How (not) to Minister to Gay Teens

ministeringtogayteenagersPerhaps it was the synchronicity of receiving an email advertisement for Shawn Harrison‘s book Ministering to Gay Teenagers while same-sex marriage legislation is being considered in Illinois, but my curiosity was piqued so I bought a digital copy and gave it a quick read this afternoon. From my perspective—as a progressive pastor who does not consider homosexuality to be in conflict with Christian faith and practice—I found this book predictably frustrating (it comes from a conservative youth ministry publisher after all), yet also surprisingly good in many respects.

On the positive front, I found this book refreshingly realistic about the presence of LGBT youth in our churches and ministries. Harrison doesn’t demonize or even downplay the growing acceptance of homosexuality in our culture and wisely counsels youth workers to be prepared to deal with gay youth (and adults) in our ministry contexts. He knows that this is one of the realities of contemporary youth ministry—a reality that many of his evangelical colleagues would prefer to avoid.

Throughout the book Harrison also consistently advocates for postures and environments of acceptance, love, and grace. He describes ministries with teens, parents, and families that prioritize openness and unconditional love. I found his advice on helping teens come out to their parents, encouraging other teens to be accepting, and a variety of other ministry situations to be very wise and pastoral. He rightly notes, with disapproval, that Christians are often the most antagonistic against LGBT teens and he aims to move beyond this painful track record.

I consider this all a welcome contribution from an evangelical voice. In many respects, Harrison is pushing the envelope within conservative Christianity—his periodic acknowledgments that not everyone will agree with him seem addressed to folks that maintain more conservative positions than him rather than progressives like myself.

But where I must depart from Harrison’s approach—and it is a significant departure—is in his overall stance on homosexuality. Interestingly, he doesn’t spell this out in his book and simply writes as if the default Christian position on homosexual practice is that it is a sin. He goes into more detail on his blog. Though he is rather vague about whether or not homosexuality is attributed to nature or nurture—he tends to talk about sexual orientation as something beyond one’s control—he maintains that acting on same-sex attraction is sinful. He talks a lot about the potential for homosexuals to “change”—not in the sense of changing one’s orientation, but in the sense of changing how one acts on same-sex desires. We are all born with sinful inclinations that must be controlled and homosexual orientation is one example of this.

His ministry derives legitimacy from his own story: he identified as gay when he was a teen. He experienced the kind of abusive bullying that gay teens often suffer. But after becoming a Christian he changed how he responds to same-sex attractions, eventually marrying a woman and having children with her.

I can’t and won’t argue with his personal experience. I learned long ago that no one can judge the experiences of others, especially when it comes to faith. Unless one’s personal faith does harm to others, its rightness or wrongness is between the individual and God (or however one understands the divine).

But as a youth pastor I will take issue with Harrison’s theology. Though he claims to move beyond the cliche of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” he hasn’t really advanced that position much, other than his very laudable efforts to encourage Christians to engage LGBT people with love and grace. No matter how much you equivocate about the normativity of heterosexuality, and no matter how much you love LGBT people, if you imply that their homosexuality is a sinful defect that can be overcome through behavior modification you are not honoring the image of God in them.

At least Harrison moves beyond the conservative position that homosexuality is nothing more than a choice. He has accepted some contemporary attitudes about sexuality. But he is unwilling to allow contemporary experience—what I would describe as the guidance of the Holy Spirit—to modify culturally conditioned perspectives found in the Bible.

In contrast to Harrison’s approach, I maintain that our sexual orientation is part of who we are as human beings born in the image of God. As sexual beings, we experience attractions and desires according to our orientations. Acting on these attractions and desires is not sinful in and of itself. Such action can be sinful—whether one is heterosexual or homosexual—if it violates what Christians have called the rule of love, Jesus’ understanding of the centrality of love for God and love for others. Homosexual love and sexuality is no more sinful than heterosexual love and sexuality, though both can be perverted into sinful and harmful attitudes and actions. These sinful expressions of sexuality are a temptation and danger for everyone, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

When it comes to ministering to gay teenagers, Harrison takes a step in the right direction by acknowledging that being gay is a matter of identity and not simply a matter of sinful choices. And his experience as a gay teen has prompted him to offer valuable insight and advice that will help Christians approach LGBT people with a more Christ-like posture. But by insisting that acting on one’s homosexual orientation is always sinful, he doesn’t really offer gay teens a different Christian message—it’s the same old judgment wrapped in a more loving and accepting package.

Harrison’s book leaves me wondering if there is a progressive Christian counterpart, perhaps written by someone who has firsthand experience of homosexuality but understands it through a different theological lens. If that book exists, I’d love to keep several copies on hand in my office as a resource for teens and parents. If it doesn’t, I’d provide whatever support I can to get it written and published.

