“Could you be a church in Selma and not march, just handle your own community?” says pastor Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church. “I don’t think I can do that.”
Three Sundays ago in Franklin, Tenn., twenty minutes south of Nashville and in the heart of the country’s contemporary Christian music industry, pastor Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church preached what was perhaps the most important sermon of his life. You can watch it below–start around 44:40 if you are short on time.
For the past three years, GracePointe has engaged itself in a time of listening on the topic of sexual orientation and identity. It began around the time that the country star Carrie Underwood, who goes to GracePointe, spoke out in favor of marriage equality in 2012, and the Westboro Baptist picketers showed up the church.
That was a time when, as Mitchell, 46, explains, the position of the church on marriage was classically evangelical. People who were not heterosexual could be members, but they could not serve on the board, lead worship or other church groups. They could be baptized and receive communion, but they could not be married or have their children dedicated.
For congregants on all sides of the debate, the conversation over the past three years has been at times painful, even devastating. For Mitchell, it has been a deeply personal as well as a spiritual journey, especially as he has seen it divide friends and family. And on Sunday, Jan. 11, the church reached a conclusion, as Mitchell shared:
“Our position that these siblings of ours, other than heterosexual, our position that these our siblings cannot have the full privileges of membership, but only partial membership, has changed,” he said, as many in the congregation stood to their feet in applause, and other sat in silence. “Full privileges are extended now to you with the same expectations of faithfulness, sobriety, holiness, wholeness, fidelity, godliness, skill, and willingness. That is expected of all. Full membership means being able to serve in leadership and give all of your gifts and to receive all the sacraments; not only communion and baptism, but child dedication and marriage.”
With those words, GracePointe became one of the first evangelical megachurches in the country to openly stand for full equality and inclusion of the LGBTQ community, along with EastLake Community Church near Seattle. The results of the conversation, he told his congregation, were not unanimous or exhaustive, but they were sufficient.
“I implore you, whether you ever worship here again, or whether you come back next week happier than you’ve ever been, when all else fails, and love never fails, you are mine and I am yours, and inclusion means that we can live together in agreement and disagreement,” he said. “But if this stretches you to the point of having to compromise your soul, and you do need to separate, I would be a hypocrite to say I do not understand that, because conversely, my soul has been stretched to the point that if I do not say what I say today, I cannot be here any longer.”
The way that Mitchell explains the shift is almost as significant as the move itself. Marriage equality was not the starting point of his sermon. For 45 minutes, the pastor explored a story from the gospel of Luke when, after Jesus’ death, two of his disciples are traveling on the road to Emmaus and meet a resurrected Jesus, but do not realize it is him. The disciples then tell Jesus the story of Jesus’ own crucifixion. Jesus responds by telling them the entire Scriptures, but even then they still don’t realize who he is. The story climaxes when the disciples finally have a moment of Epiphany, a term for divine revelation, when they are breaking bread with Jesus.
Mitchell used this story in his sermon to point out that faithful people can know Scripture deeply, and even be staring at Jesus, and still not understand what the word of God is saying. “Even the presence of God and a Bible in your lap doesn’t give an epiphany,” he told his congregation. “You do not look full in the face of Jesus when you are reading the text or looking at the sunrise, but if though the sunrise and through the text you are compelled to read and look up, see and look up, … if you don’t look up, even Jesus can read the Bible to you and you won’t see him.”
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