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A Church Addresses Sexual Abuse: Sermon

September 26, 2013

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On the weekend of May 18-19 The Summit Church (Durham, NC) addressed the subject of sexual abuse in all of our weekend services. This series is a reflection of those services, the preparation that went into them, and the aftercare that was provided.

We do not propose to have done this weekend perfectly, although we worked diligently to conduct each aspect with excellence. Our hope is that the resources produced will allow other churches to address this needed subject and improve upon our efforts. This is a subject that addresses 20% of our church, community, and world (1 in 4 women; 1 in 6 men). The church cannot be silent.

“If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues that deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all.” Martin Luther

The sermon was delivered by Clayton King with an extended testimony by his wife, Charie. In this post, I will evaluate at the major pieces of the sermon, how each piece worked together, and offer some overall evaluations of the message.

SERMON TEXT

Clayton opened his sermon by walking through II Samuel 13:1-21; the account of Amnon’s rape of his step-sister Tamar. The primary objective of this portion of the message was to reveal that God speaks to sexual abuse and understands many of the dynamics / effects of sexual abuse (shame, abuse of power, silencing, etc…).

A pastor preparing for this message would benefit from reading chapter five of On the Threshold of Hopeby Diane Langberg and the booklet Sexual Abuse by Bob Kellemen for two more examinations of this passage.

Those who have been abused have suffered in silence. Their most earnest prayers have likely been unanswered (i.e., that the abuse would stop or that the social / emotional effects would cease). This can make God feel very aloof and ignorant of their experience.

VIDEO TESTIMONY

Next Clayton directed the congregation’s attention to the screen to watch a video of his wife’s testimony of sexual abuse. The video is well done and carefully tells her story. Watching the video is an emotionally powerful experience. The description of abuse is tactful, but there is no way to hear the story of a six year old child being abused without it being disturbing.

“Those who know the truth of these things will know that we have understated it, carefully toned it down perforce, because it cannot be written in full. It could neither be published or read… but oh, it had to be lived! And what you may not even hear, had to be endured by little girls (p. 228).” Amy Carmichael in Things As They Are

The video allows Charie’s testimony to be shared in a receivable way with footage of her painting a self-portrait, walking, her home, pictures of her at the age of her abuse, close ups during time when facial expressions reveal her emotions, and music. By being on video, the duration and precise language desired for the testimony of abuse could be managed.

LIVE TESTIMONY

After the video Charie came on stage and addressed the congregation next to Clayton. From my perspective as a counselor, this was the most impactful portion of the service. She speaks candidly of the fears and struggles she had/has. She speaks of how God’s grace is a daily necessity of the work of restoration.
One of the most common affects of abuse is the loss of one’s voice. Threats to not tell anyone and sense of shame about others knowing what happened work in tandem to prevent survivors from telling anyone. During the abuse they said “no” and “stop” but the abuse continued.

The impact of having seen Charie’s story on a video and then to see her courage as she walked out on stage to tell of God’s faithfulness was powerful. The content of what she had to say was excellent, but the power of her presence and sound of her courage to speak was the clearest evidence of God’s power in the service.

CLOSING APPEAL

After Charie spoke to the congregation, Clayton affirmed her as his wife, making it clear her abuse did not lessen her in his eyes; to the contrary that her willingness to allow God to use her made her more beautiful – inside and out – to him.

Turning to the congregation Clayton began to address the fears many people have about sharing their story of abuse. Speaking to the church he gives a list of things not to say to someone who has been abused; whether they be your spouse, child, or friend. Then he gives a contrasting list of what you should say.

Finally, letting the congregation know that Summit was a safe place to share this kind of secret, he made an appeal for those who would like to talk to a care team member about their abuse to come forward.

He asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads to create less of a sense of being seen. We asked our after service care team to move throughout the congregation and Clayton asked those receiving and giving care to move at the same time to provide an additional “anonymity shield.” Everyone who responded moved to a private area outside the sanctuary for these conversations.

The content of these conversations, the training of these individuals, and how we prepared for mandated reported cases will be covered in the next post.

OVERALL EVALUATIONS

These evaluations, as with the commentary in the paragraphs above, represent my personal assessments. The sermon video is posted so that you can think through how a message on this subject can be most effectively delivered.

  • The sermon text was the best possible text for a message of sexual abuse. II Samuel 13 describes the experience of sexual abuse well.
  • Clayton is bold enough to tackle the subject of sexual abuse; that may be his greatest strength and greatest weakness. Some who have been abused may find the force of his personality to be the strong voice they wanted to speak against their abuse, others may find it intimidating to think of abuse while hearing a voice with that much energy and force. This may have been most pronounced during the invitation when the call to respond took the tone, “If you do not respond now, then you may always be alone with your secret of abuse.” I do not believe this was Clayton’s intent, but his passion to see people get help and natural disposition of evangelist making an alter call could come across as pressuring to an abused audience.
  • Clayton is a minimalist on preaching notes and tries to remain sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in each message. While the general content of each message was the same, there was significant variation in the content and outline of the four messages he delivered over the weekend.
  • Due to the loose outline and as a result of his effort to be gospel-centered in the message, there were some times when the line between sin and suffering was not as clear as I would like. In some messages, he compared the faithfulness of God to healing us after acknowledging abuse to God’s faithfulness to forgive our sin referencing I John 1:9; saying, “When we confess, God will confess the sin we commit and the sin committed against us.” While I do not believe those who were abused left feeling responsible for their abuse and I know that was not Clayton’s intent, making “disclosure of abuse” co-terminus with the “confession of sin” is something I would advise pastors to avoid for theological and practical reasons.
  • Charie’s testimony and presence were the engine to the message; God’s grace and power on display. To see someone who had been muted and made to feel powerless both stand and speak gave hope like little else could.
  • In some services the closing was incorporated into the body of the message to allow the message to end on the “high note” of Charie’s testimony. Our response rate in these services was much lower. Not that the numbers who respond are the objective, but I believe it raises an important point – creating a sense of safety and being understood are as important as the emotional connection in this type of sermon. In my assessment, the emotions from Charie’s testimony needed to settle and people needed to know more about the conversation they were walking into before they would be willing to respond.

I would like to close by saying “thank you” to Clayton and Charie for their willingness to address this subject. As a church we must address an issue that effects 40% of our church, community, and world. We must be as skilled in ministering the gospel to suffering as we are to sin. I applaud their courage and hope these resources can build on their work.