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.
07 Sep 2016
In our first post in this two-part blog series (insert link), we examined the potential problem of your pastor¹ struggling to be a friend and to have true, honest friendships with others. This can occur because they are often expected to constantly give and shepherd more than they receive, they fear what will happen if they reveal deep struggles and sins, and they worry about the damage that their reputations and families will incur. Nowhere are the consequences higher than when a pastor is struggling with sexual issues and sins.
“I stood in that pulpit week in and week out. I looked into the eyes of a hundred people every week, people who really didn’t know me at all. And I wanted to shout out to them, ‘I’m dying up here!,’ but I just couldn’t.”
But Scripture speaks of the necessity of real, heart-depth friends and friendships as a way out of these problems.
So, what can you do to help? Here are four ways you can help your pastor find the kind of support and friendship that he needs.
First, pray for your pastor. This may seem like a non-starter. Isn’t that something a church member would do automatically? Well, yes —but many people don’t. Many people only pray in general or duty-specific ways for their pastors and other leaders: “Help Pastor Kevin to preach faithfully.” I’m encouraging you to intercede specifically and frequently for your pastor.
How will you know how to pray specifically for your pastor? Ask him. Believe me, there are precious few church members who ask that simple question of the men who shepherd them. You’ll not only learn how to pray, but you’ll encourage the heart of your pastor and perhaps even build a foundation on which a friendship might grow.
Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to pray specifically that they would not enter into temptation in particular ways (Matthew 26:41). James instructs us to pray powerfully and specifically for each other, for the Spirit to intervene in particular ways in particular circumstances (James 5:13-16). We should pray likewise for our pastors—that the Spirit would make them wise to recognize and stand firm against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). We should pray that the Lord would preserve them particularly from sexual temptation and sin, which are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). Pray that the Lord would lead them into deep friendships and make those friendships effective for his purposes.
Second, show hospitality to your pastor. Invite him (and his family) into your home for dinner—not for a pastoral visit, but for pure and simple fellowship. Tell him that’s the purpose of the visit: He has a night off just to enjoy your hospitality and for you to get to know him (and his family²) in order to care for him better.
Another way to show hospitality is to invite your pastor out to breakfast, lunch, or coffee, and for you to pay.³ Use this as an opportunity for you to “pastor” your pastor: Ask him how he’s doing, how you might pray for him in ministry, and how he’s dealing with the temptations, stresses, and fears that anyone in the church might have. Your pastor is a fallen human being just like you. A theological degree should not be confused with sinlessness or perfect faith. Your pastor needs someone to talk to, someone with whom to be honest, someone who is going to have his back and the backs of his family members. There are few pastors who aren’t under spiritual attack in some way. As their brothers (and sisters), we are called to join in his battle—to lay down our lives for him (1 John 3:16). Again, this is a way for you to build a foundation of trust and friendship, which will be a blessing to your pastor.
Third, tell your pastor about Harvest USA. Tell them about the ministry, particularly our ministry to pastors who struggle sexually. Ask your pastor to visit harvestusa.org and to look under the “Connect” tab, then click on the “Help for Pastors” option. Harvest USA offers confidential and biblical help at no cost to pastors who are struggling with pornography, lust, or same-sex attraction.
Fourth, encourage your pastor to be involved with others for friendship, accountability, and encouragement. Ask your pastor if he has a friend with whom he can speak candidly, a friend who knows him and loves him well enough to bear the secrets he would never tell anyone else. Unless your pastor is extraordinary, the answer is probably “no.” Exhort your pastor to pray for such a friend and to pray for the humility and grace to open up to this friend. Commit to pray along with your pastor for this kind of friendship to develop. It could be that you might become that very friend.
In summary, pastors need friends as much as anyone else, but they may be less likely to already possess, or to develop those friendships, on their own.
I recall one pastor who came to Harvest USA for help about fifteen years ago. He came to us only after his twenty-five-year string of affairs with women in the churches he served was exposed, and he lost his ministry and his marriage. He told me, “I stood in that pulpit week in and week out. I looked into the eyes of a hundred people every week, people who really didn’t know me at all. And I wanted to shout out to them, ‘I’m dying up here!,’ but I just couldn’t.”
That pastor’s story is more common than you know. Be a part of making a significant difference in the life of one man—your pastor—so that he can stand with confidence in the Lord Jesus and shepherd you and Christ’s church well.
