The parents sitting before me had tears streaming down both their faces. Their 22-year-old daughter was now married to another woman. These Christian parents experienced understandable grief and heartache.
“It’s not just the pain over our daughter that’s so difficult—it’s the fact that grandparents and many of our friends have embraced it all. They all see us as the problem; we’re what’s wrong in the whole situation.” Though they believed that God’s Word was their guiding principle, they feared that they, too, might cave under the mounting pressure.
This couples’ fear is not unusual when facing these kinds of challenges. Siblings, grandparents, and friends of someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or adopts LGBTQ+ theology all face similar trials when they are called to reflect both the truth and mercy of the gospel. How do we walk through this minefield, pursue humility in our own hearts, and yet remain firm in God’s Word? Here are a few things to consider.
Expect misunderstanding and persecution. Our culture’s man-centered theology is based on the heart’s desires, where there are no absolutes and everything is relative. When we take a contrary position, we become a threat and affront to others. Nowhere is this more evident today than in the debate about sexuality and the Bible. Believing that God speaks clearly and authoritatively about sex and sexuality is supposedly bigoted, unloving, and socially incorrect. You may be viewed as the problem or the enemy. Don’t let that shipwreck you! Expecting these responses and believing on Scripture’s reliability guards you from dismay when people react against your lack of approval or enthusiasm.
Engage and ask good questions. As others voice their disagreement with you, realize that all worldviews—how people see themselves, the world, and God—stem from past experiences, wounds, and powerful emotions wrapped around sinful and twisted hearts. While we cannot correct others’ views and convictions—which is the work of the Holy Spirit—we can try to better understand them by diving more into their story, who they are, and why they believe what they believe. This usually happens through genuine listening and asking good questions, which often helps people drop their defenses, leading to more productive, non-combative conversations.
Also, consider sharing your testimony, particularly highlighting your need of God’s grace. Admittedly, being able to do this is a supernatural work, especially when it comes to our families, where emotions can run high and quickly escalate. But taking initiative in conversations like this can actually strengthen your faith and make you feel less defensive yourself.
Embrace the hurt and suffering that come with being misunderstood or seen as the bad guy. Even though you may attempt the first two points above with sincerity, you may still experience real, ongoing pain and heartache. When we see family or friends pursuing a destructive path contrary to God’s will and his Word, we often feel powerless and hopeless. I’ve found that many Christians who eventually adopt the mentality of “gay is okay with me and with God” usually do so because they simply feel worn down and want to be thought well of by others. You may feel like you are alone in a desert, barely holding your own with your beliefs about God’s Word—but know that Jesus is with you. He too was in those desert places as he obeyed the Father and stood on Scripture.
Remember that this is a spiritual battle. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that we battle not against flesh and blood but spiritual forces of evil. Ultimately, only God can address the spiritual issues of family and friends’ blindness and rebellion. If you constantly feel pressured to change others’ views or make them see the light, you will likely end up frustrated and perhaps even begin to question your own beliefs.
Those who walk in blindness need what Tim Keller calls a “self quake” and a “God quake.”1 God is the one who must intervene to change hearts. Can you relinquish (not abandon) your family, friends, or loved one to the Lord? Can you trust God to write his story in their hearts and lives in his way and in his timing? The gospel is the greatest need for those who pursue sexuality on their own terms—along with those who agree with them and buy into worldly sexuality.
Bathe everything in prayer. Pray for those who disagree with you. This is pretty self-explanatory! Prayer both softens our hearts and allows us to seek the best in and for those who we love. You may feel incapable of doing anything about what others believe—or believe about you; for the most part, you are! However, we can pour out all of our troubles, fears, confusion, and hopes at the throne of grace, as well as gain the courage to boldly persevere.
Remain grounded in the Word yourself and seek the support of others. You are vulnerable to outside voices tempting you to give in, but the best remedy for standing firm for the long haul is to remain in God’s Word, continually steeping yourself in his perspective and truth. When I speak about how the Bible should inform our sexuality, someone invariably comes up to me and says, “Thank you. I needed to hear that and be reminded of the real truth again.” We always need to be reminded of the truths of Scripture. But we also need the help and encouragement of others who will walk with us, shoulder our fears and burdens, and hear our pain and confusion—people who will always point us to the Savior and the truths of God’s Word.
1 Keller, Tim. “The Gospel and Your Self.” The Vision of Redeemer Series on Isaiah 6, November 13, 2005. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York.
05 Sep 2019
In looking back and celebrating the work God has done through Harvest USA for the past 35 years, we thought it would be good to share a testimony from the early years. The following testimony from Steve DeVries appeared in the Fall 1989 issue of Harvest News, which was followed by John Freeman’s recollection, “In Memoriam,” in the Fall 1992 issue.
I was brought up in a typical middle-class home on Long Island, NY. It was at about age 13 that I had my first gay sexual experience. Although at that time it seemed an innocent and isolated occurrence, little did I know the devastating effect it would have on my life.
Those early experiences led to 15 years of guilt and confusion. A move to the West Coast to attend college brought new freedoms that were damaging. The move enabled me to seek out gay bars and begin involvement in the gay life. This was something the small farming community from which I had come had not afforded me.
Never willing to face the loneliness of my life for very long, I found temporary peace in new surroundings. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, South Florida, and a year in Europe only enabled me to keep running away. I thought that I could find happiness in a constant stream of new people, new places, and new things. Although I was getting more involved in the gay life, I was still conscious of enough confusion to seek out psychiatrists. I found out that the psychiatrists often needed psychiatrists.
