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San Fran. church’s heart: ‘Know the person first’

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (BP) — It is important for pastors and churches to not turn their backs on people who identify as gay or transgender, says Ryan Blackwell, pastor of First Baptist Church in San Francisco.

While the church seeks to welcome all persons, Blackwell believes it is important to preach clearly on all matters, including those that go contrary to prevailing cultural thought.

“It is important that pastors not be nuanced,” he said. “We have to be very clear what we teach people. If they hear nothing from us, they will seek answers from the culture.”

Blackwell said members of First Baptist Church SF minister to people dealing with sexual identity issues (including those married to their same gender) just as they do any other person living in the city. They develop relationships first, then address the person’s spiritual issues with the hope of connecting people with Christ.

“We get to know the person first,” Blackwell said. “Then we share the Gospel. Our primary concern is not sexuality. Our primary concern is the state of a person’s soul. If they enter a relationship with Christ, we disciple them and, as with all believers dealing with all sorts of issues, we help them process their behavior in the light of Scripture.”

The church’s approach is featured in the book “Ministry in the New Marriage Culture” in chapter 14, “A Pastoral Model for Engaging Community.” Edited by Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the book is written by veteran professors, pastors and theologians to give Christians a framework for leading their churches effectively and ministering to non-believers amid new and complex cultural situations.

“Of course, we endorse the book,” Blackwell said. “We believe it will be a useful resource for pastors as they navigate the realities of our modern world.”

The San Francisco church has connected with LGBT-identified persons since the beginning of the gay rights movement.

“You cannot live in this city and not be connected with someone who is gay,” associate pastor Mike Goeke said. “We don’t have to encourage our members to treat gay men and women with respect because they already love, care for and appreciate their friends, neighbors and co-workers who are part of the LGBT community. They relate to them just as they would anyone else living in the city.

“The Bible tells us how to love all people, both like-minded people and people with whom we may disagree,” Goeke said. “You can’t just attack people who believe differently with a biblical standard that means nothing to them. Opening a relationship by telling a non-believer that his or her behavior is sinful could shut the door to relationship, and we would never want to do that.”

Instead, Goeke said it is important to build a real connection first.

“Build a relationship, and in that mutual context, share your faith without fear or compromise,” he advises fellow Christians. “People may reject you for your faith, but a Christian should do everything possible to keep doors of relationship open with non-believers.”

Blackwell said the church is not always aware of all that is going on in a person’s life, whether they identify as gay or transgender.

“We see people who are drawn to the Lord,” the pastor said, “and sometimes we don’t know what’s going on, but then the Lord connects with that person’s heart. Allowing people the freedom to be where they are provides a great opportunity for that person to see who we are without pressure and to gain a sense of acceptance and belonging in our community.”

Blackwell said some people who choose to no longer follow their gay or transgender feelings and desires miss the sense of connectedness they developed within the LGBT community. He added that is why it is important to truly include and welcome them into the church’s community.

“We extend grace and hope that all people feel welcomed and wanted,” Blackwell said. “No matter where people are in their journey with God, we are glad they are here and listening. We hope that God is touching their hearts.”

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  • Kathie Chute