I recently had the opportunity to interview my friend, Tom Gilson, regarding his excellent new book Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens. There are many good books on the Bible and homosexuality, but this book uniquely provides practical steps to equip parents to genuinely guide students. Tom is a senior editor of The Stream and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.
SEAN MCDOWELL: There's a bunch of good books addressing homosexuality. What makes your approach in Critical Conversations unique?
TOM GILSON: This is a parent-friendly, practical guide for mom and dad, to help them know how to safeguard their kids’ spiritual future against today’s powerful anti-Christian barrage.
Other books concentrate on the theological, philosophical, medical, and social issues relating to homosexuality. My book touches those things in a brief, introductory way, because that background information is helpful. But it’s really about the way young people are being torn between two sets of teachings: one view coming from church and parents telling them there’s a biblical view of marriage and morality, that’s still good, and the other view coming from almost everywhere else, telling them their Bible, church, and parents are wrong, bigoted, and hateful. Young people need help sorting this out. Parents need help with helping their teen sort it out. That’s what my book is for.
And please believe me when I say I wrote it to be parent-friendly. It has an entire section of questions, answers, and coaching tips for parents on dozens of tough topics. I don’t just answer the challenges, I explain practically how parents can answer them with their teens. Lots of people are telling me they’ve never seen anything quite like it anywhere else.
MCDOWELL: In my experience, parents and teens tend to view homosexuality differently. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is the case?
GILSON: There is a big difference, yes, I agree. I heard recently from a mom whose teenage daughter had “learned” at Bible study that the Bible had nothing to say against gay marriage. Their two reactions were different in ways that really tell the story. The daughter was relieve: no more being torn between two contradictory views! The mom, who didn’t agree with this teaching at all, said to me, “I freaked out. I had no idea what to say. I had no idea what to do.”
This illustrates the typical difference, in my experience. Teens are much more likely to have been influenced by LGBT friendships, they’re much more likely to face peer pressure to be an “ally,” and they’re much more immersed in film, TV, music and social media that affirms homosexuality. So on average teens are much more affirming, and this is true even in the church. Parents are more likely to hold traditional values, and maybe even (unfortunately) to “freak out” when those values get challenged.
MCDOWELL: What are some practical steps parents can take to have a fruitful discussion with teens?
GILSON: First, know where you stand: What do you really believe on this? Where do you find it in the Bible? If your teen says, “Sure it’s in the Bible, but that just means the Bible is behind the times!” would you know how to answer?
I’m saying there’s some homework to do. I hate to have to put it that way, but if you’re going to help your teens, you have to be ready to answer the questions they’re going to ask you. I’ve done some of that homework for you in Critical Conversations, by the way.
Second, ask good questions. Don’t have “the talk.” Just ask a question while you’re driving them to a sporting event or dance practice or whatever. “What do your friends think about gay marriage?” “Do they know what our church teaches about it?” “What do you think they would say about the position our church takes on it?”
Asking about friends makes it safe for them to answer. Eventually you’ll want to ask a more personal question like, “What do you think about what our church teaches about these things? Does it make you uncomfortable?”
Then their questions will arise. And since you’ve done your homework and you’re equipped, you can start addressing them.
MCDOWELL: What are some common misunderstandings adults (and in particular parents) tend to have about this issue?
GILSON: They underestimate.
They underestimate how much pro-LGBT values pervade the culture.
They underestimate how much, and how intentionally pro-LGBT activists have targeted Christianity to make it look evil, and themselves the victims.
They underestimate how hard it is to be a teen torn between two competing sets of values.
They might have heard that 60 to 80 percent of churched teens walk away from the faith after they leave home, but they underestimate the odds — 60 to 80 percent, all other things being equal! — that it will happen to theirs.
And most importantly, they underestimate how much great, positive influence they can have, to keep their kids strong in the faith for the long term. Research bears this up: kids whose parents connect with them on spiritual issues, who allow questions to be asked and who interact on the problems and the answers, are much, much more likely to stay in the faith.
MCDOWELL: What is the toughest question parents face? And can you give us your quick thoughts on it?
GILSON: Honestly, I’m more concerned about the question they don’t face. The teen who never brings up any questions or concerns about gay marriage or homosexuality at home still has those questions and concerns. It’s just that he or she is talking about it with everyone else, and not with mom or dad. When that happens, whose values will they end up adopting?
As for questions they do face, the hardest one has to be the one about the teen’s own sexuality: “Mom and dad, I think I might be same-sex attracted.” My thought on that is that, once again, that the parents need to get up to speed on their own convictions, through reading my book or the one you wrote with John Stonestreet, Sean. But they also need to know that even after reading those books, they still won’t really know what to do, and they should find help from someone who does. That’s when it’s time to seek out an experienced counselor nearby, someone who has godly, biblical values and a solid mix of truth and grace, who can help them and their teen work through this challenge.
With kids who are secure in their sexuality, the hardest question usually have to do with relationships, for example, should they spend time with gays or lesbians? The answer in most school situations (even many Christian schools) is that you really don’t have much choice anyway: they’re going to have classmates who identify that way. And they should be friends with them, up to a limit that I could most briefly describe as being “recruited” into unbiblical choices and lifestyles.
But you know this, Sean: every question is hard if you don’t know the answer. The good news is, answers are there to be found. Some of them turn out to be really easy when you look in the right place. Some of them — especially the deeply relational ones — never reach the point of being easy, but at least they can move a little ways in that direction. To grow in understanding is always helpful.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.