“For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever” Isaiah 56:4-6
Michael* was just ten when he moved in with his foster family. He was a victim of neglect and arrived with many behavioural and developmental issues. He was a very quiet and incredibly vulnerable child.
He loved coming to church, especially our Friday club. He would engage in the discussions and Bible teaching and asked many questions. Michael made many friends at the church but was reluctant to get too close to anyone. He would sit on his own for much of the time building cars out of lego. Our church windowsills were often filled with his creations with “keep off” notes attached.
Michael progressed well through school and due to the great work of his foster family and wider support team, he caught up in many aspects of his life. It was a joy to see. The church loved him dearly.
At the age of 15 Michael came to speak to me in private. He wanted to tell me something that he was yet to share with his social workers, parents, teachers and foster family. I was the first to know and very touched by this. But what he told me was surprising.
Michael wanted to identify as a woman (Michelle).
With Michael’s consent I prayed with him.
I explained to Michael that God made him (Psalm 139:14) and that God does not make mistakes (Psalm 18:30) and yes, this may mean that God made Michael as a male who (at that present time) feels happier as a female (Matthew 19:12), but this does not exclude him from God’s Grace (Romans 3:23-24). I understood that such feelings are real and in direct contradiction to his biology and that having to live with such an inner conflict must be very hard for him. I told Michael that he was very brave and that I was very proud of him. Michael knew that we all loved him.
I explained to Michael that God wants him to be happy within himself (Hebrews 13:5) and what we learn from the Bible (as in life) is that changing who we are externally is unlikely to provide the inner peace that we all desire (Matthew 23:27-28). The root of any internal conflict is caused by our separation from God and thus cannot be resolved until we are reunited with Him again by faith (Romans 5:1). I reminded Michael of the good news of Jesus Christ. That because of His perfect self-sacrifice on the cross (1 Peter 2:24) every human-being can now come to God just as we are (Revelation 22:17) whatever age, race, sex or class. No matter what we have done in the past, no matter what inner conflicts we are burdened with, King Jesus has made it possible for everyone to come and unite and know God in the most beautiful and intimate way. We do not have to change anything external to know God. We just need to come to Him, openly and honestly and trust in Him (Psalm 51:10).
I reminded Michael that as a Christian I believe with all my heart that he is an image bearer of God (Genesis 1:27) and thus of infinite value and greatly treasured (Ephesians 2:4-5).
I pointed Michael to Jesus (as I would any person whatever their orientation). And I made it clear to Michael that whatever he decided to do, he will always be loved and welcomed, just like everyone else.
The following week I was in discussions with the foster family. The school and the local authority were alerted and Michael started to come to church as Michelle. She had a new outfit, wavy hair, contours on her cheeks and lipstick.
As the months past Michelle became very popular and outgoing. As a church we had to accommodate in certain ways, the hardest part for me was getting used to the name change.
That Christmas all the youth received their daily devotionals for the following year, and Michelle got to chose whether she wanted the one for girls or boys (she chose the Girl’s version). Michelle grew in confidence and asked many questions about the LGBT+ movement.
This allowed me to share what I believe is a “better love story” (the Gospel) with the wider group.
Michelle’s willingness to come to church offered us a wonderful opportunity to speak into our changing culture and challenge many assumptions of what the Bible teaches on the subject of transgenderism and LGBT+. It gave us the opportunity to share with Michelle’s peers that God and His church value you beyond your sexual orientation, that God’s message in the Bible is one of grace and His precepts are given for the benefit of human flourishing, that salvation is based on nothing else than your relationship with Jesus and thus Hell is full of proud heterosexuals who have dismissed God’s love for them. We looked together at how other (unchristianized) cultures treat the LGBT+ community (in most cases horrifically) and we thanked God for their safety in the UK.
Although Michelle did not make a profession of faith (that I know of) she was a real pleasure to have in the group, a catalyst to discussion and a tangible testimony of the Church’s love and welcome to all people.
Months went by and Michelle grew in confidence, church was her safe space and a number of her friends were joining her as a result.
