Side By Side: When Teens Are Gay
Few topics seem to be as frequently addressed as sexuality and sexual identity, specifically how we as youth workers care for and disciple individuals who identity as LGTBQIA+. Youth Specialties has the pleasure of serving a wide variety of youth workers, and we have specifically chosen to trust the great work that the Holy Spirit is doing through each denomination’s careful study, deliberation, and commitment to the love of Christ as they determine God’s leading within difficult conversations like sexuality and sexual identity. As a part of our support, we are passionate about helping youth workers find common ground on even the most divisive issues, because we believe that we are truly better together. This passion has manifested itself in this SIDE BY SIDE post on “When Teens Are Gay”, as well as the many opportunities we create for youth workers to engage in topics like this at the National Youth Workers Convention.
Jim Murphy and Heather Lea Campbell are both seasoned youth workers who care deeply about helping students find and follow Jesus. Even though they approach this post from different theological viewpoints, they are also bound together by key truths that help frame the way they support their students.
Jim and Heather have allowed us to share their perspectives one after the other in the post below. We know that they represent only 2 of the many sides to this conversation. We invite you to read their thoughtful posts and then to engage in a unifying discussion in the comment section at the very bottom of this page. While we certainly don’t all have to agree, the goal is to create a healthy exchange of ideas. Our digital team reserves the right to protect these authors and any of our youth workers from hateful speech or unproductive remarks by deleting harmful comments at our discretion or even blocking individuals from commenting if it is clear that their intention is to personally attack any group or individual. If you have greater concerns, we invite you to email our content manager directly at Jacob.Eckeberger@youthspecialties.com. We welcome your thoughts and feedback as we seek to create an environment where all youth workers can engage in healthy dialogue around the topics that impact how youth workers engage with students today.
By Jim Murphy
We have teens and young adults in our church who are gay, bisexual, and transgendered. At one point not too long ago, we had to deal with two girls who were actually kind of making out with each other during our large group time. I eventually had a private conversation with the two of them about appropriate and inappropriate PDA (Public Display of Affection) in general while at church. But, I handled this just like I would any couple–straight or gay.
As I thought about it later, I realized that I’m sort of glad we had to address their PDA. It told me that they feel comfortable in our church. They feel welcomed…like they belong. Of course, they were being naughty and we dealt with it. They received it very well because they trust me. I’ve worked hard to build a good relationship with them. I know that if and when the right time comes, the Lord will guide our conversations where they need to go. But, that incident told me that we’re on the right path.
While I and our church have retained an orthodox theology of human sexuality and ethics that is firmly rooted in God’s original intentions as outlined in the early chapters of Genesis and all throughout the scriptures, our ministry practices are gracious, loving, and accepting while remaining Christ-centered, biblically rooted and dependent on the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification. We do not want anyone to feel like they are not welcome in our church simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Furthermore, we recognize that gender identity and sexual orientation in today’s world is extremely complicated and should not be treated lightly.
Here’s how I (currently) think we should practice ministry when kids say they are gay.
Lead with Love
Love and accept them no matter what you think of their orientation or sexual identity.
The two greatest commandments are to love God and love others. Regardless of what we think of anyone and their choices or brokenness, we are to love and accept them no matter what.
Help them develop a relationship with Christ the same way you would for any other kid.
Our first missional goal should always be to help kids develop an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. Our first missional goal should never be to change someone’s behavior. Our second goal should be to help them experience health and healing in their life as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. Changes in behavior follow afterward. Relationship first. Health and healing second. Behavior third. This is how we should approach everyone including kids who are gay.
Disciple them the same way you’d disciple any other kid.
When we disciple kids, we seek
- BELONGING– First, we seek to move kids from simply attending church to finding a sense of true belonging IN the Church and in relationship with Christ.
- PURSUING – Second, we seek to inspire kids to begin pursuing life with Jesus (finding their identity in Christ, gaining knowledge of the Word, and find a place to serve and help others).
- PRACTICING – Third, we strive to equip them to become one who is practicing spiritual habits, healthy relationships, and wise decision making.
- CONTRIBUTING – Fourth, we work to empower them to become one who is ministry-minded, contributing to the ministry of the Covenant Church and God’s mission in the world.
We do this with all our kids.
Notice what stage of growth in which “healthy relationships” fall…the third stage. Notice what stage in which “wise decision making” falls…the third stage. It takes a long time with lots of other more foundational teaching and spiritual growth to take place before behavioral practices can fall into place.
