22 Aug 2019
Thirty-six years ago, my life went in a completely different direction than I had planned. While attending Westminster Theological Seminary in the suburbs of Philadelphia, one of my professors was the late Harvie Conn, and it was his influence that changed the direction of my life.
One day, Dr. Conn, who taught a class called “Missions and Ministry,” informed us that he was going to talk about an unreached and hidden people group that the church had not only overlooked but also had actively ignored.
What he said upended all my future plans.
Harvie told us that the gay and lesbian community was one of the largest and fastest-growing unreached people groups in America (this was 1983). This was partly due, he explained, to what was a hands-off approach by the evangelical church, which looked upon the gay community with uncertainty and even hostility.
Then Harvie went on to talk about another hidden people group, one that was even larger in size and scope. These were the men and women in our evangelical and reformed churches attempting to follow Christ—yet trapped in hopelessness, fear, shame, and guilt about their ongoing, crippling, and seemingly unconquerable struggles with sex and sexuality. Their struggles were often exacerbated, he added, by the silence and condemnation of the church.
Here was a man I deeply respected, saying that the church was failing an entire group of people and that this kind of ministry was desperately needed.
Here was a man I deeply respected, saying that the church was failing an entire group of people and that this kind of ministry was desperately needed.
After class, I inquired if there was any kind of work going on in this area to better minister this way. Harvie said he didn’t know of anything in the Philadelphia area, but I’ll never forget his next words. “If there’s one church which might be interested, it would be a church in Center City Philly, Tenth Presbyterian Church. Everything that’s hidden in the suburbs is ten feet from their doorstep, 24/7.” Tenth was in the middle of the gay community.
Thus began my thirty-six-year journey with Harvest USA.
The Holy Spirit would not let me forget what Harvie had shared. I called Tenth and spoke with Glen McDowell, one of their pastors. He said they had a few elders and their wives already meeting monthly to pray about such an outreach. There were a few other people who wanted to help, including one other seminary student. Glenn encouraged me to come and talk with him, and the rest is Harvest USA history.
With the visionary leadership of Tenth, the four praying officers and their wives became the official steering committee of Harvest (as the ministry was called in its first nine years before we had to add “USA” because another ministry owned the name). We launched a Bible study/support group with men and women from the gay and lesbian community. These meetings sought to bring the love and transforming power of Christ to a hurting, ostracized, and marginalized group of people. Through bulletin announcements, and in carefully worded ads in local newspapers, people began to respond. Ads tailored to reach questioning hearts, like, “Gay and Unhappy? God Cares for You,” and “Homosexual Struggle? There’s Hope in Christ” struck a chord with many. (As did later ads like, “Does Porn Have a Grip on You?”) Soon we were getting as many as twenty calls a day in our little office manned by a handful of phone volunteers.
Those who called for help were interviewed to gauge the seriousness of their struggle and desire for help and then were invited to the support group. The only requirement? You had to believe that your life wasn’t working well and that you were willing to hear what the God of Scripture said about your struggles. It was in those first small group meetings that I saw God begin to show up big time in hearts and lives. Having a safe and encouraging place where people could both wrestle with the gospel and bring all their hurts, anger, doubts, questions, and fears became fertile ground for the Spirit to work in hearts. I remember leaving one of the meetings thinking that the kind of desperation, gut-level honesty, and hunger for God I saw in this group should be true of the church in general. That’s when I became convinced that God wanted me, in some fashion, at this new fledging ministry.
But probably only as a volunteer, right? I was still in seminary, pursuing being a pastor, which was why I was there in the first place. But then a friend said, “John, what if this is what God wants you to do with your life?” He said that he saw too much spiritual fruit from my work there for me to just walk away. But, how would I do that? The steering committee challenged me to raise my support, like missionaries or campus staff.
After nine months, God had fully provided all my support. In February 1985, I became Harvest USA’s first official founding staff person.
In those early days of our ministry, God seemed to provide special oversight and care, as well as unique responses to the gospel, as he often does in the fledging years of any new gospel work. One Bible study/support group became two, then three as God added to our numbers. Parents also saw those ads and began calling—families with a loved one who had embraced a gay or lesbian identity. So we started care groups for parents.
We began specific groups for women and wives as more women responded. Both my wife, Penny, and another woman from Tenth, on staff with The Salvation Army, became the first women’s ministry leaders. God also brought us over a dozen volunteers to help out in our groups and answer the telephone in our one-room office in a huge brownstone on Spruce Street, home of our first office. One of these included Melissa, a 30-year-old former nun who had begun to attend Tenth and who had a heart for the gay community.
We saw people come to faith in Christ through our groups, as well as struggling believers who began to give Jesus ownership of their lives and struggles. We helped get them involved in local churches for more discipleship and service into the larger body of Christ. Of course, many of those from Center City Philly usually wound up at Tenth Presbyterian. The gospel-centered, reformed preaching, together with the church’s sincerity and support of Harvest USA made it a safe and attractive place where people from Harvest USA could become involved. This kind of environment led many of these men and women to become very vocal about what God was doing in their lives through their involvement in Harvest USA, and many shared their stories and testimonies from the pulpit of Tenth. Their love of Jesus, awareness of his work, and the gratitude they had seemed to overrule any fear or stigma about their particular issue or problems. They were living examples of what the psalms say, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.”
But it wasn’t just people from Philly who heard about us. God brought people to us from the most unexpected places. I remember the man who found one of our ministry brochures in the seat pocket of a plane. Another man, having just broken up with his partner, walked into a church for the first time in twenty years and found a brochure about the ministry. Then there was the household of three gay men who began attending one of our groups. They all eventually made professions of faith. One man, Jack, later married that former nun office volunteer! Another man and woman, fresh out of the gay community, began to attend, came to Christ, married, and later attended seminary, eventually becoming missionaries in Romania. We saw so many men and women come to Harvest USA and experience God’s love. It was that love that empowered them to live godly, transforming lives, and become blessings to their church as single people or those who married when they had least expected to do so.
We simply had to celebrate what God was doing! So, we began for many years hosting annual banquets where we gave thanks for God’s provision and his ongoing work. Those early banquets were labors of love for all involved. Volunteers cooked all day in Tenth’s kitchen preparing the food. My children, now all grown up, still have vivid memories of their dad driving the family van down to the Italian Market in South Philly. With my wife and children waiting in the idling van, I’d jump out at various vendors, buying forty pounds of roast beef from this vendor, chicken breasts from another, and then green beans from still another. Within a few years, we had outgrown the church fellowship hall and had to move the annual banquets to larger venues.
Of course, the highlight of these events were the personal stories people shared about the gospel of grace that God was working in their hearts and lives. On those special evenings, it was not unusual to see people deeply moved by the work of the Spirit. It wasn’t uncommon for some people to attend a dozen banquets, being drawn back to celebrate God’s work and hear the stories year after year.
But those early years were not without obstacles. Many were not supportive of the ministry, Christians and non-Christians alike. Unfortunately, some believers felt we were wasting our time with “those kinds of people.” Sadly, they often put the gay and lesbian community (even believers struggling with homosexuality) outside the scope of the gospel itself. I still cringe when I remember the time an elder told one of our staff, “I don’t care, let ‘em all go to Hell!” This, of course, deeply grieved us, and we often found ourselves needing to call these leaders to repent of their hard and self-righteous hearts.
