How We Built The Queerest Youth Ministry In Town

I’ve been a student pastor for most of the last 19 years.

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.



45 thoughts on “How We Built The Queerest Youth Ministry In Town

      • You first, John. I want to learn from you and you were there. What did you tell them when they asked if it was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to be gay? It had to come up frequently.

        • I start by telling them they are loved as they are. I tell them they are made by God. They are many things beyond their sexual orientation, so I see them as complex people with their own story and faith journey.

          As we walk through that, I share with them Scripture, my understanding of the passages, involve them in community, and let God speak to them as he desires. Sometimes we talk about sexual activity, as I would with a straight teen, other times we talk about their hearts and their feelings about affection and love.

          And no, I would never tell someone their sexuality is “wrong” because they arrived with it. I don’t believe they choose it. And their sexual orientation has little or no relationship to the random pagan sex acts referred to in Paul’s writings, so although I share these, I give them very little weight in my own understanding of sexuality or interaction with teens.They have no conception of someone born gay or seeking a monogamous relationship. I let them read Scripture, and study and pray, and we talk about Jesus and we follow together. We serve the community and we live life together, and God does what He wants to.

          Most of these young people are lifelong Christians who already know what the Scripture passages say. They have tried to not be gay. They have prayed for years to not be so.

          If we really trust God with gay and straight people, our job is simply to guide them into a relationship with Jesus, and trust that He will do in and through someone, whatever He desires.

    • When they asked you if is was right or wrong to be a sinner every day because the “old man” still lives within you, what did you say? Those who choose to define others as living inside the circle of sin are those who most forget that they too stand within the circle of sin. When you give up all of your conscious and unconscious sins—and promise to never, ever, ever, ever, ever sin again—no matter what—you can dump on the gay kids. Try it for a week and see where you end up.

      • That’s just a kinder, gentler version of “love the sinner, hate the sin!” (Ala Andrew Marin.) I don’y view my being gay and living as a gay man, meaning that I will be sexually intimate with my mate, who will be another man, is sinful. And as long as fellow Christians, no matter how nice that they are about it, regard that bottom line, we are living in sin, that our sexual expression is sinful, we’re not going to be OK.

        Andrew Marin and his cronies , er, evangelical Christians, run down to the Gay Pride parades (and any other venue they can weasel into) and stand on the side lines to cheer everyone on and give whomever comes by a big loving hug. But the bottom line is that their goal is to lure in naive, impressionable GLBT teens and young adults, so that they may kindly & gently convince them that ultimately, being gay is sinful and they need to change it. They are more dangerous to us than the haters. Because we know up front where the haters stand on things.

  1. This almost brought me to tears (I have trouble crying these days)…I wish my child were a part of this group. I wish I were a part of your church. I’m not gay, but I have always had to hide who I really am in order to be a part of church. My church sings a hym about coming as you are…but I swear they don’t mean it. I left after a group started fretting about how people dressed. I’m not a good dresser by societies standards. I dress down because that is how I feel comfortable. And I want others to feel comfortable no matter how they dress. My child is gay, and I want him to be loved and accepted just as he is. So I pulled him out of sunday school early on because I was afraid and didn’t want church to be the place that attacked him. I wanted him to KNOW Jesus loved all as we are. So I go periodically….which is so different than how our life used to be. Thanks for listening.

    • You do not need to go to your church periodically. You need to leave that God-forsaken church and find a church where the love of Jesus reigns above all else—a church like john’s—or a nice United Methodist Church that has a lot of people like college professors as members. Just about any Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical church will meat-grind your soul rather than save it and nurture it—and if your son is there—he will end up hating Jesus because some moron tells him that Jesus hated him first. Flee—and never go back. That is my best advice to you.

    • Anna, I understand 100%. My son is also gay, and we stopped Sunday School too. Even though no one knew he was gay, some of the horrible remarks the other teens made hurt and confused him. I explained to him that when he accepted Christ as his Savior and was baptized he was accepted by Christ just as any other person. I took him back to the first Bible verse he learned (like many of us, it was John 3:16) and had him recite it to me and then I said “see, it says WHOSOEVER believeth- not whosoever straight or gay, black or white, rich or poor…..just WHOSOEVER! Much love to you and your son. You are not wrong. Keep loving him and leading him just like you are!

  2. Tears here…so grateful. Please keep courage. When the dust settles, the haters will be on the sidelines right beside the ones who engaged in lynching black people in the south, and now miss “the good old days”

    Jesus bless you bless you bless you

  3. Oh the havoc that “small but vocal” contingent can wreak. So very thankful for your voice piercing through the Pharisaical darkness, willingly/boldly sharing in Christ’s sufferings and reputation and in so doing making all the difference in one life at a time.

  4. Oh John, these are kindred words my husband and I have known and felt for years. Our only stance as believers is loving people. How we have tried to box God up and sheep heard other believers to look like us. He is the only one qualified to Shepard sheep and he does it with such redemption and grace. We cannot possibly weigh another mans heart or his journey. We are not capable.
    The truth you are speaking needs to be heard. Thank you for the honorable life you live and the humility you present these truths in. The table you present is one I should think anyone will feel safe at because we all sit together as broken humanity. Not trying to fix each other but just sitting with each other in the journey offering support and kindness and nourishment. Bless you brother…

  5. Your ministry and heart for God are truly refreshing and filled with fruit that will last…It is the love of God demonstrated as you do and the grace of God given that helps us to become all of who God created us to be…so uniquely designed for His good pleasure and our fullness of joy…truly knowing He REALLY loves us.

  6. Thanks for posting this, John. You have an excellent ability to put into words what many of us are thinking. I wish we lived near your church … we might actually have a church to go to.

  7. I just wanted to say I love reading your thoughts and words and about your work.

    In college (30 years ago, yikes!) I was pushed out of Christianity due to being gay, and there’s nothing noteworthy about my story … it is quite typical, in fact.

    In the years since, faced with ferocious, hateful, and relentless hostility from Christians, I’ve stopped believing. First, I stopped believing in the church, then I stopped believing in Christians, and then I stopped believing in a personal God of any sort.

    However, I’ve never quite stopped believing in Jesus. I’m not sure who he is anymore – the Son of God? a son of God? a super cool guy whose Love changed the world? – but I think you and your work is something Jesus is really proud of.

    I know I don’t need to say this, but keep taking care of those kids. Even today, queer folk are, figuratively (and in some places, literally,) like Frankenstein, being chased through the streets with pitchforks and torches … the safe haven you provide is so important to young people … and it almost makes a guy want to believe in God again.

    • Mike. The pastor (Doug Watterson) at First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the 1980s delivered a sermon whose central point was that Jesus was God’s answer to the bad reputation the writers in the Old Testament had given him. In particular, he quoted Hebrews 1:

      “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,

      2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

      3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person…”

      God is like Jesus. I think the thing you need to understand is that the people in church who were mean to you in the name of Jesus—had probably never really met the Guy—not really. They may have heard a lot about him—but never really met him. Your magnetic attraction to Jesus means that you are several steps closer to him already than they are. When you feel comfortable with doing it—no pressure—you might try following Jesus—not Paul—not Peter—not Titus—just Jesus alone and start by focusing only on his red letter words in the New Testament and on the things He does. Talk about fascinating and engaging—whew!!!

  8. John… I shared this post on my facebook wall. My 17-yr old daughter is gay, and your honest and Christ-like love has inspired me. I deeply admire your articulate description of what it means to live Christ’s love (vs. just talking about it)… it shames me in that it makes me realize I have so much more, so much farther to go, in my own journey in following Jesus’ path. Thank you, and God Bless you.

  9. Parables which give reproof, speak plainly to the offenders, and judge them out of their own mouths. The parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, is to show that those who knew not John’s baptism to be of God, were shamed by those who knew it, and owned it. The whole human race are like children whom the Lord has brought up, but they have rebelled against him, only some are more plausible in their disobedience than others. And it often happens, that the daring rebel is brought to repentance and becomes the Lord’s servant, while the formalist grows hardened in pride and enmity. (Mt 21:33-46)

    The parable of the Two Sons is actually about questioning doing the will of the Father (Jesus authority) by disobedience. One needs to read the full context beginning with verse 23 to see the mind of Christ flow into the verses beginning at 28 that you point out. Baptism, is it from heaven or from men? That’s the point Jesus first shares, then he goes into obeying Him or not. The tax collectors and harlots Jesus is talking about are ones that repented and obeyed Johns teaching and were baptized out of repentance for the remission of sins. They are in the kingdom continuing the process of repenting (as us) of their prior sinful lifestyle to one day being free of their particular sin(s). They aren’t just non-repentant haters of God as we all once were at one time in our lives. They are headed for Paradise because they obeyed the gospel of John or Jesus wouldn’t have said it so. The following lesson outline explains it pretty right on.

    1. Jesus often responded to questions from His disciples with a parable.
    a. Cf. “The Unmerciful Servant” (Mt 18:21-35), in reply to a question about forgiveness.
    b. Cf. “The Laborers In The Vineyard” (Mt 20:1-16), in reply to a question about what disciples would receive who have given up all to follow Jesus.

