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Becoming a Big Business: Porn from the pulpit

[Metro Spirit]AUGUSTA, GA – Last September, “Fireproof” opened in 800 theaters. The story of a Christian husband and wife’s crumbling marriage in the face of Internet porn and infidelity, it debuted in fourth place and went on to a successful box-office gross and DVD life.

In November, the Rev. Ed Young of Fellowship Church in Texas issued the Seven Days of Sex Challenge to his married parishioners, explaining one of the problems with Christian marriages is the lack of emphasis on physical love. When Young later admitted on “The Colbert Report” that he and his wife made it only six days, Stephen Colbert responded, “Hey, even God rested on the seventh day.”

Locally, In Focus Church in Evans decided to heat things up during Valentine’s Day month by holding a four-week Sex Talk sermon series culminating in Porn Sunday.

When did it all of a sudden become OK to talk about sex in church?

“Well, obviously it’s not been all of a sudden in our culture,” says Brent Garrard,[pictured] lead pastor at In Focus. “Our country and our culture, as I said in my sermon, is one of the most sensual in the world.”

As the old saying goes, sex sells. And it sells everything from Swiffers to domain names. With sex so prevalent in our culture, churches, Garrard believes, have no choice but to confront the subject.

“It’s become so overt in our culture and society that now you have to address and attack it,” he explains. “Well, maybe attack is the wrong word, but you have to address it, because I don’t think my 7-year-old should hear about sex from some stupid magazine a kid at school gives him. If the church can’t talk about what God created us for, then we’re leaving it to someone else.”

That doesn’t mean that the decision to hold the series was an easy one. Garrard says the idea came up three years ago but he was so uncomfortable at the idea of talking about sex from the pulpit — or the stage, as is the case at In Focus — that he tabled the discussion.

Between then and now, however, Garrard began noticing instances of “sexual sin” in the national news, in talks with people he knows and when keeping up with those he grew up with via MySpace. The need to help people, he explains, outweighed his need for comfort.

“I just thought, ‘How many times am I going to take the punches before hitting back?’”

Like David, Garrard and the rest of the staff at the church decided to take on the Goliath called pornography. And it is a giant.

According to Garrard’s statistics, 40 million Americans look at some of the 4.2 million porn Web sites — every day. Even 47 percent of Christians say that pornography is a problem for them. Perhaps most troubling, the average child is introduced to Internet porn at the tender age of 11. And once children begin to think of sex as “dirty,” it’s difficult to help them see that it’s not.

“Ironically, my middle child had asked me about sex a month before,” Garrard says, explaining that his 7-year-old had seen the word somewhere. “He said, ‘sex.’ That’s a dirty word isn’t it?’ And I had to say, ‘No, Josiah. It’s something God created for mommies and daddies to enjoy.’”

Garrard says the child dilemma was one reason he decided to have a town hall meeting with his congregants before beginning the Sex Talk series. Not only did he want to assure his older members that he would handle the subject carefully, but he wanted parents to know that, even on Porn Sunday, kids as young as 11 could attend. Younger children, he says, were encouraged to go to kids’ classes before the sermons began.

Garrard is just one of a new breed of preachers populating churches these days. The churches they head up are often non-denominational and have names like In Focus and The Well. The ministers themselves are relatively young, in their 30s and 40s, and are casual and approachable. They’re on Facebook and MySpace. They have blogs. They Twitter.

Some, even for Sunday morning services, eschew suits, ties and robes for khakis or jeans, polos and loafers.

Don’t, however, mistake the casual atmosphere as a sign that these non-denominational churches and their hip, mostly younger parishioners are more lax about the rules set forth in the Bible. In discussing the Sex Talk sermon series and Porn Sunday, Garrard repeatedly talks about “the truth.”

“God designed sex to be in the confines of a married relationship between a man and a woman,” he says when asked to explain. “And I don’t say that flippantly. It’s not my opinion. I’m just saying what the Bible says.”

Jeremy Carr, lead pastor of downtown Augusta’s The Well, agrees and says that it’s the devil’s nature to pervert what God has created.

“He can’t create anything but he twists and corrupts what God has created and that’s what he’s done with porn. And sexuality in general,” he explains. “He loves to see people run in fear or neglect it in the name of religion or corrupt it as with pornography.”

Carr’s church is affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, which was founded by Washington State minister Mark Driscoll. Driscoll, not even 40 years old yet, oversees a church of 3,000 members, founded the successful network and was named one of the 50 most influential pastors in America. Coincidentally, he is also the author of a free e-book called “Porn-Again Christian: A Frank Discussion on Pornography & Masturbation.”

Not surprisingly, its publication immediately branded him a target of the religious status quo, and his critics have called his ministry foul-mouthed, ineffective, sinful and nothing more than something to garner Driscoll more attention.

It’s a charge that’s also been leveled at Craig Gross, the 33-year-old founder of xxxchurch.com, which provides free Porn Sunday resources to churches like In Focus.

