As the Christian Advent season proceeds, leading to Christmas, my thoughts turn to the theological topic of the Incarnation. For the first 5 centuries this was the most contentious aspect of Christian theology. The idea that God became “enfleshed” in Jesus of Nazareth was absurd to those schooled in Greek philosophy, and blasphemy to those who were Jewish theists. When Christianity was forced (by the Roman government under Constantine and following) to state its theology succinctly the decision was made to boldly insist that God became flesh in Jesus who was thereby Christ, the Messiah anticipated by Jews, Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians.
Incarnational theology in the most recent 5 centuries has developed the concept that we who are Christian need to consciously and conscientiously represent Christ in order to perform the ministry for God that we have been allocated. We need to discern who we are, stripped of faulty assumptions and aspirations, so that we can see the people to whom we are sent to minister as one of them. That ministry is simply to be Christ in person for those people, insofar as we are able to do so with the guidance and power of God’s Holy Spirit.
A month ago I was invited to address a group of young Asian Christian leaders about how to minister to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual people in Thailand. I was reminded that about 20 years ago I had no idea how to do that, as I perceived God challenging me to “do the ministry to gays I sent you to do”. I have learned a few things about this ministry in the past two decades. I can summarize it in five concepts.
1. Ministry is possible only in a non-judgmental context.
2. Intervention is always responsive.
3. A minister must be included.
4. Evangelical opportunities are reactive.
5. The only effective goal is systemic (culture-wide) enhancement.
It surprised me that such simple principles could be so counter-intuitive when applied to ministry with LGBT people in Thailand. [The pictures accompanying this essay are intended to illustrate how unpredictable that has been for me.] The wrong way to do ministry was almost always the “normal” way we had done ministry. (1) It is not easy to be rigorously non-judgmental when proposing to minister to gay men and women. There are behaviors, for example, that many Christian communities abhor. Furthermore, many of the LGBT people who eventually became my community were not interested in being Christian, nor inclined to agree with Christian moral standards. The first challenge I faced was whether being non-judgmental was tantamount to being non-Christian. (2) LGBT people have their fair share of crises and then some. The only effective way to minister is to respond to those crises as invited. A minister may make suggestions like, “Can I help?” But the answer is generally, “I don’t see how you could.” Sometimes the need is met with money, but often it is a need for physical presence, or even an insertion of power or mystery. If one does not know how to be a Christian shaman one cannot do Christian ministry with gay Thai people. (3) To minister to LGBT people one must be one of the group of LGBT people. Basically this means one must get over the idea that there is a gay-straight binary that means anything. We are all on a spectrum of gay-straight and sexual-asexual. All the little labels we cherish fit into that grid somewhere, regardless of one’s highly-individual fetishes and fascinations. So you can belong, but you must strongly identify with and then be accepted by an LGBT community if you are going to minister to them. The initiative is with the group to accept you as one of them or not. (4) Evangelical opportunities are not effective if they are forced upon wary LGBT people. Aggressive evangelism will usually be counterproductive, sometimes permanently so, forever-after preventing any opportunities to express the Christian “Good News” at all. But one can certainly react in a Christian way to events and opportunities. These reactions have a cumulative effect that must not be underestimated. (5) The ultimate objective is culture-wide change. The goal of setting up churches to include all gay Thai people is not going to work, and will probably divert effort from things that might work. The whole Christian missionary strategy has to be abandoned. Success indicators will not be countable as long as the items being counted are individual conversions and churches planted. But other cultural change is slow, measurable in century-long increments toward culture that is a mirror of Jesus Christ. This, as European and American history attest, is usually a work in progress fraught with set-backs.
How does one minister to LGBT people? My conclusion is, “If you will be their minister you must be Christ incarnate and in love with them.”
Advent and Christmas are all about that.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.