The following was written by Brad Currie, who led the LifeLine Group at New Life Presbyterian Church in Dresher, PA.
1. I would never say that I am the leader. I am a facilitator in a group of fellow strugglers. I am a fellow struggler in a battle that every man faces: a battle for sexual integrity and purity in a culture that is saturated by sexual content grossly out of perspective from what God intended for us. I cannot face this battle alone. I need the men in this group as much as they need me, even though I am the facilitator. Even though being a facilitator is a scary position, the Lord meets us as we step out in our own weakness.
2. A fellow struggler is someone who has been on the road of recovery for several years and, despite falling, is able to get up and keep going. A fellow struggler knows that, regardless of temptations and setbacks, he continues on the path and is headed in the right direction toward progressive victory over lust and sexual impurity. A fellow struggler is one who has empathy and compassion for other men who are entangled in similar patterns. A fellow struggler is not someone who thinks they have all the answers, telling other men what to do. A fellow struggler is someone who knows what it is like to be trapped down in that pit of sexual bondage, and since he knows how to climb out, he is willing to help others start their climb.
3. In our groups, we use a rock-climbing analogy to illustrate how the members of the group are connected to each other. Rock climbers are connected to one another from above and below by safety ropes and carabiners. Every man who comes to the group gets his own carabiner to remind him of his connection to the others. We bring the carabiners to our meetings and hook them together as a symbol of our connection with one another. The message is, “You may fall, but you are connected to others who will pull you back up and continue your climb.” This is a powerful, visual reminder of our need of one another. In group, we learn that what heals us is being engaged in strong, connected, and honest relationships with other men. Men become men in the presence of other good men.
4. The connection that is created among men belonging to a group that is safe, confidential, and supportive is immeasurably valuable. Most men are alone in their sexual struggles, believing that they are the only one grappling with their particular issue. Seeing the openness that develops among men as they begin to share their stories in a support group is astonishing. Their self-imposed barriers come down, and the honesty and intimacy that is developed with other men in the group is often the foundation for establishing honesty and non-sexual intimacy in their relationship with their wives. A Christ-centered group provides the essential framework of safety where there is no condemnation or judgment. Most men do not know how to be open, honest, and vulnerable, but in that safe atmosphere, we begin to experience true forgiveness, healing and repentance. As Christ’s love surrounds and permeates these men, they are delivered from their guilt and shame, and their spiritual vigor is restored.
5. Perhaps the best reason to be involved as a facilitator in a men’s group is the need to carry the message of hope and recovery, found in the gospel, to those who are sick and suffering. Comforting others with the comfort that you have received (II Corinthians 1:4) forces you to live out what you know to be true. You can’t effectively encourage other men in their pursuit of their sexual integrity while you are still acting out yourself. Being a facilitator in a group of fellow strugglers keeps you sharp, like iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).
When Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant, it was buried in a tomb and covered with snakes. Being deathly afraid of snakes, he cries out, “Why does it have to be snakes?” thereby revealing his worst fear. But he faced his worst fear and was able to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. In the same way, the Lord uses men who, even while they face their greatest weakness and fear, are willing to make themselves vulnerable and available to “hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11, ESV).
14 Jan 2014
Harvest USA Is NOT What You Think!
We routinely approach churches to request they add Harvest USA to their missions budget, as we rely on God’s people for all our support needs. Many churches reply with a response I hear often: “We really love Harvest USA, but you‘re just not missions; you don’t fit into any of our giving categories.”
That’s ironic! Years ago I was deeply impacted by a seminary professor named Dr. Harvie Conn. Harvie was the missions professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, when I was a student. He walked with a limp, literally. That’s because Harvie, prior to being a professor, had been a missionary for years in Korea—to prostitutes! There, he was grabbed several times by a gang of men while walking down a street, dragged to an alleyway, held down, and had his feet beaten and broken with two-by-fours. He was told, “Quit telling these women about Jesus.” It turned out that the pimp’s income was being affected as these women came to Christ and left prostitution.
So, when Harvie spoke—well, you just listened a little more closely. He had earned his stripes, suffering for Christ. One day he told the class, “Today we’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field. We’re going to talk about an unreached people group—a hidden people group.”
Harvie then talked about the need for mission work in the homosexual community. The church, historically, had a totally “hands off” approach to the gay community. At the time, in 1983, it was becoming the fastest-growing group in the country. He went on to define a people group as any group of people who had a self-perceived identity which bonded that group together and facilitated their growth as a specific community. Harvie explained how the gay community was cemented by common political, social, economic, philosophic, and psychological identities.
But Harvie didn’t stop there. He said the real hidden people were men and women who became believers, bringing into the church all their sexual baggage, confusion, and histories, along with the pain of scarred hearts and souls from sexual abuse, pornography, etc. Then they sit there in silence, because these things aren’t talked about in the church. Often paralyzed by the guilt and shame that sexual sin uniquely produces, most have given up hope that anyone cares whether they find forgiveness or freedom. Harvie explained that the gospel, if it truly is the gospel, must meet these people where they are at, with the hope of a cleared conscience and a changed life. This, he told us, was impossible for them to experience without the love, intervention, and assistance of others in the church.
