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How Churches in America’s Least Religious Region Talk About Sexuality

Written by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Four Massachusetts churches filed a lawsuit against the state last month, arguing that public accommodation laws inhibit their religious practices. The Massachusetts legislature had added “gender identity” as a protected class, which the attorney general and state commission on discrimination interpreted to mean that churches must open bathroom facilities to people based on their self-identified gender identity.

The suit is the latest sally in an area widely acknowledged as the least religious in the country. Five of the six states that make up New England—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut—sit at the bottom of Pew Research Group’s scale of most religious states. Two of them—New Hampshire and Massachusetts—are tied for dead last.

In other words, people living in the Northeast scored the lowest on believing in God, attending church, praying, and believing religion is very important. Only 9 percent of adults in Massachusetts belong to an evangelical denomination. Yet there are also signs of growth. The Southern Baptist Convention in particular has planted more than 115 New England churches—that’s one-third of its churches in the area—since 2010.

Allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify is the newest front in American culture’s conflict over sexuality. Beyond Target, the Obama administration told schools this summer that they can’t discriminate by gender identity; three months later, the order was put on hold by a federal court in Texas and then taken up by the Supreme Court. Last week, a lawsuit by an Iowa church was dropped after a judge clarified that churches were exempt from the state’s public bathroom anti-discrimination policy.

In New England, Does Anyone Care Anymore?

It isn’t surprising that New England would get there first. After all, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. In fact, for pastors working in New England, same-sex activity is almost past the point of public contention.

“Incoming freshmen don’t have the imaginative framework to think that same-sex activity might be immoral,” said Adam Mabry, who started Aletheia Church five years ago. Now Aletheia hosts about 800 per Sunday, and has grown to four gatherings. The largest sits between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“Now even Christian students have a hard time imagining it’s immoral, since they probably have gay friends and perhaps went to prom where the king was a queen,” he said. “Their framework has been moved really quickly from a few years ago.”

Putting a Rock in Their Shoe

Mabry said his job is to make the gospel “a rock in the shoe of their imagination. If they buy into this non-Christian vision of heaven that we’re trying to make on earth with social progressivism, it’s just not going to work. Then we show them what really does work.”

Tone matters, he said, since being contentious will get you nowhere. But being bold matters, too.

“I don’t take the approach that we shouldn’t talk about the issues,” he said. “I preached this Sunday on family. I explained the sexual ethic Jesus lays down. You’re either going to be married or live like a eunuch. If you haven’t been married, that’s how you’re supposed to live.”

When Mabry preaches on tough topics, he often hears, “I can’t believe you talked about that.”

His response: “You talk about it. Professors talk about it. Why can’t I talk about it?”

The 33-year-old pastor’s boldness was developed during his time in Europe. For five years, Mabry worked in Edinburgh, Scotland, where more than half of people say they are not religious (52 percent). In fact, among those who say they are religious, two-thirds never or rarely go to church (66 percent). Same-sex activity has been legal since 1980, and the country is one of the most LGBT-friendly in Europe.

Talking about sexuality—or other topics related to current events—is part of Mabry’s discipling his congregation.

“Discipling happens in everything the church does, not just at a coffee date on a Tuesday,” he said. “I’m discipling them by teaching how to explain the Bible to their friends.”

What About Outside of Boston?

In a rural town of 12,000 about an hour from Boston, Stephen Witmer leads Pepperell Christian Fellowship. Like Mabry, he has also tackled sexuality issues head-on, though he knows opening up a conversation about sexuality is not something all pastors are itching to do.

“I can understand the real fear of what will happen [in some congregations] when you engage this issue,” he said. Pepperell decided to dive in when the elder board looked into creating a building-use policy and ran headlong into issues of same-sex marriage.

“The deeper we got into writing a policy, the more we thought, We don’t just want a policy. We want to teach on it,” he said.

Teaching Sexuality with a Positive Tone

So Witmer carefully wrote five sermons and then opened up a public discussion. During the series, he talked about sex within marriage, what marriage is, and gender roles.

“Part of it was setting a positive tone,” he said. “This is God’s good plan. He intends blessing for us. What we weren’t doing was a series on the five worst sins.”

Even with careful preparation and a calm tone, and “even though we are basically a Gospel Coalition-like church, it still raised hackles with some people,” he said. “Folks would agree with us theologically, and yet there is a fear of talking about it. . . . The battle isn’t just biblical authority, but how to articulate biblical authority.”

The loss of congregants was small, Witmer said, adding that it helped to stick closely to Scripture and try to model a generosity of spirit and willingness to engage with people.

“[I wanted to] recognize how difficult this issue is, and affirm people’s impulses—to listen underneath to what people are saying,” he said.

Congregants who want their gay friend or family member to hear the gospel have “really good impulses that are leading them toward that discomfort,” he said. The goal is to talk those through impulses instead of allowing them to become polarizing.

“How do we become a church where people can be honest about struggles and honest about sexuality?” he said. “We need to encourage more openness and vulnerability, more confession. That’s a gospel issue.”

On the heels of his sermon series, Pepperell started a monthly prayer meeting that included a time for public confession—and not just confession about sexual sins.

“We can’t expect just people with homosexual feelings to open up if others don’t open up about greed or pride.”

Witmer said this public confession has already begun to bear fruit.

Wrong Side of History?

At Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, senior minister Stephen Um doesn’t preach on issues like race or sexuality unless they’re addressed in his text. Yet he said he often finds points of reference in a passage that enable him to comment on our shared cultural narrative.

“We’re trying for a framework that shows them why the biblical-theological narrative is so much more healthful for human flourishing,” said Um, who also trains ministers for Redeemer City to City.

When he teaches, he tells pastors not to be afraid of being “on the wrong side of history.” Christianity will always be countercultural, he said, because it will appear revolutionary in totalitarian regimes and conservative in liberal cultures like ours.

“I tell people this is a wonderful opportunity to winsomely and charitably speak into the public square,” he said. “We need to enter into their worldview, find a point of reference, and reconstruct it in light of the beauty of the gospel. We always need to have a good, reasonable response to the objections.”

Stop Railing Against ‘Those People’

On this point, Mabry mirrors Um. He said the goal isn’t to oppose those who support same-sex activity, but to win them to the beauty of biblical truth. He also warned against making sexuality issues bigger than they are.

“The most unsuccessful attempts I’ve made at dealing with any issue is to approach it as if it were an independently appearing symptom,” Mabry said, referencing Russell Moore’s book Onward.

“If you try to extract a piece of creation and make that thing the interpretive grid through which you see all other things,” he said, “you’ll break that thing and you’ll misunderstand the world.”

Whether it’s sex or autonomous freedom or self-expression or money, the result is the same.

“Stand back and make sure you diagnose the problem before you start railing against ‘those people,’ whoever ‘those people’ are,” he said. “That will only foment rage and solidify hatred for the other, ensuring you never talk to anyone but the choir. These people don’t hate me. They don’t hate Christians per se. They’re trying to understand the world and not doing it in a way that’s going to lead to their good [or] to human flourishing.”

Editors’ note: TGC is hosting a regional conference in New England next week. Join us to hear Adam Mabry, Stephen Um, and Stephen Witmer, along with Kevin DeYoung, Don Carson, and Richard Lints.

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer for The Gospel Coalition. She has been a freelance reporter and contributing editor at Christianity Today. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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