August 30, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A young man sits at home, alone, absentmindedly surfing the internet. He’s had a stressful day at work and doesn't have anything in particular to do with his evening. He’s tired, he’s bored. He decides to look for porn.

It’s a scenario that plays itself out tens of thousands of times a day. Except that on this day, the ending is different. 

He heads to Google, and types “XXX.” The search engine returns the expected and sought-for list of porn sites. But in the midst of the search results appears an unusual link title - a shocking juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane - and out of curiosity, he clicks on it. 

And instead of the porn he was hoping to find, he has found the help he needs. He has found XXXChurch - an oasis of sexual sanity in the midst of the pornographic desert that is the Internet.

XXXChurch playfully boasts that it is the “#1 Christian porn site on the internet.” (“Mostly because there isn’t a second one,” quips Craig Gross, 37, one of the co-founders of XXXChurch.)

The unusual Internet-based “church” was founded in January 2002 by Gross and his fellow Californian youth pastor Mike Foster. “I saw just such a need amongst young people when it came to the issue of pornography,” Gross told LifeSiteNews.com in a recent interview. The goal, he says, was simply “to create a safe place online where people could get help, they could feel like they’re not alone.” 

The website offers everything from free internet accountability technology (X3Watch), to thousands of testimonies and confessions from current and former porn users, to courses designed to help men and women quit porn or strengthen their marriages. 

And it has proved wildly popular. So far, more than a million people have downloaded X3Watch, which enables users to send periodic reports of their Internet surfing habits to an accountability partner, while the website welcome tens of thousands of visitors a month, a large number of whom stumble on XXXChurch while searching for porn.

“When I started this 11 years ago, I had no idea it would grow to this size,” Gross says. “Originally it was just for young people, but as we got into it we realized that more and more people, men, women, young and old were dealing with this.” 

“Personally I don’t see a bigger issue facing families and marriages today than pornography.”  

'Jesus Loves Porn Stars'

Part of the success of XXXChurch can be attributed to the widespread publicity it has received thanks to its self-consciously unconventional approach to fighting porn. In fact, perhaps no word sums up XXXChurch better than “edgy.” 

From the aesthetic of its website, videos and pamphlets, to its slogans and its outreach tactics, XXXChurch has consistently pushed the envelope, blurring the line between pop culture and Christian ministry. Gross himself has for years adopted a personal style and wardrobe more akin to an “emo” rockstar - complete with black ear studs, black clothes, and jet black hair swept carelessly to one side - than a Christian pastor (although, judging by recent videos and photos, he has tempered his style with age). 

But perhaps nothing has stoked more controversy than XXXChurch’s decision to print Bibles emblazoned with the slogan “Jesus loves porn stars” and distribute them several times a year at booths at some of the largest porn conventions in the country.

This part of its outreach has earned XXXChurch an unwelcome form of hate mail: that from fellow Christians, who have accused the group of twisting Jesus’ message, or of even being in bed with the porn industry.

"XXX church you people are wicked and God will destroy you!  repent!  XXX church is evil," reads one such example. Gross laughs off these e-mails, and posts them for entertainment value on his website along with the hatemail he receives from porn aficionados and other anti-Christians. 

But the group has also attracted the more balanced critiques of reputable church leaders, who, while enthusiastic about XXXChurch’s goals, have questioned the prudence of their tactics. In fact, The American Bible Society turned down XXXChurch's contract to print the controversial Bibles, writing that the wording "was misleading and inappropriate," forcing Gross to search elsewhere for a publisher.

Another Christian leader who has criticized XXXChurch's approach is no less than Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.   

"I have no doubt that Jesus loves porn stars, and the Bible is perfectly clear in its grace-filled message that Christ came to save sinners,” Mohler wrote in a blog post on his website after news of XXXChurch's unusual ministry first hit the mainstream media. "Jesus ate with notorious sinners and engaged in conversation with them.

"Yet, the presence of a Christian ministry within the confines of the Erotica Expo is a step beyond the example of Jesus, I would argue. There is a difference between talking to a prostitute about the Gospel and entering a brothel - much less buying a booth." 