    2. He also used parables in replying to some of the challenges by those who opposed Him.
    a. During His final week in Jerusalem, He was challenged by religious leaders – Mt 21:23-27.
    b. In response, He told three parables…
    1) “The Two Sons” – Mt 21:28-32.
    2) “The Wicked Vinedressers” – Mt 21:33-46.
    3) “The Wedding Feast” – Mt 22:1-14.


    1. It is an account of a man with two sons and a vineyard.
    2. The father tells his two sons to work in the vineyard.
    a. The first son says he won’t go, but later regretted it and went.
    b. The second son said he would, but did not actually go.

    1. He begins with a question: “Who of the two did the will of his father?”
    2. The answer is obvious, and the religious leaders reply “The first”
    3. Jesus’ reply to the religious leaders is then very direct.
    a. “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.”
    b. “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”
    4. Jesus was applying this parable to the religious leaders of His day.
    a. They were like the second son, who said he would go, but didn’t.
    b. Whereas those tax collectors and harlots who repented at the preaching of John were like the first son, who first said no, but then went.
    5. It must have been a shock to hear Jesus tell them that those despised by the Jews would enter the kingdom of God before their religious leaders!
    6. But as Luke records in his gospel…
    a. The tax collectors (and others) who accepted John’s baptism “justified God”
    b. Whereas those religious leaders who were not baptized “rejected the counsel of God for themselves” – Lk 7:29-30.


    1. Is it not that we must be “doers” and not “sayers”?
    2. As Hendriksen says in his commentary: “That lesson is, of course, this: the doing of the will of God is the one thing needful.”
    3. Jesus emphasized this truth on other occasions as well:
    a. In His Sermon on the Mount – Mt 7:21-27.
    b. In giving The Great Commission before His ascension to heaven – Mt 28:20.
    4. As John Stott wrote: “Greatness in the kingdom of God is measured in terms of obedience.” (Authentic Christianity)

    1. The doctrines of “cheap grace” and “easy believism” have created a generation of “sayers” and not “doers”
    a. Many profess Jesus as Lord, but then don’t do what He says – cf. Lk 6:46.
    b. They are like the second son, who says he will do the father’s will, but doesn’t.
    2. Misunderstanding the doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith”, many people have concluded that requiring obedience to God’s command is “legalism” or “salvation by works of merit”
    a. Yet nothing could be further from the truth!
    b. Keeping the commandments of God is essential to salvation – Mt 7:21-23; 28:20; Jn 14:15,21,23; 15:10,14; 1Co 7:19;1Jn 2:3-4.
    3. What we must remember is this…
    a. When we keep God’s commandments, we in no way earn or merit salvation.
    b. We simply do that which is our duty to do, and always remain “unprofitable servants” saved by grace – cf. Lk 17:10; Tit 3:4-7.
    c. Yet, we still “should be careful to maintain good works”! – Tit 3:1,8,14.


    1. Remember that it was the “religious leaders” in Jesus’ day…
    a. Who “rejected the counsel of God for themselves” in not accepting John’s teaching for the need for repentance and baptism.
    b. Who likely believed that they had good “theological grounds” for not heeding the simple commands of God given through His preachers.

    2. In similar fashion, many “religious leaders” of our day…
    a. Reject the clear teaching of Christ and His apostles concerning the commands to repent and be baptized – cf. Mk 16:15-16; Ac 2:38.
    b. They reject the “counsel of God for themselves” based upon “theological grounds” – When the common man who reads without preconceived notions has no problem understanding what the Scriptures teach on the subject.

    3. Could it be that today there are many people (even “tax collectors” and “harlots”) who will enter the kingdom of God before many religious people do?

    Blessings All…

  10. This is wonderfully written. I wish there were more pastors (and congregations) out there that shared these thoughts…..this world would be a much better place. Thank you for doing the work that you do and giving the kids in your youth group a safe place.

  11. Hi John. Greetings from sunny Brisbane, Australia – host city of the 2014 G20 World Summit Meeting (happening now as I write this) and home to some 3+ million people. I mention the G20 not just ‘cos it’s kinda cool and a privilege to have the leaders of the world gathering here in my backyard this weekend, but also because it’s really cool and definitely a privilege to have some of the world’s leading minds/hearts on the subject of “being Gay and Christian” in my pocket. I don’t personally know you – I’m a Facebook follower of you and your blog, but I am a personal aquaintenance of Mark Sandlin [Rev., Progressive Christian pastor from Greensboro, NC), and I’m also a gay Christian from Texas with deep roots and ties to YoungLife and Campus Crusade for Christ. There’s a mouthfull for ya! LOL. I just wanted to chime in and say, GOD BLESS YOU, JOHN! I LOVE YOUR WRITING, YOUR TEACHING, AND YOUR HEART OF COMPASSION AND TRUTH.

    Be encouraged!! You are a true Leader in the Christian world – and that’s the Gospel truth!