This intrigued me. Here I was, sitting in this class, hearing someone I respected saying, “These are the unreached, the hidden, the disenfranchised moral discards of our day. The church must be about this kind of ministry, both outside and within the church.” I was also personally interested, due to the work God had done in my own sexually-scarred heart and life. After much prayer and discussion with others, several people caught the vision for such a ministry. Harvest USA was soon formed, and I became the first staff member.
So when a church says, “You’re not missions,” I want to laugh and cry at the same time! Not missions? You’ve got to be kidding. Just consider these recent ministry opportunities we had.
- I once did a half-day seminar at a very poor Jamaican church in The Bronx, NY. They began ministering to the sexually broken in their community and wanted more training. We did this as part of our mission work. They couldn’t afford to pay, not even our travel expenses up there and back for the day, as we ministered the gospel and trained them. At the end of the day, the pastor told everyone, “I asked them to come help us, and they sent the head guy.” Then he began to cry.
- A month after that, I met with the staff and lay-leaders of an inner-city Portuguese church in Newark, NJ. The church is in a community of 30,000 Brazilian immigrants. Five young people had “come out” at the church within the past six months. The elders know this is the state of the church today and needed help. In early 2012, we are working toward providing them a whole day’s training seminar.
- A Muslim professor asks us to lunch after our presentation to his university class, telling the staff he has a PhD and has published books but doesn’t have a relationship with God like they had described. He then begins to ask how to get that.
- At a nearby university, I spoke to a group of 250 students on “The Gospel And The Gay”—95% of the students are Asian (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese).
- Recently we’ve received requests to translate Harvest USA materials into Spanish, Farsi, Urdu, and Punjabi.
Wow! This all sounds pretty much like missions to me! If you’re on a missions committee, or know someone in your church who is, please advocate for us. Encourage the church to become partners in ministry with us. Since the economy has taken a nosedive, we have lost over a dozen supporting churches and about 150 individual donors. We really need more of God’s churches to help us. If that’s not possible, we also encourage churches to consider an annual “love offering. “Thank you for partnering with us, and praying along with us in this Kingdom missions’ work!
Ed LeClair, the Development Director for Harvest USA, attended a denominational conference at the invitation of the moderator and another pastor within the denomination’s more conservative contingent. We wanted to tell you about his journey so that you get a sense of how we proclaim a truth-and-mercy response to the divergent views that many within the church proclaim today.
We attended one denomination’s conference at the request of the conference moderator and the pastor of a church in the denomination’s “conservative camp.” They knew that the LGBT organization which exists within the denomination would be represented and would be presenting some workshops. Some more conservative pastors wanted to see a biblical witness to sexual issues also represented.
Prior to attending, a post appeared on our Harvest USA Facebook page. A member of the denomination expressed his opposition to our presence at the conference and urged the moderator to disinvite us. He saw us as an organization engaging in “spiritual and emotional violence” toward gays and lesbians because our biblical position on homosexuality was not affirming. We responded to his letter, replying that we are not hateful toward gays and lesbians, but rather call all people (not just gays and lesbians) to live within God’s design for sexuality, affirming that there is no place for violence and hatred within or surrounding this subject. Following this post, we began to notice on the web that some others within the denomination were upset at our attending.
So, I went to the conference with some trepidation. Frankly, we are used to this at Harvest USA, but it is never easy to be disliked, attacked, or have our message distorted and maligned. We have come to expect this in an age of “tolerance,” when anything short of total affirmation is chalked up as bigoted and hateful. How did we get to the point in our culture, in which the mere expression of different positions is considered completely unacceptable and, in the name of “tolerance,” virulently shut down and dismissed?
Having all this hanging over me, it was a wonderful relief on the first day to engage with many people who stopped by my exhibit table to say they were happy to have us there representing God’s Word. Many expressed concern for my well-being and said they would be looking out for me. Looking out for me? Someone reported to me that, at a previous conference when the issue of homosexuality came up, fights broke out. During this year’s conference, there was a team of “Reconciliation Ministers” who roamed the convention floor in pairs, on the alert for any signs of trouble developing. They all made it a point to assure me of their immediate support if I should need it. It’s always good to be looked out for!
Shortly after the conference began, the leader of the LGBTQ organization approached me to talk. The exchange was tense at first. She explained her reasons why she did not want our representation here. She cited instances of people, particularly young people, being “harmed” by ministries such as ours, which in some cases led to depression and even suicides. She expressed her concerns about “reparative therapy,” in which she believed we engaged, and also a concern about how we counsel parents whose children self-identify as gay.
As I listened, it became clear that her perception of our ministry is typical. I clarified our position on reparative therapy—we never engage in it, primarily because the gospel is not a foundational part of this therapy. We never advise parents to shun their children who profess same-sex attractions or identify as gay. I spoke about the countless number of men and women who have come to Harvest USA over the past 30 years, who desired to follow the long-held, orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures regarding their sexuality, and they needed help. Far from harming them, we gave them hope! I stressed that our mission and our methods are steeped in the mercy and truth of Jesus Christ, and that we have long been advocates of opposing disrespectful or hateful intent towards gays and lesbians.
