Article Aug 3, 2016

12 observations after reading The Porn Phenomenon

How would you define “pornography?”

Why do people choose to access pornography?  

What affect do you think pornography has on you personally? On your church? On your country?

These were the kinds of questions that drove Josh McDowell to partner with the Barna Research group to survey "nearly 3,000 U.S. teens, adults and Protestant youth and senior pastors about their perceptions . . . use . . . and feelings about . . . pornography.” The summary of their findings was published in a 150-page study called The Porn Phenomenon.

As a Christian, this study piqued my interest because I have felt devastating effects of this sin in my own life. And as a pastor, I desired to gain more insight into how to help those I love fight porn’s unrelenting onslaught.

To help me, I asked a dozen other Christians to read the report with me. Our group consisted of men and women, youngish and older, married and single, who are black, white and Asian. Our group's diversity provided wonderful insights for me that I found challenging and edifying. 

Before we get started, I need to say that this study might not be helpful for everyone to read. At times, it gives TMI (too much information), which could stir up sinful curiosity in your heart. One brother said that it was wise to read it with other believers since it provides an opportunity for accountability. Christians need to have frank, honest and clear conversations about pornography, but we must be careful to do it in a way that resists giving each other ideas for sinning. Lord, help us know how to do this wisely!

What’s in the study

The study consisted of five chapters filled with survey information, colorful infographics and interviews from various pornography experts. The material progressed as you might expect: Chapter 1 began by helping to define pornography while Chapter 2 explored the motives and various ways people use porn. Chapter 3 showed the unsurprising correlation between morality and one’s perception of pornography. This was followed by Chapter 4’s saddening exploration of how pornography affects the mind and intimacy within relationships. The study concluded in Chapter 5 with a few practical considerations and applications.
 

12 takeaways from The Porn Phenomenon

1. Pornography is everywhere, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

The horizon is dark with porn’s presence. The age of mobile devices has increased accessibility to porn at nearly all times in nearly every place. With technology advancing, the presence of Virtual Reality equipment only makes the offerings of sin more enticing. Jesus promised temptation will come, and he was not lying (Luke 17:1). A study like this helps to pull back the curtain on this ugly intruder and help the church think strategically about warring against it.

2. Our moral trajectory is terrifying.

One of the scariest consequences God can decree is for people to wander in the darkness of their own wisdom (Proverbs 1:29-32). This appears to be happening to us. We are eating the fruit of our own way and being filled with our own devices— and to our demise. The study revealed that rather than looking to God as the ultimate source of moral authority, “9 out of 10 adults agree ‘the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself’ (91 percent), and 86 percent say that ‘to be fulfilled in life, you should pursue the things you desire the most’” (pg. 63). We have fallen prey to the destructive illusion of self-determinism.

With this perspective, it is no wonder that when asked about things that are “always or usually wrong,” teens and young adults surveyed said it was worse to not recycle (56 percent) than to look at pornography (32 percent) (pg. 66). Our hearts should break as we consider the effects the coming generations will reap from this deeply destructive misperception about morality.

3. Porn is designed to destroy sex.

One of the more troubling findings of this study is how deadly pornography is to real relationships. Surveys found that people’s perspective on the purpose of sex is moving away from “an expression of intimacy between two people who love each other” and toward “self-expression and personal fulfillment” (pg. 96). These changing perceptions are believed to influence the amount of porn people consume.  

One Cambridge University study found that porn addicts resembled drug addicts in that they fit the model of “wanting it more” but not “liking it more.” The urge to escalate use, coupled with the desensitization to “regular” porn, produced an increased appetite for more deviant and cruel images / scenarios.

As you can imagine, this vicious cycle manifests itself in dissatisfaction and dysfunction with intimacy in real relationships, especially marriage. When “one partner comes to sex looking for self-fulfillment [and] the other hopes for intimate connection” you have a recipe for disaster (pg. 98). Some studies have shown that porn also affects the way people approach their partners, particularly that they expect more violent, demeaning and perverse experiences. 

