Today, the church is facing a major crisis, and few alarms are going off. It is a silent crisis, one that is spreading in the shadows of secrecy, and yet is doing great damage to the lives of those inside her walls.
I’m talking about the normalization of porn within the church. Pornography, which is now so widespread and accessible, seems to have become almost a non-issue for so many churches. Occasionally there are sermons which mention in passing the danger of it. A few bold churches have begun to set up support groups for those who have found themselves addicted to it. But mostly, silence.
No rousing alarms. No calls to action. No warnings that already the flood waters are inside the house and that bold, quick action is needed to save the very house itself. There seems to be a disquieting casualness to this issue, almost like a calm before the storm. But the storm is already raging.
The growing epidemic
“Wait! I need to talk to you!” a woman’s voice called out as I crossed the lobby following a church presentation. Her eyes revealed her distress, and she blurted out, “I just found out my 11-year-old daughter’s been watching online porn for months. What should I do?”
Many Christians assume that they are insulated from problems such as these. Sadly, this mother’s situation is far from unique. Parents call us regularly because they’ve discovered their children’s exposure to Internet pornography. This is not the pornography of yesteryear; rather, the kind that exists today is a cornucopia of increasing depravity. The Internet offers a depth of degradation that wouldn’t have been available even in adult bookstores 20 years ago. Tragically, I received a call from parents after catching their eight-year-old watching bestiality videos on his iPod Touch.
But the problem goes from beyond the impact it is having on our children. Young adults in their twenties can’t remember a day when porn wasn’t free and easily accessible at their fingertips. Young Christian men and women are grievously impacted by its accessibility and, coupled with the vacuum left by the church’s silence on sexuality, are becoming ensnared.
Many singles, committed to chastity in their relationships with the opposite sex, succumb to the lure of porn and self-stimulation as a “less destructive” alternative to sexual temptation. We are now learning that this is a destructive fallacy. Growing numbers of singles don’t know how to move toward real members of the opposite sex because they’ve lived so long in a porn fantasy world.
And a new phenomenon identified by secular researchers is also affecting young men in the church. The fastest-growing segment of the population struggling with erectile dysfunction is men in their twenties and thirties who have been conditioned by online porn to respond only to never-ending novelty with increasing depravity. One man in his twenties likened his experience with online porn to ordering from an a la carte menu: “Tonight I’ll have a little of this and some of that,” lamenting that he is now incapable of sexual intimacy with his wife. Despite entering marriage as a virgin, his sexuality has been maimed by years of porn use.
Older adults in the church aren’t immune to the scourge. I’ve lost count of the people in their forties, fifties, and sixties who describe viewing porn magazines occasionally as a young adult, making a break from the behavior as they entered marriage and family life, only to later confess, “And then we got the Internet…” The result: estranged or broken marriages, shipwrecked careers, and the profound loss of spiritual vitality and faith. And these are men and women in the church.
Nothing robs God’s people of contentment and the joy of following Christ than hidden sexual sin. 2 Peter 1:5-8 is a passage where Peter challenges believers to add to their faith virtues like self-control, knowledge, steadfastness, godliness, and love, and then says that failure to do so will cripple one’s faith: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). I would contend that one of the reasons for the weak and wavering faith of much of the church today may very well be how its people are capitulating to the sexualized culture and are immersed in sexual struggles and sin.
Every demographic in the body of Christ is impacted by this issue, but the most heartbreaking group is our children. Porn usage is so pervasive, especially among youth and college-age and young adults, that many have lost any hope that they will find victory over this struggle. If leadership is aware of these struggles, then their overall silence communicates that the gospel is powerless or irrelevant to help them in their sexual struggles.
I recently attended worship at a large urban church. The pastor challenged the church with the danger of fornication and described the wrecked lives of young people having sex outside marriage…and then moved on. As I surveyed the hundreds of people in the sanctuary, most of them married, I wanted to shout from my pew, “What about porn?!” Sex outside marriage is indeed a huge problem, especially among Christian singles, but the pastor’s omission of pornography missed the mark of where the majority of his congregation struggles. They struggle, daily, with the relentless temptation, virtually everywhere, to give in to sexual sin and keep it hidden from others, guaranteeing that the problem will not go away on its own.
What the church needs to do now
The church can’t afford to continue in silence and ignore this growing epidemic. We must shun the casual attitudes and face the reality that the consequences of our inaction are already severe and becoming ruinous. How can the church be so relatively blasé about this, while some countries, like Iceland and England, are proposing outright restrictions on Internet porn being piped into homes? If even secular governments are raising the alarms about how destructive pornography is, then surely the church should be doing that and more for its own people!
