Over the last couple of decades, I’ve thought and wrote a lot about the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. Most churches (and church leaders) seem to gravitate towards imbalance. Either they avoid the topic as much as possible, or they harp on a particular viewpoint in an exaggerated way. This is problematic on a number of levels. But in particular it seems to create a lot of tensions between the Christian Community and the Gay Community.
I moved to Kent, in 2012. And shortly after the move, informed by our family’s years in Amsterdam, I helped guide our church through a process of studying the Bible and considering culture. I remember it as being a really productive conversation.
But that was also nine years ago.
So I’ve recently started “beta-testing” a new conversation with some student-leaders here in Kent. The goal is for this to be a healthy, balanced conversation on a smaller scale. I’m doing it with the Life Group leaders from the Centennial region of H2O because those are the students whom I coach on a weekly basis. If it goes well, however, we hope to bring the conversation to others in the H2O Community, as well. In any event, I’ve been intrigued to notice some of the differences between today and those previous conversations from 2012.
In 2012, the “Average H2O Student” didn’t seem to have any LGBT friends or family or acquaintances. And they were generally inclined to look at the LGBT Community with suspicion. If there was any inclination to view the LGBT Community as a “mission field,” the standard approach would be to call for repentance, using texts from Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 as apologetics tools.
In 2021, however, the “Average H2O Student” seems to have several close friends and family members within the LGBT Community. Consequently, they’re generally inclined to defend the LGBT Community if anyone (including the Church) were to come at them. Almost like: “My sister is gay, and if you’ve got a problem with that I’m going to punch you in the nose.”
I know this because the first week of our Life Group Coaching discussions on this topic was entirely focused on letting each leader share their experiences. Each leader answered the question: “How do you relate to the LGBT Community?” Experiences seem to range widely from “Conservative” to “Progressive” backgrounds. But I’ve noticed that even the most “Conservative” people were very aware of LGBT issues. They were all similarly troubled by tensions between the Gay Community and the Faith Community.
The second week of our Life Group Coaching conversations was all about reframing the conversation. This has been similar to the conversations that we had back in 2012, but it feels like a different context. As a facilitator of these discussions, I’ve noticed that I don’t have to emphasize the idea that “we’re all humans” as much this time around. (Fortunately, everyone seems to know that about the LGBT Community now). But I do have to put more emphasis on the idea that “we all have issues with idolatry” these days. (I guess it seems harder for some people to point towards any sin within the LGBT Community now).
So: We’ve discovered that there doesn’t need to be nearly as much emphasis on welcoming the LGBT Community. Students are generally ready to answer a question like “I’m queer, so am I welcome at your church?” Still, we’ve seen that the Christians in our group benefit from remembering the subtext. That a lot of what people might be asking for in the initial interaction is really “Am I OK? Will you be my friend, even if I’m gay? Can we hang out, even if our theology might be different?” Consequently, we want to keep conditioning our leaders to respond with immediate enthusiasm and unflinching openness for friendship. “YES! Of course, we want to have you around! I’d LOVE to be your friend! In fact, can I get your number, so we can get coffee sometime?”
In short, we want to prioritize friendship and hospitality. Like the way that Jesus started out by extending and accepting dinner invitations. Interestingly, he did this both with religious leaders and with tax collectors. He didn’t start out by telling the religious leaders: “You’ve got issues with pride and self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes.” He didn’t immediately call out the tax collectors, saying: “You’ve got issues with an immoral lifestyle that is opposed to God’s Law.” Instead, he extended respect and initiated relationships to both sides. In a similar vein, we want to save the deeper theological conversations. For when we have some level of relationship developed. Not that we’re trying to completely avoid substantive conversation or apply some sort of “Bait and Switch” philosophy of ministry.
We just want to lead with kindness and respect.
Fortunately, here in 2021, everyone seems to be on board with this. There hasn’t been nearly as much pushback or awkwardness as I remember experiencing in 2012. Public attitudes — even within the Church — have shifted. The Obergefell Decision legalizing Gay Marriage in 2015 marked a new era in the United States, not just in Law but in culture at large.
Still, there are challenges that remain for Christians who want to prioritize both Grace and Truth, in their response to the shifting landscape. It seems that we may still more conversation on how to answer a question like “I’ve started following Jesus and been reading my Bible, and I’m curious to know what God really thinks about my sexuality?” Because the truth is that the Bible does have some challenging things to say about our sexuality (both for gay people and straight people). We don’t want to miss the opportunity to learn and grow from these challenges. So we need to let the conversation continue. And I’m glad that this is exactly what we’re doing.