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I’ve been part of a team of volunteer leaders for a youth group called Knowing God (KG) since I moved to Shanghai in 2011. Each year KG, along with other area youth groups, participates in two retreats, one in the fall and another in the spring. Retreats are held over the course of a weekend and include four sessions led by a guest speaker, and a couple of hours on Saturday devoted to workshops led by various counselors. I had only been at this for a month when I attended my first retreat, and I was still learning the dos and don’ts of youth ministry. And that is why I prepared a workshop titled “The Atonement.” I obviously didn’t know my demographic. It was a youth retreat, for crying out loud! Everybody was at the workshop on dating, or pirating music, or family issues. So, between two sessions of my workshop, I had a total of five attendees. 

I’ve learned a lot sense then, and it was a very different story last month when the room was packed out for both sessions of my workshop, “The Not-So Straight and Narrow: The story of how Jesus saved me as a young gay college student, and how the church has been both a help and a hindrance along my journey.” We were pressed for time, so in each session I gave a quick, fifteen minute testimony in which I tried my best not to oversimplify the messy process that it’s been, and then opened it up for a bit of q and a. I hoped for a lot of dialogue, and the kids didn’t disappoint. In both sessions, the questions kept coming until we’d reached our time limit. True to form, I spent the hours after the workshop mulling over my answers to questions, thinking I should have perhaps said this instead of that, or I should have clarified something better. Nonetheless, I do think it was very successful for the most part. My favorite comment of the afternoon was from one of the KG students, Hannah, whose love for God and desire to honor Him are  refreshing. “Mr. Mike, your daughter is beautiful. And I just wanted to say that I’m glad you, um, you know…”

I’m truly grateful to have the opportunity to speak into these kids’ lives on a difficult subject, from a perspective that they’re not likely to hear very often. Most of the kids in this youth group live in fairly traditional, conservative Asian homes, and as I’m told, they just don’t talk about things like this with their families. But they’re going to be faced with this issue whether their families address it or not. Some of them deal with the realities of same sex attractions. Others have friends or siblings who do. And as homosexuality continues to be a polarizing topic, they’ll all have to come to terms with what they believe and how to live out their convictions in the wider world.

The Culture War has really intensified over the last year, and it seems the biggest battleground has been homosexuality. I’ll admit that this is no small part of what led to my nasty little faith crisis in the winter. From preachers to politicians, reality tv stars to reformed rappers, and Facebook friends to faceless commenters on blogposts, millions of the faithful stood their ground, took up arms, and fired their weapons. Indignant, the secular world, and progressive Christians fired back with equal ferocity. And I found myself in No Man’s Land, facing a barrage of bullets that I couldn’t quite ward off with my shield of faith. Julie Rodgers, an internet/blogging friend has written prolifically on this phenomenon.

The kids who make up our youth groups are growing up in a pivotal time. The battles are raging, and the war is intensifying, and they are going to be pressured to pick up their weapons and join one side or another. And I hope that in a small way, I can provide a different voice in the midst of all of that. I hope to encourage them not to take up arms, but to take up their crosses and do the hard work of bearing with others and learning what it means to walk in grace and truth. God knows I’m still learning how to do that myself.

In the three years that I’ve spent working with the youth in KG, I’ve learned a lot more than how to come up with workshop titles that catch teenagers’ attention. I’ve learned to be hopeful about the future of God’s church, about how He’s shaping young believers and preparing them to engage the world in a way that reflects the heart of Jesus and brings honor to Him. And I’m amazed at God’s grace for allowing me to play a small part in that.