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.
02 May 2019
To say that ministry is incredibly challenging is an understatement. It’s a joy to see God work in those you minister to, but it’s really hard when God begins to expose your struggles, sins, and limits. In this video, Shalee explains that God works in us by undoing things that aren’t of him. The undoing process is often uncomfortable and painful, but if it is of God, it is worth it. You can read more about what Shalee learned in her year-long internship at Harvest USA in her blog, “Jumping in the Deep End of Ministry.”
02 May 2019
I sat, listening to women in my discipleship group share personal stories about pain and heartbreak in their lives. My emotions began to unravel. The group ended, and I felt undone. I was not sure how to process what I’d heard. Tears of empathy and anger tumbled out of me.
I had moved across the country to intern with Harvest USA’s Women’s Ministry, but I didn’t realize how deep was the end of the pool I had agreed to jump into. I saw God work powerfully in the women’s lives I worked with, but what I didn’t expect was the different places in my own life where God would be doing and undoing, affecting my spiritual walk every step of the way.
My previous life revolved around athletics as both a player and a coach, so doing ministry was an entirely different transition. Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve been considering ministry to sexual strugglers, but you know that this work can be incredibly challenging and humbling.
Let me share one big takeaway that I’ve learned: ministry can be tough, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Here are four ways God did his work of doing and undoing in my life as I served this past year.
1. Wresting with Insecurity
Emotions. Life is full of them. Entering into ministry provoked new levels of fear and anxiety in me. I feared the impact on my reputation. Throughout life, I rode the coattails of my athletic success, and unbeknownst to me, I developed a deep-rooted pride in the reputation I had built. As I experienced strong reactions from people about my new life path, I was gripped with fear, fear of what people thought of me and if my beliefs would cost me relationships along the way.
I also experienced insecurity and doubts as I quickly learned how inadequate I am to help people.
I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey.
I questioned what I had to offer and what would I possibly say to someone who is suffering? Lack of confidence rapidly overtook areas of my life, making me wonder if there were people more qualified for this type of work and whether I was cut out for this.
2. Facing the Real in Life (AKA Reality)
I realized I had spent much of my life naive to the realities around me. It is far easier to live naively and deliberately choose to see what you want rather than face the reality of the pain and darkness so many followers of Jesus have been carrying alone. God put me in a situation of not only facing these hard realities, but he also invited me into them.
As God brought my head out of the sand of denial, I was overwhelmed. I was gripped by the sadness of seeing the brokenness and suffering people go through. I was met head-on with the hard reality that sin causes devastation and leaves behind unimaginable wreckage in people’s lives. As many of you already know, facing reality is necessary, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
3. Everyone Journeys at Their Own Pace
I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey. In the battle against sin, rich biblical truths that God uses in our own journey may be applied differently. In my own life, I saw there were so many things I needed to be quick to obey and follow through on and just do it (see my blog, “Quick to Obey…”)
I tried this with a woman who was walking a similar road as me. I thought these things worked for me, so surely they will work for her, too. As I shared details about what specific obedience looked like for me, before I knew it, I had put demands, expectations, and time frames on her to make the same choices.
As time passed, it was becoming clear she wasn’t heeding my advice. As I look back, I sacrificed patience by demanding she hurry up and obey. I sacrificed humility by failing to speak the truth in love.
But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives.
I painfully learned that imposing my faith walk on someone else was unwise and unloving. When we do this, we risk boxing others within our walls of experience, potentially blocking truths in Scripture that lead to other faithful avenues for the other person. Thankfully, God is bigger than my failed attempts to love. I’m thankful for James 4:6: “But he gives more grace.”
4. Ministry is About Faithfulness, Not Success
I learned that God doesn’t measure spiritual growth through my worldly definition of success. My athletic background wired me for a relentless pursuit of success. That distracted me from the ultimate goal of ministry—faithfulness to the glory of God.
Success is often rooted in a desire to receive glory for our own efforts while faithfulness is rooted in a desire to glorify God through your efforts. This contrast creates a tension between competing goals. I had to learn that the end goal isn’t to win the day but rather to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Ministry at street level can be overwhelming and feel like we are in over our head. But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives. As someone who suffered in silence and secrecy for years, it is easy to believe we are alone in this fight, but our loving Father is with us, and he has raised up people who are not afraid to enter into these painful places with us as well.
