Religious involvement reduces suicidal ideation in most youth; for LGBTQ+ youth, religious involvement increases suicidal ideation by 38%.
According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth contemplate suicide three times more often than heterosexual youth, and they are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide if they experience family rejection.
The church needs to talk about this crisis as more than just a theological exercise.
The condemnations some pastors casually drop into their sermons on Sunday mornings are not as harmless as they may imagine. The way some religious parents react when their children come out does matter.
Some churches have harmed the LGBTQ+ community, and such behavior has the serious potential to lead to suicide in LGBTQ+ youth.
In Luke 15:8-10, Jesus offers a parable about a woman who has 10 silver coins and loses one. The woman searches high and low until she finds it, and then she calls all of her friends and neighbors to celebrate.
In this parable, the coin is lost because it was dropped, or perhaps it was intentionally rolled under the couch.
When I think of this parable, I think of our LGBTQ+ siblings who are pushed away from some churches because of the harmful actions of others. These actions may not have been intentionally harmful, but they move this person away from Jesus; the coin is kicked further under the couch.
In his recent veto of a trans sports bill, Republican Utah Governor Spencer Cox said, “Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. … Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”
Does the church want LGBTQ+ youth to live? If we do, then we must behave differently. Much like the governor of Utah, we might have to let go of what society expects.
I am not suggesting you ignore your theological beliefs, but it is possible to hold to your theological beliefs while also being kind to the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, I think we have been called to kindness by Christ and it matters how we treat each and every person who bears the image of God.
There are some simple solutions to helping the LGBTQ+ community feel safer in religious spaces.
One of the biggest problems many LGBTQ+ persons face when looking for a place to worship is unclear language. Many churches say, “All are welcome here! Come as you are!” Yet, this often does not include the LGBTQ+ community.
It is not uncommon for LGBTQ+ Christians to find a community they think they are completely welcomed into, but then they are met with harmful barriers when they try to volunteer, seek leadership positions or try to get married at the church.
No matter your theological stance, there is a way to kindly explain how queer Christians can participate in your community.
Remember that clear is kind. Make it readily available on your website and marketing materials for people to find the expectations of the community.
We know that youth groups are where conversations about sexuality and gender identity are happening most regularly in churches. We need to train youth ministers to be ready to have these conversations and support their youth without imparting shame or guilt.
We should be encouraging our seminaries and denominations to provide training about what a kind and faithful response looks like. Church staff should be taking it upon themselves to educate one another.
The book Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church by Bridget Eileen Rivera focuses on the practical implications of the behavior of the church and could be a great place to start.
I could not tell you how many times I have sat with youth while they wept about how their family reacted to their sexual or gender identity.
Family rejection is one of the leading causes of suicide for LGBTQ+ youth. Churches should be on the front lines of preparing parents how to lovingly react to their child coming out.
According to the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, the more family-rejecting behaviors that LGBTQ+ youth experience, the higher the risk for depression, suicidal ideation, substance use and risky sexual behavior.
Faith communities can aid parents, helping explain what behaviors would be helpful for queer youth and what behaviors can be harmful.
Here are some examples of behaviors that help: express that you love your LGBTQ+ youth, talk with your child about their identity and listen respectfully and connect your child with affirming resources.
What the statistics reveal is that the way the church moves forward is a matter of life or death for queer youth. Jesus is calling us to do all that we can to love this community.
As Luke 8 says, “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
The church needs to light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully. Our LGBTQ+ siblings deserve it, and God is ready to celebrate that they have been found.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An intern at the Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I) at Baylor University and a dual degree student, she is pursuing her Master of Divinity from Truett Seminary and her Master of Social Work from the Diana Garland School of Social Work.