Focus on the Family

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.

Evangelicals For Life: Taking a more complex view of 'life issues' in tense times

Evangelicals For Life: Taking a more complex view of 'life issues' in tense times

Back in his days as a youth pastor, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma spent lots of time begging church members to teach Sunday school.

After hearing this plea over and over, one woman pulled him aside and quietly shared her painful reason for declining, said Lankford, at last week's Evangelicals For Life conference, which coincided with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.

The woman told him: "James, I had an abortion years ago. I cannot be used by God." After apologizing for "pounding on her" to volunteer, Lankford said he responded: "Is there any action that God cannot forgive?"

Lankford said the woman's response was unforgettable: "I'm not sure yet."

Debates about the dignity of human life take place in all kinds of settings, from Capitol Hill and the U.S. Supreme Court to church fellowship halls and streets packed with marchers. Arguments about abortion create headlines, fuel fundraising letters and rattle politicos on left and right.

Just before this year's march -- marking the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the U.S. House of Representatives voted 241-183 to pass the Born-alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which protects children that survive abortion procedures.

What happens in courts and legislatures is important, said Lankford, echoing a theme heard during many sessions at the conference hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family. However, he said the most important discussions of right-to-life issues occur during personal encounters with ordinary people wrestling with hard questions in real life.

'Backsliders' and the 'unchurched' equal the 'Nones'?

Old-school preachers used to call them "backsliders," those folks who were raised in the pews but then fled. Sociologists and church-growth professionals eventually pinned more bookish labels on these people, calling them the "unchurched" or describing them as "spiritual, but not religious."

Pollsters at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and similar think tanks are now using a more neutral term to describe a key trend in various religious traditions, talking about a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who are "religiously unaffiliated."

That's certainly an awkward, non-snappy label that's hard to use in headlines. It's so much easier to call them the "Nones."

Anyone who cares about the role of religion in public life had to pay attention to last year's "Nones of the Rise" study by the Pew researchers, especially the jarring fact that 20 percent of U.S. adults -- including 32 percent under the age of 30 -- embrace that "religiously unaffiliated" label. The question some experts are asking now is whether Americans have simply changed how they describe their beliefs, rather than making radical changes at the level of faith and practice.

While there has certainly been a rise in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" people, when researchers "dig down inside the numbers they will find that there hasn't been that much change in the practice of religion in America," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, in a recent telephone interview.

"What's happening is that people who weren't practicing their faith and have never really practiced a faith are now, for some reason, much more likely to be honest about that fact," he said. "People used to say that didn't go to church, but they would still call themselves 'Baptists,' or 'Catholics' or whatever. ...

"It's that lukewarm, vague sense of religious identity that is fading. We're seeing a lot more truth in the reporting, right now."

It's especially important to note that young people who were raised in intensely religious, traditional homes are much more likely to continue practicing their faith, or to become active in a similar faith, according to a new Focus on the Family report (.pdf), built on the Pew Research Center numbers and the most recent General Social Survey from the National Science Foundation.

In the Millennial Generation -- young people born in the 1980s and '90s -- only 11 percent of those who now call themselves "religiously unaffiliated" said they were raised in a home in which a faith tradition was enthusiastically lived and taught.

The Focus on the Family study noted: "This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting. ... Young adults cannot keep what they were never given."

So what has changed? Experts at the Gallup Poll have been asking similar questions about religious identity and practice for decades, noted Newport, and it's clear that in the past it was much harder for Americans to face a pollster and muster up the courage to openly reject religion -- period.

"I found the survey in the '50s where it was zero percent 'none.' How's that? I mean literally, it rounded down to zero," said Newport, drawing laughter during a recent Pew Forum event. "So it's amazing that back when the Gallup interviewer came a-calling -- and it was in person in the '50s -- literally it looks like almost every single respondent chose a religious identification other than 'none.' "

Now, it's becoming clear that -- perhaps following the cultural earthquakes of the 1960s -- many Americans have stopped pretending they are linked to faith traditions that they have no interest in practicing. These "unreligious" Americans, Newport told the Pew gathering, are not really changing how they live their lives, they "are just changing the way that they label themselves."

