Behind the church's debate over homosexuality, behind the theology and the politics, lies a community of people who need Jesus Christ. Regardless of a church's stance on homosexuality, understanding gay couples and how they view the church may provide some key insights into how this group of people can be better reached with the Gospel.
Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN), told The Christian Post on Tuesday that gay couples are often afraid to attend church together for fear of backlash from a disapproving Christian community. In order to avoid conflict, some of these couples attend church together and pretend to just be friends, when in reality they are romantically involved.
Lee, whose new book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, will be released in November, says Christians need to prioritize sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ above sharing their specific beliefs about homosexuality with gay couples.
"I think that we've developed this mindset that gays and Christians are in a culture war and we are ... so eager to talk right up front about our theological understanding of homosexuality and sexuality, but that has overshadowed the Gospel so much that the Gospel message is getting lost," said Lee.
He emphasized that he doesn't think churches should avoid talking about sin, but said members of the gay community have frequently been told that they are sinful but haven't heard as much about God's grace and mercy.
A recent study conducted by LifeWay Research found that 44 percent of Americans believe homosexuality is a sin, while 43 percent believe it isn't and 13 percent are unsure. Many churches have simply said they "love the sinner but hate the sin," but Lee cautions churches to put more consideration into the specifics of their approach to gay couples.
Some churches preach more strongly against homosexuality when a gay couple is present, which can be embarrassing for the couple because they are singled out. Other churches don't actively preach against it at all and feel like they are acting in a loving manner by not doing so, but Lee says there is a difference between not preaching against someone and actually welcoming them.
"It can be difficult for them to figure out how to get plugged into the congregation, other than showing up on Sunday and putting money in the offering plate," said Lee. "And that's a challenge for the church, because ... there's the sense in which you want the leadership to be in agreement with the church's theological beliefs on a variety of issues. I think that's reasonable."
Churches that teach that homosexual activity is sinful sometimes choose to allow gay people to serve, but will not allow them to hold leadership positions within the church. Lee says it is up to each church to examine their beliefs and decide how involved they feel gay people can be in their own congregations.
GCN is a nonprofit ministry that supports those who say they are both Christian and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Lee says there are a range of differing opinions on the issue of homosexuality, even within the gay Christian community.
"Side A" homosexuals, he says, believe that acting out on same-sex attractions by forming romantic or sexual relationships isn't sinful. "Side B" homosexuals, on the other hand, feel attracted to members of the same sex but believe that God has forbidden them from trying to fulfill those desires, so they remain celibate for the rest of their lives.
Exodus International is an organization dedicated to supporting those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, told CP via email that Christians may be placing some unfair expectations on people who struggle with homosexuality.
"Same Sex Attraction (SSA) is not sin; any sexual expression outside of a monogamous heterosexual marriage is sin," said Chambers. "We, in the Church, have been guilty of an over focus on the sin that might be linked to SSA or of placing a higher expectation or standard on people with SSA by forcing them to 'overcome' it rather than helping them understand how to live a life of freedom beyond the power of the temptation that it might produce."
Jennifer Lingenfelter and Marta Alquijay are both psychologists in the Los Angeles, Calif.-area who also serve as mentors to students of The Biola Queer Underground, a group of LGBTQ students at Biola University. Lingenfelter and Alquijay have been lesbian partners for 12 years, and they attend a gay-affirming Episcopal church in Pasadena.
Both of them grew up with a conservative Christian background – Alquijay was raised Roman Catholic and Lingenfelter comes from a line of conservative pastors – but they prefer a progressive church where they, and their three adopted children, don't have to worry about whether or not they will be accepted by the congregants.
Both women say it is important for all churches to get to know members of the gay community and to build relationships with them.
"Any experience that you've had with anybody who's different from you on any level, the only way that you get to see them as anything other than 'other' is to begin to ask some questions," said Alquijay.
Lingenfelter says she has attended family events at conservative churches, but she feels uncomfortable attending when she knows how the church views her sexuality. More churches are welcoming gay couples, however, and she is glad there are more gay-friendly options for homosexuals.
Lee says some gay couples will attend churches that don't approve of gay relationships, simply because they agree on most of the other doctrinal issues. For the most part, however, members of the gay community are not inclined to attend those churches for long, if at all.
"The challenge also with gay couples is that if we're talking about a church that believes ... that sexual activity should be for a man and a woman in marriage, there's going to be a limit to how comfortable a Side A same-sex couple is going to feel in a church that has a Side B position," said Lee.
When asked how people who are known to be in sexual sin should be treated by the church, Chambers said they should be treated the same as everyone else who "fall(s) short of God's very best."
"First and foremost, a church should be the place where all people feel welcome. A pastor should exercise discernment, grace, and seek counsel from groups such as Exodus International. In terms of non-believers, Jesus should be preached one-on-one long before there is any discussion of sexuality," said Chambers.
"God is most interested in someone's heart not their sexual struggles. When He has their heart then, and only then, can real and lasting transformation begin from the inside out."