Established in 1988, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) selected October 11 since it’s the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. NCOD is a day when those in the LGBT community publicly display their pride in being gay, whether through parade or wearing symbols such as a pink triangle—and encourage those considering coming out to do so.
How should churches who hold to a biblical sexual ethic prepare for NCOD? More pastorally and personally, less polemically or politically.
Harsh responses are at least part of the reason some who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA) are drawn to NCOD. Neither church nor culture, until recent years, provided a context where one could talk about the experiences of unwanted SSA without changing his or her identity.
Imagine attending a church where your life struggle was never mentioned as an area to receive care. (And if it was mentioned, it occupied the adversarial portion of a culture war commentary.) How would your week-to-week experience of church be different? This is the experience of many who battle unwanted SSA in our churches. “Coming out” is often an act of defiance against the sentence of solitary confinement that comes with a struggle where there is no context to find support.
It’s like gasping for air when you’ve been relationally suffocating.
How’s Your Church Responding?
Think about your own congregation. If someone is experiencing unwanted SSA—and it’s likely someone is—whom would they talk to? Where would they find support? What quality of honest friendship is available to them?
In too many churches the unfortunate answers are:
- Who? I don’t know.
- Support? Probably not.
- Quality of friendship? Things get “weird” when someone gets honest.
To the degree that we, as a church, have offered silence and isolation to our brothers and sisters with unwanted SSA, can we be surprised or upset they declined our offer to be sequestered?
Our culture, by contrast, says “come out” (i.e., identify as gay) and then you can be known. The result is that individuals get caught in the middle of a culture war. Their first conversations result in a strong social pressure to choose sides.
With that in mind, I want to provide some initial ministry suggestions for churches in anticipation of NCOD. We will consider three audiences: the individual, parents, and friends.
(The suggestions below are worded as introductory remarks that could be included in a sermon or lesson.)
1. For the church member experiencing unwanted SSA.
“This week our culture will celebrate National Coming Out Day. Often the church has thought of homosexuality as a purely political or moral issue. In doing so we sometimes miss the person struggling. We need to recognize we have members who experience unwanted same-sex attraction. If that’s you, you may feel alone, even at church. In fact, this is a primary reason National Coming Out Day was thought to be necessary. People felt they had to live in isolation and shame. If you’re here and that’s how you feel, we want you to know you don’t have to choose between isolation and publicly identifying as gay. We want to be a church that helps you understand what it means to honor God in the midst of unwanted same-sex attraction.”
Prior to making this kind of public statement, make sure your fellow pastors and key leaders are prepared to care well for those who entrust their struggle to you.
2. For the parents of a child who comes out as gay.
“Parents, you are often forgotten in this struggle as well. Navigating the confusion of a child who confides a struggle with same-sex attraction or identifies as gay brings many difficult questions and emotions. Parents in our church may face this struggle themselves or have the opportunity to walk alongside a family who does. We want you to know you don’t have to struggle alone either.”
3. For the friends of someone who comes out as gay.
“Finally, many will have the opportunity to befriend someone at work or school who struggles with unwanted same-sex attraction or identifies as gay. The culture expects that we, as Christians, would be harsh and judgmental. For many high school and college students who don’t experience same-sex attraction, the absence of a caring response from the church for their classmates has become a significant reason they doubt their faith. As a church, we want to equip you to ‘defend your faith’ in a way that ‘cares for the individual’ to whom you’re giving a defense. This is why we’ve provided a list of resources, books, and study guides that can help us each grow where we need to on this subject.”
Becoming a Redemptive Voice
Most of this article has focused on caring for fellow Christians who struggle with unwanted SSA. I believe we will think better on this subject if we begin with this assumption. But we also need to think about representing Christ well to friends and neighbors in the LGBT community who don’t view the Christian faith as a good thing.
It’s helpful to realize the anger coming from the LGBT community toward the church is, at least, two-fold. First, we often haven’t treated those who struggle with SSA in a God-honoring manner. We often haven’t lived up to our calling to love those who have opposing views. When we fail in this way, those we hurt are right to be angry. This is where we can and must do better.
Second, there is anger because we believe a gay lifestyle or identity is out of step with biblical sexuality. However well we do at correcting the first cause of anger, it may not alleviate the offense for those whose anger is rooted in the second. But if we continue to neglect the first concern, it will only reinforce that the second conclusion is rooted more in tradition and personal preference than in God’s design.
Then we will have lost the ability to be a redemptive voice not only with our LGBT neighbors, but also for those in our culture (and church) who have taken the time to be their friends.
- Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry
- Brad Hambrick, 7 Suggestions For When You Preach About Homosexuality
- Brad Hambrick, Is Your Church A Safe Place For People Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction?
- Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert