Help me back in the church...
October 18, 2009 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Help me reconcile my liberal beliefs with a church family again...

Background details - I'm in my late 20's. In high school, I was a very active member of a church, until my liberal beliefs came into conflict with the conservative evangelical approach that the church I was with had. While I was with the church, I had ... effectively a large family of the other people in my youth group -- they were good people, but I was unable to compromise my true feelings and beliefs (more details about those later), and unwilling to lie about them.

I would like to reconnect with a church (I do believe in God, although my perspectives on Him and the way of relating with Him differ from the fundamental Christian beliefs)... My relationship with God has not suffered, but I do miss the connection with the people there.

I hold pretty strongly with a few liberal beliefs that are at odds with the fundamentalist church:
1) I support the LGBT community strongly, although I am hetero myself (Straight but not narrow, one of my LGBT friends likes to call me). I have zero tolerance for persecution or other poor behavior towards that community.
2) I don't buy into the whole celibacy before marriage thing. Lots of reasons that would make an Ask in themselves; I don't know that going into them will help here.
3) Evangelists ANNOY ME. A ton. I just don't see pushing your beliefs onto another person...

So, oh, brilliant hivemind, is there any way to reconcile such liberal beliefs and thoughts with the family of a church? Are there churches that aren't ultraconservative? I'm considering going to a service tomorrow morning that ... looks fairly modern and open, but am TERRIFIED that I'm going to run into the conservative bigotry of the church I left.

(Since it seems like a contradiction -- The people individually were AMAZING people... it was the church groupthink that I couldn't stand).

I've opened a throwaway for this one - you can mail me at if you don't want to post here.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
From what I understand, the folks below are pretty decent:
Church of Religious Science
posted by Xoebe at 9:31 AM on October 18, 2009

Congregationalists are generally pretty mellow people. My roomate is one, she's worldy, laughs when I curse, etc, but is really serious about her religion. She's a really nice person and has gay friends, very open minded about everything.
posted by sully75 at 9:33 AM on October 18, 2009

The United Church of Christ (UCC) is another pretty liberal/open group. I think the UCC swallowed up many of the Congregational churches a while back, although there's obviously a few holdouts.
posted by Wulfhere at 9:38 AM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

United Church of Christ. You may have to try a few churches before you find one that fits exactly, but yeah. That's going to include the congregationalist churches sully75 was referring to, but there are some that go by other names. Your best choices are the ones listed as 'ONA' or 'Open and Affirming' on the UCC website, but there are very liberal churches that aren't actually on that list in my experience, too.
posted by larkspur at 9:39 AM on October 18, 2009

I'm an atheist and I felt comfortable attending a Unitarian Universalist church for a while. They are very welcoming and your specific beliefs are left entirely up to you.
posted by something something at 9:40 AM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure where you are located geographically. My experience -- as someone who was in a youth group in high school but otherwise probably qualifies as a non-believer -- is that most churches are places where you can get the sort of things you're looking for. I'm aware that my experience may be totally atypical or that this may have something to do with my geographical location. The people that I know in churches who seem to be on-board with the things you are looking for include

- Quakers/Society of Friends
- Unitarian Universalists
- Congregationalist
- Presbytarians

Having a loose or non-existent connection to a parent church that may toss edicts down from on high can help with this sort of thing. The more decentralized a particular branch of Christianity is, again in my experience only, the more you're likely to find a local church that is more the sum of its attendees belief systems than some weird mishmash of ideas from elsewhere.
posted by jessamyn at 9:42 AM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are also a lot of fairly liberal Methodist churches out there. Certainly, there are quite a few Methodist churches that aren't so open minded as well, but I was involved in several growing up that had tolerant views on sexuality and sex before marriage.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:42 AM on October 18, 2009

anonymous: ... is there any way to reconcile such liberal beliefs and thoughts with the family of a church? Are there churches that aren't ultraconservative? I'm considering going to a service tomorrow morning that ... looks fairly modern and open, but am TERRIFIED that I'm going to run into the conservative bigotry of the church I left.

