A few months ago, Mark went to his pastor with an admission and a question. This 25-year-old man grew up in this church. He now sat with the only pastor he’s known. Haltingly, Mark told his pastor that he’s gay. He said he loved his church. And he asked if he and his male friend could continue to attend and participate in church activities. 

The pastor took a deep breath and told Mark he was living in sin. The pastor said he still loved Mark. But he said it would be inappropriate for Mark and his friend to be a part of this church.

In another state, Al, a senior pastor in a large church, faced growing pressure after the denomination began welcoming openly homosexual individuals into the clergy. His congregation, split on the issue, demanded to know where Al stood. Though he attempted to make peace with both sides, ultimately the church’s leadership council asked Al to leave. He did, along with a significant portion of the congregation.

Such scenes have become commonplace. Congregations are killing themselves over the issue of homosexuality. And they’re missing a real opportunity to shine during a time of cultural upheaval.

Unfortunately, this suicidal behavior is exhibited on both sides of the argument. Yes, it’s a difficult issue. But it needn’t tear us apart. Let me suggest some sensible ways to approach this issue of homosexuality and the church.

1. Know your ultimate goal. Let this goal and your desired ultimate outcomes drive your approach. Why are you in ministry as a congregation? Is it to win an argument? to stand your ground? to defeat the other side? to proclaim law–or justice? to render judgment against the “wrong” side? Or, is to bring more people into a close relationship with Jesus Christ?

Jesus encountered religious people who were following their dearly held convictions. But they lost focus on the bigger picture. The legalists attacked Jesus for picking grain on the sabbath. The justice lovers criticized Jesus for “wasting” resources that could be used for the poor. Jesus reminded them–and us–that a larger goal must prevail. He calls us to do what will best result in drawing people into a closer relationship with him.

2. Talk honestly and openly. Don’t hide from the issue. Get to know those with whom you disagree. Listen. Hear the perspectives of the other side. Share your perspectives–without platitudes, slogans or shibboleths (you may need to look that one up). Pray for those on all sides. This kind of discourse is not only possible, it’s desperately needed. This particular week, people across the country are gathering at Lifetree Cafes discussing openly the topic of “God and Gays.” And people on all sides of the issue are realizing the real benefits of a civil conversation that includes God.

3. Let scripture speak. Most people on all sides are open to examining what the Bible says about sexuality, and marriage, and love. The trouble comes when loud voices add their own accoutrements and leaps of logic. Look at scripture–all of it, the “letter of the law” as well as the “spirit of the law.” Let God speak through his word, without strident embellishments.

4. Accept people. In our new book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church, we advocate “radical hospitality.” That means employing Jesus-style acceptance of all people–even those with whom we disagree. We need to understand that acceptance does not mean endorsement. Jesus demonstrated this kind of acceptance throughout his ministry.

5. Don’t over-inflate. Unfortunately, churches on all sides of the homosexuality debate have elevated this issue to exagerrated heights. For some inexplicable reason, they’ve portrayed homosexuality as God’s pet subject. News flash: it’s not. But churches that emphasize homosexuality as a sin tend to hoist it over adultery, character assassination, gluttony and other biblical prohibitions. And churches that tout gay rights tend to make the issue the odd centerpiece of their theology and ministry–even if it means denominational and congregational destruction.

6. Live with some uncertainty. There are legitimate questions surrounding homosexuality. What’s the cause of homosexual tendencies? Why didn’t Jesus speak specifically about homosexuality? When Christians display unfounded over-confidence and bravado in this discussion it only hurts the cause. It’s time for a good dose of humility and authenticity. We mere humans don’t have all the answers. We’re all in this together, looking to be faithful, albeit imperfect, followers of Christ.

The homosexual discussion raises difficult questions for the church. What do we do with same-sex marriages? How do we decide who can be ordained or serve in leadership positions?

How we handle this discussion has over-sized ramifications for the church. The world is watching. What will shine through? Will it be the love of Christ and his people? Or something else?