Meyerland Hipster Church Courts Impossible Demographic
Kathy McDougall, Angie Boudreaux, Jenni Fairbanks, Earl Fairbanks and Jackie Brown gather for a fellowship dinner at the Fairbankses' house.
Photo by Susan Du
Angie Boudreaux grew up in her grandmother's conservative Southern Baptist church an odd child who loved going every week just to hear the preacher preach. Eventually, she became a Sunday school teacher and made her living helping young girls read the Bible.
It would have been a straightforward story, except a super-awkward thing happened to Boudreaux at the end of high school. After much internal wrangling over whether hanging out with lesbians all the time was just something that jock girls did, Boudreaux had to admit she had fallen in love with her best friend, another woman.
She cried, she prayed and others prayed with her, but she stayed gay. Some years later, when church leadership found out, they told her she couldn't be trusted with teaching children.
Jackie Brown is not gay. But after college, when she tried to reconnect with Christianity, a church leader called her an adulteress for living with her then-boyfriend (now husband). It didn't help that she was then barred from singing in the church choir because she also sang at a bar on weeknights.
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"The church didn't pay me," Brown said. "The bar did."
The Rev. Jenni Fairbanks was quick to interject that her church hired Brown precisely because of her professional experience. "She logged her hours," Fairbanks said with a shrug.
Fairbanks is the minister of Zeteo, an emergent hipster church out in conservative Meyerland. It works quietly in a neighborhood whose neatly trimmed lawns backdrop legions of GOP posters every election season, claiming only about 20 members who meet twice a month in a local gymnasium. During those Sunday services, Fairbanks sits in a circle with her congregation. They're mostly young, gay Christians who have been hurt by the church at some point -- what Fairbanks calls the "impossible demographic."
Theologically speaking, Zeteo is a Disciples of Christ denomination church, which allows autonomous congregations to choose their own creed. Zeteo is "open and affirming," church jargon that states they are not only tolerant of gays but would include them in church membership and hire them as leaders.
"I'd been in ministry for so long, I kinda had to think about whether to step into a church ever again. It was really sudden and I was upset," McDougall said. "But after I'd gone through what I'd gone through, people started coming to me and telling me their own stories, that they had been attending a church and had been hurt because of their sexuality."
That "impossible demographic" tends to reject the traditional Sunday service model with its hierarchal leadership and focus on personal morality, Fairbanks said. They're not going to donate regularly or commit to signing any membership contracts. In the meantime, Zeteo relies on the Disciples of Christ's First Christian Church for funding.
In the whole spectrum of hipster churches, Zeteo isn't even that edgy. There's an entire movement within post-modern Christianity devoted to making church more culturally relevant for the younger generation. These "emergent churches" share a similar marketing strategy: a strong emphasis on building personal relationships, real talk, a tattoo or craft beer social thrown in here and there. Despite all the usual criticism from old-timey religious leaders, emergent churches like Ecclesia have been remarkably successful with their target demographics.
Yet emergent churches run the gamut when it comes to theology and politics. That can make it difficult to determine a church's honest-to-God stance on key issues related to membership and LGBT inclusion.
"You have essentially this group of churches that are trying to relate to millennials, and you have this No. 1 issue that millennials are completely not OK with LGBT people not being accepted," McDougall said. Just because some churches attract many gay attendees doesn't mean they will be welcome in the long term if they can't pray away their same-sex attraction.
There are churches in Houston that market specifically to the LGBT community, such as Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church. There, gay rights issues are front and center in sermons, social events, political advocacy and charity work.
Though she loves the idea of Resurrection, Boudreaux said ultimately "it's too gay for me." She's just not looking for politics on a Sunday morning.