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BATTLING PORN from the pulpit.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Ten guys plop themselves into chairs and sofas arranged in a circle at Eastside Faith Center in Eugene. One of them pulls out a guitar and strums the chords of a hymn. Others close their eyes, nod their heads and quietly sing along.

Common bonds bring these men together each week. They are the bonds of faith and fellowship and pornography.

Participants in this "For Men Only" accountability group vary in age, temperament and work status. But most will tell you, privately, that they share the same problem with pornography: They want to stop using it but can't, and need the help of God and others to quit.

"You have made the way to take our shame away," says the guitar player in an opening prayer. "Lord, I'm living for you, to be worthy of you, regardless of my situation today."

No religious or other demographic group is immune from pornography's reach - not in a country where an estimated 40 million adults say they regularly visit porn Web sites on the Internet. In one survey cited by Internet Filter Review, an oft-quoted resource on cyberporn, 47 percent of polled Christians describe porn as a major problem in the home.

"It's the elephant in the room in most churches," says Jim Thomas, senior pastor at Eugene Faith Center. Thomas recalls a church retreat where he asked about 200 men whether they ever fight the temptation to use pornography.

"Ninety percent of them raised their hands," says Thomas. "It's reached a level in our society where you don't have to go look for it - it's looking for you."

So far, however, few churches have tried to address the trend by reaching out to men who use porn, or to the wives and families who may suffer as a result. Area faith centers affiliated with the Foursquare Gospel denomination are among the handful that do.

Thomas' church has sponsored For Men Only groups for years, typically using a curriculum written by Ted Roberts, a former Eugene Faith Center pastor and Eugene Bible College professor who now leads a large Foursquare church in Gresham.

Roberts says porn addiction is a "pandemic" that requires spiritual courage to combat.

"The world is crying out for answers and churches are pretending there is not a problem," he says. "We'll never have a revival until we deal with this, because this is foundational."

Roberts' "Pure Desire" curriculum blends an awareness of the physiological elements of addiction with the power of a support group and the promise of divine assistance. "The difference between us and a 12-step program is we don't talk about a nebulous higher power," he says. "We make it very specific: Christ is our only hope."

At Eastside Faith Center, senior pastor Sean McCartin earlier this summer led two sermons titled "Porn Sunday" intended to educate his youthful congregation about the effects of pornography. He praises the men in the For Men Only group as "some of the healthiest guys in our church because they're dealing with reality and getting to some rock-bottom issues in their lives."

The group is facilitated by Adam Thomas, a lay leader at Eastside and the son of Eugene Faith Center's Jim Thomas. As do others, the junior Thomas views porn addiction as a demonic force that pulls people away from God.

`We use the word `bondage' a lot in our society, and it sounds so brutal, but the reality is we're in a battle here for our souls as human beings,' he says. "(Pornography) is a tool of the dark side."

In their 90-minute sessions, Thomas intersperses jokes and kidding with prayer and hard questions. "How are you doing with the Internet?" he asks one participant out of the blue. "Are you staying clean?"

Several members have free anti-porn software on their home computers, available through xxxchurch.com, that regularly reports their visits to any porn sites to a designated "accountability partner."

The sessions also include a Bible-based workbook with homework assignments. This particular week, Thomas distributes a 40-question "spiritual health inventory" intended to assess the respondents' emotional maturity.

The men complete the survey, then share the results. Several score mostly in the "emotional adolescent" range.

"Either you guys are being really hard on yourselves, or we've got a lot of work to do," Thomas tells them. "You need to lay this before the Lord and say, `Lord, work with me on this.' '

`God, not girls'

Eric Emerson, 17, is perhaps the youngest member of the group. The high school senior-to-be wears a large black plug in each earlobe, but otherwise would be described as clean-cut. He says he is grateful for the meetings, which he started attending three months ago.

"I want to deal with this as young as I can so I don't have to worry about it when I'm older," he says.

He and the other Eastside members use a curriculum written by a Foursquare missionary who addresses porn only tangentially, instead focusing on God's intentions for Christian believers. The curriculum is helpful to him, Emerson says.

"Obviously, God doesn't want you looking at porn," he says. "I'm learning new weapons of warfare to eliminate those thoughts."

Emerson says he got caught up in Internet porn about two years ago, and has struggled in past relationships with females. He is not currently dating, he says. "I know I want a girlfriend but I don't need a girlfriend," he says. "I know I need God, not girls."

A few other churches also are beginning to address members' involvement with porn. At First Baptist Church in north Eugene, a For Men Only support group expects to get under way this fall, says Larry Kirkpatrick, the church's director of men's ministry.