I'm about to go to the church I regularly attend, St. John's Episcopal Cathedral here in Denver. The priest here regularly makes fairly derisive comments in his messages about "the so-called religious right" and its factions down in Colorado Springs (where Focus on the Family has its headquarters), and makes it a point to be as inclusive as possible on all occasions. I like that. In fact, while I know there are variations everywhere, I would say you'd probably be all right in many Episcopal communities; the modern thing seems to be taking hold there nicely.

But I also wanted to say something else: please don't be afraid to go to a church you disagree with on certain points, at least as long as you can respect them nominally (obviously I'm not telling you to go to the most homophobic/gender-biased, anti-miscegenation, hateful church around, of course). My experience after looking around for a long time (I presume in the same ways you did) has been that more important than their actual beliefs themselves was the question: are they respectful of other people? And so long as they're respectful of other people and their beliefs, you and I can have a place, even if some of the people in the church happen to be closed-minded; in fact, we can do some positive good, because in a church that's respectful people might actually end up hearing our beliefs and changing their minds a little.
posted by koeselitz at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2009

Disciples of Christ is liberal: No creed; no official interpretations of the Bible and everyone is free to interpret the Bible their own way; and no belief that they are the only correct ones. The are sometimes called Disciples, Disciples of Christ, or The Christian Church. The chalice symbol is usually displayed on their church signs and such, for easier identification. It offers all the community of a church, but without the evangelical/fundamentalist/judging slant.
posted by Houstonian at 9:52 AM on October 18, 2009

Where I live, one of the easiest ways to determine how liberal/conservative a particular church will be is by looking to see which ones have rainbow flags and or signs out front. I'm not LGBT myself, but I still find it to be an interesting measure of inclusiveness. I also look for churches that have diverse congregations.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:54 AM on October 18, 2009

I find it a somewhat curious question, given that in my experience, the majority of mainstream churches are not, in fact, ultraconservative/fundamentalist. That may be partly a function of geography, since my experiences are in the upper Midwest and on the East Coast.

These things vary regionally and with individual congregations, but I would think you'd be comfortable with any number of mainstream Protestant denominations that are LGBT friendly and non-evangelical: United Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, etc. I come from a United Methodist background, myself, and in addition to being LGBT-welcoming and not making much of an issue about pre-marital celibacy, they view their "mission" at the local and global level as primarily concerned with the well-being of others (they run a coat drive, a meal site for low-income people, support overseas missions to build schools or supply clean drinking water to rural areas...that kind of stuff).

I think that'd be a safer bet than a modern non-denominational mega-church. The challenge may be in finding a mainstream Protestant congregation along these lines that has a vibrant community of young adults.

If there is a Unitarian congregation in your area, that's also worth checking out. Some of them tend toward the direction of vague spirituality, rather than Christianity, and that may be farther in the opposite direction than you're looking for.
posted by drlith at 9:56 AM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm an atheist so can't go for direct experience, but all the nicest, 'liberalest' religious people I know are members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). One of the Testimonies they have is that everyone is equal before God, and have performed marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. I note on looking this up that the Society in the USA has branches that don't seem as liberal as this (which confuses me, as intolerance doesn't seem to square with what I know of Quaker teachings) - but there will be different leanings in different congregations whichever church you belong to.

Another approach would be to go through LGBT Christian groups (I'm sure that googling should bring up some that are active in your area, is not locally then countrywide); they'll know which churches are LGBT friendly, which by extension would be the more liberal ones.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:00 AM on October 18, 2009

Nthing that you should give the Unitarians a try.
posted by gudrun at 10:01 AM on October 18, 2009

I'll nth going to a UU church, it's not bibliocentric - but it is accommodating to those who do have a Judeo-Christian belief structure. UU's are welcome to a diverse mix of beliefs and lifestyles. Shop around a bit, you'll find a church that fits (and if it's a large church, check out all the UU study groups - they can be pretty cool too.)

I have a suggestion for dealing with evangelical friends that you would still like to maintain a friendship with, but are unable to handle their proselytizing or religious prying.

You: Do you believe that a person can have a personal and intimate relationship with God without ever reading the Bible?

Almost always, the answer is: "Absolutely." This is backed up scripturally many place but an example is Job 12:7-8 "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. " or Psalms 19:1-6.

