Wisdom Lab: Just Listening
In his seminal book Issues Facing Christians Today, LICC’s founder, John Stott, called for Christians to engage in ‘just listening’ to the culture around ...
Sexuality and gender identity can be highly polarising issues, with little constructive conversation to guide us forwards.[i] We’ve assembled a diverse group of Christians to contribute towards this series to have such a conversation, practising ‘triple listening’ – to the word of God, the world, and one another. In doing so, we learn to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus in our contemporary culture.
In this piece, Steve Elmes, author of Sexuality, Faith, and the Art of Conversation, and pastor of Bookham Baptist Church, shares how to create healing in relationships with our neighbours.
This five-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Following Jesus in a Sexular Age, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
In a brilliant sermon on discipleship that takes its text from a proverb – ‘Train up a child…’ (Proverbs 22:6) – Eugene Peterson suggests that the best means we have of ‘growing up’ is conversation.[ii]
Conversational language… is often not noticed or, if noticed, not taken as seriously as its sister languages. Preaching has pulpit and sanctuary to dignify its authority. Teaching has lectern and classroom to spatially define its task. But a conversation takes place informally, anytime and anywhere, with no one officially in charge.
The settings for this kind of speech range from a pair of rocking chairs on a nursing-home porch, to a parent bent over a cradle, to two men bent over coffee in a diner, to a telephone conversation between mother and daughter across state lines. It could take place in a letter or a succession of letters dealing with matters of heart and soul or among three or four friends at a weekly meeting before going to work…
The quality of conversation today can be poor indeed – particularly online – and closing down a conversation has become a dark art that many practise with frightening ferocity. So how refreshing to find myself in the middle (quite literally) of a conversation that has begun and proceeded so well so far.
The ideas that have most gained my attention are those of agency and story. The first was developed by Christine Woolgar in her heartfelt call to give people room to know themselves and to articulate who they are in freedom, without penalty or prejudice. The second was developed by Ed Shaw, who sets out to give agency a context within a story that brings freedom.
In what follows, I want to explore how these combined insights translate into Christian vocation to bring healing action on our frontlines.
Agency can be understood simply as the freedom to live ‘my truth’, over and against any outside authority or appeal to a larger narrative.
One clear expression of this is the most recent cinematic take on the Cinderella story, which portrays a young girl pitted against male hierarchy and tradition – sassily played by Camilla Cabello – ultimately triumphing over all that conspires to dictate the shape of her life.[iii] It all plays reasonably well, with some great comic turns from the likes of James Acaster and James Corden, until a thoroughly depressing climax when Cinderella announces, ‘I choose me’. Oh, please – not that!
Now, please don’t hear me dismissing out of hand the quest to live authentically – to be ourselves without apology. I believe in that. It is just that ‘I choose me’ is a sad reduction of the human adventure.[iv]
I came across a more promising vision of the liberated self in one of the early rehearsals for the 2017 blockbuster The Greatest Showman. It’s well worth stopping right now to watch it.
What did you see? I saw an artist who begins her first run-through of a song with next to zero confidence, hiding behind the music stand, forcing out the first few bars, and then… it’s breathtaking, isn’t it?
This glorious five minutes anticipates the journey of the character played by Keala Settle in the film. She is the bearded lady – a freak of nature in the eyes of the world and a curiosity to the audiences drawn to the circus that is Barnum’s dream and enterprise. In the film, the bearded lady is hiding in the shadows until she finds community with all the other misfits, in whose company she gains confidence to be herself – ‘this is me’.
Just as the singer is empowered in the rehearsal by the enthusiasm and embrace of her fellow artists, it is in an accepting community that the bearded lady finds the confidence to live out who she is. ‘This is me’ takes place in the context of ‘this is us.’
