Believe Out Loud on Welcoming Gays in Church: Advertising Fail

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What????? Gay people in church?????

Have you heard about the flack Sojourners is taking over rejecting an ad from Believe Out LoudJim Wallis is the famous figure behind Sojourners, the leading progressive Christian political advocacy group.  I don’t want to spend loads of time giving the back story on Jim Wallis on Sojourners, or even Believe Out Loud.  You can find more information in this article by David Sessions.  I’ll just say that Believe Out Loud advocates full inclusion of the GBLT community in Protestant churches.  Although it’s not explicitly stated on their website, I’m going to speculate that BOL is largely directed at mainline churches.

Sojourners declined to run a one-minute BOL video on their website, and now Wallis is under fire.  Here’s an excerpt from an article run at Religion Dispatches, written by Rev. Robert Chase.

So, you can imagine our dismay when Sojourners refused to run our ads. In a written statement, Sojourners said, “I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.
I called the folks at Sojourners and asked what the problem was, what the “sides” in question might be. The first response was that Sojourners has not taken a stance on gay marriage (the ad is not about gay marriage); or on ordination of homosexuals (the ad is about welcome, not ordination); that the decision, made by “the folks in executive” (why such a high level decision?) was made quickly because of the Mother’s Day deadline. The rationale kept shifting. The reasoning made no sense.

My first reaction to this is that running an ad for an organization that supports gay marriage or the ordination of homosexuals will seem like tacit support of those positions, even if the ad in question doesn’t mention those issues.  If the folks at BOL want to go after Sojourners for refusing to take an affirmative position on those issues, go for it.  But it’s disingenuous to suggest that Sojourners could run a BOL ad at their website without seeming to support BOL’s package of issues.

Okay, that was my first reaction.  And then I watched the ad.  I agree with the spokespersons from BOL on this:  there is nothing advocated in the ad which should be objectionable to any follower of Jesus.  The video advocates welcoming visitors to your church, even if the visitors happen to be a gay couple and their child.    Right on.  I am definitely pro-that.  And yet, I really dislike the ad.  Watch it, so that I can explain why.  I’ll wait.

Done watching it?  Looks like a mainline church, right?  And that makes sense, since the campaign is directed at mainline Protestant churches.  But where is this strange and primitive community in the U.S. wherein the entrance of two women and a child to a mainline church causes a full blown freakout?  People are staring and whispering, children are pointing, a woman blocks the seat next to her so that the visitors won’t sit in her pew.  Really?  Help me out, mainline friends.  Would that happen at your church?  In fact, I’ll open the question to evangelicals and Catholics, too.  Would that be the reaction to this family in your church?

I’m a member of the Church of the Nazarene:  Wesleyan, evangelical, theologically conservative but not fundamentalist.  And I would be willing to bet my last dollar (which, at this point in the week, is what I’m usually down to) that if those women entered my church they would be warmly welcomed.  We’d probably be slow to pick up on the gayness, honestly.  Couldn’t they be friends, sisters, cousins, neighbors?  Where is the dead giveaway in this video?  We have to be careful with assumptions in the church.  My poor husband once warmly greeted a new family and asked each of the three young ladies what grade they were in so that he could direct them to Sunday school.  Alas for him, young lady number three was the very youthful stepmother.  It was an awkward moment.  But even if our congregation recognized (correctly) that this couple was gay, I think the vast majority of people would keep their cool.

But back to the video. I think if you want to encourage people to be warm and welcoming, you should not begin by insulting them.  And this video insults mainline Christians by implying that they will react like cartoon villains when confronted with homosexuals.  I thought, watching the video, that if the creators were going to have everyone behave cartoonishly, they should have just gone ahead and made a cartoon.  Then they could have someone’s eyes pop out, and someone else’s jaw could hit the floor with a clang, and maybe someone’s head could even turn into a teapot or a steam whistle.

