26 Oct 2017
Youth pastors have challenging ministries, and that’s an understatement today. I took a phone call from Tom (all names have been changed), a youth pastor at a large, PCA church, and his situation is something churches will be encountering everywhere.
Tom said he had worked hard to build a thriving, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. He solicited many 30-something adult helpers and small group leaders. His ministry emphasis was on biblical education and personal ministry, but he also worked to develop an outreach mindset for the unsaved and outsiders among his kids.
And it was working. The youth group grew. Many un-churched kids regularly attended as a result of being invited by his kids. But one day his outreach approach came close to tearing the entire ministry apart.
What happened? One of the invited kids, Eric, who got very involved in the youth group, announced one day that he was gay. This is where the problem for Tom began.
The kids from church had different responses to Eric’s disclosure, and they fell into three camps. The first camp was, “That’s wrong! He shouldn’t be in the youth group.” The second was, “He should be here. The church is the best place for him to learn about Christ.” And some said, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
All three responses created confusion and turmoil.
And then the parents got wind of it all. Not only were they shocked by the emerging disorder in the youth group, but many of the parents began to learn, for the first time, what their children believed about this issue. And they responded with anger and fear at everything that was happening.
Tom’s phone rang, and his email overflowed. “How did this kid get into the church’s youth group?” asked one dad. One mom gave an ultimatum: “If that boy continues to attend, we’re pulling our sons out.” Another said, “I don’t want that kind of bad influence around my child.”
Some church kids threatened to leave if Eric was asked to leave; others said they would never invite anyone else to come. To top it off, Tom’s staff had different responses. Tom was in no-man’s land, feeling pressure to make the right decision. Clearly, there would be consequences no matter how he handled the situation. Hence his phone call to me!
We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
As issues of sex, sexuality, and gender become the defining identity marker in the culture, it has never been more critical for the church to be educated and equipped. With the church and parents often committed to not speaking about these matters to our kids, most kids make up their minds about sexuality and gay marriage by the age of 12 these days (and it’s getting younger every day). The culture has “discipled” them well. They are listening to the voices on the Internet and media, which they spend hours each day consuming.
Churches need to educate their leaders and volunteers in how to lovingly and compassionately minister to youth, some whom struggle silently with sexual issues from a relatively early age. Parents need to be taught how to talk to their kids, well before an issue explodes and they respond in anger and fear.
Those who are involved in ministry to junior and senior high youth must speak boldly, frequently, compassionately, and truthfully about sex, sexuality, and gender, especially because most kids struggle in their silent formative years when sexual identity is being formed and embraced. We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
Yes, you want 13-year-old Jason to trust you (or his small group leader) to tell you he’s looking at porn on his smartphone. Yes, you want 15-year-old Erica to confide that she’s attracted to other girls, and wants to know, is she gay. You want Sam to tell you he feels he’s another gender. You want these kinds of talks because God has placed you in their lives at this crucial time, while they still live at home and before college. Believe me, once they get to a secular college, there will be plenty of voices saying, “Yes, please come talk to us. We’ll help you figure this out.”
I’m so serious about this I’m going to repeat it: if youth leaders are not willing to engage these issues with the youth under their care, they shouldn’t be involved in youth work today!
HARVEST USA is ready to help your church become educated and proactive in dealing with these matters. We can meet with your church staffs and elder boards to help them strategize and implement how to do 21st-century youth ministry work.
Email me at [email protected]
07 Jun 2017
John Freeman’s more than 35 years of experience in helping pastors and church leaders comes through in his advice to one pastor who discovers sexual sin among his own church leadership.
Click here to read John’s accompanying article, “Pastors: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lid Off.”
07 Jun 2017
The pastor on the other end of the phone call was nervous. The uneasy tone in his voice told me that he was both uncomfortable and distressed. He had called seeking advice because he didn’t know what to do. “I think pornography use among the men in my church is at an epidemic level. But, frankly, I’m afraid to take the lid off it and address the pornography struggle openly.” He then related that, over the previous months, several men had shared with him about their secret, lifelong pornography struggles and recent failures with Internet porn.
I congratulated him on being someone who others obviously felt was approachable with this very sensitive and shaming issue. He went on to tell me what perplexed and paralyzed him the most. “You don’t understand, John. Some of these men are leaders in my church—a Sunday school teacher and a deacon. It could be a major disruption for me to address these issues straightforwardly.” He also told me his foremost fear: If this was happening amongst his leadership, how pervasive might this be with other guys in the church?
That’s when I pushed into his fears and unbelief—his fear about how it would all turn out and his unbelief that God could do something powerful in the lives of the men in his church
The situation was too overwhelming to him, hence his hesitancy to boldly dive in. This was evident to me when he shared, “There’s a part of me which would just rather not know.” That’s when I pushed into his fears and unbelief—his fear about how it would all turn out and his unbelief that God could do something powerful in the lives of the men in his church. I talked to him about what it seemed like the Lord was doing and could now do even more through his involvement. I also bluntly told him that the obstacle to growth and change for these men was not just their sin, it was now him. (Not sure he liked me saying that.)
In reality, he was so caught up in his own fear that he didn’t see this: The confessions made by these leaders were orchestrated by God. When our eyes are on ourselves—our fears, our inabilities—don’t we often miss the big picture of how God is working? This situation was a golden opportunity for him. I tried to encourage this pastor and also challenge him. “Obviously, for this to begin to come to light among some of your men—well, this is nothing less than a movement of the Spirit. How can you not pursue your leadership in a more wide-scale and intentional way?” I asked.
Yes, in the short-term, moving into these men’s lives might be messy. He might find out things he’d rather not know. Patterns of temptation, strongholds, and other sin tendencies would be uncovered and might be deeper and more complex than feared.
However, I also helped him to see that his involvement could be transformative for these men. I urged him to take the long view and picture the outcome down the line of helping these men turn from porn to Christ. He could have men more appreciative of God’s mercy, more engaged with their wives and families, and more active in the church. They could move to a new understanding of Jesus as one who meets us in the midst of the chaos of our lives to show us our deep-seated idols and replace them with his grace-filled presence. Walking alongside these strugglers might have far-reaching consequences and could be dramatically redemptive for those who had confessed.
I shared the example of Stan, a former participant in one of our support groups at Harvest USA. Although a church leader, Stan had been caught up in a web of pornography for years. Finally, he began to attend one of our groups. About a year later, he told me one night, “I’m starting to see that Jesus just isn’t a self-improvement program. As painful as it is, he’s doing radical surgery on my heart in ways I never imagined.”
Stan saw his whole being transformed as he became aware of the ways he had robbed his family (time, energy, and involvement), others (showing up for church but not much more), and the Lord (failing to tithe for years due to the hundreds of dollars a month he spent on online subscriptions to porn websites). Stan began to develop a godly sorrow for his sin, along with a joy-filled understanding of the gospel. As a result, his repentance was like Zacchaeus; he began to give back his time, energy, and resources to his family and local church as if they were not his own, but the Lord’s.
I finished our conversation telling this pastor that whatever mess he might uncover would be well worth it. I think he started to get the picture.
P.S.: Check out my article that speaks to church leaders, “Sex and the Silence of the Church, Why it is Crippling God’s People.”
You can watch John talking some more about this on his video, Pastors: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lid Off. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
In general, people rarely come forward to talk about their sexuality, sexual struggles, or sexual identity issues. Therefore, it can be difficult to address people pastorally, even when pastors are willing and want to help people deal with their sexual brokenness. On the other hand, pastors are sometimes increasingly reluctant to address these issues themselves. One member of a church filled with millennials told me that his church never addresses issues like sexuality at all. That’s pretty ironic, given that this generation is the most porn-exposed, gay-affirming, and pro-gay marriage group of any generation—even in very conservative churches. In the absence of guidance from church leaders, the culture has done its own job of discipleship in this area quite well!
“Every day, it’s almost like I’m only one step away from starting to believe that, just maybe, we are the ones who have been wrong [about homosexuality].”
Indeed, pastors have told me they fear that the culture, sexually speaking, is starting to impact their leadership and elders as well. Case in point? Sam, an elder at a larger congregation with a mostly younger crowd, confessed to me recently, “Every day, it’s almost like I’m only one step away from starting to believe that, just maybe, we are the ones who have been wrong [about homosexuality].”
