It’s a Sunday morning service at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Bloomington. About 200 people gather before a simple, unadorned altar to sing hymns, pray, listen to a sermon and share communion in a long tradition of Lutheran worship.
But something has changed at this sprawling stone church, known for its outreach to youth, the elderly and the poor. The community of 1,300 is trying to heal. About 100 longtime members left St. John’s earlier this year. The issue that divided the congregation: same-sex marriage.
The struggle began when a same-sex couple who had attended the church for years sought to marry there.
“They feel St. John’s is their home, their church home, and while they had been together as a couple for many years, they wanted and desired to be married in their church,” Chris Magnuson, president of the St. John’s church council, said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
The council decided to allow the marriage. The decision sparked an intense debate within the congregation over what Scripture teaches about marriage.
“There are certainly many people who are passionate on both sides of the issue, so there was going to be fallout either way,” Magnuson said.
Those who left St. John’s formed a new congregation—Faith Lutheran Church. They now worship in a meeting room at the Eastland Suites Hotel in Bloomington. The services at both churches are virtually identical. The theology is not.
“How did this happen? Faith Lutheran Church of McLean County? How did this even happen?” Brian Goke, pastor at Faith Church, asked at his inaugural sermon to the new congregation last July.
VIDEO: Watch Goke's inaugural sermon on YouTube:
“I’ll tell you how this happened. There was a group of people in this community who experienced holy discontent,” Goke said.
“God was calling you to create something new … a church birthed out of discipleship.” Goke’s sermon was recorded for the Faith Church Facebook page.
Goke used to be senior minister at St. John’s. He left that church after its council decided to allow same-sex marriage.
A Break With the National Church
Faith Church also broke with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the national association of which St. John’s is part. In a 2009 statement called “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” the Evangelical Lutheran Church permitted ministers in same-sex relationships to serve the church.
The ELCA also leaves it up to individual congregations to decide whether to sanction same-sex marriages.
Goke declined to discuss his congregation’s split with St. John’s, as did other members of Faith Lutheran that GLT contacted. All said they were trying to put the struggle at St. John’s behind them.
Faith Church is now part of an association called Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ. It follows a more conservative theology, including the view that marriage should be between only a man and a woman. Without mentioning St. John’s, Goke alluded to the diverse interpretations of Scripture that can exist within congregations.
“We’re not just going read God’s words and think about them and ponder them and say, ‘Hey what do you think?’ We’re going to challenge one another to live these words and submit to God’s holy words," he said.
Many in the St. John’s congregation view Scripture differently. Council President Magnuson said the church wanted to send a message of acceptance and inclusion—something St. John’s members say is the heart of Christian teaching.
“People interpret the Bible differently. There is respect for both points of view in terms of interpretation,” Magnuson said. “Where it’s sad to me is where this divides us as Christians when we need to be reaching out and bringing people into the faith … My plea is don’t let us get pulled down by differences.”
United Methodists Face Similar Struggle
The St. John’s struggle is not unique. Randy Reese, co-pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Normal, said despite decades of debate, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and gender rights are still hot-button issues in many Protestant churches.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which sets church teaching, says homosexual activity is “incompatible” with the Christian life. The United Methodist church does not allow same-sex marriage or the ordination of openly gay ministers.
Reese said that doesn’t mean there’s agreement among Methodist congregations.
“Probably reflective of a lot of churches and denominations, we are torn by this issue. We are divided by this, and these practices are not all the same even though we all, at least in name, adhere to the same book,” Reese said.
Some of the denomination’s ministers have performed same-sex marriages in defiance of the rules. And a gay woman married to her same-sex partner was elected a bishop in the United Methodist church’s western region last year.
Reese said his church faces a potential turning point in February 2019 when a special commission is scheduled to issue a report on sexuality. He and his wife Debbie are co-pastors at Calvary United Methodist. They say even they don’t agree completely on issues of sexuality.
Debbie Reese said disagreements over theology are nothing new within denominations.
“Folks, we can disagree with each other and still care about each other and still love each other. We can talk with one another. That’s the message we want to send: Please don’t vilify someone who has a different belief than you," Debbie Reese said.
