Evangelical Church Sees Dramatic Decline After Pro-Gay Marriage Stance

Pastor Stan Mitchell of Gracepointe Church in Franklin, Tennessee, January 11, 2015.
Pastor Stan Mitchell of Gracepointe Church in Franklin, Tennessee, January 11, 2015. | (Photo: Screengrab/Gracepointe Church/Vimeo)

A once-large Nashville-area Evangelical congregation that made headlines after its pastor announced that the church would conduct same-sex marriages is selling its campus and relocating to rented space.

After his announcement of LGBT support in 2015, Pastor Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church in Franklin, Tennessee was profiled in Time magazine. But what was a much sought-after sign of Evangelical movement towards LGBT affirmation may have been wishful thinking on the part of cultural progressives pouring money into programs that aim to shift Evangelical pastors' views on sexuality.

A Consequential Change

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Time's Elizabeth Dias identified GracePointe as "one of the first evangelical megachurches in the country to openly stand for full equality and inclusion of the LGBTQ community."

GracePointe, with 700-800 weekly attendees at its height, was not actually a megachurch, typically defined as a congregation with worship attendance greater than 2,000 persons.

Perhaps more so than oldline Protestant denominations, pastor-driven structures of Evangelical churches are well-attuned to their constituency. Evangelical institutions that have waffled about Biblical teaching on human sexual expression — such as World Vision's short-lived policy change allowing those in same-sex marriages to be employed by the Christian nonprofit — have quickly reversed course as donors promptly redirected their giving elsewhere.

GracePointe was no exception: a 2015 article from the Nashville Scene reported significant departures: both members of the church's Board of Elders and half of the congregation's 2,200-person membership quickly decamped following the LGBT announcement.

"A happy ending has not materialized," the Scene reported. "Members have left, and the very fate of the church is at risk."

Changes ultimately were not limited to teachings on sexuality. In August, the Nashville Star reported that GracePointe would share space with another progressive congregation, now describing itself as "unapologetically interfaith".

A visitor to a recent service counted approximately 240 attendees, a fraction of the number that once participated.

"The public embrace of LGBTQI people and same-sex relationships by Mitchell and GracePointe Church in 2015 has led to a major decline in attendance and revenue," Out & About Nashville reported in September. "The half-empty lot bears evidence of a minor exodus over two years of congregants."

GracePointe has listed the 12,000-square-foot modernist chapel and 22 acre property where the church has met since 2009. The property, initially listed in February at $7.5 million, was dropped to $5.7 million in March and $4.9 million in April according to real estate records. The property is now under contract according to the Franklin Patch, and the sale could finalize by year's end.

The loss of more than half of the congregation has hurt GracePointe's financial stability, Mitchell told Out & About Nashville. The congregation is hoping the sale of the church property, along with budget and staff cutbacks, will improve finances.

Gracepointe's ministries and staff have scaled back. The church now styles itself as "a progressive Christian community" complete with $20 T-shirts for sale declaring that "Love is a Human Right" in all capital letters. Aside from archived video sermons by Mitchell, the web site features little else about church programs, staff or ministries. Mitchell and a lone administrator are presently the only staff listed on the church's web site.

Canary in the Coal Mine

While GracePointe was not the flagship church that LGBT advocates had hoped for, Mitchell continues to appear before appreciative progressive Christian audiences. This month he participates in a Little Rock-area panel discussion on LGBT issues alongside Peggy Campolo, wife of Evangelical Left evangelist Tony Campolo, liberal Episcopal priest Ed Bacon, and Jay Bakker, son of televangelist Jim Bakker.

Fresh from consolidating victories in several mainline Protestant churches, LGBT activist groups have been eager to make inroads into the large U.S. Evangelical population. Secular philanthropies such as the Arcus Foundation have long supported LGBT-affirming caucus groups within the Protestant Mainline, such as the Reconciling Ministries Network that operates within the United Methodist Church. Groups with a primary focus on the Evangelical community, such as the Reformation Project – which seeks wider LGBT acceptance within evangelical churches – are also among grantees.

The Arcus Foundation granted $150,000 to the Reformation Project in 2017 "to train and equip evangelical leaders to advocate for LGBT acceptance and equality." The grant follows prior Arcus funding for the group in 2016 and 2014.

Arcus explained that its 2014 grant to the Reformation Project enabled "training of LGBT-affirming Christians to use scriptural arguments in dialogue around acceptance within conservative churches in Kansas, Georgia, and Washington, D.C."

The group "plans to use support to reach out to millennial and older evangelicals who struggle with condemnation of homosexuality."

A grant of $75,000 was also awarded by Arcus to the interdenominational Union Theological Seminary in New York City "to help the Union Theological School expand its Pro-LGBT Evangelical Christian Network, to serve as a counterpoint to the religiously grounded homophobia often promoted by conservative evangelical churches."

Arcus has been a long-term supporter of a politically liberal public policy organization, Faith in Public Life. In 2015, "the organization received funding to continue its work with evangelicals, seeking to shift religious leaders toward a publicly visible stance in opposition to discrimination."

It remains to be seen if groups like the Reformation Project and Faith in Public Life are ultimately successful in shifting views among prominent Evangelical pastors. In the meantime, LGBT advocates will continue their search for the elusive LGBT-affirming megachurch. Where they won't find it is at the former GracePointe campus in Franklin, Tennessee, now vacant.

Originally posted at Juicy Ecumenism

Jeff Walton is Communications Manager for the Institute on Religion & Democracy and directs the Anglican program. He graduated in 2001 from Seattle Pacific University and is a member of Restoration Anglican Church in Arlington, VA.

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