We’re back one last time with Sam Allberry, author, speaker, and minister at St. Mary’s Maidenhead Anglican Church in the UK, joining us from his office in Oxford. Sam, I want to talk with you about the sexual-identity conversations you’ve had on secular college campuses. This is a huge question facing pastors and leaders. These conversations are as potentially volatile as they are potent for good.
Obviously, speaking of sex practices and self-identity, with biblical conviction and with humility, opens outreach opportunities like few other things. From your experience, what have you learned from publicly engaging LGBT societies on campus? And how can we steward these types of conversations well?
Harvest to Be Had
It’s no surprise that this is a huge issue on our campuses at the moment. My suspicion is that the majority of people who are in ministry in campus contexts are pretty fearful of how this issue may play out for them.
“The onus is on us to show that we are for people, not against them. That we care for them, and don’t hate them.”
There’s the fear that if you say anything remotely orthodox and biblical on this issue that you’ll be shut down immediately — that you’ll have massive amounts of opposition. That is certainly a possibility. But nevertheless, I think there are just some wonderful opportunities to engage on this issue.
My encouragement to pastors and to campus ministries out there is that actually there’s a harvest to be had on this issue. I’ve had some experience of doing this — not a huge amount, by any means, but I’ve had a few opportunities to go onto secular campuses to talk and engage with secular LGBT students.
I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ll be honest — it’s been a bit scary at times because you never know quite what kind of reaction you’re going to get. But I’ve really enjoyed it. There’s a few things that have been quite key takeaways for me.
What We’re Not
The first is one that we often get wrong because we think everyone is an activist and is out to jump up and down on us. But one of the things that was a bit of a revelation to me was that actually a lot of these students, particularly in the LGBT societies on campus, were more fearful of me than I was of them.
I remember giving a talk once at an event that was co-sponsored by the campus LGBT society, so a lot of their members were present. There was an opportunity for people to line up behind the microphone and ask me questions.
I could hear a few voices cracking as they would ask a question, and I initially thought that was a sign of anger. But as I got to listen to these people, I began to realize, “No, no, that’s fear.” It was a revelation to me because I don’t think anyone’s ever been frightened of me in my life.
It actually broke my heart that these students were afraid because they thought I hated them. They thought I was out to have a go at them and to attack them. I found that heartbreaking because I was there to represent the Prince of Peace. I was there to represent the most loving person who ever lived.
It just made me realize that the onus is on us as believers to show that we are for people and not against them. That we care for them. That we don’t hate them. That we want to know them. I think we assume we are the target and everyone else is the aggressor. So we are in a defensive posture.
Actually, I think we need to be the ones taking the initiative, extending love and grace to people around us, initiating friendship, and doing what we can to serve others. That was the first thing. I realized that I need to change the way I spoke and change the way I related to some of these guys. The first thing I need to do is reassure them of what I’m not.
The second thing I’ve realized is — it’s a bit of a cliché, but the importance of listening well is huge. There’s a passage I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently that I think actually is very useful to this whole area. It’s Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
“There’s a brokenness to all of us that plays out even in our sexuality, for every single one of us.”
I think too often we’ve been thinking, “I’ve gotta have my spiel. I’ve gotta say to people.” Actually, I find the more I listen to someone, particularly in this context, actually the much sharper my instinct is of where I need to begin in sharing something of Christ. The more I’ve heard them, the more I will have a sense of who they are, where they’ve come from, where they’re at, and therefore where to start.
That’s been huge for me. I found generally if I’m engaging with someone in that context and they talk about being part of the LGBT society, or whatever it might be, I just say, “I’d love to hear a bit more of your story. If you feel comfortable sharing it with me, it would be a real privilege to hear a little bit about how things have been for you on this issue.”
Generally, by the time I’ve had a few minutes or even longer to do that, I get a sense of whether they’ve been wounded by some of the things that they’ve gone through. There can be any number of things going on behind the surface.
It gives me a sense of whether I need to start with the compassion of Christ, whether I need to start with the way in which Christ humbles us, or whatever else it might be. But listening has helped.
