Recently my wife and I watched the mini docuseries Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed that’s currently streaming on Discovery+. To be honest, neither of us are huge fans of the “megachurch” phenomenon or a lot of the messaging we see being communicated by evangelical movements of that sort, but since we came from churches that were very infatuated with Hillsong we thought it would be an interesting watch. 

And it was.

There were so many things about that series that stuck out to me, all of which were very troubling. Sadly, nothing we saw really shocked us, but this series definitely offered many occasions to grieve for the modern church.

One of those was a story told by a former member (Jaclyn) of Wave Church in Virginia Beach whose lead pastor came from Hillsong and whose youth ministry was for a time led by Carl Lentz, the eventual lead pastor of Hillsong New York.

In her story, Jaclyn shared an experience when she and her boyfriend responded to one of Carl’s regular “invitations” to come forward after the weekly youth service. Both Jaclyn and her boyfriend were on service teams of some sort and were regular attenders. And while she didn’t detail the reason her boyfriend decided to come forward, she did share a conversation they both had with Carl (their youth pastor) in a private room after the service about their mistaken decision to have premarital sex.

The backdrop to this situation was, what she describes as, a consistent focus on “purity” in Carl’s preaching and the various rules of dating she often heard. Some of those included having to date one full year before kissing and not saying “I love you” until you were engaged.

During the couple’s conversation with their pastor, she described being shamed and condemned for their actions. And rather than receiving some sort of restorative guidance or an offer to walk through things with them, they were kicked off their service teams and told not to see, call, or text each other for at least 6 months. 

Unbelievably, they complied with their pastor’s instructions. And to no surprise, that relationship ended right afterwards with no real closure.

This negative experience set the stage for further problems. 

As Jaclyn shared, one year later she found herself in a new relationship with a new man. And again, they had sex. However, this time she was not going to risk losing her boyfriend or being shamed again so she did the only logical thing (sarcasm implied). 

She got married 3 months into the relationship.

Unfortunately that marriage ended in a difficult divorce 7 years later. The reason I share this story with you is not to rip megachurches, further disgrace Carl Lentz (who later resigned from his role as a pastor due to an affair), or bash on “purity” related talk. 

Rather, I want to highlight the real issue that runs through her experience and the shared experiences of many others I’ve spoken to.

A lack of healthy conversation about sex and its true purpose, and the shame that is both cast and felt when one’s sexual behaviors fall outside the prescribed religious norms.

Because if the church (and Carl) had talked about sex, focusing on its God’s given purpose and beauty rather than a list of rules and checklists to help keep kids “pure,” maybe Jaclyn would have had a greater appreciation for the benefit of sexual abstinence other than the avoidance of shame.

And if Carl had spent more time empathizing with the couple offering to walk the process of repentance and forgiveness out with them rather than leaning into condemnation and correction, maybe that relationship could have been redeemed and Jaclyn would never have rushed into her later marriage out of fear.

Maybe instead of being an example of what not to do as a church, Jaclyn’s experience could have helped give her a healthier and better understanding of sex and God’s vision for its enjoyment.

Folks, we have to do better. Way better.

Yes… 

  • Sex is sacred, holy, and reserved for marriage.
  • We need to be wise about our dating practices, so we are better set up for success.
  • When we make mistakes or poor decisions, there needs to be repentance and restoration.

But if… 

  • We fail in our overall approach to these conversations. 
  • Treat sex as a “good” thing only if it meets a checklist of requirements.
  • Make people feel ashamed and disgraced when they mess up.

We’ll continue to communicate mixed and confusing messages about something God intended to be a most amazing gift. Because sex was never meant to create shame nor should our handling of it. 

And the way we talk about sex should reflect that.

Btw. whether you are a man, woman, teen, or church leader, this September we invite you to join us for a candid and fresh conversation on matters many avoid out of discomfort. Shameless is an interactive online experience that will challenge and inspire you, leaving you better prepared to handle these sensitive discussions with your friends, churches, spouses, and kids.

For more information about this event or to register yourself and/or your group visit www.shamelessevent.com.