While saying that he doesn't "want to at all question the motivation of the guys behind this," he adds, "I do think that the packaging and strategy and tactical thinking behind this can be pretty problematic."

"What about a special edition of the new Testament, or in this case a paraphrase of the New Testament that would have on the cover, 'Jesus loves concentration camp guards' or 'Jesus loves pedophiles,' or 'Jesus loves gossips, or liars or tax cheats?'  The question is how can we accomplish that task of loving the sinners without associating with the sin?"

But Gross says he ultimately has little patience for those who question XXXChurch’s outreach without having seen it in action, or witnessing its fruits. 

“Most of the critics have never gone, have never known anyone in the industry,” he says. “For me to tell somebody you can’t do something, and you don’t know anything about that, I would just…I’m not going to listen to it. I’m going to listen to people who saw what we’re doing.” 

And for Gross, whether you agree or not, what they’re doing is quite simple: following Jesus’ example of reaching out to the outcasts, the marginalized, and sinners, and telling them the truth – that Jesus loves them. 

To give love, not to rescue

But here again, it becomes apparent why some Christian leaders are uncomfortable with XXXChurch’s message. For a man who has dedicated his life to fighting porn, Gross seem strangely reticent to affirm that the reason his group goes to porn conventions is to rescue men and women from the porn industry.

“I don’t think we’re there to get them out. I don’t honestly want to say that we have an agenda,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m here as your friend to save you.’” This, he suggests, is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. 

“I would say our goal is – whether it’s people who make the films, or people that are in the films – let them know that Jesus loves you. I feel like those other things work themselves out after a response to that message is given." 

If this seems like a naive, or excessively soft, approach, there are plenty of critics of XXXChurch who agree. But it’s also hard to argue with the results.

Take, for instance, the case of Brittni, who was listed as one of the 12 “hottest” porn stars in the world by Maxim magazine in 2010. Last November, thanks to the influence of XXXChurch, she shot her last porn film, and has since joined forces with the anti-porn organization, reaching out to her former colleagues.

Yet, while Brittni only left the industry seven months ago, she traces her conversion to Christianity to long before that, during a brief hiatus from shooting porn. In the intervening years, she continued to shoot porn, while preaching Christianity to fellow porn stars on film sets, or during appearances on the raunchy Howard Stern show. 

It was an odd marriage that was doomed to fail in the long run: either Christ or porn had to go. But Gross is adamantly opposed to the idea that simply because Brittni continued to shoot porn, that she hadn’t actually encountered Christ. 

“For me to say you can’t have a relationship with Jesus if you’re still in porn, I’m not gonna go there,” he says. “As soon as someone makes a decision at church, you think their lifestyle is cleaned up as soon as they step in the car? They’ve got a lot of baggage still, stuff that they’ve got to now figure out. I’ve seen Jesus change people’s lives, sometimes overnight, other times it’s a long process." 

“To me it’s a difference of opinion," he adds. "I’m not going to start with, ‘Get out of the porn industry.’ You start with love. I mean Jesus spent time with people, he loved people, he invested in people. He went to where they where.” 

In the end, Gross argues, it comes down to a failure on the part of Christians to believe that the message of Christ’s love is enough, a lack of faith that is often accompanied a prideful belief that it is within our power to change other people. “I feel like it’s a trust issue with the Lord,” he says. “Like we don’t trust that God is who He says He is enough to change people’s lives. We think that we’re supposed to be the ones that have to control all that?"

Porn superstar Ron Jeremy and Craig Gross – BFF

In no case is the complexity involved in an outreach to the porn industry more evident than in Gross’ long-time personal friendship with porn superstar Ron Jeremy – arguably the most enduringly popular porn actor in the world. 

Gross met Jeremy some six years ago, when the two men were asked to debate each other at Boston College. “I remember saying to my wife when I left that day, I hope [me and Ron] get to have dinner later,” he recalls. “I didn’t realize how easy that would be." 

