What if my church loses members?
Updated: Jan 26
The church I pastor in California is located in a city that looks like it was plucked from the Midwest. I have served this church in many capacities over the years. At the end of a meeting several years ago, a well-respected individual stood up in my church and said, “I would have joined your church, but you are not ‘Open & Affirming.’”
For those of us who knew what those words meant - that hurt.
It’s not because we were not willing to inclusive, we just hadn’t done the work and many people were afraid we would lose members.
Just in case you’re not in the loop with that phrase, it’s code for being inclusive with the LGBTQI+ community. In other words, everyone is welcome without barriers, and all sexual orientations and gender identities are celebrated in a church community.
It took YEARS for my church to be inclusive.
Why did it take so long? There are two problems that many churches face on the journey towards inclusion. The first is fear and confusion about what it means to be inclusive. Instead of stepping fully into faith, there was a lot of confusion and fear. The second is fear of losing members.
Let me address the first problem: confusion and fear. Maybe you are wondering, “What’s there to be confused about?!”
Several pastors [before me] started the conversation, but not everyone was ready. It wasn’t an easy topic for this church. The words we use to describe who we are including can be confusing. Pastor after pastor would use phrases like “open and affirming,” and referenced how we are called to “love everyone.” (Umm yes, you should love everyone.)
Part of the problem was that the older people didn’t understand what we were talking about. Phrases like “Open and Affirming” or even the acronym “LGBTQI+” meant nothing to them. This went on for years, pastors used verbiage that was meant to build up the idea of being inclusive but didn’t define what that meant or how that looked. Those vague words did not bring us closer to inclusion for a large portion of our people.
It wasn’t until about 7 years ago, that a previous pastor (before I was called to the church) was purposeful and direct in his vocabulary that the meaning was obvious. In fact, he was so direct it made me nervous. We were no longer using code words to discuss the topic. The pastor preached about being inclusive and inviting to LGBTQI+ community from the pulpit.
In short, it became a regular discussion. Being honest and direct demystified the topic.
It was scary and at times terrifying. The fear drastically increased once the vagueness fell away..... but then it got a lot better (keep reading).
The second problem then began to rear its ugly, but understandable, head. An undercurrent of fear existed that people would leave our little church. The congregation members were scared that we might not survive if we became fully inclusive. Our church only had 50 people in worship we couldn’t afford to lose more! But remember the man who said that he wouldn’t join us because we weren’t fully inclusive? It goes both ways, and in the end, it is God who calls us towards full inclusion.
So, you are probably wondering: "did you lose members?" We did. We lost two members; an older man who was well into his 80’s and a woman who was in her 50’s but rarely came to church. That was it! Everyone else voted “YES!” to being inclusive. Everyone else stayed.
Taking the time to be clear and direct in addressing both fear and confusion leads us to be inclusive.
Since those two members left, we have gained five new members who attend and participate in the church BECAUSE we are inclusive! Each of them either identifies or loves someone who is LGBTQI+. Was it worth it? Absolutely! How can we follow Jesus and not be inclusive?
Written by Rev. Dr. Leanne Wade
Yes, indeed, it IS God who calls us to inclusion, just like Leanne said. Being truly inclusive means a lot of things, and becoming open and affirming --ahem, truly and radically inclusive to everyone on all sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums -- is only one step. What happens after making becoming officially open and affirming ... how do we make the shift from a label to an interior shift within our church communities?
For the church to survive and thrive, inclusion is needed. But what happens after the initial fear and confusion and the question of "will we lose members?"
To answer this question, we have partnered with Brandan Robertson, a millennial pastor and activist, who shares his insights on what it actually means to be inclusive -- and how to avoid the gimmicks that a lot of churches use to show their inclusion.
This next question is gonna be a little bit sticky ..... how many of you have rainbow flags outside your churches and wonder why more people don't show up to find out how you're LBGTQI inclusive?..... I'm about to tell you something that hurts (at least, it felt like a gut punch to me!) ... a lot of millennials don't care about rainbow flags. They DO care about whether your community is actually inclusive.
The process of inclusion is challenging, but we know that it is a Jesus thing to do. In fact, you'll learn with Brandan that you never reach an inclusion 'graduation' ... we're always called to do the deep work of investigating how we can be more inclusive.
The class that Brandan is offering is for those who are wondering:
- How and why to get started on the journey of inclusion
- Biblical foundations for inclusion
- What to do after all the trainings and official certifications
- How to be authentic and non-gimmicky in your inclusion practices
.... then this course with Brandan may be right for you. It is about 5 contact hours of self-paced material with reflection questions to help you determine what is next for you on this journey. It has practical "how tos" to show you some options along the way. The journey towards inclusion is never complete, but it can get started right now. We've made this available at a super low tuition, just because we believe it is that important, at only $97 (1 or 2 payment options) for unlimited access for a year. Just click here to get started.