Don’t put a label on them.
The adolescent years are full of confusing changes, experiences, and feelings regarding their sexuality. The teenage years are still malleable and formative. If one thing is common to all teens, its identity experimentation. They’re constantly trying to figure out who they are. Unfortunately, labels can stick with kids whether we or they like them or not. There even comes a point when kids (adults too) feel the need to defend their label for the sake of showing strength, or even coping with the pain of the label itself.
Labeling kids as anything other than a child of God is detrimental to their ability to securely find their identity in Christlabeling athletic kids as jocks, labeling smart kids as geeks, labeling effeminate kids as gay. While kids may come to a place of identifying themselves as gay, we don’t need to falsely reinforce that label. Rather, we must continually reinforce the biblical truth that our true identity is not found in our sexuality, nor ability, nor sub-culture, nor anything other than Christ himself.
Ask Questions & Actively Listen
Make sure you are asking questions more than making statements.
Ask about their journey, their life story. Ask about their relationships. Ask about their experiences. Ask about the feelings they’ve had about themselves. Ask them to reflect on what has led them to their conclusion. Ask them what they think of what you’ve taught and why. While on this journey of reflection, invite the Holy Spirit to reveal to you what is important, what other questions to ask, and how to respond.
Make sure you are engaging in active listening.
Reflect back to them what you are hearing them say. Paraphrase what you are hearing from them so that they know they are being heard by you. Hearing that you are hearing them can be very encouraging to them. Your constant empathy … not sympathy … your constant empathy will meet such a core need in such a healing way that trust will be built and a relationship of discipleship can be established.
Teach Intention, Fall, and Redemption
Before we begin teaching, I invite all of us to do our own personal theological work to realize (and get ourselves to come to emphasize) this one most pivotal BIBLICAL TRUTH:
The CONDITION in which we are BORN is NOT indicative of God’s INTENTION for us.
Then, when we teach – whether in speaking to a large group, leading a small group discussion, or having a personal conversation – we must teach the following three truths in this order.
FIRST, teach what the Scriptures reveal about God’s original intention for all of human sexuality…not just homosexuality.
When we teach on (and against) homosexuality isolated from the rest of our sexuality, we remove it from the very context that is most helpful. God had an original plan for our sexuality. We must teach it in its entirety. Namely, that…
- God created male and female to be an intimate community of three persons (God, Male, and Female).
- God created man and woman as equal partners in life and responsibility.
- God created us male and femaleequally called and equally gifted; mutual in submission, love, and respect.
- God created sexuality to produce communal intimacy, physically expressed WITHIN the protection of faithful heterosexual marriage.
- God designed sexuality for the purpose of reuniting male and female in the protected covenant of monogamous marriage.
- Gender/Sexual Dominance (male dominating female, female dominating male, sexual abuse, etc.) and Gender/Sexual Variance (psychological and biological) are the result of the Fall right along with all the other ways our world is different from what was intended (our relationships, our environment, our politics, our mental health, our physical health, etc.).
- Gender/Sexual Dominance and Gender/Sexual Variance are NOT God’s intention for humanity and are in need of redemption.
SECOND, teach what the Scriptures reveal about the FALL of Humanity.
Teach what the Scriptures reveal about the fall of humanity from God’s intention and the current REALITY in which we ALL find ourselves: Our lives are drastically and negatively affected by sin in every aspect including spiritually, relationally, physically, mentally, and sexually.
THIRD, teach what the Scriptures reveal about God’s loving redemption.
Teach what the Scriptures reveal about God’s loving redemption through Jesus Christ for all of us who accept it. Teach about His promised presence to not only forgive our sins but to also FREE us from our sin. Teach about His promise to guide and sustain us in the MIDST of our brokenness, while we are subject to the reality of living with the condition in which we were born. We are loved regardless of the condition in which we are born and the situation in which we find ourselves.
Let the Holy Spirit Work
Trust in the Holy Spirit’s continued work of sanctification.
A teen’s journey as they develop their sexual identity is long and complicated. We should never assume that it’s simply a matter of choice nor anything we can control. We must trust in the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work for only He knows the heart of any man or woman, gay or straight, and will be faithful to complete His work in His time.
I’d like to end this post by encouraging you to always remember, in every situation, to first lead with love. Let your love for these kids reflect the love that Christ has for them. Put judgment, personal comfort levels, moral expectations, and fear of other people’s opinions aside and love them. The Holy Spirit will guide you the rest of the way.
