Hug Addicts

Is Hugging People at LGBT Parades the New Evangelism?

Popular author and speaker Jen Hatmaker made headlines two years ago when she declared her full support for same-sex marriage and for the pro-gay interpretation of the Bible.  I posted my thoughts at the time, saying “All of us will be confronted by a sincere believer who starts questioning – quite rightly – how well we’ve responded to homosexual people.”

One such believer seems to be gospel artist Sandi Patty. In an August 12 Facebook post she  expressed delight in Hatmaker’s recent trip to a gay pride parade, where she and her church offered hugs to the lesbian and gay participants. The embraces even came with categories, including Mom Hugs, Dad Hugs, and Pastor Hugs. (The pastor hugs seemed to be the most popular.) Ms. Patty said she’d join similar hugging-at-gay-parade efforts next year in Oklahoma City, promising “…we’re coming for ya’. My arms are ready to hug!”

Understandably, this is all getting a mixed reaction, especially from believers. Some applaud any form of affection expressed by Christians to gays; others question the wisdom of mixing hugs with an LGBT
pride celebration.

Then there’s Sandi Patty’s statements, clearly the biggest eyebrow-raiser in the story. She has previously sung with a gay men’s choir (see here) which is an action we might challenge as wrong or unwise. But it’s not a proof-positive endorsement, either, and she’s made no clear statement as to where she stands on the issue. So is she just saying she celebrates kindness to homosexual people, or is she the next Christian celebrity to announce a newly-adopted pro-gay viewpoint?

All of which raises the larger question of what a Christ-like, Biblically sound response to gays and lesbians looks like, and whether such a response affirms, rejects, or is neutral on the Hug Approach.

Apologists or Apologizers?

Affectionate acts are like words. The context colors their meaning, sometimes profoundly.

I remember the morning after 9/11, when I bought some coffee from a shop run by a friendly Muslim manager. For years, he and I had enjoyed a warm, ongoing banter whenever I came in, but that morning the pain in his face may as well have been a scream. So when I bought my coffee, I extended my arm and we gripped each other’s hands tightly, eyes locked and full of sorrow.  The context was clear: This is horrible. We’re both crushed. We know we don’t mean each other any harm. 

In context, that handshake was powerful stuff.

When it comes to Christians extending their arms at LGBTQ pride rallies, the context so often conveyed is, “Christians have been unloving to you; we’re sorry for the wrong we’ve done you; so as a repentant Christian, can I
hug you?”

Some are saying that literally (see here and here); others imply it when they describe how healing their hugs were to lesbians and gays who’d been rejected from families and churches. Either way, those hugs convey some powerful stuff.

But is it accurate stuff? Surely we can admit many Christians have been unloving to this community, but should the whole Church of Jesus Christ be held responsible for the wrongdoings of the few, or even the “some”? 

More confusing still is the exact nature of the sin we’re apologizing for. Is it the position we’ve historically held – that homosexuality falls short of God’s will – or the way in which some have held it? That distinction gets lost way too often.

An Apologist is one who defends the faith, serving as an ambassador for Christ and seeking to reason with people about an issue. An Apologizer abandons the role of evangelist, ambassador, or apologist, seeking instead to make nice, nurturing very well but communicating very little. 

In that sense, hugs at a parade aren’t the problem. It’s the lack of anything substantial going along with them. They convey a broad apology which isn’t always warranted, and a “God loves you and so do we” message which is a good start, but possibly a misleading one as well.  

Affection is a Part of Love …

I say “misleading” because offering the partial counsel of God can be more damaging than offering none at all. In contrast to Paul’s assertion that he’d given the Ephesians the “full counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) we error if we feel that reassuring someone of our affection (and God’s) will prepare them for the judgment they’ll face as non-believers, or the chastening they’ll face
as believers. 

That’s why showing affection, and leaving it at that, can leave people who see us a Christ’s ambassadors feeling that our message from God was, “You’re loved, the Church is sorry for our sins against you, you’re valued, go in peace.” 

We can call that “nice.” But let’s not kid ourselves into calling it evangelizing, discipling, or reasoning with people. It is, in fact, little more than affection.