When sexual experience is separated from love, it becomes a selfish pursuit that cannot ultimately be satisfied or sustained. The gift of sex is given to deepen the bond between a husband and a wife. But the impact (and Satanic aim) of porn is ultimately to dissolve the self-giving nature of sex and empty people’s desire for intimacy in marriage. Ultimately this leads to an erosion and distortion of the glorious picture of the union between Christ and his bride, the church.

4. Deception is deadly.

Barna’s survey discovered that nearly 40 percent of “practicing Christians” who “actively seek out porn” feel comfortable with how much porn they use and only “1/3 of Practicing Christian porn users” say they “feel a sense of guilt when they use porn” (pg. 109). Another 25 percent of “practicing Christians” say pornography has positively affected their sex life. Those statistics are absolutely terrifying. 

The Bible is filled with sober warnings like this, “do not be deceived . . . the sexually immoral . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). While it is true that Christians struggle with this sin (I did for many years), it is also true that people who are born again will loathe their sin. The sort of comfort with sin and resignation to sin displayed in this study ought to prompt immediate and serious reflection on what it means to be born again and follow Jesus.

When asked about guilt or shame associated with people’s porn use, Barna found that “more frequent porn use correlates to higher levels of comfort related to porn use. In other words, if you use porn often, you’re more likely to feel okay about it” (pg. 71-74). This highlights the terrifying reality that sin has a callousing effect upon the hearts of those who repeatedly access it. These findings must move us to be cautious in breezing over the warning “do not be deceived” because it seems that many in our churches have been.

We also must be careful to not overlook the fact that just because something may not be “pornography” doesn’t mean that it isn’t harmful to our walk with Jesus. While it is helpful to ask, “Is it porn?” we must always be asking, “Is it helpful in stirring up my affections for Jesus?” Porn is a problem, but we must not overlook other sinful attitudes and actions that wage war against our souls (1 Pet. 2:11).

5. The church ought lead the way in discussing sexual ethics.

God made sex and gave it to us to be enjoyed. He has also graciously given instruction in his Word about how it is to be enjoyed and warnings about the dangers of misusing it. Because of this, Christians can serve each other and the world in speaking openly, honestly and unashamedly about sex.

While this may seem obvious, for some reason, the church has not seemed to embrace this responsibility, and the effects have been devastating. In the days ahead, pastors and churches must not shy away from the Bible’s teachings about sexuality. A faithful preacher will speak about it as often as God’s Word does. Discipling must be marked by humility and honesty. At our church, we speak about developing “intentionally intrusive relationships” in which the expectation is that we will lovingly be in each other’s lives about all subjects, including this one.

  • Are your married members speaking with one another about the joys and struggles of intimate issues?
  • Are members expecting to be asked and asking deep questions about sin and obedience to God in this area?
  • Do your unmarried members navigate the waters of loneliness and sexual temptation alone or is your church a family that cares for each other’s souls?  

I’d like to also echo a comment from the study regarding how we speak to the culture about sexual sins. As the society’s moral compass turns further away from God, we must realize that informed consciences will be more rare, and tactics of guilt and shame will become increasingly less effective. Rather, we should be wise to discuss the issues the culture cares about—and that God cares about too. For instance, speaking about the dehumanization of pornography, the detriment to physical and emotional health and the correlation between porn, sex trafficking and child exploitation are all important avenues that can assist dialogue with people who have little interest in whether or not pornography pleases God.

6. Leaders must lead in purity and vulnerability.

One of the most concerning findings from this study was among anonymous pastors. Of those who responded, “1 in 5 youth pastors (21 percent) and 1 in 7 senior pastors (14 percent) admitted they currently use porn” (pg. 80). And that’s just the ones that were honest. One shutters to think what the real number might be. The stress, constant isolation and fear of people’s opinions or losing their jobs are common factors that tempt pastors to be dishonest about their struggles. 