Phil, a pastor in a large metropolitan-area church, told me that some people stopped attending his church when they found out that the church held a biblically faithful stance on homosexuality. “Visitors are often offended when they learn what we believe about this issue, even though we talk about it with grace and mercy.” It’s true. Today it’s quite normal for someone to inquire of an individual, once they find out they are a Christian, “Well, what do you think about homosexuality? Is it a sin?” It’s seen as the new barometer of trustworthiness in the eyes of the inquirer. In an analogous way, church visitors, even those who may attend an introductory or membership class, also want to know up front now, “What does your church think about homosexuality?” One pastor described trying to navigate these waters today as a minefield—no matter what he says or how kindly he will say it, someone is going to be upset. In fact, the upset party may very well leave the church, perhaps taking some others with them.
Maybe that’s why one pastor of another large city church told me not long ago, “We’ll never have anyone from Harvest USA come and speak to our congregation. I don’t want to offend anyone, especially those who may be gay in the church.” Well, okay, but my question to that pastor would be, “How do you plan to educate your people biblically about sex and sexuality? Or are you just going to let them figure it out for themselves, continuing to allow the hundreds of other voices out there be their instructors?” I also wonder how struggling members of such a congregation might ever be encouraged towards honesty, faith, and repentance when it comes to their sexual temptations, struggles, and sin—to even want to get help.
My guess is that fear of man and a desire to not upset the apple cart are often ruling forces here. We err when we dismiss or fail to teach on something as big and important to God as sex. If we talk about these things biblically (as in really teaching what God says), we may fear that our message won’t go over well with those who are exploring the faith.
But church leadership doesn’t have to walk on eggshells, fear, be confused, or choose silence. Yes, teaching and speaking the whole counsel of God, offering mercy and grace all the while, can be a challenge. Yes, we’ll need to be more strategic in learning how to engage the culture that is already deeply influencing our own people. But if there’s any time that we must proclaim the truth and grace of God about these issues, it’s today!
Harvest USA wants to help pastoral staff, other church leadership, elder boards, etc., to better consider how to communicate all this with their congregations. No longer can we just wait on the sidelines. As leadership, we must intentionally think about how we can guide and help our people better understand God’s intention in these areas.
Please let us know if you’d like Harvest USA staff to help your church leadership and key volunteers think through these things. Your church staff and other leadership will be much better prepared to help the congregation if you do. Send me an email for more information on how your church leadership can begin to tackle these issues—and, therefore, be enabled to lead your people well in concerns close that are close to the heart of God.
14 Jul 2016
As the church steps into the trenches of the sexual struggles with which her people are wrestling, it is encountering a new reality and new challenges in how to do faithful ministry. As the culture continues to push into the church, the following “givens” impact how Christians are thinking about sexuality:
- Increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, especially among millennials
- Growing acceptance of a genderfluid and genderless society
- An awareness of Christians who experience same-sex attraction (SSA) but confusion about how to help them
- Legalization of gay marriage
- The encroachment of pro-gay theology and its inroads into the evangelical church
- The trend toward casual sexual relationships and co-habitation
- The ubiquity of pornography and the steady erosion of biblical sexual ethics
All of the above signals the need for churches to think strategically about how to “do ministry” as the culture continues to push into the church. John Freeman has spoken to church leaders and presbyteries, helping to bring awareness of the pressing issues that need attention. John highlights four things churches must address.
1. Leadership—insuring everyone is on the same page
While leadership certainly means your key leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, etc.—it also includes your leadership volunteers like women’s leaders, youth leaders, Sunday school and adult teachers, small group leaders, and so on. The importance of all leaders being on the same page, theologically and pastorally, has never been more critical. Asking the following questions will (hopefully) result in dialogue and clarification.
Do you know your current leaders’ views on sex and sexuality? Considering the “givens” listed above, how do you approach your leadership in determining what they believe and where they might be feeling pressure to change? We used to take it for granted that leaders would adhere to biblical sexual ethics, but some are changing their views and remaining silent about it. How do you get everyone on the same page?
Do you know if your leaders are struggling here? As important as what they believe, do you know if some of your leaders are struggling here? People, and especially leaders, hide sexual struggles. How can you call them to be honest, and in what ways do you help them? We know that when leadership falls sexually, it deeply injures the church and how people see Christ.
How will your leaders approach sexual issues pastorally? Key leaders have the greatest influence, so it’s more important than ever to make sure they believe fully in what the Scriptures say and will speak that compassionately to those who struggle. Sometimes that’s not easy to do, but true compassion is grounded in speaking God’s truth, not in defining truth as we wish it to be.
How would your church address a leadership candidate who experiences same-sex attraction? As we call believers to openness and honesty about their sexual struggles, we should expect to find men and women who live with same-sex attraction and are living faithfully according to Scripture. When they pursue leadership roles in the church, what help and assistance do they need?
2. Membership—confronting complex issues
The culture greatly influences church members. Confusion is growing as pro-gay theology, rooted in secular thought, influences believers who know too little of Scripture. How will your church in this new reality address some of the following scenarios?
What if someone identifies as a gay Christian? Is this a private matter known only to some, or is this becoming public? Do you know what this person means by adopting this identity label?
What about someone who supports gay marriage and homosexuality? Again, is this a private opinion or an advocacy position? What is a pastoral approach to members whose views are in opposition to Scripture? What if someone with these views wants to join your church?
Are you talking about sex and sexuality to prospective members in your membership classes? Do you approach the issue from a discipline angle, or first from a Christian worldview perspective? Or do you not mention the topic at all, and if so, why not?
What if a same-sex couple comes to faith (one or both)? What if they are legally married? How do you approach the complex situation of pastorally shepherding a family, particularly when there are children, when the parents are legally married?
What about church discipline? While recognizing the complex issues involved with sexual sin, where might church discipline come into play as someone is being shepherded through the ups and downs that go with this struggle? Is there an approach that is more helpful, or less so?
3. Church Culture—what kind of church culture do you want to nurture?
Do you have a sense of the culture in your church in how it relates to the culture “out there?” How does your church address the new reality of sexual issues that are prominent in the culture? How do you speak about them publicly, from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, in the things your church writes? There is a big difference between churches that speak harshly about sexual issues and those that say hardly anything at all. The first approach leaves people hiding, and the other leaves people in confusion. That we need to talk about these issues has never been more critical, but the words we use (or do not use) are equally important. How do you speak to those who are opposed to his ways; and to those who are confused about what Scripture says; and to those who want to obey but struggle to submit to the Lordship of Christ in this area? Our approach, our words, our faithfulness to Scripture, and our presence with those who struggle are the many ways we show who God is to them.
4. Policies and Procedures—possible dangers ahead
Two seismic changes have transformed the landscape for ministry: the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the use, or threat, of non-discrimination laws and regulations, known as sexual orientation and gender identity ordinances. Churches with a history and tradition of opening their doors to the community for weddings and receptions, local community events, outside groups that use the church to meet—all of these connections may become problematic in light of the increasing use of anti-discrimination ordinances.
These new laws and court rulings mean that churches must carefully think about ministry in three key areas.
While this issue gets a lot of press, the reality is that the First Amendment seems quite solid in protecting ministers from performing same-sex marriages. However, the matter is more uncertain if your church has been open to hosting outside weddings and receptions. What steps can your church take to remain open to traditional weddings while not hosting wedding events that oppose biblical truth?
Building usage by outside groups
Apart from weddings, building use for other outside events might become more difficult, particularly for churches that rent their facilities or allow them to be used by the community. The challenge for churches that want to remain invested in their local community is to determine how to both invite and define that involvement, in ways that will avoid potential lawsuits.
Anti-discrimination laws regarding employment are another new reality that is increasingly stepping on religious turf. Churches that discipline ordained staff for misconduct are again protected by the First Amendment. But addressing non-ordained staff behavior is not so clear. What if a staff person comes out as transgender, or a staff person legally marries someone of the same gender? Gender fluidity and sexual orientation are major battlegrounds for employment law today. The area of employment law for religious groups seems to be up for grabs today. How churches will be affected is not yet clear, but they should now find ways to try to protect themselves while also shepherding staff who are struggling in these areas.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a few of the crucial issues churches are facing with these new realities. Harvest USA can help! We can help you think through these issues and conduct a healthy conversation among your leaders.
Contact John Freeman at [email protected] to get the conversation started.
Silence—something the church in general does rather well. The effects of this were brought home to me recently. I was speaking to a group of students from the Reformed University Fellowship at Yale. The topic was “Gay and the Gospel.” I talked about our duty to love others by bringing both the truth and the mercy of the gospel to those self-identifying as gay or lesbian. I stressed that homosexuality wasn’t the real issue. Beneath all struggles and sin and ways of living that are outside of God’s design is a human heart that says, “I have a wonderful plan for my life, and don’t you (that is, anyone) or you (that is, God) get in my way.”
