In the church culture I grew up in, one of the last topics we wanted to talk about was sex. In fact, in college our standing joke was coming up with over-the-top ice-breaker questions: "Okay, let's go around the circle and share our name and our secret sin."
We laughed because that sin was assumed to be sex-related, and the idea of talking about it with relative strangers—or even small group regulars—was inconceivable. Might as well go directly to Bible study and prayer.
More recently that cultural tide has shifted dramatically.
My friend and former colleague at Christianity Today, Mickey Maudlin, recently wrote: "A wise Episcopal priest and college professor described a surprising discovery he made while meeting regularly with college students: 'First they talk about class matters, then boyfriends and girlfriends, and if you pass that test, they will start opening up about their sexuality. Later, if they learn they can trust you about these matters, and only then, they will talk about their deeper secrets, their experiences of God and spirituality.' "
For someone raised in the church, those last two items seem exactly reversed. Easier to talk about sex than about God?!?
Those of us steeped in church life are fluent, even facile, in talking about God and spirituality. And only if you pass "the trust test" in your understanding of God might you be considered safe enough for a conversation about my sex life. Maybe.
But for much of today's world, it's easier to talk about sexual behaviors and identity than to talk about God and your interactions with God's Spirit.
Our innermost world, our deepest selves, those carefully protected places that are revealed only in the safest of conditions, are where we store our fears, our formative experiences, our most significant questions.
No one, churchgoer or secularist, opens that innermost world too readily. We have either witnessed or experienced the pain of opening up to someone who isn't safe: judgment, ridicule, secrets cheaply passed along for entertainment value. We know what Jesus meant about "casting pearls before swine."
So we keep the doors to the innermost places solidly shut.
For many, many people today, you must "pass the trust test" in talking about sex before you ever have a chance to talk about God.
This issue of Leadership Journal offers stories and insights, but more important, the necessary spirit in addressing sexual tensions that will help you "pass the test" and gain entrée to the conversation about God.
What do we have to say about the complex and ever-volatile issues surrounding sex and sexual identity?
According to Michael Sytsma at BuildingChurchLeaders.com, perhaps the three most important messages for church leaders to communicate are:
1. Sex is a wondrous gift from God. And the Bible celebrates sexuality. God uses it as an earthly example of his heavenly passion for his people, the church, his "bride."
2. God has a clear purpose for sex. To assist in the mystery of "two becoming one." Yes, sex is important in procreation, and having children is essential to the survival of the human race. But sex is also the self-relinquishing love between two distinct members of the human race—a man and a woman, who complete each other in profound and sacred ways. And this is an earthly glimpse of the glory of our eternal union with God.
3. There is hope and healing for the misuse of sex. Whenever sex is used for something other than the purpose of sharing body and soul with a loving spouse, it is a misuse of God's gift. In a world filled with those wounded sexually, Christians are to be God's agents of healing and restoration.
Some people will need to talk about God before they can talk about sex. But others need to know we can be trusted with sex issues before we deal with the heart issues about God.
Marshall Shelley is the Editor in chief.
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