Minister to What Lies Beneath the Surface

Iceberg-1024x767Icebergs are formed from the ice that breaks off of a larger body of ice, typically a glacier. The analogy of the iceberg is a familiar one. The idea is that there is so much under the surface that goes unnoticed. Our focus tends to be on what we see, on what is above the surface. But what is above the surface doesn’t tell the whole story. What is particularly noteworthy is what lies beneath.

I recently used this analogy to talk with youth ministers about how Christians often respond to identity labels and gender atypical expression. Identity labels or sexual identity refers to terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, queer, and so on. Gender atypical expression might be in hairstyle or clothing or mannerisms associated with the other gender.

Many people in ministry react to the label or expression rather than to what needs or questions may reside under the surface. What might those needs and questions be?

In a recent workshop with youth ministers, Julie Rodgers and I discussed what we see as the most frequently asked question teens wonder about. That question is: “Do you want me here?” There are many ways in which those in ministry and fellow youth may essentially answer that question with a “No,” primarily because they react to identity labels and gender atypical expression rather than to the question or the needs. The answer “Yes” may raise more questions than answers for those in ministry, and we discussed those at length with those in attendance. I would say by far most of the people we worked with wanted to answer “Yes” to that foundational question.

If one of the most frequently asked questions that is under the surface is, “Do you want me here?,” what are some of the common needs and other questions that may arise? I think the needs include a need for intimacy – to be known and to know others. A need for community. A place to land and belong. A place to explore questions about faith and God. “Does God love me?” and the more emotionally loaded question, “Does God like me?” Of course, these are questions many youth are asking. The questions become more complicated for those navigating sexual and gender identity questions, particularly if they have reason to believe they will be rejected by Christians.

Those providing ministry will not have an opportunity to minister to these questions and needs that are under the surface if their primary point of reaction is to what is going on above the surface. That doesn’t mean that identity labels and gender expression are unimportant. But a hypervigilance these things can create a set of conditions that may not reflect your heart and vision for ministry.

Even well-intended, seasoned ministry folks face the additional challenge of creating a ministry climate that reflects their heart and vision to minister to what is beneath the surface.

A youth minister once shared with me how he was trying to reach LGBT+ youth in his community. He was trying to be missional in his approach. A missional approach looks  like this: Belong – Believe – Become. This is in contrast to models that focus on Behave – Believe – Belong, in which behavioral compliance is communicated on the front end and is ultimately a condition for belonging. (This is not original with me; I discuss it and the source in Understanding Gender Dysphoria.)

So this youth minister was working on a missional approach in which all young people would be welcomed (belong), and in which all would have an opportunity to learn about Christ (believe). Only later would ministry focus on discipleship with a focus on Christlikeness (become). He then has to think deeply and well about what it means to become more Christlike and navigate sexual identity and gender identity questions.

One evening as they were getting going in youth group, a visitor to the group came dressed in androgynous attire and it was unclear whether the person was male or female or transgender. The youth minister struck up a conversation and was making an initial connection. But this is a large youth group, and he was pulled away to attend to an admin issue that arose for programming that night. He was gone for literally 3-4 minutes. In that time, a group of guys from the youth group went up to the visiting teen and made derogatory comments about the person’s attire and joked in a way that set the message (apparently), “You aren’t really in the right place.” The teen was gone when the youth minister returned.

There are two recommendations here. First, my encouragement to those in ministry is to think of the analogy of the iceberg. To react not to what is presented above the surface but to take time to explore what may be beneath the surface. A second recommendation is to develop a ministry climate that reflects your vision. This includes training adult volunteers and key students in what you are trying to do and how, so that they understand their role in key moments of hospitality. This is especially important insofar as you may wish to take a more missional approach to people who may be curious about faith and have normal, fundamental needs regarding intimacy and community.

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