Fred Rogers became a legend in children’s broadcasting prior to his death in 2003. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1962, and soon became host of the popular TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. At the beginning of each episode, Mr. Rogers would put on a cardigan sweater and sneakers, and sing the show’s theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”
Mr. Rogers was known for talking to children, not at them. The show dealt with children’s triumphs and tragedies, their joys and apprehensions, all the while letting them know that who they were on the inside was much more important than who they were on the outside.
Sounds like a wonderful metaphor for church, doesn’t it? At least the church many of us have always envisioned.
It’s a compelling picture of the church I think we’d all gravitate toward. Unfortunately, there are many neighbours whom we haven’t always treated with kindness and respect – especially those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT).
In every church where I’ve served during my 20-plus years of pastoral ministry, I’ve encountered people who struggle with their sexual identity. Their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are very real. For those who grew up in an environment that told them their feelings were sinful and they were less than they should be, the pain was almost unbearable. Years of denial often led to an acceptance, on some level, with what they were struggling with, and sometimes an exit from the church with a vow never to return.
Great Commandment vs. Great Commission
What prevents us from treating these folks like neighbours? Bob Lupton, in his book entitled And You Call Yourself a Christian, talks about visiting the campus of a Bible college during urban emphasis week. Lupton, a church and community development worker, asked a group of students what the number one mandate for followers of Christ should be. One student quickly said “evangelism.”
Lupton asked if they were sure. Another quickly said “make disciples.” He continued to draw them out until one said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, love your neighbour as yourself.”
When they all agreed that this was indeed number one, Lupton asked them how many courses on neighbouring the college offered. I’m sure we all know the answer to that question. The college had an entire evangelism department, yet offered no training in how to be a neighbour.
Then, another student asked Lupton if he believed in a literal heaven and hell. The rationale behind the question was obvious. If eternal bliss or eternal damnation awaits each person at the end of their life on earth, then isn’t the most loving act to present the truth of the gospel to each one? Lupton’s response is important:
It’s a compelling argument. The problem, of course, is that it leads toward viewing others as souls instead of people. And when we opt for rescuing souls over loving neighbours, compassionate acts can soon degenerate into evangelism techniques. Pressing human needs depreciate in importance – the spirit becomes the only thing worth caring about. Thus, the powerful leaven of unconditional, sacrificial love is diminished in society and the wounded are left lying beside the road. When we skip over the Great Commandment on the way to fulfilling the Great Commission, we do great harm to the authenticity of the faith.
Lupton hasn’t been invited back to the school to speak. I understand how he feels. When my wife and I were studying at the Salvation Army College, we interned at a church in the west end of Toronto. The pastor sent us out to visit a former Salvation Army officer who lived close to the church. We had known him a few years prior, but had lost contact. We discovered that the officer had left his wife to move in with another man, and that they were actively and openly living in a homosexual relationship.
It was an education, to say the least! We were still focused on their eternal souls, above all else, and at the end of the day, I’m not sure how much we benefited either of them. I do know that we loved them both, wept many tears with them, and desperately wanted to support them as they struggled with their identity. Both were from thoroughly evangelical backgrounds.
I currently serve as a pastor in St. Jamestown, a ten-minute walk from Church Street in downtown Toronto, the epicentre of the LGBT community. There are people in the LGBT community with whom I work in a variety of capacities. There are people I consider my friends, and for whom I care a great deal. We’ve had people from the LGBT community connect to our church. Like many in our inner-city church, they tend to drift in and out of our lives. They’re part of our family and we’re honoured to know them.
The current climate in our churches
Our Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith touches on this subject. The section entitled “Marriage, Singleness and Family” states that God only honours sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife. And in the Board of Faith and Life (BFL) pamphlet, Homosexuality: A Firm Response, the conference reaffirms this stance in more detail. The only option presented for those struggling with sexual identity is a life of celibacy.
Most people from the LGBT community would never dream of entering a church, and, in particular, an evangelical church. I remember visiting my favourite coffee shop when I was pastoring a church in the east end of Toronto. I had built a relationship with the owner of the shop, and she made sure to prepare my bagel just the way I liked it. One day, she asked me about our church, and I answered her as honestly as possible. I was proud to serve there. It was a good church, and we were making a difference in our community.
Then she asked me how we would welcome a same-sex couple and their children into our midst. I had to be honest and tell her I didn’t think the reception would be great. We remained friends, but my heart broke a little over a lost opportunity.
