Several of our authors recently attended Revoice 2019 in St. Louis. We gathered to discuss the second annual conference: our personal highs, challenges, and hopes for future Revoice conferences. For our thoughts on the inaugural Revoice 2018 conference, check out our conversation from last year’s gathering.
Was this your first or second Revoice conference? Did you have any hopes, reservations, or fears going into this year’s Revoice?
BEN: This was my first Revoice conference. I had hopes of finding practical applications for loving LGBTQ+ people that I could implement in my church where I pastor, as well as loving other groups we as believers have not loved well.
I also hoped to build some strong connections of friendship and brotherhood with other “Side B” people (those holding a traditional ethic on marriage and sexuality) with whom I’d only previously interacted online. I did not get to attend the recently held YOBBERS retreat and hoped for some of that fellowship.
Additionally, I hoped to connect with other people in ministry leadership to build a stronger network of shared knowledge and diverse experience.
I felt reservations about explaining what I’d learn to my church. They knew I’d be attending and knew a little about the conference, but they do not know my story. How could I make my church feel the need without making it my need?
MARSHALL: This was my second Revoice. Unlike last year, I went this time without needing to be persuaded by other YOB authors. I went because of the two things that stood out to me last year: the worship and the fellowship.
TOM: I’m so glad you came both years, Marshall, despite any reservations or coercion last year. Your presence and perspective means a lot in this community.
This was my second time back as well. Any spiritual reservations were quelled at last year’s inaugural gathering. What an inspiring, Christ-following group of people from literally all over the world.
I felt some reservations for Revoice 2019 regarding the new venue. Last year’s church venue, though crowded and a tad sweltering in mid-July, forced us to interact with one another closely, especially during mealtimes. The building was aesthetically and metaphorically beautiful: a “little-C” church for many folks distanced or even outcast by the “big-C” Church.
Going into Revoice 2019, I wondered if a hotel and conference center would lose that spiritual ambience, despite obvious improvements to space and air conditioning. Additionally, meals (along with that extra dose of togetherness) were not provided this year.
I wondered if Revoice 2019 would feel more “conferencey” than last year and if that would be a good thing?
EUGENE: This was my second Revoice, and I had a lot of hopes going into Revoice 2019. There has been so much toxic, unfair pushback against Revoice from other Christians; it’s made me so angry, I was ready to march proudly into the conference this year to the tune of “A New Argentina.”
I’m a lifelong St. Louis resident, and I still can’t believe my home city has become this “Side B Mecca” all of a sudden (all “Side B” people must pray facing St. Louis). It’s been so exciting and surreal to watch.
RYAN: This was also my second Revoice. Last year, I sort of half-expected protesters, but there weren’t any. I wondered if we’d have any this year, now that Revoice had grown bigger. But we didn’t. Is it weird that I was a little disappointed?
I think my biggest difference between Revoice 2018 and Revoice 2019 was that last year I went on behalf of my church, and this year I went for myself (to be clear, this was my decision and doesn’t reflect a lack of support from my church).
This year, instead of choosing workshops and activities that would help me bring something home for ministry, I chose workshops that I thought would build me up personally or because I was simply interested.
Many more of my YOB friends went to Revoice 2019 than last year! Revoice 2019 felt more like a reunion than a conference, and I felt more freedom to meet new people and even introduce myself to people I’ve admired from a distance — the “movers and shakers” — who wouldn’t have seemed accessible if the community didn’t feel like a big family.
What were your highlights of Revoice 2019?
EUGENE: Once again, it was the people. Just about every time I enter a “Side B” environment, be it the YOBBERS retreat or Revoice, it feels like I’ve entered a multicolored H&M-clad dream world. Everyone there is just so loving and affectionate. I saw so many people holding each other and walking hand-in-hand, without fear, in front of so many other people.
I really do feel like we’re watching the birth of a new counter-culture of sorts.
RYAN: Seriously, Eugene — it was totally like an H&M commercial. They should sponsor #Revoice20.
EUGENE: Our first night at the Stifel Theatre, one woman screamed a friend’s name into the crowd and said, “YOU OWE ME A HUG!!!!” It was that kind of atmosphere.