¹ This article is written with male pastors in mind, but the same principles could be applied to women leaders in the church as well. In my experience, women leaders are just as isolated as men in leadership, and in just as great a danger to fall into hopelessness and sin.
² Pastor’s wives and children need care and prayer as well. Hospitality affords a unique opportunity for women to pursue and encourage a pastor’s wife, and for one’s children to befriend a pastor’s children.
³Propriety would dictate that only men would invite male pastors out to exclusive meetings of this sort to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to prevent any potentially tempting situations.
31 Aug 2016
That might seem like a strange idea: pastors¹ needing a friend or friends. After all, a church’s pastor is the one person who generally knows everyone else in the church. He spends his days talking with people, counseling them, conferring with other pastors, devoting time to prayer and Bible study. He’s the most plugged-in person in the church. How much more connected does he need to be? Doesn’t he already have a lot of friends? What’s the concern here?
The concern here is helping a pastor be who he is on the outside with who he is on the inside. And nowhere does that split occur more than in the area of sexual integrity. In a job filled with stress and built-in isolation, and living in a world that promotes sensuality and sexuality as the “stuff” of life, that combination can be a flashpoint of real danger.
Let me suggest that there is generally a vast difference between the quantity of relationships a person has and the quality of those relationships. In other words, it’s possible for someone to know many people, but for the nature of those relationships to be uni-directional (one-way).
Pastors are uniquely positioned to be in such one-way relationships. I call them “one-way” because of the power differential that exists between the pastor and those attending a church. What I mean is this: Regardless of how you or your denomination sees your pastor, you still see him in some way as the leader, the guy in charge. He’s your shepherd. As a result, the nature of the relationships a pastor has with the members of his church are generally focused around him fulfilling that role. He preaches, he teaches, he counsels, he administrates, he shows unfailing love, compassion, and strength in your worst and most desperate times. But rare indeed is the instance in which a pastor receives that kind of care, leadership, and shepherding from someone else in his church, even an elder or other leader.
That power differential also creates something of a barrier in your pastor’s ability to share honestly and openly with others. Because he is the “authority” in the local church, the one who is called to bear the burdens of others, the one who is supposed to have all of the answers, the super-Christian who never does anything particularly egregious, your pastor is less likely to share with anyone else the doubts, fears, shameful thoughts and attitudes, and the sin in his own heart and life. After all, what would all who have turned to him in the past think? The potential damage to his reputation, to his family, to the church, to his career is too great a risk.
Even a pastor’s peers can seem unsafe as potential friends. Other men in full-time ministry might seem likely candidates for the kind of close, intimate friendships that foster confession of sin and unbelief. Unfortunately, the isolated lives of pastors often lead them to feel so wary of being real with others that they intentionally and unintentionally wall themselves off, allowing no one to see past the façade of piety and professionalism.
This is a very dangerous place to be. Scripture speaks to the necessity of real, heart-depth friends and friendships. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-16 that individual Christians grow in faith and freedom from the power of sin through friends who “speak the truth in love” with each other. In Galatians 6:1-2, we are exhorted to “bear one another’s burdens” of temptation and sin. Likewise, we are to restore each other to the body of Christ and to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). The person who has only superficial and polite friendships has no access to these ordinary means of spiritual growth and sanctification.
Looking at the same issue from another perspective, the writer of Proverbs says in 18:1-2 that the person who isolates himself from others denies godly wisdom and understanding. The “preacher” in Ecclesiastes warns that it is spiritually and physically dangerous to be friendless (4:9-12). There are many, many other exhortations in Scripture to pursue deep, life-affirming, sanctifying friendships and to flee from isolation into community.
I do want to be clear that not every pastor struggles with pornography or sin of a sexual nature. But, as do all people, all pastors struggle with something that marginalizes the Gospel in their hearts, lives, and ministries. And many pastors do struggle sexually, the vast majority of them in secret for the reasons outlined above. The damage to their own faith, their families, and their churches is substantial.
Whether the struggle is relatively small or great, most pastors fear being real with others. The risk seems simply too significant. Unless they cultivate real friendships, they’ll remain isolated in the midst of people all around them.
What can we do for them?
¹This article is written with male pastors in mind, but the same principles could be applied to women leaders in the church as well. In my experience, many who lead women are just as isolated and in just as great a danger to fall into hopelessness and sin.
