Back on Sunday, August 22, people of Faith Reformed were asked to stay after church for a conversation about the upcoming series: Relationships by God’s Design. About 70 people stuck around. They were asked to answer two simple questions: Given that we’re going to have a sermon series about relationships and human sexuality, what are your concerns? and what are your hopes? Earlier in the summer, those very same questions were asked among the Elders.
Now that we are five weeks into this series, I want to revisit what was named in those various meetings. I want to check in and see how we’re doing. In the process, I imagine that you can also check in with yourself—you can ask yourself if your concerns are being addressed, if your hopes are coming to fruition, and if you have anything to add now that we’re this far into it??
I would like to start with CONCERNS. In so doing, I will list each concern in red, explain it in black, and then comment in blue:
- Legalism/rigidness — concern that we might inadvertently convey that you’re only accepted by us and favored by God if you adhere to strict rules/laws. … From the very first sermon, we tried to get the gospel correct. Our behavior does not earn God’s love. Instead, we are loved by God and because of that, we behave certain ways. We adhere to various principles because of, not so that. This has huge implications for how we behave and how we view other people’s behaviors. (for more, see this post and the gospel ladder)
- Judgment/condemnation — people expressed concern that we might revert to judgment and condemnation even though Jesus says not to judge (Mt. 7:1) and Paul says there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). … We addressed this at length in the first two sermons by stressing that our identity is in Christ (whose grace frees us from condemnation) and that if we have not love, any message regarding sexuality will be like a noisy gong. (for more, see this post.)
- People will get defensive (esp. around porn and divorce) — concern that if we take on hard topics, we need to provide hope, grace, and resources so that people don’t get defensive, but rather find hope and redemption. … Although we have yet to address porn, divorce has been a topic. The feedback I’ve received is that it was handled in such a way that need not make people overly defensive. But even if that’s true, this concern is still quite valid because we have not provided DivorceCare or some similar ministry. And when we address porn, will we help people find help for their sexual addictions?
- Preoccupation with homosexuality — concern that although this series aims to provide an expansive view of relationships and sexuality, people will still be preoccupied with homosexuality and the rest would be mere window-dressing. … So far, same-sex relations have barely been mentioned. Instead, we’ve been able to address identity, posture, singleness, celibacy, purity culture, cohabitation, divorce, male/female dynamics, the ‘goods’ of marriage, and much more. Judging by the feedback, it seems that people understand how we have many, many issues to address well before we think about homosexuality.
- Sensitivity to younger listeners — concern that sermons might be rated R or that we might be insensitive to the questions younger listeners are asking. … In order to address the first part of this concern, I have been very careful about how I say what I say. I’m intentionally oblique in ways that adults can still understand. To address the second concern, our youth minister has tried to create spaces where our youth can have their questions addressed and focus on Christ above all. We could certainly do more.
- Inadequate space to process — concern that people, especially those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, won’t have the right spaces to process their thoughts & feelings on the matters at hand. … In order to address this, we dedicated the entire adult Learning Hour to discussion on topics that go far beyond the sermon, I created this blog, we encouraged small groups to discuss sermon content (and use sermon synopses blog posts), and we had a Zoom call with Wes Hill. Some of this work has been fruitful, but by-and-large, we still have large swaths of people processing this only with their spouse. This should remain a concern.
- Anxiety will rise high & trigger division — concern that as we dig into this hot topics, people will get anxious. In their anxiety, they will exhibit fight or flight behavior, which won’t be good for the church. … This is a valid concern. This is precisely why we’ve tried to create spaces to process what’s said—because such spaces can help calm anxiety. However, we also have to be honest. The Bible triggers a lot of anxiety around a whole variety of topics. As Kierkegaard once wrote, it is “Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.” So, we won’t be able to avoid some anxiety, but we provide safe spaces to process that anxiety and we can form this series in such a way that prevents any unnecessary exacerbation beyond what’s in the Bible (i.e., we let God stir in people and otherwise, we do our best to keep it to a minimum). So far, I think we’ve done well with this, but we’re not yet finished with the series. There’s more to be done.
And what about the same analysis around HOPES?
Some of the hopes have already been named while addressing the concerns—i.e., it’s hard to comment on a concern without also listing a hope that addresses the concern. Since some hopes were named above this list will be a little shorter than the ‘concerns’ list. Nonetheless, here are a few of the more prominent hopes that were named over the summer:
- Increase our clarity around God’s design — people expressed a hope that we will be clear around God’s design for relationships because there’s so much confusion and the church does not address this stuff. … Well, we’re addressing this stuff! And as best we can, we’re trying to lay out a compelling vision of what God intends. i.e., rather than just articulate what we’re against (e.g., against premarital sex and divorce), we’re trying to stress God’s beautiful design (e.g., our primary identity is in Christ, the woman is an ezer kenegdo, and the marriage is meant to be a sacred bond).
- Grow our awareness of cultural influence — people expressed a hope that we could see cultural influences more clearly because sometimes we’re unaware of the water we’re swimming in. We want to grow our awareness of cultural influence on those who are “progressive” and those who are “traditional.” (because some people in more “conservative” camps think they are free from cultural influence, but nothing could be further from the truth. … Although there is much work to be done here, I am trying as best I can to help people see the multiple ways we can stray from godly wisdom. This happened when I presented Christian views of identity as opposed to many 21st century American views (and reinforced this via the introduction of further resources), when I dissected legalistic and detrimental effects of purity culture, when I contrasted the soul mate model of marriage with the Christian model. It has been fun to implode certain cultural models and there’s more to come!
- Educate people of all ages — this hope goes along with the previous ones, but has a little bit of an added dimension: since most people don’t have the time or resources to explore the complexities of sexuality in America, it would be helpful for me to provide resources, terminology, and biblical perspective that will help everyone expand their knowledge. … So far, I think I’ve done really well with this one. For instance, almost 100% of our people had never heard a sermon on celibacy, but now they have! Most people didn’t know about voices like Wes Hill and Sam Allberry, but now you can if you want. Many younger people have not heard the basics of what marriage is for and why cohabitation and premarital sex are wrong but now they have (if they heard that one). Most people didn’t understand the various phrases in Genesis 2, but now they do (if they want to). And there’s much more to come.
- Grow our capacity to love — many expressed a desire that as a result of this series, we would not grow our judgment of others but rather, grow our capacity to love. … If we pulled this off, it would be hard to see and especially in the short term. Nonetheless, I want to presume that as people are growing their theological conviction and awareness, they are simultaneously growing theological posture that includes compassion, empathy, grace, and a strong desire to be a winsome witness. There’s a lot of work to be done here, but I think we’re making progress.
Okay … this has become a very long post. I’d love to say more, but I have to wrap it up. What has it stirred up in you? Where do you see concerns being addressed? Where do you see hopes coming to fruition? What else are you seeing now that we’re this far into the series?