Called to the Closet: God’s Heart for Gay and Lesbian Youths

Shaun Sass
October 7th, 2009


“I was in a lesbian relationship for three years.” I was shocked to hear those words come from the mouth of one of my dearest friends. With tears in her eyes, she shared with me the shame and confusion she had struggled through, alone, as a Christian teen. She kept it a secret, feeling she couldn’t tell any of her Christian friends in youth group. She wanted help—but felt trapped.

She desired forgiveness, but she felt alienated and ostracized. It wasn’t until she joined a college ministry that she met a Christian woman in whom she was able to confide and begin the healing process. My heart broke for my friend.

Then I became haunted by this question: For all those years, why couldn’t she tell me?

As I evaluated my memories of high school, I began to see things through my friend’s eyes. How did she feel when I made casual comments about homosexuality (“How disgusting!”) or when she heard me wax poetic about how wrong it was in God’s eyes—without hearing me speak a word of compassion or grace? How did she feel when youth group kids told gay jokes or—on a subtler scale—used the phrase, “That’s so gay!” as an insult…or casually threw around words like <i style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 0px; padding-top: 0px; padding-right: 0px; padding-bottom: 0px; padding-left: 0px; “>homo or fag? It didn’t take long for me to understand how alienated she must have felt—that there was no one she could talk to and nowhere to receive help.

The Need
Christian teens are battered by messages about sexuality every day. In one ear they hear what the world teaches—that any sexual lifestyle is okay. In the other ear, they hear that homosexuality is a sin, yet it’s likely that they also hear jokes, callous remarks, and cruel comments coming from their Christian friends, families—even role models. No wonder so many Christian teens are confused about this issue—and that they often respond insensitively.

Statistics vary widely, claiming that anywhere from one to 10 percent of teens are gay or lesbian—experience some degree of homosexual feelings or curiosities. Whether you lean toward the high or the low percentage, you can be certain there are teens in your youth group who are personally touched by this issue in some way.

Perhaps some of them have been molested and feel confused or ashamed about their own sexuality. Some may have seen or heard things that have twisted their self-image and the way they perceive members of the same or opposite sex. Maybe a boy in your youth group who enjoys art and music or a girl who is more interested in sports than makeup and clothes has been the victim of gossip—even labeled “gay” by their peers. Some of your students may have friends who they know or suspect to be gay. And perhaps some may have engaged in same-sex experimentation.

For most of them, these struggles are likely deeply hidden secrets. And you can be certain of one thing: They are hurting.

You’ve read 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 often enough—perhaps in relation to this issue: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Yet it goes on to say in verse 11, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Scripture provides tremendous hope for every sinner. The grace of Jesus can change any life. All of us have been equally excluded from the kingdom of God by our sin, and each and every human is equally in need of God’s grace.

Yet, gays and lesbians are the church’s modern-day lepers. And if they’re teens, they’ll most likely feel alienated, unloved, and unwelcome in most youth groups—especially when they hear jokes, comments, or sense lack of love. These are the kids who won’t get hugs because other teens treat them as contagious. The message communicated? God’s love is unconditional…but not for you.

A Christlike Response
As a teen, I attended a popular Christian student leadership camp where we spent hours in intensive training seminars about apologetics, the Christian worldview, evolution, abortion, and homosexuality. I was intrigued by the material we studied, and I came away from the experience with what I believed was a firm grasp of the truth—and a zeal to defend it. While I was well-equipped to stand up for God’s Word, to point out scriptures, and to argue statistics, unfortunately I also bought the common-in-Christian-circles idea that gays and lesbians are waging some sort of war against the Bible—in fact, that they’re enemies of God and Christians. Thus I felt entitled to crack jokes or spout my disgust.

Years later, when my friend told me about her past, suddenly I saw a hurting person—not simply an issue. Suddenly I was forced to question my “right and biblical” approach to homosexuality. When I began searching through Scripture for answers, I saw something very unique about Jesus’ response to sin: He speaks the truth, but it’s balanced with mercy.

If our teens are going to be relevant witnesses to their generation of increasingly permissive sexual ideals, it’s crucial that we teach them an accurate and Christlike response to homosexual behavior—one that doesn’t compromise the truth and demonstrates God’s amazing mercy and grace.

In John 8, for instance, Jesus’ way of dealing with the adulteress illustrates several radical principles we youth workers should consider as we interact with gay and lesbian teens:

  • Jesus prevents the attack. When the crowd stands ready to throw stones, Jesus reminds them of their own unrighteousness—and protects her from a barrage of deadly stones.

  • Jesus grants the woman dignity and respect. As the crowds leave, Jesus turns and speaks directly to her. It’s crucial to realize that here Jesus is breaking cultural and religious taboos. Not only is he speaking to a woman, but he is speaking to an unclean woman. When the others had treated her as a lowly sinner deserving death, Jesus stands up and speaks directly to her—communicating that she possesses worth and value.

Jesus says “neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11) because God’s way of dealing with sin isn’t through condemnation—but through conviction, grace, and hope. Condemnation throws stones and offers no hope of second chances. While not condemning, though, Jesus still calls sin sin—he doesn’t say her actions were okay.

