By Julie Lyons
Gary Bryant has nice breath.
Which is a good thing, because he is a greeter at FellowshipChurch in Grapevine, where everyone is relentlessly nice and continually in your face. The moment I pulled up in my dirty Toyota Prius, I was accosted by a Fellowship handler, who ushered me into the bookstore and introduced me to Gary, an older gentleman with a sharply tailored blazer and shaved head. He shook my hand with studied firmness.
He didn’t ask me why I’d come to visit Fellowship, the area’s pioneering “seeker-friendly” megachurch, and I was glad. I wasn’t in the mood to “unpack” the truth (more on that later), but if he asked, the truth would be:
“I am here to learn about sex, and I have come with a bad attitude and a host of preconceived notions about your pastors, Ed and Lisa Young, because of the ridiculous bed they stuck on the roof of this sanctuary in a shameless grab for attention, and the fact that Ed and Lisa parked their bodies in that bed for 24 hours and did nothing, and Ed actually quit early because he got a teensy little bit of sunburn, and awwww…”
Gary, oblivious to my internal ragings, made small talk for a few minutes, offered me free coffee and a tiny square of cheesecake—feeling austere this Saturday evening and hating coffee anyway, I said no thanks—and handed me off to yet another greeter-type person. He motioned for me to follow him into the sanctuary.
We stepped inside and walked among the rows of theater seats to the thwump…thwump…thwump…of bass from an awesome sound system. Red and pink track lights cast a provocative hue on the stage, which was accented with neon lights and a leopard-print backdrop. The aisles were sprinkled with rose petals. Everywhere I saw hearts and the projected imprint of “Sexperiment 7,” a reference to the Youngs’ best-selling book and their challenge for husbands and wives to have sex for seven days straight. That is why these people were here, to listen to a series of five messages before they were cut loose to sexperiment, presumably with their lawfully wedded spouse. The people filing in looked psyched.
Ed Young was up near the front, mingling with hip, well-scrubbed young people. There was a strange preponderance of men in moussed hair: slicked to a point, gelled into spikes, smeared into downward-drooping cascades. Girls in skinny jeans sat in their seats and texted till the lights went down.
A short promo video told us why we were here in this strange, communal Christian entertainment experience: “Everything we do has one focus, introducing people to the love of Jesus Christ,” Ed told us onscreen. Then the place burst into sound and light. The praise team—including a girl guitarist with an extremely cool hollow-body Gretsch electric—cranked out a couple high-decibel anthems with nondescript lyrics about love, love, love.
We were commanded to stand. I stood. I clapped a couple times, limply. And I prepared to skewer this spectacle of seeker-friendly insipidness with my extra-fine-point pen.
OK. Time to “unpack” my bad attitude. You see, “unpack” is a favorite verb at Fellowship, and it means to explain, to expound, or to exegete, none of which are cool words. And Ed Young can exegete him some Scripture, just so you know. This closet-Southern Baptist preacher’s kid has spent quality time in the Word.
But my bad attitude had nothing to do with Fellowship or Ed Young, and neither does the story I’m about to tell. You see, several months ago I found myself at this Christian women’s conference, and things started getting kind of wild in an open-forum session when the subject turned to sex. I tell you, there was some serious angst in that room, about husbands who flirt, who aren’t considerate of their wives in the bedroom, who expect her to put out whenever they want it, and so on. I heard some exchanges about sex that would make your hair curl. Then uncurl.
That night I heard many of the thoughts and sentiments that surface when Christian ladies speak freely about sex. And it’s not a pretty picture. For many and possibly most wives this is an area of disappointment, lack of fulfillment and pleasure, emotional pain, and marital discord. Legions of Christian women—and men—have been damaged through rape, abuse, adultery, pornography, terrible examples and teaching. It’s rough out there, and they’re looking for men and women of God who have the guts, the power, and the compassion to lead them to a place where they can heal.
Well, at some point a well-dressed woman popped up in the back and spoke loudly and at length, gathering more steam as the verbiage spewed. She told us how she wears her husband out in the bedroom, to the point where he wouldn’t have the time or energy to get a mistress if he wanted to. She talked about strutting into his office in her fine perfume, bosom jutting out, letting him know what he had coming. It was quite a speech, with head and finger waggles at climactic moments.
