The following is a guest post from Justin Lee, Executive Director of The Gay Christian Network (http://www.gaychristian.net).

In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot of tragic stories about gay teens committing suicide. Then a few days ago, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute suggested that a large majority of Americans (two thirds!) believe that churches are partly responsible.
This raises two huge questions for us as Christians:
  1. Could they be right? Are we partly to blame for kids killing themselves?
  2. Even if they’re wrong, what does it mean for the church that so many Americans think we’re responsible?

Of course, we all know that there are some hateful, bigoted people out there who call themselves Christians. But most of the Christians I know are wonderful, loving people. They may not believe that homosexuality is compatible with Scripture, but they would never, ever want gay teens to feel worthless, much less commit suicide.

Somehow, between the church’s intent to preach a message of love, and the gay community’s hearing a message of hate, something is going drastically wrong. And it’s up to us to fix it.

I know a little something about this topic. My job is building bridges between the gay community and the church. It’s something I do every day. Unfortunately, in my experience, most Christians are pretty clueless about why their messages are being misheard. They imagine it’s just a problem with the gay community, and that there’s nothing that they as Christians can or should do any differently. I sometimes hear Christians say things like, “That’s just the conviction of the Holy Spirit. If they don’t want to hear it, that’s their fault, not mine.”

It is true, of course, that sometimes people simply refuse to listen to God, and sometimes God hardens people’s hearts. But in this case, a huge part of the problem lies with the church. We have failed to understand those we’re trying to reach, and as a result, we’ve not only pushed them away; we’ve pushed away their friends, family members, and all who care about them. In some cases, we’ve become the Gospel’s worst enemy.

I often ask people this: If you were going to be a missionary to a foreign country where they didn’t speak your language, what would you do before you started trying to share the Gospel? Wouldn’t you first learn everything you could about the language and customs of the people you were going to witness to? You’d have to learn a lot about their language before you could even communicate with them at all, but you’d have to know much more than that to communicate effectively. You’d need to know, for instance, if a “thumbs up” sign is offensive to them, or if failing to remove your shoes before entering someone’s house is a sign of rudeness. If you didn’t learn those things, you’d risk turning them off to your message before you’d even begun. Right?

It’s common sense. But so many Christians fail to learn anything about gay people, their language, or their culture before trying to talk to (or worse, about) them as witnesses. You’d be amazed at how many arguments I’ve seen between gays and Christians that could have easily been prevented if the Christians had just taken the time to listen first.

I grew up Southern Baptist, a committed, Bible-believing Christian. Growing up, I thought I knew everything there was to know about homosexuality: it’s a choice, it’s a sin, and people need to be told that. Then life dealt me an unexpected blow: as I went through adolescence, I discovered with horror that my sexual attractions were for other guys instead of for girls. How could this be? I was a good Christian boy.

It took years before I would admit that I was “gay.” Even after I did, I was still trying everything to become straight: fervent prayer, therapy, “ex-gay” ministries, dating girls; you name it. I was crying myself to sleep night after night, begging God to change these feelings. But they didn’t change.

And as I told my story to other Christians, I discovered something horrible: They weren’t interested in my story. They didn’t want to hear what I’d been through. As soon as they heard I was gay, they would dismiss me as “deceived” or “not a true Christian,” and start preaching at me about God’s destruction of Sodom or the Leviticus command not to lie with a man as with a woman. (Even when I told them I was celibate, it didn’t help.) Years later, I would make a documentary called Through My Eyes about dozens of other young Christians going through the same experience.

So yes, I can tell you firsthand how the church comes across. It’s hard to stay in the church once you’ve been through that… and I’m a committed Christian who wants to stay in the church! If a celibate Christian struggling with his identity isn’t welcomed, then why would a partnered gay man with children expect to be? And if we treat our own that way, is it any wonder that those on the outside want nothing to do with us?

There’s hope for change. Our change. And it begins when we as Christians learn how to listen as Christ would.

*** So, what do you think about what Justin has to say and him sharing his story and experiences?

Greg Atkinson

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