The pews were nearly full for the early Sunday service at Joy Metropolitan Community Church, but just about everybody in the sanctuary was male and most were middle-aged.
Started in 1979, the predominantly gay Orlando church is imperiled by its inability to attract a younger generation of gay and lesbian worshippers. Only about 20 of the 250 people who regularly attend the church are in their 20s and 30s, said the Rev. Lisa Heilig, interim pastor.
"The truth of the matter is the church is either going to stretch and grow — or die," Heilig said.
The lack of young people at Joy MCC isn't unusual in itself. Only about a fourth of Americans 18 to 29 years old attend church regularly, according to the latest survey by LifeWay Research, a research organization associated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Mainline Protestant denominations such as Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists are dealing with the same doomsday demographic of aging congregations. But the gay church faces not only fewer young people attending church, but also a greater acceptance of gays in other churches.
Moreover, gay churches don't have the built-in ability to attract families with children, teenagers with youth programs, and young people with church services like rock concerts. There are no "crying rooms" for babies at Joy MCC or Sunday-school classrooms or a day-care center during the week.
"Joy MCC is going to have to change and adapt or they are not going to be around," said Randy Stephens, executive director of Orlando's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Central Florida.
Young people are more fluid about their sexuality and less defined by their sexual orientation, Stephens said. They neither need nor crave the sanctuary that the gay church provided previous generations.
"What I'm finding is they don't want to go to a church where they are segregated by their sexuality," said the Rev. Jenn Stiles Williams, who has about 50 young gays in her contemporary service at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Orlando. "Their relationship with God is first, but they want a church where they can be who they are and not have to hide it."
Nicky Aleshe, a 25-year-old lesbian, said she attended Joy MCC after leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which she grew up. The Joy congregation was welcoming and accepting. She felt a comfort level sitting in the pews beside her partner, holding hands when they felt like it, kissing without being stared at.
But she also felt out of place in a church where nobody looked like her — a young woman.
"We were very shy, and everyone was older than us," she said.
Aleshe said she no longer attends any church and knows many others like her who feel spiritual but not religiously affiliated. Those she knows who attend church go where their sexuality is not a problem and there are plenty of other young people.
Anthony Larry, a 23-year-old gay black man, said he also tried Joy MCC before joining St. Luke's United Methodist, where he found an outlet for his desire for community involvement — and a rocking contemporary church service.
"This generation, we want to be able to serve God through serving people outside the church. But it's also about dynamic worship. Retire the organ," Larry said.
Heilig said one way for Joy MCC to prosper is to address the need that young people, gay and straight, have to express their spirituality in ways far different from the traditional church service. It might be through interest groups or book clubs or services that start at 5 p.m. on Fridays or midnight spirituality-discussion sessions.
"I know young people have spirituality and want to express it, and many of us have not created those places for them to do that," she said.
The other way for Joy MCC to survive is to broaden its appeal beyond the gay community to all people who have been rejected, oppressed or ostracized. Inclusion has been the theology of the Metropolitan Community Church, which had straight members from the beginning and was the first to accept people with HIV and AIDS, Heilig said.
"I'd say we are not a gay church anymore. We reach beyond the LGBT community to people who are looking for a place that is inclusive and progressive," she said.
One advantage Joy MCC has is that other gay-accepting churches stop short of supporting gay marriage, gay rights and gays in the pulpit. Young gays might be welcomed but not wholeheartedly embraced.
Williams of St. Luke's United Methodist concedes that might be a problem as the young gay members of her congregation grow older.
"It will be interesting to see how long they stay, because we still have these rules we live by," she said. "We can't ordain clergy that are gay. We are not a place where we can do holy unions."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5392.
A JOY MCC HISTORICAL FLASHBACK
Young People and Religion
65 percent rarely or never attend worship services.
25 percent attend a worship service once a week or more.
72 percent say they're more spiritual than religious.
61 percent see nothing wrong with same-sex marriage.
31 percent pray by themselves.
65 percent rarely or never pray with other people.
65 percent call themselves Christians.
31 percent believe Jesus is the only way to heaven.
60 percent believe Satan is real and not just a symbol of evil.
72 percent believe God is real and not just a concept.
SOURCE: LifeWay Research based on a survey of 1,200 Americans ages 18-29