This guest post comes from Brad Hambrick, our Pastor of Counseling. For more, be sure to come to the SJI Forum that Brad is leading on this topic, on April 12, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM.
Those in ministry are familiar with the saying, “The pulpit drives the church.” The tone of the pastor will be the tone of a church and the emphasis of the pastor will be the emphasis of a church. That makes what a pastor says on any subject very important.
Having just written Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends, I wanted to offer some points of consideration for pastors. However, in doing so, these opening lines from Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk should be noted:
Conversations on controversial issues do not go well when the dialogue happens community-to-community or figurehead-to-figurehead. Whether it’s race, religion, or politics, groups don’t talk well with groups. Too much is at stake when we feel like our words and actions represent a collective-whole.
Two individuals from those respective groups are much more likely to forge a good relationship, influencing one another in various ways. Unfortunately, listening well is too quickly viewed as compromise at the corporate level; representing each side fairly feels too much like agreement.
That is why the aim of this book is friendships. Friendship is the level at which influence can be had, because the dialogue does not seek to represent-an-agenda but to understand-a-person. Friendship is what protects “good points” from becoming “gotcha moments.”
While this post is about preaching, my book is about friendship. If we rely primarily on platform ministries rather than living room ministries as our means of representing Christ to those who experience same sex attraction (SSA), we likely will not see the fruit God desires. Why? Preaching equips God’s people to represent God well as they live out the gospel in living rooms, break rooms, and around dinner tables (Eph. 4:11-13).
The greatest impact of any sermon is not in the one hour service with God’s people gathered, but in conversations and applications during the other 167 hours of the week when God’s people scatter. This plays heavily in the recommendations below. It is God’s Word that changes hearts, but especially on sensitive subjects, God’s Word is often most effective in relationships of trust.
With that said, here are some points to consider if you are preaching or teaching on homosexuality.
1. Become friends with someone who experiences SSA first. We should be wary of preaching on a subject if we don’t have a friend who has that experience. And if you find that you don’t have a friend who identifies as gay or struggles with SSA, be sure to express additional humility, thoughtfulness, and love as you teach.
Your sermon will likely be different if you’ve cried with, or at least been deeply burdened for (Rom. 12:15), a friend who experiences SSA. Having conversations that wrestle with the implications of unwanted SSA, hearing your friend struggle to reconcile their faith with their attractions, and helping your friend find a place of authentic connection with their church will impact the tone and texture of your sermon.
2. View your message as something that will open conversations. The best thing your sermon on homosexuality will do is start personal conversations, either directly between church members or indirectly as a church member invites someone to listen to your sermon and share their thoughts.
If you assume your sermon will start a conversation with someone who experiences SSA, you are less likely to use strong us-them language; creating a sense of alienation. When your goal is to start a conversation, you will be less prone to speak in a way that implies your message is “the final word” on the subject and more intentional about raising questions that cultivate a good starting place for relationships to begin.
3. Be intentional and consistent with language. In Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk I advocate for using language that differentiates same sex attraction, gay identity, and homosexual behavior. These differences have been developed by Mark Yarhouse and are helpful in at least two ways: (a) they distinguish the involuntary-unchosen aspects of same sex attraction from the volitional aspects of embracing a gay identity or engaging in homosexual behaviors, which (b) helps the person who experiences unwanted SSA see that God offers comfort and strength for their journey as well as forgiveness for when they sin.
If God is felt to only offer pardon for sin and not comfort for hardship, He is experienced as only Judge and not as Father.
4. Remember people are never called an abomination; only behaviors are. It is impossible to biblically teach on the subject of homosexuality without addressing the “abomination passages” (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) at some point. However, if you read these passages, it is clear God is only calling the act of sin an abomination. You should emphasize that the whole Bible is about God’s desire to redeem sinners and adopt them as His sons and daughters.
We must acknowledge that God’s people have frequently not modeled this distinction well. Call people to repent for whenever their words or actions have failed to represent God’s heart for people who experience unwanted SSA and the gay community. If people leave your sermon thinking only the LGBT community needs to repent, it will reinforce the values that make it feel unsafe for Christians who experience unwanted SSA to confide in anyone until their loneliness and disillusionment compels them to leave the church feeling hurt and angry.