As we talked, I shared about my own long struggle with homosexuality and the hope I encountered when I first came to Harvest USA. Gradually, the tension began to subside, replaced by a growing trust and respect between us. She even invited me for dinner with some of her friends, and I gladly accepted!
For the remainder of the conference, there were cordial and pleasant exchanges coming from most of the people aligned with the LGBTQ group, while a very small number of them chose to ignore me altogether. Over breakfast one morning with a pastor who firmly aligned himself with their position, we ended our meeting with an appreciation for one another, in spite of the differences between us. But I also encountered angry people who were upset by our very presence and our scriptural position. I was told several times that I should pack up and disappear, that the world and the church were moving in a different direction, and that our message was no longer relevant. These were sad and painful encounters. I could only silently pray for them as they quickly moved away from me after their short outburst. Standing for scriptural truth and authority is not a walk in the park!
Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to attend the conference, for several reasons. Chief among them were the dialogues I had with a number of people who had held a narrow view of Harvest USA and a great dislike for us. While the dividing issues are still there, I believe some of the hostility and misconceptions in these encounters were diminished by respectful words and acts of kindness, which I strove to display—and so did many on the other side as well. I was also appreciative of the opportunity I had to meet many fine people, have good conversations, and, in particular, directly minister to a number of people wanting to share stories of their own pain and struggles with sexuality. To God be the glory!
We asked some men and women who have come for help to Harvest USA if they would write a brief testimony on how the church helped (or didn’t help) them. Stories are powerful narratives that can help us learn how we can minister to others more effectively. These brief stories are not meant to cast guilt or blame, but show how struggling people need others to help them in specific ways.
The heart of darkness and the Father of lights
My story doesn’t start in darkness. I was raised by Christian parents, attended church, and made a profession of faith at the age of nine. I was the “good girl” who volunteered, memorized Bible verses, and could answer any question in Sunday school. Yet none of these things kept me from becoming addicted to solo sex and pornography.
Sex was a taboo subject at home and church, so I came to believe that sexual sin was the worst kind of sin. The first time I engaged in solo sex, I assumed I had lost God’s love. I had attended True Love Waits weekends, but they only discussed purity. They didn’t mention redemption or grace for those who weren’t pure. This only strengthened my belief that God no longer loved me.
My addiction to solo sex became a persistent coping mechanism I used to deal with life. As is the nature of addiction, eventually I needed more to achieve the same emotional release. Pornography was perfect for feeding the addiction.
After ten years of failing to find freedom, I finally decided to talk with someone. Twice I talked with elders from my church. These conversations increased my sense of shame and despair. I was told I was sinning, was given practical suggestions, even a referral for professional help. But I didn’t hear what I most needed: how the gospel—the good news that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a present hope and power—could be applied to the very real struggles I was facing in life.
The next year, God began moving in my heart. I attended a group Bible study and listened as another elder spoke of God’s steadfast love for his children. I desperately longed for that kind of love but believed I could never have it. That kind of love was too good to be true for someone like me. Yet God was determined to hunt me down. This elder took time to get to know me. To him, I wasn’t a problem to be solved or fixed. I was a scared human being in need of the gospel. In that study, I continued to hear of God’s love and grace each week, even while I continued to disbelieve it.
January 16, 2012, is a day I will never forget. On that day, the truth of John 1:5 came alive to me. I shared my story, and the light of the gospel shone into the darkest corners of my heart. I wept as this same elder spoke words of love, peace, restoration, and forgiveness to me. Over and over again, he showed me the love of God in Christ. Did he talk about my sins and struggles? Yes, but he didn’t focus on them. Instead, he led me gently back into the arms of the Good Shepherd.
Two days later, I shared my story with my pastor, and he, too, applied the truth of the gospel to my heart. He showed me the heart of the Father in Jesus. One thing that has made it easier to talk with my pastor is his willingness to bring up these struggles from the pulpit. He doesn’t treat them like a taboo subject or some delicate topic we have to tiptoe around. He is comfortable talking about them the same way he does any other temptation or struggle. Because of his approach, I am not scared of shocking or surprising him.
In the last five years, I have learned more about God as Father and his steadfast love than at any other time in my life. I have started to believe the truth that his love and grace knows no bounds. Our Father loves to lavish his grace on sinners like me.
Two years ago, I heard about Harvest USA and met Ellen Dykas at a PCA Women’s Leadership Training conference. I was encouraged to learn that an organization existed with staff who are trained to help people dealing with sexual sins and addictions. In many ways, it was a relief to learn I was not the only woman struggling in this area. Ellen reminded me that God could, and would, redeem this part of my story. She was gracious and kind as she listened to my story and my struggles, reminding me many times of God’s love and grace to me.
The temptations are still a struggle—and may always be so. I’ve stopped praying for God to take them away. Instead, my prayer is to love him more than I desire the addictions. I am so thankful that my life in him doesn’t depend on how tightly I hold his hand; it’s all about how tightly he’s holding mine. According to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” God’s grace is meant to go somewhere, and I cannot wait to see how he uses this part of my story to help other women.
Rebuilding my life
I was raised in a loving Christian home. In spite of that, however, my sexuality was deeply impacted by two sexual experiences I had with other kids in churches I attended over the years. The first encounter occurred when I was about 11, with another boy, and the second one was with a girl, three years later. Both those relationships left me boundary-less when it came to trying to live within God’s design for sex. I was exposed to porn as young boy, and that fueled a reckless and unforgiving idol in my life.