One Sunday Morning
Ten minutes before the service started a member from Michelle’s foster family came into the church. At first I was delighted, but I could see she was upset and had not come for the service. She asked me to follow her home “It was an emergency”. Michelle was dead, suspected suicide. She had just turned 16.
It was so hard to preach that morning. As I spoke I could barely look into her young friends’ eyes, knowing the tragic news that awaited them. By God’s grace the message was fitting for the circumstance.
After the service I took the teenagers outside and told them, whilst our elder prayed with the congregation. There were many tears over the following weeks and several visits made to Michelle’s family and friends.
Owing to Michelle being in foster care we had little say in regards to the funeral plans. The birth family had a right to decide but knew nothing of Michelle’s new identity and roots in our church community. Would she be buried at her place of birth, and who would they bury? Michelle or Michael?
We had to do something as a church regardless, for the sake of Michelle’s friends and foster family. We held an open air service with all of her favourite food and drinks. Her friends read poems, performed songs, we sang hymns and shared memories and I gave a short gospel presentation to those who gathered.
Two borough councils were involved in the funeral proceedings as well as the parents, foster family (who were amazing), school and the police. They all agreed that the funeral should be held at our church, but that Michael/Michelle be laid to rest at his/her place of birth.
The service was difficult to plan. We were saying our goodbyes to a transgender minor, in the care system, who had tragically cut her own life short. Owing to the birth family’s history the police were to be present and we were expecting many school children. But God worked in such a powerful way through this process. The church grew closer to many in the community that we would not have reached otherwise. I spoke on “David and Goliath” and the giants in life that we all can overcome by God’s Grace. The Lord was present.
The last five years of Christian teaching that I had given Michael/Michelle and her friends were now being put into practice. In their suffering and grief our teenagers could see God’s love tangibly expressed through His church and it has grafted them in. Most now come every Sunday and several are moving on with the Lord.
This entire experience has brought me close to many teenagers in our community and I have listened to them (Proverbs 18:13) and reevaluated my approach to youth ministry. In the extremes of this ordeal they have taught me many lessons. I hope the below findings help.
Today’s youth (Generation Z) are growing up in a unique time where Christianity is seen as all but dead. Without the “absolute” of God, nothing in their culture is certain, not even their gender. Without a Christian moral framework, relationships often break down, the family unit is fluid and unstable. Generation Z has the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, but little stability to build anything on. With the ‘death’ of Christianity there is no longer an absolute truth, so everything is free to question, but this has made Generation Z surprisingly open to ideas of the miraculous. For this reason they are less interested in apologetics (compared to Generation X, Y and the Millennials).
Generation Z are incredibly compassionate but also very lonely, their relationships are mainly digital, aesthetical and superficial. They are isolated from their wider community and have limited multi-generational influences. This has starved them of the opportunity to learn important social skills (such as patience and empathy) that you would naturally develop when engaging in mixed groups (church). They have been bought by a material culture, and define themselves by what they own or consume. Generation Z crave sincere togetherness (church).
They have been taught that Christianity is an archaic and bigoted institution and directly opposed to their liberated secular world. Generation Z do not feel that they can be ‘good citizens’ and ‘Christians’ at the same time because of such false assumptions.
This is the new challenge of our youth work today. To break down these assumptions!
We do not need to argue or justify the virgin birth or undermine neo-Darwinism with Generation Z (as we needed to with the millennials), rather show them the better love story that we have (1 John 3:18).
Our nation’s youth desperately need to hear that they are not simply products of chance in a meaningless universe, they need to know that they are not defined by their mere sexual desires or by the products that they own. They need to know that their self worth is not measured by how many instagram followers they have or what clothes they wear. Our nation’s youth desperately need the stability, consistency and accountability that church uniquely provides and most importantly they need to hear that they are eternally valued by a God who loves them to death!
When these truths are taught and practiced by the church, God’s love (revealed to us perfectly in Jesus Christ), will become as irresistible to this lost generation as it was to ours.
We continue to pray.
*The names have been changed to protect all those involved. I have received permission from the foster family to publish the above in the hope that it will help other churches and build bridges with the LGBT+ community.