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Evangelical churches try to find right balance on gay issues

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Rev. Robert Jeffress has changed the way he talks about homosexuality from the pulpit.

The pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Dallas hasn't stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says he usually talks about homosexuality within "a bigger context of God's plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage."

"It would be the height of hypocrisy to condemn homosexuality and not adultery or unbiblical divorce," he said, explaining that the Bible allows divorce only in cases of adultery or desertion. He also includes premarital sex on that list.

The pressure to change the way homosexuality is addressed in evangelical churches is increasing as mainstream support for gay and lesbian issues increases. This support is especially strong among young adults, and researchers say they don't expect this group to become more conservative on the issue as they get older.

In a 2011 survey by the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute, 62 per cent of adults between 18 and 29 years old said they supported gay marriage and 71 per cent supported civil unions. Among adults 65 and older, those numbers were 31 per cent in favour of marriage and 51 per cent for civil unions.

Asked about the perception that "religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues," 69 per cent of the younger group agreed with the statement.

Another recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly 20 per cent of adult Americans now describe themselves as unaffiliated with any specific religion and the problem for evangelical churches is apparent.

"Evangelicals have been sobered by studies that show people are dropping out of church in droves," said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University's Divinity School. That has affected how they relate to marginalized people, including gays and lesbians.

"I'm amazed at the changes, the softening of the rhetoric to be more compassionate," Leonard said. "There's a realization that the idea of 'love the sinner, hate the sin' comes across as pretty cold."

Demographics isn't the only force driving changes in the evangelical response to gays and lesbians. As it becomes safer for gays and lesbians to come out of the closet, it becomes increasingly more likely that evangelicals know gays and lesbians personally, researchers say.

"Over the last five to 10 years, evangelicals have been faced with the issue even more poignantly as their sons and daughters come out of the closet," Leonard said. " ... It has become more difficult to dismiss 'those people.'"

Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, is one of those children.

Like most evangelicals, Lee grew up believing that the Bible was to be taken pretty much at face value, but in wrestling with the realization that he was gay, he has found a more nuanced way to read Scripture. Now he works to foster understanding of gays and lesbians within evangelical institutions.

"I do hear from church leaders and pastors, who say, 'I already know where I stand, but how can I be more loving and gracious to the gay community without compromising my convictions?'" Lee said. "There are a lot of things I say, but chief among them is that the more you listen to people and ask about their lives and stories, the more you are able to show grace and love, even if you don't agree."

Jeffress, who has gay and lesbian members in his church, tries to be compassionate and understanding.

He said he is open to the possibility that sexual orientation has a genetic basis that cannot be cured or prayed away.

"I think we were too quick to dismiss the possibility of a genetic predisposition," Jeffress said.

But that hasn't altered his belief the Bible teaches that acting on homosexual desire is sinful, and he feels it is his responsibility to talk about it with his congregation.

"We cannot pick and choose what parts of God's word we are called to share," he said. "God gave it to us, not to hurt people, but to help people."

But Jeffress said he was concerned that some other evangelical pastors were shirking this responsibility.

"My sense is that people are just avoiding the subject, by and large," he said. "They are so bent on trying to add to the numbers of their churches that they don't want to disenfranchise new members or be characterized as unfriendly."

Atlanta pastor the Rev. Louie Giglio seems to have taken that approach. After withdrawing from giving the benediction at president Obama's inauguration ceremony because of controversy over a past sermon in which he said same-sex relationships were sinful, Giglio downplayed the significance of the remarks.

In his withdrawal letter, Giglio did not say he had changed his views on homosexuality, but instead noted how old the sermon was and stated, "Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years."

David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said it is the pastors who are de-emphasizing homosexuality who are attracting more members.

"It's a free-market system," he said, noting that there is no evangelical equivalent of the pope to enforce a certain doctrine.

Groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, are really a loose confederation of independent churches. Although a church could be forced out of the convention, it would not lose its buildings and property, as has been the case with several Episcopal churches that broke with the denomination over the election an openly gay bishop.

And because many evangelical churches are less hierarchical than their mainline Protestant counterparts, changes in attitude or practice can sometimes go under the radar.

"There's never a proclamation. A resolution doesn't pass. It's just that people go silent on the issue," Key said. He said that has happened with everything from slavery to dancing and alcohol consumption.

"The reality is when all of society has moved in a certain direction ... you just have to be silent."

In 2001, the Southern Baptist Convention established a Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals at the urging of pastor Bob Stith.

In its final report to the denomination in June of last year, task force members wrote, "The challenges we face are exponentially greater than they were ten years ago. ...Homosexuality may well be the number one crisis facing the church in this generation."

Nonetheless, the task force dissolved and Stith's position as National Strategist for Gender Issues was left unfunded. Stith has continued his work, thanks to some private donors.

"This issue is not going to go away," he said. "There are too many people sitting in the pews who are in a lot of pain and don't know what to do with it."

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