Article Mar 11, 2016

Is your church a safe place for those who experience same-sex attraction?

Imagine you attended a church where your life struggle was never mentioned as an area to receive care, and, if it was mentioned, your struggle was the adversarial portion of a culture war commentary. How would your week-to-week experience of church be different? This is the experience of many people in our churches.

If you want the answer to the question that titles this blog to be “yes,” then step one is to realize that we already have church members who experience same sex attraction (SSA). Just like those who are dealing with any other struggle, we should thank God for bringing them to our churches, and ask God to help us serve them well.

This is an important starting point because it ensures we are not thinking about “those people” who are “out there.” This first assumption moves the rest of this post from a hypothetical to a necessity; it is no longer something that “would be nice if we could get to it” but becomes a pressing need because we realize we already have friends, classmates, or colleagues who don’t feel comfortable talking to us (evidenced by the fact that they haven’t).

Think about this way: what does it communicate when, by our silence, we assume no one in our church experiences SSA? The clear (hopefully unintended) message is: you don’t belong here and we don’t have anything for you.

Loneliness is already one of the most difficult experiences for individuals who struggle with SSA. When the church’s silence seemingly confirms the belief that their struggle has to be a secret we only magnify this loneliness.

So, what would change if we assumed some of our members or guests experienced SSA? I believe one of the first things that would change is that our motivation to learn about homosexuality would change from polemical and political to pastoral and personal. We would want to be able to get to know a person more effectively rather than make a point more persuasively.

That is why I wrote Do Ask, Do Tell, Let's Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends. I want it to be a resource for churches – more specifically, individual Christians – who realize being an ambassador of Christ to every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9) is not just a mandate to proclaim the gospel to every geo-ethnic group on the planet, but to be ready to embody the gospel well to the various life experiences of every person we meet (1 Pet. 3:15).

Undoubtedly, this raises many questions:

  • Can an evangelical Christian develop these friendships without compromising the teaching of Scripture?
  • How can I have a good conversation that doesn’t devolve into something that feels like a debate?
  • How do I handle some of the personal discomforts that may arise?
  • What if I accidentally say something offensive because I’ve not had many friendship conversations like this?
  • How do I start a friendship if someone has not already entrusted me with information regarding their struggle with SSA?
  • Can someone experience SSA and be a Christian? How much does becoming a Christian change one’s sense of attraction?
  • Is there a difference between same sex attraction and embracing a gay identity? If so, how might the nature of our friendship change?
  • How do I develop a friendship with someone who experiences SSA and the subject of homosexuality not dominate our conversations?
  • How do we navigate some of the difficult conversations that will undoubtedly arise?

A blog post is too brief of a forum to address all of these questions, but I would encourage you to read my book Do Ask, Do Tell, Let's Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends by Mark Yarhouse, or The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield for guidance on these questions and the many other questions that have popped into your mind as you read this post.

But in the remainder of this post, I will offer a few suggestions for pastors and church members who want their churches to be safe places to discuss a struggle with SSA.

  • Avoid crude humor about homosexuality. In general, Christians should abstain from humor on any topic that is rooted in shaming or mocking others. This falls short of God’s command, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 7:12).
  • Avoid utilizing stereotypes about the gay community. Utilizing stereotypes demonstrates laziness in our professed willingness to get to know people for who they really are. In the eyes of someone who experiences SSA, such laziness is very likely to disqualify you as a safe person to talk to.
  • In our sermons and lessons, we should include SSA in the list of things someone might be struggling with—just like lust, pride, loneliness, anger, or any other common sin. Just as importantly, our tone of voice when speaking of SSA should not communicate disgust, condescension, or perplexity.
  • Be careful how you characterize political positions. How you present the position you are against is at least as important as how you present the position you are for. To be trustworthy, you must represent fairly those you disagree with, neither vilifying them nor suggesting they are unworthy of compassion and understanding.
  • Don’t “out” someone. It is unwise to put someone on the spot with a question like, “Are you gay?” Even if you think you know, respect this person’s right to disclose the information on their timetable. Nobody wants to live with a secret. If you prove yourself to be a safe person, they will want to talk sooner rather than later.
  • Speak sympathetically to the struggle of SSA. Humble statements can go a long way. “I can only imagine how hard it would be to experience unwanted same-sex attraction and feel caught in so many cultural debates. Trying to figure out who to talk to might be as hard as anything else. That would be incredibly lonely.” A statement like this in social contexts where homosexuality is being discussed raises a flag of peace to be seen by those looking for a safe friend.
  • Study one of the books listed in this post with your small group. It may work best to first equip existing friends within your church. A small group that has learned to be a safe place for SSA conversations is an excellent beginning for a church, and an ideal place to invite someone who may experience SSA. It can give your friend a chance to see that your church may actually offer real community.

Most importantly, when you have the opportunity to become friends with someone who experiences SSA, invest in that friendship in at least three ways.

First, have fun together. Mutual enjoyment is a good indicator that a friendship is not devolving into a project relationship. Mutual enjoyment builds memories and stories. Mutual enjoyment strengthens the relationship. And the stronger the relationship is, the less likely either of you will be to give offense or take offense. What the fun looks like will vary in every friendship, but try to see the fun for what it is—the mortar between the bricks, rather than merely the icing on the cake.

Second, go broad, not narrow. If SSA is the majority topic of conversation, your relationship will become more therapeutic or polemical than friendly. So spend the majority of your time talking about subjects other than SSA. This is how you make the friendship about life and shared interests, not about SSA as such. For example, if the two of you have this kind of discipleship relationship, study a book of the Bible together or a mutually relevant Christian book. Seek what God says about all of life together, not just SSA.

Third, allow your friend to speak into your life as well. The most effective way to gain the right to be heard is to listen. Particularly if your friend is a Christian, they have something to offer you. Even if they’re not, they have a life experience that is different from yours and can offer a fresh perspective. Much can be learned about how someone thinks by asking, “How do you see my situation? What would you do and why?” Asking these kinds of questions will likely bless you and advance the friendship you want to build.