Our culture has shifted over the past couple of decades, and with it, the landscape of youth ministry has evolved. Worldviews and lifestyles that at one time were considered counter-cultural have become culturally acceptable. This is particularly true in the areas of gender and sexuality, in which the current narrative in our culture teaches so much that is contrary to the Bible’s narrative. The culture is catechizing our students into false believes and sinful behaviors regarding sexuality.
In the past sixteen months, our youth ministry has included two young people who openly identify as LGBTQ. Although they stayed with us for numerous months, neither of them remained longer than a year. This deeply saddened me. Jesus desires to show these students their worth as human beings made in God’s image. He calls them to follow him and obey his Word.
Christian hospitality is a helpful way to think about engaging all students, and especially those struggling with sexual sin or gender. I have an LGBTQ family member whom I love. Through this relationship I have seen firsthand how indispensable hospitality is in our endeavors to represent the gospel—the good news that God has welcomed us into a relationship with himself through the work of Jesus in our place.
I’m certain our youth ministry is not the only one working through what it means to care for students who are considering their sexuality and gender. It was once culturally taboo to identify as gay or transgender. Today, it is just the opposite—our culture not only accepts, but encourages, these ideas. How youth ministers care for teenagers wrestling with gender or sexuality is critical. All of our students, regardless of their worldview, are watching this topic closely. They are wondering, “is it possible to love and respect all people and still obey God’s law re: sexuality?” Some are asking, “is it possible that Jesus would accept and love me?”
Hospitality in the Way of Jesus
Showing hospitality while teaching biblical truth is not a simple endeavor. The spirit of our age is loud and clear—in order to accept someone you must accept their choices as well. In our secular culture, to disagree with someone or suggest a different course from what someone has decided for themselves is tantamount to rejection. This makes it incredibly challenging to welcome people in the name of Jesus while also teaching that the Bible has ultimate authority over our views on sexuality and gender. But we must push back against the spirit of the age. We must welcome people in and call them to follow Jesus by obeying his Word. We must, because this is the way of Jesus.
In Matthew 9, we read about an accusation that was voiced to Jesus’ disciples: Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? (Matt. 9:11).
While the disciples may have not known how to answer, Jesus responds, those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. (Matt. 9:12)
Jesus’ primary reason for coming to earth and taking on humanity is so that He could rescue sinners. He came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus shows us that the only way to do this effectively is to be with people, to welcome them in—and he does this through the intimacy of a meal.
Dinner in first century Palestine meant lying on one’s side, around the table; literally getting on the same level to share food, drink, and conversation. Jesus’ actions surprised the religious elite of his day, but they shouldn’t surprise those of us who know the gospel thread running through the Old and New Testaments. This is what God does. He comes near, he comes close to us despite our sin and messiness. That is what God did in a burning bush, in a belly of a whale, and in a manger of hay. This is what Jesus has done for each of us who has been welcomed into the family of God. All of us are the sinners that Jesus eats with, each of us is sick with sin. None of us deserve the loving-kindness that Jesus has shown us by taking our sin upon himself.
Building a Hospitable Community in Youth Ministry
It is a universal desire of human beings to belong, and this is why communities exist, including the LGBTQ community. The world has created a place where those outside the historic, biblical view of sexuality and gender can be welcomed and find acceptance. Should not our churches and youth ministries foster that welcome to an even greater extent? We have the hope, healing, love, and grace that is found in Jesus.
Here are four practical steps our youth ministry has taken to increase hospitality to all students:
1) We Codified Our Desire to Show Hospitality.
Our youth ministry has written five paragraphs that explain our approach to ministry based on the cultural landscape of our city. We call these our Core Desires. Two of these Core Desires focus on hospitality and community.
Teenagers long for a place to belong. They are more connected today than in any time in human history, but often still feel alone. We strive to make every student feel at home, regardless of their perspective or struggle.
It’s not essential to agree on everything in order to show someone love and respect. We do not need to accept someone’s belief system as true in order to be a friend. Instead, we want to bring honest questions and honest answers where we have them. This happens best in the context of genuine community.
2) We Taught a Practical Series Addressing Same-Sex Attraction and Gender Identification.
Our students need know what the Bible says about sexuality and gender (it is important that we don’t compromise on truth), and how to demonstrate love to their LGBTQ friends. So we put together a teaching series that would intentionally meet these needs. We spent time absorbing the gospel truth that we are all broken, that none of us is more deserving of God’s love than another. This study included:
-While the world says “love is love,” the Bible says God is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore God alone defines what love practically looks like in all of his commandments throughout Scripture.
-God created male and female (Gen. 1-2).
-Males and females are different but equally amazing.
-God designed marriage to be between a man and a woman.
-Marriage is a unique window into God’s love, and the only environment for sexual love (Eph. 5).
-Every person is valuable (Ps. 139:13-14).
-Jesus wants us to show a Christ-like love to all people.
3) We Shared Resources With Parents So That They Could Be Better Equipped.
We expect that some of our students are questioning or will question their sexuality and/or gender. It’s our goal to partner with parents and help them walk alongside their children. We provided book recommendations, and I published my teaching notes so parents knew exactly what I had shared with their teenagers. This opened up some great conversation with the parents of our youth.
4) We Began to Train Our Current Volunteer Team.
We watched an online training in order to understand biblical sexual ethics, as well as to grow in our love for the LGBTQ community. Both of these are vital if we are to maintain a proper balance of truth and love (Eph. 4:15). We have made a commitment only to include youth leaders who are willing to submit to what the Scripture says on sexuality and gender, and who are also committed to show hospitality towards LGBTQ students.
5) Timeless Grace and Truth
Yes, our world has changed, but here are two things that haven’t: First, teenagers are still teenagers. They face temptation, struggle with identity, and deeply desire to belong. And second, the gospel is still good news. It is the good news that Jesus is King and his kingdom is one of peace and freedom for all who follow him with their lives. And so, every part of our lives are to be submitted to King Jesus—including our sexuality and gender.
As youth leaders, we can foster a culture in our youth ministry that welcomes students who identify with the LGBTQ community if we walk in the way of Jesus. He was not threatened by those whose lifestyle or views were different; instead, he ate with them. He accepted them without supporting their sinful behavior or false beliefs; and he never left them the same. Though our culture seeks to conflate acceptance with support, we can challenge this paradigm with environments of grace and truth.
May our youth ministries be brave places where all students belong, where grace and truth exist in equal measure, and where the good news of Jesus rescues students wrestling with sexuality and gender just as he has rescued us.