Inside the Evangelical Fight Over Gay Marriage

From the outside, EastLake Community Church looks like a lot of other evangelical megachurches. It boasts 13 weekly services at six locations in the greater Seattle area; the head pastor is a bearded hipster; and the main campus is a warehouse turned sanctuary where greeters serve coffee, a tattooed band rocks out beneath colored lights and attendance swells whenever the Seahawks are not playing. On a rainy Sunday in early January, William Paul Young, the author of the evangelical best seller The Shack, is piped in via a pretaped video to preach about trusting Jesus and a campus pastor prays to ask God to make their hearts open to change. It is almost enough to make you miss what is really going on at EastLake this winter: the congregation is quietly coming out as one of the first openly LGBT-affirming evangelical churches in the U.S.

Change has come to EastLake only gradually. For the past six months, the church has played a short welcome video at the start of every service that includes the line #8220Gay or straight here, there#8217s no hate here.#8221 One of the pastors now sends a wedding gift on behalf of the church every time she hears that gay congregants are getting married. The church#8217s first gay wedding took place last month. Pastor Ryan Meeks, 36, regularly preaches an unusual brand of evangelicalism that praises Jesus but steers clear of pro-America, pro-gun and anti-gay rhetoric. A turning point came when he realized one of his staffers had been afraid to tell him she was dating a woman. #8220I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community,#8221 he says. #8220It is a move of integrity for me#8211the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.#8221

EastLake#8217s pivot is a signal that change is coming to one of the last redoubts of opposition to gay marriage in America. Mainline Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians and Presbyterians, routinely ordain gay ministers and marry gay couples. Methodist ministers are breaking rank to celebrate gay weddings. The overall public has favored gay marriage for three years.

But evangelical churches and their congregations typically remain opposed, though that opposition is weakening. Support for gay marriage across all age groups of white evangelicals has increased by double digits over the past decade, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Support among the oldest evangelicals grew from 1 in 20 in 2003 to 1 in 5 in 2014. But the fastest change can be found among younger evangelicals, whose support for gay marriage jumped from 20% in 2003 to 42% in 2014. And that is a shift that is uprooting everything. #8220Historically the major changes in American religion have come from the margins,#8221 Grant Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, explains. #8220Gradually those changes found a home in the mainstream, where the process started over again, with new groups and new ideas.#8221

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