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I met Christopher at my friend Brendan’s house a few months ago. While I’d probably now identify as an agnostic atheist who still practices Christianity and follows Jesus’ teachings (after 30+ years of being a devout and card-carrying evangelical Christian), I would almost be willing to characterize our meeting each other that night as a “divine appointment.”
Christopher shared some of his story that night, a story that just so happened to take place at the church that I helped launch and at which I spent almost five years on the pastoral staff, overseeing the development of its children and family ministries.
Even though I’m a cis-het man, some of what Christopher experienced at this church resonates deeply with my own experiences. Christopher emphasizes it in his own story, but I want to make mention of it here as well: clarity is crucial. A few years ago, I briefly volunteered with an organization called Church Clarity, and I highly recommend them to anyone who might be looking for a church. I won’t go into why services like theirs are so important as that will become obvious to you as you read Christopher’s story.
I also want to provide a content warning: the story contains mention of nonconsensual outing, authoritative manipulation, spiritual abuse, and suicidal ideation.
I asked Christopher if he’d be willing to let me edit and share his story because, as a former staff member of this church and having witnessed the kinds of tactics their leadership employs, I think it’s important to hold them accountable for their actions. I did so when they so arrogantly decided they were properly equipped as White people—with very little counsel (if any at all) from leaders of Black spaces—to speak authoritatively on racial justice (you can read the piece here). And I believe it’s even more important to do so now that their arrogance has directly victimized people.
In this instance, the victims of Emergence’s abuses were LGBTQIA+ people. I’ve addressed some “things to watch for” when evangelical churches talk about the LGBTQIA+ community here, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read through that list so that you can be a bit more discerning when trying to figure out what a church thinks about queer people.
It’s also important to recognize that Emergence is not the only church that operates like this. They are part of a group of like-minded churches called the Acts 29 Network which boasts almost 1,000 churches globally. The beliefs Christopher describes that are taught at Emergence are also held by every Acts-29-affiliated church in the world.
Several years ago I reconnected with one of my former volunteers from my time at Emergence who had also come out and whose family evolved to support, affirm, and celebrate her queerness. Her story of walking away from Emergence was a positive one; she was spared so much of the trauma Christopher and his boyfriend experienced. Ultimately, in my view, anytime someone walks away from that church—voluntarily or otherwise—the outcome is a positive one. But the experience sometimes isn’t, which is what Christopher and I have in common.
I am grateful and honored that Christopher gave me the opportunity to share his story. As I mentioned before, it’s incredibly important. I hope you’ll be moved and inspired as much as I have, but more importantly, I hope you’ll grow to understand why it’s so important to hold churches like Emergence accountable.
When I was in my late teens, I was victimized by something called “reorientation therapy” (also known as “conversion therapy”) in an attempt to change my sexual orientation. How did I find myself there? I’m gay, and I was in an evangelical church.
Evangelical churches are notorious for promoting archaic and horrific ideas and beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity, and unfortunately I discovered this not only as a young person suffering through the trauma of reorientation therapy, but also more recently in my experience with an evangelical church based in Totowa, NJ, called Emergence.
Around 2018 I was in dire need of emotional and spiritual support, and a friend referred me to Emergence because the church offered a support group called Redemption & Recovery—or R&R for short—for people battling various addictions and emotional hardships. It was designed similarly to a 12-step program but is explicitly based on “biblical” principles.
When I set foot in the church building for one of R&R’s meetings, I was struck by the stylish, contemporary décor: Edison bulbs hanging from the open ceiling and set against a reclaimed-lumber backdrop in an arrangement straight out of a West Elm catalog and 4K digital displays providing direction through the modernized warehouse building reminiscent of a WeWork office space.
The welcoming table had several pamphlets with information on different addictions and codependencies, so I picked up the one that most resonated with my needs.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be here, not because I didn’t want to be in a support group (I’m definitely a believer in the healing properties of therapy, both one-on-one with a trained and licensed professional and group settings where a licensed therapist is guiding the conversation), but because my previous experience with evangelicalism—the one that had me in reorientation therapy—made me wary of all other evangelical spaces. I was angry that I was finding myself here, but I was so desperate to find help that I decided to stick around and seek support.