During this time, I also tried to push myself into heterosexual relationships, at times getting serious enough to come through with promises and diamond rings. I never could go through with it. Those years were characterized by guilt and misery.
By the age of 28, I just gave in. I rationalized and made the necessary excuses. I said, “Well, this is the way God made me and wants me. I’m gay, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.” So I dove into that for the next 15 years. Along the way I learned that alcohol dulled the pain (and hidden guilt). Alcohol enabled me to not feel, and a continual stream of brief relationships that meant nothing gave temporary relief.
Still looking for that ultimate “pain killer” at age 40, I got into crack, one of the most deadly drugs on the market. I don’t know how, but I did find success in business and money. I had all the material trappings of a successful yuppie. I was making a ton of money.
Alcohol enabled me to not feel, and a continual stream of brief relationships that meant nothing gave temporary relief.
Then the bottom fell out. I was arrested for coke possession, spent one night in jail, and was released in the morning. Within a month I was arrested for possession of crack again. This time it hit the headlines of the newspaper in the small South Florida town in which I lived and worked. I was fired from my job and began a prison term.
I remember sitting in prison, contemplating and even planning my suicide. I began to pray for the first time in a long time. I prayed that God would do something. I had lost everything. I got involved in AA and various drug programs and became substance-free. But I knew that still was not enough.
As part of my parole, I landed a job in the Philadelphia area. I began to frequent gay bars again, but something wasn’t the same. I didn’t drink, but I would just sit there and look at all those lonely people. Only, somehow, I now couldn’t relate. Now I felt completely lost. I kept thinking, this is the only thing I’ve known. What am I going to do now? It was about this time that I read an ad in the newspaper for Harvest USA, which said there was help and hope for people like me!
Thank the Lord I found that ad. I called the number and went in and talked with John Freeman. He listened for a long time and then told me about Christ and how Jesus really cared about me and my problems. During that first appointment, I accepted Christ into my life.
It’s hard for me to understand and explain, but after that, my life changed dramatically. I began reading the Bible, praying, and developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I had always known deep down that there must be some purpose to my life. Now I knew! Perhaps the biggest change has been that the loneliness and insecurity that plagued my life are gone. I’m a new man in Christ, and the Lord is my personal friend. It’s really unbelievable. No crack or cocaine can come near it.
Now I felt completely lost. I kept thinking, this is the only thing I’ve known. What am I going to do now? It was about this time that I read an ad in the newspaper for HARVEST USA, which said there was help and hope for people like me!
In January 1989, about six months after giving my life to Christ, I faced a new problem. That month I went to the dermatologist to check out a patch of skin on my face. It turned out to be Kaposi’s sarcoma. I have AIDS. I have since begun the AZT treatment and the whole medication thing.
The Lord may heal me or he may not. That’s not in my control. The important thing is that the Lord is enabling me to deal with this. Even my own family has been extremely supportive. On a recent trip back home, my parents, though not Christians, perhaps summed it up best when they told me, “Steve, it really doesn’t matter if the Lord heals you or not. The crucial thing is that you’re healed in your heart!”
Steve DeVries, a brother in the Lord who left an impact on everyone he touched, died on September 2, 1992, with his family at his bedside. He was mourned by everyone at Harvest USA.
I first met Steve in October of 1987 when he responded to an ad Harvest USA had placed in the newspaper seeking to reach those who wanted out of the gay life. Steve saw the ad and came in for an initial interview. I remember especially how humble Steve was during that interview. He was particularly aware of how he had been trying to gain some sense of wholeness and meaning through gay encounters—only now it was not working anymore.
During that initial meeting, I sensed that the Lord had his hand on Steve in many ways—too many to go into in this short space. He began asking all the “right” questions about his need for something deeper and more foundational in his life. As I shared the gospel with Steve and explained what the life and death of Jesus Christ had to do with his problems, I could sense a light going on inside his head. Steve ended up asking the Lord to come into his life that very day!
The next two years for Steve were filled with growth and fellowship. He had attached himself to a local church and was involved in the life of the church. Yes, he still struggled, but he was intent on walking a life of obedience; he had given the Lord the position of “boss” in his life. For all intents and purposes, he had chosen to get his needs met through the Lord and his relationships with other believers, not through living a gay life.
I remember the day, almost two years after our first meeting, that Steve dropped into the office for a surprise visit. Within a few minutes of sitting down with another staff member and me, Steve burst into tears. You would have to have known him to know that this was not like Steve. A successful businessman at the age of 42, he had a confidence and sense of security about himself combined with an inner sense of control that didn’t leave much room for displays of emotions. A warm and sensitive man, yet outwardly always quite controlled, this outburst signaled that something was drastically wrong.
Steve went on to tell us that, having not felt well for several weeks, he had been to a clinic to get a test to see if he might be carrying the HIV virus. The test was positive. The three of us wept. Yet even then, Steve managed to vocalize his awareness that God was with him in this and would not abandon him. God had brought him this far and would not let him go.
As the men in the group observed his tenacity in handling his disease process in a way that both maintained his dignity and yet was rooted in his relationship with Christ, they slowly warmed to him.
