Mega-church pastor Andy Stanley of Georgia and founder of North Point Ministries went viral on the internet recently, because, as ChristianPost.com noted, he had “[declared that local congregations should be the] safest place on the planet for students to talk about anything, including same-sex attraction.”
It was shared multiple times on my Facebook wall, by gay people, and seemed to get traction throughout the country.
To my knowledge, I was the first student to come out of the closet in the youth program at Andy Stanley’s church, North Point Community Church, in Alpharetta, Georgia. And it was one of the most unforgettable moments of my entire life. And now I am going to write about it.
(Editor’s Note: Andy Stanley is the son Charles Stanley, noted anti-gay pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries. Charles Stanley made headlines in 1991 by hiring security guards on horseback to keep Atlanta Pride marchers from coming onto his church’s property on Peachtree Street. Atlanta LGBT organization SOJOURN (Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity) recently led a successful campaign to keep Charles Stanley from accepting the prestigious Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund).
* * *
I was 17 (about 13 years ago). I had previously seen a sermon in which Stanley had derided parents who disinherited their children for being gay, and the youth group center had video games and a volleyball court in the back and the other trappings of a place that seems interested in your wellbeing.
So when I first told someone at church, I didn’t think much of it.
She was flirting with me. Which was a nice change, since she was beautiful and popular and I had hit puberty late in high school and so there was a part of me that kind of reveled in it a bit, and she said something along the lines of me, one day, making a great husband. That’s how nice Christian girls flirt, by the way, they say things like you being good husband-material, because that’s the frame within which it’s not sinful to imagine the best things worth imagining.
“Oh, well, I don’t actually plan to get married, not to a woman anyway, I’m gay.”
I didn’t think of this as lobbing some shot across the bow, not a full frontal assault, just an idle statement of fact, and we finished watching the sermon, finished whispering to each other, I’m guessing while she considered someone else worth asking to prom.
A week passed, of nothing. I was and had been out at school, where life went on as normal, better, actually; coming out had made me something of a hero at school. People occasionally congratulated me for coming out, or telling me that they were excited about this thing or that thing in the gay rights universe.
I returned to next week’s evening youth group service; I walked through the doors, and if there was ever a point in time where real life matched the melodrama of movies, it was to see hundreds of people stop; turn; and stare, at me, in a unison seemingly only capable of a sci-fi hive mind. I even looked behind me to check and see if there was something ominous just behind that I didn’t see
After the five second count, spent by me doing what I do, staring back, everyone turned, eyes replaced by backs. I could speak to no one. And so for the next half hour, I just stood there, while everyone did their best to pretend that I did not exist.
I spent the sermon disoriented—whatever it was, I remember nothing of it. I waited until the post-sermon small group session, where you’re divided up by sex, into groups of 10 or so, and I asked of the fellow boys in my group, “what is going on?”
“The girl you told, she literally told every single person possible. And the other small group leaders,” (these are the college-age leaders of 10 teenager groups) “they told their kids not to speak to you.”
I was ready for confusion from other teenagers, but when I learned that this was orchestrated by adults, my feelings of compassion gave way to rage.
I stuck it out, because I was stubborn. I was determined to confront the associate pastor in charge of the youth program, to ask in what Christian universe was it acceptable for adults leading kids to actively turn a kid into a pariah.
And because everything is easier with friends, I recruited Mindy and Jessica to do it with me, and I met Mindy at her house to talk about what we would say, and I remember seeing piles and piles and piles of clothes everywhere. Mindy’s mom was collecting clothes for donation to a community in Appalachia.
“It’s one of the poorest places in the country, and it’s actually very close. What are you and Mindy working on?”
And I told her, and she said,
“… if you don’t mind, I would like to join you.”
So we all went to see the wizard, the associate pastor. I had only seen him in the context of being an enforcer of rules on church beach trips, but now, he was emotional, defensive. But oddly… scared.
He held up two posters I had put up at school for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, one of which bared my classic crass sense of humor, stating boldly, “if your mother doesn’t love you, we will.” You see, I wasn’t just any gay person, I was dangerous, a corrupting force. Thus, this wasn’t ostracism, it was a quarantine. I wasn’t just gay, I was a gay-rights supporter. Not just gay, but unashamed.
* * *
Andy Stanley is a charismatic; his sermons have a sense of humor, a sense of story-telling, an ability to package and parse something complicated into something small, palpable, easy to process.
Back when I went to the church (and I’m guessing it’s still like this), you alternated between two gigantic auditoriums, every other week. In one auditorium was the real Andy Stanley, the other was a broadcast on a projector from the other auditorium. Both auditoriums had a live band, so at least you weren’t seeing a projected band recorded in the other auditorium.
