“All are welcome.” That’s the phrase displayed on the sign out front at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, Ont. It’s the phrase found in its weekly bulletin, and it’s the phrase Junia Joplin, 41, preached for six years as the lead pastor. But when Joplin came out as transgender during a sermon this past June and was later terminated, it was clear to her that those words were hollow. “Any church can say, ‘All are welcome,’ and it’s a totally meaningless and empty phrase,” she says. “It’s dishonest in a way that actually harms marginalized people.”
Even as an increasing number of denominations grapple toward full inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ2 people, evangelical, Pentecostal and many other non-denominational churches continue to preach that being gay is a sin, a lifestyle choice that can be changed. For decades, church members who didn’t fit the heteronormative roles prescribed from the pulpit have felt traumatized. But times are changing, and some conservative churches are being nudged along, too.
The younger generations now coming into leadership roles at these churches grew up in a world that was more accepting of the LGBTQ2 community. Some emerging pastors, ministers and other leaders want to create spaces that truly welcome and fully accept those once cast as sinners. But they are struggling against the old guard, discovering such “radical” change and acceptance isn’t easily won.
Joplin grew up in Hudson, a town in North Carolina with a population of 3,700. She and her family attended the Baptist church adjacent to her grandparents’ property. The church, as she puts it, “proudly identified as fundamentalist.” Joplin says she felt called to ministry at around 11 years old, which was the same time her feelings that she should be a girl were at their most intense. At the time, she thought these two feelings were in direct competition with one another. “I could go to my parents and my church and say, ‘I feel called to ministry,’ and I’d be affirmed and celebrated and given opportunities,” Joplin says. “But if I’d said, ‘You know, I think I was supposed to be a girl,’ I would have been chastised, ostracized, maybe even abused.”
And so she repressed who she was, distracting herself with school, seminary and building a family and career. In 2014, she took the opportunity to transfer from a small church in Virginia to a larger congregation in Lorne Park, a community within the city of Mississauga. “I guess it was one of those moves that people make and they think, ‘Oh, this is gonna straighten my life out,’” she says. “I guess I recognized that there was something still missing.”
Joplin credits Canada with helping her learn who she really is. She was managing one of her son’s hockey teams, and Hockey Canada requires parent volunteers to take a webinar on non-discrimination and creating a safe and respectful environment for LGBTQ2 kids. There was a specific module addressing gender identity and expression that triggered a recognition. “I think I need[ed] to hear this calling within me that I’ve been persistently repressing and ignoring and doubting the existence of for, at that point, almost 40 years,” she says.
The night before delivering her sermon, Joplin was terrified. She didn’t get much sleep, but she was hopeful her congregants would embrace her true identity. Lorne Park Baptist is a member of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, which partners with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. She recalls the church had embraced a summer camp director when he came out as gay several years ago. Unfortunately, the congregation didn’t extend the same welcome to Joplin.
A month after her sermon, Lorne Park put Joplin’s job to a vote in the congregation. Of the 111 members who cast a ballot, 52 percent favoured her termination. “Frankly, I’m shocked to learn that my congregation would say ‘for theological reasons’ they would be dismissing me, because it doesn’t reflect the theology I’ve been hearing from folks,” Joplin says. “It doesn’t reflect the theology I’ve been preaching from the pulpit for six years.”
This dissonance is not unique. Many evangelical and non-denominational churches claim to embrace people from all walks of life, but when you dig into their websites, you might discover phrasing that indicates they don’t support same-sex marriage — an indicator that they don’t embrace the LGBTQ2 community. “Churches intentionally aim to be as unclear as they possibly can because nobody wants to come right out and say what they believe about this stuff, because I think they would see it is detrimental,” Joplin says.
She refers to LGBTQ2 people she knows who attend some of the megachurches in the Toronto area, not realizing that these churches are theologically not accepting of who they are. She feels the churches tend to avoid or skirt around the topic. “Neutrality is oppression,” Joplin says.
She credits the work of Black Lives Matter protesters for teaching people that it’s not enough to be neutral. “The opposite of racism is not not-racism: that is a neutral position. It’s anti-racism. And I would say the same thing for homophobia and transphobia.”
Of a similar mind is Jenna Tenn-Yuk, a Toronto writer and speaker who is a racialized, queer Christian. Tenn-Yuk was raised in the Pentecostal church, where fire and brimstone rhetoric was the norm. From early on, she was aware that being gay was considered wrong. She felt guilt and shame before she had the words for it. “Even if it’s who you are and it’s natural to you, you’re being taught that it’s unnatural,” she says.
