In conjunction with the growing awareness that ex-gay therapy does not work and that the traditional interpretations of the few passages of Scripture that generally get appealed to in the debate over homosexuality do not hold up to scrutiny when examined more closely and in context, there seems little doubt that Exodus International is in decline. In an email sent out this week, Exodus International’s Senior Director of Events told would be attendees that their ex-gay Love Won Out (LWO) conference scheduled for later this month has been cancelled “due to the low number of registrations.”
This seems to be just the latest blow in the unraveling of the oldest and largest umbrella organization for ex-gay ministries. Recent months and years have seen their pleas for funds become increasingly more desperate, their staff and benefits cut and significant ministry partners disassociate. Most recently, Exodus International president Alan Chambers admitted that “99.9 percent” of the people he has met “have not experienced a change in their orientation” and last month Dr. Robert Spitzer, the researcher who authored the most widely cited ex-gay study recanted his findings and apologized noting, “I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct.” Now Exodus’ main recruiting tool, the LWO conferences, is attracting fewer attendees.
This is the first time Exodus has canceled one of its LWO conferences though attendance has been steadily declining at these events over the past couple of years. In September 2011, attendance at an LWO event in Houston was at a record low 450. That’s down from the nearly 1,000 attendees Exodus has drawn to its events in the past.
Says John Smid, former Executive Director of the ex-gay ministry Love In Action, and who now speaks out against ex-gay groups claiming that orientation can change:
“I am glad to see LWO go away. After attending over 35 of them through the years it was one of the saddest events I’ve ever attended. Parents crying, kids being pulled around the conference by the dominance of their parents’ desire to get them ‘fixed’. Speakers trying hard to give hope to the parents but knowing deep inside that these kids were never going to change. It’s hard to keep that facade up.”
Fact is many of us have watched over the years as the semantics of the Exodus message have been regularly massaged to respond to each new wave of criticism. In my own role as a former “ex-gay” ministry leader, it gradually became clear to me that the ex-gay process did not work, that it often did more harm than good, and that ex-gay ministries were too afraid to honestly assess the fruit of their work and admit their staggering level of failure. The long-term consequences for many who took part in these programs and ministries were depressing, if not downright disastrous. The long-term damage has been incalculable. A strategy that had largely been inspired by hyped-up expectations of change proved spiritually catastrophic and many people gave up their faith altogether.
The striking contrast between the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry in the New Testament and the fruit of the ex-gay ministries should have given Exodus and their associates reason to pause. Jesus’ works of healing were never challenged on the basis that perhaps they had not taken place. On the contrary, the blind did see, the lame did walk and the dead were raised. Not even Jesus’ worst enemies suggested anything less. Instead, Jesus’ enemies were incensed by the fact that his healing ministry was so obviously effective, because it shamed them, exposed their lack of compassion and undermined their authority.
Yet despite all the evidence that’s now come to the fore refuting the claim that orientation can be changed, despite the dismal success rate of the ex-gay movement, and despite countless testimonies from those who have been involved with these ministries and have come out on the other side to say they’re not effective, Exodus still continues to proclaim their message of “change”. The critical importance of Exodus’ just learning to listen and walk alongside people in the journey of faith would be incalculable. When we’re not listening we’re not learning. Jesus surely gave us this example of listening in his ministry again and again. The importance of listening is powerfully portrayed in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, “Life Together” and amazingly pertinent in our present time:
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him… Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.
Should Exodus heed Bonhoeffer’s words and learn to listen better, they might hear Jesus’ admonition that new wine requires new wineskins (Matthew 9:17) and understand that unless we can be flexible in response to what God is doing in these times, we shall be of no use to Him. They may also discover that God’s concern is not to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian people — to bring them in line with social norms — but to help them become secure in Him, assured of His love and acceptance and set apart to follow Him faithfully and responsibly. But as Upton Sinclair wisely noted, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary [or perhaps his career, reputation, social standing and/or Christian ministry] depends on him not understanding it.”