Having the Talk
Every February for the past eight years our high school students have been given the opportunity to anonymously submit any question they have about sex and relationships to our youth ministry staff, knowing that our team would somehow attempt to respond to as many of these questions as possible the following week. While some people might want to run at the thought of what these questions might reveal, I found each February to be the most challenging, interesting, and important time of year. The questions my students submitted gave me a rare glimpse into the hearts, minds, and lives of the students I cared so much about.
The questions they submitted were creative, brilliant, funny, disturbing, and heartbreaking.
We’d get questions like:
“How far is too far?”
“Can I be forgiven if…?”
“What if I was abused?”
Or questions like:
“How do birds have sex?
“My mom and dad say this but I think they’re wrong so is it okay if I do whatever I want?”
And there were always a number of questions like:
“Is it okay to be gay?
“What if I’m gay?”
The Problem with “Don’t Ask—Don’t Tell”
When I was the high school pastor at our church, I earnestly tried to respond to these questions respectfully, extending dignity to the questions asked, the people represented, the role of parents in this conversation, and the various views held by our theologically and politically diverse community. However, when it came to any questions regarding gay sexuality, my nuanced responses essentially helped to reinforce a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture in our youth ministry.
And if a student or leader had the courage to “ask” or “tell”, I had left an important conversation unguided for everyone involved. I had left both our volunteers and students too vulnerable, making it too easy for everyone involved to feel unheard, disrespected, and harmed.
A culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was at one time viewed as “progressive” in our society. However, I’m convinced that we now have the perspective to see the harm this causes our young people when this culture exists in our youth groups.
But my struggle was that my church was not yet officially “open and affirming” and yet not officially willing to take a “traditional” Christian stance on sexuality. So if my church wasn’t satisfied with or yet ready to “choose” one of these two options, I had to think creatively about a new way forward.
But where do we go from here?
One evening after “the talk” in our youth group, one of my remarkable volunteers began talking to me about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. My volunteer was saying that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was all that we needed to know as followers of Jesus that God and the Bible were “against homosexuality” – and that that’s what we needed to tell our students. And I will now admit that after he referenced these two cities in the beginning of our conversation, I stopped listening to what he was saying, and I immediately began reflecting on my studies in the Middle East several years earlier.
While living and studying in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the desert in Jordan. As we hiked and explored various Biblical sites, I couldn’t help but notice how treacherous the terrain was, and I couldn’t imagine the challenges faced by travelers hundreds of years ago without the help of water bottles, GPS’s, Jeeps, and a good pair of hiking boots.
At the end of one of our days we had the opportunity to spend the night with a Bedouin family that lived in the desert – essentially the same way their ancestors had for hundreds, if not several thousand, years. While eating a meal that we collectively prepared over a fire, I asked our instructor:
“How do people survive in this kind of environment?”
“How was any kind of travel possible through this terrain in the ancient world?”
My instructor quickly responded by saying:
Individuals traveling in the Ancient Near East traveled for business, battles, religious feasts, family visits, and migration during time of famine. All of this was made possible because of the sacred duty of hospitality that all people extended to travelers. Living in an arid desert climate and rugged terrain, meant having to rely on the hospitality of strangers in order to survive any journey or travel. This cultural mandate required the host to extend:
“food, drink and protection.”
And all of this was offered with “no questions asked”. This meant inviting complete strangers into your home, and offering the best – the best you had to eat, the best you had to drink, and a willingness to defend your guest at the cost of your own life. And this kind of radical hospitality was extended even to your greatest enemies.
Of course, this concept was completely foreign to me as someone who grew up as a white male in the Midwestern United States. As our instructor continued to explain the practices of this kind of radical hospitality, I couldn’t help but realize that in that moment I was in fact the beneficiary of this kind of hospitality from our gracious hosts – without whom we would have no food, water, shelter, and protection in the middle of the desert miles away from another person or tribe. As our group continued to discuss the nuances of Ancient Near Eastern Culture, our instructor said:
“And that’s what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about.”
He told us that American Christians have interpreted the story as being about God’s judgment on the sexual practices of the men in these towns. However, anyone who knew anything about Ancient Near Eastern Culture knew this story was about hospitality. In this context, some of the details of this story began to make more sense. Lot had an obligation to protect his guests, which is why he was willing to protect them even at his own expense and the harm of his daughters (an idea that is offensive to those living in Modern Western Culture). The grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that was offensive to God didn’t have anything to do with sexuality, but their desire to cause harm to guests they were culturally and spiritually obligated to extend hospitality and protect.
So what does this have to do with Youth Ministry?
We need to read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah not as a proof text for a sexual ethic or as warning of judgment for “the gay community”, but as a warning to the Church to make sure we’re caring for the foreigner, the alien, and the most vulnerable in our midst. And unfortunately, there’s no one more vulnerable in our churches than young people who have honest questions about their sexuality and their identity.
Maybe youth pastors need to reclaim the meaning of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a way of advocating for ALL of our students. When it comes to our conversations about sexuality, our youth groups – the physical, spiritual, and emotional space we inhabit with our students – must become places of radical hospitality.
-What if our students knew that the care and compassion they could find in our youth groups would be the strength that they need for their journey?
-What if our students knew that regardless of who they are or where they are on their journey, that they’re safe with us – that we would fiercely defend them from danger?
-What if our students knew that we weren’t going to “ask”, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they know they can always “tell” without fear of judgment and condemnation?
Maybe youth workers have the opportunity to lead the way for the global Church as we consider the future of Christianity and a sexual ethic rooted in hospitality that is honorable to God and extends dignity to all people. As our young people navigate the difficult terrain on their journey toward adulthood, may we have the faith and courage to offer them a cup of cold water, the nourishment they need, and the willingness to defend and advocate for them as they navigate their journey toward adulthood through a hostile world.
For the past 8 years, Matt Laidlaw has worked on staff at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI with Kids, Students, and Emerging Adults. He is a graduate of Kuyper College and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and has lived and studied in the Middle East. Matt is a sports enthusiast, joke-teller, and food snob.
 For more on hospitality in the Ancient Near East, see “Life in Biblical Israel” by King and Stager.
 See Genesis 19, Ezekiel 16:49, and Matthew 10:1-15 for more on the connection between “hospitality” and Sodom and Gomorrah.