The push to accept homosexuality gutted traditional Protestantism. Evangelical churches are headed down the same road.
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Editor’s note: Due to a file transfer error, an outdated version of page 48 appeared in the Oct. 21 print issue, affecting this story and resulting in broken paragraphs about Alan Shlemon and Unconditional Conference attendee Dawn. The following reflects the corrected text.
AS ATTENDEES AT a sold-out parenting conference at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., streamed out the doors into the parking lot, twin lines of blue-shirted volunteers cheered and held signs that read, “You are loved,” “You’ve got this,” and “You’re not alone.”
North Point held the conference, called “Unconditional,” at the end of September for “parents, ministry leaders, and counselors who want to love and support the LGBTQ+ community well.” Attendees snapped up every available ticket weeks in advance, even though some cost well over $500. The event’s 14 speakers included Andy Stanley, North Point’s founder and senior pastor, as well as two men, Justin Lee and Brian Nietzel, who are married to other men. Lee believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and Nietzel co-founded Renovus, a nonprofit that aims to create “a world where no one has to choose between their faith and sexual orientation.”
The conference was billed as an approach to supporting parents and their gay and transgender children in churches “from the quieter middle space.” But within evangelicalism, that space is one in which ministry leaders either subtly or blatantly assert that homosexuality and transgenderism are compatible with Christianity. It’s also a space that’s growing—fast.
Nearly a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, church leaders face intensifying pressure to adopt current cultural language and messages about sexuality and gender. More pastors are capitulating, nudging evangelicalism down the same road that has gutted mainline Protestantism.
Until the 1960s, more than half of all American adults aligned with one of the seven mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. It’s a grouping scholars use for denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church. Since then, those denominations have been on a downward spiral. Today, they represent only about 10 percent to 13 percent of the population, according to surveys compiled by researcher Ryan Burge.
While other factors have contributed to that decline, congregants and churches have broken ranks in droves as mainline denominations take steps to affirm same-sex marriage and ordain homosexual and transgender clergy. Many who stayed approve the shift away from Biblical orthodoxy. Roughly two-thirds of white mainline Protestants now support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
Church historian Thomas Kidd argues that evangelical churches, including nondenominational congregations, have become the new mainline: “They’re the big churches in the South and Midwest now. They’re the culturally respectable churches.”
Between 2010 and 2020, nondenominational churches added 9,000 congregations and 2 million attendees, according to the 2020 U.S. Religion Census. Now, nondenominational churches represent the nation’s third-largest religious group after Catholics and churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Part of the appeal of nondenominational churches is that they carry less institutional baggage. But many emphasize individualism and lack theological accountability, making it easier for church leaders to adopt changing cultural messages, such as those about sexuality and gender.
Kidd, a research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says evangelical churches that hold to traditional views on marriage and sexuality will face increasing scorn: “What price are they willing to pay to maintain their status?”
PARENTS LIKE GREG AND LYNN MCDONALD, the couple behind the Unconditional Conference, have become a driving force in evangelicalism’s shift. The McDonalds’ own shift began on the darkest day of their parenting experience. They were on their way out the door to a farmers market, but Greg couldn’t escape a nagging thought. He told Lynn he’d be a few minutes and ran down the steps to their 17-year-old son’s bedroom. The computer was on, and Greg pulled up the search history. He found what he’d feared—pornography—and something even more alarming: The images that filled the screen didn’t include women, only men.
The McDonalds recount this scene in their 2019 book, Embracing the Journey: A Christian Parents’ Blueprint To Loving Your LGBTQ Child. It explains how their world turned upside down when Greg Jr. confessed his same-sex attraction. Lynn describes an “initial, life-stopping fear” as she and Greg wrestled with their son’s revelation in the context of their Christian beliefs. Eventually, though, the McDonalds came to believe it wasn’t their son who needed to change—it was them.
In their book, they describe their shift from seeing their son’s homosexual lifestyle as sinful to embracing his “gay identity”—and his live-in boyfriend. Greg suggests that his son was born gay and that “long before my son was born God knew who Greg, Jr. would be and whom he would love.” The McDonalds said they primarily found acceptance within their evangelical church community.
In 2015, the McDonalds started a faith-based nonprofit, also called Embracing the Journey, to “build bridges between LGBTQ+ individuals, their families, and the church.” It suggests other Christians should adopt the same accepting stance the McDonalds took toward their son. Since its start, the nonprofit has established chapters at evangelical churches across the country.