Writing on gender dysphoria, Mark Yarhouse stresses the importance of community to those who live with complex questions about belonging, observing that LGBT+ communities provide accepting spaces to work out issues of identity in ways that churches and society in general do not. Yet, he wonders if churches might become such spaces by taking our cue from the one we follow – whose befriending raised eyebrows and hackles regularly.[v] Yarhouse goes on to hold out a vision of the local church as a place of acceptance and friendship where all kinds of people can enjoy the space to work out what it means for them to follow Christ and live life to the full. In this, he cautions us (as church) to give room and respect to others, offering some insights from his own practise as a doctor:
Although some people who experience gender dysphoria along a continuum may be able to live into their birth sex, some are not able to. Their dysphoria is significant and sustained. For some, it has been life threatening. Some will manage their gender dysphoria through various creative ways, and I encourage the least invasive steps if possible. Some others may elect more invasive steps in keeping with current mental and medical health options and recommendations.[vi]
Some reading this will be sensitive to Yarhouse’s implicit assumption that health and wellbeing for those who experience gender dysphoria lies in living into one’s birth-sex whenever possible. However, I’d like you to notice the agency given in his approach: not imposing his assumptions on the journey of those he seeks to befriend, help, and empower. This chimes, for me, with the work of Andrew Mallin, a pastor and writer who is committed to help radically improve the conversation between the church and the LGBTQ+ community.[vii]
Mallin describes himself as a ‘a bible-thumping homophobe’ in his earliest years – one who was completely undone when a close friend of his ‘came out’ to him. He wasn’t expecting it and could not think of how to respond beyond simply listening and being there in this crucial moment. Then it happened again. Another friend, the same. Mallin was changed by these encounters and later moved into a neighbourhood where the population was predominantly LGBTQ+, with the intent of enabling a better conversation between the church and his new neighbours.[viii]
There isn’t space here to describe how that conversation developed, though I would encourage you to get a copy of Mallin’s book, Love is an Orientation, and find out for yourself. What I would like to draw attention to is the approach and tenor of Mallin’s ministry, which is to respect the journeys of all who seek to follow Christ – without imposing some programme for change or a schedule to do so. Here is agency – yet set within the narrative of the journey of discipleship (following Jesus). Of course, many of the people in our lives do not embrace the way of Christ – yet I believe that learning to give people room when there is a commitment to follow Jesus, will prepare and equip us for our daily living outside the gathered community of faith.
One Sunday in 2019, a couple turned up to our early service for the first time. Louise and May[ix] had been out of church for about ten years. Recently moved to Bookham, they decided to give their local Baptist church a try. It just so happened to be a ‘Newcomers Sunday’, a bi-monthly occasion when my wife Sara and I invite newcomers to our home for a slap-up roast dinner. I invited Louise and May to join us and they did. I can still recall the scene, a dozen of us, six or seven new to the church, lively in chatter, sharing stories as we ate.
The atmosphere was great. Then, after pudding and coffee, we took it in turns to introduce ourselves. When it came to May, she introduced Louise as her wife and shared something of their story. She ended with a question: what does Bookham Baptist Church think about same-sex couples? In response, I shared a little of our journey as a church, exploring our different perspectives on sexuality and discipleship.
In 2013 I set up a six-month conversation in my own church community. I recruited a dozen people, ensuring a good range of viewpoints on what discipleship might mean for the same-sex attracted and/or those who identify as gay. This was done with reference to a spectrum of five views, all of them claiming biblical veracity. The research methodology and approach are related in full in my book, Sexuality, Faith, & the Art of Conversation – Part One (SFAC1).[x]
The group did not arrive at a consensus that resolved our different convictions into a clear discipleship path for the same-sex attracted – some still urged celibacy in all cases, while others called for acceptance and celebration for same-sex unions. Yet, there was a remarkable degree of unity and agreement found by the group concerning how we might give room for same-sex attracted people to follow Jesus and find their way into all that honours him. In short, the group challenged our members to find a way of holding our differences that made room for all kinds of people to find and follow Jesus.[xi]
Louise and May have become part of our church community – they belong to one of our small groups and have brought gifts in counselling and spiritual direction, as well as getting involved in ‘godly play’, an all-age approach to learning together.[xii]
Some weeks after Louise and May[xiii] arrived, I discovered that Louise was an editor, and I asked her to proof-read one of my books before publication. She did this with aplomb and left me with a lot to attend to. In one of our meetings, Louise shared with me how painful it had been to read some of the viewpoints expressed in the book. It was not that she felt they should not be there, in fact she saw the value of the conversation represented. Louise told me that she had reflected on her reaction with her spiritual director and how helpful it had been to process this.
I would also acknowledge some reactions of my own to being in this conversation within my own setting – especially where my approach has seemed unhelpful to fellow leaders and I have felt criticised. Again, acknowledging this to myself and others has led to some deep and helpful exchanges, the best of which has been between my fellow minister and dear friend, Rob Stevens and myself.[xiv] It has been a case of ‘iron sharpening iron’, with the good fruit of deeper friendship and learning how to disagree with grace.[xv]
The experience of pain, it seems, is inevitable in the business of growing up and growing together in community. As I write this, I’m reminded of a series of conversations I facilitated for the staff team of a UK charity.
The charity is Christian in its origins and in its values. All the staff are followers of Jesus, yet are in different camps when it comes to issues of sexuality and identity. When donors, mainly conservative churches, want to know where the charity stands on same-sex relationships or transgender identity, it’s tricky. When LGBTQ+ groups want to know about the same, it’s tricky. The charity holds a diversity of convictions and views. But none of those convictions and views get in the way of their work with people, which is founded on acceptance and affirmation – and means offering every person they work with insight, know-how, and wisdom to enable them to make good decisions and live wisely.