Comments

  1. Sexual orientation is the game of lust control. We can turn ourselves into homosexual or heterosexual as long as we want to do it. It works not differently when a straight person wants to control his actions towards her/his non-married partner… to avoid sins. I believe in God and I believe that God dislikes sins. Both homo and hetero could be sins. So, if for example there’s a gay person in my family, I would love to tell and help him to be straight. But if he doesn’t want it, he has his own option and will be responsible for that.

    • What a crock of bullshit. Being gay is not as simple as choosing to sin or not. People who experience same sex attraction just want the same opportunity to love someone and be loved. heterosexual feelings don’t just appear where they were absent when one “tries really hard”. Your example of pre-marital abstinence is no parallel because you can easily become married and have a complete romantic relationship. It’s not all about sex and sin mate. The author of this book will tell you, it’s not that straight forward.

    • I would have to agree with Zach. The issues of homosexuality and same-sex attractions are not that simplified, Houchin. And to make such assertions belittles the person experiencing such attractions. This is where the church has failed in being compassionate towards those who are gay.

  2. Ann Schenck says:

    I ache for the author and the commentor. Hopefully they can find a more forgiving place and accept their sexuality as something wonderful instead of sinful.

  3. I am very definitely what Kinsey would have called a “6” – my orientation is 100% homosexual. Finding a member of the opposite gender sexually attractive is a completely foreign experience to me.

    I know many people who are very definitely what Kinsey would have called a “0” – their orientation is 100% heterosexual. Finding a member of the same gender sexually attractive is a completely foreign experience to them.

    I know many people who fall somewhere in between – they have had varying degrees of experiences of finding different kinds of people sexually attractive and the notion that I only find men attractive seems completely foreign to them (many of them would go so far as to say that it seems a shame for someone to limit their choice of partner to 50% of the population).

    I am becoming more and more convinced that many of our problems around sexuality arise when we make the assumption that someone else’s experience of sexuality must align with our own – when we try and force-fit God’s wonderfully diverse creation into a small number of homogeneous boxes with which we are familiar.

    It is difficult for my Uncle (whose son – my cousin – is also gay) to imagine a man who finds a man attractive. It is completely outside his experience. But the test of “goodness” is not whether something aligns with my Uncle’s experience.

    It is difficult for me to imagine a man who finds a man attractive and then later finds a woman attractive, marries her, and has children. This does not align with my own personal experience. But the test of “goodness” is not whether something aligns with my experience.

    It is not whatsoever difficult for me to imagine finding a man attractive, falling in love with him, then falling out of love with him, and then falling in love with another man. In fact, this is my experience (and, if we throw away gender references above and just call everyone a ‘person’, I think this is probably the experience of a large percentage of the human population – on our life’s journey’s, we often fall in love with different people over time).

    The danger comes when we assume that God only works – only blesses – only ordains – only cares for – through the experiences that any one of us has lived. (I think this lesson is much bigger than sexuality, but I won’t go there now).

    It would not surprise me in the least – in fact, I think it would show just how wonderfully creative God can be – to find that the author of this book has had the experience of being attracted to man, then being attracted to a woman, fallen in love with her, and had children. (In my mind, if we take away the gender roles, that’s a fairly universal experience).

    I think we have to be a bit careful here. Because there does need to be a measure of “goodness.” In matters of sexuality (as in most all matters that life throws at us), we can screw it up. I also think there’s a fairly universal experience of what Adele refers to as “being in a rubbish relationship.” I think this danger of being in unhealthy relationships exists all over humanity. And I do think we need a way to judge the “goodness” of our relationships.

    Paul speaks to this eloquently in a passage that has often been used to beat up on those of us who have non-heteronormative life experiences. But I think these words can teach us some very important things about judging which things are good. Paul writes this:

    “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

    When we find relationships – regardless of the gender, orientation, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, or any other category in all of creation – that inspire love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we have found relationships that are deeply good.

    It is my hope and prayer that those of us in the Church learn to teach love – and that we look for it, care for it, tend it, and revere it in all the forms that it appears – regardless of whether any particular manifestation of love matches our own personal experiences.

    P.S. – If you haven’t read “The Commitment” by Dan Savage, you should. It’s inappropriate. It’s raucous. It’s funny. It’s heartwarming. It literally denies the existence of God. You certainly can’t hand it out at church. But it shows in very, very real, tangible ways what I think it means for a person to respect love in many forms and to live that out in the way he lives his life and raises his child.

  4. Thanks for the honest review of my book, John.

    I stayed away from the scripture debate for a reason; I wanted to focus on effectively loving and reaching out to gay students despite the position we take on the scripture regarding homosexuality. We need to move beyond that point, in some ways, helping students move deeper in love with Jesus. After all, it’s all about Him anyways. When we do this, and allow the Holy Spirit to work, heart transformation happens. That’s what I was after more-so than just behavior modification. If the heart isn’t changed, nothing changes.

    Thanks again :)

    • I appreciate what you’re doing, Shawn, and there is much about your book that I admire. But as long as you maintain a hardline position on the sinfulness of same gender sexual expression, I think that your approach is basically a bait and switch.

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