As time passed and Steve became more symptomatic, he turned to a local ministry that assisted AIDS patients. He began to face the realities of this deadly disease. In a mature and methodical way, he began to tie up the loose ends of his life in the Philadelphia area and prepared to move back to his parents’ home in upstate New York. With a sense of sadness that he would no longer be in the area, we said goodbye, knowing that Steve had come to occupy a special place in our hearts.
Back in his hometown and still in relatively good health, he made the necessary medical contacts that would increasingly become a part of his life. He told me about an initial visit with a physician. Sensing the need to talk about Christ with this doctor, Steve explained to him just how he had come to know the Lord and how Christ had given him the power to break from his gay life. The doctor was taken aback by Steve’s testimony and expressed his own sorrow that now that Steve had AIDS, Steve was now feeling guilty and seeking change. The doctor implied that Steve’s faith was a reaction to getting AIDS and had little to do with him leaving the gay life. Steve corrected the doctor by explaining that his encounter with the Lord and his changed life had happened several years prior to the HIV diagnosis.
Steve also wasted no time in getting involved in a local AIDS support group with the idea of not just getting support for himself, but with a focus on how the Lord might use him to touch others with the same grace he now knew personally. Within a few minutes of the first meeting, Steve saw that most of the people in the group were gay men with HIV. During the sharing time, as men went around and shared how they were coping with the disease, Steve shared how he was coping, where he had come from, and what God was doing in his own life.
The results were predictable. Hostility, anger, and contempt were immediate reactions. Several men told Steve not to come back to the group and that they did not need his kind of “preaching.” But Steve did go back, withstanding the mistrust and unpopularity his initial introduction to the group had caused. He just kept going back again and again.
As the men in the group observed his tenacity in handling his disease process in a way that both maintained his dignity and yet was rooted in his relationship with Christ, they slowly warmed to him. On one occasion, Steve phoned me from his home on a Sunday afternoon to ask me to pray. He was in the middle of a cookout, and 20 men from his support group were there! Although still resistant as a group to their need for redemption and grace, one by one, many of the men had sought Steve out privately to spend time with him. During these times, he tried not only to be a friend but to minister the gospel in word and deed.
Just because he was a Christian did not mean that Steve escaped the pain and suffering associated with HIV and AIDS. He simply had a supernatural way to deal with it. One entry in his diary contained the following solace which came to comfort his soul on many occasions: “When I feel pain, I think about the Lord, and the pain goes away. When I’m frightened, I think about the Lord, and I’m not scared anymore. When I am lonely, I think about the Lord, and the loneliness goes away.”
Just because he was a Christian did not mean that Steve escaped the pain and suffering associated with HIV and AIDS. He simply had a supernatural way to deal with it.
During the last two years of his life, some of our staff had continued contact with Steve. He wrote and called us regularly. He gave his testimony in 1990 to a room of 250 people. He joked about my having told him to keep his talk to 10 minutes, but since he had driven seven hours to get there, surely I would not mind if he took longer! That was Steve! He was always hard to contain when it came to his talking about the Lord.
I also recall spending time with Steve at a lodge two summers prior to his death. With particular fondness, I recall sitting out in the darkness around the campfire. The cool night air and total darkness around us stood in stark contrast to the millions of bright stars upon which our eyes were fixed. Steve spoke of his own growing intimacy with the Lord and how the Lord had taken care of his every need. It was there that I realized I was a bit envious of his constant recognition of God’s faithfulness and grace. His own dying process and coming to terms with the end of his life only seemed to expand his reflection on and appreciation of the sovereignty and grace of God. My own day-to-day awareness of these truths seemed dull in comparison.
It is my hope that you will remember Steve and think about his trust in the love and compassion of Christ. I hope you will be challenged to tell others about your own walk with the Lord and speak about his mighty deeds everywhere you go. Most of all, I hope you see the “what if” possibilities in the people around you who do not know Christ. Envision what that person could be if he or she knew the love and grace of the Savior, like Steve.
This article also appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
John Freeman shares additional insight in the accompanying video: Remembering Steve DeVries. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
05 Sep 2019
In this video, John Freeman remembers Steve DeVries, a Harvest USA ministry recipient, who is now with the Lord. You can also read the accompanying blog, “Healed in the Heart,” which includes a testimony written by Steve in 1989 as well as reflections from John that were written in 1992 after Steve’s death.
22 Aug 2019
Thirty-six years ago, my life went in a completely different direction than I had planned. While attending Westminster Theological Seminary in the suburbs of Philadelphia, one of my professors was the late Harvie Conn, and it was his influence that changed the direction of my life.
One day, Dr. Conn, who taught a class called “Missions and Ministry,” informed us that he was going to talk about an unreached and hidden people group that the church had not only overlooked but also had actively ignored.
What he said upended all my future plans.
Harvie told us that the gay and lesbian community was one of the largest and fastest-growing unreached people groups in America (this was 1983). This was partly due, he explained, to what was a hands-off approach by the evangelical church, which looked upon the gay community with uncertainty and even hostility.
Then Harvie went on to talk about another hidden people group, one that was even larger in size and scope. These were the men and women in our evangelical and reformed churches attempting to follow Christ—yet trapped in hopelessness, fear, shame, and guilt about their ongoing, crippling, and seemingly unconquerable struggles with sex and sexuality. Their struggles were often exacerbated, he added, by the silence and condemnation of the church.
Here was a man I deeply respected, saying that the church was failing an entire group of people and that this kind of ministry was desperately needed.
Here was a man I deeply respected, saying that the church was failing an entire group of people and that this kind of ministry was desperately needed.
