"Just as I Am"
Homosexuality's radical challenge to the Church: An exclusive interview with Wendy Gritter, executive director of New Direction for Life Ministries of Canada.
Patricia Paddey for Faith Today (FT): Wendy, we recognize that the Church has not been all it could be to churchgoers and non-churchgoers who struggle with homosexual sin. What do churches need to overcome to better meet their needs? What stumbling blocks are hindering our ministry?
We need to cut the charade that "we're all pretty good," get real about the sin in our lives …
Wendy Gritter (WG): Sexuality is so powerful and personal. Its power can frighten Christians and lead to much shame, control and judgement.
Fear and shame have grown because none of us wants to admit that we are all broken in our sexuality, that none of us will experience sexual perfection this side of heaven.
The Gospel message that none of us is "just fine the way we are" remains offensive, sometimes even in the Church. Instead we are inclined to sanitize the offensiveness of the Gospel. We don't like to remind each other of sin too much, we don't want to step on anyone's toes. Truth is we are messy and we fall short of holiness daily.
Ministry has also been held back because we've been stuck in defensive mode and haven't proactively prayed and strategized for mission and ministry in this area. How is this nation going to be transformed? One heart at a time. How might we stem the tide of the gay movement in Canada? Prayerfully ushering in one gay and lesbian person into the kingdom at a time.
FT: So how do we do that?
WG: We need to cut the charade that "we're all pretty good," get real about the sin in our lives and wade into the waters of forgiveness because we're desperate for what only Christ, through the Holy Spirit, can do in us.
If gay and lesbian people come into the Church and feel as though they're the only ones who need to clean up their act, there's a problem.
It isn't so much about competing with the world who tells them they're okay; it has more to do with being a community of faith where all of us are in the messy journey of needing grace and forgiveness again and again and again.
In a nutshell, what do we need? Revival.
FT: You mention getting real about the sin in our own lives, yet at times the Church seems to rank sexual sin higher than gluttony, greed, coveting, mistreatment of the poor, etc. Why do we do that?
WG: Sadly, I think it is because the shame factor is higher for sexual sin. I say "sadly" because I do think it is unfortunate that we don't feel ashamed of our mistreatment of the poor or our greed or our gluttony. There is a need for godly sorrow for sin, regardless of what the sin is.
FT: Yet we know that not all sin is exactly the same. So what do we need to know about people struggling with sexual sin specifically?
WG: Christians need to look in the mirror—that's the first place to learn about struggling with sexual sins. We all struggle with sexual sin. If sexuality, as I often define it, is our drive to overcome our aloneness, then all of us seek to do that in ways outside of God's intention. If you have been spared the devastation of infidelity, sexual addiction or homosexuality, thank God for His grace in your life. When we humble ourselves and recognize God's grace, the Lord can birth genuine compassion, respect, sacrificial love and willingness to serve those struggling with profound brokenness. Behind every struggle with sexual brokenness is a wounded heart.
FT: It sounds like you are talking about a real change in heart attitude toward those who struggle in this area. How does the Church need to change? How do we need to change as individuals?
WG: I think we need to get in touch with God's heart. His heart breaks when He sees the pain and devastation sexual sin causes in people's lives. He longs for us to be the extension of His presence to these men and women. When our heart truly breaks with the things that break His heart, then we will begin to move in a spirit of humble compassion to befriend, to listen, to offer hope, to speak truth in a loving manner.
Ask yourself, "Do I see this person as my brother/sister? Do I see myself as better than them?"
I also think we need to connect with the hopefulness of God. We can feel overwhelmed by how entrenched a person can seem to be in their sin. Persevering hope is God's gift to us and our gift to the struggler.
We need to recognize that the deepest need for someone dealing with same-gender attraction is intimacy, not sex.
FT:If we're able to truly befriend our brothers and sisters—and our own sons and daughters—who experience same-gender attraction, then surely the Church will change. What else can we do to keep them in the Church?
