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.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


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