I immediately spoke with the R&R leader, who informed me that R&R was not affiliated with Emergence but merely received support from the church, something that is clearly untrue. Information on R&R is found on Emergence’s website, there’s no mention of the ministry being separate from the church, and the man who leads R&R is on staff at the church with the title “Pastor of Care Systems.” I wasn’t fully aware of this information at the time. In the interest of openness and transparency, I shared with him that I was gay and that I was living with another guy. I was pleasantly surprised by the welcome.
Over time it became clear to me that there was a severe need for conversations about non-hetero sexual orientation and non-cisgender identities. Not only was there a lack of awareness and education at the church, but there were also quite a few closeted queer folks in attendance at Emergence, many of whom were incredibly afraid to talk about their attractions because of a belief that these attractions were sinful. I often found myself talking to pastors at Emergence, asking for clarity on their approach to homosexuality, only to be given unclear or irrelevant Bible passages. I’d ask them things like, “If someone is born with both genders (or intersex), can they not get married?” or, “If the Bible says that ‘it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (1 Corinthains 7:9), can I, as a gay man, marry another man rather than ‘burn with passion’?” to which the answer would inevitably be “gay people are called to celibacy,” but there’s no biblical justification for that statement.
I wasn’t asking these questions of Emergence’s pastors to try to trap them. I genuinely wanted to connect my sexuality with my faith. You see, I love Jesus and his teachings, and I wanted my Christian faith to connect to every aspect of my life, but when an evangelical framework is all I have, there’s almost no way to reconcile my sexual orientation with my faith in Jesus.
During my time at Emergence, I developed friendships with other attendees who were genuine in their love for me and who also wanted to see my faith flourish alongside my identity as a gay man. One of my friends (I’ll call him Jason to protect his identity), who was in a leadership position at Emergence, was in a gay relationship at the time that he kept hidden. When his campus pastor found out about his relationship (campus pastors at Emergence are men who oversee segments of Emergence’s congregation since the church meets in several different towns across northern New Jersey), he arranged for an intervention using this Bible passage from Matthew 18 as justification:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
This campus pastor invited me to Jason’s “intervention,” where the pastor and fellow church members and pastors accused him of being in a sinful relationship. The meeting was intended to be one of restoration as Jason had been removed from leadership earlier when his relationship was discovered, and his campus pastor wanted to provide him a path to reintegration. Instead of a spirit of restoration, all I could sense coming from this panel of church leaders was an angry and accusatory tone. My heart broke for my friend. As this “intervention” continued, I turned to the group and said, “If we’re going to point fingers, maybe we should look at ourselves because some of us in this room are getting drunk and high on weekends.” I was stunned at the hypocrisy.
Since Jason was sexually active, I mentioned that it would be wise for him to take PrEP HIV-prevention therapy, but the campus pastor rebuked me, saying that advising someone to go on PrEP was encouraging sinful behavior. I told him that regardless of what I advised him to do, Jason was going to have sex anyway, so it’s better for him to be safe.
Something about the interactions this campus pastor had with Jason worried me. But it wasn’t just the campus pastor’s actions that concerned me. The church leadership overall seemed to view Jason as a target for coercion.
As my friendship with Jason grew, we began to develop feelings for each other. Our shared experiences drew us closer together, and being in a church that was growing increasingly hostile to us because of our sexual orientation created a bond between us. We understood each other. We shared our deepest secrets. We wanted the best for each other. One summer night later that year we shared a kiss and started dating not long after.
Somehow news of our relationship made it to the pastors, and as is so often the case in churches, gossip began to spread. What made matters worse was that Jason was still closeted. This fact alone made me nervous about what these pastors might be attempting to do.
Emergence’s R&R has an intensive program that I was finishing, and as I neared the end of the program, I found other Christian authorities outside Emergence who provided me with resources to help me understand that being gay was not wrong, nor was it antithetical to the Bible. These pastors and theologians helped me develop a new hermeneutic that gave me a pathway to embracing my faith and my sexuality in a way I hadn’t before. But when I shared my findings with the pastors at Emergence, they were unable to provide any coherent responses.
My R&R sponsor, who had been supportive of my journey, confronted one of the pastors about their inability to keep personal information about Jason’s and my relationship private. This pastor responded by giving him a 20-year-old book about homosexuality filled with outdated, debunked, and false information.
As my own understanding of Christianity and the LGBTQIA+ community grew, my desire for Emergence to develop a forum for discussion on these matters grew as well. As I mentioned earlier, there were other queer people at Emergence, most of whom were closeted, nearly all of whom would have needed a safe place to learn and grow in their identities as queer Christians.