But the McDonalds’ most high-profile support, including financial donations, has come from their own congregation. Since 2013, they’ve attended one of the campuses belonging to North Point Ministries, a group of eight nondenominational evangelical churches in the Atlanta area. The ministry includes the Alpharetta congregation that hosted the Unconditional Conference.
Its pastor, Andy Stanley, is known as a gifted orator and has been a popular leader for Bible studies used in churches across the country. But he’s also no stranger to controversy related to his views on the Bible and sexuality. In 2018, Stanley suggested in a sermon that the Christian faith must be “unhitched” from the Old Testament. At a pastors’ conference last year, Stanley dismissed the Bible’s so-called “clobber passages,” verses that speak directly against homosexuality. “A gay person who still wants to attend church after the way the church has treated the gay community, I’m telling you, they have more faith than I do,” he said.
The McDonalds share Stanley’s position on the “clobber passages.” In their book, Lynn describes how focusing less on those verses helped change her perspective on her son’s homosexuality.
Meanwhile, Stanley has helped elevate the McDonalds’ ministry. During one pastors’ conference at North Point, he introduced a video telling the McDonalds’ story by saying, “We’re dealing with real people and real relationships … it is relational because we’re in ministry and because we’ve learned to distinguish between theology and ministry, we can figure this out.”
Alan Shlemon suggests Stanley and Unconditional Conference speakers may already have figured it out. An author and speaker who has followed the LGBTQ movement for two decades, Shlemon attended the North Point event. He shared what he heard in an Oct. 2 interview with Christian apologist Sean McDowell.
Throughout the event, speakers avoided addressing the Biblical permissibility of homosexual sex, same-sex marriage, and transgender ideation, Shlemon said. During one session, prominent intellectual David Gushee noted that the church was historically mistaken in using the Bible to condone slavery and anti-semitism. He noted the harm those beliefs caused prompted Christians to reinterpret the Bible to avoid the same mistakes. “He didn’t then take the next step and say this is the same thing with homosexuality and transgenderism, but that was kind of the implication,” Shlemon said. “If I wanted to quietly mainstream pro-gay theology into the evangelical church, I would build this conference.”
Outside North Point, a mother from Texas named Dawn told us her daughter came out as gay in high school and later as transgender. (WORLD agreed not to use the last names of attendees we spoke with.) Dawn and her husband turned to the McDonalds’ book for help. She now refers to her daughter as a son—“I see how happy he is ... ”—and left the conference encouraged: To listen to people representing the church and the faith was “refreshing to hear in a church setting,” Dawn said.
The Sunday after the conference, Stanley devoted his sermon to addressing criticism of the event. He described Biblical marriage as between only one man and one woman, but talked about homosexuality as a part of someone’s identity—“a category all unto itself.” Stanley said he doesn’t condone sin, but also doesn’t “draw lines,” only “circles” that include all who want to follow Jesus.
This effort to sever ethics and theology is a textbook move of the theological liberalism that flourished in mainline denominations, according to Andrew Walker, associate professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and also managing editor of WORLD Opinions. Stanley emphasizes love, but the Bible says love and truth are inextricably linked, Walker noted in a tweet. Any position that separates the two is neither sustainable nor theologically sound.
Neither Stanley nor the McDonalds responded to interview requests. But Justin Lee told me in an email that in his two presentations at the Unconditional Conference he wanted to show people how to love those they disagree with. He said he “didn’t take any position on topics like same-sex marriage or sexual behavior,” but told attendees “that people should look to Jesus and to Scripture, not to people like me, for those answers.”
EVANGELICAL SUPPORT OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE is on the rise. Among white evangelical Protestants, it rose from 11 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2019, according to the Pew survey. It also found that 4 in 10 of those who attend religious services once a week now favor same-sex marriage.
Stanley’s public statements that conflict with Scripture, as well as his ties with groups such as Embracing the Journey, are emblematic of a wider problem, Kidd said.
“Now, the realm of the possible changes within the broad and very poorly defined evangelical sphere,” he said. “It suggests the traditional Biblical view of marriage and sexuality is no longer a defining principle of the evangelical movement.”
But backlash is brewing. Many church leaders are speaking out on the need to return to Scripture and address sexuality and personhood with greater clarity and courage.
Michael Clary pastors Christ the King Church in Cincinnati. Earlier this year, he sat down to watch a five-minute video posted by the church planting group Acts 29 about a pastor’s presentation at a regional gathering. The video was titled, “Walking With Jesus Among Our Beloved LGBTQIA+ Family, Friends, and Neighbors.”
