The marquee in front of the Sun City Center United Church of Christ, the oldest church in Sun City Center, reads, "Welcoming and Inclusive…Theologically Progressive."
And this church certainly practices what it preaches. Under the leadership of Reverend Tim Shirley, it is on the cutting edge of the concept referred to as "Progressive Christianity," and it stands out because it's openly welcoming the LGTBQ community in this primarily conservative retirement center.
"I'm not afraid of the word 'liberal,'" said Shirley, who holds a doctoral degree, "but I like for people to understand what the word really means. It's become such a political buzz-word lately, but the funny thing is, it simply means 'open-minded.' I'm an open-minded individual and we are a more open-minded congregation; that includes our theology and our approach to the Bible."
Nationally, the United Church of Christ is known as the most progressive denomination in the country. Their fundamental beliefs revolve around building a stronger faith-based movement for social justice, peace, equality and inclusivity.
"This church has always been the most progressive church in Sun City Center," said Shirley. "Basically what I think we are doing now is simply leaning into the path that was put before us when the church was founded 60 something years ago. We have merely sped up what has long been an evolutionary process."
The church, long known as the Sun City Center Community Church, changed its name recently to reflect the focus of its outreach to the entire SouthShore area rather than just Sun City Center.
Originally, the church and Prince of Peace Catholic Church stood as the only two churches in the community. If a resident wanted a protestant church experience, this is where one attended.
But Shirley said the model of being completely nondenominational no longer works since today almost every other major denomination is represented throughout Sun City center. Shirley hopes that people will shop around to all of the area churches and find the congregational context that suits them and meets their needs. He doesn't feel as if this is an "us against them" situation.
"Our goal, I believe, is to be the progressive voice of Christianity in the SouthShore region," Shirley said. "But this issue is more about biology than theology."
And how have the members of Shirley's congregation responded to the shift in their traditional congregational setting? Shirley admits they have lost a few members but the ones who embrace the all-inclusive philosophy are proud of their church's open, loving, and accepting attitude toward the LGBTQ community.
This is what the church stands for. It's not just about gays but it accepts people of every color, all religions, all ethnicities," said longtime member Jacobsen. "We are taught by the church to be accepting of everyone. Why would you turn them away just because they are different than you? Did Jesus do that from what we know of the Bible?
"He was a very progressive person and led by example that we are supposed to love everyone. He accepted the sinner, the unclean, the prostitute, the tax collectors. He showed the church leaders of His day that their rules needed to be readjusted from what was taught in the Old Testament. He was there to change their way of thinking."
Another church member, Lisa Ushman, also has very positive feelings about the reputation her church has garnered recently over this issue.
"I've just always been naturally open, accepting and affirming, so it wasn't shocking to me at all. In fact, I was thrilled that this was the way we were going."
Perhaps this is the challenge that Tim Shirley faces as he moves forward in this conservative community.
"Some will say this does not match their theological paradigm," Shirley said. "But others will say this is the Christian path I am looking for. Yes, the LGBT issue is significant because these people have been beaten up by the church. Our approach to being a progressive Christian congregation is far broader than that one issue.
"Unfortunately, that's the issue that gets the attention and for many people it's a line in the sand that cannot be breached. It's a hard job going against convention in the Sun City Center area. But that's the nature of the beast. I still have the passion for what I'm doing. I believe this is where I'm supposed to be and I'm doing the work here than needs to be done."
The SouthShore United Church of Christ is located at 1501 La Jolla Avenue in Sun City Center. Learn more at uccsuncitycenter.org or calling the church office at (813) 634-1304.
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]