AMERICAN attitudes toward our gay and lesbian relatives, friends and co-workers are changing so dramatically that the Pew Research Center ranked this shift as the first historic milestone among 13 changes that researchers identified over the past year.
TODAY, two major evangelical voices—and two highly respected observers of American religious life—are joining in the launch of a new book: A Letter to My Congregation. The four are …
- KEN WILSON, author of this book-length letter, which he wrote to his large congregation in the Midwest to explain why even devoutly evangelical Christians should welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered men and women.
- DAVID P. GUSHEE, based at Mercer University, where he is a theologian and author widely read in evangelical congregations. Most significantly, Gushee decided to publicly change his stance on this issue in the opening pages of Ken Wilson’s new book. (His Wikipedia entry.)
- PHYLLIS TICKLE, a scholar and journalist who is highly respected for her books, magazine articles and lectures about trends in American religious life. (Her Wikipedia entry.)
- And, TANYA LUHRMANN, based at Stanford University, where she is a leading anthropologist studying religious movements—including the Vineyard denomination in which Ken Wilson is a pastor. (Her Wikipedia entry.)
Tickle, Gushee and Luhrmann explain why they are supporting Ken’s efforts in a series of introductions to his new book—and you can read all three introductions on our new resource page for A Letter to My Congregation.
In this daring and compassionate journey of faith, the Rev. Ken Wilson apparently becomes the first pastor of a large evangelical congregation in America to so publicly reverse centuries of condemnation of gays and lesbians—and bring his congregation with him in welcoming gay and lesbian members at all levels of the church.
With the launch of this book, many people nationwide are asking: How did Ken Wilson do this?
In today’s interview you will learn: He did it by slowly and carefully studying the Bible, praying about these matters and talking with families in his congregation. The result, according to early online reviews of his book, “adds incredible freshness and insight” to a debate that threatens to tear churches and families apart. Reviewer David C. Sinclair writes that Ken “shows us a way forward that embraces our differences. … And, most importantly, he cogently argues for unconditional inclusion as we seek God together.”
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Ken Wilson in …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH KEN WILSON ABOUT
‘A LETTER TO MY CONGREGATION’
DAVID: The Pew Research Center reports that we’re at a historic turning point on this issue, based on their tracking of data nationwide. But, beyond all that data, what have you seen from a pastor’s point of view? Can you see and feel the change among the people you encounter everyday?
KEN: Yes, 10 years ago, as an evangelical pastor I didn’t know gay people and a lot of the people in my congregation would have said they didn’t know gay people—but that has shifted dramatically. Now, most people say they have at least one gay friend. And, even more importantly, for young people this is a non-issue. Of Millennials who leave the church, a large number leave over the church’s exclusionary stance on LGBT people. Young people just can’t understand that exclusion. They know plenty of LGBT people personally and they don’t want to be part of a church that excludes their friends.
Now, this has become a big issue for parents who have children who are affected by this in various ways. They’re losing their kids over this question, whether those kids are LGBT themselves or they know and care about someone who is. The question for men and women in the church becomes: Do I care so much about the ideology of this issue that I’m willing to lose my children over this? This is an issue where parents and their children are absolutely affected everyday in local congregations.
I had a small group of people from our church who reviewed an early version of this letter with me. We went around the room and asked each person to tell us: What’s my personal stake in this conversation?
Every single person had a gay friend or loved one or family member and each one told the group—often with tears in their eyes—how much this mattered to them. This included people who accepted gay relationships and people who still had moral questions about gay relationships. We all were affected. This really is a historic change.
DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion in American life for nearly three decades and I believe it’s accurate to say that you’re the first pastor of a large, evangelical church to go public about such a dramatic change on this issue with your congregation coming along on the journey. Millions of readers know that Rob Bell and Brian McLaren have changed in their public stance on this issue, but that was after they had left their congregations.