Jason and I spoke to some of the pastoral leadership requesting that such a forum be put together, and we were repeatedly told it was “under consideration.” After weeks of no updates, we asked again and were told there were “reservations.”
I became frustrated with their deliberation, so I pressed the leadership further, asking specifically for their views on homosexuality. I felt a growing need for clarity as it was becoming obvious to me that their vagueness and noncommittal answers were creating an unsafe environment for queer parishioners. It was only after repeated questioning that the lead pastor, Ryan Baitzel, provided me with something. He told me that if a gay couple felt they weren’t sinning by being in a gay relationship, it would be better for them to leave Emergence and attend a different church.
Mr. Baitzel also shared with me that one of the reasons Emergence does not disclose their stance on LGBTQIA+ participation in the church is that they believe sharing it may “drive people away from Christ.” While I had agreed with him at the time, after reflecting on it a little more, I now see it for what it is: manipulation. There should be safety in a church that professes to follow the teachings of Jesus, especially for marginalized groups like the LGBTQIA+ community. By not disclosing your views on homosexuality (views that are hostile to the LGBTQIA+ community and that perpetuate emotional, psychological, and physical violence against queer people) you provide a false sense of welcome to me and my queer siblings. You lure us into a trap where we develop friendships, invest our time and money, and grow in relationships with other Christians, only to crush us when we fall in love with someone and want to get married, but you won’t perform our wedding; or when we feel a call to become a pastor, and you refuse to ordain us; or when we have poured love and energy into mentoring kids, only to be removed from the ministry team for fear that we’ll “negatively influence young minds.”
I’m ashamed that I ever agreed with this viewpoint. But I’m so grateful that I am now learning the truth of how dangerous, coercive, and manipulative this kind of messaging truly is.
One night I got a frantic call from Jason. He told me the pastors were planning to announce to a large gathering of all the church members that he was gay and that they were removing him from church membership because he was in a gay relationship. While removal from membership is certainly heartbreaking for anyone, for most people it sounds worse than it is. It does not mean you get kicked out of the church. Membership removal may not prevent you from participating in most aspects of church life, but it does take away certain privileges that the larger congregation doesn’t have: a pathway to eldership (for men only, as women are not permitted to be elders), the opportunity to apply for other leadership positions, and voting power (though this is severely limited at Emergence).
However, Jason wasn’t most people.
At the time the pastors made this threat, Jason was not out.
If any of you are reading this and are confused as to why this is such a big problem, please bear with me a moment while I explain.
When someone isn’t openly queer, the act of disclosing this information without consent is called outing. The HRC defines outing as “Exposing someone’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender non-binary identity to others without their permission.” The Washington Post has stated that “outing a transgender person is not only a violation of privacy but also dangerous.”
Outing someone has serious ramifications. In some cases, people’s employment may be at risk, particularly if they work for a company that’s hostile to LGBTQIA+ people. In other cases, it can throw a person’s family situation into disarray. There are countless incidents involving children and teenagers who were thrown out of their homes and given no support system because their homophobic parents prematurely found out they were gay or transgender. Outing someone can cause severe mental, emotional, and physical damage to an individual. If someone has confided in you that they are gay or trans, it is not your place to share that info with anyone else.
The Emergence pastors were planning on outing Jason.
So I did the only thing I thought I could do in this desperate situation. I texted every pastor at Emergence whose phone number I had, and I accused them of emotional and psychological abuse. I told them that in any other circumstance what they were doing could lead to a lawsuit (I wasn’t planning on suing them, but someone else in this exact situation very easily could).
They responded by banning me from R&R. Just like that, the support and sponsorship I so desperately needed was ripped away from me.
A few weeks later, Jason removed himself from membership at Emergence before they had the opportunity to out him in front of the congregation.
To anyone else, a situation like this would cause them to run far from any church and never set foot inside one again. And I wouldn’t blame them. But Jason and I had this feeling that there was something out there for us. A community where we could embrace both our faith in Christ and our identities as gay men. So we began searching. We visited a few churches and became friends with a pastor at a nearby church who not only welcomed us fully, but also provided the kind of clarity that I had been fighting with the pastors at Emergence to offer.
