Ministering to Gay Teens
It is no question that high schools and middle schools across this nation are ground zero for students who face peer pressure, bullying, low self-esteem, depression, and the like. One of the most disturbing of these "rituals” is bullying. I am sure that many of us know all too well about being bullied as either victims or abusers. Daily, all students face some sort of demoralizing statements about how they act, dress, talk, interact, and how they try to express themselves.
Bullying starts with name calling, crude jokes, rumors, seclusion from peers, etc. These actions lead into students being cyber-bullied and getting beat up in the halls, locker rooms, or parking lots. The ending result, more often than not, leaves victims hating themselves and their school experience, which causes them to further isolate themselves from peer groups, missing school, changing schools, and in some cases, even attempting suicide. Emotional, physical, and even some psychological harm leaves its mark upon students well into adulthood. Bullying in school is dangerous – even at times deadly – and it is on the rise all over the world.
A Gay Student’s Place
Of all the bullying that goes on, however, students who identify themselves as gay are the most targeted and victimized. As mentioned before, although tolerance of gays is on the rise, in some areas of the country, the overwhelming response to gay students is still that of fear and hatred. Many schools remain unsafe for gay students. Read what two students write about their current school experience.
Male Student – 11th grade
"I have learned that harassment in schools is a norm. Kids would scream the term ‘faggot’ as they saw me in the halls. None of the teachers said a word, and that is what scared me. I don’t feel safe at my school because I’m gay.”
Female Student – 12th grade
"I stayed home because everyone hated me so much that it made me hate myself, and I thought there was something completely wrong with me. I missed almost three weeks in a row to avoid seeing the other students.”
As a gay teen in high school, I can clearly identify with both students. The majority of my teachers did not respond to the comments made by my peers in the halls and classrooms. Regardless of why they did not respond, they didn’t, allowing the bullying to continue unjustly. Like me, many gay students end up hating their school experience, because each day is yet another day in hell.
Additionally, home life is often unsafe for gay teens. As mentioned before, estimates state that about 26% of all homeless teens identify as gay. This often leaves gay teens with only two options: stay silent and face inward struggles and questions, or come out and live with the consequences. Either way, the majority of gay students deal with their same-sex attraction by themselves. More often than not, parents are afraid to say or do the wrong thing, and are often facing their own trials of their child being gay. Therefore, this presents a dilemma for teenagers. If parents and teachers are unsure how to handle the situation, where are gay students supposed to turn for help? If they are like me, I turned to my friends for support. However, even with their help deeper questions remained unanswered. I wonder, had I had some sort of faith in God, would my teenage years have been different? Christians were not people to turn to, as they were the main source of my hurt and questions. The majority of gay teens, sadly, fit my experience. This is why bold youth workers need to stand in the gap between gay teens and Christianity, being Jesus to a those who desperately need to experience Jesus – authentically.
Are youth workers more knowledgeable about gay issues than parents or teachers? Probably not, however they should be. Think about it. Youth workers have the ability to present themselves in a variety of safe ways. They can offer support, from a biblical standpoint, that teachers cannot. They can offer support and compassion that many parents are unsure how to give to their child. As a youth worker now, having been able to speak into so many students lives already, I cannot help but think that if I had a youth worker speak into my life, I would not have traveled down many of the roads I ended up on. I believe student ministry is vital and effective piece to a teenager’s life – especially one that is gay.
What is most surprising to me, though, is how many student ministries remain unsafe for gay teens. It would be hard to fully eradicate discrimination and bullying from schools – though I strongly believe, we must work towards this goal. However, it does not make sense why such actions continue in youth ministries. Of all places where bullying should not be happening, it still exists. Many youth leaders are either unaware of it or refuse to address it. Student ministries should be a safe-haven for all students, no matter what – period. Like church, student ministries are places where people encounter Jesus: physically and spiritually. Our place of ministry must be one that fosters the compassion and safety that Jesus offers to all people, from all points of life.
A student is at a delicate state when he or she comes to you and declares that they are gay. For many of them, your response determines if they will stay connected with you, and sometimes if they will even stay connected to God. This should not cause you to fear the conversation, but rather wake you up to the need of understanding the issue so that you understand how to respond effectively. Maybe this has already happened to you, and maybe not. Regardless, the time of wondering if gay students will enter into your student ministry is long over: they are here.
While I am sure that many gay students already know that being gay is a sin, not everyone knows the love and grace of Christ. The Church has been quick to point out the sin part but rather slow in pointing out the love of the Father. If you truly understand this, than you’ll begin to move past the cliché: "love the sinner, hate the sin.” Gay and lesbian students are more than "sinners,” and more than a "sin” for that matter. They are people made by the hand of God, first. We must look past the "sin” part and see what God’s sees: His child.
Authentic love – love that extends from the Father – looks past the person’s faults, and into their hearts. Yes, Jesus called out sin, but He first went to the root of the matter: the person’s need for Himself. In taking this approach, Jesus was able to effectively deal with the wrong ways people were striving to attain authentic love through other means. He attacked the heart issue, not the person. Imitate this.
