Friday, February 3, 2012

Church isn't Sexy?

A few evenings ago, at dinner, my eight year old son admitted that he had been using a word in his vocabulary, but wasn’t exactly sure he knew what it meant or that he was using it appropriately.  The word was “necessarily.”  I would have never guessed he was unsure of the meaning, because he had been using it correctly in context for a little while.  Turns out, he did know what it meant… he was just checking.

I find myself in a similar situation.  I’ve been hearing a word being used in conversations about the church.  It’s a word I’ve heard used in other contexts… but I’m having a hard time figuring out if it still makes sense the way it’s being used.

The word is ‘sexy.’  I know it has several meanings and isn’t being used in the most obvious sense – of being concerned with sex, provoking sexual interest, or being arousing or sexually exciting.  Instead, I think it’s being used as a substitute for trendy or glamorous.  This makes sense to me in the world of design, advertising, heath and fitness, and, of course, the bedroom.  It’s not my favorite description, but it doesn’t bother me much when it is used to describe a car, an ad campaign, a fitness program, clothing, etc.  I recognize that these contexts are already obsessed with sex, use sex to make money, and are image-driven.  In these contexts, something is either ‘sexy’ or not sexy… and I know what is meant by those descriptions.

But when I hear the colloquialism used in relationship to the church and the lifestyles and practices of its leaders, it confuses me.  Because here, to use this word implies an obsession with sex, making money, and being image-driven.  This may be exactly what those who use it in such a context are trying to point out… but in that case, it just seems like a back-handed way to confront the issue.  I sincerely hope that, no matter how misguided a church’s strategy might be, they do not base their church practices on the desire to be ‘a sexy church.’

Occasionally, I’ve heard people call things related to the church ‘sexy’ in a positive way:  a sexier space, a sexy logo.  But most often, I hear ‘sexy’ used in the negative:  faithfulness isn’t sexy, not as sexy as a big launch, church planting is not the sexy new thing, nothing sexy about incarnational. 

The way it’s used, makes it sound like ‘sexy’ is what we all want, expect, and hope for. It makes it sound like ‘sexy’ is what churches are shooting for.  Sexy is the ideal.  Church can be seductive, attractive, appealing, sensuous, exciting, arousing, glamorous… but, if we choose to extend the mission of God outside the walls of the church building, we might as well come to terms with the fact that we can’t have the ideal.  Instead, living all of life as part of God’s mission is plain, dull, and non-descript.  So we might as well give up our ideal of ‘sexy’ and settle for missional living. 

My response to this underlying assumption is to be confused and taken off guard… While being taken off guard can be really helpful at times, in this case, it just makes me feel like I can’t relate.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t think of ‘sexy’ as the ideal.  I never wanted life with God, life with a community, participating in God’s mission, or corporate worship to be ‘sexy’.  For me, the description of any of these things as ‘sexy’ is just plain weird.

And so when someone suggests that I need to give up my ‘sexy’ ideal, I can’t relate.  I DO desire intimacy in my life with God.  I DO want my life with a community to be mutually submissive.  I DO find excitement in participation in God’s mission, and it DOES involve all of me, including my body.  And I DO think corporate worship can be vulnerable and powerful and absorbing.  But ‘sexy’ as an ideal for the Church?  Doesn’t fit.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and I hear ‘sexy’ used predominantly by men.  This reinforces the stereotype that many women live with… ‘all men think about is sex.’  And so when I hear men coaching other men to deal with the fact that they have to ‘settle’ for missional living, when what they really want is ‘sexy’, it just reinforces the stereotype. 

Perhaps it’s because I wrestle with ‘sexy’ being used as a dirty term to be turned against... like sexy is what we all want, but we all know it’s bad to want sexy.  Using ‘sexy’ this way seems to vilify sexuality and make it something to be avoided, rather than something to be celebrated in the way God intended within the mutual submission of a marriage covenant.

Perhaps it’s because when I hear ‘sexy’ used in conversation, I immediately feel like an outsider.  The moment the word ‘sexy’ is used, I feel less inclined to participate in the conversation.  I feel like the kid on the playground who doesn’t know the lingo, the inside joke.  Suddenly, I wonder if I am part of this conversation… and feel like I would rather withdraw from the conversation than try to talk in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. 

I haven’t brought it up in any kind of seriousness before because I felt like I was being the stereotype of a woman and making a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be… I thought maybe I was nit-picking and nagging.  But it continues to strike me as unnecessary and unhelpful… and possibly even damaging to the conversations that are taking place.

And so I ask a similar question to the one my son asked at the dinner table.  What does this word actually mean to those who use it?  And is it helpful in the context of the Church?

I welcome your thoughts…


  1. Cyd,
    Thanks for this post. I freely admit that I am guilty of interjecting 'sexy' into conversation referencing the church, faithfulness, mission, incarnation, you name it. Most of the time, I use it in the negative. Contrasting ideas or institutions with a hyper-materialistic, consumeristic attractiveness.

    My tongue-in-cheek usage is an attempt--perhaps feeble--to point out the 'thinness' of pursuing the immediate gratification and public affirmation that too often describes ministry success in evangelical America (the sliver of Christianity with which I'm most conversant). 'Sexy,' in that respect, signifies a manufactured, overproduced, nearly virtual experience or expectation designed to fabricate some result or another. Taking that meaning of 'sexy,' I don't want a faithfulness, a missionality, or an incarnationality that is 'sexy.'

    But my narrow usage of 'sexy' presents a problem, doesn't it? By capitulating to a purely materialistic, humanistic (and admittedly 'snarky') application of 'sexy,' I make it nearly impossible to also use the term in a redemptive, positive manner. I find my wife 'sexy' but not at all in the ways that I tend to bandy the term about when using it to negate attractional church designs.

    I must say, I don't quite arrive at the conclusion that turning away from a thin sexiness necessitates that one 'settle' for missional living (or faithfulness, or incarnation, or what have you). I would argue that to turn away from a thin sexiness is to pursue the richness of beauty. While beauty certainly encompasses that which is sexy, it is much more broader and deeper than that which is merely 'sexy'. Certainly one does not settle for beauty, but aspires to it.

    In that regard, your post challenges me to take a positive, constructive view toward faithfulness, missionality, etc. Rather than describing what it isn't, I ought to spend more time talking about what it is. And what it is, is beautiful.

  2. Andy,
    I really appreciate the way that you differentiated between the 'thin' sexy that we hope to name and turn away from and the rich beauty that we hope to embrace and invite others into. This definitely helps to clarify!

  3. I'm glad. I was also going to say something about the difference between 'desire' and 'sexy,' but the comment was already long enough. James K.A. Smith says it better anyway!