A few years ago, I remember sitting in a meeting with my then senior pastor talking about our student ministry. I’d been anonymously sharing stories about a couple of gay teens in the church who had reached out to me that week; one in the closet, one not.
As our conversation ping-ponged around and referenced several other LGBTQ students, I jokingly said to him, “I think half of our youth group is actually gay.”
Our discussion drifted to analyzing the reasons why we had such an inordinately large percentage of LGBTQ kids in our student community, (as either reason to celebrate or cause for concern, I couldn’t really be sure from the tone of the conversation). Almost immediately though, I was acutely aware of something that would change the way I would minister for the rest of my life.
Our student population was, much like our larger church, an incredibly diverse group in every way; financially, academically, racially, spiritually. It faithful mirrored the population of our city, something as a staff, we were extremely proud of.
The truth about this group of teenagers, wasn’t that they were “more gay per capita” than any other youth group in our city, or across the country for that matter. The difference was, we’d made it a safe, welcoming, loving place to be so, and without really doing much at all.
Simply by not condemning LGBTQ teens, by not just tossing off a few Scripture sound bites and threatening them all with Hell as so many churches had done, we’d given them an alternative church experience; one where they felt included and valued and equal, without qualifications. We invited them into community with no agenda.
Whether they were in or out of the closet, they knew they were in our family.
Not long after that, we’d gathered on a Sunday night, and I did something that I’d done many times before. We had a recurring feature called “The Living Room”, where I’d sit on a couch with a student or adult leader and have them share their story; something notable about their faith journey, a ministry they’d launched, or some other significant part of their lives. The intent was to show the richness of the Christian experience, to celebrate the diversity of God’s people, and to remind our students about the value of everyone’s story.
On this particular Sunday, one of our high school girls shared the story of her road as a gay person being raised in the church. I remember her talking about the incredible damage done to her throughout her life, saying, “Some of the biggest bullies are Christians.”
It was an honest, raw, beautiful testimony, culminating in a heartfelt expression of gratitude to our community of students for being an example of the love of Jesus.
It was a tender, tear-filled, Grace-filled moment—and it pissed off quite a few people.
The questions trickled in from a small, but vocal choir of indignant parents and leaders:
How dare we sanction sin like that?
Why did we expose other younger students to that deviant behavior?
How could we condone that immoral “lifestyle”?
To be honest, I’d never been prouder as a pastor.
The more I heard those complaints, the more sure I was that I was in the center of God’s heart and of my personal calling.
When Jesus commanded his followers to love the least, he wasn’t talking about those who were of lesser worth, but those who had been treated as less-than. I felt then and still feel, that these are exactly the people he was talking about. Jesus would be defending the damaged and standing with those who were pushed to the margins by the religious hypocrites, and I knew that’s the business I wanted to be in too.
You might be shaking your head in judgment right now and criticizing me and my staff for morally compromising in the face of unBiblical living. I’m okay with that.
I’ve heard it before. I heard it then.
I remember at the time, an up-and-coming macho church plant pastor down the street took to social media to say something similar, and I knew we were on the right track because I also knew that gay students would never be at his church, and if they were, they would have stayed hidden and horrified; never feeling like a true part of the community in any meaningful way.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus confronted the religious elitists, he strongly warned them: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
He was being clear: This Gospel is an open table, and if you believe you’re more worthy than anyone else to have a place, you’re in a really dangerous spot.
Here’s what I know about the student ministry we built there: I know that now; three, five, ten years later, that dozens, perhaps hundreds of LGBTQ men and women, (many now in their twenties) are still connected to the Church. Some have roles in local churches as paid or volunteer staff. Lots of them serve as missionaries or work for faith-based nonprofits. Many continue to have a living, vibrant relationship with God, when so many young people (gay or straight) have abandoned their faith right after high school.
And even for those who have not continued their spiritual journey, they all hopefully have memories and experiences of Christianity and the Church that are sweet; that leave them with feelings of warmth and gratitude.
We’ve left an open doorway to Jesus there for them, rather than a brimstone-burned bridge.
In our ministry, if we’d treated these young people the way that some wanted us to treat them (and so many Christians still want), they would have left the building that very day, they would have walked away from faith, and they may have still been walking away today.
The problem with most Christians today is that their God is too small. They don’t really trust God with other people’s lives, especially gay people.
They want some kind of tangible repentance and instant behavior modification from the LGBTQ community, not because they care whether God really wants it or not, but because they want it.
They need the immediate gratification of a guilt-induced breakdown by gay people, for them to feel those people are adequately deserving of inclusion in the religious club. The truth about Jesus though is that he didn’t start a club, he simply called people to follow him.
That’s why I do too; call people to seek Jesus and hopefully set the table for them to meet with him.
I trust him with the rest.
I’m proud of the legacy of love to the LGBTQ community that our youth group had then, and that hopefully my ministry still has today.
We created space where they were treated like people who matter fully, because they do.
We made them feel equally loved, because they are equally deserving of love.
We saw them as fully The Church, because as much as anyone who seeks Jesus, they are.
If you’re in leadership in a church, I hope you’ll consider building that kind of ministry too.
If you’re a Christian who desires to emulate Jesus, I hope you’ll demand it.
Jesus already has.