The pastor has a high calling to obey Jesus and help others do the same. This means pastors must pursue purity at all costs in their own personal life, yet also lead the way in vulnerability in their struggles. This is a difficult tension to hold, but one that is essential for the soul health of a pastor and the congregation he helps to shepherd. Pastors, you must have someone in your life, most preferably another leader in your church, with whom you honestly wrestle with issues of sexual purity. If you are struggling, today is the day to step into the light. Make no excuses, and make no delays. It may cost you much to be honest, but it will cost you more if you do not.

Churches, please pray for your pastors as they face great pressures and temptations. Provide a safe place for pastors to be sheep before they are shepherds. Who cares for your pastor’s soul? Is he able to be a fellow struggler, or has he been placed on an unrealistic pedestal?

7. Children must be protected and instructed about the goodness of sex and danger of porn.

Young people must be taught about the dignity of their bodies and God’s gift of sexuality. Popular media, advertising and increasing sexualization of all things everywhere lays devastating traps before our young people. The section of the study on sexting among young people was heartbreaking and revealed the danger of “teens and young adults coming of age in an increasingly pornified American culture that ‘encourages and rewards the pornographic impulse’” (pg. 31).

The only hope against this sort of evil is for parents and churches to lead children and young people in the better way that God has designed. Parents must not be naïve or passive but understand that predators, both peer and adults alike, are pursuing them for exploitation.

Parents must be careful to ensure young people understand the dangers of the Internet while at the same time creating a home where curious questions can be answered and regretful sins can be confessed. How many parents in our churches have been equipped to lead their children about this area? I was deeply convicted about this and intend for our elders to be more vigilant about it in the days ahead. Lord, help us!

8. Women must not be neglected in this conversation.

One of the ways churches have sinned against our sisters in the past is by continually portraying struggles with sexual purity only as a “male issue.” Regardless of the reason this has happened, the church must be intentional to be a place that empowers, edifies and exalts women to thrive in their God-given gifts and roles.

One of the most critical ways is by ensuring that sisters are equipped to care for each other’s souls in regards to sexual temptation, including pornography. Do the women in your church feel free to confess or speak with other ladies / their pastors about lust, sexual addictions, pornography or anything of the sort? If not, the cycle of shame and silence is perpetuated and sin runs rampant in their hearts.

One sister who works with prostitutes in China commented that the message of American Christian purity culture is, ironically, not so different from our overly sexualized popular media culture: for both, a woman’s worth lies in her ability, or her refusal, to be overtly sexual. Both approaches teach girls that their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable. The church says “you’re valuable if you stay pure,” and the world says, “you’re valuable if you give it up.” Both are dead wrong. Our value is only found in the fact that God made us in his own image. The church must help sisters believe this because everything else tells them otherwise.

9. Communities of grace and truth are needed.

The study spoke often about the importance of having “communities of grace” where people are able to be open and honest about their struggles with pornography. This kind of community is essential to fighting against sin because anonymity is the friend of lust. God uses the humbling act of confessing our sins to help us put it to death. I am convinced that you cannot fight sin alone for very long. We need each other.

One of the best aims of The Porn Phenomenon was to unveil why people sought out pornography. Getting to the heart motives is an essential part of putting this sin to death. But helping each other discover why we are drawn to pornography takes much prayer and intentional care. Do you have discussions about your affections and motives when it comes to this sin? Being vulnerable and honest about these things provides much assistance in the battle against lust.

I would also like to add a caution at this point. I have noticed a trend in churches in which we strive to “normalize” our struggle with sins to help reduce shame. While authenticity is a virtue, we must never lose sight of the horror of sin committed against God. When Jesus died on the cross, the wrath of God was poured out on the innocent God-man so that we would not suffer eternal torment in hell for our sins, including lust.

This led to one concerning observation from the study. I found it interesting that the words “obey” and “obedience” weren’t mentioned, and the word “repentance” only showed up twice. This is significant because it reflects an error in modern evangelicalism that often avoids these terms because they are equated with legalism. This is very dangerous, because obedience and repentance are worshipful ways that show love and faith in God. In fact, we cannot please God apart from them. Creating safe communities of grace where people are “free to struggle” may be fine, unless the vulnerability is replacing repentance.

