Several years ago I spoke to 1,400 church-goers representing more than two dozen churches. Filling an auditorium to capacity and spilling into an overflow area equipped with closed circuit television, their motivation to hear me, a former homosexual, resulted from a series of pro-homosexual ads in their local newspaper.
They sang fervently, prayed passionately and then sat idly as I told what great things the Lord had done for me. And all the while I was painfully aware they wanted to hear what ghastly thing God had done to Sodom and Gomorrah - in part because the ads' purchasers were present.
It was excruciatingly apparent they wanted a forceful denunciation of homosexuality. Indeed, when I stated God's creative design - one man for one woman for life - the place erupted in faux applause.
Make no mistake, I believe the Bible calls homosexuality a sin and said so. But I did not believe I needed to repeat that belief for the duration of my message - though at least one pastor thought so. Standing before the goading crowd I was tempted to follow a well-trod preaching path, but I took the road less traveled and told them about a God who separates us from our sin as far as the east is from the west.
Over time I've discovered that when it comes to homosexuality, Christians show great passion in one of two areas. Either they are passionate about extinguishing the pro-gay movement or about expanding God's movement by introducing them to His Son. The former objective has evidenced itself in a preaching approach that, as James S. Stewart said, "creates more heat than light."
I contend that accomplishing the latter objective will have a direct and dramatic effect on the former objective, but not the other way around.
I prefer the term "person with same-sex attraction" because it does not imply - as does "homosexual" - that a person is sexually active or that they are part of a gay advocacy group. A person with same-sex attractions is a person first - before they are same-sex attracted. These distinctions are crucial.
Visible homosexuals - primarily celebrities - have led most evangelicals to mistakenly believe that everyone with such attractions is content; thus the Church's sole duty is to counter the growing acceptance of homosexuality through public policy organizations which proliferate like kudzu. Unfortunately, concerted efforts to win homosexuals to Christ and make disciples of them are virtually non-existent.
What role, if any, does the preacher play in this conundrum?
Preachers have their own set of temptations - a fact which can be illustrated from the life of John Bunyan. Having preached a commanding message, Bunyan was greeted by a layman who exclaimed "That was the most powerful sermon I have ever heard!" Bunyan replied with brut honesty, "Man, you need not tell me that. The devil whispered it to me before I was well out of the pulpit."
How does this relate to our preaching on homosexuality? We are tempted to sound vociferous or prophetic. A colleague in outreach to homosexuals once told me he did not mind "offending homosexuals with the truth." I wondered why he did not use "loving" versus "offending," as in Ephesians 4:15. Ironically, he used to be homosexual and a target of offensive language. William Quayle cautions "Never say things to evoke the cheer. It is pitifully easy to give way to the desire for applause." In theater it's called "playing to the audience."
What are you saying that you should not say? Conversely, what are you not saying that you should say? Charles Spurgeon, who heard someone say a certain preacher had no more gifts of ministry than an oyster, said "…in my judgment that was a slander on the oyster, for that worthy bivalve shows great discretion in his opening, and knows when to close."
Any demeaning remark you make about homosexuals wounds about 70 percent of your listeners who have family and friends with same-sex attractions. A mother of a gay son told me her pastor's frequent depiction of homosexuals is like having a knife thrust into her gut and twisted - which is one reason she has not divulged the "news" to her fellowship. (It took this mother three years from the first time she met me and heard my testimony before she disclosed to me her son's homosexuality.) Why is disclosure so difficult?
As parents told me, "If our son was involved in drugs or alcohol, fellow believers would pray for us." If he was incarcerated, "our church would rally around us with support." But these parents remain mum because their sons and daughters wrestle with homosexuality. They suffer in sustained silence because they've "heard the jokes," "seen the raised eyebrows" and "endured the verbal derision towards homosexuals" coming from the very people they would typically unburden themselves to - their church. And preacher, make no mistake, your people take their cues from you.
In a heart-wrenching article a mother who serves on a church staff, writes, "Why can't I tell you? Because I don't need your judgment, your theories or your analysis. I can assure you that my own feelings of guilt, inadequacy and failure, reinforced by the outcries of the Christian community against homosexuals and their families, are more than sufficient." She pleads that we treat all people with respect, a premise reinforced by Phillips Brooks who wrote an "element of a preacher's power is genuine respect for the people to whom he preaches." Writes John Stott, "However strongly we may disapprove of homosexual practices, we have no liberty to dehumanize those who engage in them."
