As I am heavily involved in church marketing, I come across many of the different promotions, series and campaigns of various churches around the country. These can range from more traditional approaches to those that would be self-described as ‘edgier,’ whatever exactly that means.
One interesting feature of church marketing is that the range of approaches do not necessarily fall in line with how any particular church would describe itself (or attempt to describe itself), since even though a particular topic might appear to be ‘edgy’, it may be marketed in a more traditional manner.
Marketing styles aside, one tendency I have noticed in church marketing is to approach any topics about sex or sexuality in a certain manner, for which I don’t have a label but might better describe.
For example: a sermon series about sex goes into its promotional phase, and there seems to be this notion that presumes that sex just isn’t something you talk about in church, as if it’s too dirty or something like that. Given this presumption, the marketing push can tend to promote the series as “hey, no one talks about sex in church, but we’re going to!”
Naturally it is usually more subtle than that, but that often seems to be the premise. It is then followed by language about having ‘frank’ discussions about our sex lives, and more importantly how to make them both holy and awesome.
Ostensibly there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, I would assert that churches should be talking about sex a lot. There are few issues with which our culture is as obsessed or upon which it stumbles so badly. Further, sex can be incredibly destructive if used improperly, and even the pews of most churches are littered with the human toll of misused sex. On the other hand, sexuality used properly can lead into greater holiness, as I have looked at elsewhere.
With that as an overarching caveat, many churches nevertheless have a problem in talking about sex. The difficulty, however, is not in actually talking about it, but rather more fundamentally in the way they do talk it.
It certainly is worth asking the question- if we are going to be talking about this fundamentally important issue, shouldn’t we make sure we are talking about it well?
As I have browsed through many of the marketing campaigns for series about sex, one thing that seems to find preeminence is the sexual act itself. For example, I have seen an endless supply of churches use some sort of graphic about a pile of clothes at the end of a bed or perhaps feet sticking out of the covers, the implication being that sex is happening right here, right now, and aren’t we so edgy to mention what happens under the covers, wink wink!
I can appreciate the difficulty of communicating a theme in a single image, and in that respect this approach can be successful. However, the Christian approach to sex and sexuality is necessarily far broader than just what happens under the covers, and so communicating things in such a way can lead to a fundamental dishonesty if not handled correctly.
One obviously cannot communicate everything in a promotional push, but I wonder if we end up communicating the right thing at all. I am struck that such an approach tends to view a sexual relationship in nearly the same manner as a secular organization would. The only real distinction is that churches are not able (or not willing) to be more titillating in the images or the language they use.
What ends up really happening is that we try to use the same language about sex and the same imagery that the secular world does but are forced to tone it down so as not to cross whatever lines we have drawn. However, the same message is there, the same appeal to the sexual appetite is being used- it’s really only a question of scale.
I am, of course, not advocating that we throw out all inhibitions and market our teaching about sex with as much graphic-ness as secular outfits might. Rather, my hope is that we begin to stop thinking and talking about sex like the world does and start talking about it like the church should.
The Language of Sex is The Language of Holiness
When I was a teenager I kind of drifted in and out of different youth groups, generally dependent on where my friends were or which girls were at which one. Even as I came into my early 20s I still found myself following similar patterns. At any rate, in many of the churches I was involved with we talked about sex a lot, especially in youth group. Again- this is probably a good thing, but only if done correctly.
On the whole I would say that most of what I heard was pretty solid. However, it wasn’t necessarily in what was or wasn’t said that I finally found fault, but rather in this: we were taught a view of sex that was essentially just like that of the surrounding culture, only it had a few basic rules we couldn’t break so we could keep it ‘Christian’ or ‘biblical.’ While I think the post-modern Christian fascination with contrasting ‘rules’ with ‘relationships’ is rather sophomoric and indicative of less than robust critical thinking skills, nevertheless a focus on rules fails when the rules become arbitrary.
Rules, if they are good, are meant to either protect one from harm or to teach one what is right and what is wrong (among other things). However, if the letter of the rule is stressed without having a clear rationale behind it, it carries the feeling of caprice at best and vindictiveness at worst. To be sure, rules can be helpful for children to give them a frame of reference as they are morally developing; but children are not meant to stay children. “Because I told you” sometimes works for a five-year old, but one should not expect it to work with a teenager or an adult.
Unfortunately, much of the modern church’s approach to discussions about sex has focused on the rules for the sake of the rules without really communicating a truly Christian understanding of human sexuality. Our teaching on sex has tended to make God into an overbearing parent who arbitrarily tells us what to do and not to do for no reason. Eventually an adult learns that his dad told him not to touch the stove because excessive heat burns the hand, but this only makes sense once he understands the nature and proper use of fire.
