A Cowboy Walks into a Church…

Dear Joel,

We were visiting the local United Church of Christ congregation for the second time. This congregation, like the other UCCs we’d spend time in, was small, slightly brainy, and very progressive. The pastor is a gay married man, and the congregation is LGBTQ welcoming, as the sign on the marquee says. The first sermon (delivered by a guest speaker, also a gay married reverend) had been exactly the kind of piece you would expect to hear on the Sunday of Pride Week if you have ever visited such churches: a call to remember those queer people, Christians and not, who have been hurt by a violent society and a call to repentance for Christianity and Christians’ role in that hurt–a needed message and one too seldom preached.

The surprising part of the visit was the young man in the pew behind us. Wearing dress jeans, cowboys boots, a button down shirt, and a tie, I recognized him as any of the young men I grew up with who weren’t going to buy dress slacks but wanted to look nice for church. (This is also the appropriate dress for a funeral in the rural community where I grew up.)  At the end of the service, the 50 or so people in attendance form a circle around the sanctuary and sing a song about friendship, and we stood next to each other. When we were done, I asked him if he were visiting.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a twang that told me he wasn’t from around these parts.

“And have you visited a UCC congregation before?”

“What’s that”? he asked.

“United Church of Christ. That’s the denomination this congregation is affiliated with.”

“Oh,” he replied. “At home we just call it ‘Church of Christ.'”

Well, now this made much more sense–but it also presented me with a quandary. There is (I later found) a Church of Christ (not to be confused with the Temple Lot or “Hedrickites,” and LDS denomination from Independence, Missouri) in the city where we live, a tiny congregation of just 15 people. And while I haven’t visited it, I have visited enough Churches of Christ to be able to tell you that they are about as different from United Church of Christ as can be. While there is variation in how they live out their faith, Churches of Christ see themselves not as starting in the 19th century (with the Stone-Campell movement that also led to the development of the Disciples of Christ church) but as coming directly out of first century Christianity. They view any practice that is not specifically outlined in the Christian New Testament as improper for church service–which is why they sing a cappella. Because of this, the most conservative Churches of Christ don’t support missionary or educational organizations and don’t collaborate with other organizations for social justice work.

Which is just about as far from the UCC as you can get. While the Church of Christ says that anything not mandated in the Bible or inferred by a very close reading is forbidden, the UCC’s current slogan is “God is Still Speaking.” In addition to the “LGBTQ friendly” sign on the church was a sign signaling that this congregation supports Family Promise, a nationwide effort to support families facing homelessness by keeping them intact (which most shelters won’t accommodate)–exactly the kind of work that many (though not all) Churches of Christ would object to.


Above, the UCC logo: a black comma against a red background, with the words “God is still speaking,” 

So, should I have told this young man that he wasn’t in the “right” place?

I wrestled with it for a bit. I’m a religion scholar with an interest in congregational life, and I also respect religious conscience, so I wanted him to be where he wanted to be.

But he clearly wanted to be in a LGBTQ friendly service–or, at least, he was willing to be, thinking that this was a Church of Christ.

So, it could be that he was looking for a Church of Christ and found what he thought was one that said it was LGBTQ friendly and his commitment to his denomination overrode his hesitation about coming to a queer friendly place. I appreciate that kind of dedication. And if a commitment to his conservative church brought him to a welcoming and affirming one, even better!

Or it could be that he was looking for a Church of Christ and found what he thought was a queer friendly one and that was exactly what he was looking for. It could be that he’s been waiting his whole life for this.

I hope to see him again.



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