It was also routine, back then, to receive anonymous messages on my phone machine. One woman said, “I pray daily for the demise of your ministry.” Another left a message telling me that our staff needed to check underneath our cars before we started them because one day a bomb would explode. At the time when we just had a Post Office box, one threatened that he wished he knew where we were so that he could “show up with an Uzi.”
Other flaming arrows were aimed in our direction. College students held a candlelight march around the building when our staff spoke on campus. Someone pranked the Pennsylvania Attorney General by using fake Harvest USA stationary to invite him to publically declare his homosexuality (and I first heard about this on the local evening news when I saw him rail about it)! As a result, we were investigated by the FBI.
There was the time a dead body turned up in the Schuylkill River, and the only identification found on the body was a soggy card with the words “Harvest USA” and our telephone number. The local DA wanted to know why that was so. Once, a man masquerading as a potential ministry candidate turned out to be a warlock and cast a spell on me in the office. Then there was the time posters were placed on buildings around Philadelphia saying that Harvest USA was “Enemy #1” of the gay community.
The very existence of Harvest USA and all that has followed . . . in the past 35 years is an amazing testimony to God’s goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness.
However, it was during the height of the AIDS epidemic that some of the most dramatic efforts to shut us down occurred. In 1986, AIDS was having a significant impact on those in the gay community. Christian doctors and nurses found themselves tending to AIDS patients, and I would get phone calls from them asking if I would come visit and pray for those patients who requested it. They said they were unable to cross professional boundaries and spend time praying with them.
So I found myself invited into many hospital rooms and prison cells to pray with patients and prisoners because guards and, even chaplains, were often afraid to go into prisoners’ cells and patients’ rooms. This part of the ministry continued to grow and eventually became the Word-and-mercy-focused ministry, Hope. Often these visits and mercy efforts were seen as suspect and threatening to many in the gay community, especially the politically-driven AIDS organizations. One day in 1991, in a media-orchestrated move, a large group of demonstrators tried to burst into the offices at Tenth Church.
One of the things that helped us weather all these incidents over the years was the reality that our message was welcomed by some and very threatening to others. We learned to take resistance in stride, knowing we were opposed by many—but embraced as an oasis in the desert from others.
We continued to grow as an organization and entered our maturing stage, becoming an independent 501(c)(3) with a board of directors. This broadened our impact among more churches and denominations. It also helped ensure more financial support. We also left our small office in Center City Philadelphia and stepped up to something bigger elsewhere in the city.
In the mid-1990s, the arrival of the internet brought pornography into the privacy of the home through personal computers. We started receiving calls from men, pastors, and wives, seeking help and ways to help. Women called about their own struggles with pornography. That’s when the ministry went from its original focus as an outreach to the gay community to include those dealing with sexual brokenness on several levels. Our ministry to parents also expanded. God was faithful in bringing us additional gospel-driven, caring staff along the way as a ministry force.
While Harvest USA has always been about the gospel and people, in the late 1990s we adopted a dual focus and mission. In addition to our life-on-life discipleship for sexual strugglers (which currently can include over a hundred people in groups and personal discipleship on any given week), we began a concerted effort to be an educational and equipping resource for the local church. This became a much-needed focus welcomed by many churches who wanted to become equipped to more effectively care for their people impacted by sexual brokenness, temptations, and sins.
As I write this, I see afresh God’s hand on this ministry as an undeniable reality through all the stories and places and situations that God has led us through for 35 years. In the beginning, it was just me, a few volunteers, one room, a telephone, a typewriter, and a budget of $16,000. Today, we have a staff of twenty, multiple volunteers and interns, two office locations, lots of phones and computers, and a two-million dollar budget. This is incredible growth, a tangible sign of God’s presence and blessing.
The very existence of Harvest USA and all that has followed in this ministry in the past 35 years is an amazing testimony to God’s goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness. A very real part of God’s blessing includes the faithfulness of our ministry partners, the people who enable us to minister the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ, here in Philadelphia, around the country, and even, internationally, every day. That’s why I’m so excited about where God is taking us in the future.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
15 Aug 2019
The date: Friday, October 24, 1997. It was a sunny, mild day in Philadelphia. I remember staring at my telephone, holding the church bulletin in my hand. My pulse raced. My breathing was quick and shallow. I knew what I had to do—but so many times before, I got to this point and rationalized why I shouldn’t go through with it. I needed to call Harvest USA. I needed to tell someone, for the first time in my life, that I struggled with same-sex attraction. I didn’t want to live life as a gay man.
The call was answered personally (as they are today) and an appointment with a staff member was set for the next business day (though today, the wait for an appointment might be a bit longer). When I saw him, he challenged me with this observation: “Your biggest problem isn’t homosexuality. It’s idolatry.” So began a journey of faith, growth, and repentance that continues to this day.
Only one staff member from 1997 is still around today. So much has changed in the last twenty-two years! Our location (two moves since then), our staff (more than doubled), our budget (quadrupled), and our logo (changed and colorized). About 90% of the people we ministered to in 1997 were men; today, it’s closer to 70%. Back then, nearly all our time went toward helping people in our office (what we call Direct Ministry). Over the intervening years, we’ve also discerned the call to equip the Church to minister to people affected by sexual brokenness. We’ve become a national organization.
In 2018, we reached more people than ever before: we helped 894 individuals and families in our offices through our Direct Ministry programs (a 3% increase over the prior year). And, we engaged over 63,000 people last year through our educational and equipping ministry. We estimate that to be a 15% increase over 2017.
Though much has changed at Harvest USA, a lot has stayed the same. We remain committed to discipleship as our sole ministry objective. When someone comes to us for help with a sexual or gender-related struggle, we don’t focus on behavior change. Just as I was challenged two decades ago that idolatry (the Bible’s term to explain out of control desires of the heart) was my most significant issue, so we challenge men and women today. Walking in faith and repentance (those two realities can’t be separated) depends on growing in love with the Lord Jesus Christ. As our hearts warm toward him and his covenant love, his Spirit is the One who gives us grace to live differently.
The culture has certainly changed since 1997. Many today view the Bible as outdated, irrelevant, and unsophisticated regarding sex, sexuality, and gender. So much of the current philosophies that underlie how our culture views human sexuality are borne of selfishness and out of a materialistic worldview. Many see sex as nothing more than a biological urge for pleasure. The new understanding of gender says that gender is malleable, that we are all on a gender spectrum, and it is up to the individual to decide their own gender, based on their feelings.
I needed to tell someone, for the first time in my life, that I struggled with same-sex attraction. I didn’t want to live life as a gay man.
Sadly, more and more people in the Church are adopting these worldly philosophies about issues that Scripture addresses clearly. Many Christians who favor these worldviews are under the age of forty. Statistically, Millennials as a group see nothing unbiblical about LGBTQ+ identity and behavior. And our youngest generation, Generation Z (young people up through college age) has the highest levels of acceptance of these secular values.
We see this in the requests for help we constantly receive. Youth leaders asking for help because a member of their youth group has declared themselves to be transgender or someone has self-identified as gay. The challenge for these youth leaders is how to respond in ways that speak the truth in love to their younger brothers and sisters in the faith.
That’s one of the key questions Harvest USA is answering now, and it’s one of the critical areas where our ministry will grow in the months and years to come.
Where do we believe the Lord is leading Harvest USA? What do we anticipate ministry in 2020 and beyond will look like?
- We’ll remain firmly grounded in Scripture. While the broader Christian culture may tinker with Scripture to make it fit its agenda, Harvest USA will remain firmly committed to the unchanging, inerrant authority of Scripture and what it says about God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender.
