We have saved the best for last. In this recent installment of The Everyday Missionary Podcast, I sat down with my son to talk about what it’s like to come out as gay in a Christian pastor family. Our hope in this was not simply to offer a glimpse into the challenges and closeness that can emerge, but also to display how the Christian and gay community can communicate with one another in a spirit of kindness, empathy, and understanding.
How does a teenage son who is gay and his Christian pastor family begin to find their new normal after his coming out?
Had you asked me that question 6 years ago I probably would have had a tidy theological answer wrapped in a cavalier bow. Today, however, our reality forces us to navigate the messiness of maintaining our faith’s code of lifestyle while equally upholding our faith’s greatest command to love, be it your enemy, neighbor, fellow believer or yes, your 17-year-old unbelieving gay son.
In Part 3 of The Everyday Missionary Podcast, I look at our progress as parents from Gray’s resolved coming out in October of 2017 until now (also, you won’t want to miss Part 4 next week where I talk with my son – Part 3 is incomplete at many levels without Part 4). What you will notice, if you haven’t caught it already, there exists much trial and error in moving toward the high ground of mercy and breakthrough. At times in this series, I’m sure I’ve said things that make both the Christian and LGBT community wince in disagreement (especially in this episode), be it for different reasons perhaps. However, I have intentionally chosen the clumsy, unscripted and unedited format so that the raw humanity of parents and kids can be displayed, both for the good and bad. My heart throughout this is finding a new way forward where the two communities (especially within families) can learn to display neighborly love toward one another even in the midst of our core differences.
As a side note, I have sincerely appreciated the gay men who have interacted with me after hearing of this podcast, all of which opened by describing themselves as “a gay atheist.” I mention this simply to highlight there was more than one area of difference or worldview in the mix. I want to thank you publicly for your willingness to interact in the spirit of what I hope this creates; the ability to discuss, empathize and understand the “other side” while still holding to the convictions of “our side.” This embodies the spirit of true tolerance which Google Dictionary defines as, “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” You have all been gracious, kind, intelligent and open despite some deep wounds. Thank you!
Three months ago our 17-year-old son shared with us that he no longer held to our Christian faith and that he was in a relationship with a young man. However, our journey with our son and his sexuality began far earlier than a fall day back in October. In this episode of The Everyday Missionary, I have sought to retrace our steps as a family from 12-years-old until that autumn afternoon. In doing so, I seek to highlight some of the things I believe we did thoughtfully as parents in light of our faith, but also some of the things I know I handled badly. Equally, I share how there were things Gray did right in this process, but also things he handled poorly (though I share no specifics regarding Gray since that is his story to be shared in Pt. 4). My hope in this series is that our experience can act as an aid to better handling such events in life with grace, truth, awareness, compassion, seeking and granting forgiveness, and love even in our differences.
Six years ago this month Redemption Church was planted out of chaos and in hope. Since that time, Jesus has seen fit to not only keep us alive, but has stirred us to thrive. It has been a season loaded with times of uncertainty, yet consistently each uncertainty has been upended by the gracious incursion of God’s provision.
One of the most amazing things is related to how God put all sorts of crazy pieces in place to make it possible to purchase an old bank building along with two adjacent lots on the main street of our city. We are not yet able to use the space for Sundays, but it’s trending that direction within the next two to three years – which is incredible since just two to three years ago we thought there was no way possible we would ever have a building of our own in our city. God still does BIG things.
In becoming property owners, we also wanted to face bigger questions as to the use of our property. A component of our mission statement is “for the good of our city” as highlighted in Jeremiah 29:7. How then would our space fulfill that mission? What things could we do to show our love for the city? To show our commitment to the cares and needs of the community? How could we be good stewards, not only of the facility and finances related to it, but also to exist for the welfare of the city Jesus put us in? So far we’ve come up with a lot of ideas, many of which are already underway in the space as it currently is. But one of the truly novel things we came up with was an added step that I’m not certain I’ve come across before; we proactively decided to voluntarily pay property taxes. Crazy, right? Maybe. But it’s missionally crazy, and if you’re going to be crazy you might as well do it for missional reasons. So why have we chosen to do this? Here are the 5 core reasons.
1) To Display Solidarity with Our Community
Communities need resources to be communities. In the case of cities and counties these resources come in many forms, but one of the key elements is fiscal resources that are acquired by taxing the members of a community. Thus it was our conviction that we could display a heart for “the welfare of our city” by making the conscious decision to contribute, as an organization, in a way that is similar to the inhabitants of our city. Some may find this an odd way to display solidarity, or they may say there are better ways to spend money on community needs. But we believe there is a different form of generosity that is displayed when you let another party that is commissioned to lead a community to decide the best way to use resources for that community. In this way we display that we are in the community like everyone else.
2) To Show Goodwill toward Our City
Believe it or not, being a city official is difficult work. Whether this is an elected official or an employee of a particular department, there will always be the stress of a collection of citizens with different views on how a city should be managed. This stress is compounded by how the city is going to pay for it. This is why to some degree city and county officials don’t get vigorously excited when they hear that a church wants to buy up 5-500 acres for a new campus. It’s not driven by opposition to religion. Rather, there is no revenue for a tax-exempt building and as long as it is a church it will not generate revenue. Thus in a strange sort of way, not only are churches not paying customers, but they take up the space of something else that could be. Therefore, if we are in this “for the good of our city” then one of the ways we can truly stand behind this conviction is to invest in a way that puts tax money where our mission mouth is. In fact, it’s been fun to see how quickly pleasant surprise come across the face of community officials when they discover our position. In this way we display that we are concerned with the concerns of those who lead our city.