As you exegete Scripture, so must you exegete your listeners. What temptations are they fighting? Who appears to be in Bunyan's "slough of despond?" Is it possible that the distance between your pulpit and your people is measured not in feet but light years?
You, no doubt, preach every week to persons with homosexual attractions. They are among your guests and yes, your members. Men and women, married and single, teenagers and senior adults. They are more inconspicuous than a chameleon in a sandstorm at midnight. But you need to know they are there. Though some are "satisfied" with their concealed homosexuality, many (I believe most) are not. They are not closeted in the sense they are secretly active - they are conflicted and deeply wounded. They want freedom from these incessant thoughts and they want a word from you that goes beyond condemnation.
R. Albert Mohler writes "…Homosexuals are waiting to see if the Christian church has anything more to say after we declare that homosexuality is a sin." Evangelicals have unmistakably communicated the diagnosis, yet refuse helpful discussion because "it's a dirty issue" - as if there are "clean sins."
If a physician gave a patient a diagnosis without a treatment plan and prognosis, he or she would be a disservice to their profession. Does our following that same pattern make us guilty of ecclesiastical malpractice? Jay Kesler writes, "Preaching a sermon that is strong on information but weak on application is like shouting to a drowning man, ‘SWIM, SWIM'! The message is true, but it's not helpful."
Your listeners are like the son who snubbed his father's advice for a college education, saying "I've got more information now than I know what to do with." Homosexuals, like all hurting people, need more than information; they need compassion.
In 2007, The Barna Group released research results showing that "…91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young churchgoers" believe Christians display "excessive contempt…towards gays and lesbians" and claim "the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians."
Mohler notes that, "Evangelical Christians must ask ourselves some very hard questions, but the hardest may be this: Why is it that we have been so ineffective in reaching persons trapped in (homosexuality)?" Because Christians are unlikely to evangelize people they hold in "excessive contempt." Christian compassion has become an oxymoron!
Also in 2007, a denominational research division issued its findings, the vast results of which were eclipsed by one shocking sentence: "Most Christians don't like lost people." That dislike appears to have moved the church to outsource God's work, particularly as it relates to homosexuality.
At this writing, the American Psychological Association (APA), which has been in the crosshairs of evangelicals, is determining whether to ban forms of counseling for those with unwanted same-sex attractions. While I believe such counseling should continue, evangelicals must remember that God has not empowered the APA to deal with homosexuality; that righteous responsibility belongs to the Church, and as the undershepherd, you must lead the way.
Start with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the 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 our God."
If we readily cite this text as proof of God's power to transform, we must ask "What was the dynamic of this early church which brought people out of homosexuality?" Admirable congregation? Model of Christian unity? Selfless and Christ-centered? The answer is no, on all counts. The First Church of Corinth, which exhibited gossip and reeked with litigation, implicitly approved an incestuous affair and wallowed in arguments over spiritual gifts.
That church, like most today, was similar to Noah's ark. "If it weren't for the storm outside, you couldn't stand the stench inside." Yet something powerful was at work in this church. The APA did not exist. Cross Ministry, which this writer directs, had not been established. Psychoanalytic therapy had not been fashioned.
How is it that a church, 2,000 years ago, could walk people out of homosexuality? Moreover, why can we not replicate it today? It's because the Corinthian congregation had a "hands-on/no outsourcing" attitude to temptation and sin. If we excuse our inability to do now what that church did then because of a well-funded pro-gay movement, we deceive ourselves and empty the gospel of its power.
Across the country I hear preachers dub this group "hard to reach." I submit the very opposite is true. Those who hurt the most are riper for the gospel than those in the 10/40 window. C.S. Lewis wrote, "Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God; the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger." Wrote G.K. Chesterton "Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God."