Afterwards, a student came to talk with me. Through her tears, she shared that she had been raised at a large evangelical church. She asked, “Why didn’t my church prepare me for what I was going to face at college? Why didn’t my church talk about sex and homosexuality? I feel like I have no biblical basis from which I can talk intelligently about it.”
I remembered talking to a church’s prayer team years earlier. They had been praying with people for more than ten years at a weekly intercessory healing prayer meeting. One leader said to me, “John, we’ve prayed with people about marriage issues, problems with children, job losses, interpersonal conflicts, crises of faith, and other personal problems, but never has someone come for prayer about anything of a sexual nature. Not once.”
I was shocked. The numbers of those struggling with pornography, same-sex attractions, and sexual addictions are increasing daily. Add in family members affected and impacted by someone they love dealing with sexual brokenness, and it is clear this is a huge problem in the church today.
I responded to this leader’s comment by saying, “You know, I’d be asking, why not? I’d be asking, how has our church communicated that it’s OK to talk about everything else, but not about ‘that?’ Somehow you’ve conveyed this isn’t a safe place to talk about sex and sexual issues. And in doing that, you’ve become part of a collusion of silence.”
Several years ago when our Board began thinking about expanding our mission focus at Harvest USA, one that would focus on educating and equipping the church, I remember what Board member, Steve Brown, said: “What Harvest USA does is the work of the church, work which the church has neglected out of fear and shame, out of not knowing what to do. We’ve got to help the church recapture the calling to rescue and redeem those struggling with sexual sin in the church. But, if we do this, it will be the most difficult thing that we’ve done.”
Prophetic words! As we’ve begun helping churches address these issues, we’ve run into all kinds of roadblocks. You’d think that churches would eagerly desire to help people, to bring the light of the gospel into these difficult places. The reality is quite different.
This resistance and hesitancy got me thinking. I’ve been trying to better understand why we—members of the church, the church as a whole and church leadership in particular—are so reluctant to proactively talk about these crucial matters with our people. I came up with 10 reasons why the church is so silent. Which of these describe you, or your church, or your church leadership? The silence of the church is crippling our people. But it doesn’t have to be this way any longer. Believing in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than enough to move us from hesitancy to redemptive action.
1. The church is silent because it’s in our nature to pretend—to pretend that, “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
The truth is, in today’s highly-charged sexual culture, almost no one is OK in this area. The reality of Genesis 4:7, that, “sin is crouching at the door and its desire is to have you,” has never been truer when it comes to ways our hearts seek comfort, relief, and life in things of a sexual nature. We don’t have to go looking for ways to stain our hearts; they come looking for us! The pathways to dark and destructive places abound: Internet, cable TV, hotel room adult video offerings, movies, and mobile dating apps are part of a culture that beckons us to give in to our feelings and desires, to escape lives of loneliness, routine and stress. Even if you aren’t personally struggling with sexual integrity, there are dozens of people sitting in the same church service as you who are struggling.
I’ve learned that we’ll go to any lengths to keep from being honest about all this. Why? Fear, shame, hatred of self, not believing the gospel has any practical answer, guilt, giving up—you name it.
I was having lunch with a businessman from my church, and halfway through he brought up his Internet pornography usage. What happened next was a microcosm of what is happening throughout the church. I asked him when it started. When he was 10 years old. How often do he look at porn? Several times a week, for a couple of hours at a time. Anyone know about this? No. Was he in a men’s group at church? Yes. Does this topic ever come up for discussion? No. Would he be willing to bring it up? No way!
Then he began to backpedal, saying it’s not really that big a problem nor is it that damaging. I’m not usually blunt with someone, but I had no choice this time. “You know, what I hear coming from your mouth is addict-speak. You’re far worse off than you can possibly imagine. Can you believe that Jesus longs to enter this area of life with you?” He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights. I don’t think we’ll be having lunch again anytime soon.
You see, we all like to pretend we’re OK or that whatever struggle we have will get better on its own. It won’t, and it never will—apart from our willingness to die to self, to discard our investment in our reputation and image, and to open up and walk in honesty and in the light of transparency and vulnerability. That’s a supernatural thing to even want to do. Yes, we all need to stop pretending.
2. The church is silent because we really don’t believe that the gospel can transform deep sexual struggles.
In other words, when we admit the depth of struggle among our people, it messes up our categories of what we think the “victorious” Christian life is or should be! You know, the kind of life we hear TV evangelists talking about, those peddling the prosperity gospel of “you shouldn’t have problems with sin kind of stuff.”
Don’t be fooled! It is a false gospel that proclaims, “You can be free of pain, fighting and struggling with sin; you should be free from that type of suffering—now that you’re a Christian.” It’s a message that we can too easily buy into, that something must be very wrong with our faith if we struggle so much.
Nonsense! If you’re fighting against sin in your life, then it may indicate that something might be very right! Throughout the New Testament we read its call to godly living, to redefine our lives, sexually speaking, by the meaning and implication of the cross in our lives. Scripture isn’t shy when talking about sex and sexual brokenness. In fact, if you were to take out of the Bible all the places where it speaks to the reality of sexual sin, struggle, and temptation among God’s people, you’d be taking out large portions of Scripture.
Our sexual temptations and struggles don’t take God by surprise, nor do they shock him. Rather, he expects it. He knows our nature is to seek out and fall for false worship, that we give our hearts to “false gods” and pursue them as having ultimate purpose and meaning in our lives, rather than seek out him and his purposes. The results of what happens when people live for themselves, following their own fallen sexual desires, are well-documented in Scripture and in countless personal lives.
What happens, then, when we begin to call Jesus “boss” over all our desires and longings? World War III breaks out in our lives and hearts. Conflict. Adversity. Suffering. Struggle.
I love what noted Bible teacher and author Martyn-Lloyd Jones said about all this. He wrote in his classic work, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6, The New Man, “There is a teaching today which says that sanctification is quite simple, that the mistake we’ve been making is that you’ve been trying to fight the sin in you. It says that what you have to do is to give up struggling, to give up fighting; just hand yourself and your whole problem to Jesus. He’ll do it all for you. But any teaching which tells us that sanctification and holiness are really quite simple (and don’t involve struggle and fighting) is clearly not in accord with Scripture” (p. 164, italics mine).
This is what happened early on in my own life when I sought to follow Jesus. I had many a major knock-down, drag-out fight with God in my small attic apartment. Why are you calling me to a new way of living? Why are you asking me to stop practices and walk away from relationships that fill the empty void in my heart? Why are you giving me new desires, desires that are different than those that seem so natural in my heart? What am I to do when I want to look at porn or frequent hang-outs where I might meet someone for a brief encounter that will take away my relational pain?
How did change happen in my life? When I began to hear him speak into my struggle with a heart of compassion and love—for me! He wooed me to himself, to a relationship with him rather than something else on which to set my heart. When this happened, and when conflict over desires and sin surfaced, I learned to repent. Although it began slowly, and moved forward in small steps, repentance became my new response to sin and temptation. What is repentance? Tim Keller says that repentance is “killing that which is killing me—without killing myself.” Repentance is liberating, not limiting.
Here is the point about whether the gospel has power to transform our sexual struggles. The desire to obey God, no matter how small and weak it may feel in the moment, is the proof of spiritual life. Repenting is what fans that spark into flame. Whether it’s repentance with a capital “R” when we first begin to follow Christ, or repentance with a small “r,” the ongoing, daily repentance to repeatedly turn away from that which you felt gave life and turn instead toward Christ who really gives life—this is the true Christian life and walk. It’s an ongoing battle.
What’s the bottom line here? We avoid talking about sex or sexual sin because we have a faulty, unbiblical theology of struggle and suffering. Regaining a right view of struggle with sin in the Christian life will lead us to say to the members of our churches, “We are not surprised that you are struggling with some type of sexual temptation and sin. Let us know about it; tell us what is going on; let us help you.” This is the exact opposite of being dismayed or shocked over the struggles every Christian experiences.
A flipside to having a bad theology of sin and struggle is that we often just stop calling sin, sin! We soften our response to it. We become dismayed over the enormity of the struggle. I’ve seen this happen with pornography usage. Too often I hear a response of compromise: everyone’s doing it; it’s no bi -deal; it’s private and it’s not really hurting anyone.
