‘Everybody’s welcome’: Georgia church defies Southern Baptist Convention, accepts gay members
KENNESAW, Ga. — Two weeks after being kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention, Towne View Baptist Church celebrated its 32nd anniversary by formally accepting members the SBC believes they should have turned away.
One by one, Pastor Jim Conrad introduced seven new members, which in the Baptist tradition have to be approved by a majority of the congregation. He didn’t mention that Brockton Bates and his partner Skyler were gay nor that another new member was transgender. He didn’t have to. His church knew who they were accepting and had spent the last two years coming to terms with the fact that inclusion for Towne View had to look different than what was required to remain in the SBC, whose bylaws state that “churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.”
On February 23, the SBC Executive Committee voted to remove Towne View for affirming LGBTQ members, the culmination of a two-year inquiry.
“Essentially the SBC has decided that because we welcomed these folks into our family that we’re no longer welcome in their family, and we’re OK with that,” Conrad said. “What we decided is that when we say everybody’s welcome, that means everybody.”
The journey to oppose the nation’s largest Baptist convention was an arduous one that cost the church members and financial contributions. And its exclusion from the SBC has sparked wider conversations about what it means to be a Southern Baptist in modern America.
For Bates, a lifelong Baptist who as a child was pushed toward faith-based conversion therapy to “literally try to pray the gay away,” Towne View had taken a meaningful stand. After he and his partner took the stage on March 7, the church’s first anniversary since the SBC’s decision, the church “exploded” with applause and approval. For the first time in his life, he fully celebrated his Baptist faith without hiding his sexuality.
“It was different than any other experience of joining a church,” Bates said. “I could authentically be who God created me to be and I didn’t have to hide it.
“To see that happen for us means it can happen for other people as well.”
The email that changed a church
The SBC movement against LGBTQ members gained traction 1992, when the convention amended its bylaws to include the language opposing LGBTQ members. That year, the SBC used the new rules to disfellowship two North Carolina churches, said Curtis Freeman, Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
“It’s a contested issue that goes back a number of years,” Freeman said. “Since then a number of churches have been removed.”
OUT OF DENOMINATION:Southern Baptists expel two churches for affirming homosexuality
Conrad never imagined it was a rule he would have to contend with.
That changed in May 2019 when he received an email from John Reynolds, a hospital administrator from Indiana who had just moved to Dallas, Georgia, with his partner John McClanahan and their three adopted boys.
“His basic question was ‘Would my family be welcomed in your church?’ I’d never had anyone ask me that question before,” Conrad said.
Conrad was aware of the bylaws. And as a teenager, he had forged his faith in a conservative Baptist church in Stuart, Florida, at a time when the Florida Legislature was working to prohibit adoptions for gay parents. He later began to reexamine those teachings — particularly after the 2016 shooting that killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando — but he admits that he “previously wrestled with how someone could be gay and a believer.”
“Growing up in a conservative Baptist church, the message of homosexuality was that it was sinful. Period. End of story,” Conrad said.
But Conrad connected to Reynolds’ story. Reynolds had spent most of his life attending Baptist sermons despite “living a double life” to avoid ostracization. When he met his partner, they stopped attending because they knew their relationship would not be welcomed. Instead, they spent Sundays at home and sent their sons to church with Reynolds’ parents. For a short spell, the couple attended an inclusive Disciples of Christ church in Nebraska — the first church they attended where they could be open about their relationship — but they hadn’t found an inclusive church that “felt like home.”
“There’s a lot about the Baptist faith that we value,” Reynolds said. “When we adopted three boys, we wanted that faith to be part of their life.”
After moving to the Bible Belt, Reynolds scoured Baptist church websites for obvious signs of LGBTQ opposition. He sent 15 or so emails to those that didn’t show immediate red flags. Conrad, whose church was 35 minutes away in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, was one of only “two or three” to respond.
“I was like, I can either tell this guy ‘No’ or say something kinder and say we’re not ready for that,” Conrad said. “And if I’d told him either of those answers we wouldn’t have had any controversy; nobody would have left and nobody would have known. But I couldn’t have slept at night.”
The family began attending, and in the fall of 2019, Reynolds and McClanahan became the first gay members approved by the church body. Reynolds said the vote was “nerve wracking,” but in the end, 70% of the almost 200-person congregation approved their membership after a recommendation from Conrad and the church deacons — who had varied opinions on the matter.
“There was just a huge sense of relief that these relationships that we had formed, that they were real and not just people being nice,” Reynolds said, reflecting on the vote.
But it was also met with opposition.
