Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

If Daniel Weiss has learned anything about the small towns of east-central Wisconsin, it's that folks in the region he calls home care about what they eat.

Say buzzwords like "organic," "natural" and "superfoods" and -- snap -- people will organize fairs, farmers markets, farm-to-table workshops and debates about whether local free-range chickens have healthy social lives.

"You can talk about fresh veggies and how important food issues are for their families," said Weiss, leader of the Brushfires Foundation, a sexual-integrity ministry based in Omro, Wisc. "People in a secular society will bond together to talk about food and good health. That's real. That's safe. …

"It's totally different -- even in our churches -- if you try to get people to talk about pornography, smartphones, videogame addiction and all the stuff that's filling up their hearts and minds."

When asked about these issues, many pastors say things like, "I don't want to be negative," "That's a parents thing," "Tech issues are so complex" or "I'm afraid to offend people and run them off." Many pastors think silence is the safest option.

That's a naive attitude in modern America, according to Barna Group research commissioned by Brushfires, and supported by 24 national and state groups, such as Focus on the Family and Enough is Enough. Researchers contacted 410 senior ministers in 29 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, along with non-denominational congregations. Pastors were asked about 18 issues, including marital infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex relationships, sexting, gender dysphoria and the use of pornography by husbands, wives, teens and young children. Among the findings:

* Eighty percent of these Protestant pastors said they had been approached during the past year by church members or staff dealing with infidelity issues and 73 percent had faced issues linked to pornography.

* Seventy percent of the pastors said they dealt with serious "sexual brokenness" issues in their flock several times a year, with 22 percent saying this took place once a month or more.

*Only a third of the pastors said they felt "very qualified" to address the sexual issues being raised by their staff and church members.

Define 'evangelical' -- again

It's an election year, which means the folks in evangelical Protestant pews know exactly what will happen if they choose to talk to a political pollster.

The dispassionate telephone voice is going to ask about abortion and then about same-sex marriage. Finally, the pollster will want to know how crucial these wedge issues will be on election day. And is there any chance they might change their presidential options?

"There is this internal debate going on. ... Evangelicals are reluctant to say that they're focused on these two issues, even though all of the evidence shows that they still are," said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., which is known for its defining niches inside American Christianity.

"The key is that a rising number of evangelicals are adamant that they are not going to overlook social justice issues. They want to find a way to combine their concern about abortion and family issues with other moral and social issues that really matter to them. The question is whether that's possible in American politics, right now."

It's easy to see this dilemma in between the lines of recent surveys.

In a 2007 poll, the Barna researchers found that nine out of 10 evangelicals said abortion is a major problem, which meant that this issue was "still far and away" their most pressing concern, said Kinnaman. Meanwhile, nearly eight in 10 evangelicals said they were very concerned about issues linked to gay rights.

However, evangelicals who participated a new Barna survey split down the middle when asked if they thought their peers would focus primarily on the big two social issues when voting. On one side, 48 percent said it was true that evangelical votes would be driven by abortion and sexuality, while 45 percent disagreed. Meanwhile, 55 percent of non-evangelical Christians and 58 percent of non-Christians were convinced that these hot social issues would drive the votes of evangelical voters.

What about all of those news reports that some evangelicals -- symbolized by the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church and a host of other label-shunning younger leaders -- are trying to pursue a broader social agenda?

Kinnaman noted that only 28 percent of evangelical participants in the new survey thought that members of their tribe would give other social issues, like poverty and the environment, short shrift. In a sign that this wider-agenda debate has legs, 69 percent of evangelicals polled disagreed with that statement.

Outside the evangelical camp, 46 percent on non-evangelical Christians and 54 percent of non-Christians thought that evangelical voters would "minimize social justice issues." These same two groups were convinced -- by 57 percent and 59 percent -- that evangelical voters will continue to push American life to the political right.

Meanwhile, some Americans are getting confused and even angry about all of this, even though they admit that they know little or nothing about evangelicalism.

According to surveys by Ellison Research of Phoenix, 36 percent of Americans polled indicate that they have no idea "what an evangelical Christian is" in the first place. Only 35 percent of all Americans believe they know "someone very well who is an evangelical," while a stunning 51 percent are convinced they don't know any evangelicals at all. On the left side of the aisle, some critics have grown hostile.

One of the surprises of a new Ellison study is "how much abuse is aimed at evangelicals," noted company president Ron Sellers. "Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits, and freaks, and that's just a partial list. ...

"Some people don't have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe -- they just know they can't stand evangelicals."

For political activists, the reason all of this matters is easy to see. In the new Barna survey, 59 percent of American adults are convinced that the decisions made by evangelical voters will have a significant impact on the upcoming election.

"Many Americans are convinced that evangelicals are some kind of a political bloc," said Kinnaman. "If you look at things that way, then this really is all about politics instead of religious beliefs and doctrines. ... Some people think evangelicals are part of a political movement that is held together with religious rhetoric and that's that."