Following my speaking in a Louisiana church, a visibly livid lesbian approached me, fuming about her sister who believed homosexual behavior sinful. (I did not need to side with her sister as I had interspersed my testimony within my message.) I sensed I should exude kindness, keep my mouth shut and listen - all daunting tasks for evangelicals when homosexuality surfaces! After a three-minute rant her tirade ended and tears began streaming down her cheeks. Reaching out, I touched her arm asking "why are you crying?" Her reply, cadenced and concise, did not directly answer my question but spoke volumes "I - cry - all - the time." I sat with her the next hour and listened to her story of childhood sexual and emotional abuse. When she finished, I didn't need to ask her if I could speak; like a budding pianist listening to Van Cliburn, she absorbed my every word because I had won the right to tell her about God's forgiveness.
A young preacher, speaking to Spurgeon, lamented that few people responded when he preached. Asked Spurgeon, "Do you really expect people to make decisions for Christ every time you preach?" The preacher said "well, no - not every time." Spurgeon replied, "And that's precisely why they don't." But our dilemma may be more fundamental than that; it seems that not only do we not expect homosexuals to come to Christ, we, like Jonah, don't want them to come to Christ.
As first time visitors in a Sunday School class where my testimony was not known, my wife and I listened to a discussion about a Christian couple, in another state, who declined to give a landscaping estimate to a gay couple. The teacher said he would have given the estimate because it would have provided an opportunity to minister to them. I was enthralled with his reply, but appalled at a class member's retort, "unless God did not want those homosexuals ministered to" - a belief which could not be more foreign to Scripture (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4).
Imagine you're preaching to several thousand homosexuals who eagerly want to hear you. They sincerely desire to know what biblical insight you may offer. Precisely what are you going to tell them?
Before you answer, examine your motivations and goals. What do you want to happen in the lives of these individuals? Remember, no one has ever been argued out of homosexuality or into God's Kingdom.
Will you exhort them to "convert to heterosexuality?" Many preachers peddle heterosexuality like it's "another gospel" (Galatians 1:6). Conversion is to Christ who, in turn, transforms us into His image. Jesus did not say "Go and make heterosexuals," but "Go and make disciples" (Matthew 28:19). Similarly, why don't we try to convert alcoholics to sobriety?
Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equals (a belief maintained by most evangelicals) but neither are they two opposites, a truth apparently unknown to the "People of the Book." Homosexuality, like all forms of sexual immorality, is a counterfeit to God's creative design - not the opposite.
Will you propose they date persons of the opposite sex? To encourage a lesbian to "date more guys, you haven't met the right one" misses the point entirely. Such advice is as effective as firing a machine gun at a tidal wave. What good does it do to tell an anorexic she needs to eat more food and more frequently?
We err in believing we should introduce homosexuals to the opposite sex; we need to introduce them to Jesus Christ. And if they are already believers, we need to make disciples of them.
Will you suggest they "trust the Lord?" Will you repeat that tired refrain "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," which comes across as more antagonistic than evangelistic? Though a true statement, it misses the point. Before God gave Adam a helpmate, God gave Adam Himself, the relationship that precedes all earthly relationships.
In dealing with this topic, address the issue in a message on "all forms of sexual immorality" - pre-marital sex is sin, too. Touch on the issue in the context of a "group of sins" as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 6. F.B. Meyer wrote that a good sermon should be like a good portrait - in which the eyes make contact with every viewer regardless of where he stands.
Take a Reverse Approach
Rather than telling your people what's wrong with same sex relationships, tell them what's good about healthy same sex relationships - David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and John. Have you ever heard a sermon on the legitimate display of affection between Jesus and John the Beloved during the last supper (John 13:23-25)?
Incorporate part of a person's testimony into your message. Here is an example: A 19-year-old male from Singapore emailed me this note: "My pastor went on stage and started insulting and joking about homosexuals. Everyone was laughing. I didn't think it was funny but I followed them and laughed because I don't want them to think I'm a gay. My shepherd, the person who taught me a lot of things on Christianity when I joined the church, called me ‘aqua,' meaning gay. I was really hurt by that word. Quite lot of people call me that but I didn't expect my own shepherd to say such a thing to me. That's when I decided that I was born without a soul and I was sent into this world to suffer. God never ever wanted me as his child."
If this young man's words break your heart, let it break when you preach. If his words don't break your heart, do anything but preach. Our task in preaching is to radiate God's love so as to eclipse the artificial love found in homosexuality.
Tim Wilkins is the Director of Cross Ministry (www.CrossMinistry.org) in Wake Forest, North Carolina.