In November 2016, a prominent Dallas-area Baptist church cast a 577-367 vote to extend full membership to homosexually active people, including leadership ordination and marriage officiation. "Open to all, closed to none," is now Wilshire Baptist Church's proud slogan.
It's been one year since the church's controversial vote made headlines. What's happened at Wilshire Baptist Church since then? To find out, the Institute on Religion and Democracy conducted a phone interview with Wilshire Baptist's senior pastor, George Mason.
Some church members have left, while others have joined. But Mason insists Wilshire continues to be a fruitful and orthodox church, depending on how you define fruitful and orthodox.
Moving Toward LGBTQ Affirmation
My first question was: how did a Texas Baptist church start out examining the same-sex dilemma facing the church and then move to full affirmation of homosexually active behavior?
Long before Wilshire's congregation voted or even considered a proposal on same-sex behavior, the church conducted a 14-month study to closely examine LGBTQ issues. The study was conducted by 19 church-elected representatives as part of an "Inclusion and Diversity Study Group."
"This was sort of a way of helping the congregation hear about the biblical [sic] and science and experience and different ways of looking at the issue that the study group was wrestling with," said pastor George Mason.
Upon completion of the study and before any proposal was made, the group presented their findings during a two-hour long seminar. (You can watch the entire seminar on YouTube here.)
"From that point, there were also roundtable discussions that we had where people had five opportunities to come and draw a number and randomly be placed at a table with others in the congregation who wanted to talk about their experience with this, their point of view, their way of thinking about it, just listening to one another and share," explained Mason.
Next, the study group came to its conclusion, with the majority advocating full LGBTQ affirmation and a minority dissenting. Each presented its reports to the congregation. The church would soon vote on the majority's recommendations.
"There was a church-wide meeting in which the recommendation was presented, and we spent about two hours hearing from people in the congregation for or against the motion. And then after that, we voted," explained Mason.
In fact, Wilshire's congregants voted over two Sundays to be sure all members had the chance to cast their ballots. "Interestingly, it was the Sunday before the national election and the Sunday after, so there was a lot going on," added Mason.
A total of 944 Wilshire members voted, with 577 in favor of full LGBTQ affirmation.
Losses versus Gains
Fallout from the vote is what Mason calls "the biggest misjudgment of my ministry."
Clarifying, Mason explained he was shocked by "the consequence of the number of people for whom this would be a decision they could no longer remain in the church."
"So my miscalculation was that I knew that there would be a lot of people who would vote 'no' on this. What I didn't know was they would leave over it," admitted Mason.
At the time of the vote in Nov. 2016, Mason noted Wilshire claimed about 1,500 active, resident members. After the vote in favor of LGBTQ affirmation, not all of those members continued calling Wilshire their church home.
"Months later, after the bleeding had stopped, the church counted its losses: About 250 members left, taking $700,000 of annual giving with them," Advocate Magazine reported in November 2017. "Three Sunday school classes of older adults disappeared altogether."
Mason confirmed the Advocate's report of membership loss was accurate. However, he assured me new members continued to join Wilshire. Nearly 120 have joined since last November, he said later on in the interview.
"Let me say, yes we've lost these members. But again, we've gained back nearly half the ones we've lost. Maybe 40 percent at this point," explained Mason. "So yes, our numbers have declined in attendance. But I would remind us all numbers are declining in American Christianity all across the board. Year by year, churches are all struggling with their attendance and their participation."
For Mason, the decline in church attendance across the nation, as he notes, has to do with the growing rise of secularism in the West. Mason holds firm LGBTQ affirmation has less to do with a church's decline.
"I think to put such a fine point on saying churches that choose to include LGBT persons fully or to affirm them are sort of the litmus test to whether you're going to decline or you're going to continue to grow, I don't think that's fair."
Wilshire's efforts were done in the name of inclusion and diversity. What I wanted to know was have their efforts actually resulted in more people from a variety of backgrounds?
"It's not like we've seen a lot more African-American folk or Latinos," began Mason. "But the question really that we were asking is does that include LGBT persons. And so we were answering that question with this vote. The answer was yes it should, and it does. And yes, we have had a number of gay Christians join the church. And even more than that worshipping with us."
However, the majority of Wilshire's new members are not LGBTQ people, as Mason candidly offered.
"The majority of people—and there's more than 100 now who have joined since the vote, maybe about 120 at this point—are not gay, but they want to be in a church that has no restrictions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity," said Mason. "But it's not like Millennial gay people have joined our church in droves or anything like that. More of them have been middle age and Millennials."
Research does suggest younger evangelicals are increasingly more likely to affirm same-sex marriage than their older congregants. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that while Millennials are still relatively conservative, 45 percent of younger evangelicals favor same-sex marriage. By contrast, the survey found only 23 percent of evangelicals born before 1981 favor same-sex marriage.
"It doesn't take much to convince a Millennial that this is a decision the church should make. It does take a lot more to convince an older person who has grown up in a more traditional evangelical-like church," commented Mason.
Following the footsteps of liberal mainline Protestants?
A driving force behind Mason's personal advocacy of the Church's LGBTQ affirmation seemingly stems from his compassion for same-sex attracted Christians who are fated to a life of singleness and celibacy in non-affirming evangelical churches.
"It seems to me [evangelical churches] don't have a fruitful path for gay Christians in non-affirming churches. I think if you try to think about where that leaves the church, it leaves the church with many gay Christians who do not have a way to exercise their spiritual gifts on behalf of the body of Christ in a healthy, wholesome way. They are forced to be among us, if they are at all, as people who must be alone."
During the interview, I pointed out Washington, D.C.'s massive mainline Protestant sanctuaries that tout rainbow flags and yet see sparse and aging Sunday-morning attendance.
