Thursday, July 16, 2009

Are Gay Friendly Churches in Decline?

My friend and fellow Progressive Catholic Voice (PCV) editorial team member, Rick, does a stellar job daily updating the PCV’s “News Links.” Today, for instance, Rick highlights a article by Daniel Schultz that explores the question: Are gay friendly churches in decline?

It’s a very insightful piece, one that is reprinted in its entirety below.


US News & World Report’s Dan Gilgoff considers Episcopalians’ move to ordain gays and lesbians in light of the membership woes afflicting mainline denominations:

One big question these changes raise is whether they’ll affect the dramatic decline of membership in mainline churches. The U.S. churches experiencing growth right now—those in the evangelical, nondenominational, and Mormon traditions —condemn homosexuality. . . . But the churches most open to homosexuality are shrinking fastest.

That’s true only if you aggregate mainliners vs. Evangelicals and others. Within the mainline, there’s not nearly so much of a straight (erm) line correlation.

The big losers among mainline denominations are United Methodists, who shed nearly 20% of their members between 1990 and 2008, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The Methodists do not ordain gays and lesbians. Presbyterians and Lutherans each lost about 5-6% of their members. Episcopalians went down 20% as well, but on a much lower scale than Methodists: in 1990, there were about 3 million Episcopalians in the US. In 2008, there were around 2.4 million. Not chump change, to be sure, but nothing like the staggering 3 million Methodists who disappeared in the same period.

And as Gilgoff himself points out, Catholics—hardly the most gay-friendly of traditions—have been hit hard, a trend that has been masked by Catholic immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, my own United Church of Christ actually grew between 1990 and 2008. True, we’re still miniscule according to ARIS, but it’s a trend nonetheless. Also growing: “New Religious Movements and Other Religions,” a category that includes Unitarian Universalists among other gay-friendly groups, and those claiming no religion, which we know from other research to be the most sympathetic to gays and lesbians. NRMs and the “Nones,” as they’re called, more than double their population, outpacing every other sector of the religious economy.

A better way to put it, then, might be: some churches open to homosexuality are shrinking. Others are not. And the people who really are growing are the ones who don’t hate the gays at all.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Dispatches from the Periphery
The “Undergroud Church”
The Emerging Church
The Catholic Challenge


William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, thank you for a thought-provoking discussion of an important issue, which receives constant media reiteration.

Here are some top-of-the-head responses I have, after reading your helpful analysis.

First, I wonder to what extent the gay-friendly-churches-are-declining meme has been invented by those opposing inclusion of gays in the churches. If it hasn't been invented by that sector, it has surely been exploited by them, and has entered the mainstream media as an unquestionable assertion, due to their powerful influence.

Second, your analysis suggests to me that we need far more subtle tools to understand the decline in membership in some churches, than the single tool of gay-exclusion or gay-inclusion.

What influence does the gospel of prosperity play, for instance, in churches attracting members? Many of us assume, because of media hype, that some of these churches are gaining members because people are fleeing gay-inclusive churches.

I wonder if people are often choosing some of the fundamentalist evangelical churches that promise prosperity to the righteous, instead, and if the question of including or excluding gays is really secondary.

Third, if one uses a case-by-case analysis to determine what attracts-repels people from various churches, one might find that the question of gay inclusion or exclusion is not central at all.

In my own bible belt context, I can fairly safely say that many people I know have joined the Episcopal church in Arkansas precisely because it is gay-inclusive on the whole--even when they are not gay themselves. They are leaving behind what they find to be the stifling approach of their fundamentalist churches of origin, and the inclusion of gays by the Episcopal church in this state is only one among many signs to such folks that a church community can be affirming of the world in which they live, and not always condemning.

I also now many Methodists who are fleeing the Methodist church in the South precisely because it tries to be all things to all people, a big tent in which the church and its leaders just won't take a stand.

These Methodists are turned off by the fuzziness of the UMC assertion that UMCs love gays, when the church refuses really to take a stand to include gay folks in any substantive way. They are also turned off by the vague talk about social principles, when they see the church belying its social principles again and again in its institutional behavior.

These cases suggest to me that the reasons people are moving from church to church may be much more subtle than the gay-inclusive, gay-exclusive analysis suggests.

And I think that's the point you are also making in your posting, and that it's a very valuable point.

kevin57 said...

To tease out these statistics, it would be interesting to look at how young people (let's say 21-39 years of age)are attending to religious observance in each of the mainline and evangelical faith communities

Mark Andrews said...

It's tempting to look at active religious affiliation as a zero-sum game in which some communities "lose" and others "win" Tally up the losses and wins and everything balances nicely. I don't think it works so neatly.

Focussing on one issue - the comparative inclusion or exclusion of people who identify as glbt in the life of a religious community - it's better to look at what's going on now as seeing how the room sorts. People who self-identify as theologically progressive may leave their current community and try several among a wide range of alternatives before choosing one. Or not. The same thing is going on among people who self-identify as theologically conservative.

The net effect on established religious communities is not so clear. There are other, additional reason why religious communities are created, grow, are sustained, shrink or cease over time. Examples include:

* Immigration
* Scandals (sexual, fiscal)
* Age
* Single or not
* Partnered or not
* Married or not
* Kids or not
* Aging parents or not
* Employed or not
* Ethnicity
* Race

All the various factors affecting human behavior.

There is a tendency to think that "more" means "better" or that "more" means "more in tune with the prompting of the Holy Spirit." Or that "less" somehow means "persecuted." I don't the Holy Spirit is a bean counter.

Liam said...


I agree.

I would add two variables regarding liturgy and one demographic variable:

1. Liturgy

a. Quality of Preaching: If the preacher is solipsistic or merely moralistic, then there is thin gruel. (And moralism is hardly contained to conservatives and traditionalists; in fact, in my experience, self-styled progressive preachers who emphasize the tasking of the Social Gospel are engaged in at least as much moralism. And lay moralism consists of preaching about sins that the flock in the preacher's present tend to avoid in favor of the sins Those Bad People Over There tend to do.) Preachers who challenge their flock towards theosis rather than affirming them in their OKness tend to attract people - if people come to Church to get the validations and affirmations they can easily get for free outside Church, they're on the wrong mission.

b. The quality of music

2. Urbanism and mobility: the more densely churched a place is, the more choices people may have.

* * *

Intentional communities tend to have an advantage in #1 because they a tendency to invest time and care into their liturgies. This is especially true in their early years, when there's an kind on intensity bordering on limerance. That energy will eventually dissipate (because we're human, and even with the gifts of the Spirit, it's in the very nature of human organizations because change is written into our mortal being), and communities that have not fully prepared for that change tend to wither all the more bitterly than other types of communities.