“I really need to talk,” one student said to me over the phone. We met at a good BBQ place and, for the first couple of minutes, caught up on life. Then he fell silent.
After an intense and awkward pause, he spoke.
“I can’t tell you what I need to tell you. But I’ve written it down for you.”
He pulled a letter out of his jacket pocket, put it on the table, and slid it across to me. I unfolded it and began to read. On page after page, he described his four-year battle with same-sex attraction.
Imagine yourself in that moment. Imagine the importance of your time together. What will you say? How will you respond?
Let me offer some initial, first steps we can take together.
Listen and Learn
If you’re anything like me, when students come and talk about their struggles, you want to do something about it quickly. And our desire to help is certainly good! Unfortunately, this fix-it-quick attitude tends to ignore students as complex people with unique stories. Human complexity puts a check on swift, fix-it-quick methods and attitudes.
What helps us take students’ complexity and uniqueness seriously is when we pause, listen, and learn from them as fellow strugglers on this journey. Let’s begin by asking questions of our students rather than trying to simply fix their broken situation. Where are they in their lives right now? How has their struggle with same-sex attraction affected their lives in the past? How has it affected their lives in the present? How can we best support them and walk with them now?
You might begin by asking this simple question: “What has life been like for you as you’ve struggled?”
Along with learning from them, we also want to be realistic with our students about what life is going to be like on this side of things. Because we live in a world that is increasingly hostile to Christian beliefs, an affirming LGBTQ community will look like home, especially when the church has done such a poor job in this area. But we also want to help same-sex attracted students see that following Christ is now, and will be in the future, truly life-giving. It’s a hard sell, but we must reveal the tension.
We also want to give our students the ultimate, realistic goal of life: holiness and Christ-likeness, not heterosexuality. God never promises heterosexual desires to the exclusively same-sex attracted person. God wants us to seek Him above all things, even if He might leave those same-sex desires in place to drive us to Himself. Pursuing Christ above a simple, 180-degree change of desires is hard to grasp, but it makes Christ, not heterosexuality, the goal of our pursuit of holiness.
Give Them a Vocabulary for the Christian Life
Along with this realistic view of the Christian life, we must give same-sex attracted students a vocabulary for following Christ. This life is lived in daily faith, repentance, and love (Mark 1:15; Matthew 22:36-40); we must daily reorient our trust around the person of Christ, daily turn from our sins to follow Him, and daily love others by serving them. How can we practically help our students engage in these practices? The key is detailed, practical measures, not lofty goals.
Help Them Grow in Community
We must let students know that they have a community in Christ’s Church. Oftentimes, same-sex attracted students struggle to grow in openness and community because of the intense, prison-like nature of shame, other people’s judging gazes, and the church’s unwillingness to talk about these sensitive topics.
Part of our job in ministering to our students who wrestle in this way is to help them, over time, open up about their temptations, sufferings, and sins to other godly people and find life in godly community. This doesn’t have to happen right away. But as you meet with this student, instilling within them the grace of God and the identity he has in Jesus, we should be helping him to identify other people in whom he can confide, encouraging him to let in more and more light into his life. We should also help them see that, we, in fact, will be committed to loving, discipling, and walking alongside them in this journey. In other words, helping students grow in community begins by embodying community personally with them.
Help Them Grow in Love and Ministry
Same-sex attracted students, like the rest of us, have been given gifts to contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ. Let’s help them discover, develop, and use those gifts in love and ministry, helping them to cultivate their God-given uniqueness to build up the Kingdom. We need to be aware, however, that many times, same-sex attracted students’ gifts will not match the gender-stereotyped norms of the culture in which they live. This is more than okay. The question is: what gifts has God given them, and how can they, in turn, use them for His glory?
It’s a blessing when any student approaches a student minister for help, and it is our privilege to walk alongside them. Let’s commit to bringing the truth and mercy of Christ to our same-sex attracted students, to walk alongside them as we both move forward in the life-long process of discipleship.
(This blog has been re-posted from Harvest USA | harvestusa.org. Used with permission.)
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/.