The Church as a Restorative Community
It’s one thing to reshape your student ministry to be a safe place where LGBT teenagers can come and experience Jesus. It’s another thing to help your larger church community to refocus itself in being a safe place. Therefore, it is very important for the entire leadership team of a church to lead and carry this vision, in order to effectively minister to gay teenagers and adults. If you’re a senior pastor or a member of your church leadership, I want to share some areas you need to wrestle with and process through, then give suggested answers and ideas that you can implement in your congregation.
Understand the Church’s Calling
What does Jesus expect from the church? Simply put, I believe he expects us to imitate his persona, ministry, and mission. In John 8:12, Jesus proclaimed that he is the light of the world, while in Matthew 5:14, he said that his followers are the light of the world. Even before he commissioned us, Jesus called his followers to live, think, love, and respond with his character and likeness. Jesus calls us to follow his example: to teach people everything he’s taught us by modeling his likeness, to love them as he loves us, to see them as he sees us, and to serve them as he has served us.
As we begin to model Christ, I think it’s wise that we admit our wrongs and recognize that things need to change. Put yourself into the shoes of a gay person stepping into your church for the first time: What are some fears or preconceived notions that person might have? Will that person feel welcomed or feel like an outsider? I was very leery of the church when I first came to Christ. I felt as if I had the word homo written across my forehead, and that anyone who saw me saw this label primarily. Though I was wrong in this assumption about some people, it was still a real perception to me. Honestly, at times I still feel this way when I walk into new Christian circles (including churches and small groups)—especially if I know that people have heard my story before.
I love the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. When I speak to churches about ministering to the gay community, I often use this parable in my teaching because it gives a great picture to how the church, gay people, and God all interact with each other. My goal is to help Christians see how the father (representing God) responded to the younger brother (representing a gay individual), and to encourage Christians to act like the father instead of the older brother from the story.
Here’s what I mean: When the younger brother realized he was better off back with his father, he developed a plan filled with false assumptions. He assumed his father would act a certain way, so he prepared for such a response. In many cases, when a gay person comes to church, he or she arrives with assumptions, too:
- They are scared of being thrown out, because people no longer consider them a son or daughter of the family
- They come with predetermined punishments, expectations, attitudes, and reactions (most based upon previous experiences)
- They come wanting life-change, but they’re not ready to go as fast as the church wants
- They come feeling worthless and undeserving, expecting Christians to want them to feel this way—and many Christians do
I’ve talked with a lot of people—one just today, in fact—who feel betrayed and unwanted by the church because they have same-sex attractions. For them, it is healthier to stay detached from a church than to connect with one. These are real assumptions from people that we cannot ignore. Likewise, we cannot ignore our wrongdoings as the “older brother”:
- We have failed at times to see the bigger story of God
- We have “done ministry” without being ministers of reconciliation
- We have expected more from others without expecting more from ourselves
- We have neglected to offer others the same grace, love, forgiveness afforded to us by Jesus
This doesn’t make us hate-filled and mean-spirited people; rather, this should cause us to step upon the level ground of the cross with our fellow brothers and sisters. We all need the love of the Father; we all need his grace and mercy; none of us is righteous and deserving of the gift God gives. And yet he does, freely (see Romans 3:9-10, 22-24). This is the beauty of words found later in the New Testament: Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13 ESV).
Aggressively Love Others
Looking again at the prodigal son parable, our posture toward those who deal with same-sex attractions should resemble that of the father. I believe Jesus presents a beautiful picture of God the Father. The son returns just as he is—covered in pig manure, tattered and torn clothing, tired, hungry, shameful—yet the father passionately welcomes his son. Just as importantly, the father saw his son from a far distance, indicating that he was constantly on the lookout for his son’s return, so when he spots the young man, the father runs toward his son, arms open wide. The father isn’t put off by his son’s smell, appearance, or past behavior. All that the father sees is his son, who was once lost but is now found. The father didn’t see a problem to be fixed or a project to be conquered; he saw a person to be loved. Churches must imitate this posture when a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person comes through their doors.
