I once had a professor who asked, "How often do you entertain thoughts about prophecy?"
One student answered what most of us were thinking: "About twice a year—once around Christmas, and again some time around Good Friday when I hear Isaiah 53."
"Okay," the prof replied. "Now, how many times in a given day do you have sexual thoughts?" Silence. The professor had accomplished his purpose. How many times do you hear biblically relevant preaching on human sexuality—something people are thinking about all the time?
That question stuck with me, and when I began ministering with youth, I put his advice to work. After all, what's on the mind of teenagers?
But as I got older, it occurred to me that I was still interested in sexuality, even though I was married and pastoring a church and years removed from the hormonal battles of puberty. I know I'm not alone, because every time I preach on a sexual matter, the church grows quiet in a hurry.
Sex is on our minds. Anything that occupies that much of our thought life and powers that much of our personality ought to be addressed from the pulpit, because some of those thoughts are misguided and in need of God's correction. Not to preach about sex would be to desert my post at one of the most active battlefronts in our culture.
Why Rush in Where Angels Tiptoe?
I realize preaching about sexual matters is fraught with possible problems. I could offend people. I might embarrass somebody, including myself. I might even distract the thinking of those listening.
Yet I can't ignore the topic. Marriages are struggling because of misleading information about this subject. Young people are making mistakes because they're getting behavioral cues from all the wrong sources. Singles are wrestling with sexual dilemmas. Sex is a subject begging for a clear Christian word.
For example, if we were to ask the married couples sitting in church on Sunday morning, "How many of you at this point in life are having a great physical relationship with your spouse?" my educated guess would be that 30 percent or less would say they have a vital relationship. If that's true, and my study and experience would say it is, 70 percent of deacons and Sunday school teachers and trustees and churchgoers and pastors are experiencing a measurable amount of sexual frustration.
People can tell themselves, I'm not going to let my sexual frustration affect me. But some way, somehow, sometime, it will seek an outlet. What I'm trying to do through my preaching and our other ministries at Willow Creek is to spark dialogue, because talking can be an acceptable outlet. I say, "Let's talk about it. Let's not let frustration build until someone runs off with a willing partner, because that's a terrible way to solve the problem." We're committed to talking about sex responsibly as opposed to ignoring it until it causes unnecessary damage.
I preached a sermon series titled "Telling the Truth to Each Other," and one sermon illustration told of a husband talking openly with his wife about the sexual frustration he was feeling in the relationship. That illustration telegraphed the message that it's legal in marriage to talk about sex in that way. Frustrations don't need to be pushed underground until they emerge in the wrong place. Yes, telling the truth can get messy and complicated, but we need at least to try. The response I read in the congregation was agreement. Talking about it from the pulpit, daring to bring sex into the open, gave them the sense that such communication could happen in their marriages as well.
My hope is that such frank talk on Sunday morning can lead to more open expressions throughout the week, so people can get the help they need.
Besides making sex a permissible subject of conversation, my overarching concern is that people understand human sexuality as one of God's good gifts, part of his grand design for us. I preach each week to non-Christians who are seeking Christ in our fellowship. Many have stereotyped Christians as rather Victorian—joyless, repressed people who think of sex as dirty and vulgar. I want them to know that sexual impulses—even strong ones—are not in and of themselves evil.
When I talk openly and without embarrassment about God's wonderful design for human sexuality, speaking positively and in a God-glorifying way, that's big news for many. It breaks open their stereotypes of dreary Christianity and accusatory preachers.
Of course, I continue on to explain that sexuality is a highly charged, God-designed drive that we need to understand and submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ because it can be used for great good or enormous destruction.
Direct and Indirect Preaching
I preach about sex in two ways: directly and indirectly. If I'm going to do justice to the many aspects of human sexuality, I need to take a direct approach. I dive into the subject, develop it, explain it. That's why occasionally I'll devote a whole series of sermons to the subject.
