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.

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

The late Steve Jobs loved surprises and, at the 2007 MacWorld conference, he knew he was going to make history.

"Every once and awhile, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," said Apple's prophet-in-chief. This product -- on sale at the end of June 2007 -- combined entertainment programs with a telephone, while also putting the "Internet in your pocket." His punch line a decade ago: "We are calling it iPhone."

At one point in that first demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."

To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."

One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.

"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.

"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."

There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast -- yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones -- he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.

Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"

Philadelphia archbishop offers candid talk on new/old idols of our changing times

Philadelphia archbishop offers candid talk on new/old idols of our changing times

NEW YORK -- It was hard, especially when discussing faith during troubled times, for Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput to avoid the copper-tinted elephant in the national living room -- but he tried.

The leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made only one reference to Donald Trump and his victory over Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Trump's win was just another sign of painful realities in American life.

"Some of those trends, in a perverse and unintended way, helped elect President Trump. But Mr. Trump is a REACTION to, not a REVERSAL of, the current direction of the country," said Chaput. "It's a sign of our national poverty that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were so distasteful and so deeply flawed in the 2016 campaign."

The big idea at this forum -- held at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Manhattan's East Village -- was that believers cannot expect politicians to provide solutions for several decades worth of moral puzzles. The archbishop's address was built on themes from his new book, "Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World."

At some point, he said, clergy and laypeople alike will have to make hard choices about how to live faithful lives in a radically different environment.

"Nations and peoples are changing all the time. If they're not, it means they're dead," said Chaput. "America is built on change because we're a nation of immigrants -- ALL OF US. … A nation's identity breaks with the past when it changes so rapidly, deeply and in so many ways that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. I think we're very near that point as a country right now.

"Why do I say that? Here's why. In 60 years -- basically the span of my adult life -- the entire landscape of our economy, communications, legal philosophy, science and technology, demography, religious belief and sexual morality has changed. And not just changed, but changed drastically."

There's nowhere to turn? When hurting people believe they have to flee the pews

In the not so distant Baptist past, all Sunday services ended with altar calls in which people came forward to make public professions of Christian faith or to become part of a local congregation.

But it was also common, during the "invitation hymn," for church members to come forward and huddle with the minister for a few quiet, discreet minutes. The pastor would announce that they had come forward to "rededicate their life to Christ" and then ask those assembled to offer them hugs and prayers.

"That's something that we've lost, somewhere along the way. We need to regain that confessional part of the faith," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville.

"It used to be common for people to go forward, rededicate their lives and get right with the Lord. … It was a chance to tell the pastor you needed help. It was important that our people knew they could do that."

The alternative is much worse, he stressed, in a telephone interview. If believers don't know how to reach out for help, or if they think they will be harshly judged if they do, they usually remain silent before using the exit door, for keeps.

The bottom line is shocking, said Rainer. If most churches could regain just the members who fled over the span of a decade -- for personal or private reasons, as opposed to dying or moving out of town -- worship attendance would triple.

2015 and beyond: So much news about religious liberty battles at home and abroad

The goal of The Atlantic Monthly's recent LGBT Summit was to gather a flock of politicos, artists, activists and scribes to discuss the "Unfinished Business" of queer culture, after a historic win for gays at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The summit's final speaker was Andrew Sullivan, the British-born, HIV-positive, occasionally conservative, liberal Catholic whose trailblazing online journalism helped shape so many public debates.

Sullivan ranged from the genius of "South Park" to the impact of smartphone apps on dating, from the positive impact of gay porn to the lingering self-loathing that prevents some gays from embracing drugs that could end AIDS. He attacked Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, while yearning for another term for President Barack Obama.

Most of all, he stressed that it's time -- after a "tectonic" cultural shift on sexuality -- for professional LGBT activists to end the "whiny victimhood" in which they recite a "you're a bigot, we're oppressed, why do you hate us" litany to Americans who disagreed with them about anything.

Calling himself a "classical liberal," Sullivan stressed that gay leaders must accept that some believers will not surrender the ancient doctrines that define their faith. Thus, it's time for honest conversations between believers, gay and straight.

"The blanket … I would say, yes, bigotry towards large swaths of this country who may disagree with us right now … is not just morally wrong, it's politically counterproductive," he said, drawing screams of outrage on Twitter.

"Religious freedom is an incredibly important freedom. To my mind it is fundamental to this country and I am extremely queasy about any attempt to corral or coerce the religious faith of anybody."

Sullivan's comments captured one of the tensions that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to select the Top 10 religion news events of 2015.

A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.

Porn again -- Facing denial in conservative pews

The Rev. Heath Lambert usually hears one of two responses when he tries to get pastors to be candid about the impact of Internet pornography in their churches. Response No. 1 sounds like this: "Pornography isn't a problem in my church."