On top of that, the worship was terrific. I often looked back at our gatherings and saw so many people moved by the music and raising their arms. Was quite a sight to see.
MARSHALL: The worship this year was even better than last year. Many times I was moved to tears over God’s greatness, love, and forgiveness!
EUGENE: Not to mention our group prayers and Nicene creed being recited with such enthusiasm and force. Really different from a typical Sunday church crowd.
TOM: Someone made the comment, “There’s no worship like gay worship!” Identity/labels aside, I deeply agree. Worshipping alongside believers all laying down something so specific — there’s something palpable in it.
My personal highlight was the first night, starting with Wesley Hill’s keynote at the gorgeous Stifel Theatre. Did anyone else feel like royalty in that place?
Wes spoke on Peter’s betrayal and Christ’s welcoming him back — how we’re all like Peter when we mess up, be it sexually or otherwise. And that Jesus always waits for us with fish on the fire, returning to break bread with us. As before. What an image of our Savior.
After that first gathering, I got approached by two younger guys who follow YOB. They thanked us for our content as a huge resource, and they asked me for a hug. They blessed me so much, easing much of my social anxieties that I experience in groups that size.
Even if the rest of Revoice 2019 personally sucked, I had that wonderful moment to hold onto.
BEN: My highlight was definitely the people. I got to meet some with whom I’d been been talking for over a year, and our face-to-face encounters were beautiful. I also got to meet up with old friends and cry over shared happiness and grief with them for the first time.
It was healing to be able to share mingled tears of joy and sadness. I felt like I belonged. I needed that.
I am in a very visible ministry position but not “out,” and it was nice to be free to say what I was thinking and feeling, knowing other people “got” it.
The breakout sessions were applicable not just to sexual minorities but also to many other people in the church. Ty Wyss spoke on shame, and I will modify his session and teach it in my own congregation.
I was overjoyed at the number of attendants in “mixed orientation marriages” (those marriages that include partners with differing sexual orientations). I love my single friends, but sometimes I feel like the odd one out as a married guy. To go out to dinner with 30 others also in “MOMs” felt amazing.
We are a minority of a minority of a minority, after all.
MARSHALL: My Revoice 2019 highlights were the same as last year: the amazing people I met at the conference. Ben, it was a privilege to get to know you this year! You are an unselfish giver who backs up your words with Christlike actions!
Did you experience any challenges, personal or external, at Revoice 2019?
TOM: So, here’s the thing: I feel deeply insecure sharing my biggest struggle with Revoice 2019. I’ve already described my feelings to folks as though everyone else is obsessed with a particular TV show (Friends, anyone?), as if I’m missing something.
I had a really hard time with Johanna Finegan’s keynote the second night. She sardonically referenced a pastor who has counseled “SSA” individuals (using the “same-sex attracted” identifier as opposed to a “gay”-identifying one), and called out two particular conservative writers by name. The audience reacted with laughter at both instances, to which she laughed along as well.
I felt pangs up and down my body with the comments and ensuing laughter around me. I wanted to leave the room. None of this felt appropriate.
Johanna received a standing ovation that night, and I sat there feeling such a helpless disconnect with Revoice — and a helpless task ahead with the Church at large.
How does one handle all of these momentous issues of faith with sexual identity? How does one handle disagreement without derision and dissension?
It’s not that I’ve necessarily read or benefitted from the two authors Johanna referenced, but I know folks who have been blessed by their works — folks in that room, no doubt. Additionally, who are we to say that the SSA individuals counseled by this particular pastor haven’t also been blessed by him? Why the joke that he has “gay friends”?
At times, Johanna’s presentation felt like a pep rally for “our team” as we knocked “the other team.” And yet aren’t we all one in Christ?
I left the conference immediately after the assembly that night, feeling really defeated. Defeated by what seemed to be most of the people attending Revoice, yes, but defeated more by my existence amidst competing ideologies and sub-teams within the larger Team that is the Body of Christ.
Maybe it was my emotions getting the better of me that night, but gosh I struggled to want to be any kind of “voice” in this conflict-ridden world.
