An open letter by a Virginia pastor to Hozier, scolding him for his popular song, “Take Me to Church,” shows why the church fails to connect with millennials who are turned off by organized religion because of homosexuality.
The song is pro-LGBT, and its video shows thugs beating homosexuals as Andrew Hozier-Byrne sings an indictment of religion, which he thinks causes and perpetuates such violence. The lyrics are scathing: “Take me to church/I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife/Offer me that deathless death/Good God, let me give you my life.”
The song isn’t fair, despite Hozier-Byrne saying in an interview that he’s not overly exaggerating anything and just wants to tell “how it is.” Besides a couple of crazy cults in America that few would even call Christian, no church, Catholic or Protestant, calls for violence against homosexuals. Hozier-Byrne cites Russia’s anti-gay policies in an interview, but like Rick McDaniel, senior pastor of Richmond Community Church, says in his open letter, “If you’re upset with Russia write a song about them.”
As an aside, I do have to point out that the most violent religion against homosexuals today is Islamism. I wonder if Hozier-Byrne will be writing a song against Muslims who throw gays from towers, especially since he just wants to tell “how it is.” We’ll see.
The Issue Is Sexual Morality
While the singer is obviously concerned about how people treat homosexuals (and Christians have this concern as well, not only about free speech, but abusing and killing gays), the real issue, as McDaniel says in his letter, is Christianity’s teaching on sexual morality. Hozier-Byrne just doesn’t like religion imposing a moral code. His “church,” as he says in the song, is nature and sex, and he finds redemption in “the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene.”
Organized religion is poison, but our “gentle sin” makes us “clean.” Hozier-Byrne’s god is his sexual expression, his desires—anything “natural.” The woman he loves—his “Goddess”—is more real to him than any historical God: “My church offers no absolutes/She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’/The only heaven I’ll be sent to is when I’m alone with you.”
Pretty bleak stuff, if you really think about it. Hozier-Byrne might not like the absolutes of theism, but having your happiness and sense of self rise and fall on human feelings, turbulent desires, and sexual relationships isn’t much of an option. Countless souls can testify to having turned to human relationships and inward desires for meaning only to come up empty.
Of course, Hozier-Byrne is Irish, and he’s seen more turmoil stemming from religious conflict than many. No doubt, this cultural landscape has fashioned his views on sexuality and issues like gay rights and religious intolerance, a point he makes clear in an interview with NY Mag:
It’s about sex and it’s about humanity, and obviously sex and humanity are incredibly tied. Sexuality, and sexual orientation — regardless of orientation — is just natural. An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation — that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love. Turning your back on the theoretical thing, something that’s not tangible, and choosing to worship or love something that is tangible and real — something that can be experienced.
‘Take Me To Church’ Speaks to Millennials
The song resonates with people. It was Spotify’s most streamed single in 2014 (87 million streams), YouTube shows more than 40 million views of its video, and it was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys. Its popularity is what makes it odd that McDaniel would ask in his letter to Hozier-Byrne, “Do people really share your sentiments or do they just like your voice and the song’s arrangement? I don’t know the answer, but since the song’s message is so wrong it needs to be addressed.”
It would have been helpful for McDaniel to research the answer to that question before writing an open letter. He might have discovered that there are better ways to communicate to young people in a more persuasive way than simply offering a sermonette in which he tells Hozier-Byrne (and all the millennials who agree) that he doesn’t understand right from wrong, and one day he’ll grow up, get some real experience about what’s going on in the church, and maybe then he “will come to see the value of Christian morality.” Yeah, that’ll convince him.
McDaniel resorts to scolding in his letter—and scolding won’t work when communicating with millennials who are searching for something real, especially when you’re dealing with sexual issues (90 percent have had premarital sex and nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) favor same-sex marriage).
Let’s face it. When it comes to organized religion, millennials just aren’t that interested. One in three millennials have no religious affiliation, and a big reason the have left the church is “negative teachings” on homosexuality or “negative treatment” of gays and lesbians. They don’t like the dogma, the black-and-white of it all, and the judgments. They really hate the hypocrisy—and it’s there. Sexual issues are a big part of it. Nothing irritates a millennial more than seeing homosexuality singled out as the big sin, while Christians have premarital sex, get divorces, watch porn, and cheat on their spouses.