Jim Murphy, is the NextGen Pastor at The Covenant Church in Bemidji, MN, where he supports the work and ministries of other staff and volunteers to kids, students, and young adults. He’s been in vocational ministry since 1992 and loves teaching kids, equipping leaders, and encouraging other youth pastors. When he isn’t working or spending time with Deanna, his wife of 20+ years, and his two daughters, Natalie and Greta, he tries to post what he’s up to in ministry on THENEXTGENBLOG.COM.
By Heather Lea Campbell
I serve at a church that has the motto “Open for you.” Originally, the idea of being open scared me. I grew up in a church that held very tightly to its denominational ties, so I believed that anyone whose faith didn’t look like mine was endangered eternally.
Having an open community of Christians can be scary. Being open to anyone means you’re going to get people who don’t look like you at all. I’ve been at this church for over two and a half years, and I’m proud to serve here. We have many teens, young adults, and parents who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, or transgender.
Not only are we open to students and families who identify outside of heteronormativity, we have staff members who do as well. I remember the first time I was served Communion by one staff member who is openly gay—I was nervous, and I almost chose not to receive it, because I thought by doing so I was going against God.
But the blood of Christ covers me—and it covers all who receive it. And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I can be in full Christian community with people who are gay.
Because my church was an open community of Christians long before other churches were, no one who worships here really sees it as a big deal. Same-sex couples worship right next to heterosexual couples. People may not agree with everyone’s lifestyles, but nobody argues over it. We’re all people who are here for the same body and blood of Christ.
People outside of our church may not understand how a church can affirm the Bible as God’s Truth and also welcome same-sex couples. Jim Murphy wrote a blog post titled “When Teens are Gay.” I agree with 95% of Jim’s article. In fact, Jim and I have the same desire to love teens and lead them to Christ—even our methods are similar.
I’m so thankful that Jim is doing justice for students. Many churches struggle with how to include students who identify as LGBTQ, and in turn shame students. Jim is building the kingdom and equipping students to help him. Like Jim, we don’t want anyone to feel as if they’re not welcome in our church because of their identity or orientation. The difference in our congregation is that we don’t only include LGBTQ youth, we affirm them.
I’d like to take some of Jim’s points and talk about a few of the differences between his practices and mine. Here’s how I believe we should practice ministry when kids are gay:
1. Lead with Love
We love and accept everyone, regardless of our opinions.
Whether we consider ourselves to be conservative or progressive, the greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are, and the second is to love others as we love ourselves.
It’s that simple.
Except it’s not. Other youth pastors have said to me, “You can’t base your ministry around love.” Well, what else can you base it on? When the Samaritan found the beaten Jew, he helped him, even though he could have gotten in a lot of trouble with his faith community. The Samaritan didn’t try to change the Jew—he just cared for him. He gave the Jew his personal resources and paid for the injured man’s room and board.
Choosing to love others who are different from us can be hard. Those who think that love is the easy way out seem to forget that real love requires real sacrifice.
2. Make Disciples
We put Jesus first.
The reason we all do youth ministry is to help teenagers develop authentic relationships with Jesus Christ, not to modify their behavior. With discipleship and time, behaviors change naturally.
In Galatians, we read about how believers receive the Holy Spirit by having faith instead of by following the law. Later, it talks about how the Holy Spirit influences us to do right.
We recognize students’ stages of faith development and disciple them where they are.
When we disciple kids and teens, we recognize four steps of faith development:
BELONG—The first thing we hope for the people who attend our church is that they find their place here. From the time they are born, they belong to our community, and we commit to love them.
DISCOVER—Our next hope is that students will discover who God is and connect to a story bigger than them.
OWN—As our students grow, our hope is that they will take the faith we’ve been teaching them and begin to own it for themselves. We want our teens to step into their identity as God’s beloved children.
LIVE OUT—Our hope is that by the time students transition into adulthood and leave our ministry, they’re able to live out the faith they own. We want them to move from a private faith to a public one.
Because our priorities are that students feel like they belong, can apply the Bible to their lives, and own their faith, you probably won’t ever find me teaching from the stage about sexuality. We allow students to bring up the subject in their small groups, where they’re able to ask questions and hear from a variety of people.
4. No Labels
We don’t label students.
I work with students in grades five through eight. I watch the fifth graders in my ministry dramatically change about every six months. Their favorite bands, their crushes, the way they feel about God . . . it all changes.