- We’ll be ministering to more people. The number of people we minister to in our offices will stay about the same as last year. But through using technology to do direct ministry (adding online biblical support groups as an adjunct to our live, in-person groups), and growing the number of our Partner Ministries in churches, we anticipate a 15% increase in the number of people helped each year for the next five years. By 2024, we want to be helping 2,000 people annually both through Direct Ministry in our offices and our Partner Ministries in local churches.
- We’ll be teaching more people to understand and live out biblical concepts of sex, sexuality, and gender. We don’t plan to do more teaching events in the coming years, but we do expect to equip more people. You can read about Harvest USA’s Sexually Faithful Church Initiative that explains this more here. We want to see 50 churches become sexually faithful churches by the end of 2020, and then add another 50 per year in 2021 and beyond. Sexually faithful churches will talk with their members at all age levels about biblical concepts of sex, sexuality, and gender. Through discipleship, proactive accountability, and transparency in community—equipping tools we’ll help churches develop and grow—these churches will help their members better resist sexual temptation and sin, grow in their delight to follow Christ in this area of life, and steer clear of the type of temptations that turn into life-dominating sin patterns.
Partner Ministries help gender and sexual strugglers to walk in increasing faith and repentance. But they also help family members learn how to maintain an ongoing relationship with their loved ones who struggle without compromising truth.
- We’ll be equipping more churches to help those affected by sexual and gender-related struggle and sin. We want sexually faithful churches to provide ministry to their members who are affected by different types of sexual and gender-related sin. This includes those who struggle, as well as family members (parents and spouses) impacted by those struggles. Part of our commitment to equip churches to do that is producing a new line of curricula to help in those discipleship relationships. We’ll be self-publishing curricula for men, women, wives, and parents. These resources are ideal for a one-on-one discipleship relationship or a small group setting.
- We’ll help more churches start Partner Ministries. Partner Ministries are ministries run by local churches, which Harvest USA helps them start, and we support them as they do their work. Partner Ministries help gender and sexual strugglers to walk in increasing faith and repentance. But they also help family members learn how to maintain an ongoing relationship with their loved ones who struggle without compromising truth. Since 2010, we’ve been slowly growing a network of Partner Ministries around the country. We want to add three new Partner Ministries each year, and this year we’ll be implementing new ways to support the leaders of those ministries.
- We’ll produce more resources for the Church and individuals. We plan to publish more print, video, and electronic resources that God’s people can access to learn more about specific issues and how to help people struggling with them. That means more articles, blog posts, and short videos like you’re used to seeing in our harvestusa magazine and on harvestusa.org. And, we’ll create many more resources to be accessed through our website.
- We’re committed to expanding our use of technology-based learning. Almost since its inception, Harvest USA’s equipping ministry has consisted mostly of live, in-person equipping events in churches and other venues. While we’re not ending this part of our equipping ministry, we’ve found that sometimes the travel, cost, and staff time for live teaching events isn’t the wisest or most effective way to equip people and churches. In 2018, we began to transfer some of our presentations to either recorded video or webinar-based formats. We believe that using technology will allow us to equip more people around the world and do so at a lower cost.
- We’ll become an international ministry. Through the use of technology to conduct our equipping ministry and disseminate our resources, we anticipate that more people not only in the United States but around the world will benefit from the ministry work we do.
I’m excited about the ministry of Harvest USA in the years to come. Please pray that the Lord would keep us faithful to Scripture and that he would use the ongoing and growing ministry of Harvest USA to equip his Church to disciple his people biblically, powerfully, and compassionately. We want to help make the Church the increasingly holy, faithful witness she is meant to be in a world that needs to hear—and see—the Gospel at work.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
01 Aug 2019
Harvest USA is committed to helping churches disciple men and women dealing with life-dominating sexual struggles and sin. Theo and Brittany, who now run a ministry out of their church, one that Harvest USA helped start, give testimony to the power of the Body of Christ in shaping faith and lives.
Theo: It started in college during freshman orientation. Brittany and I met during a pivotal season in our lives. Brittany’s mom had passed away that fall, and I was facing the reality that I struggled with same-sex attraction. When we met, we sensed that there was a connection, but thought we would just be friends forever—nothing more. We clung to each other that first semester, becoming fast friends—sharing our backgrounds, secrets, wishes, and dreams. Brittany provided comfort to me in a time I needed it.
Brittany: Throughout most of college, Theo and I went our separate ways. I buried myself in my schoolwork. I was an art major, and it was demanding enough to justify escaping from my grief. Losing my mom was something I ran from, and college came at the perfect time. Theo dove head first into the athlete world—morning weights, long practices, and parties all week.
Theo: When we graduated, we both moved to Charlotte, NC. Over the next year, we both hit rock bottom. Brittany was in a godless relationship, making poor decisions, and planning a future that didn’t fit with what she believed. I was drowning myself in the party scene, looking for validation, acceptance, and whatever made me feel “masculine.” I was desperate to escape my developing attraction to other men, sporadically giving into these desires.
Brittany: I just signed a lease with my boyfriend to move into an apartment the following weekend. My mom’s best friend lived in Charlotte and was like a second mother to me. She got wind of my plans and confronted me in a way no one else could. She spoke as a mother, a friend, and a believer in Christ. Her boldness gave me the courage to take my first step in trusting the Lord, deciding to not live with my boyfriend. Throughout the next year, with the help of my new small group leaders at church, I felt convicted to walk away from this relationship. I saw the contrast in who God was asking me to be and who I had become.
I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships.
Theo: The Lord intervened in my life by watching Brittany and her involvement in church. I saw her trusting the Lord. I felt a pull to the church—like it could be an answer to my struggle with sexual sin. The only Christian I knew in Charlotte was Brittany, so I reached out to her to ask about finding a small group.
She pointed me to a men’s group. I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships. Later that year, we went on a retreat. A friend asked some hard questions that enabled me to share my struggles with same-sex attraction, as well as my patterns of pornography and hook-ups associated with these sinful desires. That weekend, I felt the Holy Spirit push me to tell the other guys on the retreat. This was my first act of obedience and was the start of my healing.
Following the retreat, the guys in the group pursued me, asking questions and praying for me. It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ. The pastor of our community regularly met with me—he never made me feel ashamed but encouraged me and prayed for me. Coming into the light was critical for my walk with God to grow.
It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ.
Brittany: My friendship with Theo grew stronger and more intimate. We shared our discovery of God and our excitement for the church. People told us frequently that we would be good together, but we were just friends. Best friends. I heard the expression once, “As you run the race toward heaven and continue to pursue holiness in the Lord, look to your left and right and see who is running beside of you.” We were always beside each other, finding new ways to get involved, to serve, to gather our community. Eventually, Theo started to see as more than friends, but I was oblivious. Yet my love for him was growing.
Theo: When I realized I wanted to pursue Brittany as more than a friend, I was terrified of her rejection. After all, what woman would marry a man who admits to having an attraction to other men? It felt like a disease—and I wasn’t “healed” yet. I finally told her about the work God had been doing in my life. I confessed my sexual sin to her. Brittany told me later that this was the moment she fell in love with me. Six months later, we started dating, and soon after, we would be two of the grass-root leaders of the Set Free Ministry at our church, dedicated to walking alongside men and women who come out of the shadows of sexual sin in search of the healing power of the Gospel.
