If Daniel Weiss has learned anything about the small towns of east-central Wisconsin, it's that folks in the region he calls home care about what they eat.
Say buzzwords like "organic," "natural" and "superfoods" and -- snap -- people will organize fairs, farmers markets, farm-to-table workshops and debates about whether local free-range chickens have healthy social lives.
"You can talk about fresh veggies and how important food issues are for their families," said Weiss, leader of the Brushfires Foundation, a sexual-integrity ministry based in Omro, Wis. "People in a secular society will bond together to talk about food and good health. That's real. That's safe. ...
"It's totally different -- even in our churches -- if you try to get people to talk about pornography, smartphones, videogame addiction and all the stuff that's filling up their hearts and minds."
When asked about these issues, many ministers say things like, "I don't want to be negative," "That's a parents' thing," "Tech issues are so complex" or "I'm afraid to offend people and run them off." Many pastors think silence is the safest option.
That's a naive attitude in modern America, according to Barna Group research commissioned by Brushfires, and supported by 24 national and state groups, such as Focus on the Family and Enough Is Enough. Researchers contacted 410 senior ministers in 29 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, along with nondenominational congregations. Pastors were asked about 18 issues, including marital infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex relationships, sexting, gender dysphoria and the use of pornography by husbands, wives, teens and young children. Among the findings:
• Eighty percent of these Protestant pastors said they had been approached during the past year by church members or staff dealing with infidelity issues, and 73 percent had faced issues linked to pornography.
• Seventy percent of the pastors said they dealt with serious "sexual brokenness" issues in their flock several times a year, with 22 percent saying this took place once a month or more.
• Only one-third of the pastors said they felt "very qualified" to address the sexual issues being raised by their staff and church members.
• Two-thirds of pastors "agree strongly" that the church should help people dealing with sexual sins. However, fewer than 1 in 4 said their churches openly discuss these issues in Bible studies, small groups, training for laity or support groups.
• "Mainline" church ministers were much less likely (39 percent) to address "sexual health" issues than evangelical or conservative clergy (78 percent). Many clergy offer "pastoral counseling," and that's that.
Most pastors, said Weiss, realize that many of these sexuality issues are linked to the growing digital "screens" culture found in modern homes. Pastors struggle with tech issues just as much as talking about sexuality.
Recently, he said, a church invited him to do two sessions during their class for new members, focusing on the effects of mass media on the sexual health of adolescents. When he was done, the pastor told him: "Glad you helped out. That will cover us for the next three years or so on that topic."
Weiss was not amused.
The irony is that large chunks of the New Testament are full of St. Paul's practical advice for Christians struggling to live in a pagan culture. Where, asked Weiss, is that kind of candid advice being "offered to people in our own church pews?"
The bottom line: Seminaries and denominational bureaucracies have failed to teach and promote what Weiss called "a true discipleship mindset" in most churches. The result is a consistent failure to "help our people live their faith day after day in the real world."
Sexual brokenness is one sign of this separation of church and life. So are family fights over raising children in a culture dominated by digital screens.
"For many of our people, all of these tech devices -- like their smartphones and their social media apps -- have become false idols that they spend untold numbers of hours worshipping," Weiss said.
"When I hear pastors say that they can't deal with real-life issues like these, I want to tell them, 'You know, you don't have a real church anymore. You just have some individuals who are getting together for a few worship services, and that's that.'"
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Religion on 01/19/2019