Pastors, pulpits, pews and potluck
MIDLAND, Texas (BP)--I spoke recently at a wonderful church in New England. The church is part of a denomination that is fragmenting over the issue of homosexuality, and it is smack dab in the middle of one of our country's most liberal (theologically, politically and culturally) regions.
I shared with the pastor that I often find myself working two sides of the issue. I go into more liberal churches trying to show people that true love and compassion are found within the boundaries of Scripture, and I go into more conservative churches trying to soften people's hearts to show love and compassion for those dealing with same-sex attractions.
Some days I feel like a homosexual activist, and some days I feel like a hardened fundamentalist –- neither of which I am! But at the end of the day, my efforts on both sides are to help churches become safe places for people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction and places that might have some impact in reaching the homosexual community.
No matter the culture of the particular church I am in, I am always asked the question: "How can we be a church that ministers to struggling people and helps bridge the gap between the gay community and the church?" The answer to that question is not a simple one, but it is the same no matter the flavor of the church. As much as I dislike alliterations in sermons, here are four keys:
-– Pastor. In order for a church to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, the senior pastor must have a heart for reaching all hurting people, no matter the potential controversy. I have never seen the culture of a church change contrary to the heart of the pastor. This may not be the way it is "supposed" to be, but it is a reality. A church will not grow beyond the passion and desire of its chief shepherd.
-– Pulpit. For a church to effectively minister to strugglers and reach homosexual persons, the topic of homosexuality must be addressed from the pulpit. A pastor may have a wonderful heart for ministry and outreach, but if he never talks about it from the pulpit, his heart and vision will not impact the local church.
I have heard many excuses for not talking about homosexuality from the pulpit, but I have never heard a legitimate one. Yes, it is controversial. Yes, it may offend some people. Yes, it is complicated. But the reality is that even the most conservative church is impacted by homosexuality, and to ignore it publicly is to insinuate that the church does not care.
Sexual brokenness affects the church on many levels. Divorce, adultery, pornography, promiscuity and homosexual behavior are as prevalent within the church as they are in the world. The effectiveness of the local church will continue to be diminished if these hard issues are not discussed from the pulpit.
–- Pew. By this, I mean the attitude of the church body. I often ask congregations to imagine what an openly homosexual person would encounter on any given Sunday if they wandered through the doors of their church. How would people in their pew respond? Would a very masculine woman or a very effeminate man be greeted warmly, hugged or welcomed? Would they receive smiles and invitations to lunch? Or would they feel awkward and unwelcome? Would people avert their eyes to simply avoid any connection?
Until the church body has a heart for hurting, lonely, broken, lost people in general, the church will never be part of the solution. I know people who lead ministries who are afraid to invite struggling people to attend their own church for fear of how those people will be received. That is heartbreaking. The pews of our churches must reflect the reality of the grace that saved each person sitting there, or people in need of grace will flee.
–- Potluck. This refers to the community and fellowship of the church body. Is your church a place where people are real and vulnerable and loving and accepting? I don't imagine anyone will be comfortable sharing their struggle with homosexuality if small-group prayer requests are limited to the health of distant relatives in faraway states. Do people share heart issues within the "community" structure of your church (be it Sunday School, small groups or whatever)? Or are requests limited to safe issues like health or jobs or "other people"? If the church membership does not feel safe to be real, will new people feel safe to be real?
So when people ask me what their church can do, I often sense that they want me to outline a program. But a program will not work if the pastor is ambivalent. A program will not work if real-world issues are not addressed from the pulpit. A program will not work if the pews are filled with hard, judgmental, grace-less people. And a program will not work if community and fellowship are limited to surface issues and covered dish suppers. Programs are worthless if the heart and culture of the church have not changed. We, the church, must be a place of real, vulnerable, gracious, compassionate and merciful life, founded unapologetically on the life-giving, freeing, relevant and perfect Truth of the Word of God.
Where is your church? Pastors, where are you? Church members, where are you? What do you want to be? How do you want to impact the world with the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ?
We have the hope that the world is looking for. Will they find it when they come looking?
Mike Goeke is the associate pastor of counseling at Stonegate Fellowship Church in Midland, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on the SBC Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals can be found at www.sbcthewayout.com.