“I asked Ron afterwards, ‘Do you want to go to dinner?’ He said, ‘Are you buying?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’” 

Since then, Jeremy and Gross have traveled all across the United States and the world, debating porn at countless venues before tens of thousands of listeners. And in the process they’ve struck up a personal friendship that extends far beyond their porn-debating schtick – earning the pair the nickname of “the odd couple.” So close have they become that earlier this year, when doctors discovered a life-threatening aneurysm near Jeremy’s heart, Gross was the first person at the porn star’s hospital room, at Jeremy’s personal request.

Jeremy recalled that conversation during a recent interview with ABC. “This is the exact conversation," he remembered. "‘Craig are you free for a couple hours?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Are you still close to God?’ He goes, ‘Last time I checked.’ ‘Well, I’d like you and Him to come down to Cedars-Sinai Hospital.’” 

While Jeremy has spoken of being a "changed man" since his near-death experience, he appears to still be involved in the porn industry. Gross says he gets asked all the time when Jeremy will leave porn. But he says, that’s not up to him. His job, he says, is simply to make sure that Jeremy knows who Jesus is. “Ron is a guy that has a lot of questions. I don’t think it’s by accident that we’ve become great friends,” he says. 

In the meantime, Gross’ friendship with Jeremy has enabled him to reach far more people with his message than might otherwise have been possible. “I can’t go to New York University and draw 2000 kids,” he says. “If somebody brought me in to speak they’d get maybe a couple hundred kids. You bring Ron, you get a couple thousand.” 

How to quit porn

But there is a downside to all the publicity surrounding XXXChurch’s porn convention outreach, and Gross’ famous friendship with Jeremy. If you didn’t know better, you might think that all XXXChurch staffers ever do is hang out at porn conventions or with porn superstars. And if that's an approach you disagree with, you might write off their work completely.

But in reality, XXXChurch spends a handful of weekends per year at porn shows. The rest of the time is spent attending to the core of XXXChurch’s work: helping everyday men and women navigate the treacherous waters of a porn-on-demand culture. 

In the 11 years since Gross founded XXXChurch, much has changed. Porn has become more ubiquitous than ever before, while Gross himself has become a father. Now, he says, “I’m not worried about your kids, I’m worried about my kids.” 

Much of Gross’ time is spent traveling around to churches, raising the alarm about pornography as the elephant in the living room, and giving congregations the tools they need to respond to it. The problem with porn, he tells his hearers, is that it’s a “cheap substitute” for something that was “designed to be so great,” to bring two people together. “I think it’s a far cry from sex as it’s created to be.” 

For those who have learned this lesson the hard way, and want to quit, the first thing Gross tells them is, “I don’t think that you’re going to do it on your own.” 

“It’s a very private thing, most of the time,” he explains. “But if it remains something that you’re trying to battle just by yourself, I don’t think you’re going to have success. The first thing is that you’ve got to be open, honest with somebody. Maybe not the whole world. With somebody that you can say, ‘Hey I need your help.’"

“There’s shame. I get it. I get all the reasons not to" open up, he said. "But man, I’ve never man anybody who’s gotten over this issue by himself. I don’t think you’re going to have success.” 

That’s where XXXChurch’s accountability software comes into play. Download the software. Install it on your computer. And have regular internet surfing reports sent to a trusted accountability partner. 

But the second thing necessary, says Gross, is hard work and sacrifice. And this is the thing that a lot of people are unprepared for. “This could be the fight of your life,” Gross says. “It probably will be.” 

While Gross advocates "patience" in the fight to overcome porn, to those who protest that they have tried to quit and failed, he doesn't mince words. “I’m not calling you lazy. But, ‘Oh, I’ve tried this, it didn’t help.’ Well, did you really? I think I could tell in five minutes. Have you really put in the work? Do you really want to change your ways? Do you really want this? "

“I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I prayed, and it didn’t work.’" he said. "Have you made any sacrifices? Have you changed your patterns? Have you gotten rid of the iPhone and downgraded? Have you made any sort of sacrifices or changes in your behavior so that you don’t go back to this? Who’s on your list that has access to your e-mails?" 

“There’s a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, I tried.’ I just question, have they really put in the work?”