When I first realized that I had participated in a homosexual act, I panicked inside. I struggled to reconcile what I knew to be wrong with how my body felt. Then, when I had my second relationship with a girl, I felt relief. But that wasn’t the way to ‘fix’ my broken sexuality either. Instead of being focused on how I should manage my sexuality before God, I was obsessed with not being ‘that.’ I knew and felt the shame of being defined as gay by others.
As I matured into my teen and college years, sexual relationships then became very easy. It was my ‘social currency.’ I began to take more sexual risks, crossing every boundary, desperately trying to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of my sexual idolatry. The details don’t matter, but this point does: I was a good Christian boy raised in a good Christian home and community, but my life didn’t look any different from the world and what it promotes sexually. I wasn’t the only Christian who found himself in this place.
I am exceedingly thankful for the folks at Harvest USA and how God continues to work in my life. As I reflect on where I have been and where I am now, there are several things I wish my church would have spoken about and taught. I think it might have made a big difference in the life of a young boy who was scarred early on.
I wish the church spoke about the gift of sex that God created and how it was to be used positively. Instead, I only heard about what was wrong with sex. I wish I heard the church talk about how to deal with one’s sexual feelings and desires—because the world did, and it filled the void of knowledge, confusion, curiosity, and lust that lived inside of me. I knew all the Christian doctrines, but in my heart I was helpless to resist, a slave to my desires—for the next 25 years!
Like so many, I had been living in secrecy and shame, not knowing how the Scriptures could actually be applied to these issues. My hope is that the church will learn to love its children enough to move past the social awkwardness associated with discussions on sexuality and instead teach them that sexuality is a tremendous gift from God. May the church practically teach how Satan and a broken world seek to confuse and distort God’s design for sexuality, while at the same time reaching out to those who suffer from sexual brokenness, telling them that the power of God’s love does indeed set one free.
Honestly facing the facts
I am a woman in my late twenties. After college, I stumbled across pornography following a broken relationship. I was crushed and lonely. Looking at porn began as a curiosity, and I rationalized that even while looking at it, I wasn’t really ensnared—I was still in control. When I did look at it, it was only a moment of weakness. But a nagging voice kept saying something else. I was allowing sin to run rampant in my life, fueling lust, and fleeing to a false refuge for relief and comfort.
The more I ran to it, the less comfort and relief it brought. It became a vicious cycle that I hid from everyone. After every fall, I would be crushed with guilt and shame; I would ask for forgiveness; I would feel better; and then shortly thereafter fall again. Frightening questions rose in my mind: “Am I really a Christian if I struggle with these particularly dark sins? How do I stop this? Is there any hope of this ever changing? What must God think of me?”
During this time, I went to seminary, and God brought into my life a few good female friends who were honest about their own similar struggles. As they were transparent with me, I was freed up to confess too. I found out that as a Christian woman, I was not the only one struggling with pornography and masturbation! After sharing my own struggles, a weight lifted off of me. I see the gracious hand of God in bringing these friends into my life.
Harvest USA has been a huge light to me in all this. A few of my friends and I joined a Harvest USA Biblical Support Group to walk through the Sexual Sanity for Women workbook material. There we found a place to be honest about our sin. We learned humility as well, as we lifted one another up in encouragement and prayer. We learned the freedom of confession, the need for accountability, and the power of God’s grace and love. We sensed the Spirit moving in each of us to desire real change. We wondered, “Why are these healing and life-giving groups happening at Harvest USA and not in our own churches?”
As for my church, I never heard the subject of pornography and masturbation brought up as something with which women struggled. There’s a whisper here and there about a men’s group, and that’s all. But now I know that women do struggle in this area, so there must be other women who were like me, alone, caught in the same vicious cycle in which I was once trapped. I fear that they, too, are overwhelmed with guilt and shame, since no one is talking about this. I’m praying that God will open up this subject for discussion and that a community of women would rise up and shepherd one another. As Jesus went outside and brought in the bruised lambs, so we can, in his power, go and find those who are hiding and bring them to the Shepherd who heals our souls.
I deal with lives that have been devastated by sexual sin every day. Just the other day, I talked with a young man facing the painful exposure of having sexually fallen. This man was distraught and repentant. He shared with me his lifelong struggle of being raised in a solid, fundamentalist church, and yet feeling like there was no one he felt safe talking to.
He went on to speak of the years of loneliness he felt struggling with his schizophrenic-like existence in his church. On one hand, he was an active member of the church. On the other hand, he struggled with the guilt and shame of his secret double life, struggling with pornography, and occasionally acting out sexually.
Few sins carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. They are dealing with something that touches the very core of how they feel about themselves. People who struggle with sexual sin are not just struggling with out of control desires, but also with issues that deeply connect to their sexual identity and self-esteem. The guilt and shame that are associated with these issues are enormous. The result is the pressure to “hide” in their churches out of fear of being exposed.