We have too often told people not to touch the stove, but then we never teach them how to cook.
The difficulty then increases because this arbitrary approach to sex tries to think and talk about sex like the rest of the world while tacking on some additional strictures. For a teenager this can be incredibly confusing. In church we hear that God wants you to have this crazy hot sex life, but for some reason you have to wait until you are married. Meanwhile the teenager’s friends are having the promised crazy hot sex life right now, and the separation of purity is as thin as a promise ring.
What happens is that we talk about sex in nearly the exact same way as the culture but then try and present people with ‘God’s plan’ for sex which generally boils down to gritting it out until you get married and then you can do all the hot things your friends are already doing now. I am of course over-exaggerating a bit, but for a sex-obsessed culture this is the message that comes across.
As we market sex in the church we naturally drift to the ideas about sex and sexuality that the surrounding culture employs in its own marketing. In the same manner as our tired and pathetic parodies of popular culture fall flat because they are mediocre mimicries, so our marketing of sex becomes an also-ran, a shadow of the cultural perception we are trying to invoke because there are lines we won’t cross.
The problem, of course, is that by thinking about sex and talking about sex like the world we have actually already crossed those lines.
A Christian approach to human sexuality has to be broader in scope than what happens under the covers and embrace a reality that is richer and more robust than an appeal to an indulgence of the appetites. Ultimately our teaching about sex and sexuality must transcend just engaging in the sexual act correctly. A truly Christian theology of sexuality should celebrate and encourage celibacy as an expression of sexuality that is as full (perhaps even fuller) as that within marriage. A truly Christian sexuality understands that the union of husband and wife is ultimately an expression of the love between Christ and his church.
When we locate sex solidly within the completeness of the human being made in the image of God, we can finally begin to understand how St. Paul can understand it both as a debt to be paid to one’s spouse and as a good to be intentionally foregone from time to time so as to develop spiritually. We can also begin to understand how both he and Jesus perceive a vocation to celibacy as a great good in which virtue can flourish and which is an eschatological sign of the union of God and man in the resurrection.
The mystery of sex for embodied beings such as ourselves means that our sexuality- one’s masculinity or femininity- is a language that the body inherently speaks by the sheer fact of its existence, a directed-ness towards the other that intrinsically betokens completion rather than indulgence, self-donation rather than taking or taking advantage. Purity is not gritting it out until marriage but is rather a chastity that is as robust in solitude as in the marriage bed, an orientation of the mind that subsumes the appetite to the reason, rather than allowing passion to be master. The state of the resurrected body demonstrates that sex will be transcended, and as such is not the end-all of our lives, whatever state or vocation we are in.
A full-bodied Christian sexuality understands that the ascetic in the desert is as much a sexual creature as the wife in the marriage bed, for each possesses in themselves and in their bodies the image of God which is primordially for-the-other. This understanding of sexuality can no longer think or talk about sex merely in regards to fulfilling one’s desires but rather must reorient them to ask how one might use one’s sexuality to honor God and to honor others.
The Christian theology of sex and sexuality thus stands in marked contrast to that of our present culture, and is in this manner radically counter-cultural. Yet how often does our marketing of sex actually reflect being this sign of contradiction? And how often does our marketing merely assume the same banal philosophy of sexuality as the target of our marketing?
In this sense then the Christian theology of sexuality is ultimately a positive one, for it understands within the proper use of one’s sexuality the means by which one can flourish as God created us to be. Sexuality is fundamentally a good in itself and the way in which God intends for us to relate to each other, for our bodies speak its language by virtue of our masculinity and femininity.
As we can see in our culture, a misuse of sexuality is incredibly destructive, and not only for those who themselves misuse it. Given the wasteland of ruined lives littered in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, it seems absolute madness to market sex in the church using the same categories and vocabulary as the world. Not only do we come off as trying to play catch-up, but we offer no real solution beyond rules whose premises we can no longer explicate as more than arbitrary since we think about sex in the same way as those who could care less about our rules.
Marketing sex in the church needs to originate from a refined understanding of human sexuality that starts not with how to properly engage in the sexual act or the conditions by which it is legitimate but rather with the self-donative nature that our embodied sexuality naturally speaks. Instead of letting concupiscence rule our marketing we should be let virtue and truth have the guiding hand, presenting a vision of human sexuality and flourishing that is more about growing in virtue than in sating the appetites.
This is really the only honest way we can communicate a Christian theology of sexuality; otherwise we are presenting something different entirely. And if one begins from flawed premises, the conclusion will nearly always be fallacious. We have the opportunity to present the world with a beautiful alternative to its dead-end sexual nihilism.
Let’s not ruin that because of bad marketing.