Covid and the Closet
“So, you’re religious…how does that work?” The“So, you’re religious…how does that work?” The question, posed by nearly every guy who bothers to read my dating profile, used to make my eyes light up with excitement, a chance to share the good news of God’s all-embracing love. Now after years on the market, it often reads like a death sentence to an otherwise fun conversation. The complicated relationship gays have with religion is no secret —without it, you wouldn’t be reading this issue of the connection today — but a cold response to my faith has never stopped Jesus from riding shotgun in my search for a mate. He and I are a package deal. To our friends and family, we find it easy to be open about what we value, the objects of our affection, and the truths we believe in.
In many churches, this sort of proclamation is celebrated and encouraged. We are exhorted to never be ashamed of the gospel and to let our light shine before the world, while other forms of revelation are conveniently forgotten. We forego confessing our sins to each other for fear of being judged, censured, or disfellowshipped. Even in our more raw testimonies, we sanitize and scrub them of too much detail, making them suitable for children’s ears, and hopefully featuring a hallelujah-worthy happy ending. The resulting church becomes more a home for robots than the redeemed, each one going through the motions of community, all while carefully guarding significant issues of the heart.
This was never Jesus’ design, His way, or His will for us; and thus it cannot prosper. This past year has seen record outflows from the LDS and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I wonder if Adventists have not also suffered similar losses. The statistics are grim: after welcoming worshippers to return, most churches are reporting 10-40% of their prior church attendance figures. And considering online attendance, despite an initial surge, post-Easter 2020, only 18% of pastors reported that their online attendance was higher than a typical in-person week. The shutdowns offered a welcome escape hatch for souls who were long disenchanted with the sham that church had become.No longer pressured to perform, saints have been free to explore who they really are, and what they believe, free from outside influence. For some, that has meant a complete divorce from a life of faith; and for others, merely a reassessment of priority. We’ve all seen what life is like without our weekly assembly, the stilted programming, and pageantry. We’ve gotten used to zoom, and might even prefer the extra hours of sleep it affords. Without the hustle of the morning, for the first time, Sabbath actually feels like a day of rest. This period without traditional church has both spoiled and awakened us, and as churches reopen across the world, a battle will emerge between those eager to return to church as it has always been, and others who feel emboldened to make radical changes.
Let’s face it, in-person church attendance is likely going to diminish greatly. In every age category, weekly church attendance has dropped over the last twenty years. For those who do return, especially the young, greater demands for authenticity will emerge, a revolution which could spark a revival. And for LGBT Christians in particular, COVID serves as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to renegotiate our place in the church, and how we wish to present in this fast-transforming space.
Having lost our church connections for an extended time should imbue each of us with a holy recklessness. We need no longer live under the illusion that we have anything worthwhile to lose by living openly in the freedom God has given. Why should we tolerate the fakery, the counterintuitive and counterproductive traditions of men, the unChristlike dominance hierarchies, and the avoidance of real issues? We can rejoin our faith communities, liberated from the fear of loss, of silencing, and of exclusion. Radical authenticity will be the painful cross that restores abundant life to the church. Churches will either become spaces where all Christians — gay, straight, transgender, homeless, abused, fornicating, porn-addicted, debt-burdened, or grieving — can be themselves and be seen as Christ sees them, or they will not be sustainable.
Depending on your nationality or the culture you’re enclosed within, this kind of structural transformation may seem daunting or just plain impossible. You may have spent your entire life concealing this less acceptable aspect of your testimony. The idea of your identity being openly known might make church feel even more hostile than it already does. But if you weren't alone, perhaps you’d feel differently. Michelle Aguilar wrote, “Fear is contagious. Fortunately, so is courage. Learning to become fearless will touch everyone around you, and best of all, you'll find it's a gift that keeps on giving.” This coming October, I will need your help in organizing a Coming Out Sabbath, a chance to share your story with your spiritual brothers and sisters. As we each choose faith over fear, faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to heal our broken churches, I believe we will see the true revival and reformation God desires for the Body of Christ. As a post-COVID bravery opens closet doors around the globe, Christians everywhere will learn anew what our communities were made for — to love, to uplift, and to embrace with the gospel.