The welcome and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons in congregations contributes to a positive image of Christianity, especially among young adults, many of whom have rejected the church.
Sadly, the harshness of many denominations and congregations toward LGBT people has contributed to a negative image of the Christian faith, particularly among people in their twenties and thirties, both inside and outside the church.
Large numbers of mainline and evangelical Protestant congregations have suffered significant membership losses over the last three decades. The losses have been especially severe among people in their twenties and thirties.
Christian Community did a study of the views of younger adults (18–35) and older adults (36 and older) who are active in the life of 610 congregations. Younger adults who are active in those churches differ significantly from older adults in their opinions on several issues in church life and in society. This was especially true in the area of sexuality. For example, young adults are almost three times as likely as older adults (81% versus 28%) to feel that homosexuality is not a sin and to feel that homosexuality is not something that people “choose” but rather that some people simply “are” homosexual.
When one considers that such great differences exist in perspective between younger adults and older adults who are active in the church, it is not surprising that it is difficult to retain young adult involvement and to reach new young adults. In that study, 87% of the young adults who are church-active said that they “withheld their beliefs and opinions a significant amount of the time because they knew older members would disapprove of their views, especially regarding sexuality.”
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of the Barna Research Group have written a book titled Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… And Why It Matters (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007). In this book, Kinnaman and Lyons point out that Christianity in general and evangelical Christianity in particular have gained a negative image with people outside the church and even with people in their twenties and thirties who are inside the church.
They warn that many younger people see Christianity as too judgmental, too narrow, and too anti-gay. They warn evangelical Christians that “we have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for” [p. 26]. The book’s authors urge a warmer, more charitable view of gays and lesbians. This is especially interesting since Kinnaman and Lyons are in fact opposed to homosexual behavior and make that clear in the book, but they recognize that anti-gay rhetoric from churches has caused a significant image problem for the faith.
Just changing the rhetoric, however, isn’t enough to turn around the image of the church. While less harsh words about LGBT people may help soften the image of Christianity, people inside and outside the church are not going to be fooled by a simple change in words. Churches that are willing to fully incorporate LGBT people into congregational life send by their actions a deeper message than any words can send.