Before tackling some tips on how to minister to gay teens, I want to suggest you go through a process of checking your heart and mind about gay students. Being a disciple of Jesus, first, and given the call to make disciples of Jesus, how you personally feel about gay students will reflect in what you teach and how you lead.
It would be wise to sit with God and pray about the students you currently deal with who are gay, or ones that may one day walk through your doors. Just as your personal relationship with Christ influences your ministry and your students, so it is going to influence the relationship you have with your gay student(s). The more you are connected to Christ, the better prepared you will be to handle the tough questions and situations coming your way – with all students. As Jim Burns states, "Our students need to see us as people who are in process, just like them, of being transformed and changed into the likeness of Jesus.” Likewise, Mike Yaconelli asserts this mandate: "Our relationship with Jesus is our youth ministry.” This is what makes us youth workers – our relationship with Him. Christ is our identity, and this is what we pass onto all of our students.
Therefore, you need to answer such questions as: How will I respond to the subject of homosexuality? How will I react around gays and lesbians? What about them bothers me? Do I have any fears about them? For other questions to work through, personally and with a team, see chapter 6. As you begin to process through these questions, begin to rid yourselves of personal expectations for your student. God’s will and timetable should always rise above our own. I strongly advise doing this before you have to face this issue head on. Sit in God’s presence and ask Him to teach you how to respond to gays and lesbians as He would.
Some other suggestions:
Get educated: The more you learn about things, the better. It would be good to have a few helpful resources on hand in your office/home to lend out to students and parents.
Seek God’s Wisdom, Truth, and Love: This is a complex issue, without God’s guidance we can become lost in misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and assumptions. More than anything, students need His truth and love imparted within them. The more you seek God’s counsel the greater your impact.
Welcome to the Journey: A heads-up to you: most gay students will expect adults, especially Christians, to bail out on them as soon as they come out. Please, do not bail out on a student once you have begun this journey with them. Determine to stay the course. Too many times, people have started to walk with gay teens and have left them standing alone when the going gets tough. Unless you already have someone to take your place (one that the student already knows and trusts), please do all that you can to stay connected to the student. There are no quick fixes or easy short cuts through this, but I can speak from experience that the road is easier for the student when they have trusted companions walking along side them. If you bail, be sure that eventually, the student will bail too – most likely from everything.
Gather prayer support: Believe me, this journey towards Christ for a gay student comes with spiritual attacks. The enemy wants them to fail, as he wants you to fail, too. Not only will they need prayer support, but also so will you. Gather a trusted group of people around you to be prayer warriors for you and your student. I don’t think I need to go much further into defining the importance of prayer support.
Offer healthy and transparent relationships: From my experience, with others I have counseled over the years and myself, most same-sex attractions occur because of broken relationships between the same sexes. For those students who do have broken relationships within their life, they need to find and connect with healthy same-sex relationships (another reason why bailing on them will do damage). Do this with great discernment and prayer. Those connected to gay teens should be people who are spiritually mature in their faith. It would be beneficial to use men and women who have gone through some (or all) the struggles the teen is facing – although this is not a perquisite. Make sure that the adults can handle walking along side a gay teen.
Offer counseling as a means of help, not cure: Forced counseling will not work, no matter how good the counselor is. IF a student is ready for counseling, suggest some places that you have already investigated. IF they are not ready, do not push the issue. Some students may not need counseling, and, of course, some will. Besides finding the student outside resources, be sure to find parents resources too. Family support groups are a big plus in helping parents stay connected with their gay teen.
Set ministry atmosphere: This step applies more so to the other students than those who are gay. In creating a safe place for all students, you should eliminate the following: gay jokes and gay slang ("That’s so gay”, "Quit acting like a queer”, "You’re a fag”, etc). These things are not cool and they do major damage to those within the group (remember the quotes at the beginning of this chapter). Gay students are looking for a safe place to plug into. Additionally, when teaching, be sure to not single out gay students, but speak generally when discussing subjects like sin, sexuality, relationships, etc. This is not to say that gay students will never be offended by what we say, or do not say; however, the more we can do to make them feel accepted the better. The more you invite the Spirit in to your situation, to lead and direct you, the greater the results. Stand firm in Love and Truth. Pray in the Spirit at all times (Jude 20-25).
Mentoring Gay Students
Moving from ourselves to our students, let us consider how to respond to them personally and effectively. First, since everything is essentially about Jesus, I want to assert that the most important issue in student ministry is this: a person’s relationship with Christ. This is the foundation of every struggle and issue. If the person does not have a personal relationship with God, why should they change their behaviors and follow the standards of God vs. the standards of the world? If they have accepted Christ, how are they nurturing that relationship with Him? How are you, or the person walking beside them, helping them nurture and grow towards Christ’s wholeness? This should be our main concern when dealing with gay students (actually, any student).
Remember what the overall result is: to seek after God’s identity. At the fall, mankind lost his focus on whose identity he was to be living for – his own vs. Gods. I firmly believe that one of the main roots to every problem and addiction, including homosexuality, is the fact that we strive to find ourselves apart from our Creator. Repeatedly Christ has called us to seek after the Father’s heart and to take on His identity, so that we can ultimately walk the path laid before us (see John 1, 4, 15).
