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Saturday 08 April 2017

The Church and LGBTI mental health

Posted in: Our Communities
By - 10th March 2017

A London based research organisation has made a link between Christian churches and the reduction of mental health and quality of life for people of diverse sexualities, stating “beyond reasonable doubt, that it is the Church and local churches who are fuelling” the negativity within society at the detriment to those of minority sexualities.

Craig Watson has trained as a youth pastor and working on youth events around NZ, including the popular BYM Eastercamp in Hamilton
Craig Watson has seen this problem within his own work with Christian youth here in New Zealand and has learnt that often young people feel they will be rejected from the Church if they come out. He says hiding their sexuality leads to mental health degradation and can play a factor in Christian youth committing suicide.

Craig says Churches around the country need to better support their queer youth, whether they do this within their own structure or by recommending youth to another queer-friendly Church.

The study, In the Name of Love: The Church, exclusion and LGB mental health issues, found among other things that “The Church and local churches are one of the biggest sources of direct discrimination against LGB people and the biggest contributor of negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media”.

The research was conducted by Oasis Foundation, the research and policy unit of the Oasis group which is the second largest multi-academy trust in the UK and runs a range of community development initiatives with a Christian foundation and ethos.

It states that “With the exception of the URC church, all of the major UK denominations have positions and policies which actively discriminate against people in same-sex relationships”.

The report concludes “that attitudes and pastoral practises of the Church and local churches are significantly contributing to a narrative that is causing harm to LGB people, leading to depression, anxiety and in extreme cases, physical harm and suicide”.

Craig says “Training as a youth pastor and working on youth events around NZ, including the popular BYM Eastercamp in Hamilton, I have had a great privilege of being able to journey with a number of people both inside and outside churches.”
He notes that historically, sex and sexuality have been poorly talked about subjects in churches, with many young people growing up with a ‘don’t do it’ rule drilled into their minds.
“As young guys and girls grow up in Christian organisations, they realise they aren’t like all the ‘normal Christians’ and then end up holding in their hands, two integral parts of their lives, their sexuality and their beliefs.

“Both of these two affect a person’s existence and purpose in life.”
He says “I have discovered that young people believe they will be rejected from the church when they come out and therefore keep these feelings hidden from everyone, this causes anxiety and depression and a poor self-worth, which can become a large factor in suicide.”

The environment created by some Churches, Craig believes, can cause young people to believe that if they are queer, then they are sub-human and in God’s eyes, an abomination.

“And the simple fact is, this is not true at all. Most pastors will also agree with this, but young people going through puberty, possibility with form of depression, anxiety, self-worth and rejection issues, are often trapped in this dark place.
“Some young people I know have held religion and their sexuality in front of them, believing they can’t work together, and chosen the one they can chose. Their sexuality – and walk away from church, community and a faith.”
He notes that New Zealand has the highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world and although sexuality and religion is not recorded in suicide statistics here, how communities like The Church and sports groups treat these people will have some impact on these numbers.
“Churches and youth groups are in the best positions to help support LGBTI young people,” says Craig. “A lot of churches, already have youth workers based in high school, regular programs for youth, and have the ability to mentor and guide someone through a important stage in their life.

“Churches can make it clear, what they believe about LGBTI people and how they want to include them in their community.”

He believe that Churches should train all leaders to create a safe place for someone to ‘come out’ to them and then how to support the person through that.

“If a church is not able to welcome LGBTI people, then recommend a church that a young person will find the support they need,” he says.

“Churches can use inclusive wording and be aware of the norms that are preserved in a church, especially surrounding marriages, family involvement and working around children and youth. Churches need to stop ‘praying the gay away’ and seeing sexuality and gender as a ‘sin’.
And finally, pastors and leaders need to speak openly and honestly about the LGBT community in sermons, on their social media and use these to promote inclusion and acceptance of these communities specifically.”

Organised church discrimination against queer and gender diverse communities is not something that New Zealand has a problem with according to Craig, however he says there are some churches and Christian based organisations here that do hold and promote a conservative view that can be very discriminatory and hurtful.

“Churches in New Zealand are funded by their communities and larger churches have created a hierarchy system that means some pastors and leaders who are supportive, have to do so quietly, so they do not jeopardise promotions and job prospects,” he says.
“Life Church in Auckland is governed by a ‘Covering Leadership’ who includes Brain Houston from the Global enterprise that is Hillsong. Brian and his leaders removed a gay choir director from leadership a few years ago and knows very clearly that if he openly supports the LGBTI community, he will divide his church significantly. This means that Life church is unable to say anything public and they have a huge youth community.

“Life FM, a national youth orientated radio station, is funded by listeners and the station hardly ever speaks about LGBTI issues directly on their many radio forums and programs.

“The Baptist Association, has been great at treading this path clear fully, and in May 2015 invited Michael Duncan to speak at a youth leaders training event, who made it very clear that leaders must make a safe environment for these LGBTI young people and be prepared to listen and love them for a long time without any judgement or discrimination. However the union voted that any church marrying same sex couples could lose their church, and while this message was very hurtful to the LGBTI community, the union chose to say nothing about the acceptance of LGBTI people into the churches, leaving the status quo in play.”
Craig says these church organisations that attract young people have a responsibility to protect their community, not just those that go to their church, from discrimination and to stand in solidarity with them.

“This is a very clear message from Jesus Christ. To create a safe and inclusive space for them.”
While Churches all over the country do a great deal of work in schools and with families already, Craig believes the topic of sexuality and gender diversity is not talked about and therefore leaves a level of uncertainty for the LGBTI people in the church community.
For Craig, and the LGBTI Christian community, the good news is that there is clear progression.

“Most 20-28 year old Christians I meet are passionate about inclusion and about supporting the LGBT community – hopefully they continue to become leaders and bring about change for the future generations.”

Read the Oasis Foundation report here.

- 10th March 2017

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