“Sure,” Gross says, when asked how he would respond to critics who say he’s just trying to grab attention. “We’ve gotten great publicity and great press because we’re talking about an issue that people both in and out of church are struggling with. The media helped us get the message out there. We started this in ’02 and it took until ’05 before the first church called us and said, ‘Come to our church.’”

Like Driscoll, Gross pushes the envelope. While Driscoll focuses on helping men “nut up” and redefine Christian masculinity, Gross reaches out to the pornography community. His church is located on the strip in Las Vegas. His Web site proclaims itself the “No. 1 Christian Porn Site” and sells T-shirts reading “Jesus loves porn stars,” and his ministry team (which includes a former porn producer) sets up a booth at the porn industry’s annual trade show and convention each year.

Gross’ site might make visiting Christians uncomfortable, but its look and message are intentional.

“We didn’t want this Christian, cheesy Web site so that when people went to it they thought, ‘Oh, that’s some lame Christian thing,’” he explains. “It’s our biggest reach, our online presence, so we put a lot of effort into that.”

All the resources are free, as is the accountability program, which both In Focus and The Well have on their computers. Visit a questionable site and the program automatically sends an e-mail to two people who can hold the visitor accountable. Gross says the resources have helped many people, but that churches are still afraid to get their feet wet.

“Most people are scared to deal with it, or the church isn’t equipped to deal with this on Monday morning,” he says. “A lot of churches stay away because it’s too much work. There’s still a lot of resistance.”

It’s not something a church can do one time and solve the problem.

“We’re a great first date for churches and that’s the way we get treated a lot,” Gross says.

“‘Porn. We did this one. Let’s cross it off the list.’ But they’re going to have to address it again at some point. Not yearly, because you don’t want to be the church that talks about it too much, but the first time you confront this in the pews doesn’t mean people are running back and cleaning it up. It’s very easy to keep a secret. Most people won’t come clean until they get caught, so six months from now, nine months from now, a year from now, when a family’s going through hell, you still need to have that group that you wanted to can because only three people showed up. You need to be in it for the long haul.”

The church, of course, doesn’t always stay silent on matters of sex.

“The church, for better or worse, has been cast in the role of telling you what’s bad,” says Rev. Greg DeLoach of First Baptist Church of Augusta. “Growing up, the last person you wanted to talk to about sex was your minister, but the church ought to be a first resort instead of a last.”

All three local ministers agree that the church hasn’t done a good enough job of telling congregations that sex between a married couple is actually not a bad thing.

“What God creates is good,” Carr says. “And what he creates is meant to be enjoyed.”

And it’s not just for procreation.

“The Song of Solomon [in the Bible] makes it clear that it’s for enjoyment as well,” Garrard says. “If it was just for procreation, every man on the planet would be in trouble. If it were, we’d all be like the Duggars [of “18 Kids and Counting” fame].”

DeLoach says that just like every gift, there are burdens.

“It’s a gift from God,” DeLoach says, “And like all gifts, there’s a stewardship aspect to it, a responsibility.”

That responsibility is something the church can certainly help its parishioners with. Does that mean that sex and porn are coming to a Sunday morning service near you, that you are going to have “the talk” with your preacher from the pulpit whether you like it or not?

Not necessarily.

Churches handle touchy subjects like sex and pornography in different ways. More traditional churches, including one whose ministers preferred not to be quoted for this story, probably wouldn’t address the subject from the pulpit simply because the ministers have to consider the needs of the entire congregation, including older members who might be offended and families with children.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t address the issue in small-group Bible studies, in one-on-one counseling with the ministerial staff and by providing resources.

First Baptist, DeLoach says, takes a similar approach, with events ranging from a viewing of “Fireproof” and seminars for married couples to pre-marital couple’s counseling that includes a session on sex and an upcoming fall seminar for parents on Internet pornography.

DeLoach went on to say that he wouldn’t be averse to the idea of talking about the subject from the pulpit, despite the fact he heads a church with nearly 5,000, multi-generational members.

“I’m 42, so, being younger, I can probably get away with a little more than my predecessors did,” DeLoach, who also blogs, says. “I mean, I’m the first pastor here to have a beard since 1897.”

It’s also a matter of trust.

“You know, the more traditional a church is, the more baggage you have, but if the church trusts the pastor, then the pastor can breach protocol,” he explains. “Porn Sunday would not be my choice of words, but I would not have a hang-up. The challenge in any preaching task is how to approach a subject without marginalizing a portion of the congregation, but I guess you risk that any Sunday.”

The response to Porn Sunday, Garrard says, has been mostly positive. In fact, the biggest gripe people in the church and community had wasn’t about the Sex Talk series. It wasn’t even about Porn Sunday.

It was the church having the nerve to put words like “sex” and “porn” on the sign in front of the church.

“I had people say, ‘Why did you have to put it on the sign? Now we have to talk about it,’” he remembers. “Good! Because if you’re not talking about it, someone else is.”

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