My experience at Harvest USA has shown me what a privilege it is to come alongside women needing help in their journey of faith and repentance. Because I’ve seen the power of this kind of ministry, I’ve recently decided to join the full-time staff as part of the women’s ministry team.
Do I still feel in over my head? Yes! But I have seen that I have everything I need, and you do too. All ministry, not just to those who battle patterns of sexual sin, is over our heads! When we follow Jesus into hard places, we’re going into the deep end of humanity’s worst struggle: sin. Thanks be to God that our Savior gives us everything we need to point people to him, the ultimate Lifeline we all need.
Shalee shares additional insight in the accompanying video: What Is God Undoing in My Life—and Yours? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
04 Jan 2018
HARVEST USA did two day-long seminars for parents and youth leaders at Chelten Church, in the suburbs of Philly. Afterwards, we sat down with Jon Shepherd, their Student Ministry Director, to talk about ways he addresses sexuality with his youth group.
As a bit of an ice-breaker, what’s one of the funnest moments you have experienced in youth ministry?
Having been a part of the Youth Ministry at Chelten since 2006, I have so many fun memories. One that everyone can enjoy involved one of our senior guys laying on the beach at Ocean City, NJ letting a flock of seagulls eat Cool Ranch Doritos off his bare chest.
We know you have a heart for youth, so tell us a bit about why you got into youth ministry.
One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Douglass who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I got into youth ministry because I want to use the gifts that God has given me and my own experiences to help the next generation know Christ and follow him from a young age.
What do you think are some of the unique challenges facing youth ministers today in discipling students in the area of sexuality?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the culture’s definition of normal sexuality. From billboards to TV shows, songs to smartphone apps—we are combatting a message that says that you get to define your sexuality and do what seems right for you.
Also, what is unique to our day and age is the role that the smartphone has played in the lives of our teenagers. Social media, for example, tells our young people that they don’t look good enough. Other apps make hooking up or sexting as easy as a swipe of your finger. Unfiltered cell phones provide accessibility to endless amounts of pornography with just a few simple clicks.
This type of leading, from a point of need and weakness, creates a culture within the church where it becomes safe for students to approach leaders to share their struggles.
Leaving the depressing state of our world, what have been some of the best moments in addressing sexuality amongst students?
The most impactful times with students have always come after another leader or I have made the first move toward individual students by sharing some of our own struggles. I can remember a night where we had a “guy’s night” and allowed the students to anonymously write questions on index cards where a panel of their regular youth leaders would take turns answering. Several of our leaders were very vulnerable with our guys and shared both past and present struggles with sexual sin. This type of leading, from a point of need and weakness, creates a culture within the church where it becomes safe for students to approach leaders to share their struggles.
As we take the risk of sharing our need for Jesus in the area of sexuality, we open the door for students to invite us into their lives. Young men will come and share their addiction to pornography. Young ladies share that they have turned to self-harm or an eating disorder because they don’t feel pretty or sexy enough. It is then a privilege to walk beside them to Christ, knowing that we both need the same grace.
HARVEST USA came to your church to do Gospel Sexuality: Student Ministry Training. What did you take away from the seminar that you would like others who work with students to hear?
One reason youth leaders don’t talk about sexuality is that we feel the pressure to have an entire night or series devoted to the topic, which is overwhelming and quite honestly, terrifying! Your training gave us some great tips on how to make sexuality a regular topic of conversation. For example, when addressing different sins that students may be battling, include in your talk a sexual sin like looking at pornography along with lying to your parents and trashing someone else’s reputation.
Also, we learned that when we don’t talk about sexual issues, it communicates shame to the one who is struggling in those taboo areas. Jesus invites all sinners to come forward from a place of shame, as he did the woman with the bleeding problem in Mark 5. We must create a church culture in which sexual sin is not ignored but is instead safe to talk about, a place where we can confess and find healing in Christ.
Push through the awkwardness when talking about sexuality. That first step to begin a conversation that’s uncomfortable to you and the student—or your child—is hard, but it’s totally worth it.