5. Avoid applause lines and humor for self-comfort on stage. Preaching can be lonely and intimidating. After all, it’s only you on the stage and everyone else is staring. This isolation might give you some appreciation for those in your congregation who feel the loneliness of not having an outlet to talk about their experience of SSA.
Sometimes we use a one-liner or humorous remark to assuage our discomfort more than for the benefit of our audience. These moments are particularly dangerous in a sermon on homosexuality. This does not mean clear, concise take-away statements or humor are off limits in this message; it just means you should think about them in advance so that you can evaluate the unintended message or offenses you might be sending.
6. Be intentional about providing resources and outlets for conversation. Think of three audiences for these conversations. One audience would be the general church member who wants to be a better friend (i.e., ambassador of Christ) for individuals who experience SSA. This is the primary audience for Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk. Another audience would be parents of a child who has come out as gay. Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends by Mark Yarhouse is an excellent resource for parents.
As you provide this guidance to friends and family members, you are demonstrating that your church wants to be a safe place to talk about SSA, which is vital for the third audience: the person who experiences unwanted SSA. For this, I would offer several suggestions:
-Be clear about your joy and your sadness; joy that these individuals are at your church and sadness that they have likely felt their struggle has been off limits to Christian care.
-Acknowledge the fear that is involved in disclosing a struggle with SSA. None of us want to acknowledge any of our weaknesses or sins, but the social climate around the subject of homosexuality adds an additional layer of trepidation.
-Be available for pastoral conversations but be clear that you want the entire church to be a safe place. Private conversations can be an excellent first step as someone gets comfortable with part of their life being known. But pastoral counseling can never replace community. Counseling without friendship is like being stranded in the ocean and given a raft for one hour a week but being asked to swim the other 167 hours.
-Mark Yarhouse has written a workbook for individuals putting their experience of SSA into words. This tool can be recommended to help individuals grow more comfortable with what they would want to say when they are ready to disclose what they were experiencing.
In each of these suggestions, your role in the sermon is threefold:
(a) to help every member of your congregation to represent well both what God’s Word says about homosexuality and also what God’s heart feels towards those who experience SSA;
(b) to provide resources for family and friends who experience opposite sex attraction to see that friendship does not require compromising God’s standards; and
(c) to cultivate a safe environment and offer achievable steps so that individuals who experience SSA can have the Christian community God has intended as they explore embracing and/or going deeper in the gospel.
7. Invite feedback. Hopefully you are already in the habit of receiving feedback on your sermons. On controversial subjects this is even more important. Inviting feedback is another way to make your church feel safe for those who experience unwanted SSA but have not yet confided their struggle to anyone.
When we neglect to invite feedback, we create a context where people feel like they are speaking to someone who is closed; resulting in their words being more forceful. Hopefully you can see how inviting feedback does more than make the tone of your Monday-morning-inbox lighter. It is a vital step towards a more civil conversation on a subject that is notorious (on both sides) for divisive rhetoric. Until someone invites a conversation, there will be endless debates and attacks.
Consider saying something like this in your sermon, “I know this message will raise many questions. That is good. When we discuss these questions let us remember that how we share our thoughts and concerns may be the most important application of this sermon. We must learn to have conversations, not just debates. Until we can have good conversations in the church, where we share the same faith but possibly have different emphases or concerns, how will we do so with friends who disagree with Christianity and need to hear the gospel? In this sense, how we raise our questions, thoughts, or concerns may be the best measure of how prepared we are to embody this sermon.”
I pray these suggestions allow a sermon you preach or lesson you teach about homosexuality to provide not only an accurate biblical theology of sexual ethics, but also to equip your congregation to become better ambassador-friends of the gospel to members of your congregation who are struggling in silence. I also pray it opens doors for members of your congregation to befriend members of your community, who will only realize the gospel is for (not against) them, if we are willing to develop a relationship with them.