LAKELAND, Fla. – “We’re beginning a new sermon series that is scaring me to death,” pastor Jay Dennis said on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008, from the pulpit of First Baptist Church at the Mall.
The series was titled “Sex and the Saint.” For six Sundays, Dennis addressed what God says in His Word about sex. His goal: to combat a “stronghold” in the congregation that destroys Christian families and harms teenagers, singles and even children – the stronghold of sexual sin.
Dennis candidly conceded to the congregation that he would be criticized and misunderstood, that he would receive angry letters and emails, and that he fully expected to find himself in a spiritual battle.
He indeed experienced a heavy spiritual attack on his physical health and, though he said he still has his critics, Dennis told Baptist Press, “The response was overwhelmingly positive and opened a door for our members to communicate their concerns about pornography use among Christian men.
“I am convinced that God’s people, for the most part, want clear, biblical teachings on sexual issues.”
That sermon series at the Lakeland, Fla., church, and other sermons Dennis has preached since, have laid the foundation for a nationwide movement: Join One Million Men (join1millionmen.org), to be introduced in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 11-12 annual meeting in Houston. The movement calls Christian men to commit to sexual purity and, specifically, to protect themselves and their families from the devastation caused by pornography.
In interviews with Baptist Press, Dennis recounted his journey and his resolve to expose and eradicate “the pink elephant in the pew.”
Q: Why did you decide in 2008 to address sexual issues from the pulpit?
A: I remember being burdened that I had never, from the Sunday morning pulpit, addressed issues related to healthy biblical sex. It seemed that most of what even Christians were hearing was coming from a secular worldview. My heart was to raise up the biblical standard among the people I pastored regarding a subject that far too many pastors had, perhaps out of fear or awkwardness, simply chosen not to address.
Later that year I began to see the need for addressing the issue of pornography specifically. The door had been opened that sexual issues would be discussed from the pulpit, but in a grace-filled and sensitive approach. I am burdened that until God’s people understand what healthy biblical sex is, we won’t see Satan’s counterfeits.
Q: You have asserted that 80 percent of men in churches struggle with pornography in some way. What led you to that conclusion?
A: I reached the conclusion based on research, multiple discussions with those whose ministry focused on this issue, discussions with pastors, watching how the data is trending upwards, the prevalence of pornography, and understanding the secretive nature of Christians viewing pornography. Most experts I talk to believe that 80 percent is a conservative figure.
Q: Have you ever been personally affected in your life by pornography?
A: As an 11-year old boy a friend showed me a pornographic picture, and that one image opened the door of curiosity that from then on I had to guard against. I am 53, and most men my age were exposed in a similar manner. However, now it is almost entirely Internet pornography. Although not a daily struggle, it is an awareness that I must always be on guard for the enemy to attack. I have especially had to be careful as I conducted extensive research concerning the issue of pornography. Huge prayer support and accountability are essential for me.
Q: How did you prepare your congregation for the series on pornography?
A: I told our church that there would be moments when they would feel awkward, and I assured them that their pastor would feel the same but that, if God’s Word addressed an issue, we should be open to discussing it even in a Sunday morning setting.
When I did the series on pornography there were sessions only for men, one for women and one for parents. Last year we even dedicated a Sunday where the men had a separate worship service from the women because of the subject matter. I didn’t know how that would work but it was a great success.
Q: You have mentioned that your wife, Angie, had teased you that she would be volunteering in the nursery during the entire six-week “Sex and the Saint” series. But in reality, what role has Angie played in your efforts to confront the issues of pornography and sexual addictions from the pulpit?
A: Angie has been my chief cheerleader in encouraging me to stay the course in addressing this issue. She continued to pray for me and tell me the absolute necessity of addressing pornography in the church. She had counseled wives and moms who had been negatively impacted by husbands, dads and sons viewing pornography. She sensed early on in the process that God was calling me to focus on taking this to the churches. Angie has patiently understood the time it has taken for me to research, write and travel for the past three years. When I addressed the women of our church, Angie was instrumental in helping our women feel a level of comfort and security as they shared their stories. I simply could not have done this without her.