I have heard the same in dealing with the issue of homosexuality. I had an elder in a church recently tell me, “I like what Harvest USA does with the pornography issue—but I don’t believe that homosexuality is wrong in every situation.” I asked him to tell me more. He said, “Well, I’ve just seen too many people struggle too deeply and too long. Christianity seems to have no ability to solve the dilemma of their faith versus their feelings.” He had given up hope that anyone can experience any type of transformative change, because his theology was faulty. He put sociology over theology; that is, he placed the experiences of people and their subjective assessment as the norm of what is acceptable, rather than allow the Bible to set the norm of what is true and right and acceptable to God. Giving in and giving up is not compassionate to strugglers.
3. The church is silent because we feel that the answers we find in the Bible seem trite, passé, and outdated in today’s culture.
For many, the answers they think the Bible has for broken sexuality are: Stop it. Don’t do it. Just wait until marriage. That’s bad. Homosexuality is an abomination. Being gay is a choice. These are all one-dimensional reactions, and they are unhelpful. They don’t bring much weight to the discussion or issue. So, how does the Bible help us?
I’ve never met a ten-year-old who said, “I think I’ll be gay when I grow up.” No. Youth most often became aware, over time, of unexplained feelings and “pulls” towards their same sex; these attractions feel strange and shameful but exciting, and in an odd way, they meet a perceived need of the heart, all at the same time. What often follows, though, is a pursuit of these feelings with many small choices and decisions along the way, and it is this process which makes it all seem like it was their core nature to begin with.
That’s why, even though the Scriptures speak to many of the underpinnings of same-sex attraction and homosexual desire and practice, an exhortation to just not feel that way, or not be bothered by it, is unloving and unrealistic. Unfortunately, many in the Christian community are very confused on these issues today. We either settle for biblical error on the one hand (“it’s a choice”) or cultural compromise on the other hand (“if you profess Christ and you feel sincerely that it’s OK, then it’s OK for you”). We fall for what I hear in more Christian circles today: that the Bible doesn’t speak to homosexuality of the kind we see today (i.e. monogamous same-sex relationships).
Truthfully, Scripture does speak with clarity to all this, with both truth and grace. That’s also the way we must approach it. When we over-simplify the issue, or vilify it, or even make it more than it is, we fail to speak with Scripture’s authority into it.
A pastor recently told me that he went to a counselor for several weeks, seeking to deal with his pornography struggle. Week after week, the counselor naively just kept telling him, “Oh, that’s bad—you shouldn’t want to do that. You shouldn’t be doing that—it’ll get you in trouble.” He gave him some verses to memorize. There were no attempts to connect this man to the deeper gospel themes about this own life and heart. The result? The pastor walked away more discouraged and feeling more shame, guilt, and hopelessness than ever.
You see, we are complicated beings with complicated hearts. We need to see the Scriptures not as a magic pill or a cure-all to life’s dilemmas or confusion, but as God’s heart toward us about real human struggles and issues of the heart. Heart change takes time. Repentance that is lasting and deep takes time. We have to see the larger-themed sin areas in our hearts, see how they grieve God and the damage they cause us and others around us before true repentance can happen. That’s why, when I’ve taught a course at a local seminary for future pastors and counselors, I’ve often warned them about leading people into repentance too quickly. We must see the depth of the hurt we have caused, to ourselves, to others, and to God, or our repentance will be shallow and temporary. Jesus yearns to enter the struggle of our hearts in deeper ways than just getting us to ‘stop this’ or ‘do that.’ As a man in one of our Biblical Support Groups put it one time, “Jesus just isn’t a self-improvement program.”
When we look at Jesus or the Scriptures as a way to improve ourselves and our situation—well, that just isn’t gospel transformation. As the church, we have to be careful not to lead people in a superficial, shallow manner which makes Scripture seem archaic or obsolete. God says that his word is “active, living, sharper than a double-edge sword” (Hebrews 4:12). We must help people apply the gospel to the deeper issues of the heart, which God has gifted believers to be able to do as we seek to minister to the body.
Sometimes, we feel that the Bible is no longer reliable when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality. We often feel the Bible isn’t adequate because of science or pseudo-science. We must remember that science does not pull a surprise on God. The “new discoveries” that media, culture, and academia proclaim about sex and sexuality must be brought into submission to God’s word. Obviously, there will be tension when we hear, for instance, that sexual orientation is fixed and irreversible from each of these three sources. How does that relate to God’s Word and his call for obedience for followers of Jesus? How do these cultural mantras come in line with Scripture? For believers, God’s Word cannot be negated or pushed aside, just because all of culture says it should. We must learn to speak intelligently and compassionately about these crucial issues, recognizing and admitting their complexities, yet at the same time seeing no contradiction in how God calls his people to live.
4. The church is silent because many of us still struggle with unresolved sexual baggage in our own history, and it continues to plague us and bring us shame.
Failures from our past, especially ones that involve such powerful experiences like sex, can haunt us for years. When those failures continue into the present, even if they are not so large as they once were, they can hinder us from being available to those closest to us who are also struggling. Our ongoing struggles fill us with a pervasive gloom of shame, and our conscience freezes us into inaction. “Who are you kidding? You can’t speak with truth or authority into anyone’s life. Just look at your own heart and record of failure.” This cripples us and those around us, because we are unable to speak the truth of the gospel into our own hearts first, and then to others.
I find this the biggest deterrent to speaking to our kids and young people about sex in a redemptive way. Many parents carry around unresolved sexual sin struggles in their hearts and lives, either issues from long ago or current struggles.
The rule of thumb for parents here is to do what flight attendants say to do just before takeoff. What do they say about that mask? In case of emergency, if that mask falls, place it first over your face and then place it over the face of your child. In other words, you need to be okay first, able to function in order to bring safety measures to your child!
The same is true with our sexual baggage as adults and parents. We need to seek help for our own issues; we need to follow the desires of our hearts as parents to shepherd our children by having the courage to deal with our own baggage and sins. Until we do so, we will remain silent, wanting to talk with our kids about these critical issues but feeling shamed into silence by our own lack of resolution or progress. We either speak simplistically to them, “Wait until you’re married”—good advice, but our kids need a more coherent sexual message, grounded in Scripture, that can compel them to swim against the sexual tide that is washing away so many youth into chaotic and destructive sexuality. Or, worse, we practice denial about what our kids are facing today and passively allow the culture (TV, movies, Internet, social media) to evangelize our kids, sexually speaking. (We have a mini book that teaches parents how to protect their kids from the dangers of technology as well as how to approach them on issues of sexuality: iSnooping on Your Kid: Parenting in an Internet World. Click on the title to link to the bookstore.)
Church leaders are not exempt from this struggle either. We like to put our pastors and church leaders on a pedestal, thinking they are more saintly than us. Why we think this way astounds me at times. The culture of the church reinforces this image in a way that is ultimately harmful to leaders as well as the entire church community. We must remember that they are just as fallen and in need of the grace and power of the gospel as anyone else. Tragically, the church culture “forces” pastors and leaders to project an inflated image, and so they are reluctant to speak on these topics or to move their congregation to engage in redemptive ministry to those who struggle because they cannot admit issues or struggles in their own lives. The result? They don’t get help, and their people don’t get help, as well. Men, women, and youth are left to continue struggling in silence and shame, wrestling with a faith that they feel is unable to help them with the real issues of life.
What’s the answer for our church leaders? We need to help them to first deal with their own hearts, just as parents need to do. We need to encourage them to be real and to find a place of safety where they can go and get help. The silence, stress, and, often, just the intoxication of ministry keeps leaders from both gospel self-awareness and from seeking and getting help. This is the reason Harvest USA has Sexual Integrity Groups for pastors only, because they often have no place to go to be honest about the struggles of their heart in this area of sexual integrity. For more info about this or to get a brochure, email me at [email protected].
5. The church is silent because we can’t see how our brokenness in sexuality can be redeemed in and through our brokenness. Our brokenness feels hopeless.
Sin has so tainted everything, even our sexuality, that everything that exists is as it should not be. No part of our persons, hearts, or affections has been left untouched by the Fall. All efforts at self-repair don’t work; even our deepest, most sincere vows to try to do right next time always come up short. An awareness of this deep brokenness should give us compassion for those who struggle. While not lowering God’s standards for holy living, we must realize that the ability to obey, out of a heart of joy, just doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s both supernatural and interpersonal. God’s people help God’s people walk in holiness! That means we have to own up to what a mess it all is and be willing to jump down into the trenches with others.
I love how Pastor Scotty Smith describes brokenness in his book, Restoring Broken Things. He says that there are two types of brokenness. In Brokenness “A,” something is broken to the degree that it ceases to or no longer reveals God’s glory or serves his purposes. Smith says that the main language the Scriptures use to demonstrate Brokenness “A” is that of idolatry or false worship. False worship happens when we ascribe to or give anything or anyone the adoration, attention, allegiance, or affection of which Jesus alone is worthy. Therefore Brokenness “A” is a worship disorder (p.73).