I once spoke to a men’s church group about the issues of sexual sin and temptation. After I finished speaking, I opened the meeting up for a time of discussion. I was amazed by the men’s uncomfortable shifting in their seats, and the silence of the group. As I looked upon these men, many sat with heads lowered as if to avoid any eye contact. It was as if everyone was terrified to enter into the discussion for fear of being identified.
Many of us would like to think that serious struggles with sexual sin are problems that occur mainly outside the church. However, it has been my experience that whatever sin you see outside the church can, sadly, be found in the lives of those within the church. It is interesting to note that the apostle Paul, in his letters to various churches, was not embarrassed to acknowledge and address issues of sexual sin in the church (e.g. I Corinthians 5-6).
All of us are aware of well-known church leaders who have fallen sexually. However, there are alarming indicators that serious sexual struggles are not limited to a few fallen leaders. This is a growing problem in the church today, and this reality certainly has been borne out in my experience. Every week I spend time with pastors, missionaries, and well-respected church leaders who come to me seeking help to deal with the bondage of sexual sin in their own lives. As I talk with other pastors and counselors, I also hear feedback about their own concern about the growing numbers of Christians coming to them for help.
In addition, recent church surveys report some alarming statistics. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth did a survey on “How Common is Pastoral Indiscretion?” The results were shocking. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents confessed to having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in their church. Another survey of 300 pastors by Leadership magazine indicated that 23% admitted to having been sexually involved with someone other than their spouse. Some large hotel chains report that their largest revenues for adult TV channels have occurred during Christian conventions.
My worry is that if this high rate of moral failure exists with Christian leaders, what is going on in the lives of the “average,” respectable looking men and women sitting in our church pews? My concern is that if struggles with sexual sin are this serious in the lives of men and women in our churches, then what is to be the church’s response to this? Can we say that our churches are safe places for the sexual struggler to open up about their sin, so as to seek spiritual help and restoration?
The reality is that the whole issue of sexual sin in the church is an emotionally charged issue. It is a problem that engenders much fear and prejudice. Many in the church would put sexual sin at the top of their list of “worst sins.” This contributes in part to the deep sense of shameful stigma that sexual strugglers feel in their church. But the fact is that such a perspective is not biblical and is a denial of the grace of the gospel.
In I Corinthians 6:9-10, the apostle Paul lists the sins of greed and gossip in the same list with the “sexually immoral” and “homosexual offenders.” The truth is, sin is sin. When we sin, we sin against a holy God and expose our deep need for Christ’s forgiveness. Of course, some sins have greater consequences than others (I Corinthians 6:18). The real issue is that, in God’s eyes, all sins are the same and must be confessed openly to Christ for forgiveness. All sin, whether it is greed, gossip, or homosexuality, equally needs the grace of God.
The danger in viewing sexual sin in a harsher light than gossip, or greed, is that the sexual struggler feels a pressure to hide and keep his sin in the closet. It is no wonder then that so many sexual strugglers choose to avoid confession and carry their painful conflict alone. This in turn leads so often to a person living in two worlds, one existing in the fellowship of believers, and the other being the secret dark world of their sin. It is in this kind of isolation that the bondage of sexual sin entrenches itself. Sexual bondage thrives in the darkness of denial and deception that is fostered by such isolation. As long as there is hiding, there is little hope for freedom.
Another concern that sexual strugglers have in coming out and asking for help is the fear that simplistic solutions will be offered. Many a sexual struggler has shared with me the illustration of having finally opened up about his problem with someone from the church, only to hear the moralistic response, “Just turn to God and repent.” This unsympathetic response amounts to being heard as, “Just shape up and act the way God wants you to act.”
Too often, the well-meaning but misguided persons who offer this advice are Christians who have not wrestled with the depth of their own sin and the complexities of the bondage of serious sexual sin. These people tend to understand the bondage of serious sexual sin as simply “yielding to the flesh” and think that the cure is exhortation and rebuke.
Occasionally this type of approach may seem to work. But in the long haul, it fails to address the depth and deceitfulness of the human heart that empowers ongoing bondage. In addition, this kind of self-righteous approach ignores and puts salt into the struggler’s deep wounds. This in turn often drives him or her away from God and the supportive fellowship of their churches, rather than toward the redemptive mercy and love of God and his people.
One of the sad consequences of this is that many sexual strugglers have had to turn to secular recovery groups for help. Many have felt there was little else available that offered a “safe place” to honestly deal with their struggles. The truth is that many sexual strugglers report to me that they experienced more love and compassion in their secular recovery groups than in the fellowship of their church.
No doubt such recovery groups have helped some Christians. However, my burden is to see the church become a redemptive and safe place where men and women can honestly deal with their sexual sin. Given the fact that the roots of sexual bondage are profoundly spiritual and moral in nature, it is crucial that the church see its opportunity to become a refuge where the healing balm of God’s truth and grace can be offered. I believe this is why so many men and women have sought out the ministry of Harvest. They come to Harvest because they see it as a safe place where they can begin to honestly face their sexual bondages in the light of God’s truth.
