Your Church Probably Needs to Talk More About Pornography
“Now, I know I’m going to get a lot of emails about this…”
It was a joke Noel made often. Noel is the lead teaching pastor at a megachurch in Michigan. As such, he’s the church’s most public face for several thousand people, and that means he receives a lot of emails, ranging from clarifying questions about the week’s message to the quality of the coffee to the volume of the worship band. And, of course, plenty of angry emails whenever he stepped on someone’s toes, or preached the Gospel truth that someone didn’t want to hear.
Eventually, Noel figured out two strategies. First, he handed email control over to his assistant, who responded to as many emails as possible and only passed along the truly important ones, the ones that couldn’t be handled by the assistant or one of the other pastors. Second, as a last resort, when the questions after a service got too overwhelming he hid in the A/V booth.
Now, I’m being a little facetious with the second strategy, and the first is impractical for most people. After all, very few pastorates are large enough to require an assistant. So what can you do when you get those emails?
The truth is, when speaking about hot-button issues like pornography, you are going to get emails. Sensitive subjects lead to sensitive questions that require sensitive answers. And questions can be good things. They can indicate that the Holy Spirit is working in a person’s life. This is especially true if the email is about a particular passage of scripture, or even a first-time confession of ongoing porn struggles.
But those aren’t the emails most pastors fear. The ones they fear are from the offended flock: the parent, appalled at the use of the “p” word in an audience with children present, or those who speak out of paranoia and accuse you of talking about them personally, or those who just hate that it was brought up at all.
The good news is, as you prepare to preach about pornography, there are a number of steps you can take to mitigate some of the emails, so you can focus on the people who really need your help.
1. Be more empathetic (do your homework)
Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus, our great High Priest, was tempted in every way without sinning… but because He was tempted, He is also able to empathize with our weaknesses. As leaders, our job is to model that empathy to those in our midst who are struggling with ongoing temptations, like pornography.
So how do we prepare to be empathetic? First, we need to be careful not to make assumptions about pornography use in our church (and especially not preach based on those assumptions).
This is especially true if you are one of the 57% percent of pastors who either currently struggles or has struggled with porn in the past. It can be very easy to project our own particular temptations and assumptions onto our congregations, but people are drawn to porn for many different reasons.
We also need to remember that porn isn’t just a man’s issue, and referring to it as such can be incredibly damaging to the women in your congregation who struggle with porn themselves, forcing them to feel even more ashamed.
As part of your sermon preparation, then, do research so you can be empathetic to the needs of your congregation. In particular, our ebook Ashamed: 4 Reasons Women Look At Porn will help you understand some of the unique ways women are drawn to porn, and the unique challenges in ministering to them. Make sure you also read resources written to those impacted by others’ porn use, such as spouses and parents. This research will help you speak from a point of empathy, allowing people to take steps toward healing.
2. Know your congregation – and preach accordingly
The time to prepare your church for sensitive topics is before you preach about them. This is especially true if you tend to avoid sensitive topics.
Several pastors I know have prefaced sermons on pornography and other sexual issues with advanced notice. In one case, the pastor mentioned that his next sermon was going to be on these topics a week ahead of time, to give parents a chance to prayerfully consider whether their children should stay in the service with them or not. Another pastor announced it several minutes before the message, giving parents an opportunity to send their kids to the church’s robust children’s ministry during the final worship song. Other options include bulletin announcements, or reminders via social media or your email list.
If you don’t normally have a children’s ministry, you may want to consider recruiting trusted volunteers several weeks in advance for a one-time church childcare option. This does not have to be complex! It could be as simple as sending young children to a separate room during the sermon itself, where an adult reads to them from the Jesus Storybook Bible, and maybe leads them in a few simple songs. Then have a volunteer fetch them after the sermon to rejoin their parents for Communion.
(If your church offers a one-time children’s option, make sure you have at least two non-related adults in the room with the kids at all times. Having multiple adults in the room will reduce opportunities for abuse, as well as offer your church more protection from a legal standpoint in the event of an abuse allegation.)
By the way, don’t forget that adults may not be prepared to hear your message for multiple reasons. The wounds of sexual abuse are often hidden and run deep. While your message will ideally offer healing, some people may simply not be ready for it yet. Consider having a few spiritually mature leaders available to pray with anyone who needs it. And don’t be offended if people leave before or during your message as well.
3. Gather (and share) stories
One of the biggest ways porn keeps people trapped is by making them feel isolated in their sin. Because porn is so secret, so hidden, many men (and women!) look around in church on Sunday mornings and think they’re the only ones struggling.
