Pastors Get Equipped to Face Today’s Greatest Threat to the Church
Porn is Poisoning the Church
In 2007, today’s Freedom Fight team was part of a global campus ministry. Our ministry realized that our biggest obstacle to making disciples was pornography. We knew if we didn’t equip our community effectively in this area, we were setting them up for failure. Since then, we started addressing a person’s porn habit/addiction in the context of discipleship, and what we have seen is incredible growth.
In order for a person to break free from pornography, they have to grow and develop in key areas of their life. It is an opportunity for heart-level discipleship. The result has been people more deeply grounded in God’s word and in their identity in Christ, as well as their being more connected in authentic relationships.
In our years of experience, we’ve learned that people don’t just ‘quit’ porn. They must outgrow porn. To outgrow porn they need to grow in personal holiness, emotional intelligence, and learn to replace lies with truth.
Addressing the greatest threat to the Church today – pornography – could also be our greatest opportunity for revival and growth.
The Christian Porn Problem
There is virtually no difference in the monthly porn use among non-Christian men (65%) versus Christian men (64%). In fact, it might even be worse than the published statistics indicate because of shame and stigma causing Christian men to underreport.
In a survey of over 700 Christian college men from over thirty different US campuses, what we found was alarming. Each of the men we surveyed were involved in a campus ministry and considered their faith to be a vital element in their lives. Many of them were leaders in their ministries. 89% of the young Christian men we surveyed watch porn, at least occasionally. More than six in ten viewed it at least weekly.
Never have so many Christian youth consumed so much pornography. These are future Christian husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and church leaders having their hearts and minds captured by porn. And the impact is more destructive than we think.
Porn Is Waging War Against the Soul
God says in His word, “abstain from fleshly lusts which wages war against the soul” 1 Peter 2:11. When a person indulges in the fleshly lust of pornography (almost always coupled with masturbation) they are opening up their soul to spiritual attacks. The spiritual impact is measurable.
Dr. Samuel Perry, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma, has done extensive research on the effects of pornography use on a person’s religious commitments. He summarizes his conclusions: “Any porn use…is associated with declines in religious commitment and behavior (ie. attending services, prayer, etc) and an increase in religious doubts.”
So, if the enemy wants Christians to be less committed to reading their Bible, attending church, and prayer; and wants them to doubt more, all he has to do is get them to watch porn. Porn is powerful spiritual warfare that the enemy is using on a massive scale. What’s the impact?
More Porn = Less Service
Perry studied over 3,000 people for six years to determine how their porn use impacted their service and leadership in their congregation. What he discovered was stunning. If a church-going man never or rarely used porn, there was a one in three chance he would serve or take some type of leadership role in his congregation. If he started using porn on a monthly basis, his odds of service fell to one in ten. If he watched porn on a weekly basis there was a one in twenty probability that he would serve. The conclusion was obvious, the more porn someone watches, the less likely they are to serve in their church.
The experts know this truth: porn is silently sidelining God’s people – both men and women – from serving Him. The Freedom Fight’s national survey proved this truth, too. Our survey showed just how porn use impacted Christian young women and their faith:
Six out of ten said watching pornography decreased their desire to read or study God’s word.
Almost two out of three said watching pornography decreased their desire to serve in spiritual leadership.
More than eight in ten said they experienced self-hatred after using porn.
More than half of these women say they have doubted their faith because of their porn use or the inability to stop.
The college men from The Freedom Fight’s survey were even more likely than these college women to pull back from God’s word and from service opportunities. These realities suggest that many leaders of the next generation will seek God and His word less because they seek porn more. If this pattern continues, the future leadership of the Church is in serious trouble.
More Porn = Less Spiritual Interaction with Kids
In addition to stunting spiritual growth and service, Dr. Perry found that porn consumption is negatively associated with the time parents spend talking or reading about religion with their children. Findings suggest that increased pornography consumption might threaten the transmission of religious heritage from parents to children.
Damage to Marriage Is Damage to The Church
Fifty six percent of divorces mention porn use as a major contributing factor. Broken Christian marriages and families have a significant and lasting negative impact for all involved. Everyone loses. But even aside from these tragic results, broken Christian homes also destroy the witness of Christ to the watching world.