For example, I have tackled such topics as sexual fulfillment in marriage, romance, unfaithfulness, homosexuality, sexual abuse, pornography, unwanted pregnancies, and sex and the single person.
However, although sex is not a taboo subject at Willow Creek, I do limit the subjects I cover. Because I have many young ears present in worship services, I have never approached topics such as masturbation or sexual experimentation by married partners or sexual aberrations. These are doubly volatile since perhaps 90 percent of parents have never talked with their children about such topics. I don't want to be the first to bring them up with children present. That would violate the parents' rights. Instead, I encourage people to read suggested books on the topics or to stay after the services and talk with me or one of our counselors. And in private settings like that, people will be candid.
The second method I use in preaching about sexual topics is more indirect, what I call maintenance statements. These I sprinkle through the rest of my preaching to remind people. In the midst of a sermon on, say, the woman at the well, I'll throw in a maintenance statement: "The woman was floundering; she had lost the meaning of faithfulness to her spouse, just as she had never known faithfulness to her Lord."
This double-pronged approach keeps me from thinking, I handled human sexuality in that sermon on David and Bathsheba. I'm able to cover topics substantially through direct sermons and then reinforce my points continually through asides in other messages.
Even with ample reason to preach about sex, however, I still approach the pulpit with fear and trembling, because I know how difficult it is. But I've found help from five principles I've learned over the years.
Putting Sex in Perspective
Whenever I speak about sex, there is one impression I definitely do not want to leave—that misappropriated sex is one sin the church and God cannot tolerate. I don't want to give it that kind of press, because I'm not sure Scripture does.
When I preach about illicit sex, I do call it a sin, as I do any other sin. I say it's wrong to break God's sexual code. But my main emphasis is on the downside of disobedience—not "God will never forgive you for that!" but rather, "If you don't obey the Lord in this area of life, eventually you'll find yourself in deep weeds." I de-emphasize obeying rules for rules' sake alone and emphasize instead the dire consequences of breaking God's rules. "God gave us the rules for our protection. You break them at your own risk. In fact, in these days you can die from promiscuity."
I paint as vivid a picture as I can of sexuality run amuck, and I never have a problem with attentiveness at this point. People have stumbled enough to know I'm not exaggerating. It's not uncommon for people to cry during such sermons. They know.
But then I always hit the positive side: "If you keep those benevolent rules and experience sex within God's well-defined boundaries, it can be a wonderful gift of intimacy and ecstasy."
Unfortunately, preaching this way isn't easy. It's relatively simple to preach against some sin, but I have to work overtime to develop positive and edifying messages on sexuality. For instance, preaching on "You shall not commit adultery" is a lot easier than giving a message on the positive side: "How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage."
If I'm short of sermon-preparation time and really scrambling some week, my temptation is to develop a "thou shalt not" message. But if I'm a better disciplinarian of my schedule, and if I'm truly thinking and praying about my people and how they will receive the sermon, I'll put in the extra work to show the rewards of the righteous—inspiring people to obedience rather than just castigating them for wrongdoing.
Being Sensitive to Pain
People are sensitive about their sexuality. For instance, try questioning my masculinity, and watch what I do! I'll throw up emotional walls, if not my fists. We're like that when our sexuality is impugned. So I try to be tender when I talk about these matters of the heart. Since people's understanding of their sexuality—and their practice of it over the years—touches so close to their personal core, they are particularly aware of their shortcomings and sin.
In the area of sexuality, the guilt is unbelievable. I simply cannot talk about "sins against your bodies" or spout "thou shalt nots" without being sensitive to the depth of pain most people already feel concerning sex. If I cannot include a word of grace, I may do irreparable damage.
In addition, if the women in my church are typical—and I have no reason to believe they aren't—as many as half of them have had a destructive or unwanted sexual experience forced on them. Several studies bear this out. That means whenever I speak about sex, as many as half the women must deal with the pain, guilt, and unresolved feelings brought by these episodes. Therefore, I dare not treat the subject lightly.
