Mainline Slide

Mainline Slide

Evangelical support of same-sex marriage is on the rise. Among white evangelical Protestants, it rose from 11 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2019, according to the Pew survey. It also found that 4 in 10 of those who attend religious services once a week now favor same-sex marriage. Stanley’s public statements that conflict with Scripture, as well as his ties with groups such as Embracing the Journey, are emblematic of a wider problem, Kidd said.

As attendees at a sold-out parenting conference at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., streamed out the doors into the parking lot, twin lines of blue-shirted volunteers cheered and held signs that read, “You are loved,” “You’ve got this,” and “You’re not alone.”

North Point held the conference, called “Unconditional,” at the end of September for “parents, ministry leaders, and counselors who want to love and support the LGBTQ+ community well.” Attendees snapped up every available ticket weeks in advance, even though some cost well over $500. The event’s 14 speakers included Andy Stanley, North Point’s founder and senior pastor, as well as two men, Justin Lee and Brian Nietzel, who are married to other men. Lee believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and Nietzel co-founded Renovus, a nonprofit that aims to create “a world where no one has to choose between their faith and sexual orientation.”

The conference was billed as an approach to supporting parents and their gay and transgender children in churches “from the quieter middle space.” But within evangelicalism, that space is one in which ministry leaders either subtly or blatantly assert that homosexuality and transgenderism are compatible with Christianity. It’s also a space that’s growing—fast.

Nearly a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, church leaders face intensifying pressure to adopt current cultural language and messages about sexuality and gender. More pastors are capitulating, nudging evangelicalism down the same road that has gutted mainline Protestantism.

Until the 1960s, more than half of all American adults aligned with one of the seven mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. It’s a grouping scholars use for denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church. Since then, those denominations have been on a downward spiral. Today, they represent only about 10 percent to 13 percent of the population, according to surveys compiled by researcher Ryan Burge.

While other factors have contributed to that decline, congregants and churches have broken ranks in droves as mainline denominations take steps to affirm same-sex marriage and ordain homosexual and transgender clergy. Many who stayed approve the shift away from Biblical orthodoxy. Roughly two-thirds of white mainline Protestants now support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

Church historian Thomas Kidd argues that evangelical churches, including nondenominational congregations, have become the new mainline: “They’re the big churches in the South and Midwest now. They’re the culturally respectable churches.”

Between 2010 and 2020, nondenominational churches added 9,000 congregations and 2 million attendees, according to the 2020 U.S. Religion Census. Now, nondenominational churches represent the nation’s third-largest religious group after Catholics and churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Part of the appeal of nondenominational churches is that they carry less institutional baggage. But many emphasize individualism and lack theological accountability, making it easier for church leaders to adopt changing cultural messages, such as those about sexuality and gender.

Kidd, a research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says evangelical churches that hold to traditional views on marriage and sexuality will face increasing scorn: “What price are they willing to pay to maintain their status?”

PARENTS LIKE GREG AND LYNN MCDONALD, the couple behind the Unconditional Conference, have become a driving force in evangelicalism’s shift. The McDonalds’ own shift began on the darkest day of their parenting experience. They were on their way out the door to a farmers market, but Greg couldn’t escape a nagging thought. He told Lynn he’d be a few minutes and ran down the steps to their 17-year-old son’s bedroom. The computer was on, and Greg pulled up the search history. He found what he’d feared—pornography—and something even more alarming: The images that filled the screen didn’t include women, only men.

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