As we talked about in Chapter 5, fulfilling Romans 12:13 (practicing hospitality) requires us to aggressively love others toward Christ. We do this by developing relationships with people. We do this by investing time into a person’s life. We do this by listening to their story, seeing them beyond their past, affirming them for who they are, and making it known to them that they are welcome to stay within our church community. When the son came back to his father, he came back expecting to be a slave for his father. Without hesitation, the father dresses the man in his rightful clothes and acknowledges him as his son by placing the family ring upon his finger.
Aggressively loving someone is risky, costly, and radical. It takes time for walls to fall down within a person and for certain habits to cease. Just as Jesus was patient with you, so you must be patient with others. I love how Thom and Joani Schultz end their discussion on radical hospitality in their newest book: “In an age of ‘instant everything,’ remember that radical hospitality takes time. Be willing to invest in someone’s life for the long haul. Embracing the maxim ‘You’re welcome just as you are’ means trusting God’s timing, purposes, and processes. Just as it takes time for a tree to grow, for fine wine to age—for any masterpiece to be created—relationships developed through radical hospitality (aggressive love) take time. The bottom line of radical hospitality: Be a friend. Don’t even think about what a church should do. Do what friends would do.”[i]
Rethink the Endpoint
Both brothers in the parable of prodigal son expected their father to shell out a severe punishment for the wrongdoings of the younger son. Both were amazed at what the father did and did not do—he blew their expectations out of the water. While the younger son saw the great mercy of this act, the older brother was furious: How could he forgive my brother for everything he’s done against us? The father tried to explain his reasoning but could not convince the older son that grace needed to be given and that the bigger picture needed to be seen: His brother was dead but is alive again. How much more do we as the body of Christ need to let go of our personal expectations for gays and lesbians?
What you think people need to hear is not always what they actually need to hear. James gives wise words for us to consider: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19 ESV). When listening, we need to be attentive to what the person is saying to us and what God is saying to us. In hearing people, we begin to see people. In hearing people through the ears of God, we begin to see people through the eyes of God. Jesus did this well, and it didn’t matter who the person was. He looked upon people with compassion, even people who rejected him (see Jesus’ examples in Matthew 15:32, and Mark 10:21).
We have become a culture that speaks first and listens second; this needs to be reversed. Yes, we have something to say and we have a hope to offer, but we must earn the right to be heard by people who have been hurt by others with the same message. We earn this right by building relationships with people and listening before speaking.
When speaking truth, do so in the manner of love and compassion. Pastors must teach biblical sexuality but must address their teachings to everyone, not just those who struggle with same-sex attractions. Teach about the design and the beauty of sex from God’s perspective, and don’t just speak against the evils of homosexuality. Nothing is harder for a gay person than to sit through a sermon where either the pastor makes fun of gay people or identifies homosexuality to be the sin above all other sins. If you or someone you know is doing this, please stop. A pastor needs to shepherd those who are gay in his or her congregation, just as they need to shepherd other members. In the same mindset, pastors need to take seriously John 10:15-16—I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Christians with same-sex attractions are a part of the flock, because they belong to the Shepherd.
When speaking on homosexuality, try to stay away from making it a cut-and-dry issue, or one that is political. Understand that the conversation about homosexuality is at times complex and involves real people—people who may be sitting in front of you Sunday morning. This isn’t to say you cannot talk about the issue from a biblical point of view—by all means, please do. However, be cautious of the tone used, the words chosen, and the focus of the message. Give glory to Christ, and challenge the body to embrace those who are struggling and in need of authentic hope.
In addition, don’t focus on the sin of a few while ignoring the sin of others. One of the biggest arguments from the gay community is that while churches stand up for the sanctity of marriage, divorces and affairs continue to go unchecked within the local church. Standing for marriage means standing for every marriage within your congregation and those around you in need of help. In a sense, we’re showing favoritism—calling out one sin and ignoring others, and the New Testament speaks loudly against such practice (see James 2:1-13).
