Tapping the Market for Gay-Friendly Churches

There may be a market for more gay-friendly churches, but the mainline traditions haven't tapped it.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Over at Religion Dispatches, Pastor Dan—of Street Prophets fame—takes me to task for pointing out that churches that condemn homosexuality are the ones experiencing growth, while the more liberal mainline Protestant traditions watch their memberships dwindle. While he recognizes those trend lines, Dan argues that within the mainline, the gay-friendly denominations are shrinking more slowly: 

The big losers among mainline denominations are United Methodists, who shed nearly 20% of their members between 1990 and 2008, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The Methodists do not ordain gays and lesbians. Presbyterians and Lutherans each lost about 5-6% of their members. Episcopalians went down 20% as well, but on a much lower scale than Methodists: in 1990, there were about 3 million Episcopalians in the US. In 2008, there were around 2.4 million. Not chump change, to be sure, but nothing like the staggering 3 million Methodists who disappeared in the same period.

It's fuzzy math to argue that the 20 percent slide is Episcopal membership is less dramatic than the 20 percent drop-off in the United Methodists' numbers, of course.

And while Dan notes that the gay-friendly United Church of Christ has grown since 1990, the bigger story is that the church has shrunk by half since 2001 and now includes fewer than 750,000 Americans.

Dan makes a valid point, however, in spotlighting one gay-friendly tradition that is experiencing tremendous growth: those belonging to no religion whatsoever. These "religious nones" have nearly doubled in size since 1990, to more than 34 million Americans.

A good number of these religious exiles were turned off by their churches' conservative views on social issues like homosexuality and abortion. Roughly a third of former Roman Catholics or Protestants who are now unaffiliated say they just haven't found the right faith tradition yet.

Those stats suggest that there's a growing market for churches that have the personal and spiritual appeal of the evangelical tradition without the conservative politics. So far, though, neither the Episcopal Church nor the other mainline traditions have figured out how to fill that niche.