But there is also a different kind of brokenness of which the Scriptures speak. Brokenness “B” is what results when God begins to do his refining, redeeming, and rescuing work in our lives. It is characterized by a heart attitude of contrition, humility, and repentance in response to the specific ways we haven’t or have ceased to reveal God’s glory (p. 74). In other words, Brokenness “A” is set right or redefined by Brokenness “B.”
The truth is, for most of the people sitting in our pews, whose lives, histories, and hearts are increasingly marked by some kind of long-term sexual sin and/or continual temptation, their lives cannot ever be lived as if Brokenness “A” had never happened. But they can, with the Holy Spirit and the help of the body of Christ, the church, turn around what they and the evil one meant for harm and damage, and bring God glory out of it all. But the remnants of brokenness remain, and that is what both drives us to the cross and gives us a heart for others.
If we understand our brokenness from this perspective, we are filled with hope for what God is accomplishing in us, while we still “toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within (us)” (Colossians 1:29).
6. The church is silent because we don’t understand or see how ministry to those who are a sexual “mess” is the average, ordinary work of the church.
This reason is related to the former point. We not only keep silent because of our own secret struggles; we do so because we think we need another kind of gospel in order with these problems. The issues seem so big, so complicated, and so pervasive that we can’t begin to see how ordinary, gospel-centered ministry can help at all.
In his book, Homosexuality: Laying the Axe to the Roots, (unfortunately, it’s out of print), Ed Hurst points out how we’ve failed to see just how the Scriptures speak to sexual sin, especially homosexuality. He writes at the beginning of the book, “The homosexual problem presents itself as one more complex and more deeply rooted than any other. The power of homosexuality lies in the fact that it masquerades as a problem that is larger than life. It begs new answers, new remedies, and special treatment. It invites us to lose heart, give up hope, and to expect failure. It has caused some to reject the Word of God and others to reinterpret it—and still others to doubt that the remedy of Jesus Christ is sufficient for sin. As Christians, our ability to minister or deal with the problem has become weak, ineffective, and, often, non-existent” (p.1).
Actually, I think we can expand Hurst’s comments to encompass all the various sexual struggles people in our church are experiencing today. Pornography and sexual addictions, along with homosexuality, often seem larger than life and too frightening and complicated to tackle. The result is that we either neglect ministry to those dealing with these altogether, or we offload them to professionals (Christian counselors are an excellent resource of help, but if the church’s only response is referral, then they have abandoned their rightful place of help to the struggler).
I once had a seminar professor tell me 30 years ago that one of the reasons the gay community was one of the fastest growing people-groups in America was due to this hands-off approach by the church. We have either relegated these problems to a category all their own, apart from the Scriptures or the ordinary avenues of help in the church; or we have assigned them to those possessing exceptional or special training.
Church leadership can also allow fear or be overly concerned about what others in the church will think about all this. I once had a meeting with a small church staff that was strongly hesitant about having an adult Sunday school class devoted to different areas of sexual sin and how to address it. One staff member said, “We’ll have to poll the church to see if they want something like this.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. I asked,” Did you poll the people to see if they wanted a study on Romans, on the Old Testament, or on Lifestyle Evangelism?” Of course the answer was no. So I continued, “Why then would you do that just because it’s sex or sex gone wrong we’re talking about? Aren’t you in charge of the spiritual health and shepherding of your people?” We ended up having the class, and about 75 people attended each session.
In speaking to people, I often get a response something along the lines of, “I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, but I could never do that.” Really? Why not? Someone once said that the Bible can be summed up in three points. It’s a book about how we got in the situation we’re in. It’s about what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ, as Savior, Redeemer, Mediator, and Advocate to deal with it all. And, it’s about how it’s all going to turn out because of what he has done for us. In an analogous way, ministry to those scarred by and struggling with sexual issues is the same. We must provide a place and context where people can have a framework for discovering those three points: 1) how they got there and what’s gone into the problem or situation they’re in; 2) how God in Jesus longs to meet them in the midst of it all in order to bring wholeness, healing and growth; and 3) how walking with Christ relates to their history and future in learning how to love and serve God and others well. That’s the ordinary, gospel-centered ministry of the church that for 2,000 years continue to help transform broken lives into living objects of grace and change.
The interesting thing here is that this biblical framework applies for those struggling with pornography, sexual addictions, same-sex attractions—and even for spouses, parents, and family members seeking to better relate to loved-ones who live in such brokenness. We have to create safe places in our churches; that is, create contexts and environments where people can begin to look at and apply the gospel to the deeper recesses of the heart, where idols (false gods) as well as pain, chaos, confusion, and hopelessness figure in deeply to the person’s struggle.
Frankly, this kind of ministry isn’t rocket science! But we treat it like it is. Our fears about engaging in ministry of this sort must be named, faced, and worked through. We must answer the question of why we wouldn’t want our churches to be engaged in this kind of ministry. Why wouldn’t we want our people—our men, women, and youth—to be freed up from all this? What would it require from the church and leadership to begin, and stay committed to, this kind of ministry? When we begin to face these questions, we often find that fear and issues of unbelief of all kinds, especially on the part of leadership, will surface. Like I said at the beginning of this article, no wonder Steve Brown, one of our Board members, said this would be one of the most difficult things our ministry would ever do!
There is a way and a foundation from which to do this much-needed ministry. It’s been my experience that believers who know how much they’ve been forgiven and what it cost God to forgive them are the people who most seek out those who struggle.
One of the lessons of Luke 7:36-50, when Jesus receives the anointing tears of the sinful woman at his feet, is that, “he who is forgiven much, loves much.” In other words, our appreciation for the cross and our joy for what the gospel of Jesus has done for us leads us to seek out and be available to minister to others, even if their struggles, sins, or temptations are different than our own.
This is an important thing to see! You do not need to have struggled with the same issues that someone else has in order to be powerfully helpful to them. I’ve seen people so moved and transformed by grace, without any personal experience of sexually addictive behavior, be the very best support group leaders, accountability partners, mentors, disciplers, and just plain friends to those desiring help with their own sexual struggles. It often just takes stepping out in faith. Equipping comes later, as ministry will compel one to seek training to better help and support.
We’ve got to believe the Lord longs to meet our people in the midst of their problems and dilemmas, to bring to them life and wholeness. We also have to believe that we have all we need (yes, with a little help and encouragement) to effectively minister to people. We need to reclaim this fact: that the church (the body, the people of God) has historically been, and continues to be, God’s chosen instrument for the transformation of people, nations, and culture!
7. Since sexual issues seem like such an overwhelming topic to tackle, the church is silent because there is fear that to do so will open up Pandora ’s Box.
Again, our own personal history and the scars we bear often forge the path here. When Adam and Eve were faced with the reality of their nakedness and shame, what was their reaction? They hid! It was all too overwhelming and too much to face. Better to hide than to tackle something that we fear may be too difficult or too complicated or too messy to deal with. Just keep the lid on the box and go on with ordinary church business. It’s a lot safer.
But the church can and must take the lead in speaking on these issues in every facet of church life. We can be proactive and not have to feel powerless about the moral decay all around us, adopting a passivity characterized by an, “Oh well—what can we do?” attitude. Will there be messes that will be hard to clean up? Will church leaders and members feel at times like they are in over their heads? Sure. But those situations are where we tend to most see God at work, because transformation is a work of the Spirit, not technique. By stepping into a struggler’s life with humility and boldness, we are faced with a dependency upon Christ that can transform not just the struggler, but us as well.
Last year I preached at a church in Norfolk, VA. We had copies of our men’s workbook, Crossroads: Choosing The Path To Moral Purity, on our literature display table. A man, identifying himself as an elder, walked over to the table. He picked up the book and said to me, “Oh, we’ve been using this for the last three years with all our teenage boys in a special Sunday School class.” Wow! We hadn’t even thought of having churches use this resource in this way. Now here was a church being creative and bold, taking the lead in shepherding the hearts of the young men in their church community.
