The last thing I want to talk about is….
It’s Tuesday morning. You sit at your desk with books, notes, and a laptop gathered around you, and you begin to think about preparing a series of Sunday messages on some of the behemoth issues of the day – sex, gender, and identity.
You start picturing some of the people who may be in the room.
Ethel is a warm, 80 year old lifelong Christian with strong ‘traditional’ views. She is warm and kind, but the idea of same-sex relationships is unfathomable to her, and because she doesn’t know anyone who identifies as gay, she describes gay people as ‘them’.
Nige is in his 50s. He’s been a follower of Jesus for years, mostly without too many problems. Now, his 15 year old daughter has told him that she thinks she’s really a boy, and wants to explore the options available. Nige adores his daughter, but has no idea what to say or do, and is apprehensive about telling anyone at church.
Brad is an eminently cool 22 year old. He has been following Jesus for 5 years, but has avoided thinking about God and sexuality because he’s afraid of what he will find. He has several friends who have told him they are gay. He loves them, and doesn’t want them to be hurt. He’s read a few blog posts that make him think maybe God is glad of same-sex relationships. After all, what harm could they do?
Kate is a bright, 35 year old gay activist atheist who is deeply suspicious of church and expects to be ‘bashed’ in any discussion of sexuality. She hears that the church is teaching on sex and relationships and pops into a service to see what’s said.
All of these people – and many more besides – will be there.
How on earth can you teach faithfully, helpfully, and with an emphasis on Jesus, all the while carefully accounting for all these stories, perspectives and concerns simultaneously? If each of these people heard what you have to say, what impression would you want them to leave with?
If you think this is a huge and intimidating challenge, you’re not alone!
Why preach on God, sex, gender and identity?
The idea of teaching on these issues might seem so challenging that we query whether it’s worth doing so at all. After all, surely we want to focus on Jesus and avoid any unnecessary controversy? And if these issues affect anyone personally, surely they are best served by some pastoral conversations and maybe a bit of recommended reading?
But I believe that, in fact, teaching on God and sex, gender and identity is both vital and beneficial, for 3 reasons.
First, these are real-life issues. There will definitely be people in your church – and likely more than you think – for whom these are live concerns. Most of your congregation will have, at least, a family member, neighbour, colleague, or friend who identifies as gay.
If we don’t talk about God and sexuality, gender and identity, then we are making a passive but deliberate choice to allow the world around us to disciple our churches.
Second, if we don’t talk about God and sexuality, gender and identity, then we are making a passive but deliberate choice to allow the world around us to disciple our churches. Every single one of us is ‘told’ what to think about these things through stories, movies, books, articles and social media almost constantly. We do people a disservice if we don’t bring what God says to bear on the issues of the day, however emotive and controversial they may be.
Third, if we don’t talk about God, sexuality and related issues, we likely make it appear that as church leaders we are afraid of doing so – because perhaps we don’t have confidence in what God says. In reality, what God says about everything is true, good, and for our ultimate flourishing. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the common strong feelings and desires around sex actually help form an amazing opportunity to talk about Jesus with people. He’s brilliant news even for our sexual lives. We must talk about how!
If you’re willing to steel yourself and start talking about God and sexuality, gender and identity with your church, here are 21 quick tips for doing so, based on my own experience and indeed shortcomings. I have grouped them into a before, during, after structure:
1 Plan ahead, giving yourself time to think, pray, and read.
Make sure to give yourself lots of time to do ‘due diligence’ on preparation. Given the depth of feeling and impact on people’s lives of these issues, it is vital to spend an unusually long time in prayer, reading widely, and thinking seriously.
2 Discuss an approach with your church leadership team.
Whether your church is led by elders, a leadership team, or a PCC, it’s important to be on the same page. You want to be certain that you are of ‘one mind’ in terms of your positions on the key issues, and that they will be alongside you if you face intense scrutiny or even attack. Practically, how many messages do you want to preach? Who will deliver them and when? What other resources need to be available?
