Hunting for the Sacred: Navigating ‘hipster’ churches as a survivor, theologian

Heather Brydie Harris

My parent, who was an ordained minister in the United Methodist church, was an advocate of praise and worship style contemporary church services, where jeans and guitars took the place of suits and organs. I know this sartorial maneuver, these significations of the casual, hip, and inclusive, were meant to make the space of the church feel welcoming to those who would feel stuffy, confined, or judged in the overly formalized space of the main sanctuary.

These contemporary services were held in the fellowship space that was in the basement. This was a bold move in the 1990s and early 2000s, not progressive, but bold; this model of doing church has now become popularized. I am a believer in signifying. A space should aesthetically point us to the ethos of the people residing there.

However, as an adult, a theologian, and a survivor of queerphobic religiously based intolerance, I can spot the wolf in casual clothing.

There is a difference in signification and manipulation. When I moved to Kentucky, I looked for all of the churches that gave a similar welcome, churches that said that they had open doors, or that all were welcome, but when asked directly (sometimes to men with hipster handlebar mustaches) the answer was the same. They did not affirm, celebrate, or fully include queer and trans persons within this “all.”

Many of these churches fall so short as not to include cis heterosexual women, or persons of color, in this “all,” as evidenced by their leadership, let alone queer and trans folks. As First John warns us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 ESV).

Test, question, and confront signposts, such as clothing, music, language, and locale, that point toward inclusivity to make sure that they are not manipulating maneuvers that further exclude and harm. If we do not “test the spirits” we will continue to find ourselves in basements, fellowship halls, industrial buildings, and megachurches, that just become large closets.

Pride month is ending. Pride is accompanied by a series of significations. Rainbows, lavender, and queer sartorial and design aesthetics. Pride as a capitalist venture has also come under critique. LGBTQIA2 people deserve more than a choice between secular capitalist Pride and queerphobic sacralized closets touting religious belonging. We are still on the hunt for the sacred. Anti-queer religious rhetoric and manipulation is harmful and is antithetical to Pride, but moreover, it is apocryphal to the call of the church and the theological project of justice. If Christ asks us to be the sheep – communal, cared for, and covered – we must say to the false prophet space of the contemporary church – “Why, what big teeth you have!”

In my conversations with church leaders within these kinds of performatively inclusive spaces, as well as parishioners, (and my family members), the argument is usually made that they do not cause harm and that they love all people. Language, rhetoric, signs, and symbols have real power and cause lasting harm. Beliefs are not powerless. Church doctrines are not ineffectual constructs. However, pride, that is deep pleasure and acceptance of oneself, is powerful too. Our language matters.

My Pride month mantra is today, and every day:

Queer people are holy

Trans people are holy

Queerphobia is sin

Transphobia is sin

We are all made in the likeness of the divine

We are the divine being expressed through humanity

We belong to all that is sacred

Amen and Ashe

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