Again, if we don’t do this with our people, there will be ample avenues for them to walk further into darkness and lose hope every step of the way. I find that especially those involved in youth ministry seem to be the most hesitant here. We really do want 13-year-old Johnny to be able to say, “I’m doing things on the computer I shouldn’t be doing,” or 15-year-old Jenny admitting, “I think I’m a lesbian.” Most youth workers are horror-stricken when this happens (or more likely never to bring up the subject of sexuality so that the problems never surface). But they should welcome such confessions and see them as desperate calls for help. What would it look like for those in youth ministries to say to Johnny or Jenny, “I’m so glad you told me that. Can we talk about it? In fact, would you meet with me every week for a while to talk about it?” Our youth are desperate to talk about sex, to know what is healthy sexuality, and to know why God’s design for our sexuality is the best way to manage it and enjoy it.
This is what needs to happen as we deal with teens and every other age group in our churches. If we did this, I think many would be led away from deeper falls into sin and darker life paths down the line. But if we see all this as too complicated and overwhelming—too messy and uncomfortable—we’ll be failing our people and missing rich opportunities to see the glory of Christ begin to shine through broken lives and broken families. Remember that God has “in his divine power given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who has called us” (2 Peter 1:3). We can talk about these things and don’t have to be afraid of what we will find there.
This means that nothing is too complicated or too overwhelming for us to face, or help other’s face in their own lives. Here we must again believe that the gospel (look at Point 5 again) has substance and power to address any problem and change any life. It’s also why our first response to men, women, and youth who do openup and get honest about these life-crippling problems is so very important. Again, while we don’t have to be experts about every problem, we must believe we have, by virtue of His Holy Spirit and access to God’s Word, the ability to bring hope and help to strugglers of all types. In this sense, nothing is too complicated for us as God’s people to handle!
Not long ago, my wife and I were privileged to teach a one-day seminar at Fellowship Church in Knoxville, TN. Over 3,000 people attend this church on any given Sunday. Fellowship Church is a community which works hard to minister God’s Word faithfully to its people. They are aware that many people struggle with all kinds of problems there. On this particular Saturday over 125 of the church’s small group leaders (men, women, and couples who lead any type of home-based group) came to learn about how the gospel addresses sexual sin. Why was it important to train these church leaders? Because most people struggling deeply with sexual issues will not go to the pastor for help. But, they will be more willing to go to a trusted small group leader with whom they can confide. Fellowship Church felt that anyone leading a group in the church needed to know how to respond in hope and help to someone who walks into the light of confession. That’s a scary place to be for a struggler! Would that more churches have this attitude to educate all those in any helping or leadership positions in the church! Here again, the emphasis is not on anyone having “the” answer or having to know everything about all the issues, but to realize that, as a body, we’re all in this together.
8. The church is silent because pastors and leaders, so busy with other agenda items, neglect the need for leadership to intentionally invite strugglers to come into the light and ask for help.
Pastors, elders, and other church leaders have a whole lot on their plates. They often have good intentions to deal with the sexual problems they see in their church community. Some day. Then that day never comes, because it’s crowded out by other, incoming problems. Here is what churches have to face regarding this matter: That day will never come unless we plan and strategize for it!
This out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality is deadly. Left unaddressed, the sexual sin struggles among our people will only fester and cause untold damages to hearts, relationships, and marriages. There is a tragic collusion of silence in our churches: pastors and leaders who don’t intentionally address these issues, who don’t invite people to come for help, and the congregation whodoesn’t come to them for help because no one is talking about it.
Pastors often tell me that no one in their church seems to be coming for help with problems of a sexual nature. Why is that, especially because we all know that there are a large number of people in our congregations overwhelmed with sexual struggles? One answer may be this: Church leadership may not be seen by their people as being approachable on these sensitive matters.
Sometimes my grown children have come to me, as adults, not with confessions of hideous sin but to reveal things they didn’t want me to know about when they were 15, 18, or 22 years old. When I inquired why they didn’t come to me at the time of their struggles, they replied, “Dad, you were so busy. I didn’t want to upset you, or for you to think poorly of me. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
Do you see the point? They didn’t want my view of them to diminish; they wanted to preserve their reputation, no matter how small the problem or offense was.
Embarrassment and shame kept them from going to me for help. The same principle is operative in our churches. Leadership needs to understand that this often keeps people from coming to them with their sexual struggles. They don’t want to disappoint us. They don’t want our view of them discredited or tarnished. After all, they have to face us each week, as we stand in the pulpit or shake their hands at the door!
Being available to help a sexual struggler when, as a church leader, you are not proactively addressing these issues is a recipe for continued silence and denial. Church leaders must cultivate approachability by initiating talk about these matters, and doing so in a manner that really and truly invites people to step into the open for help. The church must give messages, both verbal and non-verbal, that “we can handle these issues around here”—because Jesus can handle them. If we don’t do that, we abandon our people to work out their problems on their own, and that is a highway to disaster for a sexual struggler. The best way to increase sexually addictive behavior in a struggler’s life is for the struggler to try to deal with the problem on his own!
Neglecting to proactively invite our youth to come for help is even more tragic today because of the sexual chaos that exists and is promoted on the Internet, where most of them live. A profound lack of initiative, by leaders and parents, leaves them open to and receptive of many, many other voices “out there” which are more than willing to evangelize them to embrace a destructive sexuality outside of God’s design. Today, more kids than ever, even at nine or ten years old are getting hooked on pornography. They are viewing it with their friends at sleepovers, campouts, even with other kids from church. Also, churched youth are increasingly very sympathetic to the gay movement and supportive of gay marriage—due to the silence of the church. How could they not be, when the culture bombards them daily with messages that it’s okay and even a good option? So there is much to lose when the church never seems to get around to dealing with these matters. Silence, in the form of not taking a proactive initiative, is playing Russian Roulette with our people.
9. The church is silent because our people are increasingly unaware of the depths to which the Bible speaks about sexuality and the way God designed it.
I remember being at a conference for churched youth when a teenager came over to our exhibit table. Obviously influenced by the culture, he said to one of our staff, “I don’t see how you people can say that homosexuality is wrong. Jesus never mentioned it.” Our staff member was able to guide this young man, in just a few minutes, into the Scriptures to look at some texts on what Jesus did say about sex, and how Christ’s view of God’s original design for sex did in fact speak about the issue of homosexuality. His next words stunned us. He said, “Well, I guess I should read the Bible for myself to see what else is in it.” We encouraged him to do so.
It’s not just our teens who need to be taught about the content of Scripture. Many of our people, especially those who come to faith as adults, are pretty much in the dark about Scripture. The emerging church and missional church movements have, in some cases, contributed to this phenomenon, with their de-emphasis on education and doctrine. Unfortunately, many churches today think that doctrine divides, and so they settle for a short Sunday morning sermon heavy on illustrations and emotionally-laden content—hoping that it will hook people into wanting more—but then they have no venues in place to offer more. The result is a growing illiteracy of the very foundation of Christian faith; that is, the Bible and its story of creation, Fall, redemption, and restoration.
In many of today’s evangelical churches, there are few places for people to really become educated in content of the Bible. We just kind of hope they will find their way. Is it any wonder many of God’s people are “tossed here and there” by every kind of teaching they hear? If the media speak of the latest scientific or sociological/psychological discovery that is contrary to or contradicts the Bible—guess what wins? More people in the last twenty years have gotten teaching on crucial issues from Oprah, 20/20, Dateline, and the host of daytime talk shows that proliferate like weeds, rather than from biblical teaching coming from their churches. This is especially true when it comes to sex, sexuality, and homosexuality.
I find that people are often shocked when they begin to understand the extent to which the Scriptures speak on sex and sexual issues. When it comes to sex, I have often said that, “If God talks about it, then we should be talking about it.” The Bible is full of teaching about sex and sexual relationships. Since sex is a major issue or problem for most believers, God hasn’t left us alone to try to figure it out. He’s lovingly and proactively spoken to us about it. We should be doing the same with our people. Sex has become a cultural battleground upon which the Christian faith is losing, so there is no greater need in the church today than to find multiple ways to talk about sex in the profound ways that Scripture does. We need to be doing that in Sunday school classes, men’s and women’s groups, small groups, youth groups, and so on.
A few years ago, Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia held a weekend Urban Missions Conference entitled “Sex in the City.” Over 400 people attended, primarily between the ages of 20 and 35. I was one of the main speakers, and the Harvest USA staff presented workshops all day on various subjects.
After the Sunday service, as I was walking down the sidewalk after leaving the church, I felt a brush of air as a bicyclist rushed by me. As I turned to look, I saw the cyclist throw on the brakes and turn around. The young woman said to me, “Weren’t you the Friday-night speaker at the conference?” I affirmed that I was. “Well, I went to this church when I was young, but have been away from it all throughout college. But I think I’m going to be coming back here now. Any church that speaks about these things this boldly and opens up the Scriptures to teach us like this is someplace I want to be.”