It’s not that Christians necessarily do these things more than unbelievers (that’s an unfounded claim), but they do them—and, as Jesus said, if nothing else, they lust in their hearts, so some humility (not to mention perspective) is called for. When millennials start hearing Christians condemn homosexuals without admitting their own failings, they stop listening.
Millennials and the Church Split Over Homosexuality
This is why 17 percent of millennials say negativity regarding LGBT issues is “somewhat important” to their abandonment of religion, and 14 percent say it is a “very important factor,” a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found. A total of 58 percent of Americans say religious organizations are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” That percentage jumps to 70 for millennials!
The Barna Group found that “more than one-third say their negative perceptions are a result of moral failures in church leadership (35%). And substantial majorities of millennials who don’t go to church say they see Christians as judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), anti-homosexual (91%), and insensitive to others (70%).”
So, in answer to McDaniel’s somewhat naive question about whether people really do share Hozier-Byrne’s sentiments, yeah, they do!
As much as these statistics might have church people jumping up and down, teeth clenched, as they point to all the charities and good works the church does, it doesn’t help to bury your head in the sand. Fair or not, this is what most millennials believe. Therefore, simply telling them they are immature, immoral rebels who don’t know a thing about life or God’s morality just doesn’t work. All they hear is judgment and shame.
Millennials Like Hozier Want Something Authentic
Like Hozier-Byrne said, millennials self-define and identify with what’s natural—and sexual expression is quite natural. It’s “real” and “tangible.” The “theoretical” just doesn’t cut it. Their identity is wrapped up in their bodies and their natural desires. Feelings are their spirituality. These are more real to them than any morality preached by the church or a God they can’t see.
To put it in religious terms, they have made an idol of themselves. They worship at the altar of their own impulses, natural inclinations, and orientations—whatever those might be. This is a generation that has rejected traditional morality and replaced it with moral relativism. They’ve turned their backs on religious dogma and have embraced a cultural dogma that justifies every sexual feeling and impulse. Their identity is no longer defined by their Creator, by nature’s God, but by nature itself, their own desires and will.
So what does the church do with this reality? How does it reach a generation that has rejected Christianity, not because it fails to be hip and cool as so many think, but because millennials reject its moral teaching regarding sex and sexuality and are offended by the hypocrisy that surrounds it? Not only that, how does the church reach young people who don’t identify with any particular religion because they let their “personal circumstances” define truth for them?
With Millennials, It’s Personal
In a 2015 study recently published on millennials and sexuality, PRRI found that when evaluating the morality of sexual behaviors, millennials don’t look at black-and-white judgments, but rather factor in personal circumstances into their reasoning. “In fact, across seven behaviors related to sexuality, there were no issues for which a majority pronounced them morally wrong in general.”
According to the study, for example, millennials are more likely to support nonjudgmental responses when a young woman under the age of 18 becomes pregnant. Close to half (47 percent) of millennials say that when a young woman becomes pregnant, “her community and family should not judge her, but rather provide help and support.” Eleven percent say that only nonjudgmental support sends the wrong message—that teenage pregnancy is fine. Twenty-six percent of millennials affirm both approaches, while 13 percent say the family and community should adopt neither.
Again, many in the church might be pulling out their hair at this point. “What’s the point? If they reject all standards of right and wrong outside their own subjective experiences, there’s no hope. They’re lost. They’ll continue to hate the church because it will continue to preach the truth. The darkness hates the light, right?”
This seems to be the thinking behind McDaniel’s letter to Hozier-Byrne: “Here’s the truth. Sexual sin is wrong. You’ll learn that eventually. Deal with it.” The light McDaniel shines into the darkness is faint indeed.
While McDaniel makes good points about the pain sexual sin causes, I’m afraid his letter will have little effect on most millennials. That’s because it lacks humility, compassion, and a clear declaration of the fundamental truth of the gospel—that we are all sinners and we find meaning and identity, not in living according to what’s natural or even complying with God’s moral code, but in giving our lives over to Christ and finding ourselves in his love, his grace, his truth.
Millennials want something real, something tangible. We all know that faith isn’t tangible—we can’t “see” God—but Christians can show them something real; they can show them Christ through loving and serving others. “Just obey” doesn’t satisfy the millennial soul (or anyone’s, for that matter). But personal relationships do—and when Christians point to a loving personal relationship with Jesus first instead of focusing on “Christian morality,” it builds bridges and changes lives.