Because the root issues of sexual bondage are spiritual in nature, the church must also avoid becoming simplistic, moralistic, or uncompassionate in its approach to the problem. As Christians, we must acknowledge that there are deep and complex issues of the human heart with which we must grapple. Sexual bondage is never about simple lust or external behavior. It is in response to the deep wounds of life that sexual strugglers develop self-protective, relational walls to insulate themselves from further hurt. However, the sad irony is that the very walls they have cultivated to “protect” themselves now have become the “prison” that keeps them in bondage. There are both deep hurts and deeply rooted sin patterns of deceitful thinking and responding that must be exposed and lovingly confronted.
The church as a redemptive community
In responding to the challenge and need of ministering to individuals struggling with sexual sin, I would suggest that there are three important areas to consider. These are all suggestions that will encourage the church to become a place where people will feel encouraged to honestly open up their lives for help within the context of the local church.
1. Cultivate an atmosphere of grace
The church must cultivate an atmosphere of grace through its teaching, preaching, and body life. This is a crucial dimension for the church to become an effective, redemptive community to the sexually broken. What I mean by this is that a church must clearly communicate through its ministry the truth of God’s grace. It is the message of grace that invites every one of us to see ourselves as sinners who deeply need forgiveness. Whether our sins are gossip, greed, or homosexuality, all of us stand in deep need of God’s ongoing work of grace in our lives. The truth is that the sin issues which plague the heart of a man or woman struggling with serious sexual sin are the same sin issues with which any one of us struggle. At the core of all our sinful struggles are hearts that battle with pride, demandingness, and unbelief.
In my own life, I have recently struggled with the battle of being overweight. In dealing with this problem, I have come to see the sinful energy behind my overeating is no different from the energy behind my own past struggles with sexual addiction. The challenge for me has been not to minimize the sinfulness of my late-night “excursions” into the refrigerator as being less sinful than past indulgences into pornography.
As every one of us allows God’s truth to humble us with this perspective we will have a new, growing compassion for the sexual struggler. No longer will there be any room for a pharisaical attitude that says, “I thank God I am not like those other perverted people who struggle with sexual sin” (Luke 18:11). It is interesting to note that Jesus saved his harshest rebukes for self-righteous Pharisees (Cf. Matthew 15:1-9, 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-52). The message of grace humbles the heart and invites everyone in the church to see themselves as needy beggars who are trying to show each other where to find the ongoing “Bread of life” that Jesus offers.
In a practical way, I believe cultivating this kind of atmosphere begins with the consistent and clear preaching of grace from the pulpit. It will be the teaching and preaching on Sunday that will foster an atmosphere of grace in the ministry of a congregation. However, I also believe attention needs to be paid to what is being encouraged in the small group structure of a church. It is important that the body life of a church reflect the graciousness and acceptance of the gospel.
2. Make a commitment to confidentiality
Another necessary element to encouraging the church to become a redemptive community is the need to maintain careful commitment to confidentiality. As stated before, there are few sins which carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. The subsequent fears of exposure and rejection are what keep many sexual strugglers from opening up to people in their churches to get help.
I can tell horror story upon horror story of situations where individuals finally opened up with someone in their church, only to find the news of their problem painfully being spread to others within the fellowship without their permission. One such man reported sharing his struggles about homosexual feelings with a church deacon he had come to trust. Shortly thereafter, he was removed as a Sunday school teacher, without church leadership coming to him to discuss the nature of his struggle. The result was a painful sense of betrayal and rejection by God’s people, just for taking off a mask and becoming honest.
Other situations I have seen involve sexual strugglers experiencing the pain and embarrassment of finding out that they have been the topic of church gossip in the church. It only takes one such painful experience of broken confidentiality to shut a sexual struggler down from ever opening up in the church again. Those who gossip and slander reveal their own sinfulness and demonstrate they are not fit to be involved in such a delicate ministry of restoration.
In working with individuals who struggle with sexual sin, it is imperative that serious attention be given to the subject of confidentiality. One must imagine how devastating a violation of trust must feel in order to appreciate the vulnerable position of the sexual struggler.
In a practical way, there are a couple of key principles to keep in mind to guard confidentiality. First, is the importance of keeping the circle as small as possible. The more people who know, the greater the chance of some sort of breach of confidentiality. Disclosure should only be given on a need-to know” basis. Secondly, the simple rule of thumb to follow about who needs to know is only those individuals who are part of the problem (e.g. individuals who have been directly affected by the person’s sin) or those who are part of the solution (e.g. the pastors, elders, or accountability partners who are directly involved with the person).
3. Practice loving confrontation and accountability
A final important area to consider is the need for the church to provide a context for loving confrontation and accountability for individuals struggling with sexual sin. One of the greatest needs a sexual struggler has is the need to develop new relationships. The struggle with sexual sin is characterized by withdrawal, hiding, and isolation. However, this approach to relationships only leaves the person extremely vulnerable to pursue sinful avenues to relieve their emptiness and loneliness. It is also all too easy to fall prey, time and time again, to the “old, deceitful” way of thinking that keeps them trapped in the bondage of their sexual sin.
What are needed are relationships and other contexts where the individual can honestly share their lives and open up about their struggles. This includes relationships where someone not only listens and loves unconditionally, but also confronts in a loving manner. We all need others “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) because ultimately it is in “knowing and living out the truth of God that we are set free” (John 8:32).