Set Free Ministry was launched with the help of Harvest USA in 2015 as a ministry of Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, NC. The leadership team consists of ten leaders who shepherd men, women, wives, and parents of those who are struggling. Were it not for the men, women, and pastors who pursued us, two young wanderers, we may have never found the church, the Lord, or each other. Our God orchestrates his timing over everything, and it’s always perfect. Praise the Lord for his handiwork and the, sometimes messy, pursuit of his children!
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
01 Aug 2019
Where do you begin when someone in your church tells you they struggle with sexual sin of some sort? What is the first thing you say? And after that, what specific help can you give? What if you have never done something like this before?
The answer is not a series of precise to-dos laid out in sequence. It first starts in your view of personal growth and change. And that brings up a much bigger question, the one you must begin with if you, and your church, will effectively help strugglers. It’s about discipleship.
How is the Church called to disciple its people? Not in terms of content, but of practice? What does discipleship in the local church actually look like? What should it look like?
It can be difficult for churches to talk about discipleship because a precise definition is often a moving target. Some would say that discipleship encompasses everything that the church does to help people follow Jesus. Others would say that discipleship is one very specific educational model, counted as one of the many ministries of the church. If we look at the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the early church, one might find that both of those perspectives of discipleship can and should be valued. At the same time, there are some common shortcomings in practice that are often associated with both views.
For those who favor a broad definition of discipleship, it is common (though certainly not universal) that, in practice, discipleship looks like a speaker-to-listener monologue. From Sunday mornings to weekly classes, the primary means of growth is lecture. But while instructing God’s people in the truth of his Word is an essential aspect of discipleship, if we look at Jesus’ ministry, we can see that it is not the whole of discipleship.
For those who lean towards a more specific or precise understanding of discipleship—characterizing it as a unique educational model—there can often be a spoken or unspoken two-tiered classification of believers. In this case, there are the “regular” Christians, and there are the “real disciples” who are most committed to the faith. Historically, this perspective has led to discipling movements that can trend in high-pressure, legalistic directions.
It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined.
This paradigm is completely contradictory to the New Testament model. The word Christian is only used three times in the New Testament. The word disciple is used far more often to refer to followers of Jesus. All of his followers are disciples. God’s forgiveness in Christ is complete and full of grace. Growth in grace is also just that: gracious. Our Father doesn’t look at his people in two categories: Christian and super-Christian. He looks at his people and sees beloved children.
So then, how do we define discipleship? Is it everything the church does that helps people grow more and more like Christ? Yes! But if we look at the ministry of Jesus, we can flesh that out a bit more. Should Jesus’ model and methods of ministry inform what we do as His church? I believe it should.
It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined. In fact, the closer he got to the cross, the more time he spent with the twelve and the less time he spent with the crowds. If we’re honest, most of us would not consider that to be a top church-growth strategy for today. But this was Jesus’ plan for the world to hear the good news of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and return: a few ordinary, uneducated men who had been with him. This had been Jesus’ plan from the beginning of his earthly ministry.
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” is an invitation into relationship and growth with a mission in mind. When Jesus calls the twelve in Mark 3:14, he calls them “so that they might be with him, and he might send them out to preach…” In Jesus’ discipling of the twelve, monologue or sermon-style content transfer was not his only means of transformation. At the heart of His discipleship was this “withness” and mission. We see this in Paul’s ministry as well in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2.8).
There is both content delivery (the gospel) and deep relationship (“withness”) at the heart of this discipleship ministry. However we define discipleship, we cannot leave it devoid of personal relationship.
We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.
I have the privilege of speaking with pastors each year in the US and abroad who believe that their church is doing well, but there is a missing piece that they just can’t put their finger on. They’ve got good preaching, good classes, and a sometimes great, sometimes frustrating small group structure, but they’re not seeing people mature in their faith the way they had hoped. What I’ve found repeatedly as I listen is that they are longing for an intentional approach to help their people become mature and equipped followers of Christ, and they don’t know what that looks like.
We at Life on Life Ministries (a ministry of Perimeter Church) have a working definition for what we call life-on-life missional discipleship: laboring in the lives of a few with the intention of imparting one’s life, the gospel, and God’s Word in such a way as to see them become mature and equipped followers of Christ, committed to doing the same in the lives of others. We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.
Surely, it’s not a perfect definition, but it is a helpful one. As we work to build a discipling movement in our church and equip pastors of other churches to help them do the same, we want to focus primarily on what we see in the ministry of Jesus with his twelve men. Certainly, we are not asking anyone to become an itinerant preacher and recruit twelve people to spend all day together every day, but I do believe there are principles from Jesus’ life and ministry of discipling that we can apply to our context today. And I think the definition of life-on-life missional discipleship captures some of those principles in ways that we can use in the church today.
It could also be helpful to think about life-on-life missional discipleship in terms of what it is not. It is NOT life on curriculum (though a good curriculum is certainly helpful). It is NOT life on knowledge (though understanding God’s Word is essential). It is NOT life on programs. It is NOT an event.
So, what might a healthy discipling culture look like in a church? It’s one that’s rooted from beginning to end in the gospel. The goal of discipleship is not behavior modification; it is to be conformed into the image of Christ. That happens as we engage with Christ in the gospel day after day (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). As this kind of transformation happens, behaviors do change because the heart is changed. A healthy discipling culture is also built on intentional, accountable relationships that are mutually committed to growth. It also must be built with the mission of the church in mind: to seek and save the lost and to help others grow into Christ-likeness. A healthy movement should be holistic. Any sphere of life is on the table for growth: work, family, sexual struggles, joys, etc. Within relationships that reflect the heart of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, study of the Scriptures, equipping, accountability, prayer, and missional living bear fruit in lives, families, communities, and workplaces.
What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle?
Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time.
It starts by investing in just a few people, helping them move towards maturity in all areas of life. This kind of discipling relationship is not a quick fix, it’s messy, and it’s difficult. If you knew me personally, if you knew my heart, you would easily be able to verify that I am no “super-Christian” exception.
What would it look like, then, to disciple people who are just as messy and difficult as we are? What if their messiness and difficulties look very different from our own? The key to developing intentional accountable relationships is a gospel-centered culture. Performance-based cultures promote pretense, not vulnerability. And within that environment, there will be no freedom to reveal, share, and confess our sin. No opportunity to ask for help.
So the first step is to create a safe space for people to be transparent in their need both for Jesus and for the support and encouragement of his body. Setting the expectations for the group before it begins meeting is vitally important. Before I invite someone to join my group, I tell them that I believe honesty and vulnerability are incredibly important for our group. We are not doing this because we’ve got it all together, we are doing this because we are desperately in need of Jesus and each other to grow more towards maturity. That may be intimidating to hear, which is why I also emphasize that I don’t expect this will happen in the first week or month because it takes time to build trust, and trust will be the foundation of healthy accountability. This is one of the reasons that we have a discipleship covenant that members are asked to pray through and sign before joining the group. The second critical step, in my opinion, is that the leader of the group lead with vulnerability, modeling repentance, and asking for accountability.
With that established, I can circle back to how to help a sexual struggler. What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle? You listen. Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time. Francis Schaeffer once said in his sermon, The Weakness of God’s Servants, “A Bible-believing Christian should have the experience of never being shocked; if we read our Bibles, we should never be shocked.” I love that.
