I’m Too Sexy for My Church: Observations on Ed Young, Jr.

Religion in American History

At Religion in American History, I discussed Ed Young, Jr.’s Sexperiment in the context of evangelical trends.

I’ve got sex on the brain and I blame Ed Young, Jr. I’ve been watching way too many podcast sermons from this dynamic senior pastor and it’s starting to affect my work. Literally. I’m researching and writing a chapter on megachurches and sexuality and keep coming back to Ed Young, Jr.’s teachings at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. I’m trying to put his approach to Christian sexuality into a larger context of historical evangelical rhetoric and practices and it’s getting tricky. Young replicates the heteronormative religious teachings of the past (and present) but he does so while openly addressing sexuality and encouraging congregants to think and talk about sex in pretty explicit terms. In other words, to me it’s the same rhetoric that has dominated mainstream evangelicalism for decades but taken to another, overt level. Or, as Young himself says, “a whole nutha level!”

It all started with the Sexperiment. In 2008, Young encouraged congregants to engage in “Seven Days of Sex,” challenging his married church members to have sex every day for a week in order to improve their relationships, their jobs, and their Christian walk. A charge by a pastor to engage in sex (and this is for all married couples—including those dealing with adultery and needing to find forgiveness) is an interesting one, to say the least. Then, in 2012, Ed and his wife Lisa published a book on how married couples can strengthen their marriages through sex and, in turn, help build healthier congregations. To promote the book, the couple held a 24-hour “bed-in” on a rooftop. They stayed in bed all day (to the detriment of their health–the rooftop was not the best place to hang out for 24 hours) and were filmed answering viewers’ questions about sex and relationships. The purpose of the book and an accompanying sermon series are, according to Lisa, to learn how to “have sex His way, and… understand what it was meant to be.” The sermon series features Ed and Lisa Young talking to congregants from a king-sized bed about the church taking control of sexuality. Using the Bible as “God’s Sex Manual,” the couple explains how sex is not just physical but is spiritual. Young argues that sex is God’s idea and should be openly discussed by the church so that it can define the discourse (rather than letting the larger, secular culture control things). Recognizing that the church has often focused on the “prohibitions,” Young turns this idea around and describes what is permitted or encouraged by the Bible within marriage.

That last clause is important. While the Youngs openly discuss the sensitive subject of sex, they constantly refer back to a heteronormative, marital model. There are “no escape clauses, no fine print,” Young says, that indicate that sex should be anything other than between a husband and wife. In another sermon series (I told you… eventually these Ed Young, Jr., sermons will crash my computer), Young explains what Jesus would say to Ellen DeGeneres: “You’re awesome, but homosexuality is not my ideal.” The Sexperiment does not emphasize prohibitions in a direct way, but the undercurrent is to undercut other sexual choices/lifestyles. In other words, this part of Young’s message is very much in line with traditional mainstream evangelical teachings on homosexuality.

Since they are constantly a touchstone of mine (see book), I can’t help but think of how early Baptist and Methodist ministers would react to Young’s methods. There would be agreement on the heteronormative, marital emphases, but the message would most likely be shocking and disturbing. Young would be radical, would be disciplined, and would lose his position in the church. In fact, some of these ministers (especially Methodist itinerants) struggled with marriage and whether a pastor should have a helpmate. Could they afford a wife? Would a wife distract from their ministry? (Lyerly and Heyrman describe this issue and Bob Elder examines women’s roles in evangelicalism.) It’s interesting to see a shift over the past 150 years to pastors needing wives and then to Ed and Lisa Young sharing the pulpit to discuss the intimate subject of sex, while sitting on a giant bed no less.

American religion, however, has not always eschewed the subject of sex. There are well-known (and mostly ill-fated) religious groups in the United States that emphasized the importance of sex among congregants. The nineteenth-century Oneida Community comes to mind as well as the more recent Warren Jeffs’ FLDS compound. In both of these instances, however, the religious leader arranged partnerships and dabbled in, erm, the very illegal. What I’m getting at is this: There are occasions where religious groups will discuss sexuality in an open forum or encourage marriages and sex to promote the growth of their spiritual community.

Let’s be clear, Young is not creating anything like these communes. There is, however, something seemingly scandalous about talking about sex in church—and the mode of delivery used by the Youngs definitely garnered mixed reviews. And Young is not simply describing “healthy” sexual partnerships, he is also encouraging sexual acts among congregants, which does touch on some of the tactics used by other historical religious groups.

Speaking of scandal, another megachurch pastor’s words on the subject of sexuality made national headlines in 2006 when his own actions did not match his teachings:

In this sermon, Ted Haggard presents a traditional argument that the relationship between a man and a woman is intended by God to represent the union between Christ and the Church. Young is borrowing from this same reasoning but adapts this teaching in his Sexperiment: Not only does God desire a relationship between a man and a woman, but he desires a lot of sex in that relationship and not just for reproduction. God created sex for married men and women, he created it to be passionate, and he created it to strengthen the church. And Young created Sexperiment for me to have plenty of fodder for a chapter. So I guess it all works out.