Meanwhile, it may be time for researchers to pay renewed attention to what is happening among the Americans on the other end of the spectrum -- those who remain committed to faith-centered ways of life, said Newport, in the telephone interview.

"It's possible that if you really claim a religion today, then it's much more likely that your religious identity is pure, that you're making sacrifices to practice your faith because it really means something to you," he said. "Maybe it's significant that so many people are willing to stand up and say that they still believe."

'Lying' about God onscreen

When it comes to comedian Ricky Gervais, journalist Paul Asay openly confesses that he is a fan. This may seem strange since Asay works for Plugged In, a media Web site sponsored by Focus on the Family -- a powerful brand name in evangelical media. Yes, he knows the hip writer, actor and director is a proud, articulate atheist. However, he also thinks that Gervais is "actually quite talented and a very funny guy."

Thus, Asay had mixed feelings when he reviewed, “The Invention of Lying,” the comedian’s new comedy. After all, Gervais had publicly pledged that it would be both a “sweet Hollywood” romantic comedy and the “first ever completely atheistic movie with no concessions.”

For Asay, watching the movie became a “frustrating, disturbing, deeply saddening experience. And it was funny. Which makes it, in some ways, that much worse.” While the movie displayed Gervais’ talents, it also revealed that he has “very little knowledge of what he seeks to skewer. He takes an infantile interpretation of spirituality -- one that most of us leave behind for deeper truths by the age of 3 or 4 and deconstructs it to the point of imbecility,” wrote Asay.

But here’s the plot twist. While “The Invention of Lying” has received bad reviews from most religious critics, it has not provoked headline-friendly calls to arms by the usual suspects on the religious right.

This has not, in other words, been “The DaVinci Code,” “The Golden Compass” or even the anti-faith “Religulous” sermon from provocateur Bill Maher. So far, the Gervais opus is drawing small crowds into theaters and zero protesters onto sidewalks. As it began its third week, it had grossed only $16,956,375 while sliding to 16th place at the box office.

“The whole movie industry today is such a one week and you’re done affair,” noted Asay. “If you don’t make waves right away, you’re kind of over. ... In retrospect, Gervais and his people may have wanted to pump up that atheism angle in the marketing to get a bigger splash in the press. They needed to do something.”

“The Invention of Lying” takes place in a parallel world in which people cannot lie. Thus, advertisements are rather blunt. The Pepsi slogan is, “When they don’t have Coke,” and a nursing home is called, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”

Then along comes Mark Bellison, a pudgy loser who, in a moment of desperation, intentionally overdraws his bank account and gets away with it. This discovery changes his life, but he also learns that lying cannot solve all his problems. In the movie’s pivotal scene, the liar played by Gervais comforts his dying mother by telling her she soon will be reunited with her loved ones in a land of peace, love and happiness, where there is no pain.

Hospital workers overhear this proclamation and the loser quickly becomes a pseudo-messiah, offering stunning revelations about a great “man in the sky” who controls people’s lives and decides whether they spend eternity in a good place (lots of ice cream) or a bad place.

Nevertheless, the prophet knows he is a fake. While visiting his mother’s grave he confesses, in a fit of guilt: “I know you’re not up there in a mansion. You’re right here in the ground and I’m the only one who knows that.”

It was impossible to watch that scene, and others in “The Invention of Lying,” without feeling some kind of compassion, said Thaisha Geiger, a language arts teacher who reviews movies for the Web site.

Since she was not familiar with Gervais, she did some online research to learn more about his beliefs. She was struck by the fact that Gervais lost his faith as a young child. However, he also told, “I always knew that if my mum asked me when she was dying if there was a heaven, I’d say yes. ... I think that’s how religion started — as a good lie.”

That painful conflict made it onto the screen, said Geiger.

“The movie really is about his beliefs ... so he was probably expecting Christians to yell and scream after they saw this movie,” she said. “But I didn’t feel anger when I saw it. I really walked away feeling sad. ... I thought, ‘He’s an atheist. We should pray for him.’ Maybe he’s disappointed that more people aren’t mad.”