Radical Grace

Radical Grace
By Dave Urbanski

During Sam Andreades’ candidacy to pastor 120-member The Village Church (VillageChurchNYC.com) in lower Manhattan, he was invited one Sunday to preach a sermon and then take questions from those gathered in the sanctuary. During the Q&A session, a question was posed that still rings in his ears today.

“A woman stood up and said, ‘Christians sing this song, “Just as I Am.” Well, I am a lesbian. Is there a place for me at The Village Church, just as I am?’”

Rather than shrink from the challenge, Andreades jumped right in.

“I first asked her forgiveness for the sins of the Church against gays,” he recalls. “Then I explained that when we sing that son, it means coming to Jesus with everything in our lives and laying it before Him. This might be hard to do with things like our intimate relationships, but it does mean ‘everything.’” Andreades went on to say that if she was willing to do that – just like everyone else who falls at Christ’s feet-then there was a place for her at The Village Church.

Now the pastor, Andreades has been ministering to the gay and lesbian community in Greenwich Village very since. He leads church members in volunteering with HIV/AIDS ministries, donating money to AIDS research and conducting a support group for those wrestling with their homosexuality. As a result of this welcoming spirit, he’s finding that gays and lesbians are showing up in the sanctuary even though they typically don’t agree with the church’s conservative theology.

Why Outreach to Gays and Lesbians?

Because Jesus says so.

That’s the sentiment of Tim Lucas, lead pastor of 1,200-attendee Liquid Church of Morristown, N.J. (LiquidChurch.com). He first led his congregation in outreach to gays and lesbians the summer of 2005 after a message series on Jesus’ challenge to love our neighbors – “especially those who differ from us or a re normally considered ‘the enemy’” – began to convict him and many others in his congregation.

“We realized that evangelical Christians have been reluctant to unconditionally love the gay community-keeping it at an arm’s length or preferring judgment instead,” Lucas says. “We felt God calling us to reach out and serve the gay community with humility, grace and service as a result of following Christ.”

It’s hard to argue with Lucas – Jesus openly loved, ministered to and closely associated with outcast of his day. Tax collectors, lepers, adulterers, women of ill repute, Samaritans, Romans, even a thief hanging on a cross next to Him – you name the hated people, and Jesus loved them.

But as Lucas and the other church leaders we interviewed confirm, doing as Christ commands in this case isn’t exactly a common occurrence. Very few churches attempt the difficult task of holding to orthodoxy while loving and welcoming gays and lesbians both into their sanctuaries and into the faith. It seems long-held stereotypes, fear and outright disgust run deep in the Church – especially (and unfortunately) in the pulpit.

“When I began pasturing Liquid Church,” Lucas recalls, “I made disparaging comments and used offhanded slurs to describe [gays and lesbians]. In our little church world, that kind of casual contempt was accepted or spiritualized away as ‘righteous anger.’ But the more I studied Jesus’ compassionate ministry to the sexually broken, I realized this was incompatible with the Gospel Christ calls us to. So, as part of a sermon, I confessed to our church that I am a ‘recovering homophobe who Jesus is changing from the inside out.’ That was a novel idea: asking God to change [me] – not ‘them’.”

Is your church willing to do similar self-examination? Take risks? Pioneer to reach these people God loves and values?

Reaching Out to the Gay and Lesbian Community

Though they are few in number, evangelical church leaders on the frontlines of unconditional outreach to homosexuals are seeing God show up in groundbreaking ways. Here, they share insights they’ve learned throughout their journey and guiding principles for establishing a Christ-centered outreach to the gay community.

1. Repent and Ask Forgiveness

“Start with understanding the great rejection that many gay people have felt from various religious people,” advises Village Church’s Andreades. Is there something we have seen, in the behavior of the Church at large, for which we can, and should, apologize?”

Josh Ellis believes so. A College-and-career pastor, he leads The Gathering, a post-high school ministry of New Life Tabernacle in Petersberg, Mich. (NewLifeTab.org). The Gathering, now running about 60 attendees, began informally discussing “hot topics” such as homosexuality and grew into a ministry, among other things, supports those who are struggling with same-sex attraction. Ellis has seen first-hand the results of the church’s offenses – deeply wounded men and women who are afraid to seek help from the Church and justifiably angry individuals who rarely give the Church the time of day except to bash it.