Early in my ministry, I was naïve about this reality and rather oblivious to the heightened sensitivities. I would speak on how wonderful human sexuality is. I'd go on about what a pleasurable experience it is and why God designed us as sexual creatures.
Finally a few women were thoughtful enough to pull me aside and say, "Bill, that's great for most people to hear, but the truth of the matter is, some of us have been scarred by this 'wonderful gift of God.' Frankly, we think sex was a rotten idea."
That was hard to hear. Such attitudes were foreign to me. In the sheltered Dutch enclave in which I was raised, the men would have hanged anyone who laid a finger on a girl! But today we run across the ugly scars of misappropriated sex all the time.
I had to learn that whenever I talk about the beauty of human sexuality, I have to qualify my words: "But some of you have seen the other side of this good gift; you've been victimized by those displaying their depravity by the abuse of sex." And I must speak many words of comfort and understanding.
Providing a Means of Grace
Reassurances that God's grace covers sexual sin are fine, as are other expressions of comfort. But I have another responsibility when I preach about sex: I need to offer tangible ways for people broken by adverse sexual experiences to find healing.
A while back I studied the problem of pornography prior to preaching on it. As I neared the end of a protracted preparation period, I realized how many people are addicted to porn. I had to look in the mirror and say: Am I going to handle this subject with integrity, or am I going to pontificate about it and leave a bunch of trapped and wounded people feeling even worse about what they're doing? Giving them the word of grace—telling of God's forgiveness—was one thing, but actually dropping a rope to pull them out of the pit was something else.
I decided to ask a Christian counselor to put together an Alcoholics Anonymous-like support group for those who were ready to deal with their pornographic addiction. Such a group would need to function under close supervision because of the nature of the problem. When I preached on pornography, I announced the forming of the group "to hold one another accountable in breaking free of that harmful addiction." More than fifty people gathered. The group has continued and has had an effective ministry.
Unless I give people something to grasp as they let go of sexual problems, they have only their disoriented equilibrium to keep them from returning to their problems. Marriage-enrichment groups, counseling programs, mutual-accountability groups, discipleship programs with mature leaders—these offer people a way to begin to remedy their denatured sexuality.
I work hard at humor; it's one of the toughest parts of sermon preparation. As long as it's used appropriately, its importance when preaching can hardly be overemphasized. Some people come to church not expecting to find themselves enjoying the experience. If I can get them laughing, they relax and become more open to what I'm about to say.
Particularly in preaching about sex, humor is the perfect counterbalance to the weightiness of the topic. With all that pain and guilt and sin-talk floating in the air, with people feeling nervous or perhaps expecting to be offended, anything that I can say that disarms them for a moment is precious.
In one sermon I wanted to communicate the idea that sometimes the best-laid plans in marriage go awry. I told the story of one anniversary night when I took my wife, Lynn, to the honeymoon suite of a luxury hotel. I told how I bought her flowers, took her out to dinner, had a special treat brought up to the room—the works. Of course, I was looking forward to the romantic agenda I had in mind. When we finally turned off the light, Lynn noticed a crack in the curtains letting in light from the parking lot. She got up in the dark, crossed the room, closed the curtain, and returned across the even darker room. But just as she got into bed, she stumbled into the bedpost and gashed her forehead. The cut was so bad I had to take her to the emergency room for stitches, which sort of took the twinkle out of my eye that night.
Our people laughed, and I was able to reach into their lives at that time because I had touched a universal point of connection: humor.
Yet humor must be appropriate. Once in an attempt to communicate with non-churched males in the congregation, I let slip a flippant remark. I was referring to an ostensibly successful man, who doesn't think he needs Christ because "he's got a big home, a high-paying job, a condominium in Florida, a nice wife and two kids, and a little thing going on the side." I said it matter-of-factly and went on from there to make my point.