What did you take away from Gospel Sexuality: Raising Sexually Healthy Kids that you would like parents to hear?
Gospel Sexuality: Raising Sexually Healthy Kids began with providing the bigger picture on sexuality and sexual sin by using the metaphor of the tree. This metaphor showed that we cannot simply address the fruit—the behaviors that we see—we must also address other factors as well.
Also, it is not enough to have “the talk;” we must, instead, engage in multiple discussions at different levels over the course of our child’s life. In other words, discussing sexuality with our kids is not a box to be checked, but is instead an ongoing topic of conversation and discipleship. We want to maintain ongoing communication to the point where we can be there to help pick up the pieces when they mess up and walk with them to Christ.
As a parting gift, what are three words of wisdom you want to give to youth ministers or parents on talking about sex and sexuality?
Push through the awkwardness when talking about sexuality. That first step to begin a conversation that’s uncomfortable to you and the student—or your child—is hard, but it’s totally worth it. Sharing your own need is also a great way to begin that conversation. As you share your own story, where you talk about your past and present need for Jesus, you invite them to open up and share their struggles.
Second, shepherd in community. Sexual sin can be a dangerous area to enter into with a young person. It is essential that we shepherd our students in community. Developing a team of adults in your youth ministry is key to this. In our youth ministry, every student is divided into small groups based on age and gender with multiple volunteer youth leaders over every group. We regularly divide into small groups for processing God’s word, sharing, and prayer. When a student comes to a staff member or volunteer leader with a sexual sin, we ask the student to continue to widen the circle of knowledge by involving another staff member, volunteer leader, or parent into the conversation. While it is extremely important to protect the student’s trust and privacy, it is also important that we, as youth leaders, are accountable to one another for our own protection.
Third, pray for your students more than you talk to them about sexuality. The reality is, we cannot fix the brokenness in our own lives or the lives of students. Redemption and healing can only be found in Jesus Christ. Knowing this truth is a huge relief and comfort. God is far more invested in your youth ministry and the sexuality of your students than you are.
Watch Jon talk more about this on his accompanying video: How does a youth pastor address sexuality with students? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Whether you’re a youth minister or a parent, talking about sex and sexuality to teens is uncomfortable, to say the least. But it needs to be done. Listen as one youth minister at a large church gives his tips on how he and his youth team handles it.
07 Dec 2017
As a youth minister, it’s an already confusing task to lead youth to the feet of Jesus when you yourself need to take the journey. How can we, as youth ministers, bear students’ sins and sufferings when we’re barely holding on? How can we lead youth to streams of living water when we’re dying in the desert?
And then throw porn into the mix. Some churches call for an all-out air strike on any of their staff who might wrestle with pornography: the staff position will be taken away, and the staff person will leave in shame. While we don’t have time to get into church policy, the measures taken by any church should be nuanced enough to vary by situation. But as youth ministers, how can we ourselves move forward? What are some initial categories we can keep in mind?
Confession to My Spouse, Boss, or Mentor?
Placed in context, the richness of James’ teaching on confession becomes apparent:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (5:13-16, ESV).
Confession does help others hold us accountable, but more than that, confession is a means for others to join their healing prayers for us with the two Divine intercessors, our Great High Priest and the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27, 34). Sin says, “Don’t confess. No one can be trusted.” Jesus says otherwise. Sin casts confession as insecurity and defeat. Jesus casts confession as a means to healing. Confession is scary, and I always wrestle with it whatever my sin. But I’ve got to lean into what I know is true: God says there is healing here, not destruction.
If there is a pattern of confession already taking place in your marriage, confess to your spouse. I understand there are a whole host of issues that need to be addressed, from the support your wife needs after hearing your confession to how often you confess to your wife, but I always air on the side of transparency. But should you confess to your boss? It certainly depends on the type of church culture you are in and, more particularly, the relationship you have with your boss. This needs to be in the equation at some point, but I would suggest you first start elsewhere. What about a peer? I certainly think so, but peers usually do not have the grey streaks of wisdom that come with age and experience. That grey-streaked wisdom can help to lift us from the mire, instead of simply commiserating with us in the midst of it.