Clary’s Southern Baptist church has been a part of Acts 29 for more than a decade. The California-based group represents more than 700 churches in 47 countries, according to its 2022 annual report. Its board is chaired by popular Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. (Chandler faced his own scandal in 2022 when he admitted to an “inappropriate” online relationship with a woman other than his wife.)
In the Aug. 21 video, two middle-aged men sit in a church lounge furnished with midcentury modern furniture. A balding Justin Anderson, director of church planting for Acts 29, questions Mike Sullivan, who wears a long-sleeve collared shirt and jeans, his long hair pulled back in a bun.
Sullivan pastors Emmaus City Church in Worcester, Mass. In the video, he urges Christians to love those in the “LGBTQ+ community” and to “celebrate their moments … that you truly are glad God’s blessing them with gifts.” Sullivan also calls for sensitivity when dealing with LGBTQ people, saying many have experienced “church hurt … in terms of the ways that sadly they’ve been confronted or marginalized or ostracized.”
In a video response, Clary expressed concern over “pandering language” he says Sullivan borrowed from LGBTQ activists. Clary said Sullivan’s comments bordered on treating sexual sin as a protected class of unrebukable sins and portrayed Christians as villains who oppress gay people.
In a follow-up conversation, Clary told me that since his church is near a major university, he often meets with young people dealing with same-sex attraction or gender confusion. He recently wrote a book, God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality, to help guide his congregants and others. Clary says that while pastoral care is important, it should never overshadow a clear presentation of the gospel, its power to change people, and teaching what the Bible says about sexuality and personhood.
In response to Clary and other critics, Acts 29 pulled the video and apologized, admitting that the conversation “appeared to minimize the severity of sin, and … lacked the clarity to publicly communicate biblical truth on such a critically important issue.”
Clary does not believe Acts 29 is moving toward affirming homosexuality. “But these little moments are inflection points that allow the door to open a crack. … Then someone comes along and pushes it open a little further.”
THE DESIRE TO REACH lost neighbors and loved ones has become a driving factor for churches adopting false teaching on sexuality and identity. That’s especially true for parents grappling with a child who has embraced homosexuality or transgenderism, said Christopher Yuan, author of Holy Sexuality and the Gospel and a new video adaptation of the book for parents and teens.
Evangelical drift “always begins with this desire to be compassionate and loving,” Yuan said. “That’s not a bad thing. … The issue comes when we’re busier listening to the marginalized and not letting their stories be filtered through the lens of Scripture.” Yuan left behind homosexuality, as well as using and dealing illicit drugs, after coming to Christ in a jail cell. He says his parents never enabled him in his sexual sin or gay identity.
“If I were to identify as a gay Christian, I would be trying to resuscitate my dead man,” Yuan said. “We should never put our identity in our sin nature or in our flesh. Sin is never meant to be sanctified. It’s meant to be mortified.”
In recent years, Yuan and other notable former homosexuals, including Rosaria Butterfield and Becket Cook, have been outspoken critics of the so-called Side B position.
Side A refers to those who believe that God blesses same-sex marriage and that homosexuality and transgenderism are compatible with Christianity. Side B claims to uphold Biblical teaching on sexuality while insisting same-sex attraction or transgenderism is a part of a person’s identity, similar to race or nationality.
Yuan says Side B adherents are becoming more prevalent within evangelical churches, particularly through an organization called Revoice that hosts conferences across the country. Yuan seeks to confront the un-Biblical ideas behind both positions when speaking at evangelical churches and institutions. “The overarching message for everything I say is, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus,” he said.
Back outside the Unconditional Conference, a couple named Bob and Sharon are walking to their car. Bob carries a gift bag full of new books. They’ve come in from Paris, Texas, because they have a son who experiences same-sex attraction. For years, they prayed with their son that God would take away that desire. “God didn’t take it away. And so it’s his reality,” Bob said.
Sharon used to teach Sunday school, and Bob led worship. But after they decided to support their son’s homosexuality, their pastor asked them to step down from their leadership roles. Now, as they head back to Texas, they plan to look for an evangelical church that supports their position. That may not be as hard as it once would have been.
—with additional reporting from Lauren Canterberry
WORLD updated this story on Oct. 4 with additional description of the Unconditional Conference. A slightly condensed version appears in the Oct. 21 print edition. And on Nov. 16 it was updated to remove reference to Saddleback Church, which denies ever having had a chapter of Embracing the Journey.
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