Do the folks at BOL naively think that most Christians don’t know anyone in the GBLT community?  News alert:  most of us do.  We have coworkers, family members and friends who are gay.  Whatever our politics, whatever our position on gay marriage or gay clergy, we have learned how to navigate family dinners and class reunions and business trips and college dorms.  In fact, not only do we know some gay people, many of us love some gay people!

Or do you suppose, BOL, that for Christians the church is our sanctuary from the world, the last place we expect to encounter “sinners”.  Can I give you another news alert?  This Sunday the sanctuary of my church will house addicts and adulterers and cheats and gossips and fools.  And I’ll be one of them.  In worship we draw near a perfect God, not perfect people.

Can I guarantee the welcoming behavior of everyone in my church – or any other church?  No, of course not.  Among all the other sinners in any given congregation, there’s probably someone who still gets the heeby-jeebies at the mere site of a gay couple.  Is that a reason to broad brush all Christians, the way the BOL video seems to do?  Have ugly stereotypes really served the GBLT community well in the past?

Now, in our imagined scenario, after we welcome the gay couple to our service and their child has a blast in children’s church, and maybe they even join a bunch of us at Carisillo’s for lunch -after all that, it may turn out that they find our denomination’s stance on homosexuality to be alienating.  They may decide that the handshakes and the smiles aren’t welcome enough.  I would understand that.  At least that would be real people sadly divided by a real, complicated issue.  BOL’s video doesn’t give us that.  It gives us cartoon Christian bigots who are worried about catching gay cooties.  I think better of most people, mainline Protestants and otherwise.

(But maybe I’m wrong.  I’d love to hear from some of you on this subject – either from experience, or from speculation.  How would your church welcome this family?)


About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
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11 Responses to Believe Out Loud on Welcoming Gays in Church: Advertising Fail

  1. Lennie says:

    Awesome job Sharon!!

    I would agree 100% with you!



  2. Tim says:

    I agree that most churches would probably be slow to pick up on the gayness. That did strike me as odd, along with the fact that they walked right down the center aisle and up to the front. Seriously doubt that would happen.

    But while your thoughts (with which I agree whole-heartedly, by the way) were written from the church’s perspective, I think the video was meant to be done from the GLBT perspective. Would everyone stare, sneer, and snicker? No. But some would, and I think that is what this gay couple would have noticed the most. That seemed to me what the video was trying to convey – that these are the reactions gay people really would encounter in our churches.

    A couple other thoughts: 1) I think we’re way past having to worry about gay couples, especially those with kids, just randomly walking into our churches. 2) The Marin Foundation (Google it) does fantastic work in reaching out to the GLBT community.


    • Yes, I’ve heard Andrew Marin speak and I think he’s the real deal. I don’t know about gay couples wandering into our churches, though. I think it happens sometimes and we’re not particularly aware – based on the gay friends I’ve had, anyway. But for the most part I agree; if they’re attending church, it’s not likely to be my denomination.


  3. Jordan says:

    I’m a gay man, and I agree with just about everything you said, and I really liked the “But back to the video. I think if you want to encourage people to be warm and welcoming, you should not begin by insulting them. ” That can be applied in the all-around and not just on the given scenario.


  4. This issue touches a nerve for me, but I’ll try to make my comments short and clear:

    – I agree with your take on the ad, especially that most Christians in church would not assume that two women walking in with a child were a gay family (my own assumption would be mother, son, and friend [or aunt] – which, btw, is how I conceive such a family group that others would call a gay family). There are so many single parents out there that it’s almost rarer to see a mother, father, and children together than a mother alone with children.

    – It struck me as I watched the ad that though the scenario seems contrived and cartoonish, it’s a cinematic portrayal of how gay (and other non-conforming, psychologically oppressed, formerly bullied, alienated sorts of people) feel when walking into a new social situation like this church: walking slowly down the center aisle and becoming the center of everyone’s attention; nothing but disapproval, anger, and fear in others’ face and gestures; steeling oneself to be brave, assert one’s identity, and then looking to ones like you for support (i.e. the couple holding hands); and finally receiving the attention and approval of the authority figure as he scolds the others for their fear and small-mindedness. Justice for me, finally! I can be me in this place! And if they don’t learn to like me, the authority figure will (or ought to) make them like me! The song chosen to accompany the ad tends to confirm this train of thought.

