What’s in a Name?

Youth Specialties
October 11th, 2016

We’re excited to have Mark Yarhouse as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminars: Ministry to LGBT Youth and Mapping Out Ministry to LGBT. Check out more information HERE

In her new book, The Good News about Conflict, Jenell Paris makes the observation that names create realities. One question I wish to explore with you in our time together is this:

As a youth minister, what name do you want to give your youth?

That may seem simple enough. Find a good name to communicate to my youth how I see them. They are awesome! Got it. That was easy!

Not so fast. Youth ministers often face challenges when they begin thinking of ministry to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) youth. Christians have a checkered past on this topic.

What name do you want to give these youth?

Writing as an anthropologist, Paris observes the different names that have been a part of the lives of people who experience same-sex sexuality. These include sin, crime, mental illness, addiction, and sickness. It is obvious today that these are names that would be difficult for any youth to embrace as their own.

The contemporary LGBT+ community has emerged as a culture to be celebrated. Whatever views you hold about whether that is a good idea or not, it is undeniable in our culture today.

Modern homosexuality is unique…in involving a group consciousness of sexual identity, subcultures that support the lives of sexual minorities, and relationshps that have the possibility of being life-long, exclusive, and legally validated. (Paris, 2016, p. 17)

More from Paris:

…Same-sex desire is linked to orientation, or to sexual identity and when the identity is lived out in sexual partnershp, it is a romantic partnership between relative social equals that may result in a life-long commitment that may or may include legal marriage. It is a same-sex sexual and relational trajectory, or life script, that more or less parallels opposite-sex relationships. (p. 19)

There is much here to unpack, and I am unable to do justice to all of the questions that arise, but this is the cultural context in which your youth live each day. So the importance of names is tied to being valued or devalued. The importance of names is tied to life trajectories. The mainstream LGBT+ community provides a name (of affirmation and resilience) and a sense of being valued. The mainstream LGBT+ community offers a vision for a future.

What youth want to know, first off, is Am I wanted here?

They are looking for answers. This is especially salient for LGBT+ youth whose exposure to faith and sexuality is all too often that they are at an impasse in the cultural wars. Or worse, they become casualties of the cultural wars.

Another question all youth are asking, including LGBT+ youth, is actually about their future: How can I thrive? Put differently, What kind of future is in store for me? They often look for and identify with models that they can see themselves emulating. They begin to imagine a future in which they can flourish.

These can be more difficult questions to answer for LGBT+ youth in religious faith communities. Names create realities, right? Sin, crime, mental illness, addiction, and sickness. Who can thrive when these names are offered to them? The future is all too clear, marked by shame and emptiness. It might be time to find a new name.

Recognizing the dramatic cultural shifts in the past 40 years, Paris also knows that a name that has emerged today is blessing. She describes it as synonymous with an affirming view in ways that will bump up against a more traditional understanding of sexual behavior.

At the same time, names create realities.

Can a person be blessed but not affirmed?

Should they be?

What challenging questions! When did affirmed become such a loaded word, anyway? Can we find ways to affirm one another within our doctrinal convictions? Can we give new meaning to an overused and misunderstood word?

I am drawn to a related word: beloved. I like the word beloved because it reflects a reality that is positional before God. We are beloved because of God’s radical love for the lost.

Henri Nouwen, in his book, Life of the Beloved, writes,

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved’. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

If there is any group of your students who are prone to self-rejection, it is those who are navigating sexual and gender identity concerns.

I like the word beloved because it has nothing to do with us and with the realities and challenges we face. We share so much in common with one another by virtue of our distance from God, our lack of value and worth without a savior and without a Father who gives us worth.

In all the unpredictability, one thing you can count on in youth ministry to all youth, including LGBT+ youth, is this: each of your youth is called to a life in Christ and Christian discipleship.

If this calling does not offer meaning and purpose to us all, I am not sure anything will. I believe you can help your youth know Christ and know that they have a good and loving Father in heaven who loves them and wants a relationship with them. Yes, even them. Help them know that they have the Spirit who can guide them in how they respond to names and realities and who can help guide their steps in Christlikeness.

If names create realities, then let’s consider the names you communicate to your youth. What names leave room for a future filled with hope?

Beloved is a great place to start.

At least it hints at a profoundly intimate walk with the one whose name is above all names.

Dr. Mark A. Yarhouse is the Hughes Endowed Chair and professor of psychology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dr. Yarhouse promotes dialogue between people who view the topic of sexual identity differently. He’s currently the chair of the task force on LGBT issues for the APA’s Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

Youth Specialties

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.