As someone who speaks from time to time on issues related to sexuality, and as a pastor who has written a book on homosexuality, I’ve been asked the question many times: “How can our church reach out to the gay community?”

I’m never sure how to answer the question. For starters, I’m no authority on “reaching the gay community.” Our church has always had men and women in it who struggle with same-sex attraction. We have some good stories to tell and some disappointing stories, but experts we certainly are not.

The other reason I’m hesitant to answer the question is that it’s one of those questions that can only be answered with more questions.

What do you mean by the gay community? Are you thinking of Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction? Or do you have in mind a particular neighborhood where a number of LGBT persons live and work?

What do you mean by reaching out? Do you have your theology squared away? Do you have a biblical view of marriage and sexuality? Do you have a biblical view of the image of God? Are you reaching out to condemn, reaching out to be open and affirming, reaching out to share the gospel, or reaching out to make a friend?

What do you mean by our church? Are you hoping to start an official church ministry? Do you expect your Sunday services to change? Or are you thinking of what you and a few other members want to do?

After clearing up those definitional issues, there are other questions to ask.

Why do you want to reach this community? Everyone needs the gospel, so why do you feel led to minister to LGBT persons? Are they your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family members, or are you hoping for street cred and a cultural apologetic? What relationships do you have currently have with people who identify as gay or lesbian? How has God helped you develop a heart for those who struggle with same sex attraction?

What are things like in your church community? Do people know how to speak the truth in love? Does the preacher only speak of the LGBT community in adversarial tones? Will church members think of those with same-sex attraction as an alien people or mainly as people like them who have joys and sorrows and sins and struggles? Who in the church has the gift of hospitality?

And what about you? Are you open about your own sin and your need for a Savior? What have you repented of lately? Are you mainly looking to love or mainly looking to get something by loving these people? Are these people only these people, or are they individuals made in the image of God who need faith and repentance, justification and sanctification, love and friendship, warning and assurance?

Don’t get me wrong. I think “reaching out to the gay community” can be a wonderful thing. But we must be clear in our own hearts about the why and how of what we’re doing. We shouldn’t expect people to be eagerly awaiting the church to “reach” them. And we shouldn’t expect the reaching to go anywhere without the Spirit of Christ working with us, the gospel of Christ coming from us, and the love of Christ—shown in hospitality and friendship—flowing through us.

There is no secret to reaching out to any community—gay, straight, or otherwise. Don’t be scared and don’t be stupid. Talk to people as real people. Get the gospel right and get the gospel out. Be friendly and make friends. Love people because you love them. And then tell them about the God who loves us in Christ more than we can imagine.