“Begin by evaluating your own biases and attitudes toward homosexuals and repent if necessary,” Ellis suggests. “Teach others to challenge their own attitudes. You wouldn’t drop off your kids with a babysitter who doesn’t like kids or leave your sheep in the care of a wolf. Why would we expect God to entrust us with a person he loves very much who has same-sex attraction if we haven’t dealt with our own damaging, hurtful prejudices?”

These prejudices can be more wounding than we realize. After he learned he was HIV-positive, Daniel Mendoza found Christ, left the gay lifestyle and launched the Red Ribbon AIDS Project through Cornerstone Church in Fresno, Calif. (CornerstoneLive.org). The Project provides assistance, fellowship and direction to those who are HIV/AIDS positive and to their families and friends; it’s also in charge of AIDS Walk Fresno, one of the area’s largest AIDS fundraisers. Despite the positives that have happened in Mendoza’s life, he’s grown tired of pastors telling “Adam and Steve” jokes from the pulpit.

“They hurt, even to this day,” Mendoza confesses. “A lot of pastors don’t want to understand [that]. We have to get ride of whatever gets in the way of us reaching out. Gays aren’t one step closer to hell than anyone else.”

2. Accept That the Gay-Lesbian Community Doesn’t Trust You (Yet)

Aaron Coe, lead pastor of 150-attendee Gallery Church in Manhattan’s Chelsea District (GalleryChurch.com) – the city’s largest “gay neighborhood,” where one of every four homosexual men has HIV – met extreme resistance from the community when his congregation wanted to assist HIV-testing initiatives.

One health services administrator told Coe she saw no difference between Christian evangelists and terrorists. Officials at another clinic told him they didn’t want any volunteers interacting with patients or bringing “Christian propaganda” on the property.

“I said, ‘Absolutely. We oblige. I don’t expect you to take my word for it.’ We had to walk through it first before trust began,” Coe recalls. So the church simply showed up at different sites sponsoring HIV-testing and did what they were asked – the results have proven to be worth the effort.

“The testing staffers were just blown away,” he says. “Then we sent care packages to all the clinics we worked with – and one staff member called a girl on our team saying how much she appreciated it, and then she even shared some things going on in her life personally.”

Lucas can relate to Coe’s initial battle for trust. “You should expect suspicion, if not outright hostility,” he warns. “That’s OK. That’s part of grace-giving. You’ll learn quickly to turn the other cheek. The big idea is to assume a heart posture of humility toward gay and lesbian friends. But while it takes a lot of interior work to get your church’s heart ready to serve, it has tremendous power when done well.”

3. Forego the “Fix-It” Approach

“I once told a gay friend that it wasn’t my mission in life to get [homosexuals] out of homosexuality,” says Bob Stith, national gender-issues specialist for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBCTheWayOut.com). “Our motives have to be right. We must be more interested in and concerned about people than causes. This doesn’t mean you leave your beliefs at the door necessarily, but it will mean you’re more concerned about ministering to the hurting than convincing them that your belief is the correct one.”

Coe says that Gallery Church’s stance of combining openness and orthodoxy has worked well. “We’re not posturing ourselves as condoning the gay lifestyle,” he says. “But we’re not judging you because we’re all in the same condition ultimately. When people who have HIV or are gay or lesbian come to our church, what they find is a redemptive community and an adherence to orthodox Christian values. But they’re OK with that because they know we’re not going to pressure people to clean up their lives before they come to church.”

Mendoza is clear about what he feels is the best approach: “The church needs to stop focusing on their sin. Let’s not worry about how they got AIDS; let’s just love gays and lesbians unconditionally. A lot of them didn’t have fathers or were molested – but we’re all broken, hurting people.”

4. Meet Needs in Practical Ways

Many of the church leaders we talked to participate in HIV/AIDS ministry, which can involve everything from visiting hospitals or hospices to making meals, doing housework, even writing checks once a month for those too sick to do so. While that can lead to an effective gay and lesbian outreach, it’s important to remember that HIV/AIDS isn’t a “gay disease”; anybody can contract it. In addition to assisting HIV/AIDS sufferers, some churches step out to meet other needs in the gay community.

For instance, Lucas’ Liquid Church picked up garbage and served ice-cold bottled water at New Jersey’s annual Gay Pride Celebration in Asbury Park last summer.

“We served more than 10,000 bottles of water that day in 90-degree heat to everyone from lesbian couples to drag queens,” Lucas says. “And we did it with no strings attached, with no agenda other than to simply love and serve our gay neighbors unconditionally.”

