Homosexuality: A Christian View

The CBN News program titled, Homosexuality: A Christian View, was launched over Easter weekend. You’ll recall that there was a slow roll out of several interviews over the past couple of weeks. Well, the entire program is now available.

What I appreciate about the program is that the producer brought together a Christian theologian, pastor, and psychologist, as well as a parent of a gay man and a celibate gay Christian. So there are elements that address what we know/do not know from Scripture and from research on sexual orientation. There is also the experience of a compassionate pastor who holds in a tension the traditional Christian sexual ethic with a remarkable degree of compassion. I also appreciated hearing the personal stories of a mother of a gay son and the story of a celibate gay Christian. It accomplishes a lot in just 30 minutes.

Sexual Identity & The Question of Vocation

Vocation is an interesting word. It isn’t a word you hear tossed around that much today, outside of religious settings. Even there, the word has fallen out of common usage. If you google it, you get the idea that people have a resolve toward a career or activity of some kind: “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action; especially: a divine call to the religious life.”

I suppose dissertations could be written on the meaning and place of vocation in the life of the believer. I’m unable to get into all of those nuances, but I am intrigued by the word and its place in the life of the Christian. It certainly seems to entail purpose and meaning in ways that are often overlooked in many cultural discussions and debates about sexuality and sexual behavior.

In any case, I was invited to give a lecture series at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in the fall of last year. A part of that time together was giving a chapel address to the seminary students. I organized the chapel message around a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon and Davy VanAuken that raises the question of vocation.

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.

Compelling Love

I try to keep up with various documentaries on the topic of sexual identity and LGBT persons. I often use excerpts from some of the better ones in my classes and workshops. There is a really good one that was just released this past week. It is called Compelling Love and you can learn all about it at their web site here.

I have a couple of friends who are interviewed in the documentary, so that alone is meaningful to me.

I also just like the idea of asking people about key concepts that are so frequently tossed around in our society–words like “love” and “tolerance.” The different answers people give throughout the documentary are quite thought-provoking.

Also, I thought one of the most emotionally compelling questions that several people answered had to do with who sits across from you in the cultural debates about sexual identity. This is a great question for all of us to reflect upon.

Ultimately, I think the documentary humanizes the debates that are taking place and helps everyone see through the eyes of the “other” if you will. If you have about 90 min you can spare and have interest in cultivating empathy, perspective-taking, and cognitive complexity, I encourage you to watch the entire documentary. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Youth Ministry, Sexual Identity & Shame

zondervanHere is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

When people experience guilt, they understand, “I should not have done that.” Shame, on the other hand, says to them “I should not be that.” Guilt is about what we do that we should not do; shame is feeling bad about who we are. It is “the emotion resulting from self-condemnation along with a fear of condemnation from others” (Johnson & Yarhouse, 2013).

When people feel shame, they tend to withdraw from and avoid others. They may experience anger or blame others. Unfortunately, the responses of hiding, deflecting, and blaming do not really help alleviate the shame they feel—they perpetuate it. According to Veronica Johnson, there is a three-step formula that describes how people develop shame:

Step 1: A person is raised in a culture in which various standards, rules, and goals are conveyed

Step 2: That person does not live up to these standards/rules/goals (perceived failure)

Step 3: The person then believes that not living up to these standards is the result of personal deficiencies or shortcomings (negative global attribution)

We can apply this formula to the young person in the church who is experiencing same-sex attraction.  He grows up in a faith community with specific standards, rules, and goals regarding sexuality. The standard communicated to him is that no one should ever experience same-sex attractions, that experiencing such attractions is sinful. If the church is not clear about how to understand these experiences, he will quickly surmise that it is wrong for him to experience these attractions, even if he did not make the choice, even if he does not want them.  He may try to follow the advice given, praying and asking God to remove his attractions or change his feelings. If he does not experience success here, this will likely confirm in his mind (and to others) that he has failed. Because he cannot live up to the standards, rules, and goals of the Christian community, he experiences shame.

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Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

Convicted Civility

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

Several years ago I came across a phrase that has helped me in my professional role as a psychologist who studies sexual identity issues from a Christian worldview. The phrase is “convicted civility.” It comes from Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. I recently spoke at Fuller and had the opportunity to talk with Mouw at length. He credited Martin Marty for the phrase. Its origin was tied to the observation that we have far too many Christians who are strong on convictions but do not represent Christ in a way that is respectful of others. At the same time, we have Christians who are so concerned not to offend anyone that it is hard to know what they hold convictions about. So the phrase “convicted civility” reflects a balance between holding convictions as a Christian and communicating those convictions with civility.

zondervanGiven the controversial topic of sexual identity, I’ve adopted “convicted civility” as my professional brand.  This has helped me make decisions about speaking engagements, consultation opportunities, writing projects, bridge-building, working with others to meet superordinate goals, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I was presenting data from a seven-year longitudinal study that considered whether sexual orientation could change through involvement in a Christian ministry. This is not a question that is of interest to the mainstream field of psychology; and it is a question that is offensive to ask within the mainstream of the LGBT community. But for some conventionally religious people, such as conservative Christians, it is a relevant question. So I was co-principal investigator of a study that examined the question of change and also of harm. It was published in book form in 2007 and as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011 (Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy).