WG: We need to recognize that the deepest need for someone dealing with same-gender attraction is intimacy, not sex. These men and women need to feel that they belong, that they are accepted and loved for who they are. They need to feel known.
There needs to be a climate in the Church that values and validates those living a single life, an opportunity to engage in activities and projects that use a person's unique gifts and abilities, and a safe forum to ask the hard questions and not be spoon-fed easy answers.
We need a new intentionality in the Church to reach out to and minister with same-gender-attracted people. Leaders need to sit down and ask themselves, "If there was a same-gender-attracted struggler in my congregation, would they feel safe talking to me about it?"
If a pastor is struggling with high levels of discomfort, I think it is incumbent upon them to contact a ministry like New Direction to talk about it and work it through.
And we absolutely must stop saying, "Well, we don't have anyone like that in our church." We've had pastors say that to us even though we were seeing one of their parishioners for counselling.
FT: How much same-gender attraction remains hidden in the Church?
WG: If you consider that a conservative estimate is that one in every 50 people deals with the realities of same-gender attraction, it is very likely that most of those individuals have not disclosed this in their church community.
The key reason is fear and shame. If you have grown up in a church that holds a traditional, biblical sexual ethic and you experience same-gender attraction, it may be very difficult to even admit to yourself that this is what you are feeling.
Many Christians who struggle with same-gender attraction have prayed fervently that God would take this struggle away. When the attractions persist, it raises profound questions.
If you don't think you have anyone like that in your church, maybe it is because the ones who are struggling don't feel safe to talk about it.
Changing that starts with the leadership, not the other way around.
FT: If talking about it is important, then the language we use must matter. Can you speak to that, please?
WG: Language can build a bridge or a barrier. Jesus told His followers to go the second mile. Using language sensitively—to not cause unnecessary offence—is like walking the second mile.
To say, "I love you; I just don't love what you're doing," or some other variation of "love the sinner; hate the sin," is really meaningless to someone who cannot separate their behaviour from their sense of identity.
We need to be very careful about the word "choice." Most same-gender-attracted people did not choose to experience these feelings. Though it is true we make choices about what we do with the feelings and temptations we experience, raising the issue of choice too soon might erect a barrier before we've ever earned the right to speak into their lives regarding the choices they make.
I think it is just as important to focus on speaking with discernment. You might think you choose words really carefully but still offend. So ask the Lord to help you. Let Him lead you. And be quick to say, "It seems I've said something that offended you. I'm sorry. I don't want to offend you. Can you help me figure out a way to say this better?"
Humility goes a long way. Being teachable goes a long way.
I would not raise the issue of homosexuality at all unless they raise it.
FT: So putting that guidance into action, if someone walks into my church and indicates they're gay, how should I react?
WG: Welcome them warmly just as you would any other newcomer to your church. You might ask how they heard about the church and if they live in the neighbourhood. I would ask them to have lunch. Over lunch I would listen. Things I would listen for: What brought them to the church that day? Do they have a church background? Do they know Jesus? I would not raise the issue of homosexuality at all unless they raise it.
If they ask what the church's position is on homosexuality, then I would state clearly and simply, "We believe that homosexual behaviour is inconsistent with God's will for our lives. We also believe that lying, cheating and gossiping, etc. are inconsistent with God's will for our lives. So to a gay person we say, "Come on in, join the rest of us as we journey together to know God and live our lives for Him."
FT: That kind of conversation would indicate a real openness in the Church, which some people say is beginning to happen—that the Church is willing to talk about homosexuality in a way it hasn't before.
WG: Whether we like it or not, the issues of Bills C-250 and C-38 have gotten the Church talking about homosexuality. For the most part, this conversation has been about how to protect ourselves and how to protect heterosexual marriage. But it has also given opportunity to say, "What about the people behind the issues?"
