By Karen Booth
Over a decade ago the Lord called me out of the local pastorate and into a ministry of sexual redemption, healing, and transformation. God invited and commissioned me to help Him equip local churches to become “cities of refuge” for the sexually confused and broken — communities where the truth about God’s will for human sexuality is taught and modeled and where those who sin and fall short are compassionately restored to righteous, holy life. I have to admit that I’ve sometimes doubted whether or not I heard God accurately. And I get discouraged when I consider the wealth of evangelical talent, treasure, and energy that has had to be devoted to defending a biblically faithful sexual ethic.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not disparaging or discounting our renewal movement’s efforts at General Conference or the intensive planning we’ve done in between. Contending for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints,” which includes right doctrine about sexual morality, has been a critically necessary endeavor — one in which I’ve gladly participated. I’m so very thankful that through these efforts God has preserved The United Methodist Church from the officially endorsed immorality that has infected and splintered many of the other historic mainline denominations. This is nothing short of a miracle!
But I’m also convinced that God has saved us in this way for a particular reason. I believe He wants John Wesley’s sons and daughters in faith to move beyond the legislative battles and engage in hands-on ministry. And I think God is summoning those of us who still trust the Holy Spirit’s power to perfect a holy people to join Him in a mission of sexual sanctification.
First United Methodist Church of Livingston, Tennessee, has already begun to respond to that divine invitation. During the last weekend of October, the congregation held its first “Real Love Heals Conference,” a sexual holiness and healing event that was led by their pastor, the Rev. Dr. Craig Green. It also had the full support of the local Cookeville District.
I was privileged to present the keynote address, and I began by sharing the “good news” that resulted from General Conference this past spring. Because of the God-given addition of more orthodox United Methodists in some parts of the United States and around the world, it’s becoming evident that the denomination has “turned a corner” on its legislative battles over human sexuality. Church demographics do not favor our moral revisionists. And even though they may remain contentious or disobedient for a season, many are beginning to recognize that The United Methodist Church will not be changing its sexual standards in the immediate future. Nonetheless, evangelicals shouldn’t be tempted to gloat over this apparent victory; rather we should humbly begin to discern how we can help the denomination “turn a corner” into effective ministry.
To do that, we need to focus on three R’s: Real, Repentant, and Risk-taking. Before effective ministry can happen, United Methodists need to “get real” about God’s will for human sexuality. It is defined in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, validated by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, and highlighted by Paul in Ephesians 5. If we can’t winsomely explain why sexual intimacy is considered holy only within the bounds of covenantal heterosexual marriage, then we have nothing hopeful to share with our sexually compromised culture and church.
Once we’re clear on that, its’ easier to determine the most loving response to those who struggle with any kind of sexual temptation. As Pastor Craig Green wrote in one of his invitational letters to the Real Love Heals Conference, too often Christians have responded in inappropriate ways, by condemning, condoning or congratulating sexual brokenness and sin. Believers need to repent of these unloving attitudes and actions, and then risk reaching out with both truth and grace, welcoming the sexual sinner and introducing him or her to the One who can make all things new. Several dozen conference breakout sessions offered practical direction for doing so.
Real Love Heals wouldn’t have happened without many, many months of constant and fervent prayer. So it was no surprise that Spirit-filled praise and intercession was the chief undergirding of the entire conference. The local praise team did an awesome job leading the general worship, and special musical guest Dennis Jernigan captivated the congregation with his songs and his personal testimony of overcoming same-sex attraction. Workshop leaders built times of prayer into their teachings, and specially trained intercessors knelt with the scores of attendees who came to the altar for healing or to recommit their faith.
And God blessed First Church’s faithfulness and hard work with one miracle after another. A man who struggled with life-long addiction to pornography was supernaturally freed. A grieving Mom found comfort and peace after publicly sharing the story of her family’s struggle with sexual abuse. And a young Dad left the gathering “energized and fortified,” committed to protecting the sexual purity of his children and family in a dark and decadent culture. As Dennis Jernigan commented during the closing worship service: all of us were “messed with in a good way” by our good and gracious God.
And how did the Real Love Heals Conference affect First Church, Livingston? “This experience has changed me forever,” reported Pastor Green after the event. “I am the pastor of a church in true renewal – one that flows in ‘Real Love!’”
I’m praying that he and his parishioners are just the first of many.
Karen Booth is the executive director of Transforming Congregations and the author of Forgetting How To Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution (Bristol House, Ltd., 2012). Many of the Real Love Heals messages are on the First Church website (http://livingstonfirstchurch.com).