After class, I inquired if there was any kind of work going on in this area to better minister this way. Harvie said he didn’t know of anything in the Philadelphia area, but I’ll never forget his next words. “If there’s one church which might be interested, it would be a church in Center City Philly, Tenth Presbyterian Church. Everything that’s hidden in the suburbs is ten feet from their doorstep, 24/7.” Tenth was in the middle of the gay community.
Thus began my thirty-six-year journey with Harvest USA.
The Holy Spirit would not let me forget what Harvie had shared. I called Tenth and spoke with Glen McDowell, one of their pastors. He said they had a few elders and their wives already meeting monthly to pray about such an outreach. There were a few other people who wanted to help, including one other seminary student. Glenn encouraged me to come and talk with him, and the rest is Harvest USA history.
With the visionary leadership of Tenth, the four praying officers and their wives became the official steering committee of Harvest (as the ministry was called in its first nine years before we had to add “USA” because another ministry owned the name). We launched a Bible study/support group with men and women from the gay and lesbian community. These meetings sought to bring the love and transforming power of Christ to a hurting, ostracized, and marginalized group of people. Through bulletin announcements, and in carefully worded ads in local newspapers, people began to respond. Ads tailored to reach questioning hearts, like, “Gay and Unhappy? God Cares for You,” and “Homosexual Struggle? There’s Hope in Christ” struck a chord with many. (As did later ads like, “Does Porn Have a Grip on You?”) Soon we were getting as many as twenty calls a day in our little office manned by a handful of phone volunteers.
Those who called for help were interviewed to gauge the seriousness of their struggle and desire for help and then were invited to the support group. The only requirement? You had to believe that your life wasn’t working well and that you were willing to hear what the God of Scripture said about your struggles. It was in those first small group meetings that I saw God begin to show up big time in hearts and lives. Having a safe and encouraging place where people could both wrestle with the gospel and bring all their hurts, anger, doubts, questions, and fears became fertile ground for the Spirit to work in hearts. I remember leaving one of the meetings thinking that the kind of desperation, gut-level honesty, and hunger for God I saw in this group should be true of the church in general. That’s when I became convinced that God wanted me, in some fashion, at this new fledging ministry.
But probably only as a volunteer, right? I was still in seminary, pursuing being a pastor, which was why I was there in the first place. But then a friend said, “John, what if this is what God wants you to do with your life?” He said that he saw too much spiritual fruit from my work there for me to just walk away. But, how would I do that? The steering committee challenged me to raise my support, like missionaries or campus staff.
After nine months, God had fully provided all my support. In February 1985, I became Harvest USA’s first official founding staff person.
In those early days of our ministry, God seemed to provide special oversight and care, as well as unique responses to the gospel, as he often does in the fledging years of any new gospel work. One Bible study/support group became two, then three as God added to our numbers. Parents also saw those ads and began calling—families with a loved one who had embraced a gay or lesbian identity. So we started care groups for parents.
We began specific groups for women and wives as more women responded. Both my wife, Penny, and another woman from Tenth, on staff with The Salvation Army, became the first women’s ministry leaders. God also brought us over a dozen volunteers to help out in our groups and answer the telephone in our one-room office in a huge brownstone on Spruce Street, home of our first office. One of these included Melissa, a 30-year-old former nun who had begun to attend Tenth and who had a heart for the gay community.
We saw people come to faith in Christ through our groups, as well as struggling believers who began to give Jesus ownership of their lives and struggles. We helped get them involved in local churches for more discipleship and service into the larger body of Christ. Of course, many of those from Center City Philly usually wound up at Tenth Presbyterian. The gospel-centered, reformed preaching, together with the church’s sincerity and support of Harvest USA made it a safe and attractive place where people from Harvest USA could become involved. This kind of environment led many of these men and women to become very vocal about what God was doing in their lives through their involvement in Harvest USA, and many shared their stories and testimonies from the pulpit of Tenth. Their love of Jesus, awareness of his work, and the gratitude they had seemed to overrule any fear or stigma about their particular issue or problems. They were living examples of what the psalms say, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.”
But it wasn’t just people from Philly who heard about us. God brought people to us from the most unexpected places. I remember the man who found one of our ministry brochures in the seat pocket of a plane. Another man, having just broken up with his partner, walked into a church for the first time in twenty years and found a brochure about the ministry. Then there was the household of three gay men who began attending one of our groups. They all eventually made professions of faith. One man, Jack, later married that former nun office volunteer! Another man and woman, fresh out of the gay community, began to attend, came to Christ, married, and later attended seminary, eventually becoming missionaries in Romania. We saw so many men and women come to Harvest USA and experience God’s love. It was that love that empowered them to live godly, transforming lives, and become blessings to their church as single people or those who married when they had least expected to do so.
We simply had to celebrate what God was doing! So, we began for many years hosting annual banquets where we gave thanks for God’s provision and his ongoing work. Those early banquets were labors of love for all involved. Volunteers cooked all day in Tenth’s kitchen preparing the food. My children, now all grown up, still have vivid memories of their dad driving the family van down to the Italian Market in South Philly. With my wife and children waiting in the idling van, I’d jump out at various vendors, buying forty pounds of roast beef from this vendor, chicken breasts from another, and then green beans from still another. Within a few years, we had outgrown the church fellowship hall and had to move the annual banquets to larger venues.
