'Let's Talk About Sex ... At Church!' As Valentine's Day inches closer, more churches are tackling the issue of sex as a way to help married congregants strengthen their relationships. The Rev. Stacy Spencer, pastor of New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, recently challenged members to "40 Nights of Great Sex."
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'Let's Talk About Sex ... At Church!'

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'Let's Talk About Sex ... At Church!'

'Let's Talk About Sex ... At Church!'

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys talk steroids, politics and that Chris Brown-Rihanna mess. But first in this segment, we're going to be talking about sexual intimacy. We wanted to let you know that in case there are young children in the car and you think this isn't suitable conversation for little ears. But first, this is our weekly Faith Matters conversation. We're going to take up issues of religion and spirituality.

Today, we're talking about sex and the church. Now, talking about sexuality can be uncomfortable in just about any form, but in a place of worship? But the topic of sexuality is being raised in some churches to try to help members grapple with how sexuality and intimacy affect their lives. Joining me to talk about this are two ministers who've been dealing with this issue in their respective churches. The Reverend Charlie Arehart is interim pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Washington, D.C. The church ministers primarily to the gay and lesbian community. Also with us, the Reverend Stacy Spencer, who is pastor of the New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. It has a predominantly African-American congregation. I welcome you both to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

The Reverend CHARLIE AREHART (Interim Pastor, Metropolitan Community Church, Washington, D.C.): Thank you, Michel.

The Reverend STACY SPENCER (New Direction Christian Church, Memphis, Tennessee): It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: Now Reverend - both of you, I should mention that in a way, it shouldn't be surprising that the clergy, that the churches, want to deal with such an important issue in people's lives. But I think that a lot of people are used to thinking about the church's role in talking about sex as mainly, stop, don't, no. So, Rev. Spencer, I wanted to talk to you because you initiated a five-week program at your church last year called 40 Nights of Great Sex, where the emphasis was on helping married couples revive and maintain the spark in their marriages. What persuaded you to start this program?

Rev. SPENCER: Well, Michel, we noticed that the divorce rate for Christian married people was equivalent to that of non-Christian people, and that alarmed me to see so many people in the church getting divorced, and so many sexual issues plaguing the congregation and congregation universal. I thought it was time to speak up about it and to take back the sanctity of marriage, and to help infuse a healthy dose of sexuality to our married folk to let them know that just because you're married, you don't have to stop having fun, and the world has perverted our sexuality, and we wanted to take it back and help them to celebrate it and embrace it.

MARTIN: What's that like, though? I can imagine where it might be awkward for couples to, in a context of a church community - I can see where they might persuade themselves to talk one on one or as a couple with a clergy person who's a trusted part of their lives, but to sort of - to have these conversations as part of a congregational group?

Rev. SPENCER: Yeah, you know...

MARTIN: People were feeling that?

Rev. SPENCER: Yeah. It was kind of awkward at first, but you know, the whole point of that session that we had was to take them back to Genesis, where the Bible says, Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. And there has been a lot of shame associated with sexuality because we have not talked about it in church. So initially, there was some awkwardness, but once we begin to break down the theology of sex and that God created sex for a man and a woman to enjoy together in the sanctity of marriage, it broke down a lot of defenses and a lot of miseducation that people have received through the years.

MARTIN: And Reverend Arehart, as we mentioned, you minister to a congregation that has a significant number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual members. How do you talk about matters of sex and intimacy in your church?

Rev. AREHART: In a very similar way.

MARTIN: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. AREHART: By that, I mean human beings are human beings, whether we're heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered. And love is love, and all of us are created sexual beings. God created, and it is good, very good.

MARTIN: Do you have any formal discussion groups around this issue? And one of the reasons I was curious about this, to be honest with you, is that I feel that, sort of, gays and lesbians sometimes feel that society defines them by their sexuality, and part of the challenge is to be seen as whole persons. So, I wonder whether there's some resistance to saying, gee, the whole reason - part of the reason I'm here is to be seen as a person, not just as a function of my sexuality. So, is it then to get people to then engage on that question? How is that?

Rev. AREHART: You are exactly right. It's difficult in MCC sometimes to get the subject on the table for discussion, because we are more than just sexual beings, and society views us as single-issue people. You're absolutely right.

MARTIN: How do you overcome that resistance?

Rev. AREHART: By putting it out there anyway and saying, OK, come on, we've got to discuss this.

MARTIN: Reverend Spencer, same question to you, in that I think that African-Americans have also been stereotyped in terms of their sexuality. They've been seen as sort of hypersexual, both genders, and I think that there's some pushback against that, particularly in the churches, and so that, I think, causes some folks to not want to talk about sex, not want to be seen as sexual, because they want to be seen as the stereotype. Have you encountered that, and how do you deal with that?

Rev. SPENCER: Yeah, there is a sense of sexuality being blown out of proportion through the media, with the rap videos and the sexism that you see in a lot of rap music, but we are trying to take back the whole idea of holistic sexuality. You know, Hebrews 13:4 says that the marriage bed is undefiled when you're married and so, it's all good in the marriage bed. But to stick our heads in the proverbial sand and to think that, you know, we're going to survive by just ignoring the sexual plight of our young people is ludicrous. So, we have to begin to have honest and open discussion about sexuality as God meant it to be, you know, in the marriage bed. And so, that's what we're trying to do, you know, through our program. I even have a book coming out called "Naked and Unashamed," where I talk - rediscover the blissfulness of sexuality and bring it back to the marriage bed.

