Pastor Mike Foster said God spoke to him in the shower one morning and said only one word: “porn.” Disturbing as that may be, his pastor friend, Craig Gross, was so taken with the idea of a ministry to pornography addicts that he raced back to the office to register a Web site name, xxxchurch.com.
They were entering into a fight against pornography that would lead them not only to the red light district in Amsterdam and a porn rehab camp in Kentucky, but also land them in the gutter.
I spoke with Gross at a greasy spoon in Nashville April 20, two hours before a screening of the new documentary about him and Foster, whose xxxchurch.com Web site raises awareness about the sinfulness and destructive nature of pornography. But this is not some anti-porn Web site and ministry done from a spotless church environment.
No, Gross and Foster launched this ministry in 2002 by flying straight into the death star—a pornography convention in Las Vegas—and putting up an approachable booth with resources on sexual addictions.
Foster and Gross’ wives were skeptical of this idea. So were other Christians. Pat Robertson shelved a “700 Club” segment on xxxchurch.com, saying Jesus would not go to a porn convention.
But that’s exactly where Foster and Gross contend that Jesus would have gone—into the gutter. Gross’s new book, titled The Gutter: Where Life’s Meant to be Lived, is about hearing the call of Jesus to get out of the “Christian Ghetto,” out of the comfort zone and into the gutters of poverty, pornography, homosexuality, loneliness, illness and death.
“The gutter,” says Gross, “is the place I am least likely or inclined to go because it is a place where people are not like me; they are not Christians.”
“We’re trying to break out of the whole ‘porn guys’ thing,” says Gross. “Porn’s just the challenge to overcome. We’re not just ‘in ministry’ but in a really dirty gutter, a secret gutter no one wants to talk about.” Pornography is a $13 billion industry, and Foster and Gross have, against the concerns and outright opposition of fellow Christians, entered a battle as little David to pornography’s Goliath.
While the mainstream media had overwhelming interest in the story of two pastors taking on the porn industry without hatred and from the inside, much of the Christian media still kept arm’s distance from the story. Gross says he believes Christian media are scared: “They think we went too far. That we’re becoming ‘of the world,’ so to speak.”
Are Foster and Gross part of a new movement of young Christians who are willing to shed old-guard ideas about ministry and church? Their “church” exists online, but increasingly they are being asked to speak in churches nationwide. They began with “porn and pancakes” men’s breakfasts on Saturdays, but now churches such as Willow Creek are receiving Sunday morning messages about how to turn away from pornography—and get out of our gutters.
“We’re part of this new breed of Christianity,” says Gross. “It’s an underground movement of people saying, you know what, let’s start over. It’s not just about going to porn conventions.”
Gross and Foster represent a ministry team willing to rethink ministry and church and how Jesus would interact with the world. “It’s amazing what God can do,” says Gross. But he emphasizes this is not a “program” but a lifestyle of ministry he’s calling others to enter. “It’s up to us to take the church to them,” Gross says in his book, “and that’s why Mike and I were at the porn show. That’s why we do everything we do.”
“So many people see their mission as a program or a week and not ever about your life,” said Gross. “They ‘serve’ in a Sunday school program and live like hell the rest of the week.”
Where Gross’s new book, The Gutter, is strong on calling Christians into the world, it is weak in calling them to being equipped and trained to do so. One of Gross’ friends suggested he add a chapter about the dangers of entering the gutter, particularly one as insidious as the porn industry. Gross said he appreciated the advice but declined to add a chapter on the dangers, saying enough voices were talking about staying away and he didn’t want to discourage people from doing what they are called to do.
Gross said they keep strict guidelines about not traveling with women other than their wives or being alone with them, and he knows the struggles of those working with them and where not to take them. One of their interns, for instance, had struggled with pornography and finally ripped out his modem. “That’s the kind of person I want working with me in this ministry,” says Gross. The intern told Gross that he could never go to a porn show. “I said I’m never gonna take you,” Gross told him.
“There’s nothing enticing about this [porn] industry,” says Gross. “I go to a trade show, and all I see are a bunch of miserable, unhappy people. People looking to fill their lives with this crap that’s leaving them empty. I’m happily married. I don’t want what they have; they want what I have.”
Bill Day, director of the xxxchurch.com documentary, “Missionary Positions,” is not a Christian, but he says he’s seen tangible faith.
While filming, Gross quoted Matthew 17:20: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Day put the camera down and said it was perfect, then said: “Where did you get that from? That’s really from the Bible?”
Gross says while the camera was off, he and Day started talking about faith that can move mountains. Day has not given his life to Christ, but Gross says “the biggest reward of the film is that Bill has seen real faith.” He’s seen it acted as a drama before his eyes and lens over the past three years of filming.
Foster and Gross are finding appearances on CNN, “Good Morning America” and TechTV more fruitful for the ministry than appearances on Christian radio or television. One nationwide Christian talk show host interviewed them and said their intentions might be good but they might get burned if they get too close to the fire. They spent most of the time defending their beliefs and methods, rather than talking about the success stories of the ministry and the people who have been transformed.
The porn industry is here to stay, but so is a ministry beachhead set up to fight it—not with bullhorns at trade shows, but with the love and concern of Christ, who lived and breathed the gutter and “came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Greg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins magazine in Nashville, Tenn.