10. The church is silent because we are not just ignorant of God’s design for sex; we don’t believe that he designed it for our good!
There is so much around us that presents sex in a negative and broken sense that we’ve ceased to believe it was all meant for good, or that God wants us to experience it as something good and noble!
Several years ago I was on a short-term missions’ trip to Amsterdam to work with a church-planting team. Amsterdam is a very dark city, sexually speaking. Its reputation for sexual freedoms and debauchery is well known. We’ve all seen pictures of those prostitutes sitting in windows, offering their wares. Pornography shops and prostitution are, literally, on almost every corner in the city-central area. I remember asking my church-planter friend, “How does anyone here ever have a healthy or godly view of sex or sexuality?” His response surprised me. He said, “I don’t know, and I don’t know if I do anymore either.”
Today, Amsterdam as a metaphor for sexual chaos is in our own backyard. The Internet has turned every computer and every mobile device into an adult bookstore. Like my friend, I now wonder if the average believer has any kind of healthy appreciation for sex as God designed it anymore. As fallen creatures we either make way too much of it, using it in a selfish and demanding way to meet our own needs, or we think much too little of it, forgetting that it is one of God’s good gifts. The evil one is often behind these extremes. He is certainly pleased when God’s good gifts are twisted or neglected.
Christians need to reclaim the goodness of God’s gift of sexuality and of sex. We need to affirm God’s good intention for it and for it as being a soul-uniting force between a husband and a wife, as something so pleasurable that it is, in the right context, wonderfully intoxicating. Think “The Song of Songs,” a book in the Old Testament that boldly proclaims on its every page the beauty of God-designed sexuality.
This message that God is pro-sex is often lost and marred by our own broken histories and struggles with it. We unwittingly transfer our own attitudes about sex to those around us, especially our children. We spend more time talking, when we do talk about sex in the church, about all the ways it’s gone wrong. I know when we’re asked to come to speak in churches, it’s rarely to talk about the goodness of sex. It’s usually about sex gone wrong.
You’d be surprised the frequency we’re asked to speak to youth groups, often for the first time, about all this (and they often want us to say everything we can possibly say about it in one meeting). Yet the leaders often want us to warn (scare?) kids into obedience and doing the right thing. When we’re asked to speak to teens, leaders often have little motivation for us to speak about it in larger gospel-oriented themes or in a way which might wake them up to the mysteries, goodness, and holiness that God designed sex to be. In wanting to protect our young people from the many destructive ways that they can use sex to derail their lives, we have failed them when we have not taught well from the Bible about the glorious design for sex that God has given to us. All of us, but especially our youth, need a coherent, persuasive and solidly biblical apologetic that can capture our imaginations and enable us to want to live lives of sexual integrity and enjoyment, all for his glory.
Obviously, this list of reasons I’ve shared for the church’s silence is not exhaustive. Most churches can find themselves somewhere in this list. If your church has been committed to silence for the reasons I’ve talked about, what’s the answer? Isn’t it coming into the light? Isn’t it an awareness and admission that this is what has characterized us as a church or as leadership? We’ve let our people just find their own way in all this. We’ve mistakenly—out of fear, our own insecurities, or just not knowing what to do—did nothing, naively thinking, “no one here struggles with ‘that.’”
The next step, then, may need to be repentance as leaders: imploring God to change our minds about our role to help make our churches biblically healthy places, places where we can both talk about all this and provide our people with much needed help. That always becomes a win-win situation. We have everything to gain if we’ll just do that—but everything to lose if we don’t.
Harvest USA wants to help your church develop a strategy to begin dealing with this to the glory of God. Let us know how we can help you. The Harvest USA website (www.harvestusa.org) is a good place to discover resources. Where possible, our staff is available to help, at your local church, in education and in equipping your leaders. We are also available to speak, via Skype or web to your leadership or board of elders, etc. We would love to help. May the Lord bless you in your desire to build his kingdom.
25 May 2016
As a seminary student, the influence of two professors changed the course of my life. Jack Miller, Professor of Practical Theology and Evangelism at Westminster Theological Seminary, was one of them. The other was Harvie Conn, Professor of Missions. Along with Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, they led me to begin what is now Harvest USA. One day in 1983, Harvie said to our Missions class, “We’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field today. We’re going to talk about ‘unreached people’ and ‘hidden people.’”
Harvie explained that the largest ‘unreached people’ in our culture was the gay and lesbian community, at the time the fastest-growing people group in America. He talked about how their numbers, influence, and impact was only going to grow. Wow—how prophetic! It seemed that the organized church wanted nothing to do with this community and kept an arm’s-length attitude—basically, the church didn’t know what to do with “them.” Instead of a “we can handle this” approach to sexual strugglers, the church adopted a “we can’t handle this” mentality.
Harvie then defined an even larger ‘hidden people’ group. This group brought all the shame, baggage, unresolved conflicts, sexual temptations, struggles, and sin into their walk with Christ and into the church. But because the ethos in most churches was silence and an outlook of “we don’t talk about that around here,” many men and women sat in our pews paralyzed, isolated, and often in despair, not knowing how the gospel applied to their struggles.
Boy, the culture has changed a lot since then—and not for the better! The impact of both the gay movement, especially the “gay Christian” movement, and the availability of Internet pornography has deeply and severely impacted many men, women, teens, and families who sit in evangelical, conservative pews today. How could it not, when you realize that carrying around a cell phone or laptop is like having an adult bookstore right in your home or pocket. Saying “no” to looking at that is a challenge! You could take the truth of what Harvie said in that class and multiply it by one hundred to describe what is impacting people today.
So, reader, how is your church set up to deal redemptively with the mess of sex and sexuality in the lives of people today? And how are you going to declare the glory of sex as God intended it to be?
Think about it. Is yours a church where the hope and help of the gospel is readily available to the multitude who feel stuck, isolated, wounded, and defeated by sexual brokenness? What messages do your leadership give about the ability, not only of God, but of your church, to help with such problems? How are you conveying “Yeah, we can handle that around here,” so that people can get the gospel help they so need?
Many churches either don’t know what to do or convey a judgmental attitude when it comes to the struggles that men and women have with sex and sexuality. The church is often the last place these people feel they can be honest and genuine about sexual matters that are impacting their own hearts and lives. This simply ought not be!
Do you have a simplistic fairy tale view of the gospel when it comes to sexual brokenness? The gospel is powerful and effective, but it isn’t magical. We often fail to see struggles as an ongoing part of the Christian life, dispensing Bible verses without walking with people through their suffering. (Check out my post on the impact of the church’s silence in talking about sexuality, “Sex and the Silence of the Church: How It’s Crippling God’s People.”)
We must work hard to shape our churches into places of hope and help—places that readily seek to assist people and recognize their struggle with sin. But making our churches visible vehicles of truth and mercy in this area—well, it doesn’t come naturally. It must be intentional and calculated.
But it’s never too late! Every church has to begin somewhere. As we call others to faith and repentance and jump into the trenches with them, part of our own repentance as leaders may be admitting our oversimplification of deep spiritual issues and strongholds, as well as our hesitancy to get involved in the [messy] healing process of our people.
In my early days of reading the Bible as a new believer, I was struck by the amount of time, attention, and affection that Jesus had for the sexually broken and the sexual ‘outcasts’—those either labeled as such by others or who thought of themselves that way. Ask the Lord to give you that same heart for the broken and begin to think of ways your church can become unafraid and boldly willing to move into the scuffle of ministry. This is where we help the local church excel. The staff at Harvest USA stands ready to help! Take a look at our Partner Ministries program for ways we can assist your church community to get ministry to sexual strugglers started and keep it ongoing.
09 Mar 2016
Do you suffer from “Mug Shot Theology?” We’ve all seen mug shots of people who have been arrested. It’s that photo the police take of a person when they’ve been caught—in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing. We’ve all seen Hollywood personalities looking their worst and having it all captured, for posterity, in their mug shot. These glamorous and handsome stars are almost unrecognizable when you catch a glimpse of them on that tabloid paper at the check-out counter at your local store. The image of one’s mug shot follows one around forever, coloring everything.
What does that have to do with Christians, you may be thinking? Mug Shot Theology is that picture we’re sure God has of us and always looks at when we’ve been behaving at our worst—when we’ve really blown it.
I’ve not known very many men who don’t suffer from Mug Shot Theology, especially when it comes to their deep and unrelenting sexual temptations, struggles, and sin. It just seems to come with the territory.