From the beginning, this discipleship group has been a place for sinners in need of God’s grace for our growth, so when we confess our sins to one another and ask for help, this should be no surprise. I want this person to know two very important things: that no struggle with sin is beyond the reach of the gospel and we are not going to run away from you because of what you’ve just shared. You do not have to be a licensed counselor to listen and support someone. Where you go from here varies from situation to situation. You will learn as you go. As a discipleship leader, you are not in a vacuum. Discipleship happens in the context of community. You are a part of a local and global church that displays a variety of gifts for the building up of one another. Other godly men and women can come alongside that person and equip you as a leader along the way.
All of this will take time, and more importantly, it will take dependence on God to be the one who ultimately does the work of transformation. If you’ve never had someone invest in you in this way, that’s OK. Look at Jesus. Look at how he invested in those twelve men. See his relationships with them, his compassion and patience, how he challenged their wrong beliefs, how he equipped them, how he sent them out.
How do you start a discipling movement in your church? We have a simple motto that guides all of our training: Think Big, Start Small, Go Deep. We long to see the world transformed by people encountering the living God. We want to pray and plan and work hard for the gospel to go to places where it has not yet taken root. Discipleship is about following Jesus and pointing people to Jesus: let’s let him be our primary model.
25 Jul 2019
In March of 2012, my wife and I, along with a group of dear friends, planted Citylight Church in Philadelphia. I was 26 years old and well over the average age among the early members of the church. By God’s grace, Citylight and I have aged, but we are still very young. As a result, the elders of Citylight Church have had the privilege and challenge of reaching, and then shepherding, a flock full of millennials and iGens toward sexual fidelity when that demographic increasingly embraces unbiblical positions on sex, sexuality, marriage, pornography, and gender. Throughout the journey, one passage of Scripture that has been particularly formative for us is Colossians 1:28-29 (ESV): “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
In this rich passage, we have found three guiding principles for making disciples among generations steeped in sexual confusion and brokenness. Proclaim. Warn and Teach. Remember Your Goal and Your Energy.
The very best way to help young people honor Jesus with their sexuality is by proclaiming to them all that Jesus is and all that Jesus does. We’ve watched something stunning happen over the years at Citylight as we tirelessly proclaim Jesus Christ as the eternal Son who was with the Father in the beginning, as the One through whom and for whom everything was made, as the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, as the perfect high priest who has brought us to God through his shed blood, as the resurrected Lord who secures our new birth, as the One who is with us always by the indwelling Holy Spirit, as the King who invites us into a kingdom larger than our own, and as the Savior who will return to deliver us from the wrath to come.
We’ve seen people become increasingly captivated by Jesus and decreasingly captivated by unbiblical sexual beliefs and practices. Many of the millennials I know (myself included) are worn out by their own narcissism. We are hungry for a King whose Kingdom isn’t a celebration of us. As we proclaim the wonder of Jesus’ person and work, over time, we’ve seen countless young people turn from the idol of sex to serve the “living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Never stop proclaiming Jesus.
Warn and Teach
Teaching is the orderly presentation of Christian truth for converts so that they may know how to grow.1 Since we want to present everyone in Citylight Church mature in Christ, we have to explicitly connect the proclamation of Jesus to the details of people’s lives, and that happens through warning and teaching. Gone are the days when people naturally connect the message of the gospel to its implications for sexuality. We have to warn and teach so that gospel proclamation leads to specific gospel application.
Many of the millennials I know (myself included) are worn out by their own narcissism. We are hungry for a King whose Kingdom isn’t a celebration of us.
When it comes to teaching, one of the very best ways to connect the gospel to issues of sexuality is to preach through books of the Bible when the church gathers. This practice ensures that we will talk a lot about sexual issues because the Bible talks a lot about sexual issues.
Other ways that we teach our church to connect the gospel to its sexual implications are through membership classes, our member covenant, through our small group leader trainings, through our weekly small groups that discuss the book of the Bible we are learning from on Sundays, and by encouraging and resourcing a culture of one-to-one discipleship where we help apply the gospel to the details of one another’s lives.
Warning in Scripture refers to confronting with the intent of changing one’s attitudes and actions. Warning is critical for maturity. In Proverbs, Solomon warns his maturing son that though sexual sin looks fabulous, he needs to know that “the dead are there” (Proverbs 9:18). Solomon warns his son by helping him consider where sexual sin will lead. At Citylight, we try to encourage a culture of love and courage that makes warning possible. Love desires the best for the other, and courage is willing to get in the way of someone walking toward destruction.
Most millennials have been discipled by the culture into a “live and let live” mindset when it comes to sexual expression. The result is that warning often feels like hate, rather than love. However, we have to keep Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in mind (Mark 10:17-22). Verse 21 says that Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. Jesus then proceeded to tell the young man something he would have hated to hear: sell all that you have. Jesus, love incarnate, teaches us that love sometimes warns and says things that the beloved might hate to hear for the sake of their good (see also Acts 20:20).
I have one very practical encouragement to pastors and leaders when it comes to teaching and warning others: equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Teaching and warning one another to apply the gospel to issues of sexuality requires a level of closeness that a leader can only have with so many people. Therefore, the Christian leader should make it their goal to equip the saints to teach and warn one another (Romans 15:14). There is no perfect structure for equipping the saints to teach and warn one another (classes, training, leader development, online courses, etc.). Simply pick one, start equipping your people, and adjust the structure as needed.
I am overjoyed to tell you that God is powerfully at work in churches throughout our region who are reaching scores of young people and maintaining biblical fidelity in the area of gender and sexuality.
Equipping the saints to minister to one another’s sexual struggles is aided significantly by a culture of family in the church. The two best ways I know to create a culture of family in the church are to talk about the church as a family constantly and have the leaders go first in modeling transparency about their sexual struggles with a few trusted church members who can, in turn, do the same with other church members.
Remember Your Goal and Your Energy
Finally, keep your goal in mind as you minister to this confused generation. On this side of eternity, the results of proclaiming, warning, and teaching will always be a mixed bag. As a result, discouragement will always be nipping at your heels as you seek to lead people (young or old) toward sexual fidelity. As someone who is easily prone toward discouragement, I have to press into the goal of and energy behind my shepherding. My goal is to present everyone mature in Christ. My ministry isn’t about me; it’s about Christ. Why should I be discouraged?
My energy is the powerful working of God. Prayer kills discouragement and leads us into dependence on God who is powerful. I am overjoyed to tell you that God is powerfully at work in churches throughout our region who are reaching scores of young people and maintaining biblical fidelity in the area of gender and sexuality. Rest assured, you do not need to compromise Scripture’s clear teaching on human sexuality to reach people or build the church. Jesus will build his church. That’s his promise. Our privilege is to toil and struggle for our people with all his energy that he powerfully works within us!
This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
1 The New American Commentary, Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon by Richard Melick Jr.
A heartbreaking twenty-year regret. I saw something and hesitated. A summer’s day walk through a park led me by a parked car. A glance gave me a brief view inside the car to notice a man and what looked like a young child. Something felt off; when the man looked over, and we locked eyes, I froze internally but kept walking. I hadn’t seen any obvious wrongdoing, but his face and a subtle alarm going off in my heart rattled me. Scared and confused, I rushed to the neighborhood police station and reported what I’d seen and was told a car would be sent out.
A twenty-year regret that I did not approach that car leads me to pray occasionally for the now-adult-child, just in case a vulnerable child was hurt that day.
A disturbing fact that should motivate Christians toward vigilant, courageous action is that sexual misconduct and abuse of power happens even among us. To us. By us. It’s not only those “out there,” like the child in the car, who need protection, but all those who are vulnerable within the church.
