This past week, World Vision USA, one of the most respected and successful organizations fighting extreme poverty around the world (religious or otherwise), reversed their decision to ban gays and lesbians from working at their Christian NGO. Until they reversed it again two days later.
Calling for “unity” in seeking the welfare of children in far off places like Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and closer to home in at-risk communities throughout the United States, World Vision took a bold move forward to agree to disagree on what many American Christians see as a secondary issue: homosexuality. That was on Monday. On Wednesday, World Vision released a statement declaring they had made a mistake and were apologizing for “compromising” their Biblical values – Biblical values that are increasingly parsed and debated, especially when it pertains to Jesus’s intent on such matters.
I’m part of a generation that grew up with U2 CD’s and a World Vision kid on our refrigerators, reminding us that while we were “one, but not the same” we could come together to do great good in the world. Now that notion is on shaky ground, with the fallout of these reversals and broken hearts of so many Christians on all sides.
I have been throughout the continent of Africa, seeing how the generosity of Americans, especially Christians who support World Vision, have beat back the scourge of HIV/AIDS and turned orphans into victors. Having spent over a year consulting on a World Vision project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I have witnessed the need for clean water and better education, and World Vision’s ability to deliver such results.
Now, as a pastor in Portland, Oregon I’m frequently asked how hard it is to minister to such a non-religious, “post-Christian” culture more known for its liberal social attitudes, new age spirituality and farm-to-table indulgences. My response is always the same: people here are extremely interested in the life and message of Jesus, they’re just not so sure about the church.
Two recent studies document this reality with robust statistical analysis and storytelling in which an emerging, younger generation of Americans inside and outside the church experience an increased, if not profound, weariness at the way Christians treat our neighbors in the LGBTQ community.
In unChristian, co-authored by evangelical leaders David Kinnaman (of the Barna Group) and Gabe Lyons (of the influential Q Ideas), a disturbing trend is described: the most common reaction for young outsiders to the faith “think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.”
Kinnaman and Lyons go on to share the feelings of “Peter, ” a 34 year old interview subject in their chapter “ANTIHOMOSEXUALITY.” Peter, shares what I’ve experienced time and time again while ministering in Portland:
“Many people in the gay community don’t seem to have issues with Jesus but rather with those claiming to represent him today. It’s very much an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality, as if a war has been declared.”
It could be argued that a younger generation of Americans inside the church feel the same way.
With several years of analytical research to back up their claims, Kinnaman and Lyons delineate a massive downward shift of American “Mosaic and Buster” churchgoing attitudes toward the perceived threat of a “homosexual lifestyle” to the nation at large.
While only 35% of “All Adults” in their research (regardless of age or church attendance) thought that homosexuality as a lifestyle was a concern for the country, 46% of “Boomer” churchgoers (42-60 years of age) and 58% of “Elder” (61+ years of age) thought so. Only 29% of “Mosaic and Buster” churchgoers (ages 19-41) perceived homosexuality as a major problem facing the US.
It is evident that an increased amount of, what we would describe as “Millennials, ” have shifted their attitudes away from fear of a so-called gay agenda, and have moved towards an increased level of compassion and tolerance for gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family.
Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their monumental 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, get at this core issue when it comes to millennials and their more hospitable views on homosexuality.
Putnam and Campbell, throughout the book, make the strong case that while previous generations identified in some sort of religious column, a wholly other box has increasingly been checked: “none.” “Those millennials whose views on homosexuality are more tolerant are more than twice as likely to be religious nones as their statistically similar peers who are conservative on homosexuality.”
In a Pew Forum discussion after the book launch, Campbell highlighted the expansive religious growth of evangelical Christianity in the 1970s and early 1980s (described as an aftershock) while Mainline denominations (ie. Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, some forms of Baptists, et al.) saw sharp decreases. What followed the expansive growth of American evangelicalism was not continued unprecedented growth, but an emergence of the ever so prevalent, younger religious “none.” Nones that make up cities like Portland.
“What is less well-known is that following that first aftershock, there was a second aftershock beginning in the late 1980s, early 1990s. The second aftershock consisted of a dramatically increasing percentage of Americans who report, when asked, that they have no religious affiliation. And so for a long stretch of time, between 5 and 7 percent of the American population would say they had no religion, and then bam, beginning in the late 1980s, early 1990s, we begin to see this rapid increase of people who say they have no religion — the “nones” because they have no religion.
So now they represent roughly 17 percent of the American population overall. But when you look at young people, it’s an even higher percentage, up to a quarter, maybe even a third of all young people today say they have no religion — a much higher percentage than their parents’ generation, than their grandparents’ generation.”
While Putnam and Campbell report an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated and their views on homosexuality, it can be argued that even within evangelical churches, a younger generation is drastically shifting their attitudes when it comes to viewing related issues, such as the legality of gay marriage. In a 2012 survey, Christianity Today (the leading publication amongst American evangelicals) reported that only 44% of “born-again” Christians aged 18-35 registered an opposition to same-sex marriage.
Which brings us to the tragedy of this week and the major heartbreak around World Vision’s reversal and reversal again on hiring gays and lesbians. The tragedy, for a pastor like myself, isn’t that World Vision reversed their reversal, it’s that an opportunity for greater unity and work together to assist those who Jesus described as “the least of these, ” our youngest sisters and brothers in great need in places throughout the majority world, was jettisoned amidst a fear of scarcity. Christianity Today reports that World Vision reversed their decision after major evangelical players, such as the Assemblies of God and their 3 million members, were urged by their leadership to pull their support for hungry kids around the world for “biblical standards.”
World Vision’s original decision on Monday, to work “in unity” towards what they described as “building the kingdom, ” was rooted in the highest of biblical standards. Jesus, in the Gospels, calls people of faith and goodwill to work together to seek first the kingdom of God, a place where the least shall be first and the hungry will have enough to eat. Jesus never mentions anything on homosexulaity, and the Bible, a library of books written over at least 1000 years, with over 31, 000 verses, only contains eight, maybe nine verses that come close to addressing same-sex relations.
As a pastor, I look to the Bible for inspiration and sustenance for the journey of life – especially as I set out to plant a new church in Portland. In my tradition, we describe the Bible as the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct. So, I hold the Bible to be a fully inspired, complicated guide that gives life to all who would hear and experience its story. And the story for me, is all about the fullness of redemption experienced in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a Palestinian Jew who preached and lived peace and salvation amidst the Roman Empire. A peace and salvation open to all who might believe. I see Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life I want to follow as I lead others.
In regards to the issue of gay marriage, I also uphold my denomination’s ethical guidelines for ministers and will not perform any same-sex marriage. But I know it is an increasingly minor conviction held by my congregants and colleagues across denominations. This is why I lament World Vision’s reversal of their reversal: a younger generation craves the courage to be generous in our tone and partnership with believers of all walks of life, regardless of their sexual orientation, to the matters that were core to Jesus’s agenda – especially the concerns of poor and marginalized children in great need. I weep not because so-called gay rights in the church have lost the day. I weep because at-risk children and their families in the most desolate of places were put at further risk because of squabbling amongst wealthier American evangelicals.
My wife and I won’t reverse our decision this week, to sponsor another World Vision child. Her name is Fideline, which means Loyalty, and she lives in the Congo. Pray and act for others like her today, and for us who would remain loyal to seeking unity and that ever elusive kingdom Jesus described.