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Billboards Target Christians to Stop Addiction


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DALLAS -- Forget buying that special someone a diamond necklace or a heart-shaped box of chocolates this Valentine's Day: a Dallas-based ministry thinks it has a better idea: "Her gift for Valentines? Stop looking at porn."

That's what billboard messages proclaim, posted by NetAccountability, a nonprofit software company that aims to help Christians confront the "secret sin" of pornography.

NetAccountability co-founders Brandon Cotter and Scott Covington say their target audience isn't those who see nothing wrong with perusing X-rated Web sites.

Rather, it's Christians caught up in a behavior their faith views as immoral -- people such as pastor Bernie Anderson, who says addiction to sexually explicit images threatened his marriage and his ministry.

"It was like a double life," said Anderson, 33, who pastors Seventh-Day Adventist churches in DeSoto and Waxahachie near Dallas. "The most powerful thing about it is that it's a secret. Nobody knows but you ... so you're just kind of fighting yourself."

If national surveys are any indication, it's a personal battle waged by millions of Christians.

Almost 18 percent of people who called themselves born-again Christians admitted visiting Internet porn sites, according to a 2000 survey of 1,031 adults by the evangelical group Focus on the Family. In a 2002 Pastors.com survey, more than 50 percent of responding pastors reported viewing pornography in the previous year.

"It's definitely the church's dirty little secret," said Mike Foster, co-founder of the anti-porn site XXXChurch.com, which hosts online support groups for Christians trying to kick the habit.

About a year ago, Foster's site drew thousands of hits after a Southern California billboard facetiously invited motorists to check out "the No. 1 Christian porn site."

Similarly, Cotter and Covington say they hope NetAccountability's billboards will draw notice to an issue that many churches ignore -- and offer help to Christians searching for it.

Cotter and Covington, both in their early 30s, left jobs in the technology field to start the ministry two and a half years ago, using personal money and grants from nonprofit foundations.

Since then, NetAccountability has sold more than 5,000 copies of software the pair developed that lets an "accountability partner" monitor the Web sites visited by the recovering porn user.

Partners receive log-on names and passwords that let them view the history of sites visited by the other person. NetAccountability stresses that the process is secure so that no one besides the agreed parties can access the information. The software sells for $49 a year.

The billboards going up this week direct motorists to a Web site called PureRestoration.com. It touts "purity workshops" designed to help Christians for whom accountability software is not enough to overcome porn addictions.

"I've seen pornography impact guys all around me," Cotter said. "I've seen it tear up marriages, guys losing their jobs, all over the board. In a lot of cases, they were Christian guys going to church, with otherwise 'quote' normal lives."

Anderson certainly fit into that category.

For 20 years -- even as he attended seminary in Michigan and became a pastor -- he found himself drawn to pornographic Web sites, movies and magazines.

In seminary, he'd get up at night, telling his wife he needed to study. Actually, he'd surf the Internet for porn.

Later, he'd spend hours accessing porn sites from the computer in his church office.

"Then there's the down side of it," Anderson said. "You go take a shower, clean up and say you'll never do it again. Yet the next day, you fall right back into it."

Last summer, the guilt and shame finally became too much for him to bear, he said.

The father of three confessed his compulsion to a pastor friend and -- like an alcoholic or drug addict going for treatment -- enrolled in an exhaustive five-day workshop offered by a Christian counselor.

Anderson learned to deal with the motivations for his behavior and how it kept him from true intimacy in his relationship with his wife, he said. Recently, he celebrated "100 days sober" from porn, he said.

"The reality is, you can beat it, but you're always aware that you have to continue to fight the battle," Anderson said.

"There's always going to be that temptation."

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