EUGENE: Well, Tom, here’s how I view that whole controversy. I think Johanna simply had a bad delivery when she mentioned those names.
I must confess I was one of the folks who laughed when she said those things, but it was more out of “oh snap, she actually said their names” and the bluntness of it all. I feel like most people were caught up in the moment and did something they regret now.
Johanna’s presentation did stir a lot of energy in the room; it was palpable.
RYAN: I think I had an audible reaction when Johanna mentioned specific names, and it was probably close to laughter. But like Eugene said, it was out of surprise at an unexpected twist rather than derision for the people she mentioned. I do wonder how many other people reacted out of this surprise rather than mean-spiritedness.
I also joined the standing ovation because I thought her keynote as a whole was enlightening, well-reasoned, and encouraging.
BEN: Tom, if you had it to do, how would you have gone about addressing the pain people feel over being painted in by the left and the right and never measuring up to either? I don’t mean that as a contradiction to your statement; just wondering how a similar result might have been achieved without causing division in the “Side B” world? Do we ever call out others?
TOM: I don’t feel a celebratory conference setting like that is the one to call out folks. Thinking back on Johanna’s keynote, I see it more fitting as a blog series or essay, one with clickable links and references to the authors in question. Her keynote was well written and poetically structured, no doubt, but it didn’t exhort me.
I felt spiritually fed after listening to Wesley Hill’s dive into John 21 the previous night. I can’t say the same about Johanna or the other keynotes, for that matter.
Even Mark Yarhouse’s keynote the next night, filled with fascinating stats from our “Side B” world — he’s brilliant — didn’t spiritually nourish me in any way. Johanna’s and Mark’s keynotes were more academic and “workshoppey” to me; following long worship sets, creeds, and prayers, they felt out of place.
I guess that’s personal preference, though. I’d have loved four sermons following our four worship sets and testimonies, but we only got one from Wesley Hill.
Regarding Johanna’s comments, wasn’t it already clear that plenty of Christian figures disagree with Revoice, and vice versa? Did it need to be stated on a stage following worship? Couldn’t we dive deeper into what unites us for four days rather than drudge up all that divides?
Can we be the ones to turn the other cheek, despite what others say against us? Are we not more grieved by dissension?
RYAN: I do think the divisions in our community should lead us to mourning and not cheering. But given the kinds of frustrations many of us have experienced over certain “Side Y” (viewing homosexual attractions as sinful, though not advocating for orientation change like “Side X”) and “Y-adjacent” voices, I find I cannot judge the cheering too harshly.
MARSHALL: I did find some of Johanna’s criticisms to be unhelpful. I was glad to hear her clarifications the next night. There are too many unnecessary divisions over terminology. We need more unity and less separation!
RYAN: I’ve been advised by my church leadership not to throw punches. This is good advice, and I’m glad I’ve followed it, but I’m not sure it can be extended to “never throw punches.”
If we say Johanna threw punches inappropriately, a subsequent question is at what point would it be justified? What else would the people she mentioned have to say or do for us to give up on engaging their arguments in good faith?
As far as all being on the same team goes, I want that to be true, but I think it’s fair to point out that I haven’t seen the folks Johanna called out doing or saying much to indicate they see it that way.
Notwithstanding the controversy over Johanna’s remarks, the second night was the highlight for me. The liturgy and worship were beautiful, and I thought the big picture of Johanna’s keynote was engaging and helpful.
BEN: Like Tom, I felt a disconnect with Johanna’s keynote, although in a slightly different direction. Johanna’s calling out of certain actions reminded me of Galatians 2:11-21 where Paul calls Peter to account for leaving off fellowship with the Gentiles because the Jews from Jerusalem came. The Gentiles were left wondering if they needed to keep the Law. They questioned their faith.
Johanna spoke to actions that she felt caused harm to other believers and made them feel like they were wrong for their language use, or that because of their continued attractions, maybe they were missing some element of surrender with God.
I felt it fitting for a night of lament. It gave voice to the pain many have felt from our more conservative brethren.