Months of Deliberation
The St. John’s experience holds potential lessons for other congregations. Magnuson said the church spent months deliberating before its governing council made a decision.
“A lot of time was spent by council members and congregation members in prayer and discernment. It was a very challenging issue to really think about. You have people’s lives who are impacted,” Magnuson said.
“A lot of thought went into that over a several months’ period. It was probably six to eight months before a decision was made.”
Dozens of congregation members emailed and wrote letters to the council expressing their views.
“We also held a couple of listening sessions where members, if their gift wasn’t to write something and send it, they could come and visit with members of the council and share their feedback,” Magnuson added.
About 70 percent of the feedback supported allowing same-sex marriage to take place in the church, he said.
“The majority of the congregation, if you were to summarize it in a general sense, was we want to be welcoming and inclusive. It is not ours to judge. It is up to Jesus to determine, but let us be welcoming and accepting.”
Still, it wasn’t an easy process. Magnuson says the even 13-member governing council was divided.
“We decided as group regardless of the outcome, we would all support the decision whichever way the decision went, but I can say there was certainly diversity within the council,” he said.
Some in the congregation remained dissatisfied with the council’s vote. They complained that St. John’s was deviating from Scripture teaching and bowing to societal pressures, Magnuson said. Those who opposed sanctioning same-sex marriage sought to have a congregation-wide vote.
About 500 St. John’s members showed up for yet another meeting. The majority once again supported the council’s decision.
The same-sex couple eventually married at St. John’s last fall. The couple did not respond to a request for an interview.
Many Protestant denominations, like the Lutherans, operate under a decentralized administrative structure. This gives those congregations freedom on a grassroots level, but also opens the door for conflict.
“The dilemma our national church has felt is that it wants to be supportive without being intrusive,” said Lanny Westphal, St. John’s interim senior pastor.
“They offer resources and study guides. This has been a source of conversation for about 25 years,” he added.
Westphal has extensive experience leading congregations in crisis. He advises churches facing similar divisions to engage in open and transparent discussion. He said those kinds of deliberations are necessary, even if they are sometimes painful.
“It is very important to have a lot of communication that is open and responsive, that demonstrates both what people are thinking and what the leadership is thinking, but is also willing to listen to other people in a respectful way, and to have some education too,” Westphal said.
Donations to St. John’s have declined about 10 percent. The church has had to trim its budget, but without curtailing its commitment to mission trips and community programs such as the Safe Harbor shelter and Midwest Food Bank, Westphal said.
Faith Church is trying to raise $180,000 in pledges in the coming year to continue ministries for children and the developmentally disabled that its members have been involved in.
Magnuson of the St. John’s council said both congregations will face challenges ahead, and need time to heal.
“There is certainly sadness. I have had good friends that left and you’re sad to see that happen. You respect their view on the issue,” he said. “I also greatly respect those who might have disagreed with the decision who continue to call St. John’s home.”
Magnuson recalls that at one time in its history, St. John’s was deeply divided over another issue: whether services should be in English or remain in Swedish. The church overcame that conflict.
'All Churches Hurt'
Debbie Reese, the co-pastor of Calvary United Methodist, said other churches might see the St. John’s experience a cautionary tale.
“When any churches in town hurt, we hurt. All churches at some point deal with this,” she said.
With the United Methodists set to take up the same issue at a conference in February 2019, Reese said, “Our time is coming and we don’t know what is going to happen then, so we are just praying ourselves up for that, all of us in the denomination.”
Westphal said he’s optimistic that St. John’s will recover from the past year’s turmoil.
“This congregation is known for its resiliency,” he said. “People are talking about the fact we want to embrace our identity and we want to let everybody know there is a place here for them here. The table is big enough to seat everybody who wants to be present."
In his first sermon to the breakaway Faith Church congregation, Brian Goke said he too wants his church to be known for what it is for, rather than what it is against.
“This is a church where discipleship is costly, doing the hard work of what it means to go out into the world and not be popular, but to roll up our sleeves and work,” Goke said.
For the foreseeable future, the two Lutheran congregations seem unlikely to find common ground. They will continue holding services at the same time on Sunday mornings, in different parts of town.
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