I was fresh out of seminary and was pastoring a church plant that, within a few months of starting, had outgrown our rented facility and was beginning to plan for two services. At Stonegate Fellowship we were telling people the truth that Jesus Christ changes lives, and it seemed the message was getting across. We were telling people that Stonegate was a place they could bring the baggage of their past and we would love them and walk with them into the journey of new life offered through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We were telling people that all of us had a story, no matter how good or bad, but all that really mattered was personally knowing and loving Jesus and loving one another. And so, for the most part, outside of the many struggles that come with starting a new church, we were excited and expectant about what God was doing in our city and church. Then, as if God had planned for our church to take it up another notch, Mike and Stephanie Goeke visited my office and a new day began not only for Stonegate Fellowship, but for me, the Pastor.
Many people in our church and city (Midland, Texas) knew some of Mike and Stephanie Goeke's story. Most knew of their separation a few years prior, the impending divorce and the miraculous restoration. But what many did not know was the story this upper-middle class, white collar, "straight out of the preppy handbook" couple had never shared with anyone – especially anyone inside the church. But for a new pastor, and a young church start, one afternoon meeting in the pastor's office was about to change all of this.
The Goeke's sat in my office and, with voices full of fear, began to take me at my word. They had heard what we believed as a church and what we said; now, they were going to test it and see if we meant it.
Mike and Stephanie sat across from me, and Mike calmly shared the well known story of how he had left his wife. But this day the story went deeper. Mike began to share with me more of his own life story; a life story and struggle known by very few. Over the course of several minutes Mike began to detail for me how his almost lifelong struggle with homosexuality was the part of the story no one knew anything about. He shared with me the first time someone called him 'gay.' He detailed for me the struggles he had all through high school and college – struggles that he eventually buried and carried into his marriage. Perhaps most discouraging, he detailed for me his loneliness and fear especially in the local church. He detailed for me how the very place he should have been able to find help he found mostly hate, indifference, fear and foolishness. Mike and Stephanie even shared their fear of telling me as they were almost certain that, with this new revelation, their days of service at Stonegate Fellowship were over. But quite the opposite occurred. Following several weeks of very intense and sometimes personal attack and struggle about the importance of sharing this real life story in the Body of Christ, I had this precious couple share their story in front of our entire church family. It was a day I will never forget.
The auditorium was packed with Stonegate members and with Mike and Stephanie's friends from throughout the community. Our church was filled with people who thought they were there to hear a "normal" story about how Jesus had saved a marriage. No one knew that they were about to experience a "marker day" for Stonegate Fellowship. From that Sunday morning on everyone would know we were serious when we said "we believe Jesus changes lives and we want you, and all your baggage, so we can journey with you in the new life in Christ." But not only was Stonegate Fellowship changed, but a pastor was changed as well.
To say the least I was amazed at what happened that Sunday morning. After the service people would not leave. So many stayed to talk with Mike and Stephanie about family members struggling with homosexuality and asking what they could do. Men whom I knew to be very upset about what the Goeke's were going to share were in tears asking for forgiveness from Mike and Stephanie. And the hope I saw on the faces of so many was astounding. I saw in the eyes of people something of a new hope that said "if Jesus could do this in Mike and Stephanie's life then surely He can change my life." But, as I said, things were changing in my heart as well.
First, I knew from the beginning that my characterization of homosexuality had been wrong. My ideas about homosexuality were formed from the harsh rhetoric of evangelical speakers and the images of mainstream media. I never once thought about white collar professionals like Mike Goeke who had been suffering with this issue for decades and were drowning in a sea of anonymity right under the nose of the church. Men, and women, living two lives, desperate for help but finding none anywhere they looked. After all, homosexuality was the "worst" sin and surely of a different sort than "normal" sins like taking one too many drinks, cheating on taxes, lusting after women, breaking the speed limit or failing to tithe! I had bought into a way of thinking that set homosexuality apart as the leprosy of the 21st century rather than another destructive sin used by the Satan to steal away full and meaningful life from those who would follow Jesus. From this moment on, at least for this pastor, homosexuality would not be the serious sin of the worst sinners, but rather another sin destroying the lives of everyday people of all social classes.
I also learned that my words were killing those most needing the healing touch of the Savior. On another Sunday, not long after the Goeke's shared, I was waxing eloquent about an especially popular couple at the time who were openly proud lesbians. I boldly referred to them as perverts and continued on without skipping a beat. Within days Mike stopped by my office to let me know that when I used words like pervert and queer, I further alienated those so desperately desiring help from the local church. As much as I wanted to defend myself I could not. I was damning the very ones Jesus died for by my 'churchy,' harsh words. The more I thought about it the more I realized Jesus never called anyone names either, except the religious elite of His day. He certainly never called the woman we read about in Luke 7 a whore! He just let her wash His holy feet and taught a humiliating lesson to Simon the Pharisee. As much as I hated to do it, I stood in the pulpit the very next Sunday and issued an apology to our congregation for labeling sinners rather than just labeling sin. I vowed to never make this mistake again.
I was learning some new things about confession and community as well. Jesus changes a life in an instant, but it takes a lifetime of walking in the new, crucified life in a community of Christ-followers called the local church to really experience the transformed life Jesus came to offer. But for so many like me, we have grown accustomed to acting like transformed people should act, while deep down inside we are dying a slow death because we are afraid to talk about our struggles. We fear we will be perceived as spiritual losers. After Mike and Stephanie shared the rest of their story, the gauntlet was thrown down in my life, and the life of our church. That gauntlet simply represented the fact that Stonegate would be no place for fakers. We would lean heavily on each other with our deepest struggles so that, as a community of Christ-followers, we could share the life of Christ with each other.
But to this day mine and Stonegate Fellowship's greatest reward was the privilege of modeling restoration and transformation as we hired Mike Goeke to come on staff as our Executive Pastor just several months after our great Sunday. Mike has become one of my most treasured friends and partners in life and ministry and none of this would have happened had we not decided that Stonegate would be the community of Jesus Christ it was called to be - a place where baggage can be dropped off and a new life can begin - for everyone. Bill Hybels once said, "The church is the hope of the world". I believe this now more than ever and have a friend and brother in Christ to prove it.
Used with permission from Stonegate Fellowship