  • Jesus provides hope of new life. The stone throwers would have created nothing more than another battered corpse, dead in her sin. Thank God that Jesus’ approach to sinners—to all of us—can yield hopeful and forgiven people, walking in grace and newness of life.


Evaluating Your Youth Ministry
What’s the environment like in your youth group? If you were a kid who needed Jesus and were confused about your sexual identity, would you feel welcome there? Would you want to come back? Or would you be turned away by the church, perhaps never to again return? As leaders and models for the teens in our ministries, it’s essential that we follow Christ’s example and turn our youth groups from places of stone throwing into refuges of hope.

1. Revamping vocabulary. As students arrived early for a Bible study at our house, they gathered around the television to watch Christian music videos. Soon I heard the hoots and chuckles coming from our family room. One of the boys was cracking jokes while others rolled in laughter.

“Look at those fags!” he said. “They look like a bunch of fruits, dancing around like that! What a bunch of homos!” I wasn’t surprised when I heard their language—I hear it all the time in different youth groups full of dedicated Christian teens.

My husband responded right away, telling the boys to cut it out. Later that night, after the study was over and most of the kids had left, we had a chance to speak with the guys about their jokes and language. We challenged them to evaluate the way they spoke and to think about how they would have sounded to a visitor or someone who struggled with that issue. The discussion lasted late into the night, and now those students have started to think and pray about their unloving response to gays and lesbians.

Students need to know that phrases like “that’s so gay!” or “you’re a homo” or “what a fag” have no place in the body of Christ. Words like that are deadly stones. Teens shouldn’t feel like it’s permissible to do impressions of “gays” or to tell jokes about them at youth group (check out Ephesians 5:4). They shouldn’t feel that because they’re with other Christians that it’s okay to make fun of people whom God has created and whom he loves.

What to do? 

Take a look in the mirror. Do your students hear you make comments or perpetuate stereotypes about gays and lesbians—or do they hear words of compassion and grace? Do you say it’s acceptable to laugh at insensitive jokes or do you communicate God’s love for all lost people? As a mentor to your students, you set the tone for what’s permissible and appropriate behavior in youth group. As students begin to see your sensitivity to the issue, they’ll be prompted to evaluate their own behavior.

Be willing to teach and correct students. Though you may revamp your own vocabulary, if you stand by while your students speak insensitively, your silence may be interpreted as approval. Keep in mind Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: “correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Don’t be afraid to stop an inappropriate conversation or pull students aside—your gentle exhortation can make a big impact in their minds and hearts.


2. Downsizing the sin spectrum. In our discussion with the boys after Bible study, one of them candidly revealed his own justification for his jokes about homosexuality. “But I just hate it. God hates it too. It’s disgusting. It’s so sinful!” I told him, “You’re right. God does hate it. It is sinful. But do you know what else? God also hates pride. And he hates selfishness. And he hates lust.”

For a moment the boys were silent as it began to sink in that our sin is just as ugly in God’s eyes as any other sin. Though theologically they believed that all are sinners, they realized that they were categorizing—as if some types of sin were more forgivable and grace-worthy than other kinds of sin. Soon we began discussing how— just like God wants us to love and witness to straight sinners—God also wants us to love and witness to gay and lesbian sinners.

Let’s face it—it’s very easy to think of sin on a spectrum. At one end of the scale are “small” sins like pride, swearing, and selfish thoughts—and on the other end are the “big” sins like homosexuality, adultery, and murder. It’s clear that the men who were ready to stone the adulteress shared a similar view of sin—because it enabled them to consider themselves better than the woman and it empowered them to pick up stones of condemnation.

Yet Jesus—with one, simple question—turns their self-righteousness upside down. Do you need to make a similar statement to your youth group? A great way to get kids thinking about the words they say and the stones they throw is through your teaching. Consider spending a few weeks teaching on the subject of sin and grace.

Encourage discussion on issues like sexual sin in your Bible studies and small groups. Let your kids know that God doesn’t see sinners on a spectrum—he sees us all in need of grace. When students develop a correct understanding of their own need for grace and forgiveness, it becomes much harder for them to throw stones. As teens develop confidence in what they learn from Scripture about the power of God’s forgiveness, they’ll naturally become more compassionate toward allsinners they encounter.

3. Modeling radical love. Recently God prompted me to do something I considered pretty radical in my relationship with a non-Christian lesbian friend. He brought to my mind a specific comment I’d made several years earlier, before she came out of the closet. I realized, as I looked back, how hurtful my insensitivity must have been. So one day, with my heart pounding, I sat down with her and apologized to her.

I didn’t offer a disclaimer like, “By the way, I just want to make it clear that I believe homosexuality is a sin.” I simply told her that it was wrong of me to say those things because they were hurtful, and I asked her forgiveness. What happened next touched me deeply. She looked at me and told me that I was the first Christian who’d ever shown that I cared about her feelings! She went from hating all Christians to expressing a sincere curiosity about the love of Christ. My prayer is that someday I will see this friend in heaven.

Teens need to know that showing love to gay and lesbian friends doesn’t mean they are spiritually compromising—it means they are witnessing. By modeling God’s heart for homosexuals, your youth group can become a beacon of light that breaks through religious stereotypes and demonstrates the same radical love Jesus showed that day in the temple so long ago.

Shaun Sass

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.