OPELIKA, Ala. — Standing before a room of about 20 pastors and ministry leaders in Alabama, Bob Stith introduced a topic he said most Southern Baptists don’t want to deal with — homosexuality.
“Churches would rather avoid this issue and deal with it as I used to — harsh and condemning,” said Stith, who is the Southern Baptist Convention’s national strategist for gender issues.
And avoid it they have. The mid-January meeting of the Tuskegee Lee Baptist Association in Opelika, Ala., was the first such session in the nation Stith has been invited to since accepting the position in 2006.
In an effort to change that mindset, associational director of missions Bill King invited Stith to speak so pastors and churches could learn how to minister to homosexuals and their families.
In sharing his story, Stith confessed he had been “one of those guys” who was contemptuous toward homosexuals. But when God broke his heart on the matter 15 years ago, he knew he had to make a change.
“I realized a lot of what I had done was a reaction to what I had seen of gay activism in the media and entertainment…. I didn’t know there were thousands of men and women and families whose hearts were breaking for a struggle they didn’t ask for and one they didn’t understand,” Stith said. “My attitude was — it’s a choice; it’s just a choice. What I learned was sin is always a choice … but you don’t always get to choose what temptation you get. You don’t always choose the dragon; sometimes the dragon chooses you.”
But his idea that “thousands” were struggling was an underestimate, Stith said. He found that studies show at least 1.4 percent of the U.S. population — perhaps more than 4.2 million people — deals with homosexuality.
Factor in parents, siblings and a few friends and other relatives, and that number increases exponentially, Stith said.
“And that’s a conservative estimate,” he said. “What are we doing as Christians to meet the needs these people have?”
In the book UnChristian, authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons pointed out that 91 percent of “unchurched” Americans think the church is anti-homosexual.
“Not (just) that we believe it’s sin but that (the church) is anti-homosexual,” Stith said. “And 80 percent of churched young adults felt the same way.”
He said young Americans who attend church also feel the church is not equipping them to “minister effectively” to their homosexual co-workers.
“The homosexual community knows we think it’s a sin, but do they know we care?” Stith asked.
He said his goal is to get churches to be proactive and not reactive.
King said he hopes pastors will take Stith’s message — along with those who are “sometimes ignored by the church” — to heart, stirring them to be more sensitive to the needs of church families dealing with homosexual problems. “Sometimes we just kind of brush that under the carpet and hope it will go away,” King said.
Ross Kilpatrick, pastor of First Baptist Church Reeltown in Notasulga, Ala., agreed that every person has temptations.
“The bottom line is we are all right there — a sinner saved by grace, all of us,” Kilpatrick said. “Apart from seeking Christ and His power being made perfect in our weakness and overcoming sin, there is not one of us not vulnerable to sin.”
Even as Stith continues to receive hate mail from gay activists and pastors alike, his challenge to Southern Baptist churches across the nation will not change.
Echoing evangelist and author Josh McDowell, Stith said: “If your church is healthy, you’ll have drug addicts, sex addicts, unwed mothers and those kinds of things. And (McDowell) said you will have them because if your church is what it ought to be, God will send them there to be healed. So my question is: If you don’t have that problem, then why not?”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Howerton is a staff writer for The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention. Information and resources are available from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Gender Issues Office.)