Millennials Are Looking For Meaning
The Barna Group says there are “open windows” to the millennial generation—meaning is one of these open windows. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said church is “a place to find answers to live a meaningful life.” The church needs to be ready to answer those questions and not just react to sexual immorality.
Millennials value authenticity, they value their freedom and their sense of self, and they have little tolerance for BS. They don’t just believe something because they’re told to believe it. When they hear something is “black and white,” they ask “Why?” When Christians try to reach millennials, they need to be prepared to explain “why” and not just throw out moral absolutes and expect millennials to accept them at face value.
Their search for meaning and authenticity is the hook. It’s where you have to start when talking with them. This is something Tim Chaddick, senior pastor at Reality LA, understands. He has a church in the middle of Hollywood—and it’s growing in leaps and bounds with millennials. How is this church increasing in size among a population that is skeptical and even hostile to church without selling out the truth? How can a pastor preach that homosexuality is a sin (he’s not shy in saying so) and still see numbers swell with young people in the middle of liberal Los Angeles? How can homosexuals and millennials dealing with sexual identity issues sit in his congregation and hear that homosexuality is wrong and still return week after week?
A Church that’s Making a Difference
Reality LA is succeeding for one simple reason: It’s bringing people to Jesus, not to religion. Chaddick recognizes that when it comes to sexual issues, it’s about meaning, validation, and identity, and he approaches the subject in that way. Sex is too often a guilt-shame culture, Chaddick says. It needs to be more about vulnerability and honesty, knowing that you’re going to be loved and helped. He talks to millennials—straight and gay—not only about morality, but about the person of Christ. Living an authentic life isn’t about conforming to external codes or giving oneself over to inward impulses, but living in a relationship with Jesus and being transformed by his love.
“The missing puzzle piece when it comes to sexuality is identity,” Chaddick says. We aren’t defined by our sexual desires or what culture says; we are defined by God and by becoming a new creature in Christ—reclaimed from sin. This “new creature” is the best of who we were made to be, our true selves.
God is the artist who has designed us. He has made us beautiful. It is sin that has reduced us and robbed us of our beauty and our understanding of our true selves—human beings made in God’s image, not our own, not religion’s, not our family’s, not our lover’s, and certainly not society’s. Most of all, we’re not defined by our sin.
Gay members of Chaddick’s church interviewed by Details magazine say they won’t let sin define them—only Christ. They are now celibate and have no problem with that. “If you want to call me gay or ex-gay, you can—it’s a title, and we’re all so caught up in titles,” says David Read, a 27-year-old Virginian whose cousin first brought him to Reality. “I’m sure plenty of psychiatrists would say I’m lying to myself, but I find my identity through Jesus—not through my sexuality.”
The culture thinks we are self-defining creatures, Chaddick says. “We are not. We are created beings, created by God.” Our lives are meant to exalt him and serve others, not to exalt and serve ourselves. “We all have a broken sexual orientation,” he says. Straight people also lust and have sex outside of marriage. This is sin; the natural orientation of all human beings is sin, which is why we all need God’s grace.
Chaddick says the church has erred in three ways when it comes to the homosexual community. One, it has failed to speak to this issue with compassion and love. Two, the church has exaggerated this sin above all other sins. Three, the church has failed to communicate the gospel to the homosexual community. It becomes about morality (a kind of works salvation) and not about hope and a personal relationship with Christ.
Too many Christians send the message that you need to become straight before you can enter a church, that you have to look a certain way or behave a certain way to be loved. But sexual sin is sexual sin. Heterosexuals have brokenness in their own sexual lives too, Chaddick says. When we talk to homosexuals, “we are sexual sinners speaking to sexual sinners,” and when we speak the truth, “we speak it in love.”
Where there is no love, there is just noise, clanging cymbals. In this turbulent time in which we live and amid political and cultural fights with a militant homosexual movement, Christians are still called to speak the truth in love, to build personal relationships in the space between truth and grace. While it is one thing to fight on the political battlefield with passion and uncompromising determination, it is another to boldly speak to individuals about the gospel and do it with humility and compassion. If Christians truly want to bring change politically, they must remain faithful spiritually, because changed hearts are the only real answer. And hearts won’t change under the force of legalism but only through kindness and love.