Lessons From A Preaching Series
Citygate Church covered love, sex and relationships in an extensive talk series in Autumn 2019 (7 Sunday mornings, 2 Q&A sessions and an evening seminar led by TFT). In this article we interview Tim, one of the church leaders, on his reflections on this teaching programme.
TFT: What led you as a leadership team to give these matters so much time in the church’s teaching programme?
We were aware that the world is ‘preaching’, very aggressively, with a strong message, and that this affects the ‘air’ that our church members are breathing. Marriage, singleness and relationships touch everyone’s lives, and we were conscious that we’d not explained the Bible’s teaching on these matters recently. I would say that people under the age of 40, in particular, have been soaked in an “anything goes” message for the last 20 years. As a leadership team, we could no longer assume what Christians believe. In response, we wanted to teach clearly, but not aggressively. The teaching programme was not a reaction to particular problems in the church, and this proactive approach was good. Clearly, a church with a specific pastoral situation will need to respond, but it’s best not to wait until you have to react – that way the individuals involved in that situation are less likely to take your response as some form of personal rejection.
What were the main questions you were hearing people in your church ask about these matters?
Well, we heard very little explicitly. However, there had been two or three same-sex attracted people who had left the church in recent years, but not because of the church’s teaching on same-sex behaviour. We’d been aware that they were struggling with a sense of belonging and community, due to both their singleness and same-sex attraction. We’d also seen a few actively lesbian and bisexual people attending the church, with whom we had very good relationships and had very open conversations.
Would you recommend other churches to cover these subjects in a single intensive series like you did?
In advance of this teaching series, our leadership team went through a process of thorough preparation – we read widely on the subject, including reviewing resources that would not agree with the biblical position. We met up as a team throughout this preparatory time to ensure the whole leadership was all on the same page. We assessed the risks of the series, including the risk that people might leave the church. And then we put together a joint document to focus on what to cover and how to communicate it with integrity and compassion.
It was good to look at what other churches in our network had done on these matters, both in terms of the material they’d used and the tone they’d adopted (“full of grace and truth” - John 1:14).
We took plenty of time to prepare for this series. We were quite deliberate in taking the focus off homosexuality and transgender, and broadened it to include relationships, marriage and singleness within our current cultural context. We intentionally didn’t want to have LGBT matters as the main focus – we wanted to set the context more broadly.
In order to avoid having a reactionary tone, it is important for churches to enter into teaching on these matters with a conviction that the Bible has “a better story” for us to tell.
Because it was so important to prepare well, get our tone right, and take the focus off just being about the negatives, it was best for us not to tackle it in one session or as a single subject.
Do you think good quality Bible teaching is enough in these areas to equip most Christians? How important do you see the interactive sessions?
We need both Bible teaching and interactive sessions. It’s good to have interactive sessions, but Q&A sessions are no substitute for clear biblical teaching. There is always a danger of Q&As being hijacked by someone with a strongly-held view or heart-rending experience. We tried to play to the strengths of each member of our teaching team (eg their tone and teaching gifts) in allocating particular talks to individuals.
We decided that the risks of following up in small groups outweighed the benefits, because small group leaders might not be sufficiently equipped to deal with all the matters that might arise.
At appropriate points, we had a few specialists from outside the church (including TFT) come in and do what leaders in churches couldn’t do well. I would advise church leaders, particularly those in small churches, to look outside their church and involve outside help. You can invite TFT, for example, or ask experienced teachers from other churches, or use good quality video resources.
What do you see as the main challenges facing churches seeking to be clear and compassionate in their teaching about LGBT matters?
It is challenging for churches to be proactive on these issues. Of course, it’s tempting to avoid them for a range of reasons, but actually there are real opportunities for a church to grow through wrestling with these matters. It helps both leaders and church members to develop the courage to be biblically countercultural. Being clear about one’s convictions helps all of us to answer questions like, “Do we really believe what the Bible says and that it is good news for all?”
We must ensure in our teaching that we anticipate costly discipleship for every Christian, not just for a certain section of Christians. While recognising a measure of uniqueness for followers of Jesus who are same-sex attracted, He calls each one of us to die to some things and live for others (Mark 8:34).
Finally, the challenge is not to single out LGBT struggles as more serious than other perhaps more “respectable” sins (eg envy, pride or materialism).
What were your main encouragements from the series?
We were aware that people might leave as a result of this series. The reality was that people were encouraged by the clarity. One person in the lesbian couple who has been attending the church had found the series difficult, but was also genuinely appreciative of the church’s approach because of the compassionate tone with which it was delivered.
One of our speakers was preparing a sermon on “A biblical response to transgender” and actually went through his material in advance with a trans woman he had met and befriended over the preceding months. This person appreciated being consulted and actually attended the Sunday service dressed as a woman accompanied by her wife. Remarkably, this trans women reported feeling a “wall of love” from the congregation as she attended the sermon. This wasn’t because the teaching material was watered down, but rather, I believe, because we managed to get the tone right.
It’s really important to stress that the tone throughout the series did not come from skilfully delivered emotive presentations, but rather from the heart of those who had taken time to prepare prayerfully and compassionately. The compassion needs to be genuine, and not just a show. Each speaker was prepared to be appropriately humble and vulnerable about their own failings with the result that we weren’t just giving the ‘right’ answers, but sharing in the joys and pains that people experience regarding love, sex and relationships.
In the sermon on “A biblical response to homosexuality” there were a group of guests who had deliberately come to see what we would say. Talking with them afterwards, while it was clear they may not have agreed with our position, conversations were warm and positive.
So, we were really encouraged that it is possible to speak with conviction, compassion and courage. Indeed, looking to other churches who have navigated this well can give courage to church leaders as they prepare.
This interiew was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Spring 2020 edition of Ascend