A third thing is that, again, people assume we are unjust and harmful in what we believe about sexuality as Bible-believing Christians. One of the things I want to try and show, as far as possible, is that Jesus treats us all the same. The gospel puts us in the same boat. So a principle I’ve taken from that is not to say to someone what I can’t say to everyone.
I can think of an event I was at recently where a young lady came up to me afterward and said, “Well, I’m a lesbian, so what do you think of that?” My response to her was to say, “Well actually, Jesus has some really interesting things to say about sexuality to all of us.” She said, “Why? What does he say?”
“There is an equality you get with the message of Jesus that you don’t get in a secular society that prides itself on equality.”
I talked to her a little bit about how Jesus shows that there’s a brokenness, there’s a skewedness, to all of us that plays out even in our sexuality, for every single one of us. I wanted to see how far I could go in the conversation without saying anything that is specific to her lesbianism.
I found that actually, we can have a very, very fruitful and long conversation without me having to touch on her specifics. I think that’s important because she’s not going to properly hear what Jesus thinks of her specific situation unless she’s heard what Jesus says to all of us.
I wanted her to realize, before we got to her, how the gospel levels the playing field — how we’re, again, all in the same boat. Again, I found that as being very, very fruitful.
I had a conversation with one student who came up to me and said, “I’m not a Christian. I’m gay. But I’m reading Mark’s Gospel at the moment.” He said he had started going to a church, and I asked him what was drawing him to Christian things.
He said, “Well, I had realized that Jesus treats me the same.” He said, “I have been part of a community that has always said, ‘We are different, and we are special. We have a parade and everyone else celebrates us.’” But he said, “I realize that Jesus treats me the same. And actually, I don’t want to be different.”
It just hit me that there is a kind of equality you get with the message of Jesus that you don’t get in a secular society that prides itself on equality.
Again, I’m not going to say to someone what I can’t say to everyone. I’m trying to show them the gospel isn’t unfair. It has the same humbling, challenging message to all of us that will work its way out in slightly different ways. But I wanted them to know that actually, the ground around the cross is level ground.
The final thing that I’ve really got from those encounters is that there is an openness to the gospel. A lot of these folks that I’ve met certainly know they’re lost, and they just don’t know where to look.
Honestly, if you start a conversation with what you think about the ethics of gay sex, you’re probably not going to get very far. But when I start talking about what the Bible says about identity, or what the Bible says about intimacy, I find people are really interested. Because some of it they’ve half-sensed in their own experience. They have sensed that something doesn’t quite add up.
“A lot of these folks that I’ve met certainly know they’re lost, and they just don’t know where to look.”
So when I talk about how the Bible shows us we can live without sex, but we’re not meant to live without intimacy, and the Bible has a much broader way of thinking about intimacy than we do, people are really dialed in.
In our culture we’ve pretty much collapsed sex and intimacy into each other, so we find it very hard to conceive of an intimacy that isn’t ultimately sexual. But the Bible shows us you can have plenty of sex without having intimacy. It also shows us you can have plenty of intimacy without having sex.
I find that has a lot of students asking questions. They’ve sort of partially sensed some of that, but they’ve just never heard it that way before. This actually commends biblical wisdom to them. I have had some wonderful opportunities. I think there is a harvest field.
Good News to Give
My message to people who are pastors, when it comes to issues of human sexuality, is that your job is not to duck the issue. Your job is not even just to hold the line. Your job is to win people. The gospel is good news, in whichever area of life we apply it. That is no less the case when we apply it to the issues of human sexuality. We’re giving people good news, not bad news. We can have great confidence in that.
I think we need to set the right posture, the right tone. We need to go at it with humility and grace. I think we need to be of service.
We need to be approaching some of these groups and say, “What can we do to serve you? How can we help?” But I think when the initial hesitation and nervousness of being around Bible-believing Christians calms down, you can have some very, very fruitful conversations.
Wonderfully, there is a harvest within the gay community. So woe to us if we are not actually engaging in the path of proclaiming Christ there.