I’ve worked with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) youth as a youth pastor and counselor for the last 15 years. Because I’ve listened to their stories for years, I know the world looks alienating at best and hostile at worst to them. Of course, over the last decade we’ve also seen the national dialogue morph around issues of gender identity—but homosexuality remains a divisive issue within the church, as orthodoxy and orthopraxy crash into each other. In the midst of a rapidly changing cultural reality, LGBT kids often experience an alternate reality in the church. Most wonder if the church still has Good News for them…“Complicated” doesn’t begin to describe what normal life is like for a teenager wrestling with tough questions about their sexual “default” settings…
- I met with a student recently who’d been kicked out of her house because she told her parents a life-shaking revelation—she now believes she was born in the wrong body, and wants to move toward embracing a transgendered identity.
- Another confided with me that he’s “gender-fluid,” and has a same-sex attraction (SSA) to other guys.
- A former student in my ministry private-messaged me on Facebook, confessing that she’d left her husband for another woman—she’d since been rejected by her friends and family.
- And I recently spoke with a gay teenager whose arms are covered in scars from years of cutting. This all began shortly after he got out of drug treatment and started attending 12-step meetings. Through his tears, he told me what happened when he disclosed his sexual orientation to his sponsor—the man responded by grooming him to accept his sexual advances, then eventually raped him.
I know story after story of how these vulnerable, frightened, and confused young people—these sheep without a shepherd—have felt victimized and abused in the midst of their struggle. So how do we enter into these situations with wisdom and compassion? How do we offer direction to our staffers and volunteers who are trying to love these kids? How do we help families find new ways to connect with their gay children? How do we minister to them in a way that draws them into a deeper relationship with Jesus?
This conversation is complex, of course, so there are no easy answers. But after years of wrestling to find my own path into a deeper impact in the lives of LGBT kids, here are seven truths I’m learning to embrace…
- Walk in the tension between your pastoral and theological convictions.
LGBT youth are at higher risk for running away from home—and that means they’re more likely to experience homelessness and sexual exploitation. They are frequently depressed and suffer from substance abuse, due in part to the isolation and silence associated with being gay. LGBT kids represent almost a third of all teen suicides, and are three times more likely to attempt suicide that their non-gay peers.
A pastoral approach to these marginalized teenagers demands a compassionate response. That’s why North Point Community Church lead pastor Andy Stanley recently told church leaders: “We just need to decide from now on in our churches when a middle school kid comes out to his small group leader or a high school senior comes out to her parents, we just need to decide, regardless of what you think about this topic, no more students are going to feel like they have to leave the local church because they’re same-sex attracted or because they’re gay. That ends with us.”
There is a time and place for biblical and theological debate—both are important in our spiritual formation. But when it comes to Jesus, theology is never trumps pastoral ministry. Jesus showed compassion to the marginalized, the scandalous, and the vulnerable every time. Our starting point for ministry to LGBT youth is always compassion, because it was always Jesus’ starting point.
- Learn to trust more deeply in the Holy Spirit to guide you in the way you interact and minister.
I’ve found I’m most effective in building rapport with LGBT students when I let go of my agenda to convince them to think and act the way I want them to. This is possible only when I actively trust the role of the Holy Spirit in their spiritual formation. But before we plunge into the weeds with a teenager who’s struggling with sexual identity, it’s good preparation to remember the “planks” the Christian community has lodged in its eyes: the rate of divorce among Christians is high, as is pornography consumption, premarital sex, adultery, harboring resentment and anger, and ignorance of orphans and widows in their distress. Jesus is warning us to avoid elevating issues associated with the gay lifestyle over our own challenges.
It’s the role of the Holy Spirit to help us understand the heart of Jesus (John 16:12-14), convict us of sin (John 16:8), lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4), stop sinning (Romans 8), understand scripture (Luke 24:25), and give us comfort (John 14). If that’s the Spirit’s job description, the same that lives in me, then I can move toward LGBT students without worrying about my agenda. What if, instead, I sought out the Spirit’s agenda, then submitted to that guidance? The Spirit, Galatians 5 tells us, will bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into every yielded heart. This is Good News to an alienated LGBT teenager longing for connection and belonging.
- Embrace the tension between love and truth.
Truth is important—it defines us as a tribe. Or does it? After washing his disciples’ feet, predicting his betrayal, and foreshadowing Peter’s denial of him, Jesus tells his friends that they’ll be known by their love for each other (John 13:35). Apparently, Jesus believes love is our defining characteristic. This is a huge for a people that have spent their lives focused on the rules-and-regulations of holy living.