Of course, the highlight of these events were the personal stories people shared about the gospel of grace that God was working in their hearts and lives. On those special evenings, it was not unusual to see people deeply moved by the work of the Spirit. It wasn’t uncommon for some people to attend a dozen banquets, being drawn back to celebrate God’s work and hear the stories year after year.
But those early years were not without obstacles. Many were not supportive of the ministry, Christians and non-Christians alike. Unfortunately, some believers felt we were wasting our time with “those kinds of people.” Sadly, they often put the gay and lesbian community (even believers struggling with homosexuality) outside the scope of the gospel itself. I still cringe when I remember the time an elder told one of our staff, “I don’t care, let ‘em all go to Hell!” This, of course, deeply grieved us, and we often found ourselves needing to call these leaders to repent of their hard and self-righteous hearts.
It was also routine, back then, to receive anonymous messages on my phone machine. One woman said, “I pray daily for the demise of your ministry.” Another left a message telling me that our staff needed to check underneath our cars before we started them because one day a bomb would explode. At the time when we just had a Post Office box, one threatened that he wished he knew where we were so that he could “show up with an Uzi.”
Other flaming arrows were aimed in our direction. College students held a candlelight march around the building when our staff spoke on campus. Someone pranked the Pennsylvania Attorney General by using fake Harvest USA stationary to invite him to publically declare his homosexuality (and I first heard about this on the local evening news when I saw him rail about it)! As a result, we were investigated by the FBI.
There was the time a dead body turned up in the Schuylkill River, and the only identification found on the body was a soggy card with the words “Harvest USA” and our telephone number. The local DA wanted to know why that was so. Once, a man masquerading as a potential ministry candidate turned out to be a warlock and cast a spell on me in the office. Then there was the time posters were placed on buildings around Philadelphia saying that Harvest USA was “Enemy #1” of the gay community.
The very existence of Harvest USA and all that has followed . . . in the past 35 years is an amazing testimony to God’s goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness.
However, it was during the height of the AIDS epidemic that some of the most dramatic efforts to shut us down occurred. In 1986, AIDS was having a significant impact on those in the gay community. Christian doctors and nurses found themselves tending to AIDS patients, and I would get phone calls from them asking if I would come visit and pray for those patients who requested it. They said they were unable to cross professional boundaries and spend time praying with them.
So I found myself invited into many hospital rooms and prison cells to pray with patients and prisoners because guards and, even chaplains, were often afraid to go into prisoners’ cells and patients’ rooms. This part of the ministry continued to grow and eventually became the Word-and-mercy-focused ministry, Hope. Often these visits and mercy efforts were seen as suspect and threatening to many in the gay community, especially the politically-driven AIDS organizations. One day in 1991, in a media-orchestrated move, a large group of demonstrators tried to burst into the offices at Tenth Church.
One of the things that helped us weather all these incidents over the years was the reality that our message was welcomed by some and very threatening to others. We learned to take resistance in stride, knowing we were opposed by many—but embraced as an oasis in the desert from others.
We continued to grow as an organization and entered our maturing stage, becoming an independent 501(c)(3) with a board of directors. This broadened our impact among more churches and denominations. It also helped ensure more financial support. We also left our small office in Center City Philadelphia and stepped up to something bigger elsewhere in the city.
In the mid-1990s, the arrival of the internet brought pornography into the privacy of the home through personal computers. We started receiving calls from men, pastors, and wives, seeking help and ways to help. Women called about their own struggles with pornography. That’s when the ministry went from its original focus as an outreach to the gay community to include those dealing with sexual brokenness on several levels. Our ministry to parents also expanded. God was faithful in bringing us additional gospel-driven, caring staff along the way as a ministry force.
While Harvest USA has always been about the gospel and people, in the late 1990s we adopted a dual focus and mission. In addition to our life-on-life discipleship for sexual strugglers (which currently can include over a hundred people in groups and personal discipleship on any given week), we began a concerted effort to be an educational and equipping resource for the local church. This became a much-needed focus welcomed by many churches who wanted to become equipped to more effectively care for their people impacted by sexual brokenness, temptations, and sins.
As I write this, I see afresh God’s hand on this ministry as an undeniable reality through all the stories and places and situations that God has led us through for 35 years. In the beginning, it was just me, a few volunteers, one room, a telephone, a typewriter, and a budget of $16,000. Today, we have a staff of twenty, multiple volunteers and interns, two office locations, lots of phones and computers, and a two-million dollar budget. This is incredible growth, a tangible sign of God’s presence and blessing.
The very existence of Harvest USA and all that has followed in this ministry in the past 35 years is an amazing testimony to God’s goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness. A very real part of God’s blessing includes the faithfulness of our ministry partners, the people who enable us to minister the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ, here in Philadelphia, around the country, and even, internationally, every day. That’s why I’m so excited about where God is taking us in the future.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
26 Oct 2017
Youth pastors have challenging ministries, and that’s an understatement today. I took a phone call from Tom (all names have been changed), a youth pastor at a large, PCA church, and his situation is something churches will be encountering everywhere.
Tom said he had worked hard to build a thriving, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. He solicited many 30-something adult helpers and small group leaders. His ministry emphasis was on biblical education and personal ministry, but he also worked to develop an outreach mindset for the unsaved and outsiders among his kids.
And it was working. The youth group grew. Many un-churched kids regularly attended as a result of being invited by his kids. But one day his outreach approach came close to tearing the entire ministry apart.