Consider confessing to someone older and wiser, preferably someone in ministry, who has demonstrated not only a record of humility but also a record of being able to shoulder other people’s burdens. This person will be able to both empathize with you and point out potential blind spots in yourself.
The urgent call is clear: we need to brainstorm ways, to whomever we confess, to practically turn from our sin and turn to Jesus. At minimum, it will mean installing filtering and accountability software on all devices you use. But it could also mean getting rid of smartphones or personal computers altogether. It could mean setting up times of Bible study and prayer with the person to whom you confess. It will certainly mean making a habit of daily prayer to cast ourselves upon our God. The key is practical, daily repentance, not lofty, vague goals.
As a youth leader, you are already serving. But as a way to battle the inward spiral of selfishness that porn facilitates, let’s look for ways for you to serve more. Can you set up regular times to do the dishes for your wife or husband instead of surfing the Internet? Can you set up a standing meeting with students that will interfere with your usual time of looking at porn (i.e., early breakfasts, dinners)? With the person to whom we confess, it’s good to brainstorm little, practical ways that we can further love and serve others for the kingdom of God.
All of the above ideas – confession, repentance, and love – happen in the midst of a relationship with someone we trust. I would strongly advise finding older and wiser men and women who can serve as mentors for us. This could mean having a standing meeting where we talk about life, stress, good things, hard things, or anything at all. During these meetings spend time in prayer, walk through a book on Christian living together, or simply read Scripture.
Pornography thrives in the darkness of isolation. It is best dispelled in the light of relationship with others.
When Do We Need to Exit Ministry?
When is pornography a disqualification from ministry? My first response is: I don’t know. If we continue to harbor the secret sin of porn and do not confess and ask for help from anyone, then clearly we have no business in ministry, where openness and honesty in the light of Christ should be the norm. On the other hand, if the presence of pornography is simply ubiquitous, infused into our lives with power and influence, and if taking the steps above are not leading to measurable evidence of practical repentance and change, then yes, step away from ministry. Here is when you need to ask your supervisor for their input and honestly submit to your local church.
I think a certain posture is key, however, in being able to do this: we need to be so focused on Christ and His faithfulness in practical ways that everything else in our lives, including our jobs, can be up for grabs. We need to ask at least two question of ourselves. The first is, are we going to be helpful to others if we continue to struggle like this with porn? The second is, am I giving myself time to heal, obey, and follow Jesus if I’m struggling so much with porn and trying to lead others to Jesus?
Jesus Chose You
Overall, it is difficult to reconcile our own sin with the leadership task we have been given as youth ministers. But we also need to recognize that God has chosen sinners to act as youth ministers; He has chosen us in our weakness and sin to point others to Himself. Jesus’ words are obvious, but I often forget the obvious: “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17). Still, just because Jesus chose sinners to do his work does not mean that we should continue in youth ministry. Wisdom and input from others is crucial.
Whether we continue in our job or not, we must remember that Jesus came for people like us and has united us to Himself in a Spirit-forged bond. The Spirit residing within us is power to engage the fight passionately and relentlessly. He will not give up on us. And that truth is water to a desert-ridden soul, hope for the confused youth minister, and fuel to keep leading others to the very same Savior that we ourselves so desperately need.
You can watch Cooper talk more about this on his accompanying video: What does a youth minister do when he struggles with porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
26 Oct 2017
Youth pastors have challenging ministries, and that’s an understatement today. I took a phone call from Tom (all names have been changed), a youth pastor at a large, PCA church, and his situation is something churches will be encountering everywhere.
Tom said he had worked hard to build a thriving, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. He solicited many 30-something adult helpers and small group leaders. His ministry emphasis was on biblical education and personal ministry, but he also worked to develop an outreach mindset for the unsaved and outsiders among his kids.
And it was working. The youth group grew. Many un-churched kids regularly attended as a result of being invited by his kids. But one day his outreach approach came close to tearing the entire ministry apart.
What happened? One of the invited kids, Eric, who got very involved in the youth group, announced one day that he was gay. This is where the problem for Tom began.