The tension was palpable in our Zoom conversations, and we had to take some time early on to agree signals for those who felt unsafe in the conversation and to ‘press pause’ as needed to check everyone was okay. It took three sessions for the staff team to find its ease. Yet it was worth working through some unease and face some pain – mainly associated with how the convictions and beliefs of another are perceived and often misunderstood.[xvi]
The conversation got raw at times, but led to understanding and mutual forgiveness. There was a turning point where the team began to remember the values of the charity and what united them in their work. They started to work together on how they might respond to various groups who wanted their boxes ticked (theological or otherwise).[xvii]
I believe that healing conversation is a calling and holy practice for all followers of Jesus, and that what we learn of this in our life together (gathered church) is our gift to all the places we are sent (scattered church).
Christians ought to be, and can be, the very best enablers of conversation on the planet. We can be present in ways that foster understanding and make for peace. In multiple ways we bring the gifts of the sanctuary (our place of worship) to all the spheres of life, where pastors and worship leaders go by other names – like CEO, banker, builder, or teacher.[xviii]
Here’s an example. Sara is a teacher, who exercises pastoral gifts most ably and naturally in the workplace – she is often the one who’s on hand when other members of staff are having a hard time. A gentle, caring presence, taking time to listen over a cup of tea. Pastor Sara.
Her day job is to lead the Personal, Social, and Health Education (PSHE) department. In this, she has the opportunity to shape and resource a scheme of work that is delivered by all the staff. This includes ‘relationships education’, with its emphasis on helping young people choose safe, nurturing, and life-giving relationships.
From time to time, Sara will find herself in conversation with folk at church who, on discovering the nature of her work, frown and say something like, ‘It must be hard with all the pressure to teach the LGBTQ agenda.’ Such comments always deflate Sara, for a few reasons. One is that the breadth of the PSHE curriculum contains so much that is good, getting into many of the pressures and dangers facing young people today – social media bullying, online predators, and so on. Another is that Sara feels that a good awareness of different patterns of relationship today is a valuable gift to our young people, and a better understanding of and empathy for others is crucial to the health of our society.
Sara has been active lately in developing some workshops: one to encourage students to value and take care of themselves, and another to foster thankfulness. Her most recent initiative was securing a room for prayer and reflection – initially a response to a request from some Muslim students, but now a quiet place for any who need it at any time. I tell Sara that not only is she an unofficial pastor, she is also the school worship leader (shh…).
This is vocation beyond the sanctuary, where the narrative of redemption is carried within each follower of Jesus and lived through faithful innovation.[xix] We might switch the scene to bank, shop, factory floor, or boardroom, and see how, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘Christ plays in 10,000 places.’
I’ll end with one final story, drawing this time from a reality show – the sort I tend to steer away from as a rule. This one, however, is worth a watch.
Queer Eye is a Netflix show, subtitled ‘More than a Makeover’. Each episode, four gay guys and one who identifies as genderfluid turn up to spend a week or so in someone’s life. Each of the makeover team has a speciality: Jonathan is a hairdresser, Tan is a fashion expert, Anthony is a culinary genius, Bobby is an interior designer and decorator, and Karamo is a counsellor.
They arrive flamboyantly: in the last episode I watched, one of them calls out of the car window, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re on a farm!’[xx] The farm, it turns out, is home to over 150 animals and is a place of healing for children with learning difficulties, managed by a lady who’s working all the hours God sends. She is clearly one of the angels, and obviously in need of some help in looking after herself.
Enter the Fab Five. Living space, wardrobe, diet, and hairstyle will be investigated and transformed. But that really doesn’t capture what’s about to take place. I’ve rarely seen so much love in action – flowing out from five of the most caring and empathetic people on earth. They go deep, kindly leading their client to some self-understanding that will turn a key and open a door to a life less hampered by self-doubt or habits that diminish her. Karamo, the counsellor, leaves no stone unturned, and regularly leads a person into facing buried guilt and shame, finding forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation with others.[xxi]
I see in this popular show signs of the kingdom of God (‘Christ plays in 10,000 places’). I see what I easily recognise as spiritual practices – ways of being present to others that summon their humanity and love them into life. Perhaps I am claiming too much. However, I would suggest that one of the joyful duties of every follower of Jesus is to discern where God is at work in his world and to draw attention to it, to learn, to wonder, to celebrate, and be part of it whenever possible.[xxii] This is possible in school, bank, boardroom, factory, and leisure centre, as much as in the sanctuary.