3 Get lots of prayer support.
Given that views on sexuality are so strong in our culture, it’s fair to assume that a dose of spiritual attack is very possible when challenging them. Look to recruit friends far and wide to pray for and with you.
4 Do your homework on cultural trends and ideas – learning why people believe what they believe.
While preparing, make sure to spend time understanding the cultural trends. The beliefs our culture tends to hold around identity, gender and sexuality do not exist in a vacuum, but are the perhaps inevitable culmination of the last few centuries of western philosophy. Demonstrating this is useful (to some) because it openly queries the validity of some of the strongly held beliefs that we encounter. If, for example, we are in favour of sexual expression outside commitment simply because of an unquestioning assimilation of 19th century continental philosophical values, our beliefs suddenly don’t seem so incontestable or perhaps even wise.
5 Prepare key people – especially small group leaders.
When tacking controversial issues like these, make sure your key leaders and influencers are aware ahead of time. It might be wise to train your small group leaders – who could well end up having significant discussions without you in the room – and give them resources you have confidence in before the wider church engage with it.
6 Transcribe your message ahead.
Preachers prepare in different ways, but given the dangers of misspeaking on these issues, transcribing your material word-for-word ahead of time is probably sensible.
7 Run your material by a friend for whom the issues you discuss are personal.
I am a man who has always identified as a man and is happily married to a woman. I have no personal experience of the challenges for LGBTQIA+ people, outside conversations with friends. Therefore, before speaking about these things in public, I have found it incredibly helpful (and humbling) to run my material by some friends for whom this IS personal. Even despite my best efforts, prayer and wider reading, I have gleaned insights I could not have arrived at alone that made my material better than it would have been.
8 Tell a story that humanises you.
Whenever I teach on God and sex, I begin by telling the congregation a personal story – of the embarrassment felt when my dad, a vicar, came and gave a talk on sex to my class when I was 14. Imagine! I tell this story because it’s quite funny to laugh at my expense, but also because it communicates that my intention is not merely to give a theological treatise – I want to engage with a topic that is sensitive, personal and can make us feel vulnerable. If the teacher ‘goes first’ on vulnerability, it helps everyone else to do so too.
9 Distinguish the issues.
In popular understanding, the interests represented by the acronym LGBTQIA+ are somewhat grouped together as if to be one voice. However, in reality the issues have been unhelpfully conflated. Most simply, same-sex attraction is around who you’re attracted to, whereas discussion around identity and transgender are around who you say you are. It is important to make this distinction clear when thinking about and indeed teaching on these subjects, and there are different passages of Scripture we might be drawn to use accordingly.
10 Acknowledge that this is personal for some but important for everyone.
It is vitally important to note that this is not an area where anyone can say ‘it doesn’t affect me’
Some of your congregation will have personal ‘stakes’ in any conversation on these issues. It is important to acknowledge those people and be clear that you are aware of their concerns and indeed pain. However, it is also vitally important to note that this is not an area where anyone can say ‘it doesn’t affect me’. What God says about sexuality, gender and identity affects all of us both theologically and practically. To grow to be a church that affirms orthodox scriptural teaching and radically welcomes LGBTQIA+ people is complicated and needs the thoughtful participation of the whole church.
11 Don’t shy away from the key texts but acknowledge why people struggle with them.
We absolutely must face, squarely, the passages of the Bible that speak about sexual conduct and identity. Ultimately, they’re good news, even if they don’t initially feel that way. But we are wise to acknowledge precisely that – and be human enough to sympathise with those who feel like the Bible is a tool for condemnation and ultimately rejection.
12 Be clear that we’re all sinners.
There is a good chance that any LGBTQIA+ person who visits your church and is not a follower of Jesus expects you to condemn them. In preaching around God, sexuality and identity, we absolutely MUST be clear that we’re all sinners in need of grace, and that we’re all fallen sexually – just in different ways. Your long-time Christians need to be reminded of this too, particularly in discussions around sexuality.