Andy Stanley leads a “non-denominational” church; such an adjective means nothing to anyone unacquainted with the history and impact of Southern Baptist Christianity. To be non-denominational can mean many things, but the Cliff’s Notes is that it is allowing Baptist churches to cheat death, to escape the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention, and stoke a sense of rebellion. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote,
“In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who we were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people. … This narrative is rooted in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, with the idea that the ‘real’ self is separate from who one is as an embodied, material being. Body parts are dispensable… since the self is radically disconnected from the body, the psychic from the material. [Combined with contemporary expressive individualism, this gives rise to] “the idea that I must be true to whomever I perceive my ‘real me’ to be on the inside in order to be ‘authentic.'”
Moore wrote this about being transgender, but it tells you everything you need to know about their view of individualism—it’s not just assumed to be a bad thing, it is literally a bad thing.
In other words, for Baptist pastors who want to have live bands and video games in the youth group room, and the other trappings necessary to prevent the church from being dead to young people, the only way not to be branded a heretic by the Southern Baptist Convention is not to be a member of it.
Hence Andy Stanley, son of one of the most famous southern Baptist preachers, is “non-denominational.”
* * *
The Baptist underpinnings are all still there, but everything is given a glossy shine. If you’re an adult in a third world country who never heard the word “Jesus” in their life and you die to dirty water at 25, your eternal fate isn’t quite a fiery pit of damnation, but rather, an eternity spent away from God, something you might call, “Hell-lite”.
Half the fire, all the eternity. So much better, right?
Sex before marriage is verboten. But this gets a shiny gloss too. Sex isn’t an evil act, wrapped in barbed wire, like your daddy’s Southern Baptist pastor would tell you, but rather a glorious reward from God, after you find someone to marry. The dangers of having sex before then weren’t pitched as something innately dangerous—rather, they would take away from the great sex you could have later, which is much more satisfying for both parties if you wait.
Andy Stanley’s ability to saran wrap the old Baptist doctrines is magical. To say that his sermons ignore the elephant in the room would not give Andy Stanley enough credit. He ice-skates around them. The heavier the question, the more balloons need only be attached for it to float away. To say that the apex of your faith condemns someone to eternal damnation is not something to be taken lightly, for some, such a God would be a monster unworthy of worship. Members of Stanley’s church troubled by this must leave the rock on that ant-mound undisturbed, or become pariahs for asking.
Where other faith traditions seek to drive to the heart of a matter, Stanley sidesteps in favor of keeping the church appear modern and approachable. This makes North Point Community Church run counter to faith traditions that drive a stake toward the deepest of questions—to do so there would be to upend the ant mound.
The Christianity there is unavoidably shallow. Believing that Jesus is your savior resolves your eternal fate, but the faith itself is weak to the task of answering serious questions, because the sine qua non of keeping the church modern and approachable is never to ask, or when asked, offer baby-pablum responses, which I will later examine.
* * *
This watered down faith causes real world disaster, aside from my own ostracism. The church teachings, already 99 percent smashed like British cocaine the moment they leave Stanley’s mouth, only get cut further and further more by those beneath him, especially the youth group leaders, to the point of absurdity. Case in point: I remember girls at North Point Community Church would have anal sex because this maintained their virginity. Some definition of virginity, amirite?
It also raised no risk of getting pregnant. It seemed like every day I went to North Point, I was told that I would be loved no matter what. And yet, even before I was ostracized myself, I knew in my gut that to show up there pregnant (for example) would have provoked a response unimaginably cruel.
After I wrote of my own experience on Facebook, people replied; I received a story of a child-care worker getting dismissed from her position after many years, as soon as it was discovered she was gay. Others found themselves quietly and abruptly disregarded as someone worthy of friendship once they came out.
And yet, on the other side of the country, in Orange County, California, Stanley tells other church leaders that churches should be the safest place on earth to discuss same-sex attraction. Would you feel safe around people who don’t think you’re fit to take care of children? Or fit to be a close friend?
Do you think the teenage girls having anal sex were getting a straight message from the (all male) pastors giving stories in sermons like talking about a man “smiling like a Cheshire cat” after losing his virginity on his wedding day? (That was a story and a line I wish I could, but will never, forget.) Of course not. They were trying to bridge Stanley’s bullshit with the real world. And you can’t build a bridge to nowhere.
* * *
I said earlier that Stanley answers deep questions with equivocating, side-stepping, baby pablum.
There’s an unknowingly cruel lack of empathy in Stanley’s words. He said, after recommending that churches lay off the whole gay thing when dealing with gay youth, “If all the Christians for just one year… would quit looking at porn… would quit smoking weed, would quit having premarital sex, would quit committing adultery, would pay their taxes and every church just foster one kid; in one year our nation would feel different.”
That’s a lovely, and incredibly popular, equivocation. To say that homosexuality is a sin on equal plane with other banal sins, (that you hypocritical sinners commit every day because we all know you’ve looked at porn!), is a foxhole for the fence-straddling peddlers of a hollow faith. And if you think that’s the kind of statement to come from a hyper-conservative Baptist, it is—but at least we share a respect for sincerely held conviction, popularity be damned, and as they may say about me, a broken clock is right twice a day.