Tenn-Yuk didn’t come out until she was in her 20s, telling some friends first and then writing a blog post. It was 2012 and she was working as an intern in a non-denominational Christian ministry. At the time, Tenn-Yuk says she was having terrible thoughts and was afraid she would hurt herself if she didn’t tell anyone. She found it healing to come out, but the church she worked at asked her to sign an agreement that she wouldn’t engage in homosexual behaviour. She felt like she was being asked to choose between her faith and her queerness. “You can be queer and Christian,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be this gut-wrenching decision.”
Tenn-Yuk has spent years looking for accepting churches that offer the familiar charismatic worship she grew up with. “I have a hard time with hipster churches….The pastors are tatted up, very stylish and trendy,” she says. “And so you have these ‘cool Christians’ who come off as liberal and progressive and yet are just as homophobic and transphobic as the old-school evangelical church.”
Tenn-Yuk finds this far scarier because what you see isn’t what you get. “There will never be a sermon about how awesome it is to be queer,” she points out. She wants queer and trans folks to be celebrated in those spaces, and to see herself reflected in the leadership. Changes are happening incrementally, she says, but when you are being excluded, it doesn’t feel fast enough.
Evangelicalism is a broad category of Christianity that falls within Protestantism. The emphasis is on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a literal interpretation of the Bible as the true word of God, which evangelicals believe in sharing to win souls for Jesus. While a large number of those who attend these types of churches in the United States call themselves evangelicals, Canadians seem to prefer the term “non-denominational,” meaning they don’t fall under the umbrella of other denominational institutions, such as the Anglican, Presbyterian or United churches.
However, numerous denominations within Canada do identify as evangelical, including Baptist, Brethren, Congregational, Lutheran, Pentecostal and the Salvation Army. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) website, eight to 12 percent of Canadians refer to themselves as evangelical. (Broadview asked the EFC for comment on this story, but the organization declined.)
One of the tenets of evangelicalism is the idea that the Bible says marriage can only take place between a man and a woman and that sexual activity outside of marriage is forbidden by God. “It was a very, very clear message that homosexuality was an abomination, and that meant hell,” Dev Cuny, a non-binary activist and ambassador of the #BornPerfect Campaign to End Conversion Therapy, told CBC.
Cuny grew up in a charismatic evangelical church and believes there will always be a loyal percentage of evangelicals who are anti-gay, but Cuny has seen a shift in attitudes toward accepting the LGBTQ2 community among younger evangelicals. “The more knowledge and education people [have],” they say, “the more people realize there’s nothing harmful [about being LGBTQ2].”
Research by Ryan Burge, a pastor and associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, backs up Cuny’s observation. Burge is interested in the intersection of religiosity and political behaviour, especially among evangelicals. He spends a lot of his time poring over statistics culled from the General Social Survey (GSS) in the United States and creating graphs so people can visualize shifting views from different religions over time.
Burge looked at data from the GSS regarding evangelical Americans’ acceptance of same-sex marriage over the last 15 years, divided into two age ranges: 18 to 35 and over 35. (Similar data broken down by age doesn’t exist for Canada.) In 2004, 20 percent of the younger age group was in favour, whereas 6.5 percent over 35 were in favour. The most recent numbers from 2018 show that 55.9 percent of young evangelicals are in favour of same-sex marriage, compared to 42 percent of those over 35. Burge was blown away by these results; the speed at which attitudes had shifted was unlike anything he had seen.
Given that this opinion is in direct opposition to what’s often taught in their churches, young evangelicals have an opportunity to bring about a reckoning, or at least start challenging these long-held beliefs. “I think those kind of conversations are going to be happening more and more,” Burge says, “as these churches try to figure out how much they can move away from their traditional views, because membership growth is the number one operative condition for them.”
Adam Phillips, 40, is one of those young evangelicals pushing against the church’s traditional beliefs. He conceived of Christ Church: Portland in his living room in 2013, during a Bible study about the Sermon on the Mount. “We talked about being salt and light in the world,” he says, “and we talked about this idea that Jesus taught us that God is radical inclusion and care for the people and the planet.” To Phillips, that meant embracing those on the margins of society, including LGBTQ2 people.
To progressive Canadians, this might sound like an obvious idea, but to many in the evangelical world, it was revolutionary. Phillips says he wasn’t taught about LGBTQ2 inclusion when he was growing up in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), one of the largest evangelical denominations in North America. “There would often be really toxic jokes from the pulpit,” he says. “You know, ‘God didn’t create Adam and Steve.’”
When Phillips planted his church, the ECC provided much of the funding to get it off the ground. He thought he could advocate for change from within and didn’t realize the barriers for LGBTQ2 participation in the ECC were so high. About nine months into the start of the church, ECC leaders began pressuring Phillips, telling him he wasn’t allowed to include LGBTQ2 people in any leadership roles, including music ministry, children’s ministry and the board.
