October 13, 2019, seemed like every other Sunday. And it was—until it wasn’t.

My sermon that day on Genesis 1:27 unexpectedly made national headlines, changing my life, our church, and the relationship our church had built with our community.

Since then, I’ve reflected on what transpired and how the things that we learned might help other churches as they prepare to teach on sexuality and gender.

In the fall of 2019, we started a yearlong preaching series through Genesis. We take a team approach to preaching, so we discussed how we wanted to handle Genesis 1:26–28—an incredibly important passage with profound implications. Dave Cover, who cofounded The Crossing church with me, preached on the image of God, and the plan was that I would preach the next week on what it means that humans are created male and female.

Knowing the sensitivity of the topic, I asked Dave and other pastors to read the sermon ahead of time and give me feedback. The final version was a team effort to speak truth in love. And the truth is that Genesis clearly teaches that God created people male or female. What people often derisively call the “gender binary” isn’t rooted in the patriarchy or Victorian ethics. It’s rooted in God’s design. Sex and gender aren’t social constructs.

It’s also true that transgender people will always be welcome to attend The Crossing. In the sermon, I told parents that if your child comes to you and says they are trans, the right response is to hug your child, tell them you love them, and assure them you will work through it together. I said that if someone visited the church, I’d use the name they shared with me. I want to build a relationship with people, not win an argument.

Right before I went up to preach this sermon for the second of three services, I was told that a woman—who used to attend The Crossing but had since left not only our church but also orthodox Christianity—had posted on Facebook that she’d listened to the sermon and that I (and our church) was transphobic. She had a young child who was in the process of socially transitioning, so this was an especially personal issue for her.

That was only the beginning of the blowback. There were threats against our safety, so we heightened security at the church, and the police were more visible in my neighborhood. On Monday morning, some people’s coworkers confronted them asking how they could remain at The Crossing after such a hateful sermon (which many had only heard about secondhand).

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We would go on dealing with the aftermath of that sermon for years to come. In the process, I learned seven lessons that may help other churches.

Sometimes teaching biblical truth is costly.

Perhaps the most painful consequence of the sermon was the rupture of our relationship with the True/False Film Festival. This local festival had developed a national reputation, attracting some of the world’s best documentary filmmakers, and The Crossing was a financial sponsor. We’d spent years building friendships with the festival’s founders, who were smart, talented, and very irreligious. Many people in the church volunteered during the festival and many more attended films.

What made the partnership unlikely is the same thing that made it special. Organizations with very different beliefs worked together for the common good. The New York Times and Christianity Today said it was the nation’s only partnership between a film festival and an evangelical church.

But after the sermon on Genesis 1, the festival’s leadership decided they couldn’t partner with us. While the church and the community eventually healed, the partnership never did. This pales in comparison to the prices other Christians have paid for being faithful to Jesus, but being misrepresented in online arguments or called names is never fun.

You can say everything “right” and still be offensive.

Could we have crafted a more truthful and loving sermon? Always. But was it a good-faith effort? Absolutely. My sermon wasn’t designed to stir up controversy but to teach and shepherd the congregation.

It helped me to remember that Jesus said all the right words at the right time with the right tone, and they crucified him. Sometimes Christian truth is offensive no matter how it’s said.

You can act in good faith and still make avoidable mistakes.

I made the mistake of not talking with any transgender people before preaching the sermon. I listened to podcast interviews that featured trans people and read plenty of books on the topic but didn’t have a personal conversation. Would that have changed anything in my sermon? I don’t know. Maybe not. But it would have been wise to listen to trans people in my community before talking about them.

The way you raise the subject matters.

When you preach through books of the Bible, you don’t get to avoid hard topics like sex and gender, but neither can you be accused of selecting texts to pick on one group of people. We addressed the topic because Genesis does, not because we wanted to jump into the middle of the culture war.

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Prepare for tough questions in advance.

When the controversy began, it became obvious that we needed to give the church more instruction than could be included in one sermon. Within a few days, we’d emailed a short document responding to questions we’d been asked and false claims we’d heard in the community.

That email went out by the middle of the week, but those intervening days were rough for people in our church. We should have anticipated this need and posted the document online as soon as our services finished on Sunday.

Clear your schedule to meet with people.

The week following the sermon, I reached out to the people who were criticizing me and the church, including the woman whose Facebook post started it all. My wife and I met with her and her husband at a local coffee shop. Once we said hello and sat down, I opened my notebook and asked what they wished I’d known before I preached that sermon.

I asked the same question of every person who was willing to meet with me face to face: What do you wish I’d known? What do you wish I’d said differently? What do you think I need to learn? While I certainly didn’t agree with everything they said, I learned a lot and walked away with more compassion.

Regardless of the size of the congregation, pastors need to set aside time to get together with people who are confused, feel hurt, or just disagree with a controversial sermon. Meeting with people and answering their questions demonstrates humility and respect. If you sit down and engage in good faith, if you focus more on listening than lecturing, you’ll learn something and, in the process, may win people to the truth.

Respond to critics with grace.

What do you do when people say your sincerely held Christian beliefs cause “tremendous pain in our community”? How do you respond when you’re told that your church “discriminates or explicitly devalues LGBTQ+ citizens”?

One morning about a month after my sermon, my phone started blowing up with texts from friends telling me the local NBC affiliate had interviewed an independent bookstore owner who was sponsoring a lunch discussion highlighting books with transgender characters. The intention behind the event was clear when the owner ended the interview with an invitation: “Pastor Simon is welcome to attend.”

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I could tell everyone was surprised when I walked into the bookstore. Heck, I was surprised I was there. But I knew that we couldn’t hide. If we disappeared, it would communicate that we were embarrassed or knew we were wrong, and neither was true. If we showed up, if we humbly engaged, it would be much harder to write us off as hateful bigots.

We asked our staff and congregation to use their social media platforms to express appreciation for the True/False Film Festival even after they ended our relationship. We encouraged people to continue to volunteer and attend.

A few weeks later, one of the festival’s cofounders told us that the church’s response was a master class in grace and asked why we did it. We couldn’t take credit. The truth is that we wanted to punch back. We’d even come up with snarky comebacks and ways to spin the story so that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys.

Instead, we told him that we decided we just couldn’t respond that way. We follow Jesus. He loved us when we were his enemies. If we offered a master class on grace, it’s only because our master first showed us grace.

The conversation around sexuality has changed since I preached that sermon back in 2019. I doubt the same sermon would draw as much attention or be as controversial today. But the need to preach on culturally sensitive topics with truth and love will never change.

Keith Simon is a pastor at The Crossing and coauthor with Patrick Miller of Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, not the Donkey or the Elephant and the upcoming Joyful Outsiders: Six Ways to Engage a Disorienting Culture (Zondervan, 2025).