Q: How did you prepare yourself to preach on the topics of pornography and sexual addictions?
A: When researching the topic of sex and especially pornography, I had to pray for God’s protection around my mind. I attended the Institute for Sexual Wholeness in Atlanta for the classroom portion of the certification on sexual addictions. This helped me immensely and gave me access to good, Christian resources.
Q: Why did you sense the need to develop your own materials to address pornography and sexual sin?
A: I read great parachurch, academic and counselor-written materials but as a pastor I needed something that was written by someone who had been on the front lines of daily ministry within the local church.
The lack I saw in the materials was more of the approach than the content. For instance, as a pastor I am constantly aware of sensitivity that must be included when addressing the subject of sex within a broad-based audience. As a pastor I am aware that the same congregation I preach to on the issue of sex one Sunday will be the same congregation I will face the next week. There’s something about that knowledge that brings an extra sensitivity to what is said and what is not said.
One of the most difficult issues is for the pastor to overcome his feeling of awkwardness of addressing the subject of sex. When developing the Join One Million Men resources, I kept that at the forefront.
Q: How would you counsel a pastor who senses the need to address sexual issues with his congregation? Where should he start? How should he proceed?
A: First, I would encourage him to prepare himself spiritually through prayer, fasting and seeking a small group of people to pray for God’s hedge of protection around him as he prepares and delivers messages on pornography.
Then, let the Bible speak for itself on matters of sexual purity. I told the people of First Baptist Church at the Mall that we had heard from MTV, Jersey Shore and Dr. Drew but we needed to hear from God’s Word. God’s Word is so relevant.
I would also recommend that he tell the people in advance what he will be discussing. He should assure them that he will be sensitive but that he will not hesitate to hit head-on the issues the Bible addresses. He should give practical principles on sexual issues and encourage accountability through resources such as support groups, professional Christian counseling for addictions, and installing filtering software on computers – Covenant Eyes is fantastic.
Last, providing ways for men and women to express questions, concerns and struggles is important. I found that those times were like old-fashioned revival meetings. We accomplished that through male-only and female-only sessions.
Q: What are your hopes for the Join One Million Men rollout at the SBC annual meeting?
A: My hope is that this launch would get the attention of pastors and help them see that the churches they serve are being adversely affected by pornography. I want the pastors to get burdened that they are the gatekeepers and if they bring this to the attention of the church, it becomes important to the people of the church. I also pray that women would see that they play a critical role through prayer and communication with the church leadership. If I had a tagline for Join One Million Men, it would be, “Let’s start the conversation.”
Q: Human trafficking in the sex industry is currently a hot topic. Would you like to comment on what you believe the responsibility of Christians is to those exploited by the pornography industry?
A: Our church has taken this issue very seriously through creating a room in our facility to educate people on human trafficking. We modeled this after what Woman’s Missionary Union has so effectively done. In addition, we are looking at partnering with the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes to specifically minister to those who are trapped as human slaves. We are in the planning stages now.
I know this sounds dramatic, however, it is absolutely true: Any Christian man who is viewing pornography needs to understand that what he is viewing is associated with an industry that exploits women and children. Every Christian man needs to understand what the pornography industry and others are doing to ruin the lives of the least of these. Surely no Christian man would ever be associated with anything that hurts women and children. Join One Million Men, I pray, helps educate Christian men on this issue. As I have shared in our resources, pornography makes a man forget about God, his family and his character. If we can show the connection between pornography and human trafficking, it could be a huge deterrent to any Christian considering looking at pornography.
Q: What can church members do to support their pastor in addressing these issues from the pulpit?
A: The people in the pews can help by praying for their pastor, their church leaders, and that God would protect the men in the church from the temptation to view pornography. Then they can ask their pastor to publicly address the issue of pornography and encourage him to promote Join One Million Men. If a pastor knows that the people in the church are encouraging this, it will help him tremendously.
In their homes, it is important for husbands, wives and children to together discuss the issue of pornography and how pervasive it is, even for Christians. No church is untouched by it. No family is untouched by it. It’s time – past time – to start the discussion!