While the woman carried on most entertainingly, a few ladies started hooting and hollering and clapping their approval. I joined in.
Then I looked around and saw something that made me wilt in my seat. Many women were not participating at all and were looking extremely uncomfortable, with dour faces, eyes fixed straight ahead. I got a hold of myself and shut up.
I realized that I’d heard all of these views on sex, some expressed with eloquence, but not a single stinkin’ thing was divulged or taught that would move anyone from A to B—from disappointment to satisfaction, from embarrassment to a degree of comfort, from hopelessness to faith.
And that is the problem with much of the Christian teaching I’ve heard on sex. It’s either chest-thumping—I’ve got it so good, what’s your problem—or some seriously creepy stuff rooted in fear and disappointment and false assumptions about men, women, the Bible, and sex.
I was pretty sure the Youngs were gonna represent the chest-thumping, triumphal side. In a “highlight reel” posted on YouTube, various pastors and speakers Skype the Youngs during the January “bed-in” on the roof, telling them how wonderful and how cool and how daring they are to tackle this fabulous topic of sex—in church, no less. (Two—yes, two—of these assiduously hip young pastors Skyped in wearing big-brimmed baseball caps that shaded their eyes, rendering them men of mystery.)
Yeah, I came packing a bad attitude to Sexperiment Part 4, because nothing I’d seen or heard about the Youngs to this point suggested they had an answer for the hurt and the pain.
I found out one thing right away that Saturday night at FellowshipChurch: Ed and Lisa Young enjoy each other. Seriously. You can’t fake this stuff.
The lights went down again and I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them the praise team had disappeared and a king-size bed had materialized on stage, with Ed and Lisa seated beside each other on the white quilted satin bedspread, a Bible between them.
“When we’re seeing sex God’s way, it’s all about the purpose,” Ed said. I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to see my senior pastor preaching a message in black skinny jeans, a sweater vest, and duck shoes, but that is what Ed was wearing.
Though there’s a prohibition aspect to sex in Scripture, he continued, with a need for respect, boundaries, and delayed gratification, it is knowing the purpose that helps us stay pure. For Sexperiment Part 4, the Youngs were showing us how to teach our kids about sex.
“When we model sex 24/7…” Ed said in his ringing voice.
“Wait a minute,” Lisa said.
“Modeling intimacy, modeling reconciliation,” Ed said, forging ahead. “Sex isn’t something you do—it’s something you are.”
Somewhere along the way, it got fashionable for preachers to do shout-outs from the pulpit to “my darling wife, looking so beautiful there today.” But the Youngs are relaxed and real. Visiting that night and watching their other Sexperiment messages online, you get a snapshot of the Youngs’ marriage dynamic. Lisa is passionate about this subject, sex, and she’s obviously given it a lot of thought. She probably speaks more than Ed does during the Sexperiment messages, but he’ll often interrupt to crack a joke or mug for the cameras. Lisa registers the tiniest trace of annoyance, then lets it go. It’s just Ed; he isn’t going to change. After 30 years of marriage, including some tough early years that they allude to, it seems evident that the Youngs have made their peace and learned to appreciate each other.
It’s touching, really, and inspiring in a way, to watch this fiftysomething couple simply be themselves—albeit a high-gloss version, with blond-streaked hair, toned bodies, and preternaturally white teeth.
After a few minutes of teaching delivered through dialogue, the Youngs’ four children joined them onstage, seating themselves on and around the bed. They talked about growing up in the Young household.
“I always had that accountability with my parents—they so openly told me right and wrong,” said LeeBeth, the oldest daughter, in her 20s. “If it wasn’t for the way they trained me up, I wouldn’t have made the right decisions I made.”
The kids extolled the mix of boundaries and positive example their parents gave them. They were allowed to use Facebook, as long as they friended their parents. They could have a degree of privacy, but there was no secrecy.
Daughter Landra told how her mom commandeered her cell phone and proceeded to read her text messages. “She sat down and read every single text message—out loud,” she said. “It was the worst feeling. I learned a lot from that.”
While the kids talked, you could tell from body language–the gestures and knowing smiles, the way they leaned in toward their parents–that this is a close-knit family.
