New Montrose Church Juggles God, Gays, Stylish Glasses

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Marshall Dallas is not exactly selling monotheism to the Romans, but that doesn't mean church planting in Montrose has been smooth sailing.

Leading the flock at Sojourn on any given Sunday, the tatted pastor sports thick-rimmed vintage glasses and a plaid button-up rolled up at the elbows, his dark beard trimmed slightly shorter than Biblical proportions. Yet despite Sojourn's outwardly hipster makeup, Dallas isn't rocking the theological boat just because he rocks an Astros snapback. The church views homosexuality as a sin, currently has no gay members, and would ultimately excommunicate members who fail to renounce their homosexuality.

Locals question whether a Montrose church plant could ever succeed as a neighborhood fixture if it fails to accept a key demographic.

Churches that originated in Montrose but eventually moved out include Bali-based Global Church and Ecclesia Houston, now located in the 1st Ward. Ecclesia's attempts to draw more young people to the church are analogous to Sojourn's current approach: a casual Sunday worship, an app-based membership portal, electric guitars and PowerPoint hymnals.

Ecclesia Pastor Steven Hicks said the church left Montrose in 2012 because it was outgrowing its house. But prior to relocation, Ecclesia raised some eyebrows for its plans to share space with the Christian group Emmaus, which linked to gay conversion camps on its homepage. Ecclesia church leaders broke it off with the Emmaus chapter at fault, but by then community relations were stormy.

Sojourn's determination to survive in Montrose is readily apparent: sermons are replete with pop culture references, and on some weekends the loft doubles as a community art gallery showcasing work by Christian and non-Christian artists. Members are uniformly young, falling within the college to mid-30s age bracket. The church invites the entire community to cookouts. Weekly group meetings culminate in bar crawls.

But Sojourn isn't likely to budge on its theological stance against same-sex relationships. Church leaders are upfront about that, and though some attendees leave as a result, others stick around to wrestle it out. Gays are welcome to be members, provided they repent for their same-sex attraction. Gay members that refuse to renounce homosexuality would eventually be booted from the church. Excommunication.

Dallas underscores that the church views homosexuality as no more evil than any other sin, such as lying about a grade or watching porn.

Daniel Moreno, 25, has been church shopping the past few weeks. He's seen a lot of congregations in his search for the best fit. On August 3, after spending the morning in the Sojourn loft and then going out for lunch at a local cafe with some church members, he was smitten by Sojourn's focus on building friendships outside of church.

Up until recently, Moreno attended a church in Katy. But friendships soured when he began to question the church's teachings - such as whether modern translations of the Bible are 100 percent accurate and whether sex before marriage is a sin. Ultimately the church barred Moreno from teaching youth classes. Moreno was looking for a church where members would accept him as a friend first, and allow him to discuss his doubts. He says he saw real potential for that at Sojourn.

"I think God is big enough to handle your questions and your doubts," Moreno said. "Whether [the church] disagrees with me on these issues, I don't care as long as they love me. I'm in their junk, they're in my junk. Life isn't meant to be lived alone."

Still, retracting church membership for gay Christians doesn't sit well with Moreno. He says the policy wouldn't necessarily drive him away from a church, but he would speak out against the act of excommunication. "When churches say you can't be Christian and be gay, that I think is a problem," he said.

Sojourn leaders say that they didn't target Montrose in order to convert gays. That wasn't Ecclesia's goal either, Hicks says. He and his congregation stayed in Montrose for nearly 15 years before they moved on, and Hicks attributes Ecclesia's growth to his attempt to keep religion separate from politics.

Sojourn's Montrose location has been a strenuous exercise for Dallas in balancing how to be authentic to his beliefs and also to his neighborhood. He knows that his views on homosexuality aren't popular, but he admits that he does want to be liked. Still, he's candid about Sojourn's policies, wears his religious affiliation on expanding tattoo sleeves and enjoys casual conversations with Montrose strangers about God over free trade coffee.

Dallas says his message is simple - Jesus Christ was all about love and tolerance. Yet, Sojourn withholds membership from gays. Ordinary churchgoers are welcome to debate the church's stance on any number of issues. But official members must denounce homosexuality.

"You're constantly going over how this situation could play its way out and if I upset these people, do they leave," Dallas said. "In most situations I just try to be really honest. There's no hidden curtain."

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