By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer
On that Sunday in 1968 when Troy Perry borrowed a minister's robe and started a church for gays in his living room, the world was a very different place.
Perry's Metropolitan Community Churches was then a lone spiritual refuge for openly gay Christians, an idea so far from the mainstream that the founders were often chased from places where they tried to worship. Four decades later, some of the most historically important American denominations, which had routinely expelled gays and lesbians, are welcoming them instead.
MCC now has a presence in dozens of U.S. states as well as overseas, reporting a total membership of more than 240 congregations and ministries. But as acceptance of same-sex relationships grows -- gay and lesbian clergy in many Protestant traditions no longer have to hide their partners or lose their careers, and Christians can often worship openly with their same-gender spouses in the mainline Protestant churches where they were raised -- the fellowship is at a crossroads.
Is a gay-centered Christian church needed anymore?
"There are many more options than there used to be," said the Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator, or leader, of the Metropolitan Community Churches. "But there is not a mass exodus."
The denomination has never been gays-only. But for a long time, straight allies were scarce.
The founding congregation, MCC of Los Angeles, opened a year before the Stonewall riots in New York. Few people had ever heard the argument that the Bible sanctioned same-gender relationships and no one of any influence in the religious world was saying it. MCC congregations became targets of arson, violence, pickets and, in at least one case, a vice squad.
Al Smithson, a founder in 1969 of the fellowship's San Diego church, said his pastor would point to Orange County's famous Crystal Cathedral and joke that he was praying for a bulletproof version.
The church today is a bit more diverse. MCC pastors say they see a growing number of straight friends and relatives of gays and lesbians among their new congregants, along with heterosexual parents who want their children raised in a gay-affirming environment. While some MCC congregations haven't changed much over the decades, Wilson said, many are emphasizing a broad social justice agenda including serving the homeless and poor.
"We don't have a rainbow flag on our website, nor do we have it on our building," said the Rev. Dan Koeshall, senior pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of San Diego, which draws about 220 people for Sunday services.
"It wasn't a decision that caused any controversy or split. It's just been moving in that direction. We know that our target audience is the LGBT community. But we're also attracting people who are saying, 'Yes, I stand in solidarity with you and I want to be part of this.'"
It's remarkable the denomination has endured at all. Metropolitan Community Churches brings together many different Christian traditions under one banner that often struggle to stay friendly in the outside world. Perry, now 72 and retired, is a Pentecostal who started preaching when he was just a teenager in rural Florida. The Rev. Mona West, the fellowship's director of clergy training, graduated from the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. But a large number of MCC clergy train in liberal Protestant seminaries. The common denominator is a belief that Christians can be in a same-sex relationship and still be faithful to Scripture.
"You can go from one MCC to another and have a radically different flavor, depending on the region, the clergy and congregants," said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist and co-editor of the book "Gay Religion."
The fellowship expanded relatively quickly from its humble beginnings. Within months of founding the first congregation in Los Angeles, Perry started receiving letters and visits from people hoping to establish MCC churches in other cities. Two years later, new congregations had formed as far away as Florida. Within five years, the church had spread overseas.
Then, the 1980s arrived and with it, the AIDS crisis. Metropolitan Community Churches plowed its resources into ministries for the sick, dying and grieving. The fellowship lost several thousand members and clergy to the virus, and the business of starting new churches slowed.
As a result, Wilson and others say the denomination missed out on crucial period for potential growth.
But the church has also lost some congregations, including its biggest, to other denominations. The Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, a megachurch with about 4,200 members, split off around 2003, and eventually joined the United Church of Christ. Cathedral and MCC officials say the break resulted from disagreements between local church members and local leaders, not a rejection of MCC's mission. The Cathedral maintains its focus on reaching out to gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Still, the United Church of Christ, which has more than 5,000 congregations and roots in colonial New England, can offer much that the MCC cannot, including more resources, greater prominence and a broader reach. In some communities, local churches are affiliating with both the Metropolitan Community Churches and United Church of Christ. But at least one other MCC congregation broke away in recent years: The Columbia, S.C., church became the Garden of Grace United Church of Christ.
"It makes us more than a one-issue church," the Rev. Andy Sidden, the church's pastor, told The State newspaper of Columbia, in a 2006 interview.
Like many other churches coping with a weak economy, the MCC has cut or restructured staff jobs in the last five years and reduced the annual payment congregations pay the national office, Wilson said. Some smaller MCC churches have closed.
Yet, despite the losses, Wilson and others see a continuing role for Metropolitan Community Churches, given the wide range of responses to gays and lesbians in organized religion, even in the more liberal churches that have moved toward accepting same-gender relationships.
Of the mainline Protestant groups, only the United Church of Christ supports gay marriage outright. The Episcopal Church last month released a provisional prayer service for blessing same-sex unions. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have eliminated barriers for gay clergy but allow regional and local church officials to decide their own policies. One of the largest mainline groups, the United Methodist Church, with about 7.8 million U.S. members, still bars ordination for people in same-sex relationships, although many individual Methodist churches openly accept gay and lesbian clergy.
"There's 'Come and don't say anything,' 'Come, but we won't marry you,' or 'Come and be fully accepted,'" said the Rev. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of the Cathedral of Hope. "We're always glad when churches welcome gay and lesbian people, but it's just a different experience in a church that is historically and predominantly led by heterosexual people. Everyone is going to find the church where they most fit in."
Wilson said a large percentage of newer MCC members are from conservative Christian churches teaching that gay and lesbian Christians should try to become heterosexual or remain celibate. Koeshall was a pastor in the Assemblies of God, one of the largest U.S.-based Pentecostal groups, until 1997, when he says, "I came out and I got kicked out."
New MCC congregations have recently started in Peoria, Ill., and in The Villages retirement community north of Orlando, Fla. (In a recent announcement in local gay media, the Peoria congregation described MCC as a fellowship created for gay and lesbian Christians now known as "the human rights church.")
Mary Metcalf, 62, a seven-year member of Heartland Metropolitan Community Church in Springfield, Ill., which started the Peoria congregation, said she was a lector and liturgy coordinator at her Roman Catholic parish until some friends brought her to a service.
"When it came time for communion, when the presider said that the table is open to everyone, I started crying," said Metcalf, on a break from painting Heartland church with other volunteers. "I came from the Catholic Church. I'm straight, but I just finally had to come to a parting of the ways. I didn't think Jesus kept anyone away from the table."
Still, like most denominations, MCC is seeing its strongest growth overseas. In Latin America, the fellowship had seven churches in five countries a decade ago, and now reports 56 congregations or ministries in 17 countries, according to the Rev. Darlene Garner, director of MCC's emerging ministries. A congregation in Australia for young adults, called Crave, is thriving, Wilson said.
Garner's office is also developing an online church with worship, Bible study and support in several languages. MCC has already conducted its first virtual baptism on the web, a relatively new practice that is gaining popularity among evangelical churches with online worship.
Thumma contends MCC should not be judged by the standards used for other denominations. Only a small percentage of Americans are gay or lesbian, and a limited number want to be active in a Christian church, no matter its outlook. Like other minority groups moving toward mainstream acceptance, some gay Christians are assimilating into bigger denominations while others choose the focus and freedoms MCC provides, Thumma said.
"MCC still has a clear function," Thumma said. "Like an immigrant community, it gives gay Christians a place of their own."
• Follow Rachel Zoll on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rzollAP