Phillips pushed back. He and his leadership team were unwilling to exclude the LGBTQ2 community at any level. They were at an impasse. In 2015, the ECC cut both religious and financial ties with Christ Church: Portland. “To have our funding cut off, to have our mentors and coaches and leaders shun us, was devastating,” says Phillips. (The ECC declined Broadview’s request for comment.)
Phillips held a series of meetings with his church’s leaders to determine their fate, and they decided to keep going. At the time, about 25 congregants attended Christ Church. Within five years, they had grown to more than 200, including members of the LGBTQ2 community. “That’s the thing that I think is often forgotten,” Phillips says. “This is a community that is desperate to serve Christ.”
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the already dwindling funds keeping Christ Church: Portland operating. On July 1, Phillips delivered his last sermon, and the church closed its doors for good. He remains unsure what the future will bring, but he is hopeful. He believes that what the congregation tried to do is “on the frontier of what is coming in the church.”
Anecdotally, Phillips’ experience isn’t unique. Some leaders have a vision for an inclusive church, but those who hold the purse strings are not willing to bend on the LGBTQ2 issue. Losing funding from the more conservative bodies that oversee these churches and the more traditional members who tithe is a significant threat, so some are choosing a different path.
When Aaron Bailey, 43, a gay entrepreneur, discovered Highlands Church in Denver, he says it profoundly changed his life. Highlands is progressive with a worship style rooted in evangelical traditions. “The ability to worship along- side young and old, gay and straight, lesbian families, trans individuals, and to be completely accepted for who I was…it was remarkable,” he says.
Bailey wasn’t alone in his recognition of the unique house of worship. As he volunteered more for Highlands, he would take phone calls from people asking where they could find a similar church in their own city. “I started noticing that what I had at Highlands in Denver, Colo., wasn’t possible for my LGBTQ siblings in Omaha, [Neb.], or Michigan or Atlanta.”
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After successfully selling his first business, Bailey realized he had the background that could help fix this problem, and soon developed Launchpad — a non-profit organization that helps plant LGBTQ2-affirming churches in the United States. “There’s a lot of interest out there in starting churches,” he says of Launchpad’s mentoring program, “but very few people know how to go about doing that, or they don’t know they have the permission to do that.”
The organization, which formed in 2019, is still in its infancy, but Bailey says they are working with about a dozen would-be churches in various capacities, and another couple of dozen groups are considering the idea of planting a church with their help. “We’re working with all sorts of churches and faith communities,” Bailey wrote in a text, “from post-evangelical churches to some mainline churches and purely online communities.”
Some young Christians are even creating entirely new communities outside the structures of a church. Kelly Ravenscraft, 24, grew up in a wide range of Christian communities, mostly within the evangelical tradition, and felt called to work in ministry. But what she was teaching and being taught was at odds with who she was. She felt a deep desperation to see spaces “where I could exist fully as myself as both Christian and gay and the long list of other identities that I hold.”
Ravenscraft and fellow worship leader Michael McBride created Affirming Worship in Chicago in March 2019. They say that they aren’t a church because that word continues to be associated with pain: they are more of a healing faith community with an open-ended worship format, and they operate out of a gay bar. “We recognize that walking into a space that even looks like a church can still be triggering for a lot of folks and can become a barrier,” says Ravenscraft.
She explains that people are working on the systemic changes needed in evangelical churches to make them welcoming to LGBTQ2 worshippers, but Affirming Worship is here to support the current needs of her community. “Why not create a space of our own that can hopefully create spots of healing right now?” she asks.
Healing is exactly what Junia Joplin was looking to do when she delivered her coming-out sermon. She remembers that as she was writing it, she thought about that 11-year-old closeted trans girl who just couldn’t figure out who she was, and whose church wouldn’t have a place for her if she did. That was who she wrote her sermon for.
Part of Joplin’s motivation to speak her truth now was a recent study that came out in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. It found that the more important religion is to LGBTQ2 youth, the more likely they are to experience suicidal thoughts.
“I can’t let the church keep doing that,” she says. “I want to speak into that situation. For that kid that might be thinking, because of what their pastor said, ‘I’m broken and I’m wrong and I don’t deserve to continue to be alive,’ I want her just to hear a pastor say, ‘God loves you and calls you by name and created you fearfully and wonderfully. You are beloved.’ That message saves people.”
This story first appeared in Broadview’s November 2020 issue with the title “Evangelical rift.”
Glynis Ratcliffe is Broadview’s senior writer.
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