Us versus Us?

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Recently, well, actually about 18 months ago, I read a book by Andrew Marin entitled Us Versus Us. I wanted to offer some thoughts about this book and its content because of the way that it relates to the series we just finished up on biases. I was especially interested in this research study for a couple reasons:

First, I attended biweekly gathers at the Marin Foundation for a year, and the time there was invaluable to me in developing language, compassion, understanding, and a paradigm shift in my thinking.

Secondly, Mark Yarhouse participated in the collection and compilation of the data, and having read other research from him, I knew it would be quality.

As believers, we’ve held onto some thoughts related to LGBTQ+ folk that are, in many cases, unsubstantiated and wrong. I think we often don't challenge these thoughts because in our minds, the LGBTQ+ community is “out there,” outside of our church walls, people we do not rub shoulders with, people not “like us.”

Marin’s book thoroughly dismantled this idea in a deluge of statistics.

I hope to wade through some of those and add some comments along the way.

He starts by explaining that the LGBTQ population being raised in church is 11% higher than the general population (86% of LGBTQ people, in contrast to 75% of the general population). By “raised in,” the study specifies that as people who were in church at least once per week from 0–18 years of age. The people spanned 54 denominations within 8 religions. But over three-fourths of those raised in church were from a theologically conservative background.

My husband expressed some surprise at this finding as well as the population statistic of 75%. It does seem like Marin went to great lengths to avoid participant bias (you can read that for yourself), and even if we say the percentage is equal to that of the general population, the findings are startling.

Surprisingly, when you talk to many pastors, youth pastors, and lay leaders, you will hear the words, “We don’t have any gay people in our youth group or in our congregation.” Either we don’t know our youth groups and congregations, or we are sadly self deceiving. Marin reports similar conversations with church leaders after seeing these findings. I once emailed and made appointments with some local youth pastors (I just have a passion for seeing teens excited about a relationship with Jesus) to ask if I could offer myself as a speaker to their teens on the topic of sexuality and same-gender attraction. I was 100% turned down (though I knew many of them from my work at camp), and one youth pastor said, “We talk about sex and dating once a year and do a great job with that.”

While I developed a growing concern for how my summer camp engaged gay campers, and how my church related to LGBTQ members and the broader community, I attended our local Christian camping conference.. Two consecutive year at this event, I asked every person I spoke with the same question, “What are you doing to reach out to your gay campers?” Unilaterally, the answer that I received was, “We don’t have any.” Hmmmm.

Marin goes on to report that after the age of 18, 27% of the general population leaves the church, while 54% of the LGBTQ leaves. This alone should sober us. I know it was sobered me to the point of tears.

I’ve served in ministry to teens and young adults all of my adult life. I’ve watched person after person drift away from their faith community. But this many? Why?

The common narrative would be that this exodus occurred because of  theological differences. But Marin’s findings show that the most common reason cited for leaving was “negative personal experience” (24%), and those negative experiences parsed out to the following three reasons:

  • They didn’t feel safe in their religious community.

  • They were kicked out of their religious community.

  • They were not able to serve in their religious community.

Even if it were true that the dominant reason was theological differences, I would challenge the adult leadership in any religious community to engage thoughtfully with their teens and young adults in discussions about sexuality. Few of them even understand the sexual ethic their church holds but would love the freedom to discuss and dialogue. I’m not joking, I’ve sat with hundreds of young adults willing to remain in the conversation with me because they knew I cared. The larger problem for me is that as adults, many of us also cannot thoughtfully engage in a discussion about our sexual ethic. This must change.

Again, my husband Shawn would say that we have to take all survey results with a grain of salt. Participants lie, as well as slant their answers so that they look better. But even if I add a large shaking of salt, these statistics should still startle us.

The book discusses a variety of other findings, but the one that I want to camp out on is the amount of survey participants that reported that they would like to return to the faith community of their youth (regardless of theological change), but they do not feel like they are welcome or that there is space.

Barna reports that 9% of the general population is open to returning to their faith communities, while 76% of the LGBTQ community reports this openness. And while 24% reported that “absolutely nothing” would make them ever consider returning, those desiring a homecoming should stun us.

Eight million people who have left the church are opening to returning but can find little space for them.

I have to be honest, when I heard this chapter (I was walking and listening to this book), I had to just sit and cry. To think that there are people longing to feel welcome in our church bodies created such a sadness deep inside me. Common amongst the respondents were desires for love, time, and  support. These are also things that I want. What holds us back from reaching out to love and know people? What holds you back? Find people that are on the margins and work to love them, know them, invest time.

Last week, my Pastor read a sermon that Dr. Martin Luther King preached. He challenged the church to offer hope in the midst of a great darkness that seems like midnight in the world around us. Though this sermon was first preached years ago, it seems so pertinent to the struggle we face today as evangelicals seeking to love well while maintaining a strong, historical sexual ethic. He spoke of the racial divide, and I’m speaking to the sexuality divide, but the principles seem so similar.

What follows are the words of Dr. M.L .King:

When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, "Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything." How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never.

If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.

In the parable we notice that after the man’s initial disappointment, he continued to knock on his friend’s door. Because of his importunity—his persistence—he finally persuaded his friend to open the door. Many men continue to knock on the door of the church at midnight, even after the church has so bitterly disappointed them, because they know the bread of life is there. The church today is challenged to proclaim God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to be the hope of men in all of their complex personal and social problems. Many will continue to come in quest of answers to life’s problems. Many young people who knock on the door are perplexed by the uncertainties of life, confused by daily disappointments, and disillusioned by the ambiguities of history.

Today, if Marin’s findings are anywhere in the ballpark, many LGBTQ+ people are knocking on the door of the Church. Don’t get lost in the numbers, the basic idea is that many people in the LGBTQ community have left the Church but desire to return. How will we answer?

They are looking for genuine relationships and love that ultimately leads them to the life-giving relationship with Christ.

We must answer the door, and we must be ready to love.

Susan Titus