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How churches can refine message on homosexuality Robin Russell, May 19, 2008
UMR PHOTO BY ROBIN RUSSELL
Trista Carr gives her testimony about having same-sex attraction at an April 25 luncheon sponsored by Transforming Congregations.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
FORT WORTH, Texas—The typical evangelical church has just one message for people who struggle with same-sex attraction, says researcher Mark Yarhouse: “Change, be healed and then give your testimony of complete change.”
Instead, he recommends churches fine-tune their counsel by providing different “scripts” on how persons can view their struggle. Churches should make a distinction, for instance, between same-sex attraction, homosexual orientation and homosexual identity.
“Most lump it together, but pulling it out gives people some room to think about their identity,” he said at an April 25 luncheon sponsored by Transforming Congregations, a conservative, evangelical organization that works with people who experience a variety of “sexual brokenness” issues.
The luncheon was among the events organized by members of the Renewal and Reform Coalition while the United Methodist 2008 General Conference met in Fort Worth, Texas.
Dr. Yarhouse, co-author of Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (IVP Academic, 2007), said not everyone who experiences same-sex attraction chooses to self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Yet these folks, he added, are among the most marginalized persons in the church today.
And negative language from church-goers only defeats the purpose of trying to engage in ministry, he added.
“Sometimes we get in the way of pastoral care,” he told the crowd of about 120 people. “It solidifies their identity and sends them right back to the ‘script’ [of seeing themselves as gay].”
Dr. Yarhouse is a professor of psychology and counseling at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Va., where he teaches doctoral courses on marriage and family therapy, ethics and human sexuality.
His research with Stanton L. Jones showed that a change in sexual orientation is possible for about 15 percent of persons who identify themselves as homosexuals.
They also found, however, that it may be impossible for certain people to change their orientation. And that’s hard for some conservatives—who see sexual orientation as only a choice—to fully accept, he added.
He challenged churches to go beyond a ministry model that says, “You’re broken and we’ll help heal you,” by providing a safe setting for persons to explore their sexual identity, even if they find they can never change.
In an interview after the luncheon, Dr. Yarhouse said that some Christians aren’t comfortable letting persons with same-sex attraction walk out their journey within a congregation unless it involves dramatic change.
“When people struggle with cancer, we pull out all the verses about God as healer and redeemer, because it soothes our own anxiety,” he said. “We want to move on. We don’t want to sit with the person. Rather than step into the valley, we want to point to the next mountaintop.”
In his research with Christians who experience same-sex attraction, Dr. Yarhouse told the audience that he used a sample of members from the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Churches as well as those who found the reparative therapy of Exodus International helpful. He found two distinct responses:
Those who call themselves gay tend to line up their religious beliefs according to their behavior and self-identity. “They see being gay as part of God’s plan,” he said.
Persons with same-sex attraction who do not identify as gay, however, tend to line up their behavior with their beliefs instead. They say their same-sex attraction is just one aspect of their identity rather than summing up who they really are.
Among the latter group is Trista Carr, a research assistant in the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (ISSI) at Regent University. The institute was developed by Dr. Yarhouse for research, training and clinical services.
Ms. Carr said during the luncheon that while she has experienced same-sex attraction “as long as I can remember,” it doesn’t define who she is.
“I’ve never felt comfortable saying, ‘I am gay,’” she said. “It just doesn’t sit with me. For me, my identity is in Christ. It’s not about my sexuality.
“We all have stuff we deal with. We all have struggles we deal with.... But I can give hope to people about living a sanctified life. I like that.”
She found Dr. Yarhouse’s research “reasonable and balanced,” she added. “It gave me the freedom to say, ‘I’m not insane. I don’t have to identify as gay. We’re created for his glory. We’re not created for ourselves.”