Is it possible to overstate the impact that pornography, sexual sin, and sexual addiction have on the work of Christ’s church on earth?
Is there a direct correlation between a believer’s sexual struggles and their ability/availability in fulfilling their role in the Great Commission? These two concepts are not often addressed together; but shouldn’t they be? What do pornography and other forms of sexual addiction have to do with the Great Commission?
Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his ascension into Heaven were…
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” –Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
Most pastors would probably agree that there is less fulfillment of this Commission going on today than should be. Local disciple-making is painfully lacking. Many churches experience an enormous void in lay leadership. They find it difficult to secure Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, men’s and women’s ministry mentors, elders, deacons, etc. Beyond the local implications, Christ’s church is sending far too few people to the nations. We have an alarmingly small number of American Christians going to another part of the world to spread the good news of the gospel.
While addiction to pornography and other manifestations of sexual sin are not our only problem, their impact extends to everything that the church does. While perhaps not provable, it seems clear that pornography and sexual sin & addiction are a leading reason that Christ’s church is not fulfilling the Great Commission to the extent we could and should.
How is the mission affected?
Looking at Jesus’ first phrase from the Great Commission reveals quite a lot more than we might think at first glance.
Porn and other sexual sins paralyze believers. We get stuck. Our motivation evaporates because of distraction, shame, or any other numbers of intervening factors. These factors cause us to isolate, removing ourselves from close, authentic relationships that stimulate us to love and good deeds. We cannot and do not focus on the work we have been given as a Christ-follower, which is to go to those within our sphere of influence who need to hear the gospel. We are called to go, but sexual sin causes us to stay put.
“and make disciples…”
To make disciples is to allow God to use our availability and obedience, making us part of a process in another person’s life in which he/she becomes someone who is growing in his/her faith and his/her love for the Lord. We make disciples by spending time and investing in their lives, modeling faith and love through how we live our own lives. If we are enslaved to porn and sex, we cannot live a life of integrity, consistently modeling the faith and love of a growing believer. Even if we act as if we are, a close discipleship relationship with another person will (likely) eventually reveal our inconsistency. Fearing this, most believers with a porn problem avoid entering into close relationships with other believers; and the net result is that they are not making disciples. The church experiences a void in which far too few people are fulfilling this call from Jesus.
“of all nations…”
If so many within the church are already not going or making disciples to those in our immediate proximity because of being sidelined by porn & other sexual sin, how much exponentially greater is the impact on sharing the gospel with “all nations?” Sexual struggles keep a tremendous number of believers from even considering that they could be used in an international context to spread the gospel. In a sermon at Passion 2007, John Piper referenced a mission conference in which George Verwer, the head of Operation Mobilization, spoke.
“Verwer’s burden in that conference was the tragic number of young people (like many of you) who at one point in their lives dreamed of radical obedience to Jesus and were joyfully willing to lay down their lives and sacrifice anything to make Jesus known among the nations, but then faded away into useless, American prosperity because of a gnawing sense of unworthiness and guilt over sexual failure that gradually gave way to spiritual powerlessness and the dead-end dream of the middle class security and comfort. 1”
Piper’s view was that the problem a “tragic number” of young people face is not an unwillingness to go to the nations. Rather, it’s a feeling of disqualification or neutralization based on their sexual failures. Piper says that what seems so tragic…
“…is that so many young people were being lost in the cause of Christ’s mission because they were not taught how to deal with the guilt of sexual failure. Note carefully how I am saying it: They were not taught how to deal with the guilt of sexual failure. The problem is not just how to not to fail. The problem is how to deal with failure so that it doesn’t sweep you away into a whole life of wasted middle-class mediocrity with no impact for Christ. 2”
At my home church, we frequently commission people who have been called to serve Christ by taking the gospel to the nations, either in short-, mid-, or long-term context. One thing I frequently notice is the glaring absence of men. My observation has been that in a typical mid-term commissioning of 15+ people, all but 1 or 2 of them are single women. Pornography and sexual sin is certainly not isolated to men, but statistically it is a much higher percentage. What I see when I look at a long row of mostly women going to “all nations” is an evidence of Piper’s analysis.
Further evidence is found in an article by Greg Mathias, Associate Director of International Missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He states that research shows the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention “estimates up to 70-80% of their applicants every year have some sort of pornography history, and many of these applicants are either slowed down in the application process or stopped all together…These are rough estimates. More research needs to be done in order to provide an accurate picture of pornography usage among IMB applicants. Also, these numbers do not take into account other sexual sins and deviations which hinder or stop applicants in the process.3”
What can the church do?
While most pastors and church leaders acknowledge that pornography and sexual brokenness are among the greatest threats to the church today, only 7% of their churches offer any solution whatsoever to people who struggle4.
