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Boundaries and belonging


WORLD Radio - Boundaries and belonging

A Presbyterian pastor in Seattle reflects on the mistakes that led to the demise of his church

James Kearney at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church in Seattle Photo by James Kearney

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, November 14th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: lessons learned.

Prominent megachurch pastor Andy Stanley’s public descent into heretical teaching on sexuality has added fuel to the ongoing debate over Biblical truth. Church leaders especially are struggling with how to minister to those dealing with same-sex attraction and gender confusion––without compromising Scripture.

REICHARD: One Presbyterian pastor believes church leaders could learn from his mistakes.

WORLD senior writer Mary Jackson recently spoke with Rev. Dr. James Kearny, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA. In 2006, Kearny planted a church in a downtown Seattle neighborhood called Capitol Hill. It’s an area that has long been a hub for people who identify as LGBTQ.

Kearny had hopes of reaching them. But things didn’t go as planned. WORLD’s Kristen Flavin brings us the story.

KEARNY: I am standing in front of Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church on Harvard Avenue. The church closed six years ago, and the presbytery has not gotten someone to rent it yet…

KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: It’s a chilly Wednesday morning in Seattle. James Kearny is walking around the outside of his former church.

KEARNY: The church closed six years ago, and the presbytery has not gotten someone to rent it yet.

It’s an old church, built in the 20s. Brick facade. Stained glass windows. Looks a bit like a castle

KEARNY: There is a lot of graffiti at this point. All over it, and there's also trash. Uh, so that's sad.

The doors and windows of the church are now boarded up.

As Kearny walks, he reminisces.

KEARNY: I remember when the doors were open, and we had weddings and funerals and baptisms out on the sidewalk, and it was full of life and energy. But now it's looking a little beleaguered.

Kearny believes spiritual warfare, and his own mistakes, had something to do with the church’s closure.

When he helped plant the church in this building, Kearny came with a congregation of mostly middle class young families. Lots of enthusiasm, but this neighborhood was a gritty area.

KEARNY: One of the big issues when we planted this church was, how are we going to interact with the gay community, because as I said, this was the center of the gay life for the entire Northwest. It was a place where you could go, if you were part of that lifestyle back then, where you could feel normal. So it became a very difficult place to do ministry. But this was a neighborhood that needed the church, and this is where we were planted.

Kearny has always firmly believed what Scripture teaches about marriage and sexuality. But he wrestled with how to minister to the steady flow of people filling the pews at Capitol Hill Presbyterian who affirmed homosexuality. Most of the mainline Protestant churches surrounding Kearny’s church plant––and even some members within his congregation––supported gay lifestyles.

Kearny attempted what he calls a “third way” approach. Here’s how he describes it.

KEARNY: And I said, you know, I want people who are gay and lesbian to come into the church. I don't want to make this a discussion that happens from the pulpit. I want it to be a discussion that we have one on one, the people would come in, they would experience Jesus. And then as we talked about Jesus and being disciples, then I could have those conversations, either one on one over coffee, we could have them in Sunday school classes, but not sort of proclaim from the pulpit. So I was thinking that this would be an attractional model for people for discipleship.

But that approach eventually caused division, confusion, and hurt.

KEARNY: We lost by taking this third way, we lost two ways. One, we found that culture really was influencing our children, and also our members. And two, we found that people who were engaged in a gay relationship, or the gay lifestyle, were coming in and finding a bait and switch to that. So they were coming in, attracted by the church, but then later felt like they had been betrayed because they didn't, because they felt like where I stood was hidden.

Meanwhile, a growing number of congregants within the church sought to persuade others to become open and affirming of gay lifestyles.

KEARNY: Within the church itself, it became an issue of contention. Where you had people really trying to pull the church into the open affirming camp. And that was also not healthy for the leadership.

The contention within Capitol Hill Presbyterian over Biblical sexuality reached a tipping point in 2014. That’s when the church’s denomination, the PC(USA), voted to change the definition of marriage in its constitution from “a man and a woman” to “two people” and to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages.

KEARNY: That really pulled the rug out from under me, it meant that I no longer had the cover of the denomination. It meant that suddenly it was no longer, ‘Well, this is what the church thinks and believes, this is what you believe. And so I was very isolated. And then I also, you know, my colleagues, I had a lot of colleagues leave the presbytery. So I became more of an anomaly, more of a voice of the desert.

Since then, PC(USA) churches and members have dwindled. In 2016, it had almost 9,500 churches. Last year, that number was down to 8,700.

Capitol Hill Presbyterian was one of those casualties. Its membership dropped from about 160 when the church first started to 45 people by 2017. It closed its doors in 2018.

As Kearny prepares to leave the Capitol Hill district, he reflects on his mistakes.

KEARNY: I found that to have a very clear message of our boundaries, in terms of biblical boundaries around sexuality, as well as other biblical boundaries, was kindness…so that people could choose either to be a part of it or not, they wouldn't be surprised later on, and hurt because of a lack of clarity. Clarity is kindness.

That message is one Kearny believes pastors within the wider evangelical church need to hear today.

KEARNY: What I experienced here is what pastors are experiencing throughout the country. And so my admonition for pastors is that the time to be friendly to the culture is over. That doesn't mean to be rude, that doesn't mean to be unloving. And it doesn't mean to major on condemning. We need to be inviting people to be saved. But to do that, there has to be a clear message. And all of this is empowered by God, the Holy Spirit. Because again, this is a supernatural kingdom, which proves itself through acts of power, which are also important for a secular age where we have a hard time believing in any kind of truth.

For WORLD, I’m Kristen Flavin. This story was reported and written by Mary Jackson.

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