More than Hobby Lobby: My Take as a Scholar of Religious History

Religion in American History

My blog this month at Religion in American History

Hobby Lobby was not my favorite work experience—it required long hours, ridiculous record-keeping, exposure to monotonous Christian muzak, and putting up with some creepy coworkers. It was, well, retail. Also, I worked there for all of three months. I’ve been a religious historian for far longer and thought I’d share my thoughts on the current case and the evolution of corporate Christianity in general instead of dwelling on those three months of stocking googly eyes. Huffington Post and Businessweek both interviewed me regarding the current SCOTUS case and, while they had good questions, I think that there are some points that have been missing from the discourse. Namely, how is Hobby Lobby related to larger trends? What is actually happening to evangelical religion in the United States? And why are reproductive rights/contraception at the center of this struggle?

Much of the discourse surrounding Hobby Lobby is, necessarily, about corporate Christianity. Of course, Hobby Lobby is a great example of this particular phenomenon and contributes to a larger

narrative of the blending of the corporate and religious that has been a theme in American religious history. As our own Darren Grem pointed out, “Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time.” I’ll leave this territory to Darren and fellow business and religion scholars—it’s an exciting field and there is obviously much relevance in this work right now. From my own developing research on megachurches, however, I’m considering a slightly different perspective on current trends.

Hobby Lobby may win this case because of the pro-business and conservative nature of the Roberts Court, of course, but there’s a larger cultural phenomenon that might be influencing public and political opinion as well. The case is significant because it represents the blending of corporate and Christian—and one very visible sector of American religion that mixes the same stuff is the rapidly rising megachurch movement. The public and our leadership have been primed to consider the religious rights of corporations because of the general growth of Christian industry and that industry is manifested in tax-free organizations like megachurches. In other words, megachurches and seeker-sensitive churches, in particular, are assisting in blurring the lines between business and religion so that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Recently, there has been some (additional) attention on how much money megachurches bring in as a result of the recent robbery at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. The thieves took $600,000 in cash and checks from the vault, which were the tithes from one weekend’s worth of services. Some folks started doing the math and estimated that, conservatively, the church brings in $32 million a year not including extra donations made on holidays or electronic donations or bookstore sales. Lakewood should not be specifically targeted for these large numbers—many megachurches bring in large amounts through tithes, donations, and sales throughout the United States. And it is largely due to the fact that megareligion has adapted so well over the past few decades to this mingling of the corporate and the Christian.

Megachurches and megareligion (a term I use to include televangelism and webcasts that incorporate even more followers into a congregation or movement) incorporate so many elements of business with marketing, advertising, entertaining, congregation studies, etc., that they confuse corporate Christianity and Christianity that is corporate for the larger culture. If a church is using flashy advertising, powerful

websites, is selling merch with their logo on it, then it’s acting like a business. And if businesses are promoting a specific religious doctrine and claiming exemption from laws as a result, it’s behaving like a church. They have blended the corporate and Christian beyond earlier permutations and the current religious landscape has allowed for it. This negotiation of corporate/religious boundaries leads to complications: If large organizations that pull in a lot of money are able to have their religious rights protected, then why can’t others? The difference is that some of those large organizations are churches and others are retail stores.

That begs the question [scandalous and hyperbolic question alert]: What is the difference between Hobby Lobby and some megachurches, other than tax status? I know, I know, a lot. But at a core level, is there a similar history there that ties these types of organizations together? I’d argue yes. Both have strong doctrinal beliefs, both spread those beliefs to the masses (either through broadcasts and services or through products and business practices). The difference, of course, is that megachurches evangelize in an open, intentional way and corporations like Hobby Lobby are more slippery in their approach. They want to be religious organizations but without the pulpit (or fancy glass podium that can be removed for the massive praise band, if you want to get technical).

Huffington Post reported that the “overt Christianity” of the Hobby Lobby environment “shocked” me when I worked there. But what’s missing from this observation is the fact that I was not shocked on a personal level. It was not a personal offense. It was really interesting to me as a scholar of religious history. Evangelical Christianity has taken some divergent paths in the 21st century. Many denominations (UMC, for instance) are becoming more open to cultural differences and others are more steadfast in their rejection of pluralism. Hobby Lobby, a corporate institution that relies on a diverse group of customers to succeed (supposedly), is blatantly disregarding the religious pluralism that has gradually consumed large parts of 21st century American society. While corporate Christianity has a long history in the United States (as correctly pointed out by my colleagues), the 21st century is a different era with increased diversity and different demands.

Some of that diversity also stems from sexual and reproductive preferences. By fighting over birth control options, Hobby Lobby is indicating that it rejects the notion that employees should/would have alternative beliefs on the subject. The corporation’s “religious rights” are superseding the employee’s rights, in other words. It’s the company’s religious rights (which are constitutionally debatable, obviously) versus women’s rights over their own body and reproduction (which we’ve dealt with in previous decades). While we discuss the shifting sands of corporate/religious identities, it’s also worth exploring the place of women (particularly their reproduction and sexuality) within this constellation of tricky constitutional issues.

I keep conjuring the visage of Ed Young, Jr., explaining the “Sexperiment” to congregants when I think of this tension, too. Young encourages married couples in his church to have sex as much as possible and in “Sextember” to have sex every day. One wonders where the pastor lands on the birth control debate, considering his desire for frisky congregants. If it’s Hobby Lobby’s approach hopefully his Fellowship Church has a large nursery facility. All kidding aside, there are some pretty serious issues at stake with the Hobby Lobby case and some interesting correlations to blooming megachurch culture in the United States. It’s worth exploring.