Engaging a Changing Culture: A Sociological Analysis

John W. Hawthorne

The dramatic changes in attitudes toward LGBTQ people require the Church of the Nazarene to reconsider the denominational stance in order to reach young people, connect to the broader faith community, increase its ministry outreach, and support its young clergy.

One of the largest and most rapid changes in America society can be seen in attitudes toward same-sex marriage. In 2010, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported than 29% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. As of 2021, that figure stood at 79%: a 50% increase in just over a decade. This change reflects a number of shifts in state level legislation or court action, culminating in the 2015 Obergefell decision declaring “traditional marriage only” legislation unconstitutional.

While only 35% of white evangelical protestants supported same-sex marriage in 2021, the same figure for mainline and Catholic populations was right around 75%, fairly close to the population overall. This is important in that not all Christian populations are of one voice on the topic.

That has certainly been true in my own United Methodist denomination, which has seen one-sixth of congregations leave for a more conservative body over this very issue. Within the Catholic tradition, it is notable that Pope Francis announced in early 2023 that being gay shouldn’t be a crime. He did say it was a sin, but he also said that mistreating gay and lesbian people was no less a sin.

The diversity of viewpoints is also likely within the Church of the Nazarene. Variability by generation or location or education is very likely. Those 40 and under are much more likely to reflect an affirming view than those of earlier generations. PRRI reported that 2017 was the first year when a majority of millennial evangelicals supported same-sex marriage. Based on early reporting, the percentage of support from GenZ (those born after 1996) is likely even higher. Location matters as well. The more cosmopolitan a location, the more likely to have regular interaction with LGBTQ individuals. Christian universities across the country have seen increased support and activism for their queer colleagues, even at Nazarene institutions. And many straight students have very little tolerance for anti-LGBTQ bias.

This is not hard to understand given the massive changes described above. I regularly tell an anecdote about a conversation I had with two young then-20-something women in 2011. Both were products of Christian universities. I asked them how they thought about the question of LGBTQ affirmation. One turned to me and said, “I had to decide what I thought about homosexuality when my friend Jake came out in seventh grade show choir.” My only response was, “Of course you did.”

This young woman is not unique. The same is true for those young people sitting in the pews in our churches or in classes in our colleges or around the table at the local coffee shop. They have known their Jakes for years, and the ubiquity of social media means that they may have regularly kept in touch with Jake as well. When a pastor or denominational leader calls out the gay population to demonstrate resistance to the world, they hear that critique primarily directed at their friend Jake.

More than that, the Jakes we are talking about are the children, grandchildren, or siblings of our current congregants. And that is not even considering the Jakes currently sitting in the pew seeking to follow Christ as best they know how.

There has been an assumption in too much of the Christian church that LGBTQ people aren’t people of faith. A 2020 Gallup survey found that nearly half of queer people surveyed reported moderate to high levels of religiosity. That means that there is a significant opportunity for ministry to and ministry with the LGBTQ population in our congregations if we would but recognize the potential.

The same is true for those in a congregation’s orbit. Five years ago, I conducted a survey of 819 clergy in the Church of the Nazarene, divided between those under 40 and those in their 50s. I had assumed that knowing LGBTQ people would have an influence on clergy attitudes. To my surprise, nearly everyone knew someone who was gay. The margin was 797 to 22. The same question asking about transgender individuals showed 643 knew a trans person while 176 did not. While these patterns did not predict attitudes toward issues of contemporary sexual ethics (in part due to the lack of statistical variability in the responses), they are still important. There is also a question of how much those queer folks within the sphere of influence might know of the denomination’s stance and keep their distance accordingly.

It makes me ask what kinds of ministry outreach those clergy were able to do with the gay and transgender acquaintances they had. Could the clergy members feel comfortable engaging with them knowing the denominational stance on LGBTQ issues? Did their district leadership provide them with space to explore such outreach, or would doing so put credentials at risk? I know stories of individuals who have had space and those who were pushed out because of their openness.

The survey asked the younger clergy group how important it was for them to stay in the Church of the Nazarene. The good news is that only 12 people said it wasn’t important at all, with another 90 respondents saying it was not particularly important. So Nazarene belonging was important or very important to remain in the denomination—78% of the millennial respondents. They were also asked a question about what might cause them to think about leaving. Over 45% identified “the denomination’s difficulty in dealing with contemporary issues” as a potential future trigger.

In summary, then, the Church of the Nazarene’s current stance of LGBTQ affirmation has several negative consequences for the central mission of the denomination. It makes it difficult to reach queer people in the congregation and their families. It complicates dialogue with other Christians whose views tend toward affirmation. It makes it difficult to reach out to those in the broader community. It runs a real risk of alienating talented young clergy and causing them to conclude that they have no long-term place within the Church of the Nazarene.

There is one more dynamic within the broader social context that is worth attention: the role of jurisprudence around LGBTQ issues. When former Justice Kennedy drafted the Obergefell decision, he closed with an appeal to the first amendment protections of religious freedom. It was his hope that religious bodies would not be forced into LGBTQ affirming positions by federal authorities. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, like Masterpiece Cake Shop, have only reaffirmed that position and the current Court shows no inclination to change soon. Even the 2022 Respect for Marriage Law contains provisions protecting religious organizations from any attempts to force changes in their stances.

Paradoxically, laws like Respect for Marriage create opportunities for groups like the Church of the Nazarene. By removing the threat of coercive moves against religious bodies, the LGBTQ issues can be moved outside the culture war dynamic. A change in the denomination position would no longer be seen as the powers that be making the church do something.

Such an opportunity might just be seen as similar to the decision of a young 18th century Anglican minister to take his ministry out to where the people were. Or an early 20th century Methodist minister who took his work to inner-city Los Angeles.

John Hawthorne is a retired sociology professor with nearly 40 years of experience in Christian universities in both faculty and administrative roles. He served in five different Christian institutions, including two Nazarene schools. He earned his PhD in sociology from Purdue University. He regularly writes a SubStack newsletter at johnhawthorne.substack.com and is working on a book reimagining Christian universities in a post-­Christian society.

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