“You can be one of us once you look and think like us.” Where have you heard this before? Mean Girls? Pledging a fraternity?
How about at church?
Many pastors, theologians, and general observers have noted that the invitation the church seems to offer the not-yet-believer is to behave and believe like a Christian, and only then can you belong among Christians. (1) We’ve asked those who want to be Christians to first look and act like Christians, repent of their sins, and start doing the right things. (2) Then we challenge not-yet-believers to read the Bible, prove they have the right theology, and make a public profession of faith. (3) Only after both of these have we let new believers be a part of the family of Christians, to be a part of the Body of Christ, to be fully welcomed and fully loved.
The problem with this strategy is that it wholly contradicts the ministry of Jesus. Repeatedly, Jesus first welcomes them in and cares for their needs. Their experience of the goodness of Christ reveals their hearts to the truth of who he is. Finally, Jesus calls each to “go and sin no more”. Instead, Christ’s ministry invited people to belong, believe, and then become.
First, the Church ought to invite people to belong. We ought to love people well, welcome them into relationship in the family of believers, and invite them to come on mission with us so that they can experience the goodness found in the Body of Christ. For three years, Thomas belonged to the community of Jesus and his disciples. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas doubted, but he was never rejected.
Second, the Church ought to invite people to believe in who Jesus is, what he has done, and our need for him. As people created in the image of God to desire good things, not-yet-believers will be moved by the goodness they have experienced belonging to the family of believers to believe and accept Christ’s invitation to relationship with him. Jesus was patient with Thomas, going so far as to give Thomas an opportunity to see and touch his risen body. In response to the compassion of Jesus and the commitment of his disciples, Thomas believed and worshipped Christ as Lord.
Third, the Church ought to call new believers to become what God first created them to be. Incrementally, as we give God Lordship over more and more of our lives, we are sanctified. Instead of conforming our actions to others’ expectations and being transformed from the outside in, God seeks followers whose hearts are transformed, out of which good works naturally flow. Thomas, a perennial doubter, responds to a belief in who Christ is by bringing the Gospel to India and becoming a martyr for his faith.
This invitation to belong, believe, and then become ought to be strategy of the Church toward all people, but in particular LGBT+ persons. We must first become a Church where sexual minorities can belong—where they can find acceptance and unconditional love, where they can talk about their experiences without shame, and where they can find meaningful, intimate community. Then—and only in the presence of the goodness of belonging—the Church must offer a complex and meaningful theology of sexuality and walk alongside people as they come to believe what is true. Finally, the Church must be able to compassionately and effectively minister to LGBT+ persons in the context of their unique stories and challenges.
Upcoming posts will focus on what it looks like to be a Church that invites LGBT+ persons to belong, believe, and become. But while EQUIP seeks to provide the Church with the understanding and skills to meet this need, only you have the power to transform the Church. We need you to start conversation among your friends, join the work of EQUIP, or be an ambassador for EQUIP to your Church. Make a commitment to be a change-maker in the Church for sexual minorities today!