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Sex-Loving Evangelicals: A Ploy to Fill the Pews?

More direct sex talk is a growing trend even among traditional evangelicals, and for several headline-grabbing pastors, it's the focus of their ministries.

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But the inconsistent responses have more to do with the Driscolls than with the Youngs. Driscoll’s provocative words and actions continue to shock because he is a “hipster pastor,” because he leads a young congregation in a cool city, because it remains difficult for people to come to terms with the fact that hip and theologically conservative can, and do, coexist. 

If, by virtue of his shock-value ways, Driscoll is indeed a wannabe, to use McCracken’s language, then the Youngs are double wannabes. But their attempt at a shock show worked at Hillsong NYC, the bright-lights and big-worship year-old plant of a network of Australian Pentecostal churches. “Some things were a little cheesy,” Nancy Mickel, a 30-year-old Hillsong member, admits. “But in the real world, sex does come up. It’s good to know where we should stand.”

From Spectacle to Conversation

At hipster churches at the other end of the spectrum, churches that have embraced a more relaxed and egalitarian leadership structure with an emphasis on talking with the community and not at it, the Youngs (or Driscoll, for that matter) would likely have a hard time getting young people to appreciate the spectacle. These churches, the majority of which are nondenominational, have shifted away from the anti-intellectualism of the evangelical past and have shown an earnest desire to question and to debate—and, significantly, to critique.

That’s not to say that they don’t discuss the importance of a healthy marital sex life, or stress the importance of abstinence. But the conversation takes a different shape. There are no gimmicks or publicity stunts. There are no cute phrases—“sex is between the ears before it’s between the legs, it’s north before it’s south, it’s mental before it’s genital,” as Young told the Hillsong gathering—and there is no self-promotion. It is, or at least strives to be, an actual conversation.

“If people are hooking up or having sex, and they don’t seem to have any problem with it, there’s no judgment from me,” Aaron Monts, pastor of IKON Christian Community in San Francisco, says. “I simply want to walk and have a loving conversation with them about why they’re doing what they’re doing… as opposed to telling them, ‘oh, you shouldn’t do that.’”

So while many young Christians have rejected the notion of sex as negative or shameful, there is a significant divide in the way in which their pastors are addressing the issue. Many of the hipster churches I’ve reported on across the country have adopted an attitude similar to Monts’. They don’t necessarily condone sex before marriage, but they’re also not going make a performance of telling you (that God says) to wait. It is, in many ways, analogous to their softer-sell approach to evangelizing: Jesus loves you, and Jesus died for you, but we’re not going to hit you over the head with it.

Then there are the Youngs and the Driscolls, pastors of megachurches, always looking outside their home churches, away from their cities, for attention. And they’re definitely doing something right. Both Sexperiment and Real Marriage became New York Times bestsellers almost immediately after publication. There’s no question that their messages, and their aggressive way of communicating them, are reaching people—hipsters included—even if their strategies, and often the messages themselves, are decidedly unhip.

But despite the shift toward using more crass language to address a (formerly) taboo subject, Driscoll and Young and now, it seems, a range of other evangelical pastors, are still bent on employing the same uncool shock tactics of their predecessors.

Research for this report was supported in part by a 2011 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life.