Four Steps Churches Must Take
This is a deeply troubling, potentially overwhelming topic, so consider the following four steps as your church’s starting point for being a sexually faithful church. At the end of this article, there are a few resources to further guide your church.
Acknowledge that the horror of sexual abuse has happened to many people in your congregation, and they come into the Body of Christ with deep scars and wounds. See them; they are there. Your ministry needs to take their stories into account as you pastor because trauma does not disappear into the past. Those with abuse histories are especially vulnerable to being abused again.
Acknowledge, also, that abuse can happen in your church, particularly by those in leadership. It’s terrible, but true, that sexual predators target faith communities. Why? Christians are often naive, quick to trust, ignorant of this problem, and churches generally offer easy access to children.1 Abusers find the church to be a refuge for their evil deeds.
The abuse scandals that have rocked churches share a common thread: the abused were not listened to. Disbelief and cover-up became the way many churches dealt with the allegations. Rather than pursue truth and protect and care for the wounded, leaders covered for their friends, colleagues, for the reputation of their ministry and church.
The result: Broken and bruised children and teens (adults, too) weren’t believed. Lives were further traumatized; the faith of many failed.
Humanity is so utterly devastated by appalling sin that we need radical intervention through Christ. On behalf of the vulnerable, it is God himself who calls leaders to see the broken and respond to them.
Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.
“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25:44-45).
Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.
Learn what you need to do to protect your flock. This task may seem overwhelming, but thankfully there are a growing number of trustworthy resources like Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) which provide education and training on subjects like:
- How to develop a comprehensive plan for your church regarding the vetting of anyone who has a role of responsibility for the vulnerable.
- How to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse.
- How to recognize the typical profiles of pedophiles. Most pedophiles know their victims and are winsome, skilled deceivers who can present in church settings as charming, dedicated Christians.
- How to conduct an effective investigation of accusations of abuse, particularly if the accused is a pastor, staff member, or lay leader.
- How to develop policies, communicated and agreed upon by all leaders and staff, to refuse to hide or cover-up any allegations, and hold one another accountable to follow through.
But do more than study policies and procedures. Read stories from those who are survivors of sexual abuse. Talk with those who are willing to share their stories. These first-hand stories flesh out in powerful ways how abuse can happen, what its devastating impact is, and how the church can effectively protect and respond.
PROVIDE COMPASSIONATE CARE
It goes without saying that this is vital for those who have been abused. So gather resources that provide a list of experienced and spiritually mature people, men and women in your congregation that can come alongside those who have been hurt, and professional counselors who are experienced in counseling trauma and abuse victims and for their families who are also profoundly impacted.
Care is needed for the abusers, also. God’s grace goes the full distance to forgive all sin, and to provide healing through his Spirit, including the hearts of abusers. But offenders also need protection from themselves. A compassionate approach to abuse means that the abuser must submit to boundaries, guidelines, and oversight, and any refusal to do so will mean discipline and even expulsion from the church.
LEAN ON JESUS
Finally, to protect the vulnerable, sexually faithful churches need to depend on Jesus to do this. I close with this because, after considering the first three steps, no one can doubt that this kind of ministry is beyond anyone’s ability. We cannot lament what is horrific, confront sins such as deceit, malice, abuse, betrayal, and pride, care for children and adults who have been devastated by the selfishness of others, and deal with abusers from our personal and feeble reserves of wisdom and love. We need radical wisdom and strength from outside of ourselves; we need a Savior and Redeemer, and we have one in Jesus.
“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9). We cannot be satisfied with saying these words; we must live them out as ones who are called to reflect him.
This article first appeared in the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
“Recommendations for Churches Dealing With Abuse” by Diane Langberg
Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) is an excellent resource for churches
Onguard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church by Deepak Reju
1GRACE, “Five Characteristics of Child Sexual Offenders in Faith Communities,” (accessed 10 May 2019).
Ellen shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can Your Church Protect the Vulnerable in Your Midst? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Probably the most significant issue the Church must address is protecting church members from being abused by those in leadership. Story after story after story over the past several decades has shown how women, children, and even men, have been sexually abused by pastors, priests, and other leaders. But it gets worse. When the abuse is exposed, the Church has protected the abusers instead of protecting the abused and making things right. This unspeakable tragedy is what has contributed to increasingly falling church attendance rates.
The Church needs to acknowledge that all Christians struggle sexually in some way. But it must also recognize, and attend to, those in its midst who struggle with same-sex attraction. While the biblical worldview of sex and sexuality does not embrace gay relationships, that does not mean the Church ignores or mistreats those who try to live faithful lives with a struggle they did not choose.
Tim Geiger gives five ways you can walk alongside someone who struggles with same-sex attraction, communicating along the way that he or she is a fellow believer who is loved and valued—by God and by you! You can learn more by reading Tim’s blog, “Loving Our LGBTQ+ Struggling Brothers and Sisters,” and our recent harvestusa magazine where this article first appeared.
A sexually faithful church must take seriously its role to love, embrace, disciple, and include those who struggle with attractions and desires that conflict with Scripture.
Those who live with an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction, and those who feel that their sense of gender is in conflict with their body, struggle deeply with feeling different. In a church culture where marriage and family are placed on a high pedestal, where relationships that move from dating to courtship to engagement to wedding are celebrated, those with same-sex attraction wrestle with loneliness, isolation, and discouragement. They know and have heard repeatedly that God is opposed to same-sex marriage. They see a future that feels cut off for them.
Upon hearing this, some in the Church who do not struggle with same-sex or gender issues may feel tempted toward impatience with their brothers and sisters who do. But I encourage you to resist that temptation, as well as its close relative, the temptation to offer quick solutions.
Feelings of painful loneliness and isolation aren’t temporary feelings of distress for those who experience same-sex attraction or gender struggle. They are a present and future reality. They can’t be easily dismissed or replaced with positive thinking. These are deep heart-wounds that the Lord calls the Church to help dress, treat, and heal, over a lifetime.
But what does this look like? What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, experience the joy of a relationship that leads to marriage? How can the Church become to these brothers and sisters a home, a place of security and comfort where they feel connected to others in the Body of Christ, where their genuine sense of being different will be fully met by the love of Christ, the embrace of brothers and sisters, and a rich life of living for others in the Body?
These questions, and how we answer them, are not inconsequential. They are difficult ones. They are not issues of accommodation or political correctness. They are about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ for every follower of Christ.
How can the Church become to these brothers and sisters a home, a place of security and comfort where they feel connected to others in the Body of Christ, where their genuine sense of being different will be fully met by the love of Christ, the embrace of brothers and sisters, and a rich life of living for others in the Body?
I am thankful that in the last several years these questions are being wrestled with by the evangelical church. But while I have been encouraged by this new-found desire for the Church to reach out to and include same-sex attracted and gender-struggling men and women who desire to follow God’s design for sexuality, I have also seen three ways these questions are being answered in ways that are not encouraging.
Here are the issues that concern me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: Identity, The Body of Christ, and The Nature of Change.
There is a significant push to accept a gay identity for those who experience same-sex attraction. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this article will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So, I will briefly mention two things that concern me about this contentious issue.
First, while those who advocate for this position insist that using identity language is not saying that sexual orientation is the core part of one’s personhood, it nevertheless is a position that echoes the noise from our culture. Our post-Christian culture says that one’s sexual identity is the deepest core of personhood, hence the multiplicity of words and letters to describe oneself.