It is my firm conviction that God is doing more than we know or recognise, and that the Christian vocation is often worked out in the contexts we don’t control, with unexpected partners in the business of heaven coming to earth. Which brings me to Ed’s wonderful telling of the story that holds us all, from creation to consummation, cast as a love story – for we are beloved.[xxiii] This is our liberation story, though I wonder if that’s the whole story.
By Ed’s telling, the discipleship pathway means marriage (one man one woman) for some and celibacy for others – undoubtedly gifts of God that anticipate the glorious kingdom to come. Our honouring of these gifts is vital in an age when so much that is precious is denigrated and consumerism takes all. To live faithfully, counter to all that dehumanises and fragments, is to anticipate and pursue the fulness of life to come.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if other patterns of living might speak of faithfulness too. Is it possible, for example, that a same-sex couple might by their love and fidelity anticipate the same kingdom?[xxiv] Or to put it another way – might there be other witnesses to the promised new creation?[xxv] Our response to such questions will have a significant bearing on how we communicate the good news of the gospel to our LGBTQ+ neighbours, which is the point at which I gladly hand the baton to Dave Benson as he brings the final installment…
Lead Minister, Bookham Baptist Church
[i] The portmanteau ‘sexular’ was first coined by Australian theologian and cultural commentator, Stephen McAlpine: ‘A Sexular Age’ (11 July 2015). Riffing off Charles Taylor’s celebrated work, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), McAlpine uses ‘sexular’ to refer to the dominant cultural story/feeling that who we are sexually (our gender, identity, orientation, and expression/practice) is the bedrock of our reality and who we are in essence. The dominant culture of our day holds that this idea is universally given and thus unchallengeable. (Source: the editor’s personal correspondence with McAlpine, 1 November 2021.)
[ii] Eugene Petersen, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017), 193.
[iii] Cinderella, 2021, Dir: Kay Cannon.
[iv] I recall a friend who used to say, ‘When we are wrapped up in ourselves, we make a very small package.’
[v] See, for example, Luke 5:29–31 and John 4:27.
[vi] Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 149.
[vii] Andrew Mallin, Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009).
[viii] Mallin, Love Is an Orientation, 15–22.
[ix] Louise and May are pseudonyms.
[x] Stephen Elmes, Sexuality, Faith, & the Art of Conversation: Part One [SFAC1] (Surrey, UK: Creative Tension Publication, 2017).
[xi] In recent days our ministry team has been in conversation about whether all viewpoints should be considered equal in shaping how we teach and pastor the church community. Our conclusion was that where the four of us stood together (as ministers in our context) served to centre our community around the sacred gifts of marriage (one man one woman) and celibacy, and thereby rendered more conservative and more liberal viewpoints less influential in determining the culture and practices of our church community. I would add, nonetheless, that those who hold other views (more conservative or more progressive) contribute to a culture of inclusion that gives agency to all who seek to follow Christ among us. To be specific, it is our more liberal brothers and sisters who are often most able to see value where value is: looking easily beyond patterns of relationship that perplex others to the virtues evident and lived (Colossians 3:12–17); whereas our more conservative brothers and sisters often keep us fixed on the call to be holy, moving counter to the culture – in the world, but not of it (John 17:15–19).
[xii] Some years before Louise and May came to our church, I gave a sermon on acceptance which held a short fictional story of my own invention. It was about a church deep in conversation about what makes for a biblical response to same-sex attraction who are ‘interrupted’ by the appearance in the church of a same-sex couple and their little boy. Suddenly (so the story goes), the church enters a whole new phase in their discussions. There is nothing like a real encounter with real people to earth a conversation. You can read the sermon in my follow up book to SFAC1, Sexuality, Faith, & the Art of Conversation: Parts Two, Three & Four [SFAC234] (Surrey, UK: Creative Tension Publications, 2019), 169–180.
Some years later, I developed the story into a resource for churches: Stephen Elmes, A Beautiful Endeavour: Pursuing a Conversation about Same-Sex Attraction and Following Jesus (Surrey, UK: Creative Tension Publications, 2019). There is also a series of seven videos that relate the story, which work very well alongside the resource book.
[xiii] While Louise and May have certainly found a home at Bookham Baptist Church, the fact of diverse viewpoints on same-sex attraction and discipleship does not leave them entirely at ease: they are not as yet in membership and would anticipate (May told me) that their application would cause discomfort and even division in the church community, as would an appointment to a leadership role. It is fair to say that in seeking to hold a creative tension to give room for discipleship, we have not yet reached a clear consensus on some aspects of participation in the life of the church for those who are in same-sex relationships.