The ending point of our Christian walk is not to be a follower of a religion, but to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. With the good news of Jesus as our foundation, we press on toward knowing Jesus and making him known, beyond our own desires and will. The Apostle Paul threw aside everything taught to him and all the privileges he had attained, in order to gain more of Christ, and we are called to do no less (see Philippians 3:7-16). When befriending and walking beside those who are gay, we present this goal, knowing that it is the same goal we are pursuing ourselves. We in the church must be careful to not offer unattainable expectations. We are to become men and women who seek after God’s own heart, and however that looks for each individual needs to be OK. Every person is unique, made for God’s purposes, and the gifts we have—both natural and spiritual—do not have to match up with the cultural norm for that gender. Celebrate the unique gifts and talents of those within your congregation.
Another false expectation would be assuming that marriage is for everyone. Some people with same-sex attractions are able to eventually pursue marriage with the opposite sex (like me). However, other Christians who identify as gay are not able to marry. It’s not because they don’t want to get married; it’s because they are not attracted to the opposite sex. Instead of letting them feel pressured into dating someone or even marrying someone, the church needs to walk beside such individuals and affirm their choice of staying celibate.
The church has pushed this path aside for too long. Celibate Christians are not second-class Christians. They are a part of the body, as any other Christian is. If a person chooses to remain celibate, for whatever reason, their church community must arise to support them—period. As Paul states, “therefore encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Cultivate Authentic Community
Unity of the church is a common theme within the New Testament. The Apostle Paul offers this challenge: If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26, emphasis added ESV). I love the truth Paul paints here for the church: We are in this together; none of us is alone in this journey of knowing Christ. The Marine slogan “Leave no one behind” comes to mind when reading this verse. Yet if we’re honest, we struggle with cultivating authentic community within our churches. It may be a value to us, but far too often, little effort goes into living this value out. People desperately desire to be known and to be loved for who they are, not who they’re supposed to be. I’m convinced this truth lives within communities that see and love people—not numbers, but individuals.
If the church continues to adhere to God’s view of sexuality and continues to declare that the only options for people with same-sex attractions are either celibacy or marriage to a member of the opposite sex, then the church must (as in not optional) provide a safe and nurturing community for gay people to be a part of—especially those who remain celibate. We are to bear one another’s burdens, not leave people to fend for themselves. So ask them what type of support they need. Invite them into your home to hear their story. Those with same-sex attractions don’t necessarily need their own line of ministries; they need to feel welcomed into the ministries you already offer, without feeling awkward or unwanted. If individual ministries need to start, then do so, but first try to include people in the ministries currently running.
As I mentioned earlier, transformation happens within community. In light of transformation, we need to understand and teach the truth that our position in and acceptance by God is based on him and not how well we behave (Ephesians 2:4-10). Christianity is not about sin and behavior management, but heart and life transformation, which come from Christ through the Holy Spirit. We can live self-controlled lives because of God’s grace and power, not through trying harder and white-knuckling temptations (Titus 2:11-14). Again, we do not ignore sin and call evil things good, but neither do we hold up a standard of living for gay people that we do not follow ourselves.
Consider the impact on their lives, if you joined together gay teens and young adults with Christlike men and women within the church. Educate and train people in being mentors whose main priority is to walk with others toward Jesus. I praise God daily for the men who have walked beside me during my journey. Their support, prayers, love, and God-honoring examples are invaluable treasures to me. The dominant “one another” verse in the New Testament is “love one another.” As Christ loves us, so we love others. This is the simplicity of following Christ. Love LGBT people, and watch what God does through your relationships. Francis Chan writes these powerful words: “Pray that supernatural love begins to characterizes our churches. Jesus said that the world would recognize us by our love and unity. Peter said that people would be compelled by our hope. But are love, unity, and hope the words that unbelievers use when describing your church?”[ii] Are these the words gay people use to describe your church—their church?
© Shawn Harrison 2014 / six11.wordpress.com
[i] Thom and Joani Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore (Denver, CO; Group Publishing, 2013), 94.
[ii] Francis Chan, Multiply (Colorado Springs, CO; David C Cook, 2012), 72.