For a young gay teenage Christian, coming out at in a Baptist environment presents a very serious question, of the “What to do with the rest of your life” category. The question of “whether you are allowed to love” is more important than weed, or porn, or sending $20 a month to [insert Other country here]. If life was an ’80s TV sitcom, in Stanley’s universe of avoiding porn/weed, it’s as though coming out as gay would receive the same treatment of Jessie Spano on “Saved by the Bell” getting hooked on caffeine pills. You know, the kind of thing that may even need TWO episodes to resolve!
This is the level of training youth group leaders have in regard to sexuality. The disaster that results is as predictable as the pile of parts on the floor two hours after reading an Ikea furniture manual.
Equivocation, defined: “The use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself.” Stanley even refers to gay youth as simply students confronted with “same sex attraction.” Stanley appeared at a conference to provide leadership to other church leaders on a difficult question, and his words are so empty, it’s not even clear whether he believes gay exists.
Stanley’s faith sits safely bookended by bands, it is recorded and broadcast, and even if his pageantry were built on top of matchsticks and playing cards, there is no one on his stage to poke at it with difficult questions. When the music stops, Stanley isn’t there anymore.
* * *
Stanley has distanced himself from his father, who is infamous for being one of those pastors at a gay pride parade with signs and a megaphone condemning the sinners to hell.
But if I could go back in time to 17, I would have preferred that, because at least you know how his father feels. At least you know what the reaction is going to be. Robert Green wrote that the great thing about enemies is that they are the only people you can trust—because they’re the only ones you can count on who aren’t pretending to like you.
Andy Stanley has said explicitly that homosexuality is a sin. I don’t think he’d ever admit to what’s really involved in avoiding such a sin—committing yourself to a life of celibacy, in mind and body. It’s a pretty heavy thing to ask of your parishioners, but Stanley is too much of a sycophant to state that expectation out loud. It’s not as important as weed and porn and fostering children, except, of course, for the gay person.
So when you go to North Point, you won’t get the full steamrollering of angry glares if you defy the norm, just a slow and steady ostracism. Ostracism-lite. All of the ostracism, half the explicit bible-thumping. If love was sugar, this is packets of Equal. If you ask for the real thing, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.
Quote from Dante: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Not just hell, but the hottest places.
* * *
I understand the appeal to gay people who read rainbows out of Stanley’s words, who seek assurances from his call for safe spaces. The desperation to be loved is a deep well, and it’s hard to avoid wanting to be loved by those who reject you. People want to treat him as a bridge, a modern pastor bringing Baptist Christianity out of the dark ages (of 10 years ago, or now). But Stanley’s Christianity allows for terrible things. To say that it is lipstick on a pig does not capture the harm of giving a shiny new paint job to a belief that condemns the living to a life of self-hatred and ostracism, and the dead to eternal damnation.
* * *
I never finished my story, about coming out of the closet. I stuck it out, until I graduated. I wore a rainbow necklace to church. It was my way of saying, “You can’t get rid of me, fuckers!” But I think at the end of the day, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Every day I went there, I showed everyone what happened to out gay people, or anyone who forced faith to reality. It seemed every appearance I made just made everyone more scared of what could happen to them.
* * *
When Andy Stanley, therefore, goes on tour to teach pastors of other churches about church leadership, and makes a both superficially and factually absurd statement about churches being a safe space for gay youth, I can’t shrug off the responsibility of sharing what happened to me when I came out at his church as a gay youth.
I’m sure he would agree that everything that happened was terrible, but his diluted, charisma-based phony Christianity prevailed then as it clearly does now, and treating homosexuality like porn or weed tells me he hasn’t learned much in the last 13 years, except maybe that you can, through sleight of hand, pretend that answering the questions of a gay youth is to talk, literally, only about other people, as though that seriously resolves the terror and confusion for the gay person unsure of whether they can be themselves for the rest of their life.
For those Christian leaders out there considering the appeal of his leadership style, consider this your sign from God that your doubts about selling yourself out are not figments of your imagination. For the gay people out there, I tell you that you deserve real love. Real love is not pretending that you are a rebel and modern Christian for saying that it’s wrong to disinherit your gay kid. That’s just common decency, not a hard line of rebellion. It’s as though Andy Stanley thinks you should like him because he’s a Baptist minister and doesn’t immediately alienate most people as a gigantic asshole.
Except one thing: If someone says that you deserve love regardless of whether you’re gay, they are already an asshole.
The Andy Stanleys of the world (and many gay people) don’t quite get that. People don’t get a cookie for treating you with dignity. They get cookies for standing up against those who don’t, even when it makes them unpopular. Andy Stanley deserves no cookie. Give your cookies to someone else.
Alex Rowland is an Atlanta attorney. Visit his website by clicking here.