A few years ago, I encountered my first transgender guest at church. Our transgender guest was similar to other guests. He was looking to fill a void in his life. The dark problems plaguing his soul were many of the same problems others experienced. For one, he was an alcoholic, trying to gulp away pain. Like others, he struggled with an identity. The transgender guest really wanted to be something else, then he didn’t, sometimes in the same conversation. A fluid identity is a curse. You don’t know who you are, and you don’t like it.
It’s a Complex Issue
God’s plan of redemption is simple: Jesus saves. The implications of our salvation in Christ are profound and deep—we know who we really are. However, sin complicates. It should be no surprise to us that in this fallen world people struggle to understand their identities, gender included. Additionally, the stigma of being transgender is disappearing. Only 35 percent of Americans believe it is morally wrong for an individual to identify with a gender different than their birth sex.
You Will Likely Have a Transgender Guest at Some Point
You cannot dismiss this issue, as if you’ll never face a situation in which a transgender person comes to your church. According to LifeWay Research, over 40 percent of young adults (18-24 years old) report having a transgender acquaintance. Across all ages, 27 percent of Americans personally know someone who is transgender. About one out of three women and one out of five men say they know a transgender person. If your church gets the Great Commission right, then you’ll have transgender people as guests, simply because your congregation is reaching out to people they know.
What can you do to prepare your church for transgender guests? Are there some steps you can take personally? How do you lead your church through this complex cultural issue?
Preparing Your Church: What to Do
Invite and encourage. Every worship service at every church should be open to anyone. Additionally, every pastor should set the example by inviting friends to church. Your transgender neighbors should not be excluded from hearing the gospel, nor should they be excluded from an invitation to church. Just about every church advertises, “Anyone is welcome.” However, few churches take the initiative to invite people who are different than the majority of the congregation. If church leaders and pastors start inviting transgender acquaintances, then it will encourage others to do the same.
Listen carefully. If you are a conservative evangelical (like me), then you likely find the idea of self-identification a bit irrational. Rich people do not get to self-identify as poor in order to avoid taxes. A white person should not self-identify as a black person in order to claim the black experience. A young teen cannot self-identify as a senior citizen to get discounts at Denny’s. You can no more choose your gender identity than you can choose your wealth, ethnicity, or age. But, however much you may disagree with the choices of a transgender person, you should still listen to them carefully. The old adage still remains true: People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. No amount of philosophical self-aggrandization will win a soul. The first step to reaching a transgender person is simply to listen carefully. You may be surprised at the bridges you can build by lending an ear.
Display genuine concern. Jesus loves the transgender person, and so should you. Crude jokes and snarky sermon soundbites won’t solve the problem. We should care for those struggling with gender identity issues. You can put a stake in the ground on this issue while at the same time exhibiting love for hurting and confused people. Truth and love are two sides of the same coin. God’s truth compels us to love others. And to love others, you don’t have to compromise the truth.
Teach with clarity, not nuance, but only after building trust. During your main teaching times, whether sermons or group lessons, go right to the heart of the issue and address it biblically and clearly. Don’t hide behind big words or fuzzy nuances. Tell your people exactly what you expect them to believe on this issue. If news reports contain more facts about gender identity than your sermon, then you’re not preaching. You’re dancing. You should do the same with transgender people—teach with clarity. However, you must realize a bold lesson of truth hits hard, like a barreling bowling ball striking ten pins at top velocity. Hard truth is received well only after you build trust with someone. Otherwise, they simply feel like you’ve knocked them down for sport.
Preparing Your Church: What Not to Do
Don’t ignore the issue. It’s not going away. Most of your people are paying attention to transgender issues. Why? They represent a major cultural shift. Pastors are called by God to shepherd their congregations. If you are a church leader, then your church deserves an answer from you on this important issue. Prepare your leadership team by giving them a heads up about this issue.
Don’t react viscerally. Audible gasps and eye rolls will not help. When you encounter a transgender person, don’t react viscerally in disgust. You also don’t need to exaggerate niceties in order to cover up your apprehension. Transgender people are real people, and they see through it. Train your church greeters on this point.
Don’t make unnecessary enemies. Stay focused on the gospel. Remember, the church is not fighting against flesh and blood. Our neighbors are not our enemies, even our transgender ones. Unfortunately, I’ve come across too many Christians—some of them pastors!—who simply complain about the moral degradation of society as if handbaskets of hell were inevitable. The mission of God does not advance by bellyaching. Loud complaints make enemies. Making the gospel loud enlarges God’s kingdom.
Don’t say you can “fix it.” Back to my first transgender guest: The mistake was not that I reached out to someone desperate for help. Of that I have no regrets. The mistake I made as a pastor was buying into the perception this person had of me. He thought I was going to “fix it” and give some magical advice to make the pain go away. Of course, I shared the gospel. Of course, I shared how Jesus heals. But I did little to lower the lofty expectations of my abilities to solve his issues. He believed I could fix it. I played the part. Additionally, many other transgender people don’t want you to “fix it” because they don’t believe they are broken. Don’t claim you can do what only Christ can.
Your church will have transgender guests, and your congregation likely needs to be prepared. Equip them to know what not to do and what to do.