We began the process of healing from Emergence by seeing a psychiatrist and a religious trauma therapist, particularly due to the suicidal thoughts both of us were plagued with. But just as we were beginning to grow accustomed to life outside Emergence, Jason received a phone call from one of Emergence’s pastors informing him that he couldn’t just resign as a member—his membership had to be revoked by church leadership. To add insult to injury, this pastor told him that even though he was no longer his pastor, he could still be his friend. As if the authoritarian, punitive, and frankly, abusive actions he and the other pastors at Emergence took could ever allow for any kind of friendship on equal footing.
After taking some time to reflect on the abuses we suffered at Emergence, it’s hard not to question the motives behind what these pastors did. For instance, there was a circumstance in which two of the pastors joked about having sex toys in their desk drawer and sent mocking texts including a GIF of a girl sucking on a popsicle. I had brought this incident to the lead pastor’s attention, and I sometimes wonder if forcing me out were easier than confronting their own inappropriate behavior.
I also wonder about the R&R support group I participated in. When I first began attending, I was told I’d be welcome, even as a gay person. But I was kicked out of the group because I wanted more clarity on what that welcome meant. And further, how can you demand honesty and openness in a support group when the threat of public humiliation and nonconsensual outing is looming in the shadows?
I’m still trying to piece together everything that happened to Jason and me, but I want to encourage anyone who might be in a similar crisis to look outside your evangelical box. There’s hope for you. There’s a community of Christians out there ready and willing to truly act like Jesus and welcome you with open arms, affirming every aspect of your identity, including your sexual orientation or gender identity.
The pastor of the church Jason and I attended after we left Emergence even offered to submit a formal letter to Emergence requesting an official transfer of membership. Actions like these coupled with the transparency our new church provided stand in stark contrast to the unintelligibility, vagueness, and ambiguity that characterized the leadership at Emergence. Jesus himself once said, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Many of our friends from Emergence voiced to Jason and me privately that they were appalled by what the church was doing to us but were too conflicted to speak up or walk out when we were forced out (with the notable exception of a few close friends who confronted a pastor and to whom we’re grateful). And I get it. If we weren’t compelled to leave, Jason and I would have found it almost impossible to do so on our own. Emergence (and too many other evangelical churches like them) creates an environment that’s very difficult to leave. Once you begin investing, you find that you have almost everything you need inside the construct—financial support, emotional support, friendships, professional networking, extracurricular opportunities, spiritual fulfillment, and even their own network of therapists and church-sanctioned third-party mental health providers (though I would not recommend any of these providers to queer people because they practice “recloseting,” a close cousin to reorientation that can be just as detrimental).
But behind the façade, there are antiquated and harmful ideologies that permeate everything they do. Emergence teaches a Calvinist theology, which, among other things, believes that even the most heinous crimes, human rights violations, and deadliest natural disasters are divinely ordained by God (yes, even the Holocaust and the current COVID-19 pandemic). They also believe that women should never be in leadership over a man, so they will automatically refuse to license or ordain a woman as a pastor or elder. One pastor at Emergence even erroneously explained to me that Christians who believe women can be pastors use the same Bible passages to support gay marriage. In other words, to Emergence, female pastors are just as sinful as same-sex marriage.
Months after Jason and I left Emergence, we discovered that one of their pastors continued outing him without his permission. Recently, Jason and I decided to part ways so we could focus on our own individual healing from the trauma we each experienced at Emergence. Not long after that, Jason soon began receiving messages from Emergence’s pastors. They had been surveying our relationship waiting for the opportunity to reinsert themselves into Jason’s life.
While anyone familiar with evangelical churches likely won’t be surprised by my story, residents of New Jersey might. While the citizens of my home state certainly have a lot of work to do in the way of justice for marginalized communities, I’m grateful that Jersey is, at the very least, openly supportive overall of the LGBTQIA+ community. So the fact that evangelical churches like Emergence are allowed to flourish and continue to prey on people with their ambiguity, coercion, and manipulative practices in New Jersey is astonishing to me.
I’m sharing my story in the hope that Emergence—and evangelical churches like them—will begin to recognize the harm they cause people with their unwillingness to disclose basic information about their views on LGBTQIA+ participation in the church. I’m not even asking that they truly welcome gay and trans folks, let alone become an open and affirming church. I’m simply asking for transparency. Tell us up front, perhaps in the “What We Believe” section of the website, if you’d perform a same-sex wedding or not, if you’d ordain a gay or trans pastor or not, if you’d employ a gay or trans staff member or not, or if your support groups would ever try to reorient a gay person or not. If churches were clear about their stances—regardless of whether they affirm us, they’d save us a lot of pain and trauma.