Dear Youth Pastor,
I get you.
I mean, I totally get you.
I’ve spent nearly the last two decades neck-deep in the loud, stinking, glorious, electrifying trenches of student ministry along with you:
1300 youth meetings.
35 weekend retreats
15 leadership conferences
12 mission trips
1 million slices of pizza, give or take a thousand.
1 very ill-advised lock-in.
Too many ruined carpets to count.
I’ve rented the vans and driven the vans and sprayed out the vans.
I’ve been awakened in the middle of the night by frantic phone calls and urgent texts.
I’ve been to hundreds of band recitals, soccer games, and art shows, of varying levels of tolerability.
I’ve counseled and prayed with and laughed with and served alongside thousands of incredible young people.
I’ve cleaned up after them and yelled at them been berated by them and been amazed by them.
I’ve baptized them and taught them and grieved with them and celebrated with them.
I’ve officiated at their weddings and at their funerals.
So trust me when I tell you that I understand, that I believe in you and in what you do.
And it’s because I know your road so well, and how critically important you are in the lives of young people, that I need to tell you this:
You have LGBTQ kids in your youth group.
Of course, there’s a chance that you may not know that yet.
They may still not feel close enough to you or trust you enough to share that secret truth with you. They may be sitting quietly at the edges of the room, watching you, listening to you, looking for something in you that lets them know they’re safe with you in a way that they’ve never felt safe in the Church.
This week they may be visiting your youth group for the very first time—or for the very last time.
They may be giving you one chance or one last chance.
As they sit across the room from you, their faith, their hope for this life, and their belief in the character and goodness of God may be hanging by the very thinnest of threads—and you get to be that thread.
So pastor: I need you to get this right.
I’m not talking about “right theology”. I’m not talking about your exegesis of Romans 1, or whether you think that being LGBTQ is a choice or not, or about having a handful of Scriptures prepared that you can quote to them should they come to you and come out to you.
Most of them have already heard those Scriptures a few hundred times before, and they realized whether or not this was a choice far before they ever met you. You see, this staggering revelation about them may be new to you, but it has been their story long before they choose to share it with you.
And they need something more than your theology; more than a doctrine or some hate the sin, love the sinner platitude. In fact, they don’t need something from you at all.
They need you.
They need Jesus, formed in your flawed flesh right in front of them.
Regardless of your faith perspective or your hermeneutic or your breakdown of the “clobber passages” of the Bible, they need you to make Jesus tangible and touchable, in real-time—now.
They need to taste the Grace that points them to the Giver, and you can whet their appetites with simple compassion.
I’m talking about seeing them, knowing them, and loving them in a way that makes them feel truly loved; not in a way that claims to be love or promises to be love—but one that simply is love.
You know what it’s like when you are really loved; when words aren’t really necessary.
This isn’t about having the right words. They’re pretty tough to come by anyway.
This is about making one of those scared, hurting, wounded children feel that they matter, that they are valuable, that they are worth your time; about making them feel that when they are in your presence that they are in the very presence of Jesus.
He had a way of leveling (or rather elevating) the entire world that he encountered; of treating both beggar and priest as equals. He broke bread with religious leaders and caressed the hands of the leper. The people in his path were all marked by the same compassion and kindness and closeness and consideration.
Let these young people be marked by those same things.
Show them the greatest commandments over and over again, realizing that this is your most pressing calling with them as with any student in your care; not fixing or converting or changing, but loving.
I know you do this very difficult work because you do love God and because you love students; because you understand the great urgency, the confusion, the daily struggle with self-worth, the incredible vulnerability of this time. The LGBTQ teens you will rub shoulders with this week are experiencing this in ways that you can’t imagine.
They live with a far higher chance of wounding themselves or killing themselves than other teenagers. They are likely to be straddled with addictions they’ve grasped to try and cope with terrible pain. They are far more likely to be expelled from their Christian homes and alienated from Christian community.
They rarely feel able to let the truest parts of themselves be seen, and so they spend much of their time hiding in plain sight—especially in the Church.
They live in a place always kept largely in shadow, but you can let the light in.
When Jesus sees the crowds in Matthew 9, he reminds his disciples that the people are “harassed and helpless” like sheep without a shepherd, and he calls them to go and to be the protectors, the caregivers, the holders, the defenders, the lovers of his sheep.
Do that, pastor.
Go and be the one who keeps the wolves away.
Step boldly into the space of all of the students in your midst, and make them know a fraction of the depth of Jesus’ love for them by the way you love them.
Not just some of them, not just the ones you’re comfortable with, not just the ones who seem to get it—and not just the cisgender ones.
You may not know that you have LGBTQ students in your youth group, but if they find the courage to share that truth with you: celebrate.
Celebrate that despite the condemnation and the hurt they may have experienced at the hands of Christians for their entire lives, they are still there fighting to get close enough to Jesus to touch the hem on his robe and stop the bleeding.
Give them a front row seat to a Jesus that can be reached.
Celebrate that a young person so trusts you, that they are willing to tear themselves open and show you the most tender parts of who they are; braving pain and worry and the scalding fear that you too will reject them once you know their truth.
Refuse to let their fears become fact. Stay. Insist that they stay, too.
Celebrate that you find yourself face-to-face with a teenager who finds in you, something so good and so compassionate and so loving, that they want you to know them completely.
That is incredibly holy ground, so tread it with reverence.
My friend, you are on the front lines of a bloody war that you need to win; not a distant, faceless “culture war”, not a battle of differing ideologies, not a theological debate on an issue.
This war is far closer than that. It’s right in front of you. You can hold this one in your hand.
It’s one fought as all wars truly are, with individual, beautiful, flawed human beings in the balance.
The LGBTQ students you will sit across from this week are worth fighting for, and you won’t win them with a Scripture quote or a quick prayer or by making ultimatums or by keeping your distance or by casting them out.
You will win by drawing closer, by hearing their hearts and learning their stories and sitting with their pain.
You’ll win this war by showing them a kindness and decency that they may find no other place in this world.
You will win, when you have no agenda with them other than setting the table for them to meet with Jesus, and trusting Him to do whatever he desires to do in and around and through their lives.
This is the truth of what you are called to, with any child within your care.
Pastor, you do have LGBTQ kids in your youth group right now.
Be grateful if they tell you so.
And when they do, love them well.
I’m in your corner, if you need me to help you figure out how.