Two Kinds of Survival: What's at Stake in the LGBT-Church Conversation?

Everyone loves a good survival story. We honor those who survive combat and cancer. When someone mentions they almost died, we lean closer to hear the details. From the box office to bestseller lists, we draw inspiration from people who have endured life-threatening hardship and lived to tell about it.

Survival stories grab our attention because we know life is fragile. We wouldn’t be here had our ancestors not done what it took to survive. The struggle to sustainably exist is part of what makes us human. And when our survival seems threatened, we cling to whatever represents safety.

I wonder if a survival impulse accounts for why evangelical Christians have been so captivated by the conversation around sexuality? More than just another doctrinal dilemma or political issue du jour, we treat the subject of LGBT sexual ethics as a matter of survival. More specifically, it’s about our survival.

Ask any church that has lost members over this debate. Ask any Christian nonprofit that has lost donors, or any denomination that has lost congregations. Ask the seminary I attend or the pastors who have mentored me. A changed stance can cost dollars, jobs, relationships, credentials and credibility. The price of a wrong answer is steep.

Faced with the risk of such losses, many evangelical institutions have dug in their heels. Given the choice between LGBT inclusion and institutional survival, most organizations choose the latter. In a movement known for its denominational splits, congregational splits and family splits over sexuality, the last thing evangelical Christianity needs is another divide.

What if the sexuality conversation wasn’t just about our survival, but someone else’s? With so much energy focused on institutional survival, have we devoted sufficient attention to the struggles of LGBT persons within our churches? As followers of Jesus, have we taken stock of the ways in which our attitudes and actions harm the spiritual wellbeing of Christians who experience same-sex attraction?

And what about those at risk of giving up—not only on their Christian faith, but on life itself?

According to a study conducted by San Francisco State University on the impact of family acceptance among LGBT youth, “Participants who had low family acceptance as adolescents were more than three times as likely to report both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts compared with those who reported high levels of family acceptance.” When Christian families and churches reject our gay children, we threaten their survival.

When our young people would rather take their own lives than face another dehumanizing day, what does it say about the spiritual atmosphere we’ve created?

Welcoming sexual minorities into our churches carries a high cost, but so does practicing our faith in ways that ostracize them. How might things be different if we valued their Christian faith journey as much as ours? How much do we care about that kind of survival?

North American evangelicalism’s shortcomings have been well-documented, but let’s not forget our strengths. By God’s grace, our movement has produced some of the most socially impactful, strategically innovative, ecumenically collaborative and contextually adaptive mission initiatives in church history. I’m surely biased toward my own faith tribe, but I have full confidence that evangelical Christianity will survive in a post-Obergefell v. Hodges society.

And while evangelicalism has provided a nurturing spiritual home for heterosexual Christians like me, I’m not so sure about Millennials who don’t fit this mold, including those growing up in today’s church. These youth love Jesus and will be present on Sunday, but what about 20 years from now? How will the faith of our young people survive the onslaught of microaggressions, condemnation and hostility from other Christians?

To fortify a faith that can withstand critical scrutiny, our movement has invested tremendous resources studying, interpreting, and debating the meaning of biblical texts on sexuality. We’ve paid close attention to theological arguments. But are we willing help fortify the faith of those Christians whose sexuality endures constant scrutiny? Are our churches ready to walk with people through the waters of online bullying or the tempest of suicidal thoughts? Will we humbly listen to the stories of LGBT people to experience what it's like to walk in their shoes?

Perhaps the Christian right and left are both correct to identify this topic as a matter of survival. For the sake of our beloved institutions as well as our LGBT brothers and sisters’ faith, the evangelical sexuality conversation cannot afford to elevate one kind of survival at the other’s expense.

By grace, I believe a better story is possible, one the survivors live to tell.