Christian marriages are failing at an unprecedented rate because of porn use. If the Christian family continues to wither under this assault, the impact on the church and its lack of influence will be devastating.
Porn is capturing the hearts and minds of the masses. It wages war against souls. Porn is diminishing service in the Church. It is unleashing a spiritual attack unprecedented in the history of Christianity. In light of the historic destructiveness and magnitude of porn, we would expect spiritual leaders to address this issue. Instead, the problem of pornography is largely met with silence.
Only 7% of pastors say their church has a program or solution to help people with porn.
Why Are So Few Pastors Addressing This Issue?
It’s important to acknowledge that pastoral leaders in the church need encouragement and prayer. They are a prime target for the relentless attacks of the enemy. Here are a few reasons we find that leaders are not addressing this porn issue in the Church.
Multiple studies show that half of pastors struggle with pornography. If a pastor is struggling he won’t be able to provide solutions for his people.
There is shame in any addiction but especially for the Christian who struggles with a porn addiction. Even if a church offers a program to help, only those in crisis typically come while others stay away since they don’t know who else will be there. They don’t know who else will witness their disclosure of their embarrassing sin.
They are busy and they can view addressing porn as a distraction from the real mission of the church. I recently watched some prominent theologians discuss the greatest threat to the Church. One said the greatest threat to the church was a low view of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. I agreed. Another said a low view of God and His holiness was the greatest threat. He made great points. What they missed is that the research is clear that porn is attacking both of these and much more. The research we’ve explored shows how porn is waging war against the soul as the Apostle Peter warned us about. Many pastors don’t recognize this. If they do recognize it, solutions are hard to find.
The Church Needs a New Approach
Porn is a shameful topic. This makes it difficult to address in the church. It’s not something Christians enjoy talking about. It’s uncomfortable. Many well-meaning pastors have preached against porn, rebuked those who are indulging in it and called them to repent. Those in the audience who have repeatedly tried to quit leave those messages with shame and hopelessness. When a pastor doesn’t understand the dynamics involved in a porn addiction he can inadvertently cause people to stay in the shadows. People must be called to repentance but zeal without knowledge has negative results.
Even if a church offers a group to help those struggling with porn use, it can be daunting for a person to attend. As I mentioned, shame keeps them in the shadows. Many pastors wrongly conclude that porn must not be a problem since so few people get help when it’s offered. Experts estimate less than ten percent of Christians who are addicted to porn seek recovery. Shame is the reason.
Church Leaders Need to Lead
We want to help leaders to come out of the shadows, confess, and lead the church in repentance. The majority of pastors who struggle with porn are not seeking help because of fear. They fear what others will think. They fear losing their job. The shame a Christian feels for their porn use is greatly multiplied for the pastor or ministry leader. One former pastor said, “I was supposed to be the example and spiritual leader and I was watching porn? I couldn’t bear to risk the embarrassment of confessing.” If shame isn’t enough to keep the pastor paralyzed from getting help, the fear of losing his job will.
“I tried for most of my life to break free of this struggle by confessing to God and praying for deliverance over and over. It wasn’t until my wife discovered my addiction that I finally reached out for help. Coming out of isolation is essential for healing.”
– Former pastor Kenny Smith on breaking free from porn.
Time to Emerge From The Shadows
If you are a spiritual leader struggling in the shadows, learn from men, like Kenny, who have gone before you. The longer you wait the worse it will be for you and those you lead. Many believe the lie they are protecting God’s reputation by hiding their sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sooner you come out of the shadows the sooner others you lead find freedom. The sooner you repent the sooner the relationships around you heal from the plague of pornography. Allow God to point to the beauty and power of the gospel.
Restorative Vs. Punitive Culture
When it comes to porn use by pastors the church has a punitive culture. In the vast majority of churches, the pastor fears losing his job if he confesses his struggle with porn. An unspoken punitive culture results.
Punishment culture in the church has led to the unintended result of encouraging leaders to stay in the shadows trying to get free on their own. Regardless of the culture in a given church, the responsibility falls on the pastor to step out of the shadows and get help. No one gets free on their own. Don’t believe the lie that you will. The first step toward freedom is confession.
God says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” James 5:16
The churches that have established a restorative culture have seen the most pastors and congregants find freedom from porn.
