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 seven-month-old article about two Survivor contestants and Broadway actors, Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly from Playbill.com.
The post triggered statements from Hillsong’s senior pastor, Brian Houston, 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 like them to feel welcome.
Like many conservative churches, Hillsong holds a traditional view of sexuality, but wants to welcome and include all people. Josh and Reed, like many gay couples, disagree with the church's view of homosexuality. But unlike some others, they say they want to stay with the church they love and work for change.
Their story — a story echoed by so many LGBT Christians — is one that needs to be told.
Sitting in a Manhattan diner with Josh and Reed felt oddly familiar to a person like me who grew up in the evangelical subculture. They use Christian language with ease and regularly inject Bible verses into conversation. Josh was even raised in a conservative pastor’s home, attended an evangelical college, and served on staff as a music minister years ago. Reed, who was raised Catholic, tells me that rather than date, the couple chose to “court,” which included a mutual commitment to refrain from having sex until their wedding day. On paper, they have a perfect conservative Christian relationship —except for their genders, of course.
Josh 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 Reed and they both served the church faithfully in various capacities. Reed even hosted (but did not lead) a Bible study group in his home for the church. In December, the couple informed lead pastor Carl Lentz 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 told me. “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 the couple 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, Josh and Reed 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.
“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.” Reed says. “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. Josh and Reed, 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 on the ordeal. 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 says 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.”
While being misconstrued by critics doesn’t bother Lentz, he is quite concerned about the failures of many Christian churches to love and minister to LGBT people. He notes that young gay people are committing suicide in record numbers and yet they find no refuge in most churches. Furthermore, Lentz says, 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.”
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.
Josh and Reed 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,” Josh says. “They still want us, and we feel called to stay. And we’re telling all our gay friends at Hillsong to do the same.”
If both sides believe they possess the strongest arguments — not to mention the benefit of having God on their side — then all should see this story as a promising one. Change often happens by evolution rather than revolution, and neither side will change its thinking on the issue if it remains isolated from the other.
The tale of Josh, Reed, 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.