The kids from church had different responses to Eric’s disclosure, and they fell into three camps. The first camp was, “That’s wrong! He shouldn’t be in the youth group.” The second was, “He should be here. The church is the best place for him to learn about Christ.” And some said, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
All three responses created confusion and turmoil.
And then the parents got wind of it all. Not only were they shocked by the emerging disorder in the youth group, but many of the parents began to learn, for the first time, what their children believed about this issue. And they responded with anger and fear at everything that was happening.
Tom’s phone rang, and his email overflowed. “How did this kid get into the church’s youth group?” asked one dad. One mom gave an ultimatum: “If that boy continues to attend, we’re pulling our sons out.” Another said, “I don’t want that kind of bad influence around my child.”
Some church kids threatened to leave if Eric was asked to leave; others said they would never invite anyone else to come. To top it off, Tom’s staff had different responses. Tom was in no-man’s land, feeling pressure to make the right decision. Clearly, there would be consequences no matter how he handled the situation. Hence his phone call to me!
We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
As issues of sex, sexuality, and gender become the defining identity marker in the culture, it has never been more critical for the church to be educated and equipped. With the church and parents often committed to not speaking about these matters to our kids, most kids make up their minds about sexuality and gay marriage by the age of 12 these days (and it’s getting younger every day). The culture has “discipled” them well. They are listening to the voices on the Internet and media, which they spend hours each day consuming.
Churches need to educate their leaders and volunteers in how to lovingly and compassionately minister to youth, some whom struggle silently with sexual issues from a relatively early age. Parents need to be taught how to talk to their kids, well before an issue explodes and they respond in anger and fear.
Those who are involved in ministry to junior and senior high youth must speak boldly, frequently, compassionately, and truthfully about sex, sexuality, and gender, especially because most kids struggle in their silent formative years when sexual identity is being formed and embraced. We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
Yes, you want 13-year-old Jason to trust you (or his small group leader) to tell you he’s looking at porn on his smartphone. Yes, you want 15-year-old Erica to confide that she’s attracted to other girls, and wants to know, is she gay. You want Sam to tell you he feels he’s another gender. You want these kinds of talks because God has placed you in their lives at this crucial time, while they still live at home and before college. Believe me, once they get to a secular college, there will be plenty of voices saying, “Yes, please come talk to us. We’ll help you figure this out.”
I’m so serious about this I’m going to repeat it: if youth leaders are not willing to engage these issues with the youth under their care, they shouldn’t be involved in youth work today!
HARVEST USA is ready to help your church become educated and proactive in dealing with these matters. We can meet with your church staffs and elder boards to help them strategize and implement how to do 21st-century youth ministry work.
Email me at email@example.com.
14 Jan 2014
We routinely approach churches to request they add Harvest USA to their missions budget, as we rely on God’s people for all our support needs. Many churches reply with a response I hear often: “We really love Harvest USA, but you‘re just not missions; you don’t fit into any of our giving categories.”
That’s ironic! Years ago I was deeply impacted by a seminary professor named Dr. Harvie Conn. Harvie was the missions professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, when I was a student. He walked with a limp, literally. That’s because Harvie, prior to being a professor, had been a missionary for years in Korea—to prostitutes! There, he was grabbed several times by a gang of men while walking down a street, dragged to an alleyway, held down, and had his feet beaten and broken with two-by-fours. He was told, “Quit telling these women about Jesus.” It turned out that the pimp’s income was being affected as these women came to Christ and left prostitution.
So, when Harvie spoke—well, you just listened a little more closely. He had earned his stripes, suffering for Christ. One day he told the class, “Today we’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field. We’re going to talk about an unreached people group—a hidden people group.”
Harvie then talked about the need for mission work in the homosexual community. The church, historically, had a totally “hands off” approach to the gay community. At the time, in 1983, it was becoming the fastest-growing group in the country. He went on to define a people group as any group of people who had a self-perceived identity which bonded that group together and facilitated their growth as a specific community. Harvie explained how the gay community was cemented by common political, social, economic, philosophic, and psychological identities.