This policy assures the pastor there won’t be punishment as in the loss of employment or public disclosure. The goal of church discipline is restoration (Galatians 6:1-2). Each case is different and each leadership team must determine what is best for their church. This policy gives the pastor assurance that the goal is restoration. It may not be best for the pastor to stay in his position but that decision will be made in the context of a restorative atmosphere versus a punitive one. Without a restorative policy clearly communicated it will be assumed there is a culture of punishment. This unwittingly encourages secrecy and hiding.
Some say it would compromise the biblical standards of leadership to establish a restorative culture. Actually, the opposite is true. Half of our churches currently don’t have leadership meeting the biblical standard because their pastor is stuck in porn. A restorative culture encourages pastors to repent. This enables them to start moving toward the biblical standards of holiness expected of leaders.The purpose of a restorative culture is to build an atmosphere conducive to repentance. If we want people in the church to repent it starts with their leaders.
Overcoming Porn Requires Faith and Action
The Bible says the power of sin has been broken (Romans 6:10-11). Many have claimed this promise of freedom but have failed to experience it. The lack of victory is a major reason many Christians who struggle with a porn addiction doubt their faith. But the Bible teaches that faith alone isn’t enough to overcome sin.
The apostle Peter said that God’s promises enable us to “escape the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Peter 1:4). Peter goes on to explain that there is more than just faith required to experience the fullness of victory that God promises. There are important qualities that must accompany one’s faith. He says:
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8).
The following qualities applied in the context of a porn struggle make someone’s faith productive.
- Knowledge – Knowledge of the truth about the power of sin being broken.
- Self-control – Setting up boundaries and checking in with accountability regularly.
- Steadfastness – When someone stumbles they must keep confessing, repenting, believing and pursuing.
- Virtue and Godliness – Adopting biblical standards for media intake diminishes temptations.
- Brotherly affection, love – Accountability partners so they can confess everything to. Each of these qualities make a person’s faith more effective and lead to lasting freedom.
Peter warns followers of Christ that their lives will be ‘ineffective and unfruitful’ when their faith is not accompanied by these qualities. Unfortunately this describes believers stuck in a porn habit.
The best porn addiction recovery programs have this balanced approach of both faith and action. God requires the faith that enables freedom to also be a faith that diligently pursues freedom. This reality is a cornerstone of the Freedom Fight approach. It is a Biblically based, gospel centered program that is holistic and application-oriented.
The Pathway to Hope
Part of giving people hope is giving them a solution and pathway to freedom. Without solutions for how they can find freedom, exhorting people to repent can just heap on shame. The churches with the well attended programs have de-shamed the topic. The staff participate in the program. They model authenticity and share their porn story if they have one.
A common mistake leaders make is treating a porn addiction as only a spiritual issue. We would never tell an alcoholic to love Jesus more and that will make them quit. However, this is what we communicate when we don’t acknowledge and address the addictive dynamics of porn use. This compounds the shame and the feeling for the porn users that they are beyond help. Pastors must be educated enough to help their people understand it is a holistic issue not just a spiritual one. The same God who created the soul created the brain. Both need attention.
One of the best ways to de-shame the topic is to introduce it as an equipping issue, not a recovery issue. An equipping issue is for everyone in the church. A recovery issue is only for people with problems. Starting off as an equipping focus de-shames the topic and gives people permission to get educated. Make the point that porn is such a pervasive issue in the church, that more people need to be equipped to help others break free. When it is an equipping focus both the struggler and the non-struggler will show up.
De-shaming the topic is especially important for Christian women. The shame for women prevents them from opening up about their struggle even more than men.<footnote 9> We must offer separate equipping classes for women. If it is led and attended by female staff and leaders it will be well attended. The women leaders can simply be fellow learners as they explore content together. The goal is to educate them on the issue and provide a pathway to freedom. The Freedom Fight 30 Day Challenge is free and simple content to offer in a five week equipping class.
After going through the equipping class then that group can be recruited into recovery groups for those who want and need to go deeper. The equipping class is an important on ramp for these recovery groups.
Don’t underestimate how God can use the process of freeing a person from porn to grow and disciple them as a whole person. It’s not just about stopping unwanted behavior but it’s about life change and transformation. God is helping people outgrow porn and in the process He is making them more like Christ so they can run free to pursue God’s purposes for their lives.
“Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).