A recent Pew Research Center study reveals how deeply divided we are over same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans (58%) now say that homosexuality should be accepted, rather than discouraged, by society. From reading this data I gather that what is meant here is that 58% believe we should accept homosexual practice, not just homosexual inclination or identity.

The context this creates for the missional church is both challenging and dangerous. Let me explain.

The more the culture moves toward an open acceptance of homosexual practice the harder it will be for conservative Christians to adapt and incarnationally share the good news of Jesus. So long as homosexuals believe they have been singled out for special disdain as unique sinners the more they, and larger numbers of non-homosexuals with them, will resist the gospel. Why? They will see the gospel as a political/moral message that condemns them for something they cannot change.

But the more the church rushes to adjust everything to this new reality the more we run the serious risk of making no moral distinctions at all regarding sexual practice. If anything is clear in Christian tradition it is this — moral distinctions and practices are the result of faithfully following Jesus. The fruit of discipleship will include moral norms.

I think one of our major problems is centered in the question of how we can preach grace while we still hold to a scripturally moral position on a wide range of concerns. Sexuality is such a major concern but it is one of many concerns and when we tend to make it the most important one we do so to our peril. Do we preach morality to the culture or do we preach the grace and forgiveness of Christ? Do we tell the good news or do we keep hammering on the bad news of a culture that is moving toward Gomorrah? The answers are more complex than people on either the left or right seem to grasp, at least to my way of thinking about them. In this instance nuance is extremely important. I believe we are losing the “nuance” of the gospel on both sides of this contentious debate. We want simple answers. Either we stridently oppose homosexuality as the greatest sin of all or we stridently defend it as the newest insight that we believe we’ve found in Scripture. The church is further divided and discussion turns to acrimonious mistrust and the complete rejection of those who do not agree with us.

Among younger people in particular, there is broad support for societal acceptance of homosexuality. More than six-in-ten (63%) of those younger than age 50 — 69% of those younger than age 30 — say that homosexuality should be accepted. Far fewer of those ages 50 and older (52%) favor societal acceptance of homosexuality.

These are among the findings from the Pew Research Center political typology survey, released on May 4, 2011. The survey, conducted in February and March of this year, showed that opposition to gay marriage has continued to decline.

Currently, 45% favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally while 46% are opposed. Two years ago, in April 2009, 35% supported same-sex marriage while 54% were opposed. This is a staggering change for anyone who is paying attention. I see no way that homosexual marriage will not become law in the foreseeable future whether we want it or not. The “wild card” is spiritual renewal that impacts the culture at large.

Pew notes that opposition to gay marriage has fallen by 19 points (from 65%) since 1996. (For more on changing public views of same-sex marriage, see Pew Research Center reports from March 3, 2011 and Oct. 6, 2010.)

The aforementioned political typology survey also found a decline in negative views of the increasing number of gays and lesbians raising children. Today, 35% say that more gay parents is bad for society, 14% view this trend positively, while 48% say it does not make much difference. Four years ago, 50% viewed this trend negatively, 11% said it was a good thing and 34% said it made no difference.

The world that is our present world, and the world that is about to be the one we will have to live in for Christ and his kingdom, will be very different from the world that I grew up in during the 1950s. And it will be different from the one most of you know from your experience too, even if you are much younger than me. My burning question is clear: How shall we live and proclaim the grace of God while we still hold to a thoughtful, Christian morality in both public and private? The challenge is immense. Let us go forward in love and not shut down those we disagree with by harshness or moral arrogance. The world is changing but the good news is still the same – God saves all who call upon him in and through his Son Jesus Christ.