Several years ago when I was a kids’ pastor, I encountered my first transgender guest at church. I was not ready for the situation. No class had prepared me on how to react to a 5th grade girl asking to use the boy’s bathroom because she was changing her gender to something that made her feel more comfortable.
That experience is becoming less uncommon for pastors today.
In a recent study, 48% of pastors told Lifeway Research that they know someone who is transgender. According to Gallup research, 15.9% of Generation Z identifies as part of the LGBT community. Churches in areas with a high population of young people are more likely to be confronted with issues related to gender identity. If you haven’t had a transgender guest to your student ministry yet, you will soon.
Based on my experience and my understanding of the scriptures, here are five things that you and your church leadership should keep in mind when a transgender student visits your church.
The imago Dei
Imago Dei comes from the Latin version of the Bible, translated to English as “image of God.” This phrase has its origins in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse teaches an essential truth. Humanity’s value comes from being created in the image of God.
This imago Dei is what separates humanity from all creation. Our intrinsic value comes from the divine nature that man and women were created to reflect. The transgender student and the 4.0 student and the star quarterback all have the same intrinsic value because they are all made in God’s image. Our churches often use Genesis 1:27 to condemn our transgender neighbors’ sin, but it also points to the wondrous truth that our worth and identity are grounded in something so much more, though not less, than being male or female.
Despite our best attempts, the LGBTQ+ community often finds more judgment inside our churches than they do outside of them. What if, instead, they found a place that graciously shows them the truth about their value and gender?
Your own identity crisis
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3).
The reality for followers of Jesus is that we were once as confused in our spiritual identity as our transgender neighbors are, and that us to choose lifestyles in opposition to God’s ways. Hostile in our mind to the things of God and prisoners to the desires of our flesh, we, too, once walked in open rebellion to God’s design—just maybe in different ways. But God, in his mercy, offered us grace.
There is a larger piece of our story in the life of our transgender neighbors than we often care to see. We will only find a perspective of hope and reconciliation for those struggling with gender dysphoria when we embrace the depth of depravity that God has rescued us from personally. Our churches should be distribution centers of the same grace we have personally received.
Jesus came for sinners
Remind yourself of the mission of Christ himself: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (John 19:10).
If Jesus came to seek and save the lost, our churches should be welcoming to people who look, act, talk, and live like they are lost. It might be time to sit down with your leadership team and ask, “Are we OK if a transgender person wants to come to our student ministry?” If that question makes you uncomfortable, you can rest assured that our transgender neighbors will feel uncomfortable and potentially unwelcome in your church.
Remember Jesus’ words from Mark 2:17 to the religious leaders of his day who were unhappy with whom Jesus spent most of his time, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Our student ministries should be the waiting room of our community where young people suffering from the symptoms of sin can come to meet the healer.
It’s harder than it looks
Repent from your sins and be saved through Christ. That’s the message that most churches preach on any given Sunday. It’s the message that many of us have heard all of our lives. And it’s the message we need. But that message comes with a high price for the transgender guest sitting in your church on Sunday.
Jesus warns would-be followers in Luke 14:28-33,
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
For our transgender neighbors to follow Jesus, they must count a significant cost. For many of our transgender friends, renouncing all that they have will feel like denying their true selves. It will mean giving up comfort in their own body, relationships, community, identity, and potentially family to be a disciple of Jesus. Our churches must be grace-based centers of encouragement, community, and refuge for those whose faith compels them to embark on such a journey marked with loss.
Parents are scared
It might be that the transgender student visiting your church is a child of one of your members. Currently, in my church, a dear friend and faithful volunteer confided in me after youth group that his child wrestles with gender dysphoria. My heart ached when I heard him describe his worry about discussing publicly what he and his wife were going through at home because of the judgment that they might experience in our church. He confessed that all he and his wife were looking for was prayer and encouragement as they sought to handle the situation in the most Christ-like manner and in a way that didn’t alienate their child from church. I drove home thinking, “Why should he be afraid?”
There is an opportunity today for pastors to lead in creating a safe place for our transgender neighbors to encounter Jesus Christ’s life-changing love in our student ministries and in our churches. Not affirming a lifestyle pursuing sin—but embracing a sinner in need of grace and transformation. Not turning a blind eye to the biblical categories for gender—but pointing to a greater reality for identity and value than our physical bodies. Not prescribing a checklist of do’s and don’ts—but creating a welcoming community that receives people just as they are because Jesus is powerful enough not to leave them that way.
As we welcome our transgender neighbors, we can demonstrate who our servant King by meeting sinners with grace and truth, but without fear. We live in a complex time with complex problems that will not have easy answers, but we can move forward in ministry confidently because we know our God is greater than our sin, and his gospel is more powerful than the false promises of our sexually confused culture.