3) To Remove an Understandable Area of Criticism
I will assume that most of us have come across some meme on social media that shows a picture of the most ornate church cathedral or megachurch with the caption “tax churches now”. While as a pastor I know that this is a provocative image dislodged from a whole plethora of facts, there is another fact that still remains; the unbelieving communities that we are seeking to reach see this exemption as odd and unfair. It’s a perk for churches, but it’s equally a stumbling block for those not in churches. And if our mission is to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks for the sake of Christ, then for us it made sense to remove this stone in the path of our mission field. In this way we display that the souls that we hope to see saved matter more than the money we can save.
4) To Govern Our Own Sense of “need” vs. “want”
Churches have a strange pull to want more than they need. More staff, more supplies, more tech, more budgets, more of more. This is also true when it comes to space. We tend to believe that bigger buildings will equal bigger crowds, even though we’ve all been lectured ad nauseam to the contrary. We have still blazed ahead with multimillion dollar debt loads that we can’t easily manage since “we built it and they didn’t come – just like everyone told us from the get-go”. Now, I’m not saying big is bad. Nor am I saying that there are not legitimate space needs in churches that are growing. But I do believe churches would make more conservative decisions on buildings and debt if they also had to consider the taxes on the facilities they were building. For us, our future expansion looks to maximize a footprint that is efficient and effective without being intrusive or ostentatious, especially as we look toward future generations which may be more inclined toward minimalism and outward investment. In this way we model that restraint is a virtue that allows for the freedom to pursue opportunities God places before each generation.
5) To Prepare for a Possible Future
Quite honestly, the odds of property tax exemptions sticking around in our post-Christian climate are not in favor of churches. Already we know that the question of the constitutional legality of exemptions for clergy are working their way through the court system. Some project that property tax exemptions for churches will be next to follow. In light of these strong possibilities, we opt to prepare ourselves in the present for the future. By including property taxes in our budget now we have been able to adjust our overall budget so that we are acclimated to this particular cost of doing ministry in our culture. If that day ever comes, we will have already been doing it far before that day. In this way we proactively mitigate sudden budget hikes that would harm our missional priorities.
In the end, am I saying all churches should do this? No. Am I saying that we are more missional, trusting, godly, sacrificial, (fill in the blank) for doing this? No. Is this a creative way we have been led to connect with and build bridges within our community that most churches have not considered? Yes. Ultimately the question for all churches is not what they are required or free to do in matters such as this, but what is Christ leading them to do in order to display commitment toward the welfare of their city?
One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”
My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.
In The Lab That Is A Study
I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.
As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.
In The Field That Is A Bar
Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.
As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.
On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.
I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.
Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.
I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.
Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.
I grieve. I pray. And I write.
Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”
I remember. And I write.
After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.
I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.
It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:
How would people in a bar understand this?
Would people in a bar know what to do with this?
Do people in a bar even care about this?
What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?
What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?
What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?
What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?
What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?
What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?
What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?
What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?
How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?
Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.
Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.
I encourage everyone to check out Tony’s podcast. He hits a niche aspect on religious studies that many advocates of religion do not have the opportunity to highlight in a more neutral capacity.
As a pastor I would like to verify that we are a funky bunch. In one sense we are commissioned with maintaining a heritage of historical belief, but equally we must invest into the cultural nomenclature such as understanding, “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.” Down the road I will dedicate an entire series to the wonky things pastors think, read, watch and feel, but for now I want to attempt to stay on task with my theme of the day – pastors and the need to see the power of 43 (not 42 – sorry Douglas Adams).
Starting off in the second chapter of Acts we see the birth of the Spirit Infused Church. It is a powerful display of the radical transformation that came with the resurrection of Jesus and the launch of His Unstoppable Force known as the Church (Matthew 16:18). And when we roll into Acts 2:42 we see the four-fold priority of the Church when it says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42). Now in part, why we pastors love this is because it sounds a bit like a formula – the 4 marks of a healthy church. Yet I have been in a few churches where these 4 traits were the centerpiece functionally, and yet even the air smelled stale. Now don’t get me wrong, there was nothing flawed in the technical execution of these four traits. The Word was preached accurately, people interacted personally, prayers were uttered genuinely and communion was devoted fully, but something was still stagnate. They had nailed everything in 42, but they were missing the central reality of 43…
“And awe came upon every soul…” Acts 2:43
It is far too easy to assume that function produces passion, that rule keeping establishes pace setting and that guarding the gate will ignite the heart. Yet the world Jesus invaded was replete with a loyalty to the religiosity of 42, but devoid of the worshipful hunger of 43. Thus what we need ask Jesus and His Spirit to produce in our churches is…
- Biblical moorings and spiritual desperation.
- Emboldened teaching and embedded fire.
- Personal fellowship and spiritual excitement.
- Communion and co-union.
I pray that we would not settle for conservative churches with an absence of presence, but that we would strive to see Jesus cultivate dynamic churches through the display of His attendance – in word, communion, prayer and fellowship, all in anticipation of His awe-filled union among us (1 Corinthians 14:26) .
Thank you Dr. David Wells for pointing out the need for Acts 2:43 in “God In The Whirlwind.”