However, the relationships that the sexual struggler experiences in the church must be those that reflect the gracious heart of God. Those who are involved with helping or discipling the sexually broken must be willing to love them through the power of Christ’s love, surprising them with what they do not deserve, and offering them a taste of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and joy. It is in offering them a loving relationship that is not deserved, that they begin the process of being restored to the Lord and others.
Remember the story of the immoral woman weeping and anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7? Here is a picture of a woman’s heart being so captured by the glory and tenderness of Jesus’ mercy, that the shackles of her shame and guilt are dispelled to free her to boldly embrace him. When Christ’s love is given to those held in the bondage of sexual sin, it brings forth the power to astound them and dissipate the power of sexual sin over their lives. The trust of the entire story is this woman’s new freedom came out of the profound experience of forgiveness and mercy she tasted from Jesus’ interaction with her.
In a practical way, cultivating loving, confrontative relationships can be done in the context of pastoral counseling, one-on-one discipling, mentoring relationships, and small accountability groups. Consideration must also be made to utilize resources outside the church to further support and help the sexual struggler. This might include referring to a local Christian counselor and any Christian support groups. This is the role that Harvest has attempted to offer to local churches. Harvest had been a sort of spiritual MASH unit, seeking to help and restore sexual strugglers so that they might be able to effectively “mainstream” back into their churches. Harvest has done this by offering support groups for sexual addiction, homosexuality, and individual counseling.
I must say that I cannot overemphasize the importance of the church in the process of restoration of sexual strugglers’ lives. In my seven years of experience of working with sexual addicts and homosexual strugglers, I have never seen anyone fully experience freedom and restoration without being strongly connected to the life and fellowship of a solid Christian community.
It is my burden to see the church of Jesus Christ grow in its vision and effectiveness in reaching out to the sexually broken men and women who struggle secretly and silently in our churches. I long for the church to become a more redemptive place that reflects the graciousness of God. It will not be by pressure of Pharisaical exhortation that sexual strugglers will be invited to open up their lives and be restored. This kind of restoration and freedom will only take place in the context of a ministry that invites sinners to have their hearts captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel.
Dr. Dan Allender captures this truth powerfully with this concluding quotation:
“Paul says that deception and enslavement to all kinds of passions begin to melt in the light of the kindness and love of God (Titus 3:3-4). The brutal power of lust will not succumb to any force of the human will unless the heart is captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel. As the good news of freedom from God’s wrath increases our wonder, laughter, and passion to live, then the dark desire to possess, to consume, and to destroy will have less power in our lives. The joy of being forgiven, not only of behavior but also of the sin deep in our hearts, will increase our desire to love (Luke 7:47). And an increase in a desire to love will deepen our desire to see beauty enhanced in everyone whom we have the pleasure and privilege to encounter.” (Dan Allender, “Lust, Can We Overcome Its Power?” Discipleship Journal, No. 64, p. 28)
May God give us grace for his church to increasingly reflect the glory of his grace as it reaches out to sexually broken men and women!
By Barney Swihart, M.A., M. Div.
The title of this article presupposes two things: First, your children are being exposed to pornography, and second, you are already responding—even if you are doing nothing. Maybe you are tempted to toss aside this article with a shrug, “Well, my kids haven’t been exposed,
04 Sep 2012
Is the Media Sexualizing Your Kids?
In this blog, we’ll look at current issues in the culture and the church on sex.
Yet another study shows the effects of the media’s sexual images and activity on teen behavior. This is one of those “doh!” studies. It seems so commonsense. A study out of Dartmouth College shows that teens who are exposed to more sex scenes in popular films are more likely to engage in sexual activity.
We haven’t dug into the study itself, but “observational learning” (what one sees in life, especially if it is repeated over and over) is one way we all learn, especially so with kids. We learn from seeing the behavior of others. We are influenced by our environment but not determined by it. The shaping influence that comes from what someone is exposed to—when exposed over and over—can be powerful on teens, especially in the area of sex. Why?
Because sex is not just a biological drive (think hormones); it is a God-designed activity to be expressed in the context of relationships. We are created for relationship, and sex is one way we bond to another person. God created sex to be in the service of lifelong, committed relationships (think marriage). But in the brokenness of the fall, sex is used in place of relationships or, increasingly so, just for physical pleasure—a “it’s not a big deal” mentality.
But preventing our kids from this type of media exposure is not enough to guard them from early sexualization. They need to learn what sex is for, and how God designed it, and what the boundaries are for its expression. That will form a foundation to intelligently interact with the media messages that they are being assaulted with daily.
Then, they still need more than mere information. Information is not enough to change us, to keep us from the relentless sexual pressures the world presses in on us. Model before your kids a living faith in Jesus Christ, and teach and show them how that relationship is worth more than any other relationship in life. Research on teen sexual behavior has found that active involvement in one’s faith is the highest indicator for sexual integrity.
29 Aug 2012
When Two Lesbians Come to Church
Read the article below in Leadership Magazine.
It’s a story by a pastor who struggles, along with his leadership team, with allowing a lesbian couple and family into his church. His reflections on what it means to reach out to those who do not follow Christ, but show evidence of perhaps wanting to do so, is excellent. Read his four convictions; they should be guidelines for every church, every follower of Christ, who is serious about introducing people to Jesus Christ.