How can the church begin to take pro-active steps to address this in a comprehensive way?
Sound the alarm
Like the old heresies facing the church in the early centuries of her existence, there is a new “Gnosticism” on the rise that says what we do sexually no longer matters. The younger generation has been raised on what I refer to as a “Clintonian” definition of sex. The boundary lines for acceptable behavior have been redrawn, and all manner of sexual activity is now seen as not really being sex at all.
The church must reclaim and teach what Paul preached two centuries ago: that what we do with our body matters. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Ephesians 4:17-19, and 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 make clear that God cares passionately about our sexuality. According to these passages, what we do with our bodies demonstrates the allegiance of our hearts. We either look like those controlled by the Spirit of the living God, or we look like those in the world ruled by their sensual desires. Rather than displaying a casual attitude toward sexual sin, Ephesians 5:3 says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Our sexuality is a litmus test for our spirituality!
The time for the church to sound a very loud alarm is now. The church can do so much more!
The body of Christ needs to hear dedicated sermons on sexuality and faith and to have real-life illustrations and strategies woven into sermon messages on an ongoing basis.
We need adult Sunday school classes where we teach practical strategies on how to live lives of sexual integrity, not an easy task in this overly-sexualized culture.
- Youth groups need safe places to talk about this, and continual messages from youth pastors and adult volunteers that it’s okay to seek help when they feel overwhelmed, because silence and secrecy wreaks havoc on hearts and lives.
- Pastors, elders, and Christian counselors need to equip youth pastors and youth volunteers to know how to help youth who are already finding themselves ensnared in sexual struggles and sin.
- Men’s and women’s groups need to learn, in a gender-specific context, to talk openly about real-life struggles in this area. If adults and parents can begin to talk about this, then they will lead the way for youth to do so also.
- Parents must be equipped to learn how to talk about sexuality to their kids and given tools to protect their children from the dangers of unfiltered and unaccountable Internet usage that children and youth now see on tablets, smartphones, and iPod Touches.
- Groups for men and women strugglers need to be up and running, along with groups for affected spouses (usually wives).
We must speak up. We must speak directly and relevantly. We must name the problem, proclaim that there is freedom and hope in the gospel, and patiently show our people how to manage their sexuality well. We need to talk about all this in a whole new way.
Talk about sexuality differently
There is a massive hole in the teaching of sexuality in the church. If the topic is broached at all, it is almost always negative. Yet the church must go beyond a negative message, especially in order to speak cogently into the culture in which we find ourselves. We know that the world doesn’t like to hear the Christian message on human sexuality; they find it too restrictive. Even C.S.Lewis said, decades ago in Mere Christianity, that the most offensive and unpalatable teaching of Christianity is its sexual ethic. When the church merely focuses on the negative, the world (and even a lot of our own people) just turn off and move further away.
Now, we need to proclaim a positive sexual apologetic, one that articulates the goodness of God’s design and develops a positive theology of sexuality to counteract the increasingly alluring false worldview that has captured so many. We need to speak a different narrative, one that tells of the good reasons for God’s design for our sexuality. We need to persuasively declare the beauty of God’s intentions, and how living within God’s boundaries affirms our human dignity and contributes to a healthy society. We need a better narrative to help singles shepherd their sexuality so that they do not feel like they are the ones being left out. We need a compelling argument for how God’s design for sexuality is the best argument against the many and growing forms of sexual brokenness, inside and outside the church. For example, the best argument that homosexuality is not within God’s created design for sex is not Leviticus 18 and 20, but rather Genesis 1 and 2!
Acknowledge the fact that Christians are sexually broken too
At Harvest USA we teach that sexual brokenness is a universal human problem. This simply means that the fall of humanity into sin has touched every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality. All of us need a supernatural intervention to bring redemption to our sexuality. But it goes deeper. A significant percentage of men and women in the body of Christ are living in bondage to their sexual desires. Pastors, next time you’re in front of your congregation, look around at your flock, and realize that, according to one survey, as many as 50% of Christian men and 20% of women report being addicted to or ensnared at some level to porn. Add to that the number of youth looking at easily accessible porn online, and the situation is frightening.
Church leadership has been slow to admit that the problem is so widespread among its people. It is time to vocalize this issue and take the necessary steps to minister to the individuals and families scarred by sexual sin.