But Harvie didn’t stop there. He said the real hidden people were men and women who became believers, bringing into the church all their sexual baggage, confusion, and histories, along with the pain of scarred hearts and souls from sexual abuse, pornography, etc. Then they sit there in silence, because these things aren’t talked about in the church. Often paralyzed by the guilt and shame that sexual sin uniquely produces, most have given up hope that anyone cares whether they find forgiveness or freedom. Harvie explained that the gospel, if it truly is the gospel, must meet these people where they are at, with the hope of a cleared conscience and a changed life. This, he told us, was impossible for them to experience without the love, intervention, and assistance of others in the church.
This intrigued me. Here I was, sitting in this class, hearing someone I respected saying, “These are the unreached, the hidden, the disenfranchised moral discards of our day. The church must be about this kind of ministry, both outside and within the church.” I was also personally interested, due to the work God had done in my own sexually-scarred heart and life. After much prayer and discussion with others, several people caught the vision for such a ministry. Harvest USA was soon formed, and I became the first staff member.
So when a church says, “You’re not missions,” I want to laugh and cry at the same time! Not missions? You’ve got to be kidding. Just consider these recent ministry opportunities we had.
- I once did a half-day seminar at a very poor Jamaican church in The Bronx, NY. They began ministering to the sexually broken in their community and wanted more training. We did this as part of our mission work. They couldn’t afford to pay, not even our travel expenses up there and back for the day, as we ministered the gospel and trained them. At the end of the day, the pastor told everyone, “I asked them to come help us, and they sent the head guy.” Then he began to cry.
- A month after that, I met with the staff and lay-leaders of an inner-city Portuguese church in Newark, NJ. The church is in a community of 30,000 Brazilian immigrants. Five young people had “come out” at the church within the past six months. The elders know this is the state of the church today and needed help. In early 2012, we are working toward providing them a whole day’s training seminar.
- A Muslim professor asks us to lunch after our presentation to his university class, telling the staff he has a PhD and has published books but doesn’t have a relationship with God like they had described. He then begins to ask how to get that.
- At a nearby university, I spoke to a group of 250 students on “The Gospel And The Gay”—95% of the students are Asian (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese).
- Recently we’ve received requests to translate Harvest USA materials into Spanish, Farsi, Urdu, and Punjabi.
Wow! This all sounds pretty much like missions to me! If you’re on a missions committee, or know someone in your church who is, please advocate for us. Encourage the church to become partners in ministry with us. Since the economy has taken a nosedive, we have lost over a dozen supporting churches and about 150 individual donors. We really need more of God’s churches to help us. If that’s not possible, we also encourage churches to consider an annual “love offering. “Thank you for partnering with us, and praying along with us in this Kingdom missions’ work!
14 Jan 2014
Have you ever wanted to unburden yourself from a problem or share a deep, dark secret, perhaps of a difficult or sexual nature, with someone? If you have chosen to reveal your heart in this way, reflect on this for a moment: What was it that allowed you to feel safe enough to open up?
As I have personally pondered this question, I asked myself, “What do I need to do to help someone feel safe enough where honest revelations of the heart can be shared?” Or to put it another way, “How can I help my church community become a safe place where strugglers can unburden themselves from secrets that have kept them enslaved to sexual struggles and sin?”
I’ve come to several principles gleaned from Bible study, ministry, therapy, teaching, and supervising counselors, as well as from friends and my own life experiences regarding how to help people talk about their struggles. Here are some insights from those observations that I hope will be helpful to those who struggle with sexual sin and those who want to help.
1. Make honesty the only policy you live by
We all desire to talk with a friend who will honestly tell us what they think. Why? Because an honest person is a safe person—at least you know what you are getting is the truth. Good or bad, a friend is someone who does not withhold truth, but tells it like it is. Because we know that they have our best interest at heart, we are confident they will tell us the whole truth.
Yet it does seem difficult for Christians to be honest. This is surprising because we make such a big deal about lying. It’s a sin to tell a lie, but we are all too human. Those half-truths and shaded meanings come quickly to the sons and daughters of Adam.
Perhaps we struggle with telling the truth because we have been taught that not being nice is the greatest sin. For the average Christian, the truth is, on occasions, something to be covered over and avoided because it is not nice.