You: And that my sister, is what I am doing.

And the answer is always: Oh.
posted by bigmusic at 10:07 AM on October 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

My wife has attended several Episcopal churches that you would find welcoming.
posted by LarryC at 10:20 AM on October 18, 2009

I also agree with the Unitarian advice.

Three of my siblings are Fundamentalist Christian, so this divide has been a big theme in my life. As others mentioned, the types of churches which surround you will depend a lot on where you live. The political leanings of most churches in Oklahoma are going to be different than the environment in San Francisco. What I've found is that there are zealots and narcissists everywhere though. Faith in itself is a private experience, and where churches are meant to offer community, some people turn to organized religion just to find purpose and superiority over others. A lot of people would rather judge others than look in the mirror, and they fuel that desire by saying that they're doing so in the name of Jesus because it's what he would want. Yeah, whatever.

Unitarians don't do any of that. I went to a Unitarian church for a while as a kid and I learned more about religion from it than from any church. Instead of studying verses and listening to boring sermons, I remember one Sunday school teacher took us on field trips to understand other religions. We went to a synagogue and a Catholic church and were taught how to respect the differences in beliefs. It's because of that experience that when I travel I now make a point to explore the churches and temples and watch ceremonies without feeling uncomfortable. I love them.

In contrast, my sister's Fundamentalist church had an art fair where kids created displays to show why all of the people who don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God are going to Hell. My sister proudly wrote in a note that my nephew was up all night drawing glitter pen on the flames that would engulf the nonbelievers. (Yeah, we're not very close...)

Moral of the story, I feel your pain. DEFINITELY test out places until you find a church where you feel relaxed and at home and the people aren't jerks. They exist. Avoid those zealots... don't let them get their crazy on you.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:30 AM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm right there with you. I recently found a wonderful Lutheran church, of the liberal variety, and the community of people there is tremendous. The pastor is an out lesbian with a wonderful heart and good, useful sermons. I think the liberal faction of Lutheranism is elca. So far as I can tell, they have a pretty loose interpretation of the bible, and they lean very left of center. Their belief system seems to be based on Jesus is cool, be a good person and respect others, regardless of beliefs. I dig it. Oh, and my church campaigns against the death penalty, has a huge community garden that feeds 80 families a week, and does commitment ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples (I live in Ohio where same sex marriage is not yet legal).
posted by cachondeo45 at 10:53 AM on October 18, 2009

You may find the minor role actual Christian belief plays in some Unitarian churches problematic. Or you may not. For me, the thing I liked about church was the feeling of being in a community of believers. Wikipedia sums why I've never felt comfortable in Unitarian churches, even though I very much agree with their liberal, inclusive, socially progressive stance:

Concepts about deity are diverse among UUs. Some believe that there is no god (atheism); others believe in many gods (polytheism). Some believe that God is a metaphor for a transcendent reality. Some believe in a female god (goddess), a passive god (Deism), a Christian god, or a god manifested in nature or the universe (pantheism), as revealed by science. Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the "spirit of life" that binds all life on earth. UUs support each person's search for truth and meaning in concepts of spirituality.

Basically, I just like more God in my church than that. I've had some luck at various Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Methodist churches. Some really suck and are much too conservative (both in politics and beliefs) but some are very open, loving places just full of God-loving lefties. In short, yes, churches that aren't ultraconservative exist, and some fo them are awesome. You've just got to do your research, go to a lot of services, and talk to a lot of pastors before you find one that works for you.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:57 AM on October 18, 2009

I only have a few friends that are both gay and Christian, but weirdly enough they all attend Evangelical Lutheran churches (in DC and Baltimore). I suspect that rather than a denomination per se, you will have to just check out the individual communities. I like ocherdraco's suggestion of looking for a rainbow flag or some other indicator of inclusiveness.
posted by gaspode at 11:08 AM on October 18, 2009

One of the things that may help is looking for your local college's religious offerings. Often, there's a non-denominational church that has lots of different sects performing services. If you are in the Ann Arbor area, I'd highly recommend the Canterbury House. The best stuff there is their Episcopal jazz mass, but it's full of loving, liberal folks who know their theology.

