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Becoming Better Missionaries to LGBT+ People (what I’ve learned after 11 years of ministry)


In 2003, I attended a secular college event featuring a Christian message on sexuality. Outside the auditorium, dozens of protestors gathered. Seeing their signs and sensing their frustration, I nervously approached them to ask why they were protesting.

One student said, “I grew up with two mothers. These evangelicals hate my family.” A mother, holding the hand of her special needs son, added: “Christians keep trying to deny me access to my partner’s healthcare that I depend upon to care for our son.”

After listening to many stories, my blind spots were revealed, and I saw my failure to love LGBT+ people. Weeks later, I journaled about this experience, and the result was a 50-page ministry plan.

In 2006, I founded Lead Them Home with a simple vision: loving LGBT+ people in the church. By 2008, I had designed and launched a training seminar for pastors. Posture Shift was the first curriculum to apply a missiological framework to how we view LGBT+ people. It rapidly mobilized better care of LGBT+ people.

Since then, we have privately trained and consulted 45,000 senior evangelical leaders across North America. Posture Shift has been featured at national conferences and in the Doctor of Ministry program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Before going further, I want to clearly say that I retain an orthodox theological position on marriage and sexuality. Simultaneously, my posture–and yours–must be pliable if we are to follow Jesus. God has routinely shifted my posture with this question: In as much as it has to do with you, what will you do to nourish faith identity in LGBT+ hearts?

Posture Shift: A Missiological Framework

Posture Shift equips church leaders to become better missionaries.

Using a missiological framework, we find that LGBT+ folks are a minority group–even in “gay-friendly” America. While 7-9 percent of youth report questioning or identifying as LGBT, only 3.8 percent of the adult population identifies as LGBT. This figure includes transgender people, who make up 0.6 percent of our population.

In my previous article, Homosexuality and the Church Leadership Crisis, we looked at the history of the Gay Community and learned that LGBT+ people are a marginalized people group. They share our culture and language, but experience lower relational safety in society–including the church. They often encounter an insensitive posture from Christians who are uncomfortable relating to them.

In contrast, missionaries overcome discomfort, indifference, and insensitivity, knowing these attitudes propel people away from Jesus. Missionaries do not denigrate people. They understand that, in order to grow the Kingdom, they have to dig in the dirt, plant, water and nourish the soil. Over and over again.

Missional work requires time–and proximity.

This is where being a missionary is instructive: missionaries understand that exclusion has no power to reach already-banished persons. They understand missional effectiveness is best accomplished by getting to know LGBT+ people–and also by studying their unique history, culture, and language.

We looked at LGBT+ history. Let’s look more personally at what it’s like to grow up LGBT+ and how language mistakes lower relational trust.

Growing Up LGBT+

By shifting from a teacher-teller to a listener-learner posture, our ministry has learned from nearly 4,000 LGBT+ people what it is like to grow up gay or transgender.

LGBT+ people report feeling “different” early in life—typically, well before sexual development. This can disrupt socialization, subjecting them to higher rates of exclusion and bullying. By the time an adolescent sexually matures, they may have experienced years of mistreatment.

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover endured years of bullying over mere perceptions that he was gay. After extensive victimization, he lost hope, and his mother found her precious son hanging from his bunk bed. Carl was not sinning sexually–he was just an 11-year-old child.

Bullying and rejection are traumas that can map brain chemistry to anticipate further harm. Trauma triggers the fight-or-flight survival instinct. For people with recurring trauma, this switch is perpetually set to trigger. It can take only a single action, attitude or word to damage trust with LGBT+ people.

Some Christians have historically blamed gay people for being overly sensitive, claiming that being gay is a mental illness. Instead, research shows this sensitivity—along with depression, anxiety, and suicidality—is rooted in long-term trauma.

No wonder even youth in loving families fear being disowned. Remember 20-year-old Dana? She knew her parents loved her–yet they disowned her. If you cannot trust your parents, then forget about churchy people.

Missionaries understand that any human being can be easily triggered following a history of trauma.

The Language Barrier

Language is a crucial factor that prevents LGBT+ people from experiencing belonging in the church. Imagine what happens when dozens of Christians simultaneously feel it is their duty to tell a gay person they are “living in sin.” We unleash a stream of clichés like “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

LGBT+ people quickly disconnect and leave the church. The lesson?

Missionaries do not measure the effectiveness of language by their own comfort, but by whether others hear Christ in their words. They take inventory of their relational mistakes. They confess and apologize. They extend hospitality, endeavoring to care for and walk with people—without conditions or deadlines.

To be sure, God wants all of us to become new creations in Christ. Missionaries recognize that any faith journey begins when Christians share Jesus with people where they are, as they are. The Apostle Paul delivers a stern warning for times we choose to denigrate and judge people:

“When you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet you do the same things, do you think you will escape the judgement of God? Or do you show contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you toward repentance?” (Romans 2:1-4)

A Biblical Path Forward

Missionaries lay down their lives for people. They understand that loving LGBT+ people needs not subtract from biblical truth. Yet truth that fails to convey love is as much an error as abandoning truth.

The cost of our mistakes is incalculable. In failing to genuinely love, even church leaders are concluding that an orthodox belief is not so biblical. The result: LGBT+ people do not trust us–and neither do a growing number of Christians.

We fear that loving gay people will condone sin. Ironically, it is our failure to love that is leading even evangelicals to abandon historic biblical beliefs on marriage and sexuality.

Allow human pain to build up for decades, and eventually, a new generation will rise up and call out injustice.

To redeem our past mistakes, we must confess decades of relational sin against LGBT+ people. We must recognize strengths of the “justice generation” who help us see LGBT+ people through the eyes of Jesus. We must also value LGBT+ people as human beings made in the image of God.

I have not heard from 19-year-old Samantha since 2010. Now 26, she emailed me last night.

“In 2010, I was battling deep depression after my parents kicked me out of the house. Desperate for some shred of stability, I reached out to Lead Them Home. You comforted me instead of condemning me. I have since surrendered my life to Jesus. He has established my identity in Him. Thank you for showing me Christ’s love.”

To love LGBT+ people, we can retain our theological position–but becoming a better missionary to any marginalized people group always requires a posture shift.

If you’d like to learn more about how your church can reach the LGBT+ community in your area, consider attending Posture Shift in Indianapolis, Denver or Boston (more info at postureshift.com). Also, take advantage of Lead Them Home’s special offer and receive a free excerpt of Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones.

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Bill Henson is a church consultant with over a decade of experience mobilizing evangelical leaders' relational engagement of LGBT+ people. He is founder of Lead Them Home, creator of the nationally acclaimed Posture Shift seminar, and author of Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones. Bill and his family are members of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.