2015 looks to be a turning point year in the life of GracePointe, an evangelical megachurch in Franklin, Tenn., near Nashville. In January Pastor Stan Mitchell delivered a sermon in which he announced to his flock the outcome of an ongoing conversation about LGBT people, who previously were accepted as GracePointe members but denied leadership positions and some sacraments.
Mitchell noted that two and a half years ago, his congregation was thrust — “I believe by a divine wind” — into this conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity. (Time reports that this “divine wind” involved GracePointe member Carrie Underwood publicly supporting marriage equality, which resulted in the Westboro clan picketing the church.)
“One day I will write a memoir, and a large portion of that memoir will be about this life-giving experience,” Mitchell said in his January 11 sermon, in which he discussed many outcomes that the process yielded — including a policy change.
“It has not yielded this result unanimously or exhaustively but sufficiently,” he told the congregation. “And that is that 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. … 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.”
The sermon didn’t focus on the “clobber verses” or other biblical passages often debated in religious debates about marriage and LGBT people. In fact, it unfolded with a long biblical story, as Timereported:
“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.”
The idea of ongoing conversations and the continued openness to epiphany—that God might be revealed—was a key part of Mitchell’s message. Here are five of the most powerful nuggets from his sermon.
- Mitchell acknowledged that many GracePointe members might disagree with the decision and might feel they must leave the church. But he was clear about how important it was for him to take such a stand: “My soul has been stretched to the point that if I do not say what I say today, I cannot be here any longer.”
- “At GracePoint, we believe in God and we believe in epiphany. We believe in the word of God. We believe in the fact that God has spoken and yet speaks to us and yet will speak to us. … The word of the Lord can and does come through people like you and me. … We believe that church should be conversational … both philosophically and practically.”
- Mitchell celebrated the idea of conversation as a holy calling. Conversations don’t always lead to conclusions, he noted, but they do yield results. In the case of GracePoint, the results include the change in membership policies — and afterward, a sharp decline in the church’s attendance and its financial contributions received, according to Time.
- Mitchell said the process of conversing and reflecting on LGBT people nurtured gifts such as tolerance, humility, gentleness. and listening.
- “I am not sure I am right, but I am sure I sense the presence of god and I am doing my best and I believe … to this we have been called, and here we stand,” Mitchell said. He wished godspeed to those who would depart GracePoint, reinterated his love for them and declared that “the greatest guide is the guide of love.”