“Why would this be?” you might ask. Confrontation and genuineness are a problem because, above all else, we often value being comfortable, not just with our surroundings but most of all with our emotions. Honesty makes us a little too uncomfortable. It means we have to be involved. “Do you really want to know what I have to say?” someone asks. Eventually, others might even see that we are not perfect and mention it to us. Then what would happen?
Twelve-step groups teach that honesty is not just telling the truth, but the telling the ‘whole’ truth. Therefore, lying is not just failing to be truthful about facts. Leaving out key events, emotions, thoughts, and details or leaving a person with a different impression other than what is right or what really happened is also lying. Often in the church community, people try to be nice, and so the reason given for a particular decision may not be the real reason.
Here is an example: A woman on the missions’ committee has no social skills. She is rude, and as a result of her, rudeness no one wants her to head committees or work with her any longer. However, when she is rejected from becoming the head of the committee, she is told another, more palatable reason, so as to not ruffle any feathers. This lack of honesty with someone dealing with a very obvious problem (which everyone else can see) makes the sexual struggler that much more reluctant to share his story. Why? Because the underlying message they hear is, “We can’t handle the truth here.” These short-cuts or lies, as the Bible calls them, end up short-changing spiritual growth. In the effort to avoid conflict, we fail to really love. Honesty creates the environment where honest revelations of the heart can grow. Honesty is the best policy because, as Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (ESV).
You help someone open up about a hidden truth by being and becoming someone who is honest, first, about yourself. You don’t hide your issues or struggles; you speak openly and plainly about them. With others, you consistently practice telling them what you see in their lives and in their behavior, and in doing so, you create a place of safety for the sexual struggler. They know you are a real person, someone with inner strength; that you are someone who can handle the truth because you love them.
2. Make humility a central part of your character
The Bible instructs us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we actually are. Jesus on many occasions attacked the Pharisees because they placed themselves in a better light than that which was true. They were always more spiritual than those who followed them, and they wanted everyone to know it.
If you want to be someone who is a safe haven to receive honest revelations of the heart, you must have an attitude of humility, starting with you first. There is an old joke about a pastor who was walking through the sanctuary and felt God’s presence. He knelt down at the front near the altar and began to pray, crying out loud, “Lord, I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing.” A short time later, the associate pastor was walking by and heard the pastor calling out, and he, too, was moved. He entered the sanctuary and knelt by the pastor and began to cry out, “Lord I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing.” As it happened, the church custodian passed by a short time later and saw the two ministers. He too was moved and came to the front of the church and called out the same as the other two. About this time the associate pastor looked over at the pastor and said, “Look who thinks he’s nothing now.” Pride takes many forms. The Bible instructs us that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
The opposite of pride, then, is to look honestly at ourselves and be open to looking at our own faults first and admitting them. I John 1:8-9 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Humility involves modeling for the struggler your own honest heart revelations. For an entire church community, it means that the leaders of the church model before the congregation a humble and honest spirit about themselves. A humble attitude is not an option if we desire the growth of a safe climate where openness develops. This can begin by admitting not our deepest darkest sins, but the common sins that we all struggle with. Once this is done, consistently over time, you will be identified as a safe person to whom one can share the deepest and messiest stuff of one’s life. By allowing humility to grow deeper into your character, you are letting strugglers know that you are not someone better or more holy than they are—just another follower of Christ who needs his work done in their life, as well.
3. Give comfort in confession
Once we have examined ourselves and begun to admit our own struggles, we can help others find comfort in confession. The truth is, if you are going to hear the honest revelations of people’s hearts, you must become comfortable with confession. This means having a tolerance for messiness. If you are to minister to people effectively, you must be willing to let things get a little messy (maybe a lot messy). In an operating room there will be blood, pain, skin, and even some guts. But all of these are necessary if the healing process is going to take place. What is important is not the blood or guts, but that in spite of the messiness, the surgeon (and hopefully the patient) believes that the effort will be worthwhile.