What happened? One of the invited kids, Eric, who got very involved in the youth group, announced one day that he was gay. This is where the problem for Tom began.
The kids from church had different responses to Eric’s disclosure, and they fell into three camps. The first camp was, “That’s wrong! He shouldn’t be in the youth group.” The second was, “He should be here. The church is the best place for him to learn about Christ.” And some said, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
All three responses created confusion and turmoil.
And then the parents got wind of it all. Not only were they shocked by the emerging disorder in the youth group, but many of the parents began to learn, for the first time, what their children believed about this issue. And they responded with anger and fear at everything that was happening.
Tom’s phone rang, and his email overflowed. “How did this kid get into the church’s youth group?” asked one dad. One mom gave an ultimatum: “If that boy continues to attend, we’re pulling our sons out.” Another said, “I don’t want that kind of bad influence around my child.”
Some church kids threatened to leave if Eric was asked to leave; others said they would never invite anyone else to come. To top it off, Tom’s staff had different responses. Tom was in no-man’s land, feeling pressure to make the right decision. Clearly, there would be consequences no matter how he handled the situation. Hence his phone call to me!
We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
As issues of sex, sexuality, and gender become the defining identity marker in the culture, it has never been more critical for the church to be educated and equipped. With the church and parents often committed to not speaking about these matters to our kids, most kids make up their minds about sexuality and gay marriage by the age of 12 these days (and it’s getting younger every day). The culture has “discipled” them well. They are listening to the voices on the Internet and media, which they spend hours each day consuming.
Churches need to educate their leaders and volunteers in how to lovingly and compassionately minister to youth, some whom struggle silently with sexual issues from a relatively early age. Parents need to be taught how to talk to their kids, well before an issue explodes and they respond in anger and fear.
Those who are involved in ministry to junior and senior high youth must speak boldly, frequently, compassionately, and truthfully about sex, sexuality, and gender, especially because most kids struggle in their silent formative years when sexual identity is being formed and embraced. We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
Yes, you want 13-year-old Jason to trust you (or his small group leader) to tell you he’s looking at porn on his smartphone. Yes, you want 15-year-old Erica to confide that she’s attracted to other girls, and wants to know, is she gay. You want Sam to tell you he feels he’s another gender. You want these kinds of talks because God has placed you in their lives at this crucial time, while they still live at home and before college. Believe me, once they get to a secular college, there will be plenty of voices saying, “Yes, please come talk to us. We’ll help you figure this out.”
I’m so serious about this I’m going to repeat it: if youth leaders are not willing to engage these issues with the youth under their care, they shouldn’t be involved in youth work today!
HARVEST USA is ready to help your church become educated and proactive in dealing with these matters. We can meet with your church staffs and elder boards to help them strategize and implement how to do 21st-century youth ministry work.
Email me at email@example.com.
07 Jun 2017
John Freeman’s more than 35 years of experience in helping pastors and church leaders comes through in his advice to one pastor who discovers sexual sin among his own church leadership.
Click here to read John’s accompanying article, “Pastors: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lid Off.”
07 Jun 2017
The pastor on the other end of the phone call was nervous. The uneasy tone in his voice told me that he was both uncomfortable and distressed. He had called seeking advice because he didn’t know what to do. “I think pornography use among the men in my church is at an epidemic level. But, frankly, I’m afraid to take the lid off it and address the pornography struggle openly.” He then related that, over the previous months, several men had shared with him about their secret, lifelong pornography struggles and recent failures with Internet porn.
I congratulated him on being someone who others obviously felt was approachable with this very sensitive and shaming issue. He went on to tell me what perplexed and paralyzed him the most. “You don’t understand, John. Some of these men are leaders in my church—a Sunday school teacher and a deacon. It could be a major disruption for me to address these issues straightforwardly.” He also told me his foremost fear: If this was happening amongst his leadership, how pervasive might this be with other guys in the church?
That’s when I pushed into his fears and unbelief—his fear about how it would all turn out and his unbelief that God could do something powerful in the lives of the men in his church
The situation was too overwhelming to him, hence his hesitancy to boldly dive in. This was evident to me when he shared, “There’s a part of me which would just rather not know.” That’s when I pushed into his fears and unbelief—his fear about how it would all turn out and his unbelief that God could do something powerful in the lives of the men in his church. I talked to him about what it seemed like the Lord was doing and could now do even more through his involvement. I also bluntly told him that the obstacle to growth and change for these men was not just their sin, it was now him. (Not sure he liked me saying that.)
In reality, he was so caught up in his own fear that he didn’t see this: The confessions made by these leaders were orchestrated by God. When our eyes are on ourselves—our fears, our inabilities—don’t we often miss the big picture of how God is working? This situation was a golden opportunity for him. I tried to encourage this pastor and also challenge him. “Obviously, for this to begin to come to light among some of your men—well, this is nothing less than a movement of the Spirit. How can you not pursue your leadership in a more wide-scale and intentional way?” I asked.
Yes, in the short-term, moving into these men’s lives might be messy. He might find out things he’d rather not know. Patterns of temptation, strongholds, and other sin tendencies would be uncovered and might be deeper and more complex than feared.
