Masturbation Church

NOTE: In light of some recent questions and concerns, I feel the need to stress that this post reflects my own personal views and opinions, and does not in any way reflect those of my church or its staff.

Though he probably would never admit it publicly, a friend of mine and I came up with the concept of “Masturbation Church” a few months ago, as a great title for a book that will probably never be written. In the age of the Purpose Driven Church, and the Seeker-Sensitive Church, and the Attractional Church…why not include the shady underside (and possible cause) of all these church “growth” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) books?

Then, a few weeks ago, at the Presbyterian National Evangelism Conference in Nashville, I brought the idea up in a workshop I was leading — not quite knowing whether people would laugh or throw things at me. Surprisingly, when I explained the concept, it really resonated with the audience (who were mostly pastors and church workers).

So. What is “Masturbation Church?” In a nutshell, three things:

  1. Church where our main goal is to “pleasure ourselves.” Or, to put it in terms I hear all too often, church where we come to “have our needs met” or because of what the pastor, or a program, or the worship, “can do for me.” Me, me, me. Spiritual Masturbation.
  2. Church that gives no pleasure to others. Similar to #1, but with a distinction: In sex, the goal is not just to please ourselves, but also to please our partner, a loving act of giving and generosity. Likewise, the church exists primarily to be a generous blessing to those “outside” the church, like the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. You can’t do that locked up alone in the bathroom…or the church building.
  3. Church that does not reproduce. Just as evolution requires humans to reproduce in order to survive as a species, so the church must reproduce itself in order to carry God’s message of love and hope into the future. But too often, we’re just “spilling our seed on the ground” (i.e. wasting our resources) oblivious to the fact that Sunday mornings are getting more, well…lonely.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that masturbation is “wrong” or “evil” — for people or for churches. Just that it has consequences — especially if that’s “all” we ever do, to the exclusion of our partners, and, in the case of the church, to the exclusion of a hurting world.

Unfortunately, while this masturbatory metaphor is great for a blog post, I’m not sure if it’s, umm, “big enough” to, err, “fill” (oh, let the dirty puns roll) an entire book. And like everything else under the sun, it’s probably not entirely original, either. Nevertheless, If you’re brave enough, share your thoughts on this one! That is, don’t keep them (ahem, ahem) “to yourself.”

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20 Responses to Masturbation Church

  1. jonathan says:

    Holy shizer. Im so glad you finally got your theory off your chest….you are freakin’ awesome……

  2. Mark says:

    Yes, you managed to take matters into your own hands, didn’t you? (You started it with all the puns! You, I blame you!)

    I broached a similar concept in the early Spring during a Bible study about the Church as the People of God. I’m a rubber-hitting-the-road kind of person (now you’ve made me REALLY self-conscious — D’oh!), so I asked the group to discuss how what we were studying might or might not be relevant to our congregation. The room went absolutely quiet. So I said, “I had a professor in college who used to say to his classes, ‘If you don’t try to apply what you’re learning to everyday life, then you’re simply engaging in mental masturbation.’ I would say the same thing here. If we’re not able to say how this concept of the Church as the People of God might or might not apply to our congregation, then this Bible study is nothing more than mental masturbation. We enjoy thinking about these things, but then nothing else happens.”

    (In truth, I almost said, “We enjoy thinking about these things, but then nothing comes of it,” but I caught myself before I did.)

    Of the four of us in the room, two were men and two were women. One of the women visibly blanched when I said the word masturbation, but she’s still talking to me, so I guess no harm, no foul.

    All puns aside, you’ve boiled things down quite succinctly and accurately. Given the age, and sensibilities, of most of my parishioners, I’ll have to choose carefully whether or not I can share this concept with some of them.

    Your allusions remind me of a sermon one of my classmates preached in chapel back in seminary almost 20 years ago. Her text was from Genesis 18, the promise to the newly renamed Abraham and Sarah that she would bear a son very soon. She spoke of Abraham and Sarah bedding down in the promise, and then exhorted us to bed down with God, that is, to give ourselves over to the God who promises life for us. It was a very sensual sermon, but not the least bit erotic. She’s a gifted preacher, and I wish I could do her sermon justice.

