Actor and writer Ted Swartz, of the faith-based theater group Ted & Company, thinks churches are getting it wrong when it comes to dealing with homosexuality.
His group recently performed "Learning to Play: a timely conversation about sexuality and the church" at Goshen College. The show is a comedy about what happens when a son tells his father he is gay — and how the family's church friends react to the situation.
Swartz decided to write the show, he said, because he has "love and concern" for the church.
"This particular show is born out of what I believe is a need for us to stay in conversation with each other ... and with those who have been rejected because of their sexual orientation," he said.
He outlined five things churches could do to deal with homosexuality in a better way.
1. Talk about it.
"If people are uncomfortable talking about this (homosexuality) in a faith-based setting, they are not awake," Swartz said. "If you refuse to talk about it in a church setting, you are not aware of what's going on around you."
He hopes that the show will be "a starting point" for church members to talk with each other about what they believe when it comes to homosexuality. Not everyone will agree, he said, but silence isn't the answer.
2. Stop being afraid.
"So much of what we do negatively, in our culture, has to do with fear," Swartz said. "I think fear is such a motivating factor for so many people."
Church, he continued, has set itself up to be a moral compass for its community. Church members may feel that they are heading down what's commonly referred to as "the slippery slope" if they talk about homosexuality — meaning that if they address homosexuality differently they may need to change their views on other beliefs, too.
3. Realize you might not agree
"I hope people will come away from this show with a better understanding of how to relate to people who don't agree with them," Swartz said. "If I can present to you a face of someone, and through the vulnerability of that character allow you to feel empathy ... when you care about someone else it's much harder to hate them."
4. Don't abandon the young generation
Swartz pointed out that fewer young people are attending church.
"Churches are dealing with diminishing numbers ... and young people say the reasons they aren't going to church have to do with, churches only know what they are against, not what they are for," he said.
Young people don't see homosexuality as a problem like older people in the church might, Swartz said. Churches stand to lose the younger generation if they don't find a way to address homosexuality effectively.
5. Don't single out homosexuality.
Swartz pointed out that churches that identify homosexuality as a sin tend to put it in a separate category, away from other sins.
"In our minds, whether we say it or not, we have a hierarchy of sins," Swartz said.
Churches have set themselves against homosexuality in a different way than they set themselves against other sins like gluttony, he said. That's likely because sexuality is so central to who we are as humans, he thinks.
"Church is a moral safeguard, and this issue (homosexuality) is about the core of who we are," he said. "Abortion is the other touchstone issue for many churches, because it's about life and death."
Telling an honest story
Swartz said his show isn't an activist viewpoint. It's also not created with shock value in mind.
"(The show) is to try to tell a story that is honest and gives a voice to people all across the spectrum (of beliefs)," he said. "I wrote the father-son relationship because I am a father."
The father character relates to four of his friends who have different beliefs about homosexuality, Swartz said. Those friends are modeled after Swartz's friends and he's tried to represent them authentically.
"This show is consistent with the direction I've been going in the last number of years, and that is — can the work I'm doing in theater help?" Swartz said. "it's the idea of, if we can laugh about something, we are going to be more able to listen to each other. When you laugh, it opens up your ability to be empathetic."
Swartz isn't alone in his hopes that churches will reconsider their stance on homosexuality. A group of 150 Mennonite pastors recently wrote a letter to the denomination's leaders, asking for a change in church policy on homosexuality, according to The Mennonite magazine.
Goshen College, where Ted & Company recently performed, is affiliated with the Mennonite church.