The Voices Project aims to share stories of marginalized and vulnerable groups of people, people created in the image of God. Our hope is that these stories humanize and connect us to others who are different that us (although, not as different as we think) and moves us towards closing the distance between one another.

This week’s post comes from Dr. Michael Danner, Executive Minister of the Illinois Mennonite Conference. We are partnering together later this month to have a conversation about whether or not the church can be Good News to LGBTQ youth. He explains why below.


Shifting Focus…

I became a part of Illinois Mennonite Conference (IMC) and the wider Mennonite Church in 1997 (now MC USA) when I was called by Metamora Mennonite Church (MMC, Metamora, IL) to serve as their associate pastor.  A big part of my job was overseeing children’s and youth ministry – with hands on responsibility for jr. and sr. high.

Earlier in 1997, MMC hosted the IMC annual assembly that focused on one question. Would IMC kick out two congregations – who were currently on discipline – because they had openly gay, non-celibate church members.  There was a vote. The vote did not carry. The churches remained on discipline, but were not removed.  Some churches were upset. Others were happy. Some people left their congregations. Others remained. Everyone seemed worn out.

That was almost two decades ago.

I’d love to say that over the past two decades IMC and MC USA have resolved the tensions and questions about the in(ex)clusion of LGBT persons that were present in 1997.  Yes, some things have shifted since then. We do not talk as much about questions of LGBT membership. However, we talk more about non-celibate married gay persons in leadership, whether or not ordination is open to them, whether the church will bless same-sex marriages and pastors are free to participate.  People still line up on one side or the other, with many people in the broad middle, hoping we can move on soon.

In the midst of all this, one thing has escaped our attention. How are we, as a church, engaging youth people in our midst who awaken to a same-sex attraction?

Here’s the thing. Persons generally become sexual aware in their teens (13 – 18).  In the best of circumstances this is an awkward and, often times, confusing time. This is especially true to those who have same-sex attractions. At risk behaviors for students that have same-sex attraction skyrocket – including the risk of drug abuse and suicide. Students often feel alone.

According to recent research by Andrew Marin, published in Us vs. Us, 96% of gay persons interviewed prayed that God would change their sexual orientation when they first came to believe they were gay.  He also reports that when this prayer goes unanswered, the result – more times than not – is that students are driven into church and youth group, not away. Marin’s explanation of this is that gay teens believe their orientation isn’t changed because they are not faithful or “Christian” enough, so they start doing more “Christian” things.

In my view, this has created a situation where the church talks/argues/debates – somewhat abstractly – about questions related to gay persons while there is little done to equip pastors, youth pastors, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers (parents and grandparents) as they relate to students wrestling with their sexuality in their midst.

Whether the adults in the church are aware of it or not, there are gay kids in our youth groups that are wrestling with significant issues. How are we doing at walking with them? Are we creating environments where they can hear and experience the good news of Jesus in their lives?  Do they have the kind of support that makes it less likely they will engage in at risk behaviors? Do they believe that the church is the place for them to experience God’s grace and mercy in the midst of their struggles?

These are complicated questions that raise many tensions among adults in the church. Which means we tend to avoid them. Which means students suffer in silence.

The purpose of Innovative Disruption: Can the Church be Good News to Gay Teens is to explore helpful practices for those who walk with teens. We’re pleased to have Chris Schaffner as our presenter.  I have every confidence that he is up to the task in steering sessions that will lead to practical insights and practices.

As Conference Executive Minister, It is my hope that this event signals a missional shift in our approach to issues of sexuality within the conference.  Instead of abstract discussions that don’t ever land on the ground, it’s time we begin to consider how we minister in and among the culture where we live. That includes development more helpful and healthy relationships between the church and the gay community, including the approach of the church to gay persons in the church. The fighting has not served the gospel well, in my view. It has served the church even worse.  Can we imagine a new kind of dialog and engagement that leads to life, even in the midst of tension?

Bio:  Michael Danner, Conference Executive Minister, Illinois Mennonite Conference.  Live in Morton with my wife Melissa and our two cats. Three adult-ish kids.  MAR Trinity Evangelical Divinity,  DMin in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary.  Blog at provokelove.net.  email is mdanner@gmail.com.

This event is open to the public. You can register for this gathering by clicking the image below.

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