For readers wondering about this claim, I want to clarify: We’re talking about large, traditionally evangelical congregations and pastors who have gone so public in reversing their LGBT policies with their congregations. I’m not seeing them, at this point. If you’re out there reading this, please email us at [email protected]
But, having said all of that, let me ask: Are you aware of anyone else we should mention here?
KEN: I’ve been looking, too, and I am aware of some other evangelical congregations across the country that are moving in this direction. I don’t want to name them because they’re still on this journey and they’re not wanting to go public right now. And, just like you, David, I’d love to find and talk with others who are on this journey. I’d love to learn from them about how to do this—and how we can help others to do this.
‘The eyes of the world …?’
DAVID: Since David P. Gushee is also putting his name on the line with this book, the two of you were invited to speak at the California LGBT film festival, called Level Ground, last week. The festival was covered in the Los Angeles Times and other news media. Do you feel the eyes of the world are upon you?
KEN: No, I don’t feel that way and I don’t want to focus on the psychological pressure. My first responsibility is to lead my church through this transition successfully. Yes, I know there is a lot at stake here. There are many evangelical pastors out there whose hearts are inclined to go in this direction, but they can’t even begin to talk about this. I think once we can demonstrate that, yes, it can be done—then I think there are going to be many evangelical congregations that will follow. Before long, there is going to be a strong and growing expression of evangelicalism in America that is making space for gay people.
DAVID: How do they start? I can imagine a lot of readers of this interview—and readers of your book—wanting to know: How did Ken do it? How can I start this process?
KEN: The first thing is to convince pastors that they should give themselves permission to start asking the questions. There are so many pastors and other church leaders who want to do that, but they are inhibited from even starting the process. They see this as a “loser” issue for them. They don’t see any way to build a coalition around this—no way to build a consensus in their congregation. So, they don’t even start lifting up the questions that their hearts want to ask.
DAVID: You found the courage. Now, you have opened up the conversation in your church to a point at which you realize how deeply many families care about this issue. But we’re talking here about the very first, private steps—the first moral questioning. Give us a little sense of how that began for you.
KEN: Well, for me, I asked myself: Why am I willing to make so much space in the church for people who are remarried after divorce—despite the Bible’s very strict teaching against that—and I’m not willing to make space for gay and lesbian people? And I kept asking myself: Why does this particular moral stance of the church about LGBT people cause so much harm?
‘Is this really the teaching of Jesus …?’
DAVID: Let’s talk about the harm. In your book, you make an eloquent appeal: We can’t keep waiting on this issue. We can’t keep kicking these questions down the road. Every day, real people are being harmed by the church’s rigid condemnation.
KEN: When I started pondering these questions, I realized that this particular stance of the church really is harmful. When a married man in a congregation has an adulterous affair with another woman—and he’s confronted about it—we don’t have suicides as a result. But, we do have teenagers committing suicides at higher rates when they are part of congregations that have these exclusionary teachings about homosexuality. Is this really the teaching of Jesus when our exclusion of people is contributing to a rise in suicide?
DAVID: These are tough questions for evangelical leaders to ask. There’s a lot of fear around even raising the questions, isn’t there?
KEN: The church is an anxious system. It’s organized around the most anxious members, including those who threaten to leave if exclusionary policies aren’t upheld. In fact, pastors become so anxious about these members that we tend to overestimate how many in the congregation share these views.
‘My worst fears …’
DAVID: You were afraid, right?
KEN: I had a lot of fear about this! I dreaded it! And, you know what? My worst fears have not been realized. Not even close to my worst fears. Yes, I have lost some key people and, yes, we have lost some income over this and it has affected attendance—but not nearly as badly as I had expected.
If you’re a pastor, it’s easy to exaggerate the fear. As pastors, we have to find ways to duck out from under this big cloud of fear that surrounds this issue.
‘A healer’s heart …’
DAVID: This took time. This book describes a journey with your congregation that began years ago. How long ago?
