Lillian Daniel: But Why Don't They Just Come to My Church?


I'm a woman senior minister of a large liberal Protestant church in the middle of the conservative Western suburbs of Chicago, where dreams of evangelical mega churches dominate the ecclesiastical imagination. So I didn't need Justin Lee to tell me that the ex-gay movement doesn't work.

Torn, by Justin Lee

My congregation welcomes everyone on the cover of each Sunday worship bulletin, with a specific reference to sexual orientation. We do that because we are surrounded by churches that claim to welcome everyone, but then pull them into the ex-gay movement, for bad therapy at best and soul-scathing injury at worst. Sometimes, those refugees limp into our church. But more often, they end up nowhere.

So in the liberal Protestant waters in which I swim, it is not uncommon to hear this plaintive question asked with a sigh, and perhaps also with a touch of condescension, "But why don't they just come to our churches instead?"

Why don't they come to my church? We'll perform your gay marriage. In Illinois, we can't make it legal, but not for lack of trying. Our children take it for granted that every church welcomes gays, until they hit prejudice in the schools and playgrounds, and realize we are the minority opinion within Christianity. But the teenagers are proud of our counter-cultural stance in conservative Du Page County. As one snarky senior high fellowship member put it, "Our church put the "bi" in Bible."

Having never been a member of a conservative church, I scratch my head at the gullibility of Christians who line up to hear the next ex-gay phenom doing victory laps around the Christian speaking circuit. I marvel at these guys' ability to reproduce themselves each time another speaker gets caught with his pants down. But my world is not Justin Lee's world.

And Justin Lee loves his church. And when I say he loves his church, I mean he loves it so much so that he wants to change it.

His memoir makes it clear that he delights in praise songs and evangelical worship. And as for coming to my church, he is no fan of the ultra open churches, which he characterizes as too quick to depart from doctrine and too quick sacrifice a relationship with Jesus on the altar of inoffensiveness. That's not how I would describe my church, but I do understand the ways in which people love the worship practices that have shaped them, even when they have been hurt.

Having experienced prejudice in the evangelical world, Lee is still passionate about its many strengths. And it's that evangelical church he seems to be talking to the most in Torn. At first, this book seems to be aimed at LGBTQ evangelical Christians. But by the end, it feels like it was written more for their parents, their grandparents and, most of all, for their pastors.

Because of that, the book has a sweet tone that bends over backwards not to be strident or to shock. Lee's prose on the subject of sexual attraction is so wholesome it could read with a glass of milk and cookies while listening to Karen Carpenter sing "Close to You." He lays out his dream of life long companionship so tenderly; you'd think he was a middle-aged marriage enrichment leader instead of a college boy. I have to admit, I kept wondering if the kid was ever going to get to have sex.

But Lee came early to the mature understanding that eludes your average college student: our sexuality is so much more than the sexual act. His exploration of celibacy (his own in college and that of other adults he knows now) is respectful and serious, and comes out of his evangelical tradition.

Today, years later, Lee is a spiritual leader who makes a compelling case for setting aside the language of the culture wars. He is determined to keep two key groups of Christians within the Gay Christian Network - one he calls, "side A," who are open to being in gay sexual relationships, and "side B," who are gay but choose to remain celibate. Surely, I am not the first to note that in trying to avoid polarizing terms, "side A" gets a way better grade than "side B." But Lee's genuine desire to keep both these groups in conversation sets his project apart from others, as does his consistently gentlemanly tone.

And here, his gentle analysis convicted me, as a reader from outside his tradition, yet another sinner prone to smugness. I recall with some chagrin a conversation I once had with a Catholic feminist nun I worked with on social justice issues. As we grew closer, she told me she was gay, which I immediately interpreted to mean she had a partner. After all, why else would she tell me? When I said something that revealed my assumption, she was clearly offended. She took her celibacy seriously, even if I had not. I now see that she was a "side B" Christian. And I was a liberal Protestant who didn't get it.

The beauty of this book is that Lee wants to challenge all kinds of Christians on the ways we don't get it. It's not enough for liberals to sit comfortably in their own little swimming pools and say, "Come on over, jump in! The water's fine."

And it's not enough for the evangelicals to throw up their hands and say to their gay members, "Love the sinner, hate the sin. And if you don't like it, go somewhere else."

It's not enough for openly gay Christians to rejoice in their relationships and see everyone else as repressed. And it's not enough for celibate gay Christians to see themselves as more pure.

These self-righteous polarities are not working for us, in the church or outside it. Hence, Lee's conciliatory and generous tone.

But if it were not for the battles waged thus far, would there even be room in our culture for a gracious book like this? This past election, four more states passed gay marriage. Public opinion is turning, and it's turning in the evangelical church of Lee's upbringing as well. None of that happened by accident.

Perhaps it is because of so many fights hard won that Lee is now able to move into more nuanced territory with this grace-filled memoir. It's a Biblical model, after all: first, the tearing apart, then, the repairing.

And of course, we do not do this work alone. Torn is not the last word, but another beautiful beginning in God's ongoing story of rift and repair.

Reposted with permission.