Kirkpatrick says pornography's effect on members and families has made it increasingly apparent that the church needed to step up to the issue. The outreach, he says, aligns perfectly with the church's mission. "This is what God wants us to do - provide help to people," he says.

Last year, First Baptist sponsored a seminar on the societal impacts of porn and sexual addiction that attracted about 50 people - fewer than what organizers were hoping for. The seminar's speakers included Brian, a church member who says he nearly lost his marriage because of his use of Internet porn and other sexual acting-out.

"I came back from a raft trip and found my wife had moved out with the kids," Brian recalls. "I didn't even have a pillow."

Brian is one of two men who agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that only their first names be used. They said sharing their full names could bring embarrassment to themselves or to loved ones.

Brian says he is indebted to church leaders who knew he was in crisis and didn't turn their backs on him. With their encouragement, he sought counseling from a Christian-oriented therapist, got rid of his home computer and agreed to take a polygraph test "whenever my wife feels the need for me to do it."

Recounting his struggles in front of church members last year was an important part of his recovery, Brian says. "If I can stand up and tell my story, maybe God can use this to help others get out from under the noose."

Brian, who is in his early 40s, says it's crucial that religious institutions intervene on behalf of those who struggle with porn. "The church is not a museum of saints but a hospital for sinners," he says.

Escaping computer was key

Lawrence, a man in his early 20s who grew up attending church in a small Lane County town, feels much the same way. When he confessed his porn addiction to church leaders in December, there was no For Men Only group to turn to.

So Lawrence and three church elders decided to meet on their own, using Ted Roberts' "Pure Desire" curriculum. The foursome continues to meet weekly.

Lawrence says he was 6 years old when a friend introduced him to porn on HBO. By the time he was 14, he was viewing porn on the family computer about three hours a week. It wasn't hard to keep it a secret.

"Parents are just learning how a computer works, vs. a kid who grows up with it," he says. "Plus, my parents would go to bed at 8:30. Growing up in my church, my parents gave me a lot more trust than most kids got."

Lawrence says he thought of his penchant for porn as an "attraction" rather than an "addiction" - until he came across a survey on porn use that asked this question: Have you repeatedly tried to stop?

`And I had to say yes because I had repeatedly told myself, `This is the last time, this is the last time, this is the last time.' And it never was.'

The guilt and shame continued to mount, especially as he began taking on greater leadership roles in the church. The emotional nadir arrived in December when Lawrence found himself lying on a cold tile floor, crying and praying for a full hour. He resolved that, before the day was over, he would tell his secret to his pastor - and to his girlfriend.

"I told her I needed to talk to her and she said, `Is it bad?' and I said, `Yeah, it's bad.' I expected her to throw me out the door, but instead she told me right then that she wasn't going to let me go over this issue.' They are still dating, he says.

Lawrence says he's also grateful for his church leaders' response.

"It's a really yucky thing to deal with, but this is how I think a church ought to respond," he says. `The solutions that churches have had in the past - to just say, `Stop doing that' - are not working. And this is working.'

Lawrence says the most important step he's taken has been to move out of his parents' home - and away from their computer. He has no computer - or cable TV - at his own place. He says the most difficult challenge he now faces is inappropriate fantasies.

Plans to spread the word

The "Pure Desire" curriculum is not without controversy - most notably for its approach to masturbation and homosexuality. The material teaches that both are wrong - views that may be consistent with traditional Christianity but not with those of most psychologists and counselors.

Roberts, the "Pure Desire" author, defends his curriculum as a careful blend of clinical and theological advice. It can be a delicate balance, he says, trying to convince people that porn use is both a physical and a spiritual problem, not just one or the other.

It can also be tough sledding. Roberts says he's counseled thousands of men "who have prayed, read the Bible, been part of a group and tried as hard as they could but never get free." But there are others, he says, who have moved away from destructive behaviors.

Roberts says the issue is so important to him that he plans to step down as senior pastor at his East Hill Church this fall to devote his energies full time to expanding the "Sexy Christian" seminars that he leads with his wife, Diane. The seminars teach that healthy sexuality is a God-given gift to be celebrated - but also a gift that can't be fully received if a partner is trapped in the bondage of sex addiction.

Roberts says his goal is to see at least 1,000 churches - in multiple denominations and multiple countries - agree to take on the powerful forces of pornography.

"There's no hope if the church doesn't turn around," he says. "We need to get the church healthy."
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Title Annotation:Religion; Local churches seek to break the chains of a vexing habit
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 26, 2007
Words:1957
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