I also remember a guest speaker coming to the Salvation Army College when I was a student. The speaker, who was from a large evangelical church in Toronto, addressed our ethics class about a particular piece of employment legislation. He said that if the legislation went through, his church might have to hire a gay janitor if he or she applied for a job and was qualified. I remember wondering what exactly the problem might be. Shouldn’t the church welcome an opportunity to expose this person to thousands of followers of Jesus? I was pretty sure they didn’t need the janitor to preach or teach Sunday school.
Imperfect people in the church
Perhaps you’re left with more questions than answers. How do we see LGBT people? Do we see them as sinners needing to be saved, as souls needing to be rescued, as folks needing to be loved? How do we, as a church, respond to LGBT people? How do we make our places of worship somewhere all might come and feel welcome?
Hugh Halter and Matt Smay in their book, The Tangible Kingdom, speak of two groups within their church. They refer to “missional people” who are involved in leadership and need clear rails to run on. The other group are known as the Sojourners.
Sojourners can come and go as they like. They can sin, cuss, swear at their kids, yell at the ref, spend their money on useless endeavors, vote any way they want, chew tobacco, and hold any sexual orientation they like, all without judgment or pressure. When we spoke of having an inclusive Christian community that welcomes Sojourners, this is what we meant. Such folks can travel with us and our congregation without complete buy-in to the faith or change in lifestyle. In fact, the reason we want them with us is so that we can help them – on their own timetable – come to faith.
This strategy may be easier in a non-traditional setting than in many of our traditional churches where we believe the local, visible church should be “without spot or blemish.” In many traditional settings, we want people to start where we are before we share Christ’s love with them. We sometimes put behavioural conformity before the gospel.
In his article, “The Church ‘Without Spot or Wrinkle’: Testing the Tradition,” Walter Unger writes that “our current ecclesiology seeks both to take seriously a high view of the nature of the church as well as to take seriously our humanity and the pilgrim/process nature of those within the church. The gospel we preach is, after all, a gospel of grace, and ‘the church remains faithful not by being perfect but by keeping that message central.’ Such understandings may well help remove the barrier or at least the mystique that church membership is only for those already ‘without spot or wrinkle.’” This movement toward the “central message of grace” may be necessary if we wish to minister to the LGBT community, as well as a host of others.
At St. Jamestown, we try to be good neighbours to all who come our way. It’s so important to us that we moved into the neighbourhood (see John 1 in The Message). There are only a handful of us who could be defined as “missional people.” We always try to start where people are. We try to introduce them to God’s love by caring for them in his name.
We have successes and failures, and the work is never easy. Everyone who crosses our path is someone whom he loves. They’re also someone for whom Christ died. They are all infinitely precious to him. Romans 5:8 reminds us that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In Philippians 2:12, we are instructed to “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling.” My hope and prayer would be that we allow everyone we encounter the same grace and space to grow.
Practical ways to minister
When we attempt to love and share our faith with people from the LGBT community, we may need to venture out in fear and trembling. We will likely need to start by simply being good neighbours. If we start with a person’s sexual orientation, the relationship is doomed to failure. If we don’t make it an issue, it won’t become a barrier. We will need to seek understanding. When we have a deeper understanding of a person’s pain and struggle, a transformation will begin in us.
It’s a wonderful privilege to share the good news of the gospel with another person, but it’s a privilege that needs to be earned. We may want to seek out other missional people who are willing to meet our neighbour(s) in a non-judgmental way. We could meet as a small group in a home; it may be an easier transition for our neighbours to come to a barbeque to meet some followers of Christ than to a full-blown Sunday morning worship service with all the bells and whistles. And we must keep our church leadership informed of what we’re doing, and solicit their prayers and support.
Storytelling is often a good way to prepare people to be more open and accepting of others whom they don’t understand. At one church where my wife and I served, we invited a person who was HIV-positive to share his story with the congregation. He didn’t leave us with neat and simple answers, but he was captivating and helped open many eyes to his struggle and to the potential that exists in any life touched by God’s grace.
We all struggle. We’re all aware of the gap between where we are and where we wish we could be. If the church is called to be gracious with one another, shouldn’t our LGBT neighbour be given the same opportunity as an addict, or an adulterer, or anyone else, for that matter, to move toward the healing and wholeness that Jesus Christ made available to all?
Who are the people in our neighbourhood? There are many hurting people in our communities who would never dream that the imposing church building on the corner could be a place for them to find help, hope, and healing. Some of those people might even belong to the LGBT community. What a shame to pass up an opportunity to share Christ’s love with them!
–Kevin Moore is pastor of Toronto’s 614 St. Jamestown church, which is located near the largest gay community in Canada