The Surprising News About LGBT Teens and Church

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.

us verses usI 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.


19 thoughts on “The Surprising News About LGBT Teens and Church”

  1. This post brought tears to my eyes. I’ve dealt with this very thing in the last few years and I always want the ministry we cultivate towards teens in our church to be welcoming and safe for them to wrestle with ANYTHING, even this.

  2. The most important ministry involves people who talk opening and without judgement. Those conversations open the doors to God’s love, forgiveness, grace and what we all seek to accomplish in ministry….Christian growth.

  3. The willingness of some churches to condemn teens for being attracted to the same sex reminds me of when they would condemn girls for getting pregnant back in the 80s. Ostracizing, condemning, and belittling are all things that Jesus would never do with any “sinner”.

  4. I’m not sure about the statement “theology should trump ministry”. I think “theology should hold up ministry”. Our theology should guide our ministry. If your theology is sound then your ministry will be done in the way Jesus did it.

  5. i get the nuance you’re suggesting. but to be clear: i did NOT write that theology should trump ministry.” just the opposite — “theology should NOT trump ministry.”

  6. I apologize. I was reading at work and must have read through too quickly. If I knew how to remove my comment I would do so. Thank-you for the clarification.

  7. The very fact that your quoting Andy Stanley, tells me your easily decieved. Try reading these books
    What the Bible Really Teaches about Homosexuality, by K. DeYoung
    And Transforming Homosexuality, by Burke &Lambert. Also,We Cannot Be Silent by Mohler..

  8. Man, this is tough to read. Thanks for not wading into the debate here, but reminding us that our dominant ethic is love, regardless of what position we take on this and other issues.

  9. Though you didn’t wade into the debate, I’m sensing some leanings. Using the word “wrestle” could suggest you believe the wrestling match ends with a winner. What would a victory look like?

  10. Marko, I’m thankful you aren’t afraid to practice your face in the midst of tension. I think this work you’ve done affirms and challenges us. Reminds me of Andrew Root’s understanding of incarnational ministry.

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