Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

4 Feb

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the xxxchurch.com, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”

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5 Responses to “Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)”

  1. Jim February 4, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    Outstanding post, Jim. Just last night we were talking in a class I teach on missional leadership about the nature of the “missional church.” (interesting in itself that we have to have that conversation…Would be nice if we just talked about church and understood that “missional” is implied.)

    I am going to share this post with my class as I think it illustrates several key missional characteristics: (1) a commitment to a local area over the long haul, (2) an openness to “doing theology/biblical reflection” in light of that area, (3) a commitment to engage the “other” & to show hospitality to them , and (4) a commitment to “go out and embed” within that area.

    Good stuff. Thanks for drawing our attention to this.

  2. Alex February 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Great post. Did you visit the church or interview by phone, or other? It feels like you were there.

  3. brien February 10, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    This being my being my home church I’m delighted to see your post. We are striving to preach Christ, and Him crucified. What a blessing it is to have God redeeming His creation, even on a place like Hollywood blvd, which is still in many ways a dark place. The crowd walking down Saturday evenings at 10pm is much different than the crowd Sunday mornings, so its definitely a mission field!

  4. mary February 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    thank you for your interview with Pastor Joseph. My son has begun attending this church, and told us about the preaching series. After listening to two sermons online, we were deeply touched and grateful that this is a man committed to “speaking the truth in love”, and showing his flock how great God’s grace and love are—stooping down to meet us in our brokenness, working through his Holy Spirit to put us together as whole, new, transformed people. May God continue to touch hearts and change lives through his servant Joseph.

  5. blessedinLA February 20, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    This is my home church, too and this was an awesome series. Kudos to Pastor Joseph!

    I’m a Bible-believing Christian and an M.D. and I’ve waited for years to hear a pastor say these honest Biblical truths (said eloquently and with humility) from the pulpit. I’ve said similar things to many of my patients over the years and it has resulted in sexual restoration that even conventional medicine and therapy could not provide.

    I know first hand that sexual and spiritual brokenness is not limited to Hollywood but just walking down Hollywood Blvd. enroute to church (or even sitting at home watching network TV) reveals that there is a massive problem here industry-wise and as a whole.

    So we must keep praying!

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