For the past decade I have worked in youth ministry in the context of Baptist churches, though since Sept. 2014 I’ve moved to parachurch non-profit ministry. I now have an amazing job with New Direction that allows me to support and connect with LGBTQ+ youth from all over Canada (and some in other countries) who are wrestling with reconciling their Christian faith with what they know and are learning of their sexuality and gender. If you work with teens, you know that growing up in the church and claiming a faith for your own is hard, even without these added confusing questions. On the flip side, coming to terms with your gender identity or sexuality can be difficult even outside a religious community, so as you might imagine, the two experiences together can feel like a double whammy.
I will be perfectly honest, I am a queer woman of faith myself and I hold an affirming theology. I recognize that might be enough for some of you to move on from this page.
However, if you are still with me, I will admit something else: I don’t think you need to be affirming of same-sex marriage to be an advocate for LGBTQ+ youth in your church or ministry. I want to be clear that I am not asking you to let go of your deeply held convictions about sin, or your theology that gives you a framework for what is “best” in the eyes of God. I may challenge you to think about how these things influence the way that you pastor, but I am not here to convince you of a particular theological position.
Recently I have learned that those who work in the field of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness have moved their focus away from prevention to instead focus on decreasing the time someone is homeless, by advocating for services to be more accessible to LGBTQ+ people. When I ask why prevention has been practically abandoned in this arena, I always receive the same answer: we can’t prevent parents from rejecting their teens. And although there are no concrete stats on this, the anecdotal evidence among those who work with homeless youth is that the most of these parents are religious.
Secular organizations simply are not equipped to engage in theological conversations in these families and the churches they attend… but we are. Certainly Evangelicals are not the only ones contributing to this problem, but without question, we are contributing, and as youth pastors, we are in a position where we can prevent our families and churches from rejecting our youth. Prevention is now our job, and the onus is on the church to equip families to find ways to support children, even if there is theological disagreement with the decisions their children make.
In your youth ministry, perhaps you have already begun a journey with queer or questioning students who have welcomed you into their process. If this is the case, you may still have concerns about the reality that this is uncharted territory for your church community. Or perhaps you are not aware of any out LGBTQ+ students in your midst, but would like to prepare for the time when you do have someone trust you or your group with this realization.
Unfortunately, too many youth pastors are living with the assumption that LGBTQ+ people do not exist within the walls of their church/youth group. But as John Pavlovitz so directly and eloquently wrote this past March, “You have gay kids in your youth group”. It’s true. You may also have a trans teen, very likely a bisexual or two, and without question you have some kids who have questions about their sexuality or gender identity.
Even if no one in your youth group has yet come out as LGBTQ+, it doesn’t get you off the hook from thinking these things through. Long before they trust you with this part of themselves, LGBTQ+ youth are listening carefully. They notice every time you reference gender or make assumptions about sexuality. They notice even if you unconsciously imply something about LGBTQ+ people. They are paying attention, because they are wondering if you are trustworthy, and by association they wonder whether this Jesus you talk about is trustworthy. They are listening to hear if you think they are disgusting or bad or a failure. They are listening to see if you will reject them and cut them off from faith, the church, or even their families. How can you let them know that you love them, and follow through with that love? How can we as pastors love them without either asking them to ignore themselves or give up their faith?
With these things in mind, I will be offering a few posts about some things to consider, some suggestions to enable your group to be a place where LGBTQ+ youth feel safe enough to explore faith in Christ. This is not only important for the kids in your group who grew up in church, slowly realizing that they were different from their peers, but also for the friends of your youth who don’t yet know a God who loves them, in part because they have yet to feel welcome in your group… not to mention the straight youth who may or may not invite them.
Speaking of the heteronormative, cisgender* teens, this is an important conversation to have with them too, even if they don’t know any LGBTQ+ friends. This year I met a transgender student who had made the difficult decision to transition from male to female in terms of their gender expression. Her transition went relatively smoothly at school and in other areas of life (thanks be to God), but her youth pastor was quick to make it clear that this teen was only welcome at youth group “as a boy”.
I have told this teen’s story multiple times (with her permission), and each time I am struck by something. I am struck by how I have shifted from worrying about the faith of this teen – she is well supported by some incredibly family members, and has moved on to a church that welcomes her as she is – to a deep concern for the other members of her former youth group, and the message they received during that process. This youth group learned that there are some parts of themselves worth keeping secret, especially in church. They learned that God is willing to hear from them about certain aspects of their lives, but other parts are off-limits. How many students in that youth group have since asked the question, “What do I need to leave at the door of my youth room?” or “What am I not allowed to talk about in church?”
Perhaps you have a very different theology or philosophy of youth ministry than I do, but I hope that we can agree that the Christian community we’re aiming for is one where we all come as we are, with our doubts and questions and mess, a community that encourages us not only to love one another, but to love those we disagree with, even those who we perceive as enemies… I wonder how we can grow in a discipleship that calls us to love the “other” when we continue to reject those in our midst.
Thinking through how your ministry speaks to and treats LGBTQ+ youth is above all else an opportunity to grow in faith, hope and love. Consider this an invitation to explore this opportunity in some concrete ways over the next several weeks. Check back for posts addressing these, plus a few other scenarios:
when you have a same-sex couple attend your youth group
when you are rooming an LGBTQ+ youth on an overnight event
when a student is transitioning (changing their gender presentation)
If you have a particular scenario or question you’d like me to give some thought to, feel free to send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*cisgender is when your gender identity matches the sex that was assigned to you at birth. Anyone who is not transgender is cisgender. For some other helpful language tools around this conversation, check out Terminology 2.0.