What Do The Same Sex Marriage Rulings Teach Us about the American UMC?

In the past several days, I’ve had several talks with folks regarding the twin Supreme Court rulings on same sex marriage, and its implications for the United Methodist Church. The gist has been to lament just how dramatically “out-of-step” the United Methodist Church has become on the issue of same sex marriage, and LGBT issues in general.

The ever-widening chasm between culture and church is something I’ve seen coming a long time.
I’ve been warning of it for a long time.

So, now seems a good time to remind you of a blog I wrote just after last Fall’s election:

What The Presidential Election Should Teach the United Methodist Church.”

The gist of the blog was to discuss the “social ethos” of the United Methodist Church and contrast it with the clearest data-set for determining the “social ethos” of the nation: Presidential Election popular vote results.

That vote, I would argue, is the single clearest data-set for understanding the ethos of the nation.

The punchline of the blog is something like this:
Since 1992, the data clearly show the United States as a “center-left” nation.
During that same period, the United Methodist Church has moved to the right.

Please note, I am not suggesting that the United States has become a socialistic empire. Far from it! In fact, anybody who suggests this has no idea what socialism really is.
But we are, demonstrably, to the left of center; not to the right of if. And we have been for several decades.(1)

Many people, inside and outside of the church, still fail to see this truth. Simple demographics suggest this is unlikely to reverse itself in the foreseeable future.

Even if the United Methodist Church had simply stayed in the same place and not become more conservative on LGBT issues (and, please understand, we have not this), the net effect would still be for us to be more out-of-step because of the clear cultural shift in society to the left.

You may wish to say, “Well, OK, but acceptance of same sex marriage won’t happen in MY state.
Wrong again. At least, for most of us.

I invite you to remind yourself of this great blog from Nate Silver. Nate wrote this back when these same sex marriage cases were first being argued in front of the Supremes.

Her’s the punchline:
By 2016, voters in 32 states will be willing to vote “yes” to accept same sex marriage.
By 2020, voters in 44 states will be willing to vote “yes” to accept same sex marriage. (This includes Texas)

I will say what I often say about Nate Silver: doubt him at your peril. He’s rarely wrong about these things.

Why do I make all these point about the “ethos” of the United States and the “ethos” of the UMC? About growing and inevitable support for same sex marriage?

Because, for decades now, the UMC has challenged churches to understand, and respond to, their specific cultural contexts.
Who are the people your church is trying to reach?
Who would miss your church if it was gone?
What makes your church unique?
Who are the people who live in your church’s neighborhood?

If these are great questions for each and every local church.
My point is: they are also questions to ask on the macro-level.

And at least part of the answer to them is this:

The mission field of the United States is one that increasingly embraces LGBT persons in their full humanity. The US mission field contains LGBT families, many of whom are eager to be welcomed into, and be supported by, local congregations. Additionally, young persons (gay and straight) expect that their church…like every other aspect of their lives…will fully embrace and welcome LGBT persons.

This is why Adam Hamilton said, with great confidence, that if the UMC did not move on LGBT issues,  we’d lose the next generation of evangelical young people.

Note the nuance of what he said.

He didn’t say “mainline/moderate” young people…
He didn’t say “ultra-liberal” young people either…
He said we’d lose the EVANGELICAL young people of tomorrow.

Time and time again, I speak with clergy and layfolks who lament the fact that their own children have left the United Methodist Church for other, more LGBT-friendly, denominations. Or, they’ve just left altogether, and become one of “The Nones.”

These adult children were raised in our faith and traditions,  but now in good conscience can no longer associate the denomination of their youth.

We see a similar thing at Northaven, among LGBT people themselves, who now and then come to believe they can no longer connect to a denomination that excludes LGBT persons. Even to a “Reconciling Church” within that denomination.

I have previously estimated these losses to Northaven membership to be roughly 15 percent of the total new members taken in during my pastoral tenure here. And if that’s what happens at a “Reconciling Church” –where we make every effort to explain how welcoming we are– just imagine how high the number is at other churches, where nothing is ever said and people just quietly fade away.