Is it then that Wilshire is following the declining trajectory of some mainline denominations who have adopted revisionist sexual ethics? Of course, Mason hopes not, but he offered, "Honestly, I don't know the answer to that question. I think we're going to have to see."
"Honestly, one of the difficulties for gay Christians is that they've had to choose between non-affirming churches or affirming churches that are single-issue churches. And we don't think that's necessary for us," stated Mason. "We think to continue to be a church that has held to Christian orthodoxy in a healthy and whole way of presenting the Gospel and they can join us."
What Mason does know is he doesn't feel the need for his church to specifically advertise its LGBTQ affirmation with signs or rainbow flags outside the sanctuary.
"Now, in terms of our own church, what we're going to try to do, I would say the answer to that is we have not taken the approach that we are going to make LGBTQ inclusion a single marketing issue for our church, so to speak," explained Mason. "We don't have it out on our sign. We don't have rainbow flags. We don't actually think that most gay Christians want to be singled out in some way. They want simply to be the body of Christ."
And how about affirming evangelical churches like the Nashville-area megachurch GracePointe? The IRD's Jeffrey Walton, Anglican Programs Director, recently reported the major decline of GracePointe, a Nashville-area megachurch. After GracePointe's senior pastor Stan Mitchell announced the church would embrace same-sex marriage, the megachurch lost more than half of its members and is experiencing financial strain.
"GracePointe for instance—I don't know them very well, but I know who they are. Any of us might ask, if GracePointe were starting over today, if they were just to start and were to be the size they are and are an inclusive church, would we consider them to be a substantial congregation with a significant mission?," Mason asked. "And I think the answer to that is yes. Because they once were of a larger size and because of this matter they are smaller, does that mean they are an insignificant church now? I don't think so."
He continued, "I think this whole question of what makes a congregation important in the kingdom of God...we have to have broader definitions of measurement of faithfulness, and vitality and all of that than merely we once were this large and now we're this large."
Most interestingly, Mason takes issue with how orthodoxy is being defined by conservative Christians.
"I often hear people, more conservative evangelical people and Orthodox, Catholic, and whatnot, that this is a heretical point of view. For instance, it's not part of Christian orthodoxy," elaborated Mason. "And I'd just ask us to think about whether historically orthodoxy includes the question of marriage or if we've not added that as something we're now adding to the doctrine of God, the Nicene Creed, all of that."
Seemingly, Mason suggests conservative Christians are adding new, restrictive layers on what constitutes orthodoxy.
"So often what I start reading from people who are saying this is not orthodox or it's Christian heresy, I want to say, 'Where in the creed are we in violation?' And then they'll want to say, 'Well let's go to the Bible, the Bible plainly says.' Alright, the Bible is not where we talk about Christian orthodoxy," claimed Mason.
He added, "Historically, when we've talked about orthodoxy we've talked about it in terms of our creedal tradition of what orthodoxy is which has to do with who God is, with who is Jesus Christ, what is salvation, what is the nature of God ... we have not had as part of these creeds, marriage is between a man and a woman only."
Who gets it wrong?
Wilshire made headlines in 2016 when his state's Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) swiftly severed ties with Wilshire for its departure from traditional Christian teaching on marriage.
The dissolved affiliation meant Wilshire could no longer send representatives, called "messengers," to BGCT's annual meetings; contribute funds to mission projects or have congregants participate on the convention's leadership boards and committees.
I found 215 churches in Dallas listed as affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. They include congregations such as Afrika Community Church, Gospel Light Eritrean Baptist Church, Iglesia Bautista Agape and Brazilian International Baptist Church. Diverse in many ways, but not in their teachings on marriage.
When asked if these pastors from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds get the LGBTQ issue wrong, Mason answered, "I'm only responsible for, I think, what we do and for the decisions we make."
He continued on:
What other people do is something they're responsible for. I don't judge other people's decision about that. I do advocate, personally, for LGBT inclusion but I try not to interfere in other people's churches about that because in our understanding of church as Baptist, even though we participate in conventions and the like, we're not a connectionalist body. We're not a denomination that makes a decision as a denomination. We're a denomination that makes decisions as local churches.
Although Mason personally advocates for LGBTQ affirmation, he assured me he is not angry with conservative Christians who hold a traditional understanding of marriage. In fact, he says he held a traditional view of marriage for most of his ministry.
"God in time may prove that I was wrong about this, or that our church was wrong. I don't know that," concludes Mason. "But we only have this moment to be responsible for the decisions we make. And so I'm willing to live with that."
One Final Thought
It was my intention to let the interview speak for itself, free of cluttering commentary from my countering opinions. (Although the ironic twist of roles was not lost on me. An older, white Baptist gentlemen advocating LGBTQ affirmation talking with a fully disclosed young Millennial woman writer who works for a conservative Christian think tank.)
However, I will add one comment here. It seems to me that pastor Mason is not confident Wilshire will follow the more fruitful trajectory of orthodox evangelical churches. Instead, I believe he hopes to revise the definition of what it means to be a fruitful and orthodox church.
Can Wilshire steer away from becoming a once-effective church now aging and dying, like so many affirming mainline churches? Mason is right, only time will tell.
I do pray for the success of Wilshire Baptist Church and for Pastor Mason. I pray the Holy Spirit reveals truth to Wilshire's leadership and congregants and that they might share the undistorted gospel and, ultimately, minister to lost souls in their Dallas community.
Chelsen Vicari serves as the evangelical program director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She earned her Masters of Arts in Government from Regent University and frequently contributes to conservative outlets. She is also the author of Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith. Follow her on twitter @ChelsenVicari.
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