More broadly, I would say that it's a shame that the religious right has overpowered the discourse in America, as there are lots and lots of great, progressive churches with a long history. In most of the country, it's remarkably easy to find compassionate, liberal services, even from denominations that are positively medieval—the Episcopalians in America are probably the most progressive Anglican denomination in the world. Likewise, Lutherans. Quakers and Unitarians are a little further outside the theological mainstream—I remember my father remarking that the UU services in Ann Arbor were closer to Marxist manifestos than homilies, and Quakers tend toward more focus on community than on theology, at least from the meetings I've been to. I'd like to make clear that I don't consider those things flaws, just that you seem like you're coming from a very authoritarian theological background, and both Quakers and UU have very different roots than American mainline protestantism.
posted by klangklangston at 11:46 AM on October 18, 2009

She's local to San Francisco, but blue-state, secular-intellectual, lesbian, left-wing journalist Sara Miles' conversion story, detailed in the book Take This Bread, may of interest to you.
posted by Roach at 12:37 PM on October 18, 2009

Are there churches that aren't ultraconservative?

I have to agree with drlith that this is a curious question. The right answer is pretty much "Almost all mainline protestant churches are not very conservative," where "mainline" is at least Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed (including UCC). Though with all of them there's a fair degree of variation from congregation to congregation, and some of them have splinter groups or other related denominations that are way more conservative (LCMS, LCWS, Anglican churches in the US under the authority of the Bishop of Singapore).

Even in the South where the default can be "very conservative Baptist" or "Flaming Sword of Joshua Holiness Tabernacle" charismatics, it's not like mainline protestant churches are hard to find.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:06 PM on October 18, 2009

Are there churches that aren't ultraconservative?

Tons of them. Try the Episcopalians. They are having a few of their more conservative congregations break away over the very issues you list. Some of the more liberal congregations are very liberal. And they are not too straight to consecrate a gay bishop.

You definitely have to sample individual churches though.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:12 PM on October 18, 2009

Starting in second grade, I felt conflicted by the preaching of the Catholic Church. In those days girls couldn’t even be alter servers. There were so many rules that didn’t make sense to me: no birth control, no premarital sex, no divorce, no female priests, no marriage for priests – it suggested to me that women were somehow tainted. But it wasn’t until I had a daughter of my own that I pursued another organized religion (I should also admit that my ex-husband hated Catholicism and begged me to take our daughter to a Lutheran church).

We have been attending a Lutheran (ELCA) church for the past year and love it – the overarching message is of kindness and they believe strongly in public service (Habitat for Humanity, collection of blankets for the homeless, etc). My ex-husband is still unhappy – he wanted me to take our daughter to a WELS denomination of the Lutheran church which is apparently significantly different from ELCA. While my church is inclusive an has a female pastor, the WELS branch (at least the way my ex proudly explains it) is opposed to women in leadership roles, views homosexuality as a sin, etc.)

So while others in this thread have mentioned the Lutheran church, and I also recommend it, be aware that there are different denominations within the church with very different views.
posted by kbar1 at 2:19 PM on October 18, 2009

I grew up United Church of Christ, and although I'm an atheist now, I still value the sense of community and friendship I got to experience as a child. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the UCC church I attended prioritized community over religion. I never heard anyone say negative things about premarital sex or LGBT people, and in fact lots of UCC ministers will wed same-sex couples.

As far as I've heard, UCC services themselves are a bit more structured and traditional than UU services, which may factor into your decision. That can, of course, depend on the average age of the congregation as well as where it's located. But UCC is still a denomination I recommend. A++ Would Grow Up In Again.
posted by bluishorange at 2:21 PM on October 18, 2009

Nthing Unitarianism. It"s church for people who like church but don't like religion.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:35 PM on October 18, 2009

Predictably, given your question, there are lots of thoughts of mainline or traditionally liberal protestant churches. But, don't presume you need to go Unitarian to find what you are looking for. You sound like exactly the sort of person my Mom's church would love to welcome into their congregation, and they are American Baptist. For others like that check out, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptist Churches. Not all American Baptists feel the same way, but I think more good is done by people with strong views joining churches within these mainline denominations and helping them see why openness and affirmation is good.