When we labor under this, it affects everything in our life. So it’s a very practical issue. When you have Mug Shot Theology, it’s rare to ever experience any joy in your life. It’s virtually impossible to possess the ability to run to the throne of grace at your time of deepest need. It keeps you from access to the power of God to help counter temptations. It turns your face away from God because of your shame and guilt. You are shut down from communicating with God. You feel left all alone with your temptations and sin, not knowing what to do, because Mug Shot Theology will make sure the cross is the last place you’ll run to.
“You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ.”
When you don’t know what to do with your guilty heart and your sins, you will (because you’re a sinner) always adopt one or more of the following strategies.
- You’ll let yourself off the hook, explaining, excusing, or rationalizing your sin, falsely believing it’s not as bad or deadly as it is.
- You’ll put yourself under “house arrest,” only going through the motions of faith, severely limiting your attempts to love and serve God and others well.
- You’ll just try to say no to your temptations while constantly resolving to do better and white-knuckling it along the way.
- You become you own executioner, punishing yourself relentlessly.
- You’ll put yourself on probation with God, slinking back to him when you’ve put enough distance between your temptations or failures until you get up the courage to approach God again.
All these behaviors are the ways most men deal with their sin and struggles. But when we change that Mug Shot Theology to a Gospel Theology—in which we understand and admit that we, always, stand guilty, before a holy God, and yet our God beckons and invites unworthy sinners to his throne because of Jesus—then everything changes. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, in his commentary, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 5, Assurance, states it quite well.
“God has become one who delights to see us coming, receives us, loves us and sits us at a banqueting table. God is always looking upon us with favor and smiling upon us . . . So it is in prayer. . . we remind ourselves of this and rush into his presence . . . we rush in with boldness and full confidence, having access to the throne room. . . You stand in grace, you do not slink into it, you do not creep into it, you do now shuffle into it, you do not crawl into it. You stand in it, fixed, firm, established, because of Christ. You own this great truth and act upon it in your prayer life. . . knowing He is a Heavenly Father who delights to see us, to receive us. . . and whose love for us is way beyond our imagination.”
What a way to blast away Mug Shot Theology! It captures the essence of what it means to be dearly beloved children, ransomed by our God. It also moves us, in humility, towards God in our worst moments, daring to believe, once again, that the gospel is for us.
To learn more about these concepts of Christ’s love and grace for the downcast and disheartened, be sure and check out John’s new book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex.
03 Feb 2016
I was camping out in Hebrews 11 recently. That’s the chapter where many of the heroes of the faith are listed. Three names immediately stuck out for me. First there is Abraham. Not once but twice, Abraham offers his wife, Sarah, to other men to sleep with to save himself. And when it seems the covenant promise of an heir won’t ever come true because of old age, Sarah suggests he sleep with her bondservant. He immediately says “okay.”
David is listed there—a man after God’s own heart. But we know he was also hotheaded and impetuous at times, often acting first and thinking later. He was a deceiver, murderer, and adulterer. He had at least six wives and several concubines.
Then there’s Sampson. What!? God, you’ve got to be kidding! Sampson? He was the Charlie Sheen of his day! His life was ruled by scandal. When he saw a beautiful Philistine girl, he told his parents, “Go get her for me.” They put up a little fight because God had forbidden the intermarriage of heathen people with the Israelites. Sampson basically said to them, “I don’t care—go get her for me.” Then we see that he visited houses of ill-repute. His love (lust?) for Delilah was almost the downfall of the emergent nation and was his ruin.
These are the kind of men counted among the great men of faith. It doesn’t make sense. How can it be when each was involved in sexual sin or approved of sexual misconduct? How could these men be those in whom God took pleasure?
The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too.
I think it means this. The record of these men’s lives is the story of ordinary but broken followers of God. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. They did great things for God, but they also struggled greatly too. Yet God blesses men like this (like us) because he mixes his grace with our corruptions—as a rule, not an exception! It’s not about our sin, although he takes that extremely seriously; it’s about his grace.
In one of my favorite books, The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson, written in 1666, there is a chapter entitled, “Comfort to the Godly.” Honestly, I think it should have been entitled, “Comfort to the Scoundrels.” Watson says this,
“There are in the best of saints, interweavings of sin and grace; a dark side with the light; much pride mixed with much humility; much earthliness mixes with much heavenly-ness. Even in the regenerate there is often more corruption than grace. There’s so much bad passion that you can hardly see any good. A Christian in this life is like a glass of beer that has more froth (foam) than beer. Christ will never quench remnants of grace, because a little grace is as precious as much grace. As a fire may be hidden in the embers, so grace may be hidden under many disorders of the soul.”
It’s true—this side of heaven, grace and holiness are always mixed with our corrupt hearts. But experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness should move us towards a growing desire to be holy. I find many men who come for help to our ministry erroneously thinking there will be a day when they won’t desire or want things that would take them down dark roads. They think their hearts are, one day, not going to want bad things—therefore, they spiral down into depression and hopelessness when they do! Our hope is not in perfection here, or even in freedom from temptation, but in the realization that faith and obedience is a real possibility, because of God’s grace.
In his book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, John expands on this encouraging point that God takes us as we are and that even while he transforms our lives, he continues to work in us while we remain a mess of both corruptions and grace. Click this link to get the book.
At Harvest USA, we minister to people who know that their lives just aren’t working well. We don’t have to labor at convincing those who come here that they’re a mess, spiritually and sexually speaking! Men and women come in, so often with their spirits crushed, either from a lifetime of failed attempts to manage their own lives and struggles, or as someone whose family member struggles. The joy in their lives has gone out a long time ago.
Yet, I believe—and it’s what’s kept us ministering here these 30-odd years—that Jesus longs to meet us in our despair, in our deepest pits. I’m convinced that only the broken receive the gospel. When that happens, when we are most aware of our deepest need of Christ, is when he often shows up.
People have often asked us to tell them the one key thing we do to help others. There’s no secret. God brings people to the end of themselves and then into our office. For those who get serious about their situation, it’s always a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s here that they sit with everything that brought them here—the entire mess of their hearts and lives—and talk it through with our staff, those in their support groups, and particularly with the Lord himself. For however long it takes.
It’s in the setting of a caring, confidential, Christ-centered, supportive environment that God begins a process of growth and healing. It’s also the place where the love of Christ begins to capture hearts and where the other loves—the idols that capture our hearts—begin to dull in comparison!
What I’m talking about here is the unconditional acceptance of a community that doesn’t hold back, but that speaks encouraging, life-giving, and, at times, hard and serious words. Of course, the local church is God’s ordained place that this can and should take place. Our mission is to see that churches establish these groups, so email me and I’ll show you how it can be done!
If you were to ask me what central thing most indicates that a person’s life is beginning to change, I would say it’s the presence of a renewed sense of joy. For the sexual struggler, that often comes as a surprise. It doesn’t, however, just appear suddenly, without context. It’s not even just the result of getting a handle on one’s sexual struggle.
It’s the result of something else. It’s a by-product of something greater.
Tim Keller said, in a sermon on Galatians, “When we obey God, out of a grateful joy, that comes from a deep awareness of our status as children of God . . . then the idols which control our lives can be disempowered and we’re free to live for Christ.” This is an amazing statement in two ways.
First, it demonstrates that true obedience comes out of an awareness of joy-filled gratitude. But about what?
Our deep awareness of our status! He is talking here about our union with Christ. Our positional and legal status to God have changed because Jesus lived the totally obedient life we couldn’t ever live, and he paid the price for our sin with his own blood. We are now part of a new reality where everything is changed about us—who we are presently, and even, especially, where we will be in the future. In being united with Christ in his life and death, our standing and eternity are secure because of what he has accomplished.
Of course, the Holy Spirit initiates, joins, and administers this new standing, taking up residence in us, bringing a new vitality to us. This is true even as we learn to struggle against sin. The driving force of any new vigor for Christ is this union between Christ and our souls, which the Holy Spirit both starts and continues.
Second, it’s not just our union with Christ, which produces joy, but our ongoing communion with him. Union and communion go hand in hand. Our communion with Christ comes out of our faith-driven striving to grow in grace, based on our knowledge of and our union with him. In other words, we want to change because he has loved us and given us the power to change. This energizes us to put off sin and to walk in godliness. It’s a constant looking to Jesus for all things.
Pastor J.C. Ryle, in seeking to describe the relationship between union and communion, said this: “Union is the bud, but communion is the flower. He that has union with Christ does well; but he that enjoys communion with him does far better. . . both place a heavenly seed in our hearts, that enable us to draw out of him every hour.”
May this be so in your life as you look to him, who first looked at you and mercifully loved you.