Lucas recalls a 230-pound, openly gay security guard at the festival saying he’d been told to watch the Liquid Church volunteers carefully; there was concern they’d cause trouble or proselytize.

“But at the day’s end, he pulled me aside and said he was impressed by our sincerity and eagerness to serve,” Lucas notes. “We totally shattered his perceptions of Christians as judgmental and agenda-driven. One week later, guess who shows up at a Sunday worship service?”

The security guard sat in the back row, and after the service was over, Lucas immediately ran to welcome him, and the two exchanged a bear hug in the church lobby.

“He admitted he was very nervous being in church-it’d been over 12 years-and he actually parked his car backward to hide his rainbow bumper sticker and positioned himself for a hasty getaway if need be,” Lucas says. “Out of that, [we] became friends and started a dialogue about faith, life and what it means to follow Jesus.”

Another positive result of Liquid Church’s outreach has been the response of those in the church. “It did more to change the hearts of our people than 1,000 sermons ever could,” Lucas says. “In learning to humbly serve our gay neighbors, it unearthed all sorts of hidden attitudes of secret pride, contempt and judgment-starting with me.”

Like Lucas, Mendoza also made an effort to practically meet needs in his community – he saw the need for people with HIV to socialize in a healthy environment. So to bring people together, his Red Ribbon AIDS project sponsors barbecues, luaus, karaoke nights and bowling get-togethers – the more non-threatening and family-oriented, the better. And it’s not just HIV-positive people who attend. “Their friends come along as well; it’s amazing,” he says, observing how the ministry’s non-threatening attitude attracts gays and lesbians who otherwise would avoid Christian’s altogether.

Another ministry leader, Beth (who requested anonymity so her house church in the southern United States can safely maintain an organic environment with its gay and lesbian attendees), noticed that few if any homosexuals were coming to her church, so she decided it was time to go to them. In a radical, incarnational move, she packed up her family and moved into a house in a gay neighborhood.

“We’re about intentional relationships in our neighborhood,” Beth says, adding that the whole idea of a house church was bizarre enough to be attractive to her neighbors. “We’re not trying to deconstruct church; we’re just trying to reach the disenfranchised. We’re intently interested every week to gain a deeper level of relationship and community.”

Beth’s suggestions for other adventurous church leaders with a heart for reaching homosexuals? “Get a job in [a gay] community. Get to know them. Share coffee. Do life together. Find a way to be a part of their lives.”

5. Commit to the Long Haul

Since it’ll take years – perhaps a generation – to overturn the distrust gays and lesbians hold for the church, don’t expect your ministry efforts to materialize into something immediate or measurable –such as instant conversions or rejections of the gay lifestyle. Instead commit to permanent ministry without conditions.

Beth, whose close-knit house church is now a mixture of gay and straight, Christian and non-Christian, confirms doing this ministry isn’t an overnight proposition – which is why she moved into a predominantly gay neighborhood in the first place.

“I think God is doing something in this area,” she says. “God’s heart is being uncovered about people struggling in this area, and the Church is finding a place of repentance. It puts skin on the Gospel. God desires to be in a relationship with all of us.”

Working in the Chelsea District, Gallery Church’s Coe knows it will take a long time to earn the trust of the gay-lesbian community. “But if we hold to our faith in the transforming power of the Gospel, we’ll be OK,” he says. “It’s when we lose faith in the Gospel that we rush things, and our ministry turns into a sales pitch.”

6. Point to Jesus, Not Homosexuality

Even if a gay or lesbian permanently leaves the homosexual lifestyle, what good would it do ultimately if that person never embraced Christ? Being straight doesn’t constitute redemption – only Jesus can redeem, says Colin Halstead, who grew up in the church, got into full-time church ministry and then began a long journey out of the gay lifestyle. Now he speaks to churches around the country about how they can reach out to gays and lesbians – it’s an uphill battle, he says.

“Homosexuals need Christ much more than freedom from homosexuality,” Halstead says pointedly, adding that the church is very shortsighted when it comes to the reality of evangelizing gays and lesbians. “Let’s say every homosexual did come to Christ – what would the Church do with them? If the church can’t handle that question, it ought to shut up about it.”

Ultimately, Lucas knows from firsthand experience that Jesus is the key.

“As Jesus promised, the power if a cup of cold water humbly offered in His name can do more to quench a thirsty soul than we think! The power of kindness and radical grace can’t be underestimated.”

This article “Radical Grace” by Dave Urbanski is excerpted from Outreach Magazine, July/August 2008.