MARTIN: In fact, I noticed that you require proof of marriage to participate in your seminars, is that right?

Rev. SPENCER: Oh, yeah, because we get very detailed in our Bible study and our classes about the human anatomy and how to please your partner and so, I have to have proof before they come in there because we don't want anybody peeping that ain't supposed to be in there peeping. And so - yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is that so? Because you figured they wouldn't figure it out without - I'm sorry, I'm just...

Rev. SPENCER: No, because there's a standard. You know, we don't believe that sex outside of marriage is God's will and so, I don't want to teach any singles or anybody that's not married about the details of how to please your partner or the theology of sex, because we believe that that is between two people in a marriage covenant.

MARTIN: And it was part of a - is part of the issue here to present marriage as something very special and apart?

Rev. SPENCER: No doubt about it. You know, when Adam woke up and saw Eve, he said, finally, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. He was excited and rightfully so, because when a man finds a wife, he finds a good thing, the Bible says. And so, we're trying to bring back the joy of being married in that people can rediscover that I have more freedom being married than I did, you know, when I was without. And so, there's a wholeness and completeness when two whole people get together and discover the blissfulness and the joy of great sex.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm joined by the Reverends Stacy Spencer and Charlie Arehart, and they're talking about dealing with sexuality in the church. Reverend Arehart, what about that? How do you deal with that whole question of the marriage covenant and the specialness of the bond between two persons who are committed to each other with a congregation who, in some jurisdictions, their relationships may be acknowledged, formally and publicly, but in others, not? And it's obviously a big topic of public conversation, a very heated and controversial topic. So, how do you deal with that?

Rev. AREHART: Right.

MARTIN: In your community?

Rev. AREHART: The Reverend Dr. Norman Pittenger, Anglican theologian and pastor, said years ago in a lecture, sex is good; sex with somebody you know and value as a friend is better; sex with somebody with whom you're deeply in love and in a long-term, meaningful relationship is best. But sex is good. Now, we approach it from that perspective. We encourage people to experience the best, which would be deep, personal love, sexuality explored in all of its magnificent dimensions, within that bond of gay, lesbian, transgender, heterosexual marriage, but we also would certainly say to the person who is single that, if you know your partner and if you love and care about your partner, that is good. And we would make room for the individual who is also having a less than well-known encounter, perhaps.

MARTIN: Really? How do you set boundaries around - how do you set boundaries? Or do you feel that's not your job?

Rev. AREHART: Well, I'm a follower of Jesus, and I believe the great commandment is to love one another, and love is the great defining - and any human action which is an unloving action is sin for me, and we teach that. And human sexuality, when we take advantage of another, exploit another, violate the covenant, either which we've made or the covenant of another knowingly, is wrong because it's not a loving, caring act.

MARTIN: Reverend Spencer, you mentioned that sexual issues are a cause of a friction among Christian couples, just like among other couples. What were you talking about? Were you specifically referring to infidelity? And the other thing I wanted to ask you about is, what about that question of people who, even though they may be married, might be having questions about their sexual identity? How do you address that?

Rev. SPENCER: You know, in my talking with the married couples, there are a lot issues that come out there. There's adultery; there's masturbation; there's pornography. We call those sexual exits. Whenever you are not gratified, specifically by your spouse, those are sexual exits. And so, that can lead to adultery, physical and spiritual. And so, we try to go back and help people to explore those things that have caused those exits, and in some sense, there might be someone in a marriage who's struggling with their sexual identity. And that's where, you know, through a process of the Imago Dialogue, that people are able to discuss their inner desires and struggles with their spouse without being judged. A lot of people are afraid to talk with their spouses because they feel that they'll be judged for being too sexual or too freaky or too perverted, but when you're able to honestly share out of love and not be judged by your spouse, it opens up an arena where people can become whole and talk about who they are. And so, that dialogue is very important, but I teach in my book, "Naked and Unashamed," how to approach that dialogue, so that people don't feel like I'm going to be condemned by my spouse.

MARTIN: OK, and Reverend Arehart, I want to give you the final word. Do you feel that you're making progress? I don't know if - how you would gauge such a thing in helping members of the congregation to fuse, say, the physical and the spiritual in the way that is healthier?

Rev. AREHART: Absolutely, yes. And you know, I'm going to read his book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. AREHART: And we are going to have some classes for our couples because everything he's said about developing that kind of holistic approach to human sexuality within the bonds of that great love relationship, I agree with.

MARTIN: The Reverend Charlie Arehart is the interim pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studio. The Reverend Stacy Spencer is the pastor of the New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and he was kind of enough to join me from member station WKNO in Memphis. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us, and Happy Valentine's Day.

Rev. AREHART: Happy Valentine's to you as well. Bye-bye.

Rev. SPENCER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And of course, with Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. You just heard our two clergy members address the importance of intimacy. Now, we'd like to hear from you. Has your place of worship taken on the matters of sexuality, not just what not to do, but what to do? How do you feel about that? Do you wish your faith leaders would say more about matters of intimacy and sexuality, or maybe you think they talk too much about such matters and need to say less? To tell us more about what do you think, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name, or you can always go to our Web site at npr.org, and blog it out.

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