However, I also felt the audience reaction as a further disconnect. How many people in our own membership lean more “Side Y” and prefer to use adjectives other than “gay” or “queer”?
I feel like we are all working toward the same goal: to be Christ-honoring in how we approach our sexuality.
Did naming names cause a division of heart among those gathered? Perhaps. I think that was more with the crowd’s reaction than in Johanna’s words themselves.
I spoke with Johanna prior to her clarification the following night, and I appreciated her explanation of what she pointed out — that two particular individuals have kept silent about possible ongoing same-sex attraction — and why she did call them out.
That the far right would take the absence of their mentioning same-sex attraction as absence of the attraction itself, condemning those of us still experiencing our same-sex attractions as being in need of “fixing.”
People were hurting, and she gave voice to their lament. I felt her clarification the following night did help roll back some of the potential division.
RYAN: I think Johanna actually walked back her criticisms more than she needed to the next night: while she was right to abnegate any personal criticism of those authors’ decisions not to air their dirty laundry, she leveled valid textual criticisms at their writings, and it’s fair to attach those criticisms to authors by name.
TOM: Oh man, I was beyond grateful for Johanna’s apology and clarifications the next night. It was really inspiring to see that kind of humility and desire for unity on display.
I get everything you guys are saying. For my taste, I disagreed with the setting for such a presentation. I feel outnumbered on that, and I don’t want to drag this out.
I also don’t mean to sound so anti-Johanna, because like the authors she called out, she is also my sibling in Christ. I’ve never spoken a word to her, but I know her heart is for Christ and the Church, and her voice is clearly an important one. I enjoyed 95% of her presentation.
I just hate dissension — and even the thought that I’m adding to it right now makes me want to crawl in a hole and wait for Paradise.
Johanna lamented of this division in her clarifying remarks, posted as an addendum to her keynote video:
A bunch of people sensed a vibe of tribalism in that moment that made them wonder whether they belong here. And that hurts because we all know how hard it is to find a space where we feel we belong. I personally have been discouraged by the, I believe, unnecessary divisions that have arisen among this small remnant of those of us who are trying to follow God faithfully.
I sensed Johanna’s genuineness and appreciated her return to the stage. Unity is here in our midst, yet also so daunting. I want it badly to survive. For me, for all of us.
BEN: I do think there is room for healthy debate in challenge within our circle. I hope that such discussion and debate can be done in a spirit of grace and mercy and peace. And that we can be cities on a hill before a watching world and within the Church as to how the grace of God is at work in our lives, however we choose to approach our sexuality.
That there can be diversity in our approaches but unity in our shared goal of giving glory to Christ. And that we can be gracious with one another in our disagreements.
Did you see any positive adjustments made from Revoice 2018 to Revoice 2019? What could be improved for next year at Revoice 2020?
BEN: This might sound childish, but I want flair! I’ve appropriated this from a youth pastors’ conference I attended: give us buttons to put on our lanyards that let us identify similarities at a glance. Geographic locations, those in mixed orientation marriages, those in ministry leadership positions, those interested in the concept of celibate partnerships or intentional communities, etc.
TOM: That’s an amazing idea, Ben. Anything to quicken and enhance connection with others! I jokingly — but also kinda seriously — would love to see Twitter handles on our name-badges since so many attendees are super active on social media. It’d be another at-a-glance way to recognize and connect with fellow attendees.
BEN: I’d also love to see workshops offered at two different times so that there’s a greater possibility of not having to miss one — even if the second time around, it’s just an unedited video of the first session.
TOM: Or maybe at least a heads-up if certain workshops will be posted to YouTube later?
EUGENE: I really want Revoice to provide breakfast and lunch like last year. It’d be great to see better efforts to encourage community next year. To have it be more than just going from one workshop to the next. Provide opportunities that would allow for more interactions amongst conference attendees.
TOM: I thought they did a good job this year advertising social opportunities — a newbies gathering, a trip to the art museum, a mixed orientation marriage dinner, the closing night for all attendees at a local restaurant. I did miss our regular mealtimes together, though. Such organic opportunities to sit at a table with folks you knew — or folks you didn’t! — and let connections unfold.
