For more than three years, two young California pastors have spread their message about the pernicious effects of pornography through the Internet, at booths set up at pornography conventions, in a documentary movie making the rounds of film festivals and in national media. Everywhere, that is, but the one place they really wanted -- the nation's churches.
Over the last few months, all that has changed, as one church after another has held events known as "Porn Sunday," inviting Craig Gross and Mike Foster to screen their documentary, "Missionary Positions," and to talk about pornography and the problems they believe it creates in people's lives.
So many churches now have expressed interest in having them come speak, the two have decided to do a nationwide event this October.
They are hoping to have at least 200 churches register across the country to participate in the event once they make the official announcement and launch a new Web site dedicated to the national "Porn Sunday" on June 15.
Their final individual church event will be this Sunday, at People's Church in Franklin, Tenn., outside Nashville, Gross said.
"We can't keep up with the amount of requests to do these 'Porn Sunday' things, so we're doing a national 'Porn Sunday,' " Gross said. "It's crazy, because before three months ago, we couldn't get into a church. Now the doors have opened up at the churches, thanks to one church that invited us in and they said they had one of the best days they've had in church."
That church was Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., where an acquaintance of Gross and Foster, teaching pastor Bob Hill, asked them to make three presentations one Sunday this past January. More than 13,000 people turned out to hear the two men talk and to view the film.
Since then, the presentations have been held at a number of other churches, including Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich., where billboards advertising a "Porn Weekend" drew local controversy and more media attention, and Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C.
Though the name given the events and the claim on Gross and Foster's Web site that it is the "#1 Christian Porn Site" might seem like the cynical approach of a couple of media-savvy publicity hounds, but they say the point is to get people to hear their message, which is all about healing, repentance and salvation, and helping people live fulfilling lives.
Not the Normal Christian Approach
Neither Gross nor Foster looks much like what you might expect when you hear the word pastor. With their gelled hair and hipster clothes, they look more like grown-up club kids.
And the anti-porn message they lay out on their Web site www.xxxchurch.com and in their appearances at porn conventions, churches and anywhere else they can get people to listen to them is also not what you might expect from men of the cloth.
"It's not the normal Christian approach that gets people turned off," Gross said. "We understand this issue, we understand the people involved in it. Instead of telling people they're going to hell if they don't repent -- we know that's not what they are going to listen to -- it's time we talk about something real here."
What they talk about is the damaging effect they believe pornography has on people's lives, how it interferes with their relationships and in some cases costs people their jobs.
"We talk about the dangers," he said. "It's fantasy, it's not reality. Experts are concerned this is going to spoil people's future sex lives, not enhance them. We feel like it's getting in the way, it's stopping people from doing the things God wants them to do."
What some church leaders have said since the "Porn Sunday" events began is that the issue -- and the unorthodox approach Gross and Foster have taken -- has had resonance with their congregations.
The pastor at People's Church said he believes that is because pornography has become so accessible through the Internet, and is invading people's lives through the spam they receive in their e-mail boxes.
"It's a real problem with the culture, and we have no reason to believe it's no different with the church," People's Church Pastor Rick White said.
Addiction to pornography is different from other addictions, because it is more private, he said, and people are less likely to want to admit to it than people with other addictions. Even people who want help are embarrassed to ask for it, and don't know where to turn, he said.
The decision to hold a "Porn Sunday" has created some controversy in the community, and he knows a few people will not attend -- especially those with young children, but it's an issue the church should address, he said.
"It's swept under the rug, no one wants to talk about the issue. We thought this would be a way we could unmask it," he said.
The movie has an "R" rating, and White said the church will not allow anyone under 17 to attend without a parent or guardian, but he hopes that will not scare too many people off.
"This is not soft-core porn," he said. "I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I plan to have her here with me, because I want her to know what the dangers are."
Interested in the People
Like much about these two, the movie has defied expectations. The filmmaker, Bill Day, did not make it because he is a Christian or is particularly anti-porn. As with other films he has made -- about environmental activists in the Amazon rain forest and a labor union activist in Central America -- he was more interested in the people than in their message.
"The style of the films I make is that I'm not so much interested in what's on the placard, I'm more interested in the guy holding the placard," Day said. "What gets him out of bed in the morning when the going gets rough? It's more of a human story. I think that's why the churches like it, because it shows the struggle."
But churches were not where he expected the movie to be shown.
"I thought it would have an audience of four or five at a film festival," he said.
One of those "four or five" at the Nashville Film Festival, where it was runner-up for Best Documentary, was a counselor from People's Church, who convinced White that the church should hold a "Porn Sunday."
"I know how real the problem is in this community, and I've seen porn destroy the lives, careers of more people than I want to think about," said White, who screened the film before deciding to show it to his congregation. "I've seen marriages break up here in the church and when you trace the problem back, it goes to pornography. We're doing it basically to say to people who would like help that it's out there."
That's just the message Gross said he and Foster have been trying to send.