Some people in some parts of the Church are asking how we can reach and touch the lives of gay and lesbian people. Some have had the courage to say, "How can we show love to these people?" Some people recognize that the Church must demonstrate what we are "for," not just what we are "against."
Certainly we are "for" marriage. But we are also "for" gay and lesbian people coming into living relationship with Jesus Christ. We are "for" the Lord hearing the cry of their heart for family, for love, for belonging and calling them to Himself.
FT: Do you think the Canadian marriage debate has added to the fear that already exists in the Church?
WG: There is much fear that lingers in the Church [especially of the results of gay activism in Canada and the Church]. There is fear that the permissiveness ushered in by the gay movement will negatively impact the younger generations.
The question is, "What will we do with our fear?" If fear causes the Church to retreat from society and stay in reactive, defensive mode, we miss the fullness of God's call. If we avoid engaging gay and lesbian people we will have failed to "go and make disciples" of them. If we play it safe and keep our distance, "how will they hear if no one tells them?"
There is much fear and confusion—but we cannot hide behind it. These men and women are dearly loved of God, and He is longing for them to be reconciled to Him.
FT: It's such an important reminder that we are all dearly loved by God. We know that God expresses His love to us as we journey with Him. What is that journey like for same-gender-attracted people?
WG: While there are certainly stories of God dramatically transforming some same-gender-attracted-people, for most it is a journey. I believe God is concerned about people coming to know Him through each step of obedience. He wants us to learn how dependent we are on Him and to experience deep intimacy in our walk with Him. If our struggle vanished overnight, that might ultimately hinder the depth of our relationship with Him. I have often said that God will most likely not instantaneously take away the very thing that reveals to us our deep need for Him.
His purpose for us is that we know Him, and His promise to us is that He will never leave us.
The Christian life is not about getting everything we want. It is about being transformed into the image of Christ.
The above portion of this exclusive interview with Wendy Gritter appears in the September/October issue of Faith Today. The following section is available only on this website.
FT: Are church leaders usually aware of members of their church who struggle with same-gender attraction?
WG: Pastors who are approachable, demonstrate a compassionate pastoral style and have good rapport with those who question and struggle are more likely to be perceived as safe by those who are same-gender attracted. Pastors who make anti-gay statements from the pulpit will perpetuate a shame-based hiddenness among their parishioners.
I sometimes encounter discomfort among pastors. They want to be able to minister but face some big barriers in their own comfort level. If a pastor is not comfortable with sexuality, or their own sense of gender, it can be very threatening to engage a same-gender attracted person (especially of their own gender).
FT: What can be done about this Church-wide discomfort?
WG: We need a new level of intentionality in the Church to reach out to and minister with same-gender attracted people. Leaders need to ask themselves: "If there was a same-gender attracted struggler in my congregation, would they feel safe talking to me about it?" They should challenge themselves to think of three things they can do to demonstrate their approachability. If a pastor is struggling with high levels of discomfort, I think it is incumbent upon them to contact a ministry like New Direction to talk about it and work it through.
We must stop saying, "Well we don't have anyone like that in our church." We've had pastors say that to us, even though we were seeing one of their parishioners for counselling. If you don't think you have anyone like that in your church, maybe it is because the ones who are struggling don't feel safe to approach you about it.
The same essential building blocks needed for anyone to feel safe to share their struggle are needed for the same-gender attraction struggler. Are we willing to extend grace to people in times of weakness? Are leaders up on a pedestal or are they willing to be vulnerable? Same-gender attracted people will know they are loved when we demonstrate that love to them.
A female pastor I know had a real tangible way of demonstrating her love to a lesbian couple attending her church. She would bring her baby over to them after service and ask them to look after the little one while she went and did her "pastor" thing. This spoke volumes to these women. Include people. When people are given the chance to contribute they feel a part of things. Ask them to plant tulips, decorate the nursery, bake a cake, visit a shut-in, and go bowling with the men's fellowship. Sexuality doesn't define people. Get to know them as people—not as people with an issue. See beyond the same-gender attraction and honour the person they are.