Also, look to this:

Be aware that LGBT welcoming and views toward pre-marital sex are somewhat orthogonal, but I suspect most welcoming congregations will at least be more open to caring dialogue. Good luck in your search.
posted by meinvt at 2:50 PM on October 18, 2009

I note on looking this up that the Society in the USA has branches that don't seem as liberal as this (which confuses me, as intolerance doesn't seem to square with what I know of Quaker teachings)

It confuses some of us who are Quakers, too. But, yeah, you would want to look for an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, avoiding anything with a name that includes the word "church." If you are interested, you can find liberal unprogrammed Quaker meetings at Don't necessarily rule out a "conservative" meeting--they're not necessarily "conservative" in the way that word is used popularly.
posted by not that girl at 3:33 PM on October 18, 2009

Nthing the Congregationalists, or the United Church of Christ. I just started going to a Congregationalist / UCC church (I'm in Seattle, so if you are too, let me know) and they are very liberal and welcoming. They are decidedly Christian -- they believe that the Way of Jesus is the way they want to be -- but they don't believe in Hell, and they don't believe Christianity is an exclusive path. They are extremely welcoming of sexual minorities, to the point where two of the three pastors are gay and they celebrated National Coming Out Day from the pulpit. And perhaps most importantly, they are a Covenental church rather than a doctrinal church; in other words, to be a member, you don't proclaim what you believe, but rather how you intend to act.

I have a complicated faith background to say the least, and I love it here.
posted by KathrynT at 3:34 PM on October 18, 2009

UUs are generally more open-minded, whereas Quakers tend to be more sure that their beliefs are correct.

Not to derail, just to say that this is not true to my experience of liberal Quakerism at all. katherineg is right, though, that much depends on the atmosphere of the local meeting. I would probably not have become a Quaker if my first exposure had been the meeting an hour away (where I went to college), rather than the one I'm a part of.
posted by not that girl at 3:42 PM on October 18, 2009

Nthing that the Unitarians are paging you to aisle three. If you're very attached to the concept of Jesus and want to be in a community where that is a foundation, then UCC might be a closer fit, but a good Unitarian church will bring you the worship, inclusiveness and community you seem to seek while leaving plenty of room for your personal beliefs as they evolve.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:34 PM on October 18, 2009

UU and UCC are both good choices (if you were in Canada, United Church of Canada would *totally* be your cup of tea), but if your system of belief includes a "divine" concept of Jesus, UCC is a better fit. UU believe in a monotheistic existence of God, and that Jesus was a helluva guy, but not the "Son of God." At least, that's my understanding. Good luck!
posted by liquado at 7:01 PM on October 18, 2009

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Supportive of the LGBT, generally not heavy on evangelism (despite its name).
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:02 PM on October 18, 2009

It's not a church exactly, but you might find good resources through the Iona Community. It's an ecumenical Christian group (with ties to the Church of Scotland) that is in the main politically liberal and LGBT affirming. They have a publishing house (Wild Goose Books) and podcasts of services. Obviously its not really a stand in for a church, but it is a good place to find books/theology/worship stuff that sounds like it lines up with where you're coming from.
posted by nangua at 7:31 PM on October 18, 2009


Any god who hates the people he created isn't a god you want to believe in anyway.

Then again, what do I know? I'm an atheist who doesn't even believe in THAT.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:44 AM on October 19, 2009

P.S. Unitarians are good people :)
posted by 2oh1 at 12:44 AM on October 19, 2009

UU believe in a monotheistic existence of God, and that Jesus was a helluva guy, but not the "Son of God."

There are many UU'ers that don't believe in a God at all, so this is kind of off base.
posted by bigmusic at 5:44 AM on October 19, 2009

I know I'm late to the party - but you'd feel at home in Metropolitan Community Church! - my congregation is as inclusive as you'll get, about one-third are hetero and the rest represent all colours of the rainbow. But the gay/non-gay thing isn't really that important, the most important thing is community values and an involvement in social justice. And good luck with your search!
posted by coffee_monster at 2:29 PM on January 5, 2010

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