Lily was crushed. She’d told just a member of her church her secret, and the member warned her that if anyone else found out, she would probably lose her position teaching the youth. What was this secret so deadly that she would be warned to hide it?
Lily is same-sex attracted.
Neither the struggle nor the terror is uncommon. How, then, do we create an environment in our churches, small groups, and families where we can even have this conversation, where Lily can share her struggle without fear?
Here are three places to start.
1. Don’t Assume Anything about Anyone
According to one recent study, 83 percent of LGBT people grew up in a church. One obvious implication is that there are youth in your church right now dealing with these feelings. There are adults as well, and if they’re in a conservative church, odds are they’re hiding this part of their lives.
Humans like to be normal. This means most same-sex-attracted people in conservative churches don’t look or act any differently than others. Because they’re committed to the Bible’s sexual ethic, there’s little about their outward lives that would reveal this inward battle. You would have to be told. But the church often hasn’t been safe for those who experience same-sex attraction. Ugly assumptions are made and spoken; misunderstanding and suspicion abounds. Therefore, many stay hidden in fear.
Your friend and Bible study partner who’s married with three kids might experience same-sex attraction. The single guy who serves faithfully on the hospitality team might have known since he was little that his desires were different than other boys’. The elder’s wife who is every woman’s shoulder to cry on may weep privately about this struggle that just won’t go away. I’ve met all of these people. Start by recognizing that same-sex attraction is in the church already.
2. Create a Safe Space for Them to Disclose
It’s not your responsibility to guess who’s same-sex attracted, just like it’s not your responsibility to know all the struggles of your church. Your opportunity is to become a safe person for disclosure. Ask the Spirit of God to help you identify false stereotypes you may hold. Read a good book like Messy Grace by Caleb Kaltenbach [read TGC’s review], or check out the excellent materials at Living Out. Repent and confess anything the Lord brings to mind.
In your speech at Bible studies, in one-on-one conversations, or any church context, discuss what you’re learning with humility and honesty. You don’t have to know everything to start a conversation about how your church can be a safe place to not be okay, to be growing together toward holiness. You may be the key to helping other Christians recognize ways they’ve been (wrongly) off-putting while trying to (rightly) hold to Scripture’s truth about sexual morality. You may even be the first Christian your brother or sister has been able to share with about their same-sex desires.
3. Be Ready for Disclosure
The scariest thing might be when someone actually tells you, like Lily, that she is attracted to the same sex. What a powerful moment, with the explosive potential of a firework—or a bomb. If someone comes out to you, recognize that this disclosure took incredible courage on their part and that you were picked because you seemed trustworthy.
The first thing you should do is look your friend in the eye, thank her for her trust, and affirm that you love her and that Jesus loves her. Give her a hug; reach for her hand.
The next thing you should do is listen, and listen, and listen. When she gets to a pause, ask her to tell you more. When did she first know? What’s her experience been like? Has she felt wounded? This is not the time to run a theological litmus test or demand linguistic perfection. This is the time to bear each other’s burdens in love (Gal. 6:2); perhaps this is a burden she’s been shouldering alone, silently, for decades. Don’t make assumptions; ask how you can serve. Take a long-sighted relational view. This conversation is the first of many you will have on this topic. While you listen and love, pray for wise and compassionate words.
Christians, we serve a God who casts out fear with love; we worship a Savior who came that we may have life to the full; we are filled with the Spirit who makes all things new. In his power, let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak as we embark on the long road of discipleship.
By Rachel Gilson
Rachel Gilson is director of theological development at Cru Northeast. She holds a BA in history from Yale College and is completing her MDiv at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She blogs at rachelgilson.com. Article originally posted at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/safe-space-for-ssa/.