True healing and freedom came for me when I gave up my failed pursuits of becoming "straight” – by my definition – and pursued God’s heart. In that I found what I was longing for: an identity that brought everlasting life. While the same goal resides for every person, know that each situation starts differently. Some gay youth are at a place of desperation and are ready for a ‘leap of faith’; they have no interest in pursuing their same-sex attractions. Some youth are not at this place; they want to act upon their feelings, and they want to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. While Jesus accepts us regardless of what our sexuality is, He does call us to follow His word wholeheartedly, even if it means giving up something that we feel we have a right to enjoy. We should never force the idea of change onto our students; however, we need to explain that when a person comes into Christ, change takes place. All Christians go through this. God desires to make us His – nothing less.
In this journey, we must be careful to not give our students false hope, and neither should we rely on false hope. We must have a realistic understanding about this journey, as well as present a realistic journey to our students. All things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26). How we live within this reality, determines how much, or how little, we see God’s power displayed in our life. We must believe that God is faithful, His Word is relevant and sufficient, and His power is limitless. As we walk in the truth of Jesus’ sanctification, our students will follow alongside.
Here are practical points to help gay students grasp about themselves, about God, and about this particular journey:
You are valued. Students need to understand that despite being rejected by other people, God unconditionally loves them for who they are. John 3:16-17, 1John 3:1-3
Your life has purpose. With the amount of scars, abuse, and other negative things piling up against them, many students convince themselves that there is no hope for a better life. God desires to speak His truth over them, in order to embrace the essence of His eternal love. Their life is not over because they have same-sex attractions, and neither is their faith. Jeremiah 29:11-14, 1Peter 2:9-10, Isaiah 40:21-31, John 16:33
You have a name. Because gay students often hear colorful adjectives describing them all day, many gay students forget, or dismiss, how God refers to them. All Christians are sons and daughters of the King, nothing more or less, no matter what sin entraps them. Their sexuality does not define them; therefore, do not let their sexuality define them. Isaiah 43:1-5, Romans 8:14-17, 1John 3:1-3
Your past is the past. Just as sexuality does not define them, neither does their past actions or temptations define them. What they struggle with does not define who they will always be. Many who walk away from unwanted same-sex attractions are fearful that their past will constantly define their future. That is not the case! We are victorious over temptations; we are more than conquerors. Students need to embrace this new way of living. 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Corinthians 3:17, 5:14-17
You and I are on a journey. Share with them the truth about this journey: it is going to be hard, but it is going to be worth it. In the end, we become like our Creator. He is ever with us. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Philippians 3, Hebrews 12:1-2
God Loves you, and waits for you. Remind students who want to pursue a gay relationship that God still loves them, and that He waits for them to respond back. His love will not run out on them because they pursue a gay relationship; however, His fullness is not attainted until we are fully pursuing Him over ourselves. God is patient, but we should not test His patience. 2 Peter 3:9, Luke 15:20, Matthew 4:7
This bears repeating, again: the overall result is not to be straight, but to become more like Christ. If the focus is on just becoming straight, "self” is the center of that focus. If the focus is on becoming like Christ, then "Christ” is the center. He needs to be the center of this journey. Romans 8:29-39, 1 Corinthians 10:31.
Teaching Students about Students with Same-sex Attractions
In helping gay students to respond to God’s message of love and redemption effectively, it is also wise to help straight students understand their gay (ex-gay) peers. This is actually simple despite what you may think. Here are some practical suggestions:
- How you educated yourself about gay students, pass onto their peers and parents.
- Talk about homosexuality openly. When you teach about sexuality, talk about it from a broad and biblical sense: what is God’s design, what does God require, how can God be honored through our sexuality.
- Encourage students to befriend other gay/ex-gay peers who are not involved already in your ministry.
- Have a gay student talk about what it means to be gay, how they perceive Christians, the Church, and the Bible. On the same note, ask a gay student, who is pursuing gay relationships, to share the same things. CAUTION: Make sure that during both of these times, you correctly handle reactions from the audience and those speaking. Make sure name-calling, obscene gestures and remarks do not rear their ugly head.
- Encourage straight students to pray with and for gay students; not that they become straight, but rather that they continue to pursue God’s best – His image.
Your straight students have friends, relatives, and teachers that are gay, lesbians, bi-sexual, "ex-gay,” and maybe even transgender. Homosexuality is a part of their world. Therefore, youth workers need to become aware of what to do and what not to do. Educating yourself, your straight students, and your gay students is only the beginning. I believe following these practical insights are a great start at building a safe and inviting atmosphere for gay students.
|Ministering to Gay Teenagers: Practical Help for Youth Workers and Families
By Shawn Harrison
Learn how to minister to a group of people who need to experience the love of Jesus in powerful, tangible ways. With truths drawn from his own personal experiences, youth pastor Shawn Harrison seeks to equip youth workers, parents, and churches in ministering to gay teenagers, their families, and the gay community.
Original: http://six11.wordpress.com/youth-workers/ministering-to-teens/ Used with permission.