two years discussing the topic. At first, they were split 50/50. After a series of conversations with LGBT people in the community, minds began to change.
In early 2017, DCC officially announced its pro-LGBT stance. Some members left because of the decision, but many more people joined DCC because of their open LGBT stance. Hidalgo reports that DCC did take a quarter-million dollar hit in donations because of the policy. Still, he believes he’s on the right path.
“I think spirituality has positive effects for people," Rawlings says. "You can find folks who are like-minded and also working towards a higher purpose. Finding a church without problematic ideology is vital, though."
Turns out, finding LGBT-affirming congregations can be a confusing, discouraging experience. Take the report Hidalgo cited, which found that the top 100 largest evangelical congregations in the US are not LGBT-affirming. Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, the largest congregation in the US, has no real published policy on LGBT people. While the church isn't outright discriminatory, they haven't publicly said they accept LGBT people. The same goes for Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California.
Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas—known for head pastor Ed Young's book, Sexperiment, which promotes sex positivity within marriage—also lacks any established LGBT policy. Even though these churches don't promote an anti-LGBT message, their views come forth in meeting notes, letters of support for the homophobic owners of Chick-Fil-A, volunteer applications, and other materials that make it clear that they're not cool with the gays.
“Spirituality is available to all people, regardless of their sexuality,” Rawlings says. “Spiritual practice is connecting in a meaningful way with other people. It could be dinner with friends every week and talking about goals in life. It could be meditation. The same things happen neurologically praying to god as they do when you meditate. Spirituality and the church are not the same.”
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