10. We must be willing to do whatever it takes to obey Jesus.

Sexual immorality and lust from the heart are not minor offenses. They are hell-deserving sins that Jesus warns us must be avoided at all costs (Matt. 5:27-30). The casual attitude toward lust that most of the people surveyed demonstrated is too often what characterizes people’s attitude about sin in the church.

As sin gets more radical in it’s attack, we must become more radical in our warfare against it. Following Jesus costs everyone something, and it may cost you or those you disciple the luxury (not necessity) of smartphones and Internet accessing tablets. Remember, people lived for thousands of years without smartphones and the Internet available to them every second of every moment. For me personally, my smartphone is so dumbed down that I could not access pornography on it, even if you put a gun to my head.

Along the same lines, our pastors have helped numerous people pay the early termination fee on their smartphone plan to get a flip phone (yes they still make them, and they still work). Now, I realize that sounds crazy to some, but the fact is that some of us cannot handle having these things because of our weakness with sexual lust. Are you willing to give up your freedoms if they are not helping you follow Jesus? This is the heart of what it means to be a Christian. What ways might Jesus be calling you or those you disciple to follow him more faithfully? How are you going to respond?

It is critical for us to remember that if we are Christians, our bodies are not our own, because they have been purchased at the cost of Jesus’ blood (1 Cor. 6:18-20). This realization leads to humility and a resignation to do anything Jesus desires us to do.

11. Churches must prepare for the depth of sexual brokenness ahead.

Finding a church member who has not been directly affected by pornography is like finding a unicorn. And the sad reality is that the carnage pornography is leaving on young minds, marriages and unmarried people is only increasing. The study explained the physical, psychological and physiological affects pornography has on people. Even more importantly is the way it sucks life out of peoples’ souls.

People will be coming in to our fellowships more broken and more in need of the healing grace of God. The church, more than ever, must seek and bring in broken people to meet the healing Savior. The life-giving grace of God is the only hope for the brokenness our world is facing. Confusion over sexual identity, scars from sexual promiscuity, wounds from abuse and exploitation and many other heartbreaking realities have and will increasingly devastate people. Sin has no mercy, but Jesus does.

This mercy must be freshly displayed through the preaching of the Word, compassionate ministry of God’s Word through biblical counseling and patient love that will help people ravished by sin receive the help and hope they need.

12. God is our Hope.

My biggest critique of this study is that it seems to assume (or ignore) the reality that God is the only hope we have to overcome this (and any other) temptation. I am not saying that the people who worked diligently on this project don’t believe this, but I am saying there is a tendency within evangelicalism to be looking for the “secret” help that will give us freedom. But we must never look past the fact that no sin is so strong that the risen Christ cannot deliver us from it.

Of particular note, the pastors struggling with pornography seemed to have a very low view of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit’s power to help us overcome temptation (pg. 111-114). I wonder how much of a connection there is between this and the spiritual sickness they are experiencing. If spiritual intimacy with God is lacking, intimacy with sin will abound. This is why pursuing God as our supreme joy and hope is the ultimate antidote for sin’s counterfeit joys.

The Scriptures promise us that by looking with faith at the beauty of Christ, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). Am I suggesting that we should merely look at Jesus by faith and do nothing else? Of course not. Gospel community, honest confession, godly leadership, internet filters, studies like The Porn Phenomenon and many other things are helpful; but they are void of the power that only Christ can give. In all our attempts to battle sin, we must never stray from relying fully upon Jesus who is the source of sin-conquering strength.

As The Porn Phenomenon reveals, temptations to turn from Christ abound and afflict the people of God. Yet, studies like this provide fodder for necessary discussion along with insights into the hearts of those we seek to minister to. As we wait for Jesus to return and deliver us from evil, we do so with this promise before us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Let this hope compel us to fight lust and flee to the Lord in faith.