KEN: Phyllis Tickle is a big part of this story from the very beginning. Our Vineyard church in Ann Arbor began working with Phyllis Tickle on prayer about 10 years ago. Our church helped Phyllis to promote praying The Divine Hours and we became an online host for the Divine Hours. She visited our congregation in 2005 and, as I got to know her, she became a personal confidant. I would send her prayer updates as I began experiencing a significant shift in my own prayer life. Eventually, my wife Nancy and I were invited to their home outside Memphis. And that’s how I met Dr. Sam Tickle, Phyllis’ husband, a leading doctor in the Memphis area and, some years ago, one of the first to begin treating people in the AIDS crisis.
A a result of all this, Sam and Phyllis had a lot of gay and lesbian friends and they took us to a church that was filled with gay and lesbian and transgendered people. It was as if someone had gathered a congregation of sexually excluded Christians and I was just taken aback by the clear presence of Jesus in that assembly of people. The cognitive dissonance I was experiencing—as a traditional evangelical pastor—was just through the roof! I credit Dr. Sam Tickle with really helping me in this journey. He was so obviously a compassionate and caring physician and Christian and he related to people with a healer’s heart that was just infectious.
DAVID: Everyone on the cover of your book played a role in this journey, including Dr. Tanya Luhrmann, the famous scholar and researcher. Tell us how your paths crossed.
KEN: Tanya is a world-class anthropologist who had done research on how evangelical spirituality mediates an experience of God. She studied this in Vineyard churches and I became aware of her work. I read her book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and I thought it was brilliant. Her book helped me to be a better pastor and I got to know Tanya herself through a gathering of Vineyard scholars, where we both talked about her book.
‘Describing a journey
and inviting others …’
DAVID: You found many of Tanya’s ideas to be very helpful, especially the questions she raises about how a person can communicate a personal spiritual journey to others. You also worked with a prayer exercise Tanya provided and, in the midst of that exercise you found your method: writing a letter.
KEN: How would I communicate all of this? I thought a lot about that. And, I decided to write out the whole process of what I was going through as a pastor struggling with these questions. Through this letter, my struggle could become a representative struggle for others. I wasn’t writing an argument. I was describing a journey and inviting others to accompany me.
DAVID: Then, I also want to ask you about David P. Gushee, who dramatically decided to go public with his own change on this issue in the opening pages of your book. How did that come about?
KEN: I met David Gushee in 2006 through another issue we were working on. We were in a gathering of evangelical leaders with top-level environmental scientists—people like E.O. Wilson—to talk about climate change and environmental concerns.
So, I had known David and I had worked with him on that environmental issue. He is the co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, which is a top book in evangelical seminaries. I liked that book, too, but the one section I thought was weak in Kingdom Ethics was the section on homosexuality. I called David and I said, “I love your book, but I have questions about this one section. It feels to me like you’re just rehearsing the traditionalist views.” And I asked him, “Where are you on this—now?”
He told me that someone close to him had come out as gay and his views were changing. I sent him the manuscript of my letter, then, hoping that he might say something like: Well, I don’t agree with Ken’s conclusion, but this is a legitimate part of the conversation. That was as much as I could hope.
DAVID: Instead, you got a shock.
KEN: It was a shock! His reply was: “What can I do to help you?” And, then, he wrote such a powerful Foreword to the book. I mean, I was feeling way out on a limb here and it was such a blessing that he came forward and was so supportive of this. I’m a pastor. I’m not the kind of scholar that Dr. David P. Gushee is. And yet he stepped forward and has been so supportive of the whole thing.
‘Who wants to go up against 2,000 years …?’
DAVID: The Pew Research Center captures the historic opportunity we all have, right now, to help people make a transition on this issue. In just 10 years, Pew reports, Americans have gone from less than half of us saying “homosexuality should be accepted by society” to 60 percent today! Then, there’s another dramatic jump when the question is asked another way: “Is same-sex marriage inevitable?” Then, more than 7 in 10 Americans say: Yes.
