Is It Too Late for Evangelical Christians to Honestly Discuss Same-Sex Marriage?

A dispatch from this year’s Q Ideas conference, or the Christian TED Talks.

Matthew Vines and Julie Rodgers at a Q Ideas conference in Boston, April 23, 2015.
Matthew Vines and Julie Rodgers speak at the Q Ideas conference in Boston on April 23, 2015.

Photo by Parker Young Photography

As speakers take the stage at Q Ideas, an annual conference for Christian “culture-makers,” a large digital timer facing the audience starts to tick down the time remaining in their nine- or 18-minute talks. That clock lends a certain urgency as speakers use wireless microphones to orate on topics like “the startup mindset” and “why difference makes us better.” Q doesn’t actually call itself the Christian version of TED Talks, but the similarities are unavoidable. Over the years, TED types like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks have taken the stage at Q. Like TED, Q features the kind of talks that have you sagely nodding your head at “big ideas” and then immediately wondering, Wait, did that person actually say anything?

Despite the similarities, however, Q is also unmistakably an evangelical event, interspersed with prayer and praise music. Last week in Boston, an unofficial theme emerged over the course of three days of talks by tastemakers and #thoughtleaders: the contemporary church’s LGBTQ “dilemma.” And that theme inadvertently illuminated a looming crisis for the kinds of hip young evangelicals drawn to Q: What will they do now that the culture around them is moving on from seeing sexuality as any kind of dilemma at all?

Gabe Lyons, a onetime mentee of evangelical icon Chuck Colson, founded Q as a “learning community that mobilizes Christians to advance the common good in society”; the first conference took place in Atlanta in 2007. As a public figure, Lyons makes a point of positioning himself against the old-school religious right, with what the writer David Sessions has called “an aura of progressivity.” A 2007 book Lyons co-authored with pollster David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters, laid out a sort of manifesto for supposedly post-political evangelicals: “Christianity has an image problem,” the introduction declared, and Christians “have a responsibility to our friends and neighbors to have a sober, reasonable understanding of their perspectives.” The book spent an entire chapter on Christianity’s reputation as “antihomosexual.”

According to Q’s own survey, the typical conference attendee this year was a thirtysomething church employee with at least a master’s degree. According to my own survey, the 1,300 Q-goers were also intimidatingly attractive and stylish. The women wore patterned silk blouses and little blazers; the men rolled their skinny jeans above their Red Wings. Signifiers of a sort of mainstream Brooklyn cool were everywhere. If evangelical Christianity in general is concerned with “engaging the culture,” these believers want to impress that culture, too.

Like at TED, the air at Q hums with buzzwords. Here, the favorites include story, narrative, culture-making, winsome, and intentionality. At lunch an attendee told me that he and his wife have been coming to Q for seven years now, and the conference shapes how they “do life.”

But the most important word at Q is conversation: “Conversations aren’t easy,” Lyons said at one point, congratulating attendees yet again for their willingness to “dig deep” and to “dialogue.” Several times a day, Lyons encouraged the crowd to break into “triad conversations,” in which one person defended a speaker’s point, another critiqued it, and a third took a moderate approach. (The guidebook informed us that “Research shows that intentional conversation in intimate setting is the most effective way to engage sensitive, controversial topics.” Thanks, research!) In his opening speech on Thursday, Lyons said he wanted “to challenge us not to just sit in an echo chamber.”

Lyons is a major presence at Q, interpreting, introducing, and interviewing many speakers onstage. After polemicist Rod Dreher’s talk, in which he called Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle an “apocalypse,” Lyons bounded onstage to call him a “prophetic voice.” To a large extent, Lyons is Q. And he is relentless in promoting the notion that Q is about dialogue. “Our point is to bring good thinking and dialogue and idea discussion to this group of people,” Lyons said in an interview the week before the conference. “There will be disagreement, but that benefits our participants.”

To that end, the conference invited several gay-affirming Christians to the stage, including writer Andrew Sullivan, ethicist David Gushee, and Matthew Vines, the 25-year-old author of the 2014 book God and the Gay Christian. In the weeks leading up to Q, socially conservative agitators online had fretted over their inclusion. “[N]ot everything is up for debate,” two concerned critics wrote in Patheos, before asking Lyons to “[rescind] invitations to Gushee and Vines and [replace] them with voices able to articulate God’s beautiful vision for sex, marriage, and family.”

They needn’t have worried. Gushee and Vines were not given their own speaking slots but were each placed in two-person panel discussions with challengers to their views. Meanwhile, other speakers given much less qualified welcomes included Dreher, who, within a few days, would blog nastily that Bruce Jenner wants “to wear a frock and amputate his penis,” and consultant Dee Allsop, who presented survey-validated advice on how to frame discussions about gay issues with more liberal friends (Tip: “Use metaphors cautiously.”) The president of the international nonprofit World Vision, Richard Stearns, discussed his organization’s quickly reversed decision last year to hire married gay people: “We made a mistake,” he said, sounding thoroughly chastened. “We adopted a conduct policy that was inconsistent with our deeply held beliefs about marriage.”

In other words, Q as an institution may gesture at “conversation” but it also has a very clear point of view. Repeatedly over the course of the event, Lyons went out of his way to say that he takes the traditional conservative view on the “historic sexual ethic.” He told Stearns he was “100 percent supportive” of the reversal. “I don’t want to communicate that I, personally, think these are equally valid options,” he said during Gushee’s panel.

Attendee Evan Rosa, an editor and “communicator” for the Center for Christian Thought at Biola University, an evangelical school in Southern California, wrote in an email a few days after the conference concluded that it took “some guts and some humility” for Lyons to invite Gushee and Vines to speak. Acknowledging that it would have been gutsier to give them their own speaking slots, and humbler for Lyons to have remained more neutral as a moderator, Rosa was still impressed: “That takes a dose of fearlessness; and it wasn’t reckless,” he wrote, contrasting Lyons’s approach with the “fear and insecurity” expressed by those petitioning him to disinvite those who don’t follow the party line.

By Friday afternoon, about halfway through the conference, Vines himself sounded encouraged, too. “Whether it’s intended to or not, it’s a function of the increasing mainstreaming of this conversation in the evangelical world,” he told me. “If the host says he agrees with one perspective and not the other, well, I’m still here and I’m still speaking.”

Vines’ optimism is warranted. Today a majority of Americans support gay marriage, including 43 percent of white evangelical Protestant millennials. Those numbers seem bound to tick upward in the years to come, particularly among the peers of Q’s on-trend attendees. And as the Supreme Court hears arguments this week on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, there are signs that gay marriage will soon be a settled matter legally, too.

The problem for Lyons and his acolytes is that the culture at large increasingly does not think that affirming gay people or calling them to lifelong celibacy are “equally valid options,” either. The gay marriage debate may not be a debate much longer. For evangelicals who value their image as culturally relevant conversation leaders, the clock onstage is ticking down.