For as long as I remember, there has been sage advice given for gays in small towns: GET OUT. Get out. Get out as fast as you can. Run hard, don’t look back. Run to the city. Run.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my small town, and yes, I am gay. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But there is a problem that no one is addressing. In many small towns, just like mine, there is often birthed a hellish environment. An environment that becomes toxic, ravenous and dangerous for anyone who isn’t straight. For those of us who find ourselves as people outside the norm, our lives often are inflicted in such a way that we contribute to an alarming rate of suicides. This blog post is not an attempt to disparage small towns and the churches within them. My sincerest hope is that this post may encourage someone to ponder on how might they improve their local church ministry to reaching out to sexual and gender minorities in their small town or rural communities. A people group that is often neglected and disdained with no active evangelistic effort to reach them in small towns.
Did you know that gays statistically tend to be happier in an urban environment? While we may be happier in the city, there is a danger that lurks. Our myth of the city often fails to inform the doe-eyed refugees that they are trading their old problems for new. It is important though to mention that often when individuals become aware of these new set of problems they still choose the city. They are willing to escape from small towns at any cost. I have personally known four individuals over the years who have basically sold themselves to another as a long term prostitute in order to escape small town life. There is something wicked going on in our small towns and it needs to change. When hospitality and love are tossed aside, it is not surprising to see people flee and never look back. Never looking back, less they become trapped like the wife of Lot as she looked upon her wicked old town during her flight.
Now here is some good news. I do believe beyond a shadow of a doubt the best place to turn the tide is the one place no one is looking: small town churches. Truly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Our towns do not have to resemble Sodom. The darkness that is out there can and is being pushed back by the Holy Spirit; all we have to do is join the effort. Yes, it will be challenging to develop a church that is gospel-centered and believing in a traditional sexual ethic that would be welcoming and life-giving for those outside the norm, but it can be done! What better place is there to cultivate love and hospitality than in the church? Where then do we even begin?
Cultivate a culture of hospitality filled with love. While this may sound like a no-brainer, our common history and the narrative that is often played out in the media is that most gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, and queer individuals will feel on edge in your church. For many, these feelings do not subside even as the years go on; even after they become part of your local church family. Often, though not always, those outside the norm will experience a barrage of trauma both before and during their time with you. An environment of hospitality and love is a gospel witness. Be prepared to weep with them when they weep. If you have the opportunity, defend them when and where you can. Most likely no one else will. Be mindful though the reactions may vary from gratefulness to anger. Remember it is our task as Christians to love our neighbors because Christ has loved us.
Address homophobia for the sin that it is. Homophobia, like racism, is something we often fail to acknowledge both in our homes and churches. If you want to push back the darkness, then come face to face with your fear and the fear of your congregation for that which is different. If the fear involves a certain type of people, realize at a fundamental level you are failing to love your neighbors as the Lord commands. Men and women who are LGBTQ are neither monsters nor predators; they are the beloved children of God. They are brothers, mothers, sisters, and fathers. They are most likely a small percentage of your congregation, both as adults and youth.
If you are serious about making your church hospitable, then please make sure the environment is healthy. Fear breeds toxicity. Take a strong stance to honor the image of God by stomping out any slang or offensive language that contributes to a hellish Sodom like environment. People in the LGBTQ spectrum are looking for a safe place, and many do not view the church as safe. For most, it will take a great act of courage for them to visit your church. Any chance for gospel proclamation may be nipped in the bud quickly if they encounter people using gay in a derogatory way or other words that are equally offensive. I know this personally as I have seen far too often, even in my home church a while back and more recently in other places, where LGBTQ individuals would come to the church and would leave before the sermon begins because of words of hate. Do not tolerate any speech that stands in the way of the Gospel. Do what you must to prepare the way of the Lord.
Provide space for people to be honest. One of the common, hardest, fearful yet most desirable experiences in the LGBTQ spectrum is the act of coming out. For so many a mountain of fears and lies may have been built. The action of finally telling the truth about their experiences is often cathartic. The hidden lives of many are like weighted blankets of lies weighing down the soul until they suffocate spiritually and mentally. If you want to provide an opportunity for mental and spiritual growth, then be pro-active by providing space for them to come out into the light safely. Be public about the truth that God loves the oppressed and marginalized. Talk about it in your sermons and in your general speech. Be public your love and care for your neighbors. Reiterate that you are safe for people to confess their angst. Help them to confess their angst unto the Lord. Doing so help to keep us in your small town church.
If, and hopefully when, people who are LGBT+ share the truth of their experiences with you, it may be helpful to consider the following steps: (1) Make and keep eye contact as they bear their soul to you. (2) Thank them for giving you the privilege of seeing them for who they are. (3) Recommit and affirm your relationship with them. (4) Affirm that Christ loves them. Affirm your love for them vocally. (5) Consider sharing some of your vulnerability. (6) Humbly ask questions, while letting them know they are not obligated to answer. Remember listening is an act of love. Do not push if they are not willing. (7) As you say goodbye, affirm them with a touch or hug that you love them and Christ loves them.
Become a pilgrim. From Eden to Egypt to Zion to New Creation, our story as the people of God is a story of motion. We have been moving since the Fall as we try to make it back by the grace of God to his presence. Our task, our goal as Christians is to reflect, point, move and guide not only ourselves but others to the great hope of Jesus and his kingdom. We move not only by ourselves but as people in the pursuit of the kingdom of God.
A common element among the LGBTQ who hold to a traditional sexual ethic is a deep desire for community. For many, the threat or experience of ostracization has left scars upon our souls. Do not be surprised to find when working with this spectrum of people to find an underlying fear of abandonment. Please, especially if you are working with youth, stay the course. Your act of faithfulness for many will become an emblem of the faithfulness of God. Do not bail on them unless you have lined up someone to step in and take your place. Faithfulness born in love will be for many the hallmark of your gospel witness, to both the Christian and non-Christian in this group. In faithfulness, journey with them on this road to God together. Become pilgrims pursuing the holiness of God, picking one another up and spurring each other on towards holiness. As one of my friends like to say, “Lone Rangers are dead rangers.” Faithfulness with love is a strong ingredient in turning our small towns from places of inhospitable hell to being vibrant faith communities.
Be prepared to support. A sad reality is that there will be a significant social penalty on gay, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and those in the queer spectrum in our small towns and rural communities. For many they will experience extreme difficulties, often in an already rough economy, to find employment. In addition, it is extremely difficult, for people in these spectrums to find housing or individuals to room with. It is very likely that they may need assistance from the local church. It is important that we cultivate in our local churches, especially in small towns, that the LGBTQ are people to be loved not feared. If you encounter someone in this spectrum in this condition, do try to change their circumstances by pulling on network strings for help. Without help, poverty often with hunger becomes a ceiling for many in this spectrum in our small towns. I know this personally as it was only by the help of people in my church that I was able to escape poverty in my small town.
There is so much more than I could say in this limited space, but these few things will drastically alter and change the environment for many LGBTQ people in your church. I do hope this blog post has helped to equip you better in reaching out to this people group in your small towns and rural areas. Our small towns are known for our tight-knit communities. It is important that we invite those whom Jesus loves, which includes gays, bisexuals, lesbians, transgenders, and others into our homes and churches. A community without love and hospitality is a quick recipe to bring hell to earth. Fight against it in the name and for the glory of Jesus. And please do remember the marginalized are quite often some of the most important and powerful witnesses of Christ. Not all are broken from years of torment, but many are. Please protect them and provide space for them to come and know and grow in Christ. Be merciful as Christ was and is particularly merciful to those who are disdained and downtrodden by society.