On the one side, the argument is that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But on the other side, the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology is confusing, and it inevitably gets embedded in the culture’s understanding of gay or the LGBTQ+ acronym. Again, as used culturally, the language proclaims that one’s sexuality is a major, if not the predominant, understanding of human personhood. It is not unreasonable to assume that what is said now as merely descriptive will soon be only understood as a major category of being a Christian (see my comments on the Body of Christ below). That would be a significant error.
Secondly, the historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. But some are reshaping this understanding in this direction: Same-sex attraction, acted upon, remains sinful, but as a condition of one’s being or identity, it is benign and can be a beneficial way of looking at and experiencing the world.
In this view, the experience of having same-sex attraction enhances one’s life, particularly in the realm of non-sexual friendships and community. Instead of being a remnant of indwelling sin, which must in Christ be mastered and overcome, same-sex attraction is like a personality trait to be nurtured and enjoyed.
I’ve discussed this in my blog post “Gay + Christian?” My main point there is that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). The compelling and controlling power of corrupted characteristics, desires, drives, and compulsions (sin) that used to characterize us begin to fall away in our union with Christ. No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.
No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.
Those who advocate for such terminology need to realize that doing so is not harmless. It is an endeavor charged with meaning, ripe for being continually misunderstood, and one which will encourage those who call themselves “gay” or “queer Christians” to further identify with the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.
As I heard from my seminary professor, there is a good reason to trust two millennia of biblical interpretation on this. Currently, there are passionate debates on whether same-sex attraction apart from same-sex sexual behavior is sin or not. (You can read Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.)
This is the issue where the biggest battles are being fought. As believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to what Scripture says and not human experience.
The Body of Christ
Identity labeling leads to separation at some level. It distinguishes something foundational or characteristic about the person and others who share that identity form and develop a separate culture.
There is nothing new about doing this. We resonate and connect with others who share histories, events, places from which we’ve come, struggles, etc. Shared experiences bring us together and overcome our isolation and loneliness.
But it matters a great deal what those shared experiences are and the meaning that is attached to them.
Another term I am hearing is “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.
Developing a separate subculture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church.
One of Christ’s chief desires for his Church is that we would be dynamically united to him and one another. We are to be “members [of the Body] one of another” (Ephesians 4:25), joined together by and through the power of Christ, so that we might build up the entire Body to become increasingly like Christ, for the glory of God (4:15-16). Creating a category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.
What value is there to a Christian identifying as a sexual minority? How does that help him or her? How does it enhance the integrity and unity of the Church? How does it honor Christ? How does it help Christians who struggle with sexual or gender-related sin to walk in repentance? I can’t see the benefit, though I do understand the rationale.
And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood and mistreated by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for them.
But the answer is not to create a separate queer culture within the Church, where Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ can flourish. If the Church is called to unity, then this is an opportunity for the Church to repent and be increasingly sensitive and compassionate to those wounded by the power and effects of sin—and even hurt by the Church.
Churches must find ways to cultivate and provide appropriate, godly relational intimacy for people who might never be married. We must find ways to value singleness as a calling (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7), and include unmarried Christians in the full life of the Church. And, we must resist the longstanding temptation to name same-sex and gender-related sin patterns as worse than other patterns of sin. Our same-sex and gender-struggling brothers and sisters are sinners in need of the same grace as anyone else.
The Nature of Change
One side effect is that such labels tend to stick. It is a lie of the world to believe that same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is innate and unchangeable. I am not for a moment stating that complete change in desires or attraction always happens. That belief has hurt many. But change can happen. It’s a process completely under the sovereign purview of God.
Through taking on a “gay Christian” identity and retreating into a queer subculture, one is immersed in an environment where such change in affections might be discounted or rejected altogether. The camaraderie and connectedness that occurs within the isolation of the subculture can become life-giving. The pursuit of holiness and repentance can be abandoned in favor of relational comfort and companionship.
Loving fellow brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attraction and gender struggles will mean taking the time to hear their stories, their experiences, and the fears they have as they navigate a church culture that has not always embraced them.
Now, the experience and feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-dysphoria are not unusual, particularly among adolescents and young adults. For example, one study shows that as many as 10.7% of adolescents are unsure of their sexual orientation.1 However, most2 of these individuals have not adopted a gay or lesbian identity upon entry into adulthood. The reason? They realized as they exited their teen years that they were not primarily sexually attracted to others of their own gender. In other words, they concluded that their experiences of such desires were not determinative.
Here’s the problem in using such labels: The Church will find itself aligned with the culture’s mantra that personal experiences and desires are identifying and determinative (core identities), even when experienced when one is young and still in the process of forming one’s identity and view of life. What hope will we give to young Christians who experience non-heteronormative feelings and desires? They will logically conclude that “this is how God made me, and if God made me this way, then there is no connection between same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria and sin.”
There’s no need for redemption, no need for change, no need for repentance.
The Church must always hold out the possibility of change for all people wrestling with all sorts of sin patterns. One can’t encounter the living God without being transformed. The transformation begins in the heart and will inevitably lead to behavioral change. It may not be everything a struggling believer may hope for, but it will be a level of change that increasingly glorifies God and shapes that person into who God calls him to be.
For each Christian wrestling with same-sex attraction or gender struggles, that transformation will look different. At a minimum, it will include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is antithetical to the new creation that person has become in Christ. If the Church communicates that there is not a need for sanctification in every aspect of the believer’s life, then it mishandles God’s Word and misleads God’s people.
Where do we go from here? The Church must commit to redemptively engage Christians who self-identify as LGBTQ+. The biblical paradigm for such engagement is speaking the truth in love. This is the process that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11-16, a process in which various members of the Church play a role. It is a gracious process, rooted in the strength of authentic friendship, where loving assistance goes side-by-side with loving confrontation. This is how we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. . . ” (Ephesians 4:15).
Loving fellow brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attraction and gender struggles will mean taking the time to hear their stories, their experiences, and the fears they have as they navigate a church culture that has not always embraced them. It involves the Church becoming a place of true refuge and help for them, as they grow (alongside the rest of us) into the places the Lord has made for them in his Body.
This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue here.
1 Remafedi, G., Resnick, M., Blum, R. and Harris, L., Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 89 (4), 714-721 (1992).
2 The term “most” applies to Generation X. In contrast to the Millennial generation, of whom 7.3% self-identify as non-heterosexual, that number is significantly lower (2.4%) for prior generations (year of birth 1980 and before).
Tim shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can the Church Love Those Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attractions? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
03 Jul 2019
We define a sexually faithful church this way: A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry. The major point in this simple but far-reaching statement is this: For a church to teach, lead, model, and assist its people to live faithful lives within God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, discipleship is the key. Discipleship is a subset of the Great Commission, “making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.”
This is the mission of the church. Placing sexuality within the context of this mission gives focus and direction to how we address it.
There is another passage that has long been recognized as paradigmatic for the ministry of the church.
“And he gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . so that we may no longer be. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up. . . into Christ, from whom the whole body. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
We see in this description of what faithful ministry looks like a guide, also, to sexually faithful ministry. We can identify in these verses four characteristics of a church that is faithfully discipling its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality. Such a church will be biblically grounded, mercifully honest, humbly led, and ministry minded. Let me briefly describe what we mean by each one.
