Craig Gross and Mike Foster, two young pastors from California, were looking for direction when one day in 2001, Foster said, God came to him in the shower and said one word: "Pornography." Foster, 33, said he did not often get such visits, and so he treated it as a divine calling. Since it came with no further instructions, the two reasoned that it was up to them to figure out what to do next.
And so it came to be that on a Sunday afternoon three years later, Gross, 28, and Foster were tooling around a mall parking lot here in a black Scion xB festooned with ads declaring, "XXXChurch.com: The No. 1 Christian Porn Site." An air freshener with an image of Jesus dangled above the dash.
"You can see people checking us out," Gross said.
For Gross and Foster, who sometimes refer to themselves as "the goofballs," it was just another day of 21st-century ministry, combining technology, self-promotion, sensationalism and humor to address what they see as an equally up-to-date scourge on modern society: Internet pornography. Their approach bears little resemblance to what most people think of as church.
The two started their online ministry, XXXChurch.com, shortly after Foster's experience in the shower. Instead of posting Scripture on-line, they flashed, "Porn. Sex. Girls. Guys," in order to reach the people who wanted to see pornography, not ban it. Once the curious visit the site, they can download a free computer program called X3watch, one of several "accountability" programs designed for people who want to stop looking at Internet pornography but cannot do so on their own. Whenever a user visits a pornographic Web site, the program alerts his or her designated "accountability partner."
So far, Gross and Foster said, 100,000 people have downloaded X3watch, including all of the pastors at the church Gross attends. In his own case, his wife gets a list of every site he visits.
"Filters don't work," Gross said, speaking of programs that block Internet pornography. "Kids are smarter than that. Filters don't bring up conversation. A filter avoids the topic. Accountability forces you and another person to talk about what you're looking at. That's hard. We would have more downloads if it was a filter."
Gross and Foster have also set up booths at pornography trade shows and handed out postcards that said, "Jesus Loves Porn Stars." They joined with a pornography director to produce a public service announcement aimed at keeping the materials away from children.
Then there is the Porn Mobile.
As a couple approached the car at the mall, demanding an explanation, Gross took the lead. He had studs in both ears, and surfer bangs with streaked highlights.
"We're pastors," he said. "We're trying to get people to talk about the issue of pornography."
"Awesome," said the woman, Cindy Mosher, 40, who said she had just come from church. "My previous husband was involved in porn, and that was one factor that destroyed our marriage."
"I'm in marketing, and you have to go for extremes," Ms. Mosher added. "Christian churches are quite traditional. To bring people in, maybe we have to go to extremes."
Internet pornography is one of the vexing issues for churches today, especially those that take strict moral lines on sexuality. Some consider viewing pornography a form of adultery; others decry erotic images as addictive and destructive to marriage.