In a world full of prejudice and bigotry, it is refreshing to discuss a story of triumph and respect for equality.
In the affluent community of Franklin, Tennessee, tucked amongst the grand houses and high-end shopping centers of this conservative Bible-believing community is an oasis for the LGTB community.
From the outside, the building looks like any other church, but on the inside of GracePointe Church, there is something wonderfully unique happening. The 1500 members of this evangelical, inter-denominational church worship with a contemporary flavor. They have Bible studies, youth programs, and do mission work. Sitting in the pew between the gray-haired saints and the fidgety four year old children are openly gay men and lesbian couples, all worshiping together.
Pastor Stan Mitchell, who comes from a fundamental Christian background, founded Gracepointe Church in 2003. He wasn't looking to assemble a group of people, who believed the same way he did, but rather to worship and grow along side good, sincere people who genuinely wanted to follow Christ and retrain themselves in their beliefs. Instead of accepting the traditional ideas of sins, scripture, and homosexuality and the church, Mitchell wanted to explore new ideas through scripture, science and personal experience.
About two and half years ago, Pastor Mitchell began a conversation with his conversation about LGBT issues. At the time, he was labeling the church as a place of no judgment. Soon the church was allowing gay membership and volunteer opportunities. Predictably, many of the more conservative members left the church. Yet, the progression towards a more open church carried-on and was gradual, progressive, and steady.
January 11, 2015 started off like a typical Sunday with sincere worship and authentic fellowship. Pastor Mitchell delivered a sermon titled, "Living Between Immanuel & Epiphany" with his normal charisma and thoughtfulness. But not many predicted how he would end his teachings. He spend the last twenty-five minutes warmly inviting members of the LGBT community into his church family. He respectfully set a high moral standard of conduct for this group, and his entire congregation, heterosexual and gay alike. He invited everyone in his congregation into positions of leadership, including the Diaconate & Eldership, and opened-up employment by the church, water baptism, marriage, and baby dedication to his members, regardless of their sexual orientation. Yes, you read that correctly. Not only will Mitchell allow gay marriage, but he will personally perform the ceremony.
The church family rose to their feet. But unlike the mass exodus and raised eyebrows that might be expected from a congregation in the heart of the Bible belt, the church family didn't turn to walk out the door, but rather, they put their hands together in a standing ovation. There were hugs, words of affirmation and tears of joy as sexual labels faded away and members were no longer identified by their sexuality. The house was no longer divided by "us and them" but was united as "we."
I had the opportunity to talk with Pastor Mitchell on the phone recently, and while he was not looking for a microphone or platform, he's happy that the decision to include all of God's people into his church family is being received so positively. This intelligent and sincere man systematically and passionately retold their journey and shared his conclusions, "Homo-, hetero- and bi- are unnecessary adjectives." Mitchell said. "Full inclusion means treating all our members with the same rights."
Over the past 2000 years, the Christian church has had to face many moral and scriptural dilemmas including race equality, slavery, women in ministry, and the handling of divorce within church memberships. The church has had to morph and change, reinterpret and have open discussions in order to address these issues and to come to conclusions that are not only morally acceptable, but scriptural. Mitchell believes that homosexual rights are no different than any of these other issues and feels comfortable in his decision, even though some of his peers don't.
Many of today's churches ignore their mission and even the Great Commission, not wanting to offend their peers. They adhere to what Mitchell refers to as "2000 years of traditions" and interpretation of scripture. But GracePointe is proving that they are willing to face criticism and judgement from the community to fulfill their mission and to reconsider other interpretations of scripture. As stated on their website, the church "exists to provide a safe place to better understand and experience God's love and full acceptance of us, as we are, and His commitment to the process of making us whole in Christ."
The decisions of this pastor and the acceptance from the church family is one step forward in the journey towards unifying the church and creating a loving environment for all who wish to worship God.