Does that make affection wrong? Hardly. Affection’s a critical part of bonding, whether between parent and child, husband and wife, or friend to friend. God shows all people, saved and unsaved, affection by “making it rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45) and there’s a lot of redemptive messaging going on when we’re affectionate with people: respect, care, delight, deep love. I’ll be the last to knock any of that.

… but Love Is More than Affection

Love, though, doesn’t stop with affection. In fact, there’s aren’t too many “warm fuzzies” in the most perfect, concise description of love on record, I Corinthians chapter 13. According to Paul, the evidence of God’s love is:

  1. Patience
  2. Kindness (score one for affection)
  3. Absence of envy
  4. Absence of boasting
  5. Humility
  6. Harmlessness to others
  7. Selflessness
  8. Slowness to anger
  9. Refusal to hold a grudge
  10. A distaste for evil
  11. A delight in truth
  12. Protectiveness
  13. Trust
  14. Optimism
  15. Perseverence
  16. Reliability

Note that out of the 16 attributes of true love, only one could be described as affection. The others speak more to the character of the individual showing the love (items 1-9 and 12-16) or to the conveying of necessary truth to the object of love. (Items 10-11)

Is 1 out of 16 characteristics of God’s love really a sufficient number to show to the people who need it? 

That’s why I read Hatmaker’s and Patty’s comments with fear, a fear that’s evolving into a conviction that too many of us are becoming hug addicts. We’re in danger of thinking the warm glow of human affection is the ultimate spiritual experience, the end game for all forms of ministry. But if we simply make people feel good and loved, has there been any
real conversion? 

The Great Commission as our Great Priority

The early church craved conversion above coddling. They were moved by a sense of urgency, the solid conviction that people were either alive or dead, right or wrong, and only able to find life and hope in a conversion from death to life through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, and His claims about Himself.

Read for yourself quips from Peter’s early sermons to non-believers: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38);  “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19); “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Then review Paul’s expressions to professing believers who were caught up in sexual sin: “Flee immorality … know you not your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and you are not your own?” (I Corinthians 6:18-20)

Now compare Hatmaker’s message, in her own words, to the lesbians and gays she was hugging at the parade: “So we told them over and over that they were impossibly loved and needed and precious. And we hugged until our arms fell off. This is what we are doing here, what we are here for.”

Let’s you and I ask ourselves seriously if that is, in fact, what we’re here for.

Let’s then ask what the Word of God has commissioned us to be here for, how close we’re coming to fulfilling that commission, and how, by His grace, we can fulfill it in the way which pleases Him most.





BLS | Aug 28, 2018

Invite one to meet with you, get to know the person, ask the person to allow you to share the word of God and to walk together to the saving knowledge of Jesus.

Dana Germain | Aug 28, 2018

This is a thoughtful and thought provoking piece. My question would be, is a pride parade the right environment for evangelization? Logistically speaking, don't people need to keep walking, and what message would we send by holding people up for deeper conversations? Evangelizing with them would certainly require longer discussion, because of the need to untangle the gospel message from the painful way the Church has treated this population through suspicion, rhetoric, and political influence over the years. These things have made them suspicious of and almost immune to Christian messages about sin, repentance and salvation, not to mention suspicious of our sincerity when we talk about God's love. With our history being as complicated and full of hurt as it is, I fear that evangelization efforts at a parade would send the wrong message. In fact any evangelization that's poorly planned will do more harm than good. When the author describes his interaction with his Muslim friend, it was appropriate to send a message of friendship and goodwill. It would've been the wrong time to evangelize. I believe the same is true for anyone wanting to reach out at a gay pride parade. It's the perfect setting to communicate a message of goodwill, but any more in that moment would be inappropriate.

Practically speaking, if Christians want to connect with members of the gay and lesbian community in that setting, the message needs to be concise and impactful. It needs to be the first step in breaking down barriers, something that defies their expectations and touches their hearts so that later, when the parade is over, they'll remember and hopefully take the next step in getting to know Jesus. The deeper conversations can take place at that point.

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