It’s extremely age-appropriate for students to question everything about themselves at this age. Many students question their sexuality. A student may walk in one Sunday morning and declare, “I’m gay!” and a few weeks or years later decide they’re not. But others will always be gay. And whether they change or don’t change, that’s not the point.
The point is: nothing about a student can be labeled, especially in middle school.
We talk with students about the risks of labels.
A few months ago, I had cupcakes with one of my favorite students, a spunky eighth grade girl. During our conversation, she began to rant about her sex-ed class: “My teacher has no consideration for students who aren’t straight. What about gay people? What about bi people? What about people who are asexual?” She continued to list gender identities. I chuckled and said, “That’s a lot of labels—do you think it’s healthy to label things so specifically? What if a kid isn’t asexual—what if they’re just not interested in sex right now because they’re in eighth grade?”
I heard her out and appropriately challenged her. She was frustrated that the teacher stuck to heteronormative labels, but I wanted to help this teen discover that the way her peers label themselves today doesn’t have to stick forever.
5. Openness to theological differences.
In my church, it’s not an option to accept students or families that might be considered nontraditional—it’s a commandment.
The beautiful thing about the Kingdom of God is that it consists of people with differences, even theological. My congregation is no different. But what I appreciate is that while we may disagree, we have the same plan to love people where they are and point them toward Jesus.
Jim explains in his article the narrative of INTENTION – FALL – REDEMPTION. He begins it by saying that his core truth is, “The condition in which we are born in is not indicative of God’s intention for us.” I love that.
How do we live into what God intended for us? One way is by physically working towards it—rebuking effects of the fall and working to make the earth resemble heaven more. The other way of living into what God intended for us is by having a strong belief in redemption—that Jesus came to restore all and that all is redeemable.
Christ’s redemptive work on the cross restores the perfect image of God we were created in: no matter what we’ve done or who we are, redemption has been made available for us. Believing in the cross’s power to save requires believing that the cross’s redemptive power is greater than anything else, ever. Greater than our socioeconomic status, greater than our sexual identity, greater than our self-righteousness, greater than our mistakes, greater than our accomplishments.
Whether you believe that same-sex attraction is a sin or not isn’t the point—the point is whether you believe that Jesus can redeem all or not. There are many aspects of our humanity that were affected by the fall and that we cannot change. But I believe that the cross conquers all.
Believing that the cross has the power to save all—even people you may disagree with—requires an incredible amount of faith. The cross is for anyone who comes to it and admits brokenness. Jew or Gentile, male or female, gay or straight . . . we all need Jesus.
6. The most important thing
We began this conversation by saying that we should first lead with love.
Each of us strives to love others the best we know how. This can be messy and uncomfortable. For some people, the way they know how to love others is as a transgender woman, or as a gay man, or as a self-identifying asexual. Some will choose celibacy—others will choose intimacy with a lifelong partner.
We read in Luke about the expert in the law who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The answer: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Our belief as progressive Christians is that as long as you are seeking to do these things, then you are honoring God. They sum the whole Christian experience up.
Some progressives may hold same-sex attraction to be a sin, some may not. But all agree: The more we focus on our differences, the more we separate ourselves from one another. When we hold brothers or sisters who have proclaimed to be in a journey with God at arm’s length and judge them, we are tearing down the Kingdom of God which allows all people to receive him.
This brings us back to the Communion table, where I almost didn’t receive Jesus’s blood because at the time I didn’t realize it could cover the person serving me. In that moment I was reminded by God that even though Jesus knew Peter was going to deny him and Judas betray him, he broke bread and offered his body and blood to them. Read that again: Jesus offered to break his body for people he knew would reject him.
And while at the time my theology grouped this individual serving me as a sinner, I realized that I was going against the summation of who Jesus was: love. I repented of my judgements and over the next two years learned a lot about what it looks like to follow Jesus from a person I almost rejected.
I spent this time reading the words of Jesus and realized: More than anything, it is our Christian responsibility to include and love. If Jesus includes Judas, Peter, my LGBTQ friends, and me; then we are also called to include everyone else to partake in the Kingdom of God.
So when a teen comes to me and tells me they’re gay, my response is to hug them tight and tell them that Jesus says it’s okay.
HEATHER LEA CAMPBELL is a Junior High Director in Indianapolis, working with a talented and diverse team of staff and volunteers. Heather has the privilege of writing on various youth ministry platforms across the interwebs, but you can find her blogging about her life in ministry over at HEATHERLEACAMPBELL.ME.
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.