Those two answers show us millions of Americans who are in turmoil on this issue. Millions know this change is coming—but still can’t find a way to accept LGBT people as a part of society. One of the brilliant strategies in your book is to say: Church members don’t have to be united in our personal moral conclusions—but we must unite in welcoming people into the church. Am I saying that correctly? You’re not demanding that everyone immediately agree on moral acceptance, but you are saying that it’s time for the church to fully welcome LGBT people.
KEN: Right. The problem is that so many people in the evangelical community—and in the faith community in general—want to find a way to accept and include gay and lesbian people, but they have serious questions based on their faith tradition. Who wants to go up against 2,000 years of Christian consensus on an issue? But, already, many people do know that our hearts are telling us something else. People are realizing that, even if they don’t fully understand how to think through this issue, there’s a more serious question we’re facing: the do-no-harm test.
‘What is the Good News of Jesus?’
DAVID: Yes, Pew explains this shift in American experience. This has become personal for Americans nationwide. Pew reports that a huge number of people—7 in 10 Americans—say they know “some” or “a lot” of gay or lesbian people. In other words, we know who we’re hurting if we condemn gay and lesbian people. They’re our friends, our family.
KEN: Right, we’re talking about a lot of people! And, this issue is the tip of a much, much bigger iceberg, which is the branding of Christianity—ever since the rise of the Religious Right—as this movement of people who primarily are “against things” and, even worse, as a movement that is “against people.”
Christianity is losing followers in America because of this. What’s at stake is more than just individuals with gay friends. What’s at stake here is how Americans make friends with Jesus. The bigger question is: How can the church promote human flourishing? Have we reduced the message of Jesus to a rigid list of things that people are forbidden to do—or, worse yet, to a list of people we’re mad at? Are we just a movement that stigmatizes and excludes people?
We’re really asking is: What is the Good News of Jesus? What does Jesus stand for?
DAVID: These are the emotionally wrenching questions you’re hearing from families, as a pastor, right?
KEN: Exactly. I began to realize this when parents started coming to me privately as their pastor, telling me that a teenage son or daughter thought they were gay. I saw how much fear, how much distress—and how much harm—was happening in these families. I began to realize: Something is wrong with this picture.
Parents were having to choose between their faith and their own children. This was a profound problem! Of course, some parents tried to adopt the approach of “loving the person but hating the sin,” and that might sound like a nice bromide if you’re not actually living in these relationships. In real lives, in real human relationships, that is such an alienating thing to say.
The truth is: There are gay young people in all congregations, whatever the congregation teaches about homosexuality. So, we’ve got a dangerous situation here when we condemn and exclude people. Just look at the data on suicide rates. As a pastor, I began to realize: This can’t be the fruit of the Spirit. There’s something wrong here.
‘The Gospel is an invitation.’
DAVID: You’re sure to draw a lot of criticism, along with all the appreciation that’s sure to come your way, as well. What final thought do you want to leave with readers—critics and supporters of your work?
KEN: I hope that people who care about the church will ask themselves: Don’t we care about the harm being done to vulnerable people? Do we really want to sacrifice our children? Is that the message of Jesus? Or, is the Gospel an acceptance of us that is so powerful that it is life changing? And, as a result, we want to invite others into the company of Jesus. I think the Gospel is an invitation.
LEARN MORE ABOUT KEN WILSON
AND ‘A LETTER TO MY CONGREGATION’
VISIT our resource page for the new book, which includes all three introductions by Gushee, Tickle and Luhrmann … plus much more! Order a copy of the book, right now, from Amazon (via links with this interview)—or use the links in the resource page to order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other online retailers. Bookmark our resource page for the book, because—in coming weeks—we will be adding free Discussion Guides.
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ALL THIS WEEK, read more about the latest research into changing American attitudes on these issues in the OurValues.org project, hosted by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker.