Why TV’s ‘Broadway Boyfriends’ will keep singing with Hillsong Church (COMMENTARY)

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Dating couple Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly, will be among the castaways competing on SURVIVOR this season, on the CBS Television Network. Photo courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Dating couple Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly, will be among the castaways competing on SURVIVOR this season, on the CBS Television Network. Photo courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Hillsong Church’s campus in New York City draws more than 7,000 weekly worshippers. Photo courtesy of Jessicalsmyers via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1gwwwpL) *Editors: Image is available to RNS subscribers, but not for resale.

Hillsong Church’s campus in New York City draws more than 7,000 weekly worshippers. Photo courtesy of Jessicalsmyers via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1gwwwpL)
*Editors: Image is available to RNS subscribers, but not for resale.

NEW YORK (RNS) The only thing worse than a false story is a partial one.

That was the real lesson behind an article published on a conservative Christian website last week claiming that the Hillsong Church was allowing an “openly homosexual couple” to lead worship. The article, about the New York City campus of the Australia-based super-church, where tens of thousands worship weekly, drew from a 7-month-old article from Playbill.com about two Broadway actors and contestants on the “Survivor” reality TV show, Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly.

The article triggered statements from Hillsong’s senior pastor, the Rev. Brian Houston in Australia, reaffirming the church’s belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and stating that neither man is serving in a leadership role any longer. But Houston also said that Hillsong wants gay couples to feel welcome.

Like many conservative churches, Hillsong holds a traditional view of sexuality but wants to welcome and include all people. Canfield and Kelly, like many gay couples, disagree with the church’s views on homosexuality. But unlike some others, they say they want to stay with the church they love and work for change.

Their story — echoed by so many LGBT Christians — is one that needs to be told.

Dating couple Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly, will be among the castaways competing on SURVIVOR this season, on the CBS Television Network. Photo courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly previously competed on the reality TV show “Survivor.” Photo courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

Sitting in a Manhattan diner, Canfield and Kelly use Christian language with ease and regularly inject Bible verses into conversation. Canfield was raised in a conservative pastor’s home, attended an evangelical college and served on staff as a music minister years ago. Kelly, who was raised Catholic, says that rather than date, the couple chose to “court,” which included a mutual commitment to refrain from having sex until their wedding day. (They haven’t set a date.)  On paper, they have a perfect conservative Christian relationship — except for their genders, of course.

Canfield was a music director at Hillsong’s campus in London and moved to New York City, in part, to help launch the congregation there. Soon after, he met Kelly and they both served the church faithfully in various capacities. Kelly even hosted (but did not lead) a Bible study group in his home for the church. In December, the couple informed the Rev. Carl Lentz, the lead pastor in New York, that they were getting engaged, which triggered a series of personal and ongoing conversations.

“At Hillsong, we take the time to sit at the table and hear their pain and hear their journey and consider their thinking,” Lentz said. “And when it is time to speak back to these people, we can speak from a place of observation, not condemnation.”

Lentz said his priority was to “make sure that these amazing guys weren’t mishandled or mistreated.”

Prior to the publication of the Playbill article, Lentz spoke to Houston about the situation and, as a result, asked Canfield and Kelly to step down from their leadership roles. At the same time, he invited them to serve in other roles and reaffirmed his desire to help them feel welcome and included in his congregation, which draws more than 7,000 worshippers weekly.

But the conversation did not end there.

“Me and my wife, Laura, are deeply involved in Josh and Reed’s lives,” Lentz said. “We have had ongoing, face-to-face discussions about God, sin, life and Jesus, because this is what you do in a church.”

In turn, Canfield and Kelly profess gratitude for their pastor and the rest of Hillsong’s staff. The couple’s demeanors do not darken when they speak of the ordeal.

Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly during a vacation in Tulum, Mexico in September 2013. Photo courtesy of Josh Canfield

Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly during a vacation in Tulum, Mexico, in September 2013. Photo courtesy of Josh Canfield

“We’re grateful for Pastor Carl, and we feel God has called us to be at Hillsong. He wants us to be a part of the church, knowing what we believe,” Kelly said. “This is our home church, and we are not leaving. It’s important for us to be there dialoguing about this.”

By all accounts, Hillsong does seem to want LGBT people to feel welcome — with limits. They are welcome to attend, worship, even participate as members. They are eligible to serve in some roles, but not others. Canfield and Kelly, for example, can sing in the choir, but would not be eligible to direct it. Houston even called Hillsong “a gay-welcoming church” in a statement. While this may sound regressive to many unfamiliar with Christianity, it is astounding given the history of evangelicalism’s treatment of LGBT people.

Lentz recognizes the obstacles he faces, but he said that won’t stop him from trying to find a way forward.

“(Hillsong’s) heart on this matter is to reach all people, even communities that present extreme complexities,” he said in an email. “We would rather be misunderstood and look ‘messy’ to some in the Christian community that do not agree with us and help some, than appease people that think differently and reach none.”

Lentz noted that young gay people are committing suicide in record numbers and yet they find no refuge in most churches. Furthermore, he said, many churches have accepted a system that forces people to “hide their tensions, questions, and strongholds for fear of exclusion.”

“People can’t get over the fact that we’re preaching the whole counsel of God and that people still want to listen to it, even in disagreement, because they know they are loved,” Lentz said. “But here are two people — and there are many more — who know what we believe and still want to be a part.”


READ: How Hillsong Church is becoming ‘gay-welcoming’ without compromising its convictions


So, two things of value have happened that may not satisfy conservative evangelicals or LGBT activists. One of the most influential evangelical churches in the world has both reaffirmed its commitment to traditional views on sexuality and has shown a level of openness and flexibility on the matter that would have been difficult to imagine even a decade ago.

Canfield and Kelly have decided to keep singing each Sunday at Hillsong, despite the restrictions. They recognize that the decision they’ve made is not one that every person in their position should make. But they believe it is the right one for them.

“If every gay person leaves their church because they have been treated poorly, nothing will change,” Canfield said. “They still want us, and we feel called to stay. And we’re telling all our gay friends at Hillsong to do the same.”

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

The tale of Canfield, Kelly and Hillsong Church is something of a love story. There’s a church with a conservative theology that loves the people that theology affects. And there are two men who love each other and a church with which they have a profound disagreement.

Like all love stories, the relationship grows messy as all seek to stay true to who they believe they are. It’s complicated, yes — but it’s worth it.

(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

LM/MG END MERRITT

  • John

    This story sounds good at this point in their history, but I’m not sure it will hold for the long run, from either side. The debate about homosexuality and theology is far from over. I applaud and agree with the entirety of the gay-welcoming stance and am likewise glad to see it sincerely played out. But issues still loom – what will Hillsong Church do if this couple gets married, does the church see this as a sin issue in the lives of believers, will this sin issue lead to a stance of church discipline? It is complicated and I applaud the efforts, but there will be more to come. I hope you continue to follow the story, Jonathan.

  • bqrq

    John asked;
    “…… does the church see this as a sin issue in the lives of believers….”

    If Canfield and Kelly go to Church and kiss each other on the mouth in front of children, then Church members would be rightly offended by what they consider to be intentional child molesting. Given their disgusting and unrepentant advocacy of sexual immorality, Canfield and Kelly have probably already worn out their welcome and will likely be shunned by most members of Hillsong Church.

  • Larry

    It could be worse. At least Canfield and Kelly are consenting adults. Its not at all like letting you near children after revealing that,
    “The predators …usually prefer thin good looking boys”

    That was mighty specific information about sexual predator’s thoughts. As if coming from the thoughts of one.

  • Jay

    These guys are masochists to stay in a church that does not accept them. I feel sorry that they have imbibed the self-loathing they have been taught by conservative Christians. They deserve much better than Hillsong can offer. I hope that they will wake up and not ruin their lives by allowing these hucksters to destroy their self-esteem.

  • ben in oakland

    I would generally agree with you– find a better class of church. But they have decided to stay, and to change that church from within. That I think is what is important here.

  • bqrq

    Like most gay men, Canfield and Kelly will probably die young – around twenty years sooner than most men due to the adverse health consequences of unnatural gay sex. Since they have devoted their lives to the evil one, it is unlikely they can be persuaded to repent (but we should still try). After death, Canfield and Kelly will no longer be able to cause little children to sin and that shall be a good outcome for the living. The word of God will endure forever.

  • Pingback: @JonathanMerritt defends #hillsong and @pastorcarllentz in demeaning Christians faithful to Scripture (Read 1Cor.5:11) | Laodicean Report()

  • Doc Anthony

    People often make it sound as though you are only “in leadership” if you are actually directing a choir, teaching a class, or preaching from a podium.

    But those aren’t the only ways of doing leadership. This national-TV famous gay couple are publicly promising that THEY will practice leadership: simply stay with Hillsong and “work for change.” Gay missionaries, spreading the Gospel of Gay from the inside out.

    A little yeast leavens the entire loaf of bread, and the gay leaders Canfield and Kelly clearly get the idea. They’ve effectively promised to practice that principle on Hillsong’s members. It could be something as simple as holding hands or a public kiss during services, or even just on the church sidewalk afterwards.

    And simply by getting “married”, and afterwards continuing to stay visible with the Hillsong choir and elsewhere, they will be leavening Hillsong’s loaf of bread.

    Christian weather report: Storm front approaching.

  • Alfred

    Point here is not Gay & Les but Jesus. Are you ready to forsake your gay friend, Girl friend, your life for the sake of Christ.
    If bible says no to some thing it must be Amen. or you are not a disciple of Lord Jesus..
    Pr. Huston Church is for every one but not the Pulpit.

  • Alfred

    Dear Pastor Huston.
    Can & Kel Must be brought down or else it will be just a live concert nothing more.
    Fear God not men. If your Bible says they have no part in the ministry, why you are not bold enough to bring them down.
    Its time you stand out we looking at your position are shakend , do not let us down.

  • Alfred

    Until they live our children are venerable.. we love then but let them wipe their dust out of the Church and get in.

  • Loren Haas

    This will not end well.
    As soon as some wealthy Hillsong benefactor threatens to end their contributions these two will be history.

  • John

    I agree with this leading to a very wrong influence in the church, but I still think this is part of the development of this issue in churches that do sincerely want to reach out and be loving towards everyone. Eventually the church will have to see that this approach will not work and is not the true gospel message. The church has needed to repent of its judgmentalism and standoffishness towards gays, but a message of repentance, forgiveness, healing and hope is what the church needs to lovingly proclaim and live. I do believe this is where the authentic church will return to.

  • Barrie Stephenson

    I thank God for a church that is willing to face this issue with love and respect. I look forward to seeing how this is finally resolved.
    I am also disturbed by the nature of some of the alarmist and judgmental comments on here. However much you may prefer this discussion would go away – you cannot expect that it will by screaming and shouting ever more loudly. Peace brothers and sisters please.

  • bqrq

    Barrie said;
    “……However much you may prefer this discussion would go away – you cannot expect that it will by screaming and shouting ever more loudly…..”

    Dear Barrie,
    It would be helpful if the gay rights crowd would explain to us in a loving and compassionate manner exactly how and why their lifestyle is morally righteous, good for society and pleasing to God. We are willing to listen but no one is willing to explain. Maybe you can help?

  • Dominic

    The problem with these two is their attitude toward religion and church. They claim to want to change attitudes from within about homosexuality. Gays are already accepted as church members, but acts of homosexuality are not.
    Now to go on a crusade to convert a church to their conception of sex, marriage, and sin is a lost cause. They are not the center of the world, and need to remember that they are required, too, to obey God…..not to “teach” Him.
    It is getting tiresome to see gays provoke religious laws. The methods they used to dupe society into believing they are a discriminated minority will not work in a truly Christian Church. It is folly to think that it would.

  • These people should be handed over to Satan for their destruction and they should not be welcomed to church.

  • Garson Abuita

    Pretty judgmental attitude from someone going by the name of a pagan deity..

  • Larry

    The idea that one can change bigoted policies within a church through education, experience and warm fuzzy actions is not based in reality.

    Churches are usually the LAST people to drop officially sanctioned prejudices. Usually they just change targets of ire, not much else. Usually it takes overwhelming cultural embarrassment before they change. The actions of the Lutheran Church, LDS and SBC are great examples of this. Anti-semitism and/or racism officially sanctioned didn’t stop within the churches until the policies became economically or politically untennable. Not because they thought better of their bigotry, but because it became inconvenient.

    Can & Kel are fighting a doomed cause. Religious bigots are willing to despoil whatever they can to get their way. Starving children, government function, civic minded organizations be damned if they can’t discriminate in the name of their version of God.

  • I just find it hilarious that Mr. Merritt considers a Word of Faith church “conservative” simply because they don’t celebrate homosexuals.

    That’s rich.