13 Acknowledge the bad church experiences people have had, and apologise for them.
Many LGBTQIA+ people have had bad experiences of churches or individual Christians. It is important to acknowledge this – not merely for the ‘optics’ of being seen to be compassionate, but because we actually are so.
14 Understand your congregation will have different ‘starting positions’.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is likely that your congregation will be home to people with all sorts of perspectives and for all sorts of reasons. Acknowledging this, and encouraging your congregation to understand, and indeed think the best of, those they disagree with is really helpful in setting the right tone for discussion. It is also good when your congregation overhear you challenging everyone regardless of their existing views.
15 Be practical.
In the midst of trying to do a great job handling the theology around God and sexuality, it would be easy to lose sight of the practical. But the questions many of your congregation will grapple with will be practical rather than theoretical. Should I attend the wedding of a gay friend? How does the church support those whom they expect to be celibate? How can same-sex attracted people be a blessing to the church? We are wise to think about the practical, positive outcomes of our theology and work them through with people.
16 Be aware of the significance of language.
The language we use when discussing sexuality and identity is very important – using the ‘wrong’ word can be deeply offensive to some, despite our intentions. For example, some people might describe themselves as gay whereas others might be more comfortable with same-sex attracted. We should be sensitive to this – perhaps running our chosen wording by a friend who would have insight on the matter.
17 Share the gospel!
The truth is that talking about God and sexuality, gender and identity, while challenging and perhaps even scary, is a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus with people. These topics are right at the heart of many people’s desires, hopes and sense of self, so this is a place with huge potential to talk about what God is really like.
These topics are right at the heart of many people’s desires, hopes and sense of self, so this is a place with huge potential to talk about what God is really like.
Our sexual desires and our search for identity ultimately point to something greater than the thing many people think is the greatest thing in the world (sex). What an amazing chance to dispel some negative ideas about God and share his radical love with our communities!
18 Ensure pastoral follow up is available.
Talking about sexuality and identity is likely to raise both big questions and big emotions for a number of your congregation – plan to have some wise people available to meet with anyone who’d benefit from the support.
19 Prepare helpful small group material.
If your church has small groups that follow Sunday messages, your group leaders will appreciate it if you equip them with resources to help lead groups into good discussion. Most group leaders will fear where a discussion might go, and fret about getting scripture right, being pastoral, and representing what the church leaders want them to do all at the same time. Encourage and prepare them.
20 Think very carefully about profiling an individual for whom this is personal.
There might be someone in your church who has had a significant journey around gender, identity and / or sexuality and their faith. It might be appropriate to interview or hear from them in some form, but this takes huge discernment. Anyone you ‘platform’ is in danger of becoming a lightning rod for opinions, unsolicited advice, or stereotyping. If you do have someone share their story, it’s vital that they are aware of the possible outcomes publicly sharing may bring and have your ongoing support.
21 Trust God.
You cannot control how people will respond to what you teach, much as you may conscientiously prepare, pray, and proclaim Jesus. Ultimately, you have to trust God with the outcome, believing he will both convict and comfort people. If you get negative feedback, remember that that doesn’t mean you messed it up – distinguish what you are responsible for and what God is responsible for.
I have found the following books in particular to be incredibly helpful in preparing to teach on God, sex, identity and gender.
- Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (Baker Books, 2018)
- Preston Sprinkle, People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue (Zondervan, 2016)
- Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say (David C Cook, 2021)
- Caleb Kaltenbach, Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others without Sacrificing Conviction (Waterbrook Press, 2015)
- Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown & Covenant, 2015)
- Andrew Bunt, Finding Your Best Identity: A Short Christian Introduction to Identity, Sexuality and Gender (IVP, 2022)
- Vaughan Roberts, Transgender (The Good Book Company, 2016)
- Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction (IVP, 2015)
- David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Zondervan, 2018)