    Sorry for the armchair psychoanalysis, but it’s nothing I haven’t done to myself, believe me. 🙂 Aside from the gay issue, I think this sort of message reinforces the idea that church is just another social club and ultimately it’s all about me – what I like, where I feel comfortable and accepted – rather than church as a place where you go to lose yourself in worship of God.


    • You and Tim have both said that the ad is more a portrayal of how the gay couple would feel or see things from their perspective. Perhaps you’re right about that. I suppose I thought, since it’s targeted AT churches, that’s intended as a more objective view of a potential experience. But it’s fair enough to say that our own expectation about how people will react to us often heighten our sense of exclusion or rejection. I’ve been in that situation in other ways.
      You create a very sympathetic picture of the couple’s experience, and yet critique messages about the church embedded in the ad – and in the campaign. That’s tricky, so admire your ability to walk that line!
      On a side note, I watched a couple of times, and it’s not the couple holding hands. I would have considered that the giveaway that the congregants couldn’t miss. But it’s one of the women holding the little boy’s hand.
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!


  5. I think that the gay and lesbian community has been on the ropes several times by the “judgers of people” before so they come out with guns blasting. I understand it but would hope for the benefit of the doubt in my case.

    As a member of the ELCA, I can safely say that we have paid a price as a church for our openness to justice and fairness – see

    My position as a Lutheran is that I don’t do God’s job. It’s not my responsibility or ability to exclude people from God’s church. I believe that those truly saved will be guided by the Holy Spirit to what is right or wrong through reading and teaching from God’s word. And those not truly saved will get bored and bail pretty quickly.

    Our job as Christians is to welcome both the followers of Christ and the hurting world into the church and not throw up an open hand at the door that says, stop.

    Jesus didn’t say – oh and by the way you have to all be the same before I’ll hang with you”.

    He hung with us all while we fell short of the mark.

    I believe it is our job as Christians to be inclusive and not exclusive.

    The sin is not in the relationship. The sin is in an improper relationship that has cheating or other hurtful attributes from one or both of the partners. A loving, faithful, and caring Gay or Lesbian relationship is no more sinful than a woman pastor.

    And yet there are a few verses that are misunderstood and quoted for both. Scripture is taken out of context way too often and a few verses used to support opinions is tree level and not forest level theology.

    I am about to begin seminary in the fall and I look forward to the sharing of God’s grace among other students. My wife’s position and title is Vice President of Supplier Diversity and Program Manager. As you can imagine we have had many conversations on the subject of diversity.

    Diversity is God’s plan for this world. We should embrace diversity and not discourage it.

    Sharon I look forward to your posts. Regards…


    • Thank you so much for your input, Joe! As you may or may not know (depending on how much you’ve looked at my blog), I am also on the road to ministry. And as you point out, there are some parallels in terms of how the church has dealt with the issue of female clergy and homosexuality (and in the past, slavery). The easy read of scriptures, the most face-value reading is supportive of slavery, prohibitive toward women in leadership in the church, and condemnatory toward homosexual relationships. I didn’t just toss aside the scriptures on women in leadership because I felt pulled in that direction. I agonized over those scriptures and busted my fanny trying to understand them and FINALLY came to place where I felt I that I could pursue leadership and still honor the scriptures. I have been in the same process with the scriptures that address homosexuality. I think I understand what’s at stake for gays who want to marry, or for those who feel called to ministry – I’ve had the same desires, after all. I just haven’t been able to work out an understanding of scripture that both honors its authority and is “fully inclusive”.
      Having said all that, I agree that the church should be a place of welcome and that it’s the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. I’m not in charge of the sanctification department, thank God!
      Ever read the book “Paul Among the People” by Sarah Ruden? It’s been a real help in my understanding of all three of the issues above (women, slaves, homosexuals) in the ancient world.


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