[xiv] Rob’s main concern regarding the approach we have developed at Bookham Baptist is that the narrative we are telling does not hold out a true path of discipleship for those who are same-sex attracted, for it leaves people to fashion their own way (too much agency?). He urges us that there is a ‘better story’ to tell that calls all people to fullness of life in God’s way, and that holding different perspectives in creative tension simply causes uncertainty and confusion. Glynn Harrison has championed this approach in his tour de force, A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing (London: IVP Books, 2017).
You can find the conversation between Rob Stevens and me in my book, Sexuality, Faith & the Art of Conversation: Part Four, 221–230, and 235–258. You might also be interested in the radio recording, ‘Steve Elmes and Rob Stevens, Healthy Disagreement,’ with Andy Peck on Christian Radio’s The Leadership Show podcast, 15 March 2020, online here.
[xv] Proverbs 27:17.
[xvi] For example, one staff member felt aggrieved by the way conservative viewpoints seemed to judge and condemn people who he loved dearly; while those more conservative in outlook felt they were being cast as lacking in compassion or judgemental.
[xvii] The key seemed to be in answering from a place of mutual love and friendship, holding out common values and a uniting mission, and being clear about what fell outside their remit.
[xviii] What we practise in the sanctuary (among Christians) enables a prophetic presence in the world. [Ed. – for more on this, see David Fitch, Seven Practices for the Church on Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).]
[xix] I am alluding here to N.T. Wright’s imaginative conception of the Bible as an unfinished play, where contemporary followers of Jesus are the cast, well-versed in the plot and characterisations of the work, and called upon to improvise the rest: N.T. Wright, ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ in Vox Evangelica 21 (1991), 7–32, online here.
[xx] Queer Eye, Season 6: Snow White of Central Texas.
[xxi] For me, the most moving episode of Queer Eye involved the Fab Five helping a pastor (elder) and her church to refurbish the church community centre while also helping the pastor to welcome home her gay son, who had left the community many years before in disgrace and rejection for his sexuality. There were difficult moments for Bobby who could not at first even enter the church building, re-living his own upbringing in his home church: once a worship leader but rejected when he ‘came out’. Yet something very special happens between him and the pastor, and the crowning moment of the episode is when the pastor expresses her appreciation for the work of the team and begins to give each of the team a word from God in full Pentecostal style (Queer Eye, Season 2: God Bless Gay).
[xxii] I should add that we are also present to discern where contemporary insights and healing approaches over-reach themselves (aka idolatry) for want of a narrative that brings us fully home to ourselves and to God: a truth glimpsed perhaps in another highpoint of the ‘Greatest Showman’, the song ‘From Now On’ with its’ repeated refrain ‘And we will come back home’, which seems to me to hint at the homecoming story that every heart knows and is writ large in the Bible.
[xxiii] In her book, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex too Important to Define Who We Are, Jennell Williams Paris argues that the essential basis of our identity is that we are beloved creatures of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 51.
[xxiv] Eugene F. Rogers in Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999) has explored this, arguing for sanctification of same-sex marriages within an impressive theological treatise. By contrast, Robert Song in Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships (London: SCM, 2014) argues for a third pattern of loving (alongside marriage and celibacy) that expresses the commitment of same-sex partners, but also articulates this in terms of a faithful witness, pointing towards the renewal of all things. Both Rogers and Song want to stress the value of committed, same-sex unions and to rescue them from being perceived as simply part of the moral landslide of our day.
[Ed. – Such explorations invite us into a discussion on what is the natural trajectory of God’s mission (from creation to consummation by way of the cross) as revealed in Holy Scripture. For one such exploration, making the case for progressive emancipation of women and slaves, while seeing the unconditional affirmation of homosexual sex as a deviation from this pattern, see William Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).]
[xxv] Some years ago I read two biographical works back to back: Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), and Vicky Beeching’s Undivided: Coming Out, Becoming Whole, and Living Free of Shame (London: Harper Collins, 2018).
What struck me was that both authors appeal to the great story of our liberation, placing their stories within the Big Story of the Bible. Wesley focuses on the costly nature of discipleship, living faithfully for Christ while carrying the wound of a broken (or disordered) sexuality that will one day be healed; while Vicky focuses on the widening of God’s people taking place when Peter goes to the house of Cornelius, seeing there an implication for the LGBTQ+ community (Acts 10 and 15). Now, I don’t want to get into the strengths and weaknesses of these presentations here, but simply to notice that both authors are relating here not to the handful of texts that denounce same-sex practices in the ancient world but to the wider witness of Scripture and the story it unfolds