my latest column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) has been released into the wild. i felt this one had an extra dose of importance, and hope youth workers will both read it carefully and think deeply about implications.
I don’t believe there’s an increase in gay teenagers, or those wrestling with same sex attraction (SSA), in the average church. But there’s no question that youth workers all over the globe—whatever their church’s theology, or their own—are facing an exponential increase in questions from all fronts.
In every one of my youth worker coaching groups, participants of all theological stripes want to talk bout how they should respond to teenagers with SSA questions (and transgender questions). Almost every youth worker is asking (or should be asking!) pragmatic questions, and being expected to give answers to teenagers, parents, and oversight committees.
I’ve found that most of us don’t know how to talk about these issues. One of the results is an interesting one: we almost always default to theological camps (even the large quantity of youth workers who aren’t sure of their theological camp). Conversations quickly become debates.
There’s a place for debates, to be sure. Biblical and theological understanding is critical. But at the end of the day, I’m finding that most youth workers are wrestling with questions and situations that are more pastoral than theological. And I’m not seeing enough of those conversations. To paraphrase pastor and author Andy Stanley: With Jesus, we see that theology is never allowed to trump ministry.
I was recently reading the manuscript of a wonderful book being released later this year by Andrew Marin, called Us Verses Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community (NavPress, 2016). The book reveals the findings (and practical implications) of a massive research study of the faith of LGBT people. And there are some very surprising findings, one of which should result in direct action from youth workers everywhere.
(It should be noted that while Marin currently lives in Scotland, studying at St. Andrews, the research study was conducted on a US population. That said, I believe the implications still have something to say to youth workers outside of the US.)
In short, one surprising finding of the study was that LGBT people score more than 10% higher than the general population when it comes to having a background in the Christian church. That fact itself is fascinating, and worthy of reflection. The research team dug deep into the data, cross-referencing reams of data from other questions and digging into the responses from open-ended prompts.
They discovered that a large portion of young teens experiencing SSA look for ways to rid themselves of the attraction they don’t desire to have. Prior to their young teen years, survey respondents may have been aware of their SSA; but the questions (and often pain and fear) surrounding these issues become particularly urgent to young teens stepping into the developmentally normative work of identity formation.
Here’s the news for youth workers (and churches in general): a statistically significant percentage of young teens experiencing SSA, but without prior church experience turn to the church, as a means of turning to God. Did you catch that? Young teens without prior church experience start attending church and/or youth programs specifically because of their SSA. They are looking, primarily, for answers and help (and often, hoping that God will remove their SSA).
Sadly, the statistics also show that the vast majority of teens experiencing SSA do not find help in the church (all too often experiencing condemnation and rejection): The majority of LGBT adults report leaving the church (but not their faith) during their later teen years.
Teenagers are in our midst, looking for help; and we have been—for a very, very long time—failing them.
This is one of the reasons I am so firmly in agreement with Andy Stanley’s insistence that “the church should be the safest place to talk about anything, including SSA.”
This column is not the place for a deep dive into all the ways we youth workers should be living out this ‘safest place to talk about anything’ mandate. But let’s at least start here: love, and dialogue, and create safety, and prayerfully work out your pastoral response (more urgently than your theological posture) to the teenagers in your very midst who are wrestling with same sex attraction.