Engaging culture

Addressing the Insidious Sin That Destroys

Pornography and the Church, Part 2

October 18, 2017

There’s no other way to put it: Pornography destroys.

Addiction often starts with small steps, perhaps seeming innocuous. But far too many men and women in the EFCA movement have sobering stories to tell. Pastors asked to leave the ministry over addictions that began with a “simple” fascination. Missionaries leaving behind their calling due to corroded relationships and spiritual sickness. Marriages broken. Parents and children estranged. Churches in shock.

Yes, all of this in the Evangelical Free Church of America. It doesn’t just happen “elsewhere.”

In recognition of that sobering reality, EFCA leadership has embarked on a pivotal partnership with Pure Desire Ministries—tapping into the organization’s expertise and resources to offer paths to freedom from sexual addiction.

The unpsoken hindrance to disciplemaking

The EFCA has long been concerned about the power of sexual cravings to derail individuals and ministries.1 In the early 2000s, the first steps were taken to talk more openly about preventative practices and consequential policies.2

“Pornography is the elephant in the room.”

Then in 2016, Josh McDowell Ministries commissioned a study with the Barna Group re pornography and the Church.3 Several EFCA leaders attended the Set Free Global Summit to explore the topic further.

While no one walked into that summit unaware, they walked out newly sobered by porn’s pervasiveness, its interconnectedness to human trafficking and the dangers of its next iteration: virtual reality.

“Pornography is the elephant in the room,” says Greg Strand, EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing and interim director of Pastoral Care Ministries. “Everyone is aware of its deleterious effects, but how do you address it?

“If the percentages from the Barna study are accurate,” he continues, “then in any given setting in which our pastors are present, 14 percent of them are currently either struggling with or addicted to pornography.

The percentage is even higher among Americans in general, with one-third seeking out pornography at least once a month.4

“If we are committed to disciplemaking and hindrances to disciplemaking,” Greg says, “this simply has to be addressed.”

The EFCA chose to re-engage the topic at a summit of its own, with various national leaders, in fall 2016. The summit organizers quickly recognized, however, that they needed to partner with someone with more expertise, if they wished to do more. “Most of us do not have the bandwidth or experience to address this,” Greg says. “Struggling is one thing; addiction is another.”

Therefore, the EFCA initiated its partnership with Pure Desire, starting at the national level. This will include staff at the national office and across ReachGlobal, and staff in the three districts that have national office alignment: EFCA West, Allegheny District and the Southeast District.5

“We want our people to feel there is a safety net; they are not alone.”

The hope is that all districts will be able to make the financial investment of partnership for their pastors and staff (and spouses).

Greg Strand co-leads the partnership initiative with Lois McMartin, director of member care for EFCA ReachGlobal. “It is our desire to deal proactively with the issues, both for prevention and for restoration and growth,” Lois says. “We want our people to feel there is a safety net; they are not alone. We can ‘hold up each other’s arms’ in the battle.”

According to Pure Desire, the EFCA partnership is the only one with a denomination its size. “For a national office to have this level of care says a lot about their care for their people,” agrees Sauna Winsor, Pure Desire development director.

One type of addiction among many

Many addictions, according to Pure Desire, stem from simply trying to find a way to soothe an inner wounding. “I think it would be fair to say everyone has a method for coping with emotional pain,” explains the organization’s executive director, Nick Stumbo. “Some methods we call addiction; some we don’t. But we’re all medicating our pain in one way or another.

Pornography is not “the worst sin.” Yet there is something insidious about how it entraps and destroys.

“Addiction is choosing to keep doing what I don’t want to do even though I know it causes problems—something that makes me feel good but might be having detrimental effects in another areas.”

So pornography is not “the worst sin.” Yet there is something insidious about how it entraps and destroys. Neuroscientists even point to similar changes in the brain’s reward center when comparing people addicted to porn and those addicted to heroin.

Pure Desire recognizes and addresses those brain changes, helping its clients create new neural pathways so that they don’t simply fall into old patterns.

“Some people think: If we just train people and tell them the dangers of pornography, they’ll change on their own,” Nick says. “That’s being overly optimistic, because of the components of sex addiction: chemicals in the brain, neural pathways, lies. So we need a thorough, effective strategy to help them walk through all these opponents. We can’t just preach a few tips.”

Even with the EFCA’s commitment to make coaching and resources available, “we’re not making pornography our new mission,” Greg Strand insists. “Our mission stays the same. But certain issues compromise the mission at certain points of time.

How might churches remain committed to purity and holiness while creating a culture of grace?

“The physiological components of pornography are real, yet we must first see it as a biblical problem in need of a biblical solution. Pornography destroys purity, holiness, righteousness, and intimacy with God and with our spouse. For this day, this age, it becomes one of the critical matters that needs to be addressed.”

Without question, Greg says, a pastor engaged in child pornography has crossed a critical line into illegal behavior and should lose his job. Yet how might churches otherwise remain committed to purity and holiness while creating a culture of grace—“a path where one could confess ‘I’m struggling’ and work toward wholeness without losing one’s job?”

“Thankfully, God uses clay pots and broken vessels,” he adds. “His work advancing is not absolutely dependent upon the purity of the vessel, but that does not exonerate the person from being accountable before God and to others.”

“Often it is the confession, even anonymously made, that breaks the stronghold of a struggle or addiction. Sin loves darkness and secrecy. Confession brings it into the light, which brings freedom. I think of 1 John:

“This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us” (1 John 1:4-10, English Standard Version).

Admittedly, questions remain unanswered, but starting the process toward healing is the most important step—both individually and for the purity of the Church. EFCA leaders are grateful to be partnering with an organization so experienced in both the challenges and the triumphs of the journey toward wholeness.

Society in general, however, does not overwhelmingly consider the viewing of pornography as negative. According to a recent Barna study, teens and young adults view “not recycling” as more immoral than viewing pornography. A 2016 cover story in Time magazine began opening eyes, however, with its stark warnings that repeated, long-term use of pornography has “sabotaged” men’s minds and relationships.
In the early 2000s, Pastoral Care Ministries launched an initiative as part of its “Be Healthy” series, emphasizing that “pastors who delay identifying areas of weakness are likely to experience difficulty later. A healthy pastor trusts someone trustworthy to help them change.”
The results of this extensive study—including existing scholarly research and almost 3,000 new interviews—were released in The Porn Phenomenon, published by the Barna Group.
An April 11, 2016 Time magazine cover story gives separate statistics for men and women: stating that 46 percent of men and 16 percent of women ages 18-39 intentionally view pornography in any given week.
With the EFCA’s financial commitment to this partnership, anyone in those groups, and their spouses, may seek anonymous help (including free resources, initial consultations and online small groups) or be linked with in-person small groups nearby. Ongoing counseling can be arranged at a separate, reduced fee. Since almost 75 percent of Pure Desire’s counseling is done online, that guarantees not only anonymity but geographic accessibility—which might mean the most to missionaries stationed far from home. “We hope that individuals will be able to stay in their country and thrive, rather than return to the States to work on their issues,” says the organization’s executive director, Nick Stumbo.

To begin the journey of addressing sexual addiction, contact Rachel Thibeau anonymously at Pure Desire: rachelt@puredesire.org or 503.489.0230. To simply learn more about Pure Desire, visit their website and explore their resources.

Or to learn more about the partnership in general, contact the EFCA’s Greg Strand or Lois McMartin directly. 

Read part 1 in this series. And revisit two powerful articles that published in EFCA Today magazine in 2009, starting with "Sexual Sin Among Us."

Diane J. McDougall

Diane J. McDougall has served as editor of EFCA publications, both in print and online, since 1997.

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