LeeBeth said she had to call her parents for permission before watching any movie with her buddies. Oftentimes the answer was no, and Mom was at the ready to come and retrieve her. The Youngs said they are astonished by some of the poor media choices Christian families make.
“Most of the sexual activity you see in the media is out of context,” Ed said. “They only show you the fun stuff. They don’t show you the guilt and the shame and the consequences of it.”
Lisa encouraged parents who’ve messed up and feel they have no moral authority to point their kids to a better way. “Don’t lead out of guilt,” she said. “Lead out of where you are now. You need to point out the consequences when we stray from God.”
Being a mom myself, I took mental note. More than anything, I enjoyed watching this couple living a normal, decent life before our eyes. It had a bit of the feel of vintage television, or a living-room diorama from some forgotten decade. I think I got it. They were trying to take the dys out of our functional by modeling the right thing. It was fascinating because it was foreign: So many of us never knew normal.
Sure, they didn’t hit the tough stuff very hard, or even at all—sexual sin, lingering pain, fractured sexual identities, immorality among church leaders—but they’d done something pretty clever. They’d lured us in here with a promise of sex, and they hit us with straight-up Bible teaching, candy-wrapped in flashing lights and cutesy caricatures of adoring family members.
Sexperiment is a tease, a huge bait and switch.
There is nothing remotely titillating about the Youngs’ teaching at FellowshipChurch. There is nothing explicit about sex, no hot bedroom tips.
God is about “big sex!” Ed crowed. I’m not sure exactly what “big sex” is–sounds kind of kinky—but I’m sure it isn’t. Because even the marriage advice the Youngs offer is tame, and similar to what you find in many other Christian books on the subject. Go on date nights with your spouse. Use “words of honor” when speaking to your husband or wife. Install a “purification system” for the marriage, avoiding situations where you’re alone with an adult of the opposite sex. Be available sexually—“It’s OK to say no,” Ed said, “but with an appointment. We have a 24-hour rule.”
“When you said ‘I do,’” Lisa added, “you’re saying ‘I will.’ It’s a pleasure to be able to give pleasure to your spouse. Discuss what brings pleasure to your spouse, and practice what you talk about.”
The Youngs are maestros of “CreativeChurch,” one of the labels they attach to Fellowship. They’ve got a Trojan-horse thing going: They roll in like rock stars, then they leap out wielding Bibles. Softly. They’re pretty plain about what they’re trying to do.
“We want to just like rock the world—create a sexual revolution, if you will, for the culture to get their cues from the church, instead of the church being silent,” Lisa said.
“The sexual revolution has ended in a lot of pollution,” Ed added. “God has a sexual revolution for us. And a revolution simply means a change for the better.”
At the end of each message, the Youngs shifted effortlessly to evangelistic mode, inviting their audience to receive salvation in Jesus Christ. We closed our eyes all around the room and prayed the night I attended. Of course I peeked, and I saw a few hands go up.
There was no weeping at the altar. In fact, there wasn’t even an altar.
There were a lot of pop-culture references, all coming from Ed. Witness this exchange from one of the Sexperiment messages online:
“Wherever there’s a vision, there’s always a vision vandal,” Lisa said.
“That is huge!” Ed whooped. “That’s the Tweet of the day. Tweet that, Tweet that, Tweet that!”
At the end of the night, we all filed out pretty much the way we came. Folks returned to texting, flirting, laughing. The rose petals were looking shriveled by now, and they got kicked to the side as we shuffled out.
Maybe our load was just a little lighter because of the Youngs’ Sexperiment. But I was left with many of the same questions: What do you do with the guilt and shame? How do you break the pornography habit? If “sex is something you are,” what does that mean for singles? How do you get over abuse? What if you’re lawfully married but sexually miserable?
Well, at least I’d unpacked my bad attitude. The Youngs have a good message, and they’re doing their best to get it to an audience most of us don’t reach. I commend them. I’m excited any time I see a strong marriage, and I hope it’s contagious within their congregation.
If there is a next time for me at Fellowship, though, I’ll be looking for an altar. I know that’s not “CreativeChurch,” but this thing has got to go deeper. If I weep, I weep. Blessed, after all, are those who mourn–for the sin in our lives and the sin that goes untouched in the church.
Julie Lyons is a journalist, author, and editor. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.