When truth is our starting point, then truth is the only entry point for others outside of that truth. By default, others must agree with our truth in order to be in right relationship with us. And when we elevate relationship above truth, we can be tempted to withhold the truth in order to preserve the relational connection. There is another way…
When Jesus is our starting point, then we move towards others in the tension between love and truth—this allows us to oscillate between truth and relationship. Because the relationship is grounded in love, we can say hard things when we need to. And because our starting point is Jesus, we can elevate the relationship over truth for a season, when the relationship needs tending before it can benefit from the “fertilizer” of truth. Love gives us the freedom to be responsive to what the Holy Spirit prompts and what the individual needs.
- We value spiritual formation over behavior modification.
As a counselor, I focus a lot on behavior change—this can be very challenging if the individual’s heart is not in it. When I focus solely on behavioral change, what I typically get is shallow compliance. People learn how to say and do what I tell them they have to do in order to get what they want. The unintended consequence is that it drives sin and other maladaptive behaviors further underground.
And we do something similar in ministry—we teach our teenagers how to act so they can assimilate into our community. To get the community they long for, they must adopt our values, truths, customs, and rituals. But is that transformation internal?
- What if we created space for LGBT students to encounter Jesus, instead of focusing on behavior modification with them?
- What is we trusted the Spirit to do what the Scriptures promise the Spirit will do?
- What if we gave our LGBT youth a few spiritual tools to help them draw close to God, then trust that Jesus will complete the work he’s begun in them?
Yes, this will require our trust and faith, enabling us to let go of fear.
- Give the gift of belonging.
Young, gay teenagers feel disconnected from community, and that pushes them further into isolation. Under this pressure, they seek comfort and numbing through high-risk sexual behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, co-dependent and often violent relationships, and exploitative sub-cultures that lead them to homelessness and sex-trafficking. If our approach to LGBT youth drives them further into these coping strategies, then we’re hurting, not helping.
Jesus is working to restore all things to himself (Romans 8:18-25). And when we are living in his Spirit, our focus will be to help LGBT students move toward this restoration—to do this, we must give them a place to belong, so they have the opportunity to attach more deeply to Jesus. It’s not our kingdom; it is God’s Kingdom. They’ll struggle to experience the transforming power of Jesus if they’re prevented from accessing his incarnate Body.
- Letting go a “spirit of timidity” to embrace a “spirit of courage.”
Fear is the foe we’re wrestling when we face LGBT issues in our ministry. Jesus says: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus is bigger than the great divides that characterize the church, even when both sides of that divide seem unlikely to budge. And the reason we dig in our heels is simple: we’re afraid.
What if we stopped demanding a controlled path through the quagmire that LGBT issues represent and, instead, moved into the swamp and trusted the Spirit to guide us? What if we laid down our spirit of timidity and invited, instead, Jesus to plant seeds of courage and boldness in us? What if we decided to love LGBT youth more than we love being right?
Jesus is calling us into a life of faith, not a life of fear.
- Match our orthopraxy (correct actions) to our orthodoxy (correct beliefs).
It’s good to remember that Jesus spent a lot of his time on earth in the garbage dumps outside the cities he visited. This is where many of the “undesirables” ended up after they’d been rejected and ostracized. He was drawn to the sinful, the sick, and the possessed. He liked to hand out with the drunks and the whores, the marginalized and the vulnerable, the harassed and the helpless, and the exploited and the powerless.
Always, he moved toward these people in radical ways. He touched the unclean, spoke to those who had no business talking to him, and even subjugated himself to power structures that had no real authority over him. In the end, he allowed himself to be killed by the ruling government. When we love Jesus and are led by his Spirit, we’ll move toward LGBT students the way he would. We’ll create sanctuaries for them to belong. Here’s how…
- Offer them pastoral care. Give them a listening and caring ear, and join them on their spiritual journey. Be fully present. Arrange for mentoring or developmental relationships. Train your staffers or adult volunteers to listen and honor their stories.
- Educate yourself and others. We often struggle to talk about sex without infusing it with shame or fear. So learn about the process of coming out, and the unique stressors LGBT students live with. Equip yourself to better minister to them.
- Give opportunities to express themselves through rituals, art, and prayer. Create space for gay teens to encounter Jesus through your tradition’s formal or informal “liturgical” practices, or through creative artistic expressions. Find places they can feel safe and invited into self-expression.
- Walk with their parents. Parents of LGBT kids need guidance and companionship as they navigate an uncertain future. They fear disconnection from important relationships or that others will mistreat their child. You can offer profound help by starting a support group for these parents.
Overshadowed by the culture wars that have sprung up around LGBT issues, there are thousands of teenagers struggling just to make it through another day. The church can either push them further into the darkness or reclaim its role as the proclaimer of Good News. Which way will you choose?