FT: You've quoted author Leanne Payne, "to speak of healing for the homosexual is to speak of healing for all people everywhere." What do you think she means by that?
WG: To me, and I trust Leanne's intention as well, this statement recognizes our shared brokenness and our shared redemption. We are brothers and sisters with those who struggle with same-gender attraction. Though our struggle may manifest itself differently, we all live in the time between the times. As Christians we are together the redeemed in the process of being redeemed. When God, in His mercy and love, brings restoration to someone who has struggled with same-gender attraction, we all rejoice, we all are blessed because God's victory over sin and the enemy has been revealed in one of us. The healing of the homosexual is God's redemptive glory on display, reminding all of us that there is hope and wholeness in relationship with the living Lord Jesus.
FT: Is it easier for strugglers to share something like heterosexual porn temptations in a small group, rather than to share same-gender attraction temptations?
WG: It is difficult to generalize because each person is unique. Generally speaking more people can relate to heterosexual porn temptation than can relate to the struggle with same-gender attraction. So how can we relate better to the same-gender struggler? Get to know someone who is same-gender attracted. Imagine a Christian saying to a gay co-worker, "I wonder if we could go out for lunch this week. There is someone at my church who thinks they're gay and I'd really like to understand that better. I wonder if you wouldn't mind telling me a little about what it has been like for you?" Not only would the Christian learn more about what it is like to deal with same-gender attraction, but would also demonstrate to their co-worker that they cared about same-gender attracted people—and that the church was really seeking to engage same-gender attracted people. Imagine the kind of impact that could begin to have.
If gay and lesbian people come into the Church and feel like they're the only ones who need to clean up their act, there's a problem.
FT: How must the Church equip itself to reach out when society tells same-gender attracted people that they're just fine the way they are, and we're telling them they're not?
WG: The Gospel message is offensive. It points out that none of us are "just fine the way we are." But in the Church we sometimes sanitize the offensiveness of the Gospel. We don't like to remind each other of sin too much, we don't want to step on anyone's toes. As Christians we try to live a perfectly controlled life, mastering sin so that nothing is messy or out of order. But we fall short of holiness daily. If people could read our thoughts our self-righteousness would fly out the window very quickly. We need to wade into the waters of forgiveness, drink deeply from the cup and eat big hunks of the bread—because we're desperate for what only Christ, through the Spirit, can do in us. If gay and lesbian people come into the Church and feel like they're the only ones who need to clean up their act, there's a problem. We shouldn't be afraid to be a people who expect to have their lives turned upside down by Christ—but we need to live that out.
FT: What do you think the Church could have or should have done differently in the message it has communicated in the last decades to those who struggle with sexual sins?
WG: I think we have wasted moments of opportunity by focussing on finger-pointing rather than dispensing mercy. Jesus was and is a friend to sinners. A few weeks back the front page of the The Toronto Star highlighted the illegal body rub parlours that were getting licenses from the government. After reading that article I went upstairs to check e-mail and there was a message from an intercessor friend of mine reporting on their latest adventure in praying for their city. They reported a conversation with an attendant in a body rub parlour who had willingly allowed my friends to pray for her. Many Christians' response to the Star article would be "we've got to get rid of these places." I think my friends did what Jesus would have done. They engaged in conversation and asked God to come and be present to the people working there.
Our biggest mistake has been our failure to engage in relationship. We have failed to sit and have dinner, to listen to the stories of pain, fear and confusion. We have failed to be Jesus with skin on.
FT: New Direction is shifting its focus from developing its own ministry, to developing ministry within the Church. Why?