However, I also helped him to see that his involvement could be transformative for these men. I urged him to take the long view and picture the outcome down the line of helping these men turn from porn to Christ. He could have men more appreciative of God’s mercy, more engaged with their wives and families, and more active in the church. They could move to a new understanding of Jesus as one who meets us in the midst of the chaos of our lives to show us our deep-seated idols and replace them with his grace-filled presence. Walking alongside these strugglers might have far-reaching consequences and could be dramatically redemptive for those who had confessed.
I shared the example of Stan, a former participant in one of our support groups at Harvest USA. Although a church leader, Stan had been caught up in a web of pornography for years. Finally, he began to attend one of our groups. About a year later, he told me one night, “I’m starting to see that Jesus just isn’t a self-improvement program. As painful as it is, he’s doing radical surgery on my heart in ways I never imagined.”
Stan saw his whole being transformed as he became aware of the ways he had robbed his family (time, energy, and involvement), others (showing up for church but not much more), and the Lord (failing to tithe for years due to the hundreds of dollars a month he spent on online subscriptions to porn websites). Stan began to develop a godly sorrow for his sin, along with a joy-filled understanding of the gospel. As a result, his repentance was like Zacchaeus; he began to give back his time, energy, and resources to his family and local church as if they were not his own, but the Lord’s.
I finished our conversation telling this pastor that whatever mess he might uncover would be well worth it. I think he started to get the picture.
P.S.: Check out my article that speaks to church leaders, “Sex and the Silence of the Church, Why it is Crippling God’s People.”
You can watch John talking some more about this on his video, Pastors: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lid Off. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
In general, people rarely come forward to talk about their sexuality, sexual struggles, or sexual identity issues. Therefore, it can be difficult to address people pastorally, even when pastors are willing and want to help people deal with their sexual brokenness. On the other hand, pastors are sometimes increasingly reluctant to address these issues themselves. One member of a church filled with millennials told me that his church never addresses issues like sexuality at all. That’s pretty ironic, given that this generation is the most porn-exposed, gay-affirming, and pro-gay marriage group of any generation—even in very conservative churches. In the absence of guidance from church leaders, the culture has done its own job of discipleship in this area quite well!
“Every day, it’s almost like I’m only one step away from starting to believe that, just maybe, we are the ones who have been wrong [about homosexuality].”
Indeed, pastors have told me they fear that the culture, sexually speaking, is starting to impact their leadership and elders as well. Case in point? Sam, an elder at a larger congregation with a mostly younger crowd, confessed to me recently, “Every day, it’s almost like I’m only one step away from starting to believe that, just maybe, we are the ones who have been wrong [about homosexuality].”
Phil, a pastor in a large metropolitan-area church, told me that some people stopped attending his church when they found out that the church held a biblically faithful stance on homosexuality. “Visitors are often offended when they learn what we believe about this issue, even though we talk about it with grace and mercy.” It’s true. Today it’s quite normal for someone to inquire of an individual, once they find out they are a Christian, “Well, what do you think about homosexuality? Is it a sin?” It’s seen as the new barometer of trustworthiness in the eyes of the inquirer. In an analogous way, church visitors, even those who may attend an introductory or membership class, also want to know up front now, “What does your church think about homosexuality?” One pastor described trying to navigate these waters today as a minefield—no matter what he says or how kindly he will say it, someone is going to be upset. In fact, the upset party may very well leave the church, perhaps taking some others with them.
Maybe that’s why one pastor of another large city church told me not long ago, “We’ll never have anyone from Harvest USA come and speak to our congregation. I don’t want to offend anyone, especially those who may be gay in the church.” Well, okay, but my question to that pastor would be, “How do you plan to educate your people biblically about sex and sexuality? Or are you just going to let them figure it out for themselves, continuing to allow the hundreds of other voices out there be their instructors?” I also wonder how struggling members of such a congregation might ever be encouraged towards honesty, faith, and repentance when it comes to their sexual temptations, struggles, and sin—to even want to get help.
My guess is that fear of man and a desire to not upset the apple cart are often ruling forces here. We err when we dismiss or fail to teach on something as big and important to God as sex. If we talk about these things biblically (as in really teaching what God says), we may fear that our message won’t go over well with those who are exploring the faith.
But church leadership doesn’t have to walk on eggshells, fear, be confused, or choose silence. Yes, teaching and speaking the whole counsel of God, offering mercy and grace all the while, can be a challenge. Yes, we’ll need to be more strategic in learning how to engage the culture that is already deeply influencing our own people. But if there’s any time that we must proclaim the truth and grace of God about these issues, it’s today!
Harvest USA wants to help pastoral staff, other church leadership, elder boards, etc., to better consider how to communicate all this with their congregations. No longer can we just wait on the sidelines. As leadership, we must intentionally think about how we can guide and help our people better understand God’s intention in these areas.
Please let us know if you’d like Harvest USA staff to help your church leadership and key volunteers think through these things. Your church staff and other leadership will be much better prepared to help the congregation if you do. Send me an email for more information on how your church leadership can begin to tackle these issues—and, therefore, be enabled to lead your people well in concerns close that are close to the heart of God.
14 Jul 2016
As the church steps into the trenches of the sexual struggles with which her people are wrestling, it is encountering a new reality and new challenges in how to do faithful ministry. As the culture continues to push into the church, the following “givens” impact how Christians are thinking about sexuality:
- Increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, especially among millennials
- Growing acceptance of a genderfluid and genderless society
- An awareness of Christians who experience same-sex attraction (SSA) but confusion about how to help them
- Legalization of gay marriage
- The encroachment of pro-gay theology and its inroads into the evangelical church
- The trend toward casual sexual relationships and co-habitation
- The ubiquity of pornography and the steady erosion of biblical sexual ethics
All of the above signals the need for churches to think strategically about how to “do ministry” as the culture continues to push into the church. John Freeman has spoken to church leaders and presbyteries, helping to bring awareness of the pressing issues that need attention. John highlights four things churches must address.
