Chapter 180

Preaching Sex with Compassion and Conviction

How to communicate the biblical view of sex without becoming Dr. Ruth.

It's on most everyone's mind, yet the subject of sex often gets little press in the church. No big surprise why. To preach well on that oh-so-delicate subject takes courage, compassion, and conviction.

What strategy do you take when approaching the topic of sex?

M. Craig Barnes: I don't want to make angry denouncements, but I want to make clear that within the church there's a lot more sexual activity outside of the biblical norms than people want to admit. Many have had or are having premarital sex. Some have had affairs they've not admitted to anyone. Some are spending enormous amounts of time on the Internet looking at pornography.

When I talk about sexual immorality, I'm not talking about those who don't come to church. I want people to know these are really our issues.

What should the preacher not communicate about sex?

It's easy to media bash. When we do that, though, we miss the real point of preaching, which is to say something redemptive for those who have sexual longings, sexual confusion, enormous sexual guilt.

I try to provide hope. Otherwise, if the statistics are accurate that say 70 percent of people who are religious have had premarital sex, I'm only clobbering them. I assume the people in the pews want to be righteous.

What other assumptions do you make?

I assume my hearers are confused about sexuality. People think if you're not sexually active you are less than whole. That's part of the whole homosexual debate—"Because I've got a sexual yearning, it must come from God. And if it comes from God, he wants me to use it."

But people are more than sexual beings. Much of the debate about sex has reduced people to their sexuality. That's true whether they're gay or heterosexual.

So sexual activity does not equal our sexual being.

Exactly. We're created as sexual beings, but that doesn't mean we have to be sexually active.

How much should a preacher talk directly about sex?

I don't want to become the Dr. Ruth of ecclesiastical circles. Typically I bring up the topic of sex in a series of sermons on a larger theme. That way it's seen as part of the larger picture of our lives. If we become preoccupied with talking about sex, then the preacher is also guilty of reducing people to their sexuality. The temptation for the preacher is either to ignore it or to be preoccupied with it.

What larger themes lend themselves to a sermon on sex?

I refuse to limit a discussion about sex to the lectionary of secular society.

Loneliness is a huge one. Most people I've talked to who have engaged in sex outside of marriage are not promiscuous, but they are lonely. The mistake they make is thinking that sex will take care of the loneliness. Sex just complicates their lives.

The doctrine of the body is another larger theme; so is the topic of choices. Sexual activity, for example, is fundamentally a question of choices. I've also spoken on sex as a subtheme of stewardship.

The least helpful way to speak about sex is as an issue. As soon as you do that, you're in an argument with your congregation. I want to talk about it pastorally through some of these human themes, giving people relief from their struggles.

Is it possible to preach sex in a wrongful, provocative way?

It's dangerous for the preacher to talk too much about his or her own sexual temptations or longing. I understand the value of personal illustration, but you're begging for trouble if you do that on this topic. It's too much vulnerability for a congregation to handle. Vulnerability by the preacher on the topic of sex simply says, "Come see me with your longings."

How blunt should a preacher be?

I refuse to limit a discussion on sex to the lectionary of secular society. It's best to stick with the biblical images and the church's own theological language. That's why I have used the term sacrament to describe intercourse. I don't say sex itself is a sacrament, but it's sacramental in that it's given for a holy and sacred purpose.

I prefer to use the church's language because it's our own but also because it's beautiful language. For example, I can use the word intercourse or one flesh, but the biblical phrase one flesh is much more elegant than the other.

I have a high view of sex, and I make the assumption that people don't value sex enough. I'm trying to raise their value of sexuality—that's why I don't want to use earthy language. I also assume many have been hurt sexually, and they've never seen the magnificence of it.

When we proclaim the Word of God, we call people to something higher while recognizing their brokenness. The preacher must find a balance between compassion and conviction. We always have to carry on both sides of the conversation.