Growing up gay in conservative churches, I felt torn between two worlds and bounced like a ping-pong ball back and forth. One moment I was sitting in church hearing, “Homosexuality is the most disgusting sin in the world” (internalizing it as: “Who you are as a person, Julie Rodgers, is toxic and unlovable”). And the next moment I was in a gay coach’s office hearing, “God made you gay, Julie, and you’ll feel forever tortured until you depart from the faith you grew up with and celebrate the entirety of what it means to be a lesbian in our family.” Something deep inside of me resonated with both communities, but both communities usually insisted I cut off, hide, or deny an integral part of who I was in order to fully belong. I felt like there were conditions upon their acceptance of who I was as a person, and qualifications around “I love you” statements. All I wanted during all those years was for someone to walk with me where I was. I wanted someone to see me, to listen to me, to have some compassion, to get outside the culture war long enough to realize I was a complex person in the process of figuring out what it meant to be gay-as-all-get-out and love Jesus with all my heart.
Dr. Mark Yarhouse encourages youth leaders to be precisely that kind of person in his exceptional new book Understanding Sexual Identity. He challenges Christians to get outside the culture war mentality in order to walk with young people as they navigate the rocky terrain of finding congruence between their faith and sexuality. The book offers tremendous insight into the unique challenges facing gay youth, and he encourages those who walk with them to assume a posture of compassion, a resolve to stick with them no matter what, and a willingness to allow the young person to be in the driver’s seat so they can truly own the choices they make. If you read much on this topic then you realize just how rare that is.
Written in a winsome way that’s accessible for readers who have little knowledge on this topic, Yarhouse shares research on sexual identity development, the meaning youth attach to emerging conflicts, and the feelings of shame many experience in the process. In the polarizing debate, where we often hear simplistic explanations about the causes of homosexual attractions or arguments on whether it can change, this book presents a balanced and realistic response that will shift the conversation in a more life-giving direction. Yarhouse offers practical advice for creating the kinds of communities that will provide youth prone toward shame and despair a place to be known and loved. He offers wisdom on how to walk with parents (who are often blamed and shamed by the church) in a manner that will support them, setting them up to flourish in family relationships that can be challenging to navigate. Ultimately, he places you in the shoes of those who are questioning and confused, and urges you to walk with them toward Christ with a heart full of compassion.
While the book is written for those who are directly involved in ministry to youth, it’s something everyone needs to read. If you have a gay brother, or a gay neighbor, or you might eventually cross paths with a gay barista, you need to read this book. It will bring greater understanding that will lead to greater empathy, and we can all benefit from a read that highlights the value and dignity of human beings made in the image of God. Regardless of where you stand on all this, we can agree that relationships marked by radical acceptance are the only way forward for the church, and you’ll better understand what that looks like after spending some time in these pages. You’ll find it refreshing to read a conservative voice that gets outside the culture war in order to care for the gay youth caught in the crossfire.