When I was asked to present the findings at a colloquium at Regent several years ago, a local person who identified himself as an activist, put out a call for others in the LGBT community to join him in staring down this “son of a [gun]” in protest of the study. The stage was being set for a rather heated encounter.

What does someone who is committed to “convicted civility” as a brand do in these moments?

I called him.

We spoke by phone a couple of days before the event, and I invited him to be my guest. (He was coming anyway, so extending an invitation did not seem too risky.) We shook hands and met before the presentation, and I met several of the other protesters. The filled the first couple of rows and indeed did stare at us as my co-presenter and I went through the data and implications for those in attendance.

We spoke again immediately after the presentation and actually several times after that. I’ve also met with others who came that day. Those exchanges led to an invitation to speak in Norfolk to a gathering of LGBT individuals on the topic. In the intervening weeks, I remember having coffee with one of the other protesters. He said, “You are nothing like what I expected. From what I had heard about you, I expected to see horns growing out of your head, and I thought you might have steam coming out of your nostrils.” He smiled. No steam here.

This exchange, and many others like it, is the fruit of convicted civility. If we agreed on everything, we would have nothing to talk about. We would likely try to find another common enemy. But in disagreeing on some topics, we can still communicate about the nature of that disagreement. That is only achieved by treating one another with respect, by being civil in our exchanges.

I am not particularly invested in the question of whether sexual orientation can change through Christian ministries. In my own clinical practice, I do not provide reorientation therapy; rather, I help people explore their sexual identity so that they can live a life that is consistent with their beliefs and values. Also, most of my research is centered on how sexual identity develops and how people navigate the conflict they sometimes feel between their same-sex sexuality and their religious faith. By far, most of my research is on the experiences of sexual minorities who are navigating that terrain.

However, I am committed to identifying and researching topics of importance to the Christian community. We need psychologists who will ask the questions that are of concern to the Body of Christ. We cannot expect the broader, secular field of psychology to ask those same questions or have those same interests. Further, we need to ask those questions using the methods and procedures used by our peers in the mainstream of psychology. We have to allow good research to help us translate Christian considerations into meaningful points of dialogue with those in the mainstream of psychology and also the broader culture.

My point is this: How we discuss Christian considerations will be just as important as having those distinctively Christian questions and convictions. “Convicted civility” is one brand that might help us do just that.

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Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

Sexual Identity & Youth Ministry

zondervanHere is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

I share the following story in the opening chapter to set the tone. My argument is that compassion is an important starting point for youth ministers. The importance of compassion is underscored in later chapters as I will draw a contrast between various competing groups. For now, let me share the opening story:

Several years ago my wife and I attended a meet and greet luncheon for adoptive parents in one of the suburbs of Chicago. While I was parking the car, my wife went in to find us a spot at one of the tables. She sat down with a group of women and didn’t give that fact much thought. When I joined her and the other guests, we realized that I was the only guy at the table. Then it dawned on us that the women at our table were all same-sex couples, and we were the only heterosexual couple at the table. It was a little awkward at first; we felt we had crashed the party, or at least I had. However, as prospective adoptive parents, we sat with the women at our table and the many other couples in the room who shared a similar interest in learning more about the process.

After the luncheon was over, we went out to our car only to find that it wouldn’t start. It wouldn’t turn over. As a man I had been taught to lift up the hood and take a look, but I didn’t really have any knowledge of what to do after that. So after assessing both the situation and reflecting on my overall competence with automotive repair, I proceeded to give the universal sign for “help” by leaving the hood of the car up.

car batteryThe next several minutes were interesting. I looked under the hood occasionally—just because it was something I could do to retain the impression that I knew something about cars. I moved some things around, and I was beginning to suspect it was the car battery. Other luncheon attendees walked by us on their way to their cars. Let’s just say that there was a steady stream. For several minutes nobody stopped. Then a guy walked by with his wife, and I asked him for a hand giving the battery a jump. He actually said, “Oh, sorry, I have to get to a meeting at church.” Um, ok, what?

Then one of the lesbian couples from our table walked up to us—the one woman offered to take a look. She quickly confirmed that the problem was the battery. “I agree; I think you just need a jump,” she said. “Let me get our car, we’ll put up right here and take care of it.” And they did.

I couldn’t help but think of the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. It is recorded in Luke 10:25-37. My pastor recently put it this way: God puts in our lives people each of us has a hard time picturing God loving. We have a hard time seeing them in all of their complexity because of positions the church holds. For many in the church today, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are the “other”, the group of folks who are difficult for us to see with compassion.

Before anyone runs with the analogy between ethnicity and sexual identity, I am not saying that just as Jews of that day thought of Samaritans, Christians today think of gays. However, we have a cultural context today in which we have local communities of faith in which the climate is such that young people who are navigating this terrain cannot find any compassion. In fact, we may inadvertently push people toward the mainstream gay community precisely because we share the same tendency to reduce complexity to culture war. There are times we appear to prefer politics to pastoral care.

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Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!