The other day, I heard my wife say from our bedroom, “What is six plus nine?”
With great confidence, I yelled out from our office the correct answer (15, just in case you were wondering). A few short moments later, my wife was out of the bedroom and standing by my side. As I looked up, she gave me a world-class eye-roll as she said, “I am giving an online math test to my second graders. You can’t shout out the answers!”
Oops. Lesson learned—at least for me. The second graders got a freebie on that one!
Around my house, we are learning a few things through this season of stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19. We are learning that pajamas are an acceptable form of business-casual. We are learning that, if you allow them, kids will eat 47 snacks a day. We are also learning to be more gracious, kind, and compassionate as we step on one another’s toes and figure out how to manage stress and unmet expectations during our new normal.
As leaders and pastors, we have also learned a few things along the way, haven’t we? Learning is good. When we learn, we grow. And when we grow, we can help pastor people with more grace, skill, and compassion than ever before. This unique pandemic season is giving us unique insights into the struggle that men and women face with their mental health and, in particular, with the sexual brokenness that expresses itself through viewing pornography.
Here are five take-aways from COVID-19 that could change the way we lead and pastor people who are struggling with pornography or other forms of sexual brokenness:
1. Isolation leads people to choices they regret.
From all the memes about people gaining weight to the sky-rocketing popularity of Netflix, it seems more evident than ever that we don’t make great choices when we isolate. The same can be said of pornography. According to the largest porn site on the planet, at the height of the pandemic shut-down orders on March 24th, the United States saw a 41.5% increase in porn use. Forty-one percent!! Considering that millions of Americans already view porn on a regular basis, a 41% increase is saying something deeply concerning.
This escalation in porn use should not come as a surprise. When we are alone and under stress, we all tend to run to whatever has brought us a sense of comfort or pleasure in the past, even unhealthy behaviors. Harry Flanagan, one of the authors of the Seven Pillars of Freedom Workbook, says it this way: “Healing begins by understanding the nature of addiction. At its very core, sexual addiction is a self-coping behavior. In other words, when you feel stress, anxiety, fear or pain you turn to your addiction to cope.”
If we want to help people heal, we can begin by recognizing what drives our people into sin and unhealthy behaviors. The issue at play is not that people are simply bad, immoral, or wanting to sin. The truth is that isolation can become a place of ill health for everyone. Leading people well will mean ministering to them in isolation and training them in better, holier ways of coping.
2. This won’t be the last issue causing people to run to what makes them feel better.
We hear more and more about how this pandemic may change our “normal” for a long time to come. This time it was COVID-19. But what will it be next time? An unexpected illness or the loss of a loved one? A workplace downsizing or an overwhelming schedule? Whatever the driving factor, our people will end up, sooner or later, back in a place that makes them want to reach out to something to cope.
We would be foolish to think that once everyone “gets back to normal” the threat or temptation to turn to pornography will subside. This pandemic has revealed to all of us how quickly we can head back down these old roads in stress and isolation. As we face this reality, we recognize that we cannot rely on healthy circumstances to create healthy choices. Sooner or later, we will all face circumstances that threaten to lead us astray.
This helps us see the absolute necessity of a long-range plan. Even if someone has been healthy for a while, another unusual circumstance might come along and knock them off balance. We can use this as an opportunity to underscore the need for transparent community and a commitment to rigorous honesty with one another. Deep, authentic community is the antidote for isolation. If we can work on creating this system now, we will be ready for whatever crisis occurs next.
3. Redefine community as connection, not location.
We have all watched as nearly every church has adopted more online connection points. Initially, this change was primarily about the weekend worship service. Churches found ways to put services online, but most other ministries were put on some kind of hiatus until COVID-19 was no longer a major threat. But as the stay at home orders stretched on, more leaders began to see that they couldn’t wait to get people connecting.
I was skeptical several years ago when I led my first group of men through recovery online. I had led in-person groups at my church for so long that I doubted a screen-based group could match the effectiveness. But watching the results left me with no doubt: community happened online because we connected at a real heart level, not because we sat in the same room. At Pure Desire, we are now seeing hundreds and hundreds of people find healing from pornography in online groups.
I believe we are all seeing the power of connection we can have, even online. This is an important takeaway for all of us in church leadership. Rather than waiting for people to come to the next event, group, or gathering, we can continue to pursue creative ways to get people connecting over a variety of platforms.
4. What happens outside of a group is as important as what happens inside a group.
For the first time ever, most churches have begun redirecting a majority of their energy from the Sunday morning celebration to something else. It has forced us to ask, “How else can we help people connect, grow, and pursue Christ?”
This has led to video-based prayer meetings, guided group studies, and any number of other discipleship touchpoints.
We are all seeing the value that comes when we question our meeting-centric approach to discipleship. This isn’t just about Sunday morning worship—the same is true for recovery and discipleship groups! This underscores a value we have seen in transformational small groups for some time. If we only connect with a group weekly, our change is slow and small. But, if in between those gatherings, we continue to pursue health, connection with the group, and working through a process, transformation can be accelerated.
As you look to implement or sustain a healthy recovery ministry in your church, be sure to emphasize the ongoing, outside-of-group connection opportunities. In a Pure Desire group, men and women are asked to make three weekly phone calls to check in and report on their progress. For many, these touchpoints become the life-blood of change for them. How could you implement something similar?
5. We can’t wait until someone shows up to be helped.
When we have in-person Sunday morning service time, we have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for people to darken our doors and sit in our chairs. The need to find people “where they were” is limited by our success in attracting a crowd.
The same dynamic happens in helping people recover. The model that says, “When someone struggles badly enough, they will come forward to be helped,” simply isn’t working anymore.
Like Jesus, we need to go after the lost and isolating sheep who cannot seem to find his or her way back to the fold. No, we don’t need to force them into help or recovery, but we can bring the method to them right where they are. We can be proactive to offer help, hope, and healing before anyone shows up in the room.
Many Christians are fighting unwanted sexual behavior every single day. Why would we wait to start offering help? Men and women who battle with lust, pornography, and other sexual brokenness often don’t know how to ask for help until it’s too late or too far gone. We must have a discipleship approach that repeatedly and publicly encounters people with healing opportunities.
Walking through this experience with COVID-19 is teaching all of us new rhythms. Churches are learning to be more digital and connected. Pastors and leaders are seeing new and significant ways to engage with men and women struggling with pornography. These new rhythms can become the foundation for a new normal, even after this pandemic is over.
I pray that you will be able to lean into these changes. And if there is any way that I can help you with these changes, please let me know! I would love to help.
Nick Stumbo is the Executive Director for Pure Desire Ministries and has been in leadership for over 15 years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, Washington, for 14 years. Nick has a Bachelor’s Degree in Pastoral Studies from Crown College and an MDiv from Bethel Seminary. He has authored two books: Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.