    Thank you for the light of truth that burns brightly from within – your words, actions and commitment to the love of Jesus is so inspiring!

    Please keep up the wonderful work…

    In Christ,



  12. Those of you commenting in utter agreement or disagreement, why are you here? Why are you wasting time (as I am) writing ignored comments, You will change nothing. (this was written as much to myself as anyone else)

  13. When I realized I was gay, I was 12 and very active in the Pentecostal church where I had been born again. This was the early 70s. There was no Ellen, no Glee, no Lady Gaga singing Born This Way, no YouTube with videos to assure me a pit Gets Better. It didn’t take long to figure out that my church and nothing but the most condemning things to say about “men who lie with men.”

    And with the limited understanding of a kid that age, I was constantly at alter call, on my knees praying to be healed of my sexuality. Nobody prayed harder than I did to “pray the gay away.” But of course, nothing changed. Eventually, I left the church, believing that because the church condemned homosexuality that I had been rejected by God.

    I actually believed that the reason my prayers for change went unanswered was because God had given up on me and rejected me. In my mind, what other explanation could there be given the teaching of the church?

    I still believed in God. I just started believing that God no longer believed in me.

    And so it went for years, until one night when I was a junior in high school. All the isolation and loneliness and keeping my secret had weighed me down with despair. And the only release I could see was to take my life. I stood in the kitchen after everybody had gone to bed with a fist full of prescription drugs (my father’s painkillers), summoning the courage to swallow them all.

    In that moment, teetering on the brink, I heard Him speak to me. Something like a voice on my heart that said,

    “Who told you there was something wrong with the way I made you? It wasn’t me.”

    I was floored. Standing in the center of that question and the answer that followed, I knew one thing. What the church had said about people like me was wrong. It was wrong, I knew, because a higher authority told me so. I put the pills back, went back to bed, and began to rethink God’s “rejection” and why my prayers for change left me unchanged.

    There was nothing there to change. I was made as I was supposed to be made.

    Thank you, John, for making sure the queer youth in your community got a more truthful message than the one I found in my youth. They need it badly. It becomes a matter of life and death, not just of the body but of faith as well.

  14. Referring to the notorious Biblical “list” of sins that include homosexuality, try doing a study of the word “reviler”. It is there that I find a description of that unloving minority.

    I guess some of us still believe that castigation, judgment, guilt and shame will cause a person to change their behaviour. Well, here’s a thought. Is that idea Biblical? Really? And perhaps more importantly, does that approach work? Not in my world. The only true change happens when I hang out with Jesus. His presence and His unconditional loves causes me to change. Very little hard work. It just sort of happens. Not sure exactly how. But it does.

  15. Having grown up in the 60’s, I have had an evolution regarding the gay issue. When I was growing up in the deep South, being gay was never mentioned. I didn’t even know what a homosexual was……….I was practically grown before I heard the expression “queer.” And, to be honest, later in my life I never gave them much thought. I always assumed it was a lifestyle they CHOSE, not how they were born. So…………I’ve come a LONG way to my current beliefs . And, I now believe gays are born gay………..and they should have all the rights and privileges that everyone else has. They are not weird, and they don’t need “curing.” They are people, children of God, like the rest of us mortals. In all honesty, my grown daughter has taught me a lot about gays. She’s had many gay friends over the years…….and had great friendships with them. I’ve often thought to myself………….what if one of my children had been gay? Well………..I just know I would have loved and accepted them just like I’ve loved them as “straight!!” So, I’m kind of proud of my evolution……….pretty dang good for a Southern Baptist raised grandmother, huh???

  16. Hi John, Do you have any blogs on ‘holding someone accountable” or ‘accountability’?

    When my husband was a Pastor in a non-denom church we used to believe that people needed to be held accountable (because they are sheep, right?) and had no problem believing, since we were on staff at the church, that we were the ones that needed to hold the people in our congregation accountable. I was just wondering what your thoughts are on that and have you already written a blog on it? LOVING your blogs! Claudia

    • Hi Claudia. I’m actually thinking about this topic. I’ve heard terrible stories, and experience some really bad accountability abuse in leadership. Will try to put something together soon. Thanks so much!

      • I’d love to see this too John… some of the unofficial “leaders” of my church often take it upon themselves to hold the rest of us “accountable” for our misguided application of Christ’s message(s)… they claim there is too much Love, and not enough “truth” being shared (…ummmm, TOO much love? whaaaa?). I don’t even know how to respond to that… but it has created some sharp divisions, and I feel like I don’t really know who to turn to for guidance withIN the church, especially at the top level. And I find that so very sad.

  17. Pingback: Resources for Pro-Love Christians | Hey Look, it's God!

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