It’s officially known as “Southern Decadence” and informally as “Gay Mardi Gras” in New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s difficult to ignore, drawing tens of thousands of people in a homosexual or lesbian lifestyle and pumping millions of dollars into the city’s economy.
At Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, 100 local pastors and church members gathered just days before the Labor Day weekend festival to broach a subject some felt has been too long ignored: How to minister to those in same-sex attraction without compromising biblical principles.
Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue, said the “Embracing Restoration” summit was “an attempt to educate people about the lifestyle that is here.”
The conference, a first for the church, hosted leaders of ministries to people in same-sex attraction: Bob Stith, the Southern Baptist Convention’s national strategist for gender issues; Paulette Lawrence, executive director and board president of A Good Thing Out of Nazareth; Terri Brown, membership director for Exodus International; and Greg Hand, pastor of Vieux Carre Baptist Church in the French Quarter.
“We often do the wrong thing because we don’t know what to say,” Stith said. “The church needs to be a place of understanding and refuge, but we often wound people instead.”
Gary Mack, pastor of family life at Franklin Avenue, called the meeting a starting point.
“There isn’t an issue the church shouldn’t be involved in – especially this one,” Mack said.
Effective Life begins with treating same-sex attraction as it does other sin, offering wholeness through faith in Christ and building and supporting a biblical view of marriage and sexuality, session leaders said.
A 2005 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported that 2.3 percent of men self-identified as homosexuals, as did 1.3 percent of women, Stith said. He pointed out that while all reputable studies estimate a 2 percent to 4 percent homosexual and lesbian population in the U.S. – about 9 million people – the number directly impacted by homosexuality is 10 times higher when parents, siblings, close relatives and friends are considered.
Sexual orientation is a cultural flash point that can draw attention away from the practitioner’s primary need for salvation, Stith said. He cited a study showing that an overwhelming majority of churched youth believe the church is “anti-gay.”
“Young Christians criticize the church because we have made homosexuality a bigger sin than other sin,” Stith said.
Stith said his primary goal is not to lead people out of homosexuality but to lead them to faith in Christ. His response to those who accuse him of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation is that his first goal is to “see a person whole in Christ.”
When a homosexual tells Stith that God loves him while remaining actively gay, his response is, “That’s right, but He loves you too much to leave you where you are.”
The church must be proactive rather than reactive to this issue and should offer a strong, biblical model of marriage and sexuality, Stith added.
At Vieux Carre Baptist in New Orleans’ French Quarter, church members use the same evangelistic techniques in talking to people with sexual orientation issues as they would with any person, Hand said. Treating people who live a homosexual or lesbian lifestyle the same as others is effective and creates a sense of welcoming, he explained.
“We’re not seeing a great difference between sin,” Hand said of the personal damage caused by addictions, abuse and sexual immorality. “The longer I’m here, the more I see [same-sex attraction] the same as other behavior that draws a person away from God.”
Hand stressed that his church welcomes all individuals but doesn’t affirm sinful behavior.
Brown, who oversees 100 ministries comprising the Exodus Member Life Network, said effective Life offers Christ first and models God’s plan for sexuality.
“Jesus is irresistible,” Brown said. “God’s plan for sexuality is beautiful.”
Leaders cautioned attendees not to get drawn into the cultural argument on whether a person is “born gay.” Stith said that while science doesn’t support a strong genetic link to same-sex attraction, a predisposition may exist because “we are by nature, sinners.” Some do choose homosexuality, but others struggle with why they are gay, Stith said.
Living Hope Ministries, where Stith serves as chairman of the board, lists on its Web site four factors that contribute to same-sex attraction: Parental relationships, gender identity confusion, sexual and/or emotional abuse and peer rejection.
Understand that “brokenness does start early,” Brown said.
Lawrence, who spent 17 years in a homosexual lifestyle, said homosexuality is “a fruit of broken roots, just like prostitution or any form of promiscuity is a fruit of broken roots.”
During the concluding panel discussion, leaders were asked if a Christian can be homosexual.
They said “yes,” then Lawrence added, “But my question would be to the Christian, will you submit to the lordship of Christ?”
Lawrence told the group, “Make sure that you are called to this Life and have a passion for it. If not, you will wound people further. It’s not glamorous; it’s war. But out of the ashes and brokenness of the past, new life can come.”
“We need to offer gays the assurance that God can deal with this,” Stith said. “When you see what God is doing in the lives of these individuals, you will know that nothing is too hard for God.”
Marilyn Stewart is a writer with the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communications office. For help on concerns about same-sex attraction, visit LiveHope.org. This article first appeared in the Louisiana Baptist Message, Newsjournal of the Louisiana convention. Copyright 2009, SBC, Baptist Press, www.BPNews.net.