We are getting an increasing number of requests from parents, pastors, friends, and others in the the church for good, biblically sound resources to help understand and address issues of transgenderism. There’s a lot of good stuff scattered around the web, and we’re trying to collect some of them into a Resource Page. http://harvestusa.org/transgenderism-resources/
The Resource Page is being updated as we come across more articles, sermons, blog posts, etc., that we believe are helpful from a gospel perspective. So check back from time to time. Just click the link to the page above. We hope what we have gathered will help you think biblically and compassionately.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started.
07 Jul 2016
In January 2016, Ellen Dykas returned to Taiwan, East Asia, to teach a two-week course entitled “Biblical Sexuality and Ministry to Strugglers.”
I was going back to Taiwan to speak to twenty-nine students who all spoke Chinese. Back to China Reformed Theological Seminary in Taipei, to help train men and women preparing for ministry. They came from Taiwan, main-land China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, and Australia. I had been there before, in 2013, when I first addressed sexual struggles in Asia, and I was eager to return. I hoped to meet up with some students who I taught three years ago. As a teacher, you always wonder if anything you said or taught made a difference.
Upon arriving, I learned that Taiwan was considering legalizing gay marriage. The news dismayed my students, and I gave them insight into what Christians in the USA faced when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last summer. We found common ground as Christians living so far from each other: As sexual sin outside of God’s design becomes the norm, standing firm for biblical truth may cost us more than it has in the past. We agreed that ministry would need to be more strategic and nuanced than ever before in order to speak into the culture.
But we also concurred that ministry still needs to be relational and personal, appropriately caring for each individual. I met up with one of my students from 2013 and heard her story of parenting her gay-identified daughter. She expressed fresh sorrow over her daughter’s life, but shared with me new insight about the faith to which God is calling her as she loves her daughter in a new way. She recalled my teaching from three years ago, that telling her daughter to “Stop!” would not lead to true repentance. She began learning how to engage her daughter relationally while also holding true to God’s design for sexuality and relationships. It is so good to know that God uses even my words to strengthen his people!
How does the church address sexual struggles in Asia? Much the same as we do, but with one very big difference: In Asia, the church hardly talks about sexuality at all. A powerful culture of shame encourages hiding and silence on an even a deeper level than what we see in churches in the USA. And the silence from church leaders is much “louder” than here, compounding the confusion and despair of Christians struggling alone.
But by offering courses like the one I taught, China Reformed Seminary is beginning to change that culture of silence. What the Asian church needs now are solid biblical resources translated into their languages.
I have one more memory to share: The seminary partners with a local biblical counseling ministry. On Saturday, between my two weeks of classes, the counseling ministry hosted a community lecture at which I was the featured speaker. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the lecture made the front page of the Taipei Christian newspaper! Serving with Harvest USA has certainly led to many unexpected adventures!
Also, here is one last prayer request: God is expanding Harvest USA’s influence outside of the United States, and it’s exciting! I will have the opportunity to teach on biblical sexuality at a national women’s conference in Columbia this coming July 2016, but I need some special funding to make this happen. I need to raise $1500 to cover the costs, so that Columbians will be able to attend. Tax-deductible donations may be made by check to Colombia Reformed (please add a note that this is for Ellen Dykas, but do not write that on the memo line!) and mailed to: Colombia Reformed, P.O. Box 102, Lovettsville, VA 20180. Thank you!
James Sutton, Associate Pastor, Christ the King PCA in Raleigh, NC, shares his church’s experience of partnering with Harvest USA.
We’ve long known sexual brokenness was an issue in our church, even though nobody talked about it. We’re happy to confess pride, fundamental forms of idolatry, destructive anger, jealousy, etc. However, invite us to shine a light onto our experience of sexual brokenness and we get a little sheepish. Doesn’t everyone?
But the Bible reminds us that it’s pretty clear those struggles are going to be there. It even anticipates that we’re going to do our best job of convincing each other and ourselves that they aren’t there. In general, we lived up to that prediction. For a long time, our church’s culture was like a mutually agreed-upon conspiracy of silence.
But something amazing happened a few years ago. Some of our members began pointing flashlights in the direction of their hearts and, in particular, the scary sections hiding their sexual struggles. Some of them just didn’t have a choice, but many did. Some of them were doing it because they actually believed the gospel that their pastors were preaching.
At first, it was as difficult as you might imagine. As we were shepherding our church, we kept running into all kinds of fallout from porn addictions. Then, we’d start developing leaders in our church only to discover they were engaged in some disqualifying sexual sin or another. There were things that we wanted to do, but so many of our potential leaders were being taken out by these sins.