Conrad lost a third of his congregation to other churches with some organizing a walkout. Fewer worshippers meant Towne View lost 40% of its revenue, and Conrad was forced to cut some staff. An anonymous report was submitted to the SBC, which notified Towne View that its actions were being reviewed.
“One man came up to me. I had baptized him, performed his wedding, baptized his children, done the funeral for his mother. He said ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for my family but we won’t be back,’” Conrad said. “We lost some good friends, some good leaders, a good bit of income, but we felt it was the right thing for us to do.”
Reynolds said he and his partner hadn’t gone to Towne View looking to change a church. As Reynolds put it, “We weren’t even looking for one to affirm everything about us and love us. Just a place where sermons wouldn’t tell us our lifestyles were wrong or that we were living in sin.”
Reynolds and McClanahan are now in Indiana where they moved to be closer to family during the pandemic.
After the SBC decision, Conrad called them to thank them for moving the church in the right direction.
Towne View now has eight LGBTQ members and five who worship regularly but have not yet joined.
It’s a direction Reynolds feels more Southern Baptist churches need to go.
“I feel like most people know or are related to someone who is LGBT, so when you say this group of people is not welcome to be part of our faith tradition, you’re closing yourself off to a very large cross section of the country,” Reynolds said.
A cross in the road for Southern Baptists?
Southern Baptists comprise the largest Protestant denomination in the nation, but have lost 2 million members in the last 15 years, according to SBC membership data. The denomination saw its largest membership drop in 100 years from 2018-2019, according to Lifeway Research.
And while some of that can be attributed to the overall decline in churchgoers among younger generations, Duke Divinity School’s Freeman believes the faith’s hardline conservative stances aren’t helping.
“There is a really toxic culture going on right now,” Freeman said. “I think the Southern Baptists have really got some soul searching to do right now, because it’s not just this.”
Besides anti-gay rhetoric, the SBC has come under fire this past decade for some executives’ stances against critical race theory, an academic movement that examines how systemic racism continues to affect the nation’s laws, politics and culture. The SBC has also faced continued criticism for not allowing women to be ordained as ministers. That clash reached a crescendo in March when Southern Baptist icon and Bible teacher Beth Moore announced she is no longer affiliating with the denomination.
“Add to that they’re divided amongst themselves right now,” Freeman said. “There is a right-flanking movement within the Southern Baptists that says the people in charge now have gotten liberal, which is unfathomable to me to think of the people in charge as liberals.”
SBC President J.D. Greear addressed the critics in his opening address at the February executive committee meeting.
“If we are going to be gospel above all people, it means that we will be a church that engages all of the peoples in America, not just one kind,” Greear said. “And that’s hard. Bringing together people of different backgrounds and cultures and ethnicities into the church creates challenges.”
That inclusiveness remains off limits to the LGBTQ community.
In an emailed statement, Greear said “Any member of the LGBTQ community is welcome to attend” an SBC-affiliated church, but he doubled down on the SBC’s code of refusing membership.
“When one of our churches chooses to affirm or endorse homosexual behavior through their definition of regenerate church membership, we have clearly come to a different understanding on what we believe is an essential doctrine,” Greear said.
The decision to oust Towne View will not create a stampede of churches fleeing the SBC to promote more progressive ideals, Freeman said. It remains to be seen how church attendance looks once the COVID-19 pandemic slows. The majority of Southern Baptists are also older white conservatives, a base that’s difficult to risk offending as the number of teenage baptisms declines.
But Freeman said Towne View has started a necessary conversation.
It’s a conversation Bates wishes had happened sooner. But he’s thankful he found a church where he no longer hears sermons that threaten his sexuality with hellfire. Bates began worshipping at Towne View in November and knew he was in the right place when, two weeks after meeting Conrad, the pastor voluntarily and unexpectedly attended his grandmother’s funeral.
“This church took a bold stance, a loving stance, that they were committed to faithfully living out the gospel. And it meant the world to me and my partner,” Bates said.
Towne View has the option to appeal the SBC’s decision, but Conrad said the church is confident in its standing. Church leadership is currently contemplating a new membership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which allows churches to set their own policies.
In the weeks since being disfellowshipped, Conrad has received calls and letters from across the country thanking him for taking a risk in the name of equality, and the church has steadily added more members while seeing online viewership double.
Occasionally, he’ll think of those who left the church when he opened the doors wider. But then he’ll remind himself of those like Reynolds who traveled more than 30 minutes to another town just to worship without fear. And more importantly, in peace.
"If we can give a message of hope to our LGBTQ community and encourage other churches to have this talk, I don’t know that it will start a wave," Conrad said. "But maybe it will start a ripple."