Review: Understanding Sexual Identity

Michael R. Chancellor reviews "Understanding Sexual Identity" by Mark A. Yarhouse.

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Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry

By Mark A. Yarhouse (Zondervan)

Looking for resources as I work with teenaged boys and listening to the comments of church leaders, I found myself drawn to Mark Yarhouse’s work. Yarhouse is the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, where he directs the Sexual and Gender Identity Institute.

His book Understanding Gender Dysphoria was a helpful place for me to start understanding a population whose struggle and pain easily get lost in the culture wars. His insights and research have given me new ways to think about gender issues as a therapist.

In Understanding Sexual Identity, Yarhouse introduces us to a framework for understanding where some of our youth may find themselves: same-sex attraction, homosexual orientation or gay identity. The framework could be a continuum depending on the understanding and support of faith leaders.

He acknowledges his research shows students on this continuum are a sexual minority but are important because they also are youth for whom Christ died.

Yarhouse’s research indicates these three sexual categories are not inevitably progressive or seamless, meaning a teen starts with same-sex attraction does not necessarily move to gay identity.

His further research indicates that sexual minority youth may slip away from the church unnecessarily, ultimately to embrace gay identity because their struggle was too painful and lonely to share with others. Here, Yarhouse digs in to help youth leaders create connections which are “safe,” as the word is used in the gay community to designate a place or person(s) who can be trusted with such disclosures.

Yarhouse’s hope is that more youth ministry leaders and pastors will embrace a ministry culture where youth are safe to process their same-sex attraction and feel they have real friends and real options.

Working within the categories of same-sex attraction, homosexual orientation and gay identity, Yarhouse challenges us to think through what biblical leadership, compassion and community can look like in the local church for a struggling teen in the sexual minority.

He captures the angst of adolescents who do not want to experience same-sex attraction yet have found asking God to make it go away a prayer that often goes unanswered. He also captures a way of relating to teens as they live “between the miracles.”

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Yarhouse thoughtfully helps us take a larger view of a teenager’s life and ministry opportunities in the myriad facets of talents, aspirations, accomplishments, passions, relationships, life goals and spiritual desire.

One of my continual observations about the gay lifestyle is it reduces personhood to gender identification. Yarhouse wants us to broaden our sense of teenagers’ personhood in order to help them see a larger picture of themselves. From this, he encourages leaders to stress the pursuit of Christlikeness as a goal of moving students through these turbulent times.

I find myself wishing I had access to this research when I was a pastor and hoping my grandchildren can find a safe place in their lives through the teen years.

Understanding Sexual Identity is a helpful resource for pastors and student ministers. If all one’s questions are not addressed in this book, Yarhouse’s other offerings may address other facets of this struggle.

Michael R. Chancellor, counselor

Round Rock

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