Genesis, chapter 2 verse 24, says a man "shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." But how liberally to define cleave? That was the very special Bible query the Rev. Stacy Spencer and his wife Rhonda took up last month with 252 married people at their New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn. And the Spencers' answer was ... encouraging. Does frequent sex have a place in marriage? Yep. Oral sex? Read the Song of Solomon 2: 3 for assurance. How about role-playing? One participant expressed a yearning to see her husband dressed as a police officer. The Good Book offers no specifics on that, so Stacy Spencer allowed that it was up to the woman, "as long as you're not lusting after a particular officer. Jesus talked about spiritual adultery, and that could be spiritual adultery. But if it's just a generic cop, go for it."
Superior sex can be difficult for some couples to discuss with each other, let alone with their pastor. But having taken on almost every other aspect of their congregants' lives, churches oriented toward young adults and Gen Xers have begun promoting not just better sex, but more of it. Well, not just promoting it but penciling it in. When New Direction launched its "40 Nights of Grrreat Sex" program, the Spencers gave participants daily planners. A typical week is marked "Sun: Worship together"; "Mon: Give your wife a full body massage"; "Tues: Quickie in any room besides the bedroom"; "Wed: Pleasure your partner"; "Thurs: Read 1 Corinthians 7--How can I please you more?"; and so on.
New Direction is not the only church promoting a frequent-sex regimen. In February, Paul Wirth, pastor of the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., issued what he called "The 30-Day Sex Challenge." The program featured an extensive questionnaire, a Bible verse a day and the assumption that participants would engage in some kind of sex each night. Wirth says he has received calls from eight pastors asking about his program's guidelines. A megachurch in Texas, the Fellowship of the Woodlands, holds semiannual Sacred Sex Weekends ("Learn how you can experience a fulfilling sex life with God's blessing").
Scheduling time for sex appears to be in vogue, and not just among believers. In June, couples in Colorado and North Carolina published books detailing their postnuptial attempts to have sex 101 and 365 days in a row, respectively. But the issue takes on added urgency among conservative Christians, who have just as high a divorce rate as the country at large but theoretically take the till-death-do-us-part aspect of marriage as a faith obligation. When it comes to sex, Wirth contends, many are thinking, "If this doesn't get better, it's gonna be a really sucky life."
"My own marriage was in trouble 10 years ago," he says, but it was reinvigorated with the help of His Needs, Her Needs by clinical psychologist Willard Harley. Wirth eventually contacted Harley and got permission to use the book for his church program. Meanwhile, at New Direction, Spencer discovered John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom and Getting the Sex You Want by Tammy Nelson.
Their congregations differ in some ways--New Direction, a Disciples of Christ church, is mostly African--American; Relevant is nondenominational and mostly white--but both flocks fall into the 20-to-40 age group, as do their pastors. Along with their wives, the preachers developed programs involving large-scale, coed seminars and a save-that-month schedule; the Spencers also set up a blog so users can post questions anonymously. Both couples emphasized the spiritual, emotional and, yes, practical aspects of having better sex more often. For instance, a husband can expect smoother sailing at night if he helps his wife clear her "to do" list that evening, Spencer said in a conference call with his wife, who added, "Otherwise he's just another thing on that list."
Protestant history has included periods of enthusiastic talk about sex, as well as chilly silence. A famous 1623 Puritan sermon made the case for "mutual [conjugal] dalliances for pleasure's sake," presumably as a distinction from Roman Catholicism's procreation-only rule. In the 1970s, several conservative Christian leaders responded to the popularity of Alex Comfort's classic how-to The Joy of Sex by reminding their flocks that whoopee for whoopee's sake was not doctrinally prohibited; Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Left Behind co-author Tim LaHaye each put out manuals for married couples.
Still, these new calendrical sexhortations have their critics. Lauren Sandler, feminist and author of Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, suspects they are "another way of becoming the best Christian wife--to have tons of orgasms so their husbands can go to church the next day and tell people how they really made Jesus proud in the sack." Todd Friel, host of the syndicated radio show Way of the Master, says sexual intimacy was created as a taste of what it's like to be in a "right relationship" with God. "That's amazing, and it's a little different than 'Come and improve your sex life in a 30-day challenge,'" he says. But some participants find meaning in the programs. "After more than 20 yrs of marriage, this has been 'a shot in the arm,'" one New Direction congregant wrote on the Spencers' blog. "In the past month we have been to Victoria's Secret 4 times (the secret is out!!). Thanks Pastor and 1st Lady for your openness, and obediences to God."