That answer drew laughter at a recent conference on faith and sexuality, organized by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Lambert, a seminary professor who leads the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, said he realized that laughs and disbelief were appropriate -- if sad -- responses to this crisis.

Response No. 2 is also rooted in denial, he said. Pastors shake their heads and say: "Good night! I can't talk about this. Do you know what the people in my church would do if I started talking about pornography? ... I can't talk about this from the pulpit."

But if pastors cannot face this issue with their own flocks, then who can? It doesn't help that this pulpit silence often, according to researchers, may be linked to pornography addictions among clergy.

Lambert said he found it disturbing that 75 percent of clergy say they have zero accountability systems in place to help keep them honest about their online activities. Far too many pastors -- tragically -- seem to "think they are Superman" and need to be challenged on this issue, he said.

Sex and religion remains a volatile mix. Thus, this "sex summit" in Nashville generated it share of online buzz, and news coverage, with its discussions of hot topics -- from private issues such as adultery and divorce to public controversies surrounding gay marriage and sexual trafficking.

But while the culture wars rage on and draw the most attention, Lambert argued that the greatest moral threat to the church today is "the Christian pastor, the Christian school teacher, the Christian Bible college and seminary student, who exalts sound theology, who points to the Bible and then retreats to the basement computer to indulge in an hour or three of Internet pornography."

The bottom line, he said, is hypocrisy: "Porn is something that evangelicals can do in a dark room, behind a shut door after they have railed against homosexual marriage and talked about conservative theology."

In addition to looking in the mirror, Lambert challenged religious leaders to:

* Face the fact that 12 is now the average age at which American boys first experience video pornography, which means "some people are getting exposed to it a lot earlier," he said. "This is the reality. ... We have no idea what kind of generation we are creating. We haven't tested it yet. We don't know what it's like to have a nation of grown men who were taught about sex from Internet pornography. God help us."

* Help members of their congregations -- of all ages, male and female -- learn strategies for how to avoid the common dangers on the digital roads that led into the online marketplace that dominates modern life. Far too many people, he said, keep going to "places where they shouldn't be at the times when they shouldn't be there." Many are alone and vulnerable and pastors need to openly discuss that fact.

In particular, he said, religious-education leaders must talk to adults about Internet security in an age in which their homes are packed with Internet devices. Most of the time, of course, it's the children who know significantly more about how to operate this technology than their parents.

* Confront the belief that consuming pornography is a sin that only affects individual users. For example, he said believers should feel concern -- at least at the level of prayer -- for performers who are caught up in the porn industry. Then there are the patterns in modern divorce, with 50-plus percent of those in broken marriages confessing to some degree of problematic involvement with pornography.

It's simply wrong, said Lambert, to think "this is all about you. ... You wouldn't do it if you thought everybody was going to find out. You wouldn't do it if you knew that you were going to lose your ministry position. You wouldn't do it if you knew your wife was going to leave. You wouldn't do it if you knew that your kids were going to think that you were a pervert.

"The lie is: Nobody has to know."

Dark (porn) secrets in modern sanctuaries

At some point before 35-year-old Jesse Ryan Loskarn hanged himself in his parents' home outside Baltimore, he wrote a painful letter soaked in shame and self-loathing in which he attempted to explain the unexplainable. The former chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) had lived a secret life, hiding memories of child abuse and his addiction to child pornography. Even as U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents used a battering ram to enter his house, it appeared that he was trying to hide an external hard drive -- containing hundreds of videos -- on a ledge outside a window.

"Everyone wants to know why," he wrote, in a Jan. 23 letter posted online by Gay Loskarn, his mother.

"I've asked God. I've asked myself. I've talked with clergy and counselors and psychiatrists. I spent five days on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward at the D.C. jail, fixated on the 'why' and 'how' questions: why did I do this and how can I kill myself? ... There seem to be many answers and none at all."

Shock waves from these tragic events were still rippling through closed-door gatherings of Beltway insiders this week when the Rev. Jay Dennis came to Washington, D.C., for meetings linked to the Join One Million Men anti-pornography initiative approved last summer by the nearly 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. Associates who thought they knew Loskarn were, of course, shocked by the details of his terrible secrets.

"Secrets always have power. ... Here was a secret that literally put this man in chains," said Dennis, the veteran pastor at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla. "People are still grieving, of course. They are shocked and in a state of disbelief. ...

"When I read that letter, there were many words and phrases that sounded familiar. There are so many men in our churches that are having some of those same feelings of shame and guilt and hopelessness. They are suffering in silence and they're afraid to talk about what they are doing."

Obviously, he stressed, Loskarn's involvement with child pornography raised criminal issues that are far more serious than the lusts and lies that threaten relationships at the heart of many Christian marriages and homes. Any pastor who sees evidence of abuse and child pornography must immediately appeal to professional counselors and to legal authorities, he said.

