On a blustery day early this year, 13,000 people showed up at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., for what became known as "Porn Sunday." Two young California pastors with a website called XXXchurch.com - "the No. 1 Christian porn site" - were in town with a silence-breaking message.
Their frank talk about the struggles many Christians are having with pornography has drawn huge crowds in several churches across the country, and now the Revs. Craig Gross and Mike Foster are planning National Porn Sunday for Oct. 9.
"We were tired of hearing stories about people's lives being wrecked, and feeling they had nowhere to go in the church to get help," says Mr. Gross. He and Mr. Foster hope to engage 200 churches in talking openly about "America's dirty little secret" and are offering resources to help them initiate healing programs for their congregations.
While some consider the pastors' efforts controversial, many religious leaders recognize they need help on how to talk about this "elephant in the pews." Surveys show that 40 million Americans regularly view Internet pornography, which accounts for $2.5 billion of the $12 billion US porn industry. Some 25 percent of search-engine requests are porn-related; 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women admit accessing porn at work.
For years, churches were in denial about the scope of the problem, but the toll on marriages, careers, and faith communities has grown, Christian leaders say. And it involves not only congregants, but pastors.
In a 2001 survey published in Leadership Journal, 37 percent of pastors said pornography was a struggle for them, and 51 percent admitted it was a temptation.
"For 25 years, I would have said that the pro-life issue is the most pressing threat to America morally, but pornography has overtaken it," says the Rev. Richard Land, a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest US Protestant denomination. "More people's lives are being destroyed on a daily basis by addiction to pornography than through abortion."
Douglas Weiss, a counselor with divinity and psychology degrees, speaks at churches of many denominations on sexuality issues. "Wherever I am ... and no matter what the denomination, at least half of the men in the church admit to being sexually addicted," he says. Based on his experience, "The clergy don't differ that much from the general population - between a third to half."
Many men have been trying on their own for years to get free, Dr. Weiss adds.
Some denominations encourage local congregations to educate members and to install filtering software in church and home computers. Evangelicals have responded most vigorously.
Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based Evangelical group, was alerted a few years ago when its toll-free clergy-care line began lighting up with calls from ministers - and 25 percent were porn-related. "We've been working hard to alleviate the addiction, and are seeing some improvement," says the Rev. H.B. London, vice president of ministry outreach.
Still, their experience shows that "probably about 20 percent of pastors have a pornography issue," and "many, many every year have to leave the ministry."
Some churches are devastated when they learn of their pastors' problem. Families are torn apart.
In the book, "Pastors at Greater Risk," Mr. London tells of one minister who began frequenting pornographic websites after being asked to join a community action committee to block child access to sexually explicit materials on the Internet. Some pastors become hooked when they are asked to help men in their congregation confront the problem. But most often, counselors say, it's unresolved issues related to the challenges of clergy life and to marriage difficulties that contribute to their habit.
Focus on the Family has quietly spent thousands of dollars sending pastors to treatment centers. It also offers churchgoers help through its "Pure Intimacy" program on the Internet, and has set up a global referral network of Christian counselors.
Those most active on the issue include those who have found healing themselves and are helping others through seminars, support groups, and website communities.
Pastor Ted Roberts of East Hill Foursquare Church in Gresham, Ore., a former fighter pilot who speaks of gaining freedom from sex addiction through God's grace, has built a thriving church community around small-group ministries focused on recovery.
Paul Rasavage, an engineer, created a website as a prayer support group for Roman Catholic laity and priests, which has seen steady growth since 2002. "People are so relieved to discover they are not alone, and help is available," he says.
Simon Sheh, a psychologist of evangelical faith in Edmonton, Alberta, offers a one-day seminar designed to equip men to safeguard themselves against pornography. Pastors bring church members, fathers bring teen sons. "It's a family thing, to create a legacy of purity in the family," he says. Surveys show that the average age of first exposure to Web porn is 11. Most caught up in it say it began in their early teens.
While the seminar uses biblical strategies of taking responsibility for oneself, being honest, and learning how to be godly, Dr. Sheh explains, it also educates about the consequences of addiction and on other issues that most often underlie it.
"Pornography is not just about sex. It is a drug of pain relief," Sheh says.
Counselors say it is often emotional pain - from childhood abuse, from feeling isolated, rejected, or inadequate - compounded by not having someone to talk with about it. What some scientists call the "neurochemistry of sex" also fosters the addiction.
Recognizing those factors helps men deal with the shame of seeking help.
"They often have the perception they are perverts," Sheh says. "I tell them, 'God does not make perverts, and God is your physician. He healed me. He can heal you, too.' "
Others concur. "They think, 'If you really knew me, you wouldn't love me'; so they don't tell the truth," Weiss says. That's why showing love and support for those dealing with this problem is so important.
"The No. 1 thing for healing is honesty," adds Weiss, who conducts a "Sex, Men, and God" conference for churches that has spurred more than 100 "freedom groups" across the country. Another way to help men be honest and weather testing times is to find an accountability partner - another person with whom to be open about challenges. XXXchurch.com offers "accountability software," which will send a biweekly listing of websites one has accessed to a chosen accountability partner. X3Watch software has had 150,000 downloads, says Gross.
Some say accountability could be carried still further. Weiss recommends an annual polygraph to verify that clergy are sexually pure - no pornography, no inappropriate relationships with parishioners.
"I was a sex addict during my first year of seminary," he claims. "If I had had to take a polygraph, I would have been forced to deal with it at that age, which would have been great. Better to do that than let it grow ... and eventually destroy some large church communities - which we are seeing now."
Many pastors he has treated take polygraphs for a couple years to show progress. "It's amazing how ministries double and quadruple," he adds, "how creativity returns and their walk with God becomes freer."