I love his first conviction: God is here. In other words, if someone like this couple shows up in church, we should think first that God is up to something in the matter, regardless of where the situation ends up eventually. In other words, don’t let your initial thought be, “Why is this (type of) person here?” Believe that God is still drawing people to himself, and those (types of) people will challenge you to act like Jesus did to “sinners and tax collectors.”
At Harvest USA, we have developed some guidelines for youth groups to approach a same-sex attracted youth either coming out or wanting to come to youth group at church. If the church is the place where God is, then accepting the mess of people’s lives is par for our gospel work. So let them in, in whatever stage of “uncleanness” they are, and see what God is up to. It may be very confusing at first, and for some time, but we need to allow God to bring clarity along the way. This doesn’t mean we abandon biblical standards and doctrine, but if we allow our minds to first go to all the potential difficulties that might (will?) ensue if this couple, for example, wants to join the church, then we will hold back from loving them at the beginning of their entry. We will allow our fear to control our welcome.
Isn’t that how he wooed us into his arms? Weren’t we all messes at one time? Don’t we still have some mess still sticking to us?
Read on to discover Harvest USA’s perspective of pornography’s effect on children and protecting family.
Our friends at the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU, www.cpyu.org) have just published a brief handout on the effects of pornography on children. It’s titled, “A Parent’s Primer on Internet Pornography.” It contains useful information on who is looking at porn and what our kids are viewing, as well as information on how harmful porn is to the minds and hearts of kids and adults.
Led by Dr. Walt Mueller, CPYU is a terrific ministry organization—and not just because they like us and reference us in this handout! One thing to note in this handout: Walt refers to an online article Harvest USA wrote, entitled, “My Kids Have Looked at Porn! What Do I Do Now?” That article is now published as a mini book by New Growth Press, called “iSnooping On Your Kids: Protecting Your Family in a Internet Age,” which is available for purchase in our online bookstore for just $3.99. Check out the Harvest USA bookstore, which has lots of information on preventative steps to take, as well as what to do when your kids have already been exposed to porn.
09 Oct 2010
Same-Sex Attraction IS a Church Problem
This article first appeared as a religion column in the Philadelphia Daily News with the title “Churches that don’t acknowledge homosexuality build a difficult barrier.”
Twelve years ago, Oprah Winfrey interviewed J.L. King about his book, On The Down Low, which documented multitudes of black men who regularly engaged in sex with men.
Often husbands and fathers, they do not identify as “gay,” but they do live secret and radically disjointed double lives. In fact, King pointed out that African-American churches are “unrealistic about the number of men leading double lives.”
Recent accusations about a well-known Southern minister in a mega-church of African Americans have brought this discussion back into the limelight. King cites blatant hypocrisy: ministers who condemn homosexuality from the pulpit, then have sex with men in the pews.
His concern is that the church all too often condemns homosexuality rather than admits its presence among members and leadership. The picture King paints is that church leaders often mistakenly convey the message that this is something that happens “out there” and not “in here.”
Yet anyone can struggle with same-sex attractions and homosexuality, regardless of race and ethnicity. It is part of the human predicament. In a sense, it’s a subcategory of the major human dilemma. What is at the essence of the greater human dilemma? Just this: the Bible says that we react to confusion, life’s circumstances, hurts, disappointments, and pain by developing plans and strategies to make life work apart from God. We all develop approaches to life that say to others around us, and to God as well, “I have a plan for my life—don’t you get in my way.”
This is the nature of sin, which extends to what we do with our hearts and bodies, sexually speaking. How we handle sex reveals what we believe about God. Our use or misuse of sex always reveals whether we’re living lives of submission to God or rebellion. For all of us, then, one of the key questions of life is whether we’re willing to call God “boss” and let him meet our needs his way.
The white church is also hesitant to admit that its members experience these kinds of problems, as well as the propensity to live double lives of hypocrisy. Yet homosexuality seems to be a more hidden reality in African-American, Asian, and Latino churches. Perhaps the white church has just lost its sense of shame; that is, it has lost an awareness that something is terribly wrong, while African-American and other ethnic churches still hold on to some appearance that, biblically speaking, same-sex attraction is not a good thing to be open about or celebrated.
I don’t know how many black churches have become pro-homosexual. This is not a bad thing, but avoiding the real struggles that people experience is.
Keeping silent about these struggles puts those in the African-American church in a bind. The barriers to admitting the truth and seeking help consequently remain very high. These barriers must be broken down in the African-American church. This can happen only when these real heart issues and problems are discussed openly and honestly. That’s also when people who struggle with same-sex attractions might be encouraged to talk about it sooner so that they can understand how much God cares and longs to meet them in the midst of their secret struggles. The pop psychologist Dr. Phil is right on here. He often states boldly and frequently on his TV show, “What can’t be admitted can’t be changed.”
A passage from the Bible, I Thessalonians: 4:3-5, states, “This is God’s will, that you abstain from sexual immorality; and that each of you learn how to control his own body in holiness and honor; not in lustful passion. . . . ”
Admittedly, these are hard words to take in, especially in our ‘sex is my own business’ culture. But they are also life-giving words that transcend race and ethnicity. In this sense, God’s words to us are truly multicultural in nature.