How is it possible that the church can both recognize the significance of the problem but offer no solutions? Before criticizing the church too harshly, we must recognize some common truths. First, the church has only recently begun to address sexual brokenness openly, and to stop treating it as a “taboo” topic. We are behind the trend. Second, in many churches without solutions, the problem is not that they do not care, but rather that they simply do not know what to do. The issue is overwhelming and it is difficult to know where to start. But not knowing where to start is not good enough.
Knowing that the church must engage with its members who are enslaved to pornography and sexual sin, what are some tangible steps for church leaders to take?
1. Educate yourself. In any battle, job number one is to understand the issue and acclimate oneself to what is going on. For too long the church has skirted the problem of porn and sexual brokenness by preaching “don’t do it” and hoping that will work. Grasping the extent of the porn epidemic involves not only understanding the spiritual implications, but also the physical/chemical and behavioral ones as well. Pornography and addictive sexual sin don’t only affect a person spiritually; there is a hijacking of the brain and body going on as well. Often this has been occurring and building since before puberty, and by the time the effects are known, the damage an affected person has inflicted on himself seems permanent. But it doesn’t have to be! There is hope for a Christian whose whole life has been bound up in sexual struggles; but it will require the gracious, compassionate help of many people, including the leaders of their churches.
2. Communicate a grace message. An important thing to remember is this. Most Christians who compulsively struggle with sexual sin don’t want to. They may at some point have believed the lie that it was harmless, victimless crime, but no longer. Now they feel trapped and controlled by behavior they have come to understand is destroying them. But fear of rejection from other Christians keeps them hiding in isolation, and sermons that focus solely on behavior modification reinforce their beliefs. Even well-intentioned sermons – when focusing more on behavior than the driving beliefs behind them – can drive addicted believers deeper into hiding. Leaders must change the narrative, purposefully choosing a message that focuses on what the finished work of Christ has done rather than on sin-management. We must remember Paul’s message that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repent, and we must communicate the grace, unconditional love, and kindness of God as it relates to habitual struggles with sin.
3. Create a safe, “me too” culture. When it comes to confessing sin, nobody likes to go first. Fear and shame tell an isolated person, “no one would understand,” and “if they knew, they’d want nothing to do with me.” Church leaders have the opportunity to dispel this lie of our enemy by going first. In addition to preaching grace-filled messages that accentuate the unconditional love of God, pastors should also preach transparently, sharing their own experience with receiving grace for their own sin struggles. Too often we put our leaders on pedestals, at least suggesting that they must not continue to have any struggles with sin. This is unfair to both the leaders and the congregations. It puts pressure on leaders to be perfect – consequently making them feel unsafe to confess, just like their members – and creates an artificial “holiness gap” that strugglers perceive because they never hear anything to which they can say “me too!” We must allow pastors to be real people with real struggles, preaching real hope and solutions we can relate to.
4. Cooperate with qualified ministry partners. Pastors, elders, church leaders, please understand this important truth. You can’t do this alone! The epidemic of pornography and sexual brokenness within Christ’s church is a tidal wave, too big for any one of us to fight or address alone. Plus, most of our church leaders have not received any training specific to sexual addiction or compulsions. To try and adequately address the issue without the correct understanding would be overwhelming, and a possibly harmful injustice to those who are struggling. Instead, church leaders should get to know qualified people who have education and expertise in these areas. There are a growing number of therapists who have specialized training in sexual addiction; and many of these do a great job of working together with church leaders to provide a holistic recovery approach to struggling Christians. There are also ministries, like Awaken, who specialize in offering a Christ-centered process-driven approach to recovery from sexual sin & addiction. Ministry specialists can help your church become one of a growing number providing specific solutions to the porn problem, so that the number doesn’t stay at 7%. We are ready to help you begin to make the changes within your church so that your people will know that it’s a safe place. Contact us for more information.
Are you ready and willing to walk into these murky waters? Are you willing to be the instrument God uses to pull his people out of the pit of destruction, the miry bog of sexual sin? It will require an investment, and it will not be easy. But it is what anyone in ministry leadership has been called to do. Shepherding the sheep means seeking them out when they’ve wandered away and gotten themselves into trouble, and gently, lovingly bringing them back.
You won’t be alone. Even in the difficult, sometimes discouraging work of helping people who are sexually broken, remember the final promise Christ gave in the Great Commission…
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
- John Piper, “How to Deal with the Guilt of Sexual Failure for the Glory of Christ and His Global Cause.” January 4, 2007, Passion 2007 Atlanta GA. Transcript available at DesiringGod.org.
- “Is Bad Sex Killing the Great Commission?” by Greg Matthias. Post found at BetweenTheTimes.com.
- “The Porn Phenomenon: The Impact of Pornography in the Digital Age,” by The Barna Group & Josh McDowell Ministry (a Cru Ministry), p.115. Available for purchase here.