“. . . no longer. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . ”
A mom and dad sit in my office, tearfully recounting to me the conversation with their son about his coming out as gay: “Mom, don’t you know, Jesus never talked about homosexuality. Besides, the few parts of the Bible that do talk about it are not addressing someone like me, who was born this way.” They are confused. They sense that what he is saying is wrong, but don’t know what to say or think.
A group of young girls run by me in church. They are singing a song from the latest Disney movie. The chorus urges them to look inside, follow their heart, and believe in themselves.
What do these scenarios have in common? They illustrate that the world around us is discipling us—especially our kids—all the time. It should not be surprising that we are being “tossed to and fro.”
Being biblically grounded means more than settling on the right doctrinal positions. It means giving people the kind of deep and regular teaching that effectively counters the constant barrage of messages they hear in this world. It means biblical teaching on sexuality and gender that does not only focus on “the bad.” It means winsomely communicating the Bible’s message of the beauty and goodness of sex. It means explaining how God’s good design for sex and gender helps us understand him and the gospel.
A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
But also, it involves teaching about sexuality and gender in the context of an entire worldview. It means identifying the misunderstandings, distortions, and even lies being spread in our culture about what the Bible does or doesn’t say. The “winds of doctrine” that are tossing our churches blow from a rival world. We need to learn to recognize the worldview foundations of our culture’s messages. We need to counter them with the biblical understanding of God, of the nature of reality, of what it means to be human, of what hope we cling to, of what redemption looks like.
“. . . speaking the truth in love. . . it builds itself up. . . ”
He was in his early seventies and had come for help in his fight against pornography. Early in our discussions, two things stood out. He had been struggling with this sin for over half a century, and I was the first person he had ever talked to about it. This, even though he had been in the church his whole life, even an officer at times. These kinds of details are significant. We have found stories like his to be very common. The amount of time varies, but the prolonged period of struggle in isolation is typical. A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
Talking about sex is scary enough—for people and churches. It is scary because it is so personal. Even exploration of the theological meaning of sex makes us uneasy because objective theological talk always hovers at the borders of our subjective, personal story. People’s stories are filled with failure, pain, brokenness, and powerful shame.
However, keeping our personal stories hidden in isolation and darkness is the problem that hinders us from grasping the gospel that radically changes our lives. Hiding keeps people struggling with these issues from all the help, encouragement, comfort, and life that is offered by Christ through the means of the fellowship of the saints. That fellowship requires openness and honesty. As John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).
But to “walk in the light,” we all need an environment that is invitingly merciful. People need to know that there is much more to be gained by coming out of isolation than to be feared. Because of the gospel, there is grace, patience, hope, encouragement, love, strength—all the blessings of union with Christ and communion with his Body, the church, are offered to the ones who step into the light through faith. But our nature is averse to faith; we are hesitant to trust the mercy offered to us. So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
Unfortunately, it is not just our natural fear of exposure that is a challenge here. Some have had experiences in church, or have heard of others’ experiences, which confirm their fears—people shunned, shamed, or clumsily disciplined. But often it is not particular incidents that create a church culture of hiding. It is the unintentional signals that surround every public and private interaction, the social pressure to look good, the emphasis on the external beauty of the public worship, the insistence on the correct doctrine (a good thing, but not the thing), the lack of any visible models of humble confession graciously received, the way “sin” and “sinners” are talked or joked about, the way every discussion or teaching on sex or gender tends toward culture war rather than gospel hope.
A sexually faithful church works to build a culture that is as merciful as Jesus himself. It is his mercy that calls us out of darkness and into the light of the gospel.
“He gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints. . . ”
I’ve been in many small group studies, Sunday school classes, and other church teaching events. But one stands out to me from all the rest. It was a Sunday school class for men, hitting many of the typical topics you would expect. One thing made this class different. The elders who led it made a clear commitment to lead in humility. None of us saw them make that commitment, but we saw the results.
So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
When it was time to discuss any topic, they took the lead in speaking honestly from the heart, freely admitting personal struggles and failures, acknowledging ongoing battles with sin and temptation, and pointing out areas where they still needed to grow in living out the truths of the gospel. It was clear from the start they were not interested in a race to the right answer. The way they modeled humility transformed that class into a place where men were encouraged to make the gospel real at the front lines of their struggles in daily life.
How these leaders lived was as important as what they taught. Leaders need the gospel like everybody else. Those who preach the gospel must also model gospel repentance and faith in their own lives. This means they don’t give the impression that they alone do not need gospel growth when it comes to sexuality. They also need to be honest about the presence of sin in their life, and of their daily reliance on Christ, seeking the power of his resurrection life to put it to death.
For all Christians, this kind of transparency happens in the context of honest and deep friendships of spiritual accountability. But leaders need to seek this kind of fellowship with urgency. The humility this engenders will cause them to deal with sinners (everyone) in their congregation with great gentleness and sympathy. It will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
The Ephesians 4 passage points out that Jesus is the one who gives the church shepherds and teachers. The calling and skills of the leaders are dependent on the gifting of Jesus himself, and that engenders humility. It is a humility that shapes the way shepherds and teachers fulfill their Jesus-given purpose: to equip the saints to fulfill their mission.
“. . . the whole body, joined and held together. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.”
We have a fireplace in our home that we use often, but I am poorly skilled in the art of fire-starting. Almost invariably, my first try to light the fire catches flame quickly and promisingly. I settle back into a comfy chair to enjoy the warmth and ambiance of the blaze. But a few minutes later, the tongues flicker away into smoke, and I’m looking for more used newspaper and a new match.
Ministry, especially in difficult areas such as sexuality, can be like that. At Harvest USA we help local churches design and implement ministry to sexual strugglers. I was recently asked, “When these ministries start up, and then flounder, is there a common reason?” My answer? They flounder because one significant leader either moves away from that church or loses enthusiasm from tiredness or burnout. Lone ranger ministries suffer from instability. The ministry fades like my initial fireplace effort.
Humility. . . will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war, but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
Lone ranger ministry is not the vision God gives us in Ephesians 4. There we see ministry that is broad and deep. The pastors and teachers are not the ones doing the ministry; they are equipping the saints to do it as a “whole body. . . each part working properly.” There is variety in this vision for ministry; not everyone is doing the same thing, but every part is active. And issues of sexuality and gender are essential areas of discipleship for every single person.
A sexually faithful church is discipling its people in all of their varied roles and stations: children, innocent and vulnerable; parents, overwhelmed and fearful; young adults, eager and reckless; singles, restless and anxious; marrieds, disappointed and confused; those dominated by sin, desperate and ashamed; those who think they have no sin, complacent and selfish. To minister to all these types of people, it takes an army of different people, “each part working properly.” It takes leadership that considers the unique needs of every sub-group, equipping the saints to meet these needs. This is especially so in ministry to those who have deep struggles with sexual sin. This kind of ministry needs a team. A church where the work of ministry is spread broadly and deep gains stability and momentum. It “builds itself up.” It becomes a fire that is effective and not easily extinguished.
All these characteristics describe what a sexually faithful church is. Is it possible? Absolutely—it’s God’s design, God’s work, as is written in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s workmanship. . . ” We see evidence of God’s working in his church. We see more churches than ever asking for help to teach biblically on sexuality and gender. We see more talking about these issues with grace and honesty. We see pastors humbling themselves, leading in repentance. We are getting requests from churches all over the country to train teams to walk alongside those repenting from and affected by sexual sin. What about your church? Are you eager for Christ to build you up into maturity? Are you willing to be a sexually faithful church?
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.