    Thanks for your post. It’s gotten the…em…creative juices flowing 😉

  3. Mike L. says:

    I’m glad you didn’t keep that post to yourself. I agree and I’ve been to many of those churches. That is one of the reasons I’m part of the church alumni association.

  4. Trait says:

    Neal, I was having a conversation with friends a few weeks ago and specifically used the term, “spiritual masturbation.” While I think it caught them off guard at first, when I had a chance to explain myself, they totally bought it as a metaphor. I couldn’t agree more with your post. It’s crazy how much we think alike sometimes. Maybe it’s because a few years ago as a wide-eyed freshman, I had a good mentor.

  5. Jan Edmiston says:

    Love it — this should at least be an article somewhere. Maybe TheOoze?

    We listened to Fuckups of the World Unite in worship (clearly the evening service) last night. The (almost) perfect song.

  6. anniem says:

    Ahh, masturbation. It used to be so XXX. Then, when we were growing up it was very Fox. Now it’s downright ABC, maybe even PBS. In the morning. This allusion is ripe for the world of metaphor! And you, brilliant English major-slash-President of your Christian university class, shall usher this metaphor into the world of the church. I predict a landslide of masturbation metaphors for the upcoming political season. Can you see it? Masturbation electorate! Masturbation DNC (or RNC, pick your devil)! Masturbation Nation!

    Yale better watch out, young Jedi Mastur.

    Sorry for the controversy, whatever it is. Being a revolutionary is a tough and lonely road. You’re laying the bricks on a path that the general public will thoughtlessly follow soon enough, not that they’ll be aware of your hard work–or the terrible names they called crazy people like you while you were laying their path. But living this braver, more honest life has the advantage of vetting your piers rather quickly.

  7. Neal Locke says:

    Thanks, Annie. I needed that today.

  8. Walerie says:


    Amen, brother!

  9. Shannon says:

    When I initially heard about the “drama” of your blog, I realized that I needed to read it before I said anything pro/con. I will admit, that I have had a hard time finding a place to worship because of many of the issues that you spoke about. During some life altering trauma, Christ shined a window of light back into my life (as I had walked away for some time). My life is so different because of all that I have been through and all that Christ has taught me. To me church is not about finding a place that has the best music, or has the best donuts, or the coolest people. It is not about making “me feel good”. Church is about finding a home to praise God, learn more about him, and share that love with one another. It is about connecting with my brothers and sisters and holding one another up. There is amazing love in Christ, but I think we are afraid to really loving one another! I will admit, I am not a very outwardly controversial person (nor can I spell wurth chit), too many of my own stupid issues. I totally agree with the metaphor, while I will admit it was a bit shocking. The reality is that as people of Christ, we are not serving him like we should. I think we need a good kick in the ass at times and really need to look at our motivation and direction in our service to Christ.

  10. Walerie says:

    I think this is genius. And it is a little funny that it instead of it being shunned it kinda blew up and most peeps like it.

    To each his own!

  11. Thanks, Neal, for the recent comment

    Though I’m sorry not to be meeting you at Columbia next year, I wish you will in your journey and look forward to continuing our blogging relations until circumstances allow. If I can be of any help with Scottish stuff, do let me know.

    Regarding this post, a pastor I know refers to Taize music as “spiritual masturbation.” Though I disagree with him, I think his traditional presbyterianism understands much of the music to accomplish exactly what you described in your post.

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  16. Wao, although I have often thought of this problem in our modern church, never occurred to me to think of it the way you put it. Since it is not a brand new issue (self indulgent church), we have heard sporadically a pastor or two challenging the church to wake up and to some extent the church has even got used to the rebuking but no action is taken. So sometimes, it is needed, perhaps a very unusual and strong analogy to put peoples’ sleeping brains into thinking, considering and committing.
    Although I would never dare to use this analogy, it challenges me to keep praying for a revival to our sleeping church, and I thought it was only a problem in my country!!!

  17. Lauren Evans says:

    Thank you for writing this. I know I’ve come to the party very late, but I found this through some searching on Google (and oddly, not from reading your blog, which I’ve done for awhile now) and you have no idea how relevant this is to my life and my current evening of existential ponderings.

    I’m not sure if you’ll be at Princeton when I get there this fall, but I do hope to meet you some day. I appreciate the way you think about church issues.

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  19. cenzo says:

    pat yourselves on the back with your idle hand.

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