Perhaps 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.