In some cases, legal pornography can lead to sexual addictions that require professional intervention. Also, he said, clergy now work in an age in which many children are exposed to online pornography by the age of 10 or 11. Often the initial exposures occur accidentally, a form of digital abuse that can leave children shocked and ashamed and terrified to turn to anyone for help.

"What ties all of this together is silence," said Dennis. "We have resources to help people with these issues and those resources will only get better. .... But nothing really matters if our pastors and our people remain silent and refuse to take this issue seriously. At some point, we have to talk about pornography in our pulpits and pews."

Three years ago, a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 American pastors about the impact of pornography yielded one very disturbing statistic, he noted. While 69 percent of the pastors agreed that pornography has "adversely affected the lives of our church members," a solid majority -- 62 percent -- thought that 10 percent or less of the men in their flocks were exposed to pornography on a weekly basis.

"To be blunt, that number is too low to be real," said Dennis. "I'm convinced that some of our pastors are not facing the facts about the dark side of life in this day and age. ... There are men and women out there who are hiding dark secrets and they feel alone and afraid. "

Many, he said, would identify with key passages in the Loskarn letter.

Consider these words, for example: "Today the memories fly at me whenever they choose. They're the first thing I see when I wake and the last thing I think about before falling asleep. I am not in control of anything anymore, not even my own memories. It's terrifying. ... To those who choose to sever all ties with me, I don't blame you. No one wants to think or talk about this."

Churches ignoring the digital playground

GILFORD, N.H. -- Everywhere computer professional Brian Heil looked at SoulFest 2011 he saw packs of young people trying to stay on schedule as they rushed from one rock concert, workshop or prayer meeting to another. But first, there was one more text to send, one more Twitter tweet to tweet, one more Facebook status to update, one more snapshot to share, one more YouTube video to upload, just one more connection to make in the digital world that now shapes real life.

This year's four-day festival drew nearly 13,000 Protestants and Catholics from throughout New England, which means there were about that many cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other digital devices on hand. The screens glowed like fireflies in the crowds that gathered for the rock concerts each night on the lower slopes of the Gunstock Mountain Resort.

"Everyone's connected everywhere. It's continuous. This is how our young people experience life today," said Heil, during his "Protecting the Playground" workshop for parents and youth leaders at SoulFest. "They don't even look at the keys on their phones anymore when texting. ...

"Lots of kids are more comfortable texting than they are talking and having real relationships. They have trouble with face-to-face intimacy because they're so used to living their lives online and in text messages. Texting feels safer."

But the harsh reality is that the digital world is not safer, stressed the 52-year-old Heil, who has a quarter of a century of experience as digital networker and designer. While many pastors and parents have heard horror stories about children straying into dark corners online, few are aware of just how common these problems have become -- even in their sanctuaries and homes.

This is the kind of danger and sin that religious leaders often fear discussing, precisely because these realities have not remained bottled up in the secular world. Thus, Heil urged his listeners to ponder the following statistics in his presentation, drawn from mainstream research in the past year:

* Two-thirds of Americans under the age of 18 have reported some kind of negative experience while online. Only 45 percent of their parents are aware of this.

* Forty-one percent of children say they have been approached online by some kind of stranger, possibly an older predator.

* At least 25 percent of children report having seen nude or disturbingly violent images online. Heil is convinced this number has risen to 45 percent in the past year or so. The vast majority of children exposed to pornography first see these images on a computer in their own home.

"This is why, if I could convince parents to make one change in their homes, it would be to never put a computer behind a closed door. ... Keep them out in an open part of the house," he said.

* Among teens, 45 percent report having sent or received a sexual text message of some kind. One in five say they have sent or received a nude or partially nude image, the phenomenon that has become known as "sexting."

* Among teens with Internet access, 40 percent say they have been affected by cyberbullying activities, such as malicious changes being made to their Facebook pages after the theft of passwords.

"There are Christian kids doing this," said Heil, talking about various forms of cyberbullying. "Young people just go online and they open up. Things get emotional and they share what's on their hearts. They just can't help it. Then, before they know it, things can get mean and kids get hurt."

Meanwhile, he said, it's getting harder for adults to monitor what's happening in this "dark alley," in large part because young people are so much more skilled at social media than the adults who are paying for all of those smartphones and laptops. Many adults also fear legal complications if they try to trace their children's steps online. Some church leaders -- with good cause -- fear getting involved in social media and having the young misinterpret their motives.

Apathy is not the answer, however, since children are getting hurt.

"It's hard to do happy talk about this issue," Heil admitted. "It's painful and it's hidden and it's dark stuff. ... This is a test of whether our relationships really mean anything in the church today, whether there is such a thing as accountability."