A 2018 survey from the Barna Group and Impact 360 reveals that 33 percent of teenagers believe a person’s gender is determined by what the person feels like rather than their birth sex.1The Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 46–47. Although only 3 percent of the American population identifies as LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer—that number more than doubles to 7 percent among teenagers. Additionally, 30 percent of teenagers know someone who is transgender. My goal in this article is not to present a defense of historic Christian sexuality, but to help youth workers sensitively care for and minister to students in these confusing times.
The rules for engaging students in a modern age are essential: listen, clarify, and keep the gospel and a person’s identity as an image-bearer the main thing. This will help youth workers take a gracious posture that covers a multitude of missteps and will assure LGBTQ students that we are not their enemies. It’s also essential to remember their greatest need is the same as the greatest need of every student—to be reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Youth workers can trust the Word of God to do the work of God. The Bible has power to change people’s hearts through the words God inspired. But Scripture is not a weapon to wield against sinners who need the grace of God. Youth workers build their ministries upon the Scriptures to proclaim the life and peace and hope of the gospel. As you minister to LGBTQ students, pray for the Holy Spirit’s illuminating work to turn the unbeliever’s heart toward the truth.
Don’t make every conversation with LGBTQ students about their sexuality, which would only anchor them deeper into viewing their sexuality as the most important thing about them. A sole focus on changing students’ sexual orientation misses the bigger picture. The mission of youth ministry is not simply to make students’ lives conform to godliness, because legalism can do that too (at least, on the surface). Instead, gospel-centered youth ministry calls students to live in light of the grace of Jesus Christ, confessing and repenting of their sins daily as they strive to live their new life in Christ through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
When students identify as LGBTQ
A key question that comes up in youth ministry is whether or not someone can embrace a homosexual or transgendered lifestyle and still be a Christian. A Christian’s identity is first and foremost shaped by their relationship with God through Jesus Christ, so I am uncomfortable with combining any other adjective with the label Christian. When we do that, there is a subtle competition between the two identities. The Christian’s identity as a Christian should be the core identity that reshapes and refines every other identifier: gender, nationality, sexuality, cultural preferences, denominational affiliations, etc. These other identifiers may be valid and important, but they must be shaped by God and by the authority of Scripture rather than the other way around.
The Bible does not permit homosexual activity, and it teaches us that a person’s sex and gender are assigned by our wise and loving God at birth. Christians who live with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction embrace their identity in Christ as their primary identity rather than allowing their sexuality to be the most important thing about them. This is often a confusing and difficult road for them, and youth workers are called to ensure they don’t walk it alone.
The call of the gospel is an invitation to a new life through grace-fueled repentance. A new believer will not repent of every sin immediately; it is a lifelong sanctification journey that requires much grace (from God and from others!). But Christians do repent eventually. The Holy Spirit is at work in their hearts, persuading them of the goodness and truthfulness of God’s Word—even when it brings conviction of sin. Those who profess faith in Christ Jesus but never repent of sin show that, although they may be trying to gain the treasures of heaven, they don’t really want a new life as a child of God. The timeline for this repentance may take years because of the nature of sexual confusions and how ingrained these identities have become in our culture. Be generous and long suffering with students and LGBTQ friends. If a practicing homosexual or transgendered person professes to be a Christian and yet persists in rejecting the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, that person’s conversion remains questionable.
But rather than lobbing this warning as a grenade, offer concern that befits the gospel. It is not a cop-out to leave judgment in God’s hands. The Lord has not rushed into judgment, and neither should youth workers. So, when in doubt, err on the side of patience. At the same time, Christian leaders will be held accountable for holding fast to biblical teaching (James 3:1), and it is not loving or gracious to affirm a professing Christian’s sinful lifestyle, regardless of what that particular sin may be.
Excerpted from Lead Them to Jesus © 2021 by Mike McGarry. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.
1The Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 46–47.