by Steven G. Edlin and Karen Ulrich
The internet allows people to engage in the secret sin of pornography, and it is not until marriages and families are destroyed, jobs are lost, and friendships suffer that people begin to see its ugly consequences.
What if we could get chocolate chip ice cream 24/7 in our home, eat as much as we want as often as we want, and never worry about anyone discovering our gluttonous eating habits? Missionaries may not think about internet pornography as being similar to ice cream, but it is available 24/7, and it can easily be accessed without discovery. The internet, like ice cream, is not sinful when used properly. The internet does, however, allow people to engage in the secret sin of pornography, and it is not until marriages and families are destroyed, jobs are lost, and friendships suffer that people begin to see its ugly consequences. Internet pornography is a sin against God, against loved ones, and especially against the person who engages in it. It also affects people’s ministry and their co-workers. It drains spiritual energy, can decrease the capacity for healthy relationships, and can potentially end a missionary’s career and marriage.
An Overview of Pornography
The word pornography has a range of definitions. Internet pornography may take the form of suggestive email or “chat rooms” or social networking sites where eighty-nine percent of the people participate in sexual discussions complete with webcam sharing. It extends to over forty-two million websites, where a variety of hard-core pictures and videos are often available. The internet also offers “soft pornography” options, such as access to numerous checkout stand magazines, streaming video of television shows, and movie trailers.
Pornography is often seen as a male problem. Although it is true that fifty to sixty percent of Christian men have visited a pornographic website compared to thirty percent of women, the percentage for women is growing. Viewing hard-core pornography may not interest women, but they may be more vulnerable to romantic internet relationships and softer forms of pornography. Although men and women may differ in their sexual response, women are created by God as sexual persons and as such are vulnerable. The percentages for teens are in some cases higher than for adults, and the balance between boys and girls is about even. Missionary children are as vulnerable as children in their passport culture.
Prevention and Education
Prevention needs to be the initial part of an organizational strategy to address the problem of internet pornography. Both organizations and individuals often address the problem backwards. They develop ways to deal with individuals who have a problem rather than think about prevention. A first step in a prevention strategy is education. In our experience, missionaries are as naïve about the issues of sexual sin as the average church attendee. Ken Williams, in his “Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills” workshops, says that Christians need to understand the dynamics of sexual temptation as well as their own vulnerability. There are multiple ways that education about internet pornography can take place within an organization. It needs to begin with top leadership. Here are some questions to consider:
• Have you discussed the problem of internet pornography with your leaders?
• Does your leadership development program include this topic?
• Is the topic addressed at field conferences, furlough institutes, or other organizational meetings?
• Do you address past sexual sin in the application process and provide help and counsel for those who evidence potential for problems in this area?
• Do you specifically address the topic in candidate orientation?
• Do you provide resources for people who are struggling in this area as well as parents who want to protect their children?
• Could you ask each member of your organization to read and discuss one or two books you have chosen that clearly outline the issues of sexual sin?
An often overlooked opportunity for education about sexual sin is the occasion when a person has fallen in this area and must face the consequences. Frequently, when a sexual sin occurs, the problem is not revealed to others in the organization. While maintaining appropriate confidentiality and being sensitive about how and when such issues are revealed, properly dealing with a person who is struggling in this area can be a powerful educational opportunity. It can be a challenge to examine our own heart and behavior to ensure that with God’s help we don’t fall. It will take an environment of grace in your organization for this kind of honesty to happen.
Vulnerability to internet pornography is a community issue. Without feedback from loving brothers and sisters in Christ, it is impossible to know how vulnerable we are to sexual temptation. The human mind’s capacity for self-deceit is virtually unlimited, and nowhere is this truer than in the area of sexual temptation. Each person in our organization needs to have at least one same-sex person with whom he or she has an honest intimate relationship, and with whom he or she meets weekly to discuss his or her spiritual and personal life. This person is often called an accountability partner, but we need to be clear about what is meant by that term. It is not merely meeting to ask a series of questions about whether we have committed some sexual sin. The relationship needs to be much deeper than this. An accountability partner should be able to ask any question at any time and hold us accountable for what we do. At TEAM, we call such a person a growth plan partner. It is a person who is committed to helping us grow personally and spiritually. The relationship is characterized by honesty, openness, and transparency. It creates an environment conducive to sharing hopes, dreams, goals, struggles, and failures. Perhaps most important is the prayer, acceptance, and encouragement that comes from such a relationship.
Another venue where people could openly discuss their vulnerability to sexual temptation is any same-sex meeting for staff or leadership. Women, as suggested before, should not ignore this type of discussion. Sexual temptation may not seem to be a big problem for an older generation, but younger missionaries struggle with this issue and will need to talk about it with co-workers to gain strength, help, and support.