Slowly, quietly, we found ourselves with a group of guys who wanted to meet regularly to talk about some of their deepest, darkest sins. . . They didn’t want to live in darkness anymore.
But even though it was hard and frustrating at times, it was also beautiful. Slowly, quietly, we found ourselves with a group of guys who wanted to meet regularly to talk about some of their deepest, darkest sins. They were eager to apply the gospel to each other’s hearts, to brainstorm about how to help each other, and to pray for one another because they trusted that Christ could do miracles. They didn’t want to live in darkness anymore.
God provided for us by introducing us to Harvest USA. A group of men began to go through Dave White’s workbook, Sexual Sanity for Men: Re-Creating Your Mind in a Crazy World. We had a biblical counselor in our church who volunteered to meet with these guys on a weekly basis. This counselor also took the time to meet with the guys one on one. All kinds of fruit began popping up in their lives.
Not long after, we had a men’s retreat, led by Harvest USA. At that retreat, another group of guys started to open up about their sexual struggles. Encouraged by the fruitfulness of the first group, we started discussing the need to have something similar to the book study on an on-going basis. The trouble was, the counselor who had been working with them moved and was living on the other side of the country.
We decided that the fruit we were seeing wasn’t just the work of this counselor. We decided to operate like it was the Holy Spirit at work, bringing the gospel through the body of Christ.
So we stepped up our game, so to speak. We needed additional help, and that meant training for the men who were already leading. We contacted Harvest USA and were delighted when they informed us of their Partner Ministries training.
They sent us some basic materials, and then we set up a time for their staff to video teleconference with our group to talk through a suggested model for how to set up a standing group. A lot of their practical suggestions were soaked in wisdom and would’ve taken us years to figure out on our own. They were incredibly encouraging, and we organized a weekend for one of their staff to meet with our core group.
The training experience included a full complement of helpful tools as well as some great tailor-made advice on how to apply those tools. Like us, they believed the beautiful fruit we were seeing was the work of the Spirit, and so they taught in a way that drew us to seek him more.
It’s encouraging for our group to have an experienced staff “on call” whose wisdom they can draw from when they encounter particularly challenging situations. God uses their experience, their humility, and their training to help empower our church to continue to shine the Spirit’s light on the dark places we all have in our souls. Overall, it’s one of the most exciting things God has done in our church.
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@example.com.
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.
The good boy-who-would-be-pastor, so respectable and humble, was living a double life. Struggling with same-sex attraction and dealing with it in ungodly ways, he didn’t care what anyone thought. What mattered most was finding what he felt he needed. But deep inside he feared greatly what those in the church might think.
What did he fear from the church? From his family? Mainly, he feared their anger and rejection. He had so few relational anchors that he didn’t dare risk these. It would be devastating if he failed in their eyes. So, he was careful to live a flawless life, at least the part they could see. But the pain just kept increasing.
The person above was me, more than 20 years ago, before I sought help at Harvest USA. It took a long time to make that decision. But what might have made me seek help sooner was if my church had said that the body of Christ was a safe place to get help.
I didn’t hear that message. What I heard spoken about sexual sin was that it was the worst kind of sin. That made me more determined not to confess to anyone how desperate and despairing I was, how trapped and hopeless I felt, living in constant fear of exposure.
One major passion we have at Harvest USA is to partner with churches to help sexual strugglers, to help churches become safe places for sexual strugglers. One way to do that is by speaking openly about the reality that everyone struggles to live faithfully in these sin-broken bodies. To say that God is not shocked by our sins, but that he sent his Son to cover our shame, forgive us of our guilt, and begin the amazing grace-fueled process of growing and changing. As the psalmist says, “God is. . . a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV).
When church leaders admit the truth that Christians struggle with sex, then the church starts the journey toward helping strugglers. It becomes a “one-anothering, we’re in this together” community. As the main article in our Spring 2016 issue of the Harvest USA magazine (“Living Faithfully with our Bodies: It Still Matters, But the Church Must Help”) says, “A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.”
The Lord has put us together to walk with one another in learning how to obey him and live lives worthy of him. Not to look good, but rather to be honest about our struggles and sin, while believing the gospel that God loves us in spite of who we are. When we live this way, experiencing his power that works in and through our weaknesses, we grow, we change, and we find increasing freedom to live joyfully.
Harvest USA can help your church learn how to help sexual strugglers. We have developed a great program to help churches do ministry to sexual strugglers. We’d love to partner with your church to do so. Here is a brief description of our Partner Ministries, and how we can help get your church up and running for this kind of vital ministry.