What would you do if, instead of sexual sin, they had a terminal illness and were glibly going through the motions every Sunday as if all was well? What steps will you take to snatch them from the flames (Jude 23)? The mission of Harvest USA is to equip churches to minister to sexually broken people. We’d love to help train your people to mentor and disciple sexual strugglers, so that they can find freedom from this enslavement. We’ve developed material to equip laity to facilitate biblically-based support groups for men and women. But first the church has to publicly admit that the problem exists.
Partner with parents to teach their children about sexuality
Now, I’m not advocating that parents forsake their God-given calling to raise their children and address sexuality with them, but the church must work together with parents in this endeavor. No longer can churches just assume parents are talking about this stuff. They aren’t. I frequently ask audiences how many of them were raised in a Christian home and, out of those, how many had parents that talked about sex. Most of the hands go down!
The failure of parents and the church to shepherd their children’s sexuality (except maybe to say, “Don’t do it until you’re married!”) has resulted in hordes of young people exiting the church and the faith because they have embraced the cultural narrative of sexuality. The next generation of the church is being lost because this generation failed to honestly talk about sexuality in terms both practical and biblical.
It’s time for the church to actively assist parents, via classes, workshops, and outside speakers, and through the power of “one-anothering” to stop the drifting of our kids falling into sexual entrapment and loss of faith. There’s a reason why churches often ask all their members to take vows at infant baptisms or dedications: Raising sexually healthy kids is the work of the whole body of Christ!
This is much bigger than personal piety
There are broad cultural implications to the porn epidemic that go far beyond individual sexual integrity. Dealing with this issue forthrightly means we can help save marriages and keep children from experiencing the socially debilitating effects of divorce. Sounding the alarm and giving practical help will protect children from the scars of broken sexuality that result from early sexualization.
The positive effects of dealing with these issues will have even broader societal implications. People living within God’s design will not be supporting the porn industry, whose performers, both paid and amateur, are being exploited for someone’s economic gain. A large number of porn performers come from tragically broken backgrounds, and it is not surprising that a great number of them experienced early sexualization, abuse, rape, and incest, as well as continuing to be abused on multiple levels while performing. (See footnote 2.) Human trafficking, the deepest scourge of all, is embedded in this porn and broken sexuality epidemic.
The bottom line is that our silence on this issue is perpetuating injustice. Like those who use illegal drugs and who, by their usage, are linked to the violence and social discord found in countries where the drugs are grown and produced, so engaging in porn equally contributes to global injustice.
But God’s people should be the vanguard of justice, dedicated to undoing this horrific expression of the curse in this world and serving as Christ’s hands and feet to bind up the brokenhearted and heal their wounds. Will you be the one to start doing this in your church? We need to speak up and connect the dots, letting people see the human brokenness that is behind the glossy images and videos.
At Harvest USA, we watch God do this glorious work of “undoing” every day. The gospel is God’s power for salvation, and he is committed to radical change in the lives of his people. But we have a choice: Are we willing to get our hands dirty and enter into this glorious, redemptive work, or continue keeping our heads in the sand, waiting for the storm to clear? One pastor commented that he knew sexual sin was at epidemic levels among his men, but he was scared to take the lid off.
None of us likes to deal with messy situations, but we have a Redeemer who has blazed this path before us. Rather than maintain his glory in the heavens, Jesus was stripped of everything, entering this world as a baby. At the cross, he left it in the same way. But he conquered sin and death—including pornography!—and rose victoriously, so that we can be empowered by his Spirit to face these giants. And that is the key: It is impossible for us to face this challenge alone, but Jesus’ promise is to be with us to the end of the age. He is offering us deeper communion with himself as we face this challenge. It’s worth raising the alarm and rolling up our sleeves for this!
Dave White and Nicholas Black can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], if you want to comment on this article or to find out how Harvest USA can help your church sound the alarm and implement effective ways to teach and help your church community.
1 ChristiaNet, Inc. “ChristiaNet Poll Finds that Evangelicals are Addicted to Porn.” Marketwire, 7 Aug. 2006. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Christianet-Inc-703951.html. As compiled by Covenant Eyes.
2 For a insightful perspective on the reality of porn performers, go to Shelley Lubben’s website: http://www.shelleylubben.com. Shelly is an ex-porn performer who has a ministry to reach out to porn performers with the gospel and talks about the harmful nature of pornography.