The internet is like having the world’s greatest public library and shopping mall in our own home. In addition to great stores, however, the mall also has XXX-rated bookstores, swingers’ and singles’ bars, and a host of other options for relational sin. A couple of clicks and you are there. How can you enjoy the good things and protect yourself against the others? Here are four suggestions:
1. Put the computer someplace where everyone can see what store you are in. No child or adult should have a computer in his or her room hidden away from others.
2. Set a time limit when the shops close. If the stores close at 10 or 11 p.m., no one visits them after that time. No husband or wife should ever be up in the middle of the night alone on the internet.
3. Put software on a computer so that it closes the stores that you should not visit. When sites are password-protected, it takes more than one person to open the store.
4. An organization can subscribe to a service like Covenant Eyes so that a monthly list of every store you visited is emailed to a trusted friend. No safeguard is foolproof, but it can move undesirable stores further from reach. TEAM is following the lead of other organizations that require missionaries to subscribe to Covenant Eyes.
Even with the best proactive measures, mission leaders will still have to deal with the issue of internet pornography. What are the best steps a mission administrator can take when it does arise?
1. Don’t assume you know what “a problem with internet pornography” means until you have all the details. One size does not fit all when it comes to both how internet pornography is used and why it is used. Pornography use is on a continuum. At one end is lust (a normal human struggle); at the other end is addiction (a compulsive pattern of pornography use). Since pornography is a “secret” sin, when it first comes to light it is impossible to know the extent of the problem without a thorough assessment.
2. Consult with a counselor from within the mission or from an outside source. A counselor with expertise in working with sexual addiction must do a thorough assessment of the individual and the situation. “Wait a minute,” someone might say. “Who said anything about an addiction?” Archibald Hart, in an article entitled “Teams that Thrive and Not just Survive,” says that many church planters are already “addicted to their adrenaline” due in part to the fact that they are “risk-takers.” Many missionaries would fit this description, and the step from addiction to adrenaline and addiction to internet pornography may be a short one. The bottom line is that you need to know the extent of a problem before you decide a course of action. The shame attached to sexual sin often makes it very difficult for a missionary to admit to him or herself or someone else the extent of his or her problem. There is a natural tendency to minimize the issue, and most mission administrators are not equipped to discern how serious the problem really is. What’s more, many missionaries carry old habits to the field when they first go. An adequate assessment of the problem comes from an expert who can draw out and interpret what the person tells them. If I told my pastor that I was having chest pains, he would not have the expertise to diagnose the extent of my problem. In the same way a specialist is needed to determine the extent of a reported internet pornography problem.
3. Assessors will want to meet with the individual who is struggling to determine a course of action. The further along the continuum the problem is, the more extensive the care plan will need to be. At the more serious end of the continuum, a return to the passport country and a period of restoration will likely be necessary. At TEAM, we follow the directive in Galatians 6:1, “If someone is caught in a sin [discovered by someone, or entrapped by a sin], you who are spiritual restore him gently.” We take into account the nature of the sexual sin, whether the missionary was “caught” or confessed, whether it is a pattern, and whether he or she is humbly willing to receive help. Our ultimate goal is always restoration.
Restoration involves working with the sending church to set up a restoration team.1 This team takes responsibility for guiding the missionary (and spouse, if married) through a restoration process. When requested, a person from TEAM’s counseling office assists the church in training and coaching the restoration team. The restoration process includes an initial assessment by a professional counselor and a restoration plan developed by the restoration team. The restoration plan usually includes regular meetings with the team, prescribed counseling, weekly meeting with a growth plan partner and involvement in a small group Bible study, along with other activities the team may feel are necessary.
During the restoration period, the missionary steps out of active leadership ministry, but is encouraged to seek out service ministry (such as helping with practical needs of the church and community). Restoration is a transformation process. It is about more than making sure the sinful behavior does not recur. Sin is more than just the manifestation of an observable act. It is rooted in habits of immaturity and distorted beliefs about God, about ourselves, and about others. Restoration includes identifying, challenging, and changing these attitudes and beliefs as well as altering behavior. Ultimately, it is about creating new habits and lifestyles that prevent the problem from returning.
The bad news is that internet pornography within mission organizations will not go away. It is almost certain to increase in a world where anyone who can browse can find sexually-explicit material on the internet. The good news is that restoration is possible and prevention can help. New missionaries from a sexually-permissive culture will need mission organizations to be proactive in helping them fulfill their missionary calling.
1. Wilson, et al. (1997) provides an excellent model of such a restoration team.
Wilson, Sandy, Paul Friesen, Virginia Friesen, and Larry Paulson. 1997. Restoring the Fallen: A Team Approach to Caring, Confronting & Reconciling. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Steven G. Edlin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist, is director of the counseling office at TEAM. Until recently, Karen Ulrich was the confidential assistant for TEAM’s counseling office.
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