Churches Battle Over Billboards (Oh, and Gay People)

"My first thought was, 'Wow, nine billboards! That's quite an investment,' " says a reverend in the rivalry

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Players: Reverend Bill Barnard, Pastor of the Toledo Central United Methodist Church; Reverend Tony Scott, senior pastor of the Church on Strayer in Maumee, Ohio

The Opening Serve: In April, the Toledo Central United Methodist Church posted "Being Gay is a Gift from God" on a roadside billboard. This week a rival church, the Church on Strayer, was moved to spell a different message. The megachurch purchased nine billboards that say, "Being Gay is NOT a Gift from God--Forgiveness, Love & Eternal Life are." Reverend Tony Scott, senior pastor of the Church on Strayer told the Toledo Blade, "I love everyone. There's nothing on that billboard about hate... I'm getting hate mail from lesbian and gay people, but my point is that I love them too much to let someone believe a lie. I love this city too much to let a lie be sown."

The Return Volley: The nine billboards caught the attention of Reverend Bill Barnard, pastor of Central United Methodist. "My first thought was, 'Wow, nine billboards! That's quite an investment,' " said Mr. Barnard. "We just have one, and that's an investment for us. They must be really serious about this."  The rival Reverend Scott is serious. "Being gay is not a gift from God," he wrote on his church's blog (the church's blog is, in fact, Scott's own website). "In more than 30 years of counseling with people who have chosen the gay lifestyle, not one of them has ever said – 'I am delighted to be gay.'  No one has ever said to me, 'My gay lifestyle is a gift from God.'  In every case, those engaged in this deviant lifestyle shared with me the pain of their choice, along with the shame and guilt they carry." Barnard responded in the Blade. "The American Medical Association says they're not choosing to be gay, that it's genetic," said Barnard. "We have a difference of opinion on some things. By the way, I have a list of happy gay Christians who would like to make an appointment with Tony Scott."

What They Say They're Fighting About:  Whether or not God accepts the LGBT community.

What They're Really Fighting About: Their churches, marketing, one-upping the other. Barnard's first impression--the initial shock of purchasing nine billboards and financial investment--indicates he seems more shocked at the price tag than the message on the billboard. His dismissal of the billboards, "They must be really serious about this," is a wry jab at both the megachurch's disposable income and its, as his tone seems to convey, gross overreaction. Barnard and Scott are both aware that these billboards also serve as giant advertisements, which explains Scott and his church's upping the ante (9:1) in this marketing war.

Who's Winning Now: Both. Both churches seem to relish the role they're in--Central United as the gay-friendly underdog church and Strayer as the bigger church with the "cure for sin." Sure Barnard cites a scientific organization to back his tolerant message, but it's not like Scott's massive following would consider those claims--and that feeling is mutual (sans the scientific study). This polarizing spat provides a prime marketing opportunity for both churches to assert their images and it's arguably (especially for Scott and the Church on Strayer) more focused on appeasing each church's current congregation than it is about recruiting new LGBT members.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.