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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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The following is reprinted with permission from  Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

It may have been the first time a bed was ever on stage at Gramercy Theater, a mid-sized performance venue on East 23rd Street in New York City. But the nine-piece band circled around, half of its members hidden behind bedside candles and lamps, and played as if it weren’t even there. “Your grace abounds to me, your grace abounds to me,” they sang. “Jesus, in you I find all that I need.”

The capacity-crowd of worshippers joined in, arms in the air, and then they prayed. They prayed for marriages, for husbands and for wives, for reconciliation. They prayed for romance and commitment, and for miracles. They prayed for singles, for forgiveness, and for cleansing.

Sex was the topic of the night at Hillsong NYC’s midweek eXchange  service, and guest speakers Ed and Lisa Young (the Texas megachurch pastor and wife who attracted international  media attention at the beginning of this year for spending 24 hours in bed on the roof of their church) preached to the young, hip congregation about God’s plan for intimacy. “It’s all about context: the marriage bed, a God-given gift and a God-united covenant,” Pastor Young declared, sitting on the bed and looking at his wife. “When the content—sex—is in the right context, we’ll discover God’s destiny for our lives. But when we take the content out of context, the result is ultimately going to be chaotic.” And the group responded: “Wow. Yes, that’s good. That’s good.”

I’m Too Sexy for My Church

The Youngs, in a well-rehearsed shtick, were publicizing their book,  Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy With Your Spouse, in which they challenge husbands and wives to have sex every day for a week straight. They are the latest in a line of pastors— Mark Driscoll perhaps the most well-known among them—who claim that society has taken sex too far, and that the church hasn’t taken it far enough; that culture has hijacked sex, and that God has been left out of the discussion for too long. By openly promoting sex—among married heterosexual couples—they are trying to distance themselves from the prudish attitudes commonly associated with conservative Christians and working to reach a generation of hip, culturally savvy, young evangelicals. (Although as a recent Religion News Service  report indicates, more direct sex talk is a growing trend even among traditional evangelicals.)

For the middle-aged Youngs—married 30 years and parents of four, image-obsessed and raking in millions as leaders of an ever-growing church empire—the attempt to fit into hip Christian culture would seem futile. They are wannabes, as  Brett McCracken, author ofHipster Christianity, would put it. “One of the trendiest ways for many wannabe hip churches to be shocking is to talk frankly about sex,” he writes. “Shock value ultimately comes down to this: making the case that Christianity isn’t the boring, whitewashed, clean-cut, safe religion people assume it to be.”

Mark Driscoll has had a corner on shock-value pastoring since the emergence of his Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, and his latest book,  Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, co-authored with his wife Grace, is the most recent example of his penchant for the dramatic. The book sparked immediate outrage among Christians, who labeled it  too sexy—but the heaviest criticism came from those,  Christians and non-Christians alike, who found it sexist.

The Youngs’  Sexperiment, published just a week later, also dwelled on sex and marriage, but it didn’t spark the same angry reaction as Real Marriage. Maybe it’s because “the Youngs—unlike the Driscolls—are only comfortable talking about sex in the abstract,” as Tracy Clark-Flory noted at Salon.