If you believe it’s a shame all these young people are leaving the UMC, here’s the God’s-honest truth about it. Paraphrasing President Reagan: 

“These people have not left The United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church has left them.”

The UMC left them by failing to change with the times, or by literally becoming more restrictive on LGBT issues.

Every human culture is always in a state of change. The idea of “stasis” is a fiction. No human culture ever stays the same. Even the institution we call “traditional marriage” has changed during the span of my lifetime.

Our culture’s views on LGBT persons will continue to evolve.
And, in fairness, this is not the only crucial “social ethos” issue we must pay attention. Increasingly, we must also reach out to Hispanics, Immigrants, and other social groups worthy of our attention through the ministry of Jesus. The “Nones” who have left us are a part of this too.

That’s the new American mission field.

Am I saying that LGBT persons make-up all of the American mission field? No. Of course not. We’re more diverse a nation than that. But LGBT persons are a part of the whole mission field, and failing to advocate for full inclusion is now officially hurting the church everywhere. Not just a few Reconciling Churches, here and there.

We can continue to shriek about how embracing LGBT persons is anti-scriptural…even though many of us know it is not.

We can continue to moan about how changing our polity is “cultural accommodation”….failing to admit that in every generation, we do this…whether it’s our embrace of women clergy fifty years ago, or “praise music” during the past decade.

We can continue to appeal to the past tradition of the church, and say “We’ve never done it that way before.”

But if we do, we’ll lose this beautiful denomination we all claim to love.

And not because we welcome gay and lesbians.
But because we have not.

1) And, contrary to what you might believe about Congress, the data holds there too. In the recent presidential election, about 2 million more voters voted for a Democrat than for a Republican for Congress. Because of gerrymandered districts, the Republicans hold far more seats than the vote suggests they should. So, even for Congress, during the presidential cycle, the data suggests a center-left nation…neither dramatically conservative nor liberal.

 (As always, if you like this post, then “share it” or “like” it on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too…) 

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

2 thoughts on “What Do The Same Sex Marriage Rulings Teach Us about the American UMC?

  1. Thank you for your post and analysis. I would respond with two comments:1) I have heard many stories of pastors and laity lamenting that their children have left the UMC to attend more evangelical/conservative churches. The "leakage" goes both ways. I would venture to say that over my 30 years in ministry more people have left the UMC for a more conservative church than a more liberal one, but I don't have hard data to back that up.2) It is not appropriate for the church to base its moral teachings on what the cultural ethos of a society favors. For example, surely you would not applaud the fact that the German protestant church went along with the cultural ethos of Nazism in the 1930's. We need to take our moral teachings from Scripture, regardless of what the society says. That certainly characterized the early church, which evangelized in a sexually permissive and violent culture, but did not compromise its message.

  2. Sorry to be so long in approving this message…I actually haven't visited my own blog for a while…Several quick responses:To Number 1: Actually, I would bet that by far there are more folks on the left leaving CHRISTIANITY than there are people on the right leaving for other denominations. That, actually is my point. Yes, more liberal policies might drive some on the right to leave the UMC…but they are likely to simply move to more conservative denominations. Time and time again what *I* see is the slow drip of people leaving the faith altogether.I think we need to be doing more than just "shuffling the deck" of the already-Christians in our society. One way to do that is to reach out to the increasing number of folks who are leaving any church.As to Number 2: I don't normally respond to anything that uses the Nazis as an analogy. I generally find it repugnant when either conservatives or liberals do it.However, I will remind you that embracing gay marriage does the exact OPPOSITE of what you say in your last sentence. You seem to indicate that support for gay marriage indicates support for "sexual permissiveness."Actually, just the opposite! As with traditional marriage, it indicates support for fidelity, chastity, monogamy, and long-term commitment. It is the exact OPPOSITE of embracing sexual permissiveness or "anything goes."That is precisely why I believe The Church should support it.

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