As the executive director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN), I'm often asked for advice on a situation we all face sooner or later—that uncomfortable conversation with a Christian friend or family member whose views on the LGBT community are, shall we say, less than charitable. (You know the type.)
Maybe it's your pastor, your parents, or your coworker. Maybe it's that aunt you only see over the holidays. Whoever it is, this person reads the Bible quite differently than you do, and what they're "believing out loud" isn't what you Believe Out Loud at all.You wish you could change their mind, but every time you try to talk about the issue, it feels like banging your head against a brick wall.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, saying many of the same things this person has probably said to you. I know what it's like to be in their shoes, and I've even written a new book, TORN: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, that's especially designed to help folks on all sides of the issue understand one another. (Maybe that aunt of yours needs a book for Christmas!)
So as you work for a more welcoming church, here are five tips for talking to the more conservative Christians in your life:
1. Tell stories—yours and other people's. Believe it or not, telling your story is one of the most powerful ways you can change hearts and minds. If you're LGBT yourself, talk about the journey you've been on: Did you have trouble accepting yourself? Have you ever been a victim of misunderstandings by other Christians? Don't be afraid to share the positives and the negatives of your journey. The more you open up, the better they'll come to understand.
If you're a straight ally, share why you got interested in this subject, and why it matters so much to you. Straight allies' stories are incredibly powerful forces in building bridges, so even if you don't think your story is important, it is! You can also introduce the stories of LGBT folks you know, or share books or films in which LGBT people tell their stories.
2. Don't be afraid of the Bible. Does the other person seem to know the Bible better than you do? That's okay. You don't have to be a Bible scholar to have a favorite story or passage that speaks to why you Believe Out Loud. Maybe it's a story about how Jesus treated the outcasts of his day. Or a passage about the importance of love. One of my personal favorites is Romans 13:8-10.
3. Don't get sucked into a Bible debate.For many conservative Christians, the Bible is at the heart of this issue, and it's important to acknowledge that. But Bible debates rarely change minds. Don't try to win points by arguing about Bible interpretation and translation; you'll only cause the other person to dig their heels in more. Instead, let them explain why they believe what they do, and then share about how your journey brought you to the conclusions you now have. Focus on the human side of the issue; stories are almost always more effective than arguments at encouraging productive dialogue—and chances are, the real reason you're passionate about this issue has to do with someone's story.
4. Respect their theological background.It can be tempting, if you disagree with their basic theological assumptions, to try to challenge them on all of it—arguing, for instance, about whether the Bible can be read literally or whether such-and-such passage was actually written by Paul (or for that matter, whether anything Paul says should be binding on today's Christians). But this strategy tends to backfire; if they think you're asking them to give up their understanding of the Bible, they'll only dig in their heels further.
Instead, look for ways to convince them to rethink the LGBT conversation from within their own faith background, whatever that may be. Even the most conservative Bible literalist can work on ways to be more LGBT-friendly, and this is the approach I take in conversations on my blog and elsewhere.
5. Take baby steps. As much as you might like for the other person to instantly come around to your way of thinking, that rarely if ever happens. At times, you have to "agree to disagree" on some points in order to make progress on others. Okay, maybe this person doesn't agree with your position on marriage equality, but if you can agree to disagree on that point and still convince them not to disown their gay child, that's worth celebrating. Don't expect "all or nothing." Focus on what's most important in a given situation.
Above all, don't give up. These conversations aren't always easy, but they're important. And if all else fails, give them a copy of GCN's film Through My Eyes or my new book TORN and invite their feedback. These are tools designed especially for opening doors for conversation with conservative Christians, and you just might be surprised what a simple, gracious conversation can accomplish.