What I had neglected, and what I was reminded of by a number of women in our church, is that being the victim of an extramarital affair is a devastating experience. Many never get over it. My offhand remark about "a little thing going on the side" showed how drastically I had underestimated the impact of the words. We can't wink and make light of something that painful. I would rather not use humor than use it at someone's expense.
One sure-fire way to ruin my effectiveness when preaching about sex is to speak as if I'm not subject to sexual sin: "I've got this sexuality thing all figured out. It's not much of a problem for me, and I'm going to straighten out you people in the next twenty minutes so you can get your passions under control as I have." That's pontificating, not communicating.
In the years before I started Willow Creek, I don't recall once hearing a pastor make reference to his own sexuality. Does that mean pastors aren't sexual beings? Is that an area of our lives we don't want others to emulate? The longer we're silent, the larger those question marks become. When I preach about sex, generally I want to be able to say, "Friends, here's who I am. I love you more than I value your impressions of me, and we've got to talk about some important things here."
I include myself in the conversation, because as a pastor, I'm called not just to feed the flock, but also to model as best I can the kind of life Christ would have me lead. Since part of that life is my sexuality, I'll occasionally make reference to personal subjects, like the fact that Lynn and I have had a physical relationship that sometimes is satisfying and sometimes is not so satisfying. Then I point out the factors behind a satisfying relationship.
People tell me such candor is appreciated. It says we don't always have to have wonderful sexual experiences even if we'd like to brag that we do. I like to give people the sense that we can be men and women together who have cut the pretense and stopped pretending.
There remain, however, seasons in my marriage when, because of pressures and difficulties in our relationship, it would be destructive to me personally to try to address the subject of sex. When I am in turmoil about it, I don't need the added pressure of speaking about it as if all were well.
That's not to say I dare speak only out of my strength, because there are times when I speak out of my weakness, too. But I need to be fairly healthy before I preach, or I find I begin to launch into thunderous "thou shalt nots" only out of my own frustrations. I'll be more pastoral and effective if I wait until I have cooled down a little and can be more balanced.
Perhaps one other caution is appropriate: Personal transparency is for a purpose—identification with the congregation—not for mere verbal exhibitionism. Before I use personal references, I obtain Lynn's permission, because I would never share an illustration that would violate the intimacy and integrity of our marriage. I also pass questionable illustrations by our elders and ask them how they feel about them. They veto any personal anecdotes that are inappropriate.
But they encourage me to be open. They, along with me, want my messages to say authentically, "I need to hear this message as much as I need to give it, because I live where you live. I'm listening to myself preach."
Preaching on the subject of sex is one of the hardest things to do, so it would be much easier to dodge it. Then I'd have no personal soul searching, no controversy, no possibility of offending people. But there would also be no rescuing people from the devastation of misused sexuality and no leading them to the joy of God's intentions for this gift.
I've discovered when I preach on sex, invariably I go home encouraged. The last time I spoke about marriage, I talked afterward with numerous couples who echoed what one said: "We're not going to settle anymore for less than a satisfactory sexual relationship. We're going to work on this, with a counselor if necessary, until we flourish in our physical relationship. We don't want to frustrate each other to the point that we have an affair we may never get over."
When I preach about sexual purity, I often hear from people who have been convicted by the Holy Spirit and have determined to put impurity away. I spoke with a new Christian from our fellowship who had been living with a woman for three years. I told him that as painful as it would be, he really had no other choice but to separate. I listened to him and prayed with him and promised to help him walk through the experience.
As he left, he said, "I can't thank you enough for forcing the issue, because there's one side of me that's screaming, I don't want to cut this off! and the other side of me says, But I have to. I just needed someone to put the pressure on me. Thanks for doing that."
That's what happens when we preach—humbly, prayerfully, and lovingly—the truth about sex.
Taken from Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, The by CRAIG BRIAN LARSON; HADDON ROBINSON. Copyright © 2005 by Christianity Today International. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com