While you can cite statistic after statistic, the best way to help people feel less isolated is to tell stories of others who have struggled—a principle Jon Acuff calls “the gift of going second.” By sharing stories, especially stories from within your church, those personally dealing with pornography (whether for themselves or within their families) will realize they aren’t alone even within the church family, and everyone else will understand the urgency of the message.
There are a couple of ways to approach personal stories. First, if you personally know someone in your church who is struggling, ask if they would be willing to give their testimony about it, or at least ask their permission to share their story anonymously. Don’t forget to include your own story of struggles, if relevant, though if you are actively tempted by pornography you should speak to your church’s other pastors or elders before you announce it publicly from the pulpit.
Consider sending out an anonymous survey a few weeks in advance as well. Ask both for general questions and for personal stories. Make it clear that you may share what people wrote, though you will keep details as anonymous as possible.
Finally, it’s entirely possible that people in your church will simply not feel comfortable sharing details, even anonymously. Even so, don’t neglect the power of story! You will find plenty of stories on our blog and in the comments, and our ebook Hope After Porn is built around the stories of four wives whose marriages were restored.
4. Elevate the message
Sexual temptation is common, but different people are tempted differently. Some people may be tempted to seek security with a person by giving themselves over sexually outside of marriage. Others may feel a rush of power when they solicit and receive sexts, or when they intentionally break the bonds of a marriage through adultery. Even within pornography, different people seek out different things: different ages, different ethnicities, different fetishes.
Now, there are reasons for this. Dr. Jay Stringer, for example, points to how specific childhood abuses leads to specific temptations. (I also highly recommend that you read his article about how blaming lust can actually intensify sexual sin.) However, this post is not about the causes of porn use. My point in bringing this up is simply to remind you that you must put pornography in its proper context as one of many sexual sins, and in fact sins in general. Porn’s impacts cannot be handwaved away, but pornography use is one of many counterfeits to what God designed in marriage.
It’s also important to put porn use next to all of the other forms of idolatry. Every sin we commit, whether pornography or lying or covetousness, is a failure to reflect a perfect and holy God, and an indicator of the specific ways we personally fail to trust in God and His goodness completely. Use your discussions of pornography and other sins (sexual and otherwise) to point our church members to see where they have opportunities to strengthen their faith and trust in God.
5. Provide easy access to help
Hopefully, your message will stir up the desire for recovery among your congregation. Even so, the potential shame of being outed for their porn use may prevent people from seeking help. To help your members recover, you need to provide them resources in such a way that it is easy to access them privately. For example, consider providing a printed list of resources directly in your Sunday bulletin. Your church could then share that same list of resources as a download on your website or via social media, or through an emailed newsletter. Any of these methods will allow your church members to review the resources or visit the websites without fear of being “caught” and labeled a porn addict.
But what are the best resources to provide?
The resources you provide may depend on the specific angle you take in talking about pornography in your church. Are you approaching it from the relatively safe angle of parents protecting their kids? Then most of the resources you list can be focused on parenting resources, such as our partner website Protect Young Eyesand the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures. If your sermon is focused on some of the deeper roots of sexual sin, consider listing Jay Stringer’s book
Covenant Eyes offers a number of resources, including ebooks and email challenges. Nearly all of these are offered for free. The following are just a sampling of some of our most-tailored resources to help anyone in your church who struggles:
6. Exude grace at every turn
Yes, we’ve already talked about exuding grace, but it’s so important when addressing sensitive issues like porn. Many members of your congregation may feel utterly helpless and hopeless in the battle. The college students in your church (male AND female) may have stumbled on porn before they hit puberty. That young couple may be on the brink of divorce because they have no idea how to handle one spouse’s lifelong porn addiction. That mom may be sleeping on her teen son’s bedroom floor to keep him from turning to porn at 3 a.m. And there are even more families with a porn bomb looming over their heads, waiting to explode into their lives.
The good news is, because we have a High Priest who can empathize with our weaknesses, we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). Pastor, your congregation is thirsting for that grace and forgiveness. Pray throughout this entire process for that grace yourself, that you can lead them to the true source of grace and mercy: God’s great throne.
Next step: Leading your leaders
All of the previous steps could be done by any teaching pastor without bringing your leadership team on board, and they would be an immense help to your church. But pornography is one of the most widespread sins threatening the church today. One sermon is merely a start.
To make lasting changes in how your church handles discovery and recovery from porn, both in leadership and among individual members, you and your leadership team should take porn training and make a strategy for protecting your members from porn. To get started, download our free ebook READY: How to Heal and Protect Your Ministry from Pornography. You can also contact us here to get a free consultation and learn how we can help set your church up for success.