WG: The specialized ministry of New Direction will continue to serve as a needed resource for the Church. But it is within Christian community, connected with the family of God, that most of the healing and growing for the same-gender attracted person can and should occur. One of the common threads in many stories of same-gender attracted people is that they always felt on the outside, that they were different and didn't belong. So what do we usually do in the Church? Send them to a segregated group. We've done that because we haven't felt equipped. If we are intentional and willing, there is so much support and help to be found in the local church. Healthy same-gender friendships, mentoring, accountability, opportunities for service, spiritual direction—all of these can play a huge role in the same-gender attracted person's journey. They may need a season of specialized counselling provided through a ministry like New Direction. But for the most part, it is simply a matter of the Church being willing and available to lovingly invest in the lives of these men and women.
FT: How is the Church doing now on this issue?
WG: We have a long way to go. The younger generation has grown up in a pro-gay culture and many are ambivalent, confused or have outright rejected a traditional biblical position on the issue of homosexuality. In most denominations in Canada there is some debate on this issue between a conservative and a liberal camp. So we definitely lack the power of a unified call to redemptive ministry. Some individual Christians have formed their opinions based on their subjective experience. Some have very hard-line opinions but have never befriended a same-gender attracted person.
But there is also a fresh wind of passion for the lost. There is a desire to be a loving presence in our cities and in our nation. There is a practical commitment to walk alongside people in the recovery/healing/restorative process. And where God has stirred this passion and commitment to reach the lost and heal the broken, there is a readiness to be challenged and equipped for intentional ministry with the same-gender attracted.
I am convinced that the Lord is calling us to the places He has already prepared.
In those places the Lord can stir up a new level of intentionality to be the presence of Christ to the same-gender attracted.
FT: Tell us about some success you have had working with willing churches.
WG: One of the key relationships we have been building is with churches running a program called Celebrate Recovery (CR), which originated at Saddleback Church. It is a Christ-centered 12 step recovery program. It isn't focussed on same-gender attraction but deals with all kinds of "hurts, habits, and hang-ups." The churches that are ready to launch CR tend to be outreach orientated and committed to helping people heal up and grow up. In some of the churches running CR, we may work towards having a specific small group for those dealing with same-gender attraction. In others, we would simply help equip the program's leaders to be sensitive to some of the unique aspects a same-gender attracted person's struggle. Each church is unique and we would seek to discern what the best step for them would be. But the structure of CR, plus the kind of climate and commitment that a church that runs it needs, is very conducive to becoming intentional in reaching and ministering to same-gender attracted people.
… let them know that you are honoured that they trusted you with this information.
FT: It must take a monumental act of the will in the heart of an openly gay person to choose to walk into a church. What kind of courage does it take?
WG: Every gay person is unique. For those who both identify as Christian and gay, they might be very comfortable in their own theological position and feel confident in coming into a church. For a gay person who doesn't know Jesus, I think it is just as nerve-wracking as it would be for any other seeker. A gay person may be a bit on the defensive—checking it out to see if they're going to be judged. But that can be a pretty typical reaction for a non-churchgoer.
I actually think that more courage may be required for a person who has grown up in the Church, struggles with same-gender attraction and comes to the place where they will disclose that information in their own church. We have had people tell us that it took them three years after receiving our contact information to call us. If someone who goes to church with you discloses this struggle, it will be so important for you to let them know that you are honoured that they trusted you with this information. Respond gently and calmly. This isn't the worst thing. This, too, is something that can be brought to Christ. This is one aspect of their life—it doesn't need to define them, it doesn't need to consume their whole life. Affirm to them that you would be honoured to walk alongside them in their journey.
FT: What should our message be?
WG: The Christian life is a wild ride. You'll probably be uncomfortable more often than not. But if you are looking for true life, if you're looking to fill that empty hole in your gut that never seems to go away, then come and join us for the adventure of a life-time.
To help your church in this area of ministry, visit www.newdirection.ca, www.livingwaterscanada.org or www.celebraterecovery.com.
Patricia Paddey is a freelance writer based in Mississauga, Ont.
Originally published in a condensed version in Faith Today, September/October 2005
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 Christianity.ca.