God certainly does believe it is worth the effort. How many times have you yourself brought the same sins to God? I have brought the same dirty laundry over and over and over. Why does God not become disgusted by our sin, by our weakness, by our messiness? Because he chooses relationship over the pain. He has chosen confession as the place of connection with us and lets us find comfort and safety there. So we too must connect with others in the messiness of their lives. As you hear their confession, grieve with them and weep with them over the damage they have done in their own lives and in the lives of others. Then lead them to the cross of Christ where a holy God brought truth (the stain of our sin) and mercy (his free grace) together. As we wade through the messiness that often accompanies honest revelations of the heart, we connect with others and lead them to connect with our Father.
4. Demonstrate acceptance
If you yourself have shared with another person an honest revelation of your heart, what was the response? Whatever the it was, if you have experienced sharing with someone deep and painful things from your heart, you know that the response given is extremely important. As a counselor, I have heard many, many confessions. Many things come into play as someone confesses a sin or heart struggle with me. My own words, facial expressions, body language, and attitude are all being weighed very carefully by the confessor. This is, in a sense, the moment of truth. The person stands before you emotionally naked, as it were, and you are there to pass judgment—or so they will often fear. As you hear the revelation, at that moment you have the power of life or death, blessing and cursing. I believe that this is one of the most sacred trusts we possess in these encounters. We must use extreme caution in our response, because heaven and hell literally may be in the balance.
This does not mean that you agree with what the person did or said. I have rarely had to convince a confessor of their wrong. It simply means that you stop, look past the confession itself, and look at the person. The revealer has taken a step of faith, and it is important that while they understand they are wrong—yes and even sinful—they are accepted and loved.
5. Take time to care for the whole person
“There is a time for everything,” Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3. If you are meeting with a struggler over a period of time, he or she needs to know that you will hear what they have to say, even if they bring to you more or less the same stories of failure. But what you are doing in this helping relationship is building a friendship; you are not merely meeting with a ministry project. There is a place in this emerging friendship where breaks are needed from sharing even honest revelations. This gives everyone a breather. It helps the struggler see that there is more to them than their particular struggle or temptation. There are other things to talk about and to share.
We must help each other not fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our struggles. We must remind ourselves, as well as others, that we are not our struggles. God has said that we are a new creation. There should be times when we relax, go out for a meal together, share an event, worship together, laugh, and have fun. God is still central in all of these things.
The poet Samuel Coleridge once compared friendship to a “sheltering tree.” Growth of this kind, that of a strong tree, takes time, even years. Yesterday, as I walked with a friend, we shared some things that we have not shared with perhaps anyone. As I thought about this later, I realized that our sharing came about because I have walked with this friend several times a week for over four years. The passage of time with others and the investment of time is a key healing element that many need. There is no shortcut to this. When you minister to the whole person by getting to know them in a number of contexts you create community that can be a “sheltering tree.” It is beneath this tree that real, honest revelations of the heart are safely shared.
6. You and the church must be grace-full
We must convey to strugglers, and to the whole church community, that sexual struggles are common. But more than that, we must communicate that grace is greater than any sin they have committed. I know of a client who kept a sexual difficulty quiet for over fifty years. For some reason, this church member decided to share the secret at a Wednesday night prayer meeting he had been attending. The result? The pastor asked that the person not return to the church. This ought not to be. The church must overflow with grace.
Paul, writing to the church at Corinth says, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But, you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
I have always wanted, when preaching, to mention this passage and then say, “As I read this passage, I want you to stand as I mention the sin that you have struggled with.” (Perhaps this is why I get asked to preach only once at so many churches). The truth is that if we truly realized the measure of grace given us in Christ, then honest revelations of the heart would be the norm and grace would fill our churches. The bottom line, when all is said and done, is, Does grace or sin win? If we extend grace the way that God says we should, grace always has the last word.
A final warning
A final word of caution is in order here. While the suggestions mentioned here seem relatively simple, they are not. They are, in fact, impossible. Let us not forget that what has begun in us is supernatural and that we need the power of God in our lives daily to even begin the process. It is only in constantly remembering this again and again that we develop the correct attitude and learn the best approach to hurting people. Then we can be responsive to him as he leads us to be his instruments in creating a safe place for the honest revelations of the heart.
Your friendship and your church can be a safe place for honest revelations. This blog is based on a prior article by Rev. Philip Henry.