The biggest adjustment at Revoice 2019 was intentionality with diversity — so many women and people of color giving testimonies and leading workshops! What a beautiful thing.
I’d love to see this diversity extend to future Revoice conferences — and not just with gender and racial diversity.
I’d love to see more straight people attend Revoice and lead in various capacities. One of my favorite testimonies was from a straight pastor who shared his experience being “come out to” by one of his gay associate pastors.
I’d also love to see more “SSA-” identifying folks find representation at Revoice. While people of any “Side B” identification have felt welcome at the conference, I feel this underlying tone that you haven’t found “enlightenment” or fully “arrived” until you embrace LGBTQ terminology for yourself.
This does bother me — not for me, per se, but for others in attendance. I feel their tension.
I’ve grown comfortable using most sexual labels and identifiers interchangeably, but that’s only been after a decade on this road. And I don’t say that to mean “I’ve arrived” with my sexual identity and that others need to join me here at this stage, too.
Ultimately, if we all believe in and hold to this same traditional sexual ethic, can we all be “right” with our labels? What about people at Revoice who don’t — or cannot — describe themselves as “gay” or “queer”? Do they have as much a place at the table as someone who does? Do they have a voice in the form of a testimony-giver, workshop leader, or even a keynote speaker?
I get that folks have triggers with SSA terminology. But people have triggers with LGBTQ terminology, too. This year, more than last, I found myself hungering for more of a “balance” with expressions of sexual identity, learning from folks on all sides of this diverse “Side B” spectrum.
The emcee said something vital the first night. He said we may hear things that make us uncomfortable throughout the conference and that we should lean into that discomfort. To listen.
I’d love to see more understanding and empathy form for one another — all across this spectrum.
MARSHALL: I am probably the most conservative writer on YOB. I don’t call myself gay because I prefer to give an explanation rather than a one-word label. Still, I have never advocated reparative therapy, and I don’t think we should divide over which words we use to describe ourselves.
RYAN: I agree that the improved diversity was exciting. It’s beautiful to see how different we all can be while still finding solidarity in Christ.
I would love to see a workshop at Revoice next year (or at least more discourse) about what positive things we can carry forward from the “ex-gay” movement: “Redeeming Ex-Gay Culture”?
I take an expansive view of the depth and breadth of redemptive work. I’m on the “let’s find what’s true, beautiful, and necessary in LGBTQ culture and carry it forward” bus.
I would also hop on the “let’s find what’s true, beautiful, and necessary in the ex-gay movement and carry it forward” bus.
Tom, I think you make a good point about wanting more representation for the “SSA crowd.” It feels like maybe that shifted away from the middle, compared to last year.
I’m wildly speculating here, but I’d guess that’s a reaction to the criticisms of Revoice — reinforcing (and perhaps over-representing) our LGBTQ identities and culture because criticism on the right wants to invalidate them, and they significantly weaken criticism from the left.
SSA labels don’t feel like they need defending from the right, at least. If this is true, it would be part of a bigger pattern I’ve noticed where external criticism determined a lot of the conference content. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated Johanna’s “Two Kingdoms of Glory” keynote, but it was definitely formed in reaction to external criticisms; likewise, some of the other keynote and workshop content.
Next year, I hope more of the conference content can be an answer to the question, “What does our community need?” rather than “Why are the critics wrong?”
TOM: Boom. You nailed it, Ryan. I just want to be refueled at Revoice. And despite my angst and quibbles, I mostly am.
My hat really does go off to Nate Collins, Stephen Moss, the board, and everyone who makes Revoice happen. It’s impossible to pull off an event for 600 people and make everyone happy. We’re 600 people with 600 different stories, 600 different faith backgrounds, 600 similar and also very different beliefs.
That so many of us can even gather annually is nothing short a miracle. Revoice has accomplished a lot in just two years.
I hope the community grows larger, more diverse, and more empathetic in the years to come.
We have so much to learn from one another. And gosh so much to love.
Did you attend Revoice 2019? What were your highlights and challenges from this year’s conference, and what are your hopes for future Revoice conferences?