1. Leadership—insuring everyone is on the same page
While leadership certainly means your key leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, etc.—it also includes your leadership volunteers like women’s leaders, youth leaders, Sunday school and adult teachers, small group leaders, and so on. The importance of all leaders being on the same page, theologically and pastorally, has never been more critical. Asking the following questions will (hopefully) result in dialogue and clarification.
Do you know your current leaders’ views on sex and sexuality? Considering the “givens” listed above, how do you approach your leadership in determining what they believe and where they might be feeling pressure to change? We used to take it for granted that leaders would adhere to biblical sexual ethics, but some are changing their views and remaining silent about it. How do you get everyone on the same page?
Do you know if your leaders are struggling here? As important as what they believe, do you know if some of your leaders are struggling here? People, and especially leaders, hide sexual struggles. How can you call them to be honest, and in what ways do you help them? We know that when leadership falls sexually, it deeply injures the church and how people see Christ.
How will your leaders approach sexual issues pastorally? Key leaders have the greatest influence, so it’s more important than ever to make sure they believe fully in what the Scriptures say and will speak that compassionately to those who struggle. Sometimes that’s not easy to do, but true compassion is grounded in speaking God’s truth, not in defining truth as we wish it to be.
How would your church address a leadership candidate who experiences same-sex attraction? As we call believers to openness and honesty about their sexual struggles, we should expect to find men and women who live with same-sex attraction and are living faithfully according to Scripture. When they pursue leadership roles in the church, what help and assistance do they need?
2. Membership—confronting complex issues
The culture greatly influences church members. Confusion is growing as pro-gay theology, rooted in secular thought, influences believers who know too little of Scripture. How will your church in this new reality address some of the following scenarios?
What if someone identifies as a gay Christian? Is this a private matter known only to some, or is this becoming public? Do you know what this person means by adopting this identity label?
What about someone who supports gay marriage and homosexuality? Again, is this a private opinion or an advocacy position? What is a pastoral approach to members whose views are in opposition to Scripture? What if someone with these views wants to join your church?
Are you talking about sex and sexuality to prospective members in your membership classes? Do you approach the issue from a discipline angle, or first from a Christian worldview perspective? Or do you not mention the topic at all, and if so, why not?
What if a same-sex couple comes to faith (one or both)? What if they are legally married? How do you approach the complex situation of pastorally shepherding a family, particularly when there are children, when the parents are legally married?
What about church discipline? While recognizing the complex issues involved with sexual sin, where might church discipline come into play as someone is being shepherded through the ups and downs that go with this struggle? Is there an approach that is more helpful, or less so?
3. Church Culture—what kind of church culture do you want to nurture?
Do you have a sense of the culture in your church in how it relates to the culture “out there?” How does your church address the new reality of sexual issues that are prominent in the culture? How do you speak about them publicly, from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, in the things your church writes? There is a big difference between churches that speak harshly about sexual issues and those that say hardly anything at all. The first approach leaves people hiding, and the other leaves people in confusion. That we need to talk about these issues has never been more critical, but the words we use (or do not use) are equally important. How do you speak to those who are opposed to his ways; and to those who are confused about what Scripture says; and to those who want to obey but struggle to submit to the Lordship of Christ in this area? Our approach, our words, our faithfulness to Scripture, and our presence with those who struggle are the many ways we show who God is to them.
4. Policies and Procedures—possible dangers ahead
Two seismic changes have transformed the landscape for ministry: the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the use, or threat, of non-discrimination laws and regulations, known as sexual orientation and gender identity ordinances. Churches with a history and tradition of opening their doors to the community for weddings and receptions, local community events, outside groups that use the church to meet—all of these connections may become problematic in light of the increasing use of anti-discrimination ordinances.
These new laws and court rulings mean that churches must carefully think about ministry in three key areas.
While this issue gets a lot of press, the reality is that the First Amendment seems quite solid in protecting ministers from performing same-sex marriages. However, the matter is more uncertain if your church has been open to hosting outside weddings and receptions. What steps can your church take to remain open to traditional weddings while not hosting wedding events that oppose biblical truth?
Building usage by outside groups
Apart from weddings, building use for other outside events might become more difficult, particularly for churches that rent their facilities or allow them to be used by the community. The challenge for churches that want to remain invested in their local community is to determine how to both invite and define that involvement, in ways that will avoid potential lawsuits.
Anti-discrimination laws regarding employment are another new reality that is increasingly stepping on religious turf. Churches that discipline ordained staff for misconduct are again protected by the First Amendment. But addressing non-ordained staff behavior is not so clear. What if a staff person comes out as transgender, or a staff person legally marries someone of the same gender? Gender fluidity and sexual orientation are major battlegrounds for employment law today. The area of employment law for religious groups seems to be up for grabs today. How churches will be affected is not yet clear, but they should now find ways to try to protect themselves while also shepherding staff who are struggling in these areas.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a few of the crucial issues churches are facing with these new realities. Harvest USA can help! We can help you think through these issues and conduct a healthy conversation among your leaders.
Contact John Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started.