Preaching to End Child Sexual Exploitation

Hi Nephew. You Funny(Creative Commons Image by Keoni Cabral on Flickr)

Human Trafficking Awareness Day is coming January 11, 2014.

Perhaps you have noticed: The sex trafficking of children is in the news — a lot — or at least much more than it used to be. The public movement to end this injustice perpetrated against children is gaining momentum.

When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I signed up to preach at a chapel service. I felt called to do a sermon to address the “cultural pimping” of our children. The night before, I wondered if I could really do this — talk about this topic during chapel.

I think the Holy Spirit helped me understand that I only had to talk about it; God’s children are actually living it.1

A recent four-part series in the Minneapolis StarTribune highlights the impact of the movement to end injustice against children: people in many public sectors are seeing that trafficked children and young people are victims of a crime, not criminals. More is being done to make sure trafficked children have the services they need to heal and create new lives for themselves. People are asking, “How can we reduce the demand for children, thus the number of people who seek to buy children for sex?”

Faith communities are involved in this movement. People look to faith communities to be a voice of societal change and multi-generational teachers of prevention. One example of this is a recent Fact Sheet from the U.S. Department of State.

I invite you to consider how you may give a sermon to help end the injustice of child sexual exploitation for Human Trafficking Awareness Day or at some other time of the year.

Hermeneutical Lenses

Here are four perspectives to ponder in preparing a sermon on this topic:

  • The mission of Jesus: (Luke 4:16-22)
  • Other biblical themes and stories

Pleading to God to protect the vulnerable (Psalm 83:1-3 NIV)
God calling to us to work for justice (Isaiah 58:9-12)
God working through the community (2 Kings 4:1-7)
God’s love for and commitment to children (Mark 9:36-37, Mark 10:13-16)
Ending exploitation involves risk (Acts 16:16-19)

  • Child sexual exploitation: the issue

The Playground
Rescuing Child Sex Slaves in Minnesota
Video from ECPAT
StarTribune article on training hotel workers
StarTribune article on Hopkins (Minn.) cheerleader

  • Service of the church on behalf of the world

Prayer for children: public and private
Education: Provide prevention training for parents and others
Relationship-Building: Connect with other prevention advocates

  • Advocate for laws to protect trafficking victims
  • Support organizations working to prevent and address sexual violence
  • Be a voice to the culture

Aside from the Bible and social statements, we can simply join with others of good will who are also working to prevent child sexual exploitation. Congregations are vital “good neighbors” in the community, who seek to ensure the well-being of their own children and work with others for the well-being of children in the community.

Sermons provide an opportunity to break the silence that can surround this issue. Child sexual exploitation thrives on secrecy and shame. Silence increases isolation and helplessness. When a topic is not discussed in a congregation, people are left to not talk about it, to deal with it on their own, or to find other places to talk about it.

Speaking can open the door for community and empowerment, allowing people with common concerns to gather for support and action.

There is a loss from child sexual exploitation that is both deeply personal and communal. We can let people know that the faith community is willing to grieve the loss and take their deepest pain seriously.2

In our sermons we can open up new possibilities:

  • frame the conversation in terms of transformation and new life;
  • equip people for healthy relationships;
  • bring Good News to God’s world and invite the faithful to participate in that;
  • deliver a message to victims: “God loves you, and this abuse was not your fault.”

We can even deliver a message to perpetrators: “Today is the day to start making healthy choices in your life, so others are not exploited.”

In all likelihood, you have survivors of child sexual abuse in your congregation. To prevent re-traumatizing them, provide awareness ahead of time that you will be talking about child sexual exploitation.

  • Be prepared for issues that may surface. This includes knowing your own pastoral care limits for counseling abuse survivors and perpetrators and having your list of therapists to whom you can refer people.

Talking about this issue without providing positive alternatives or stories of hope-filled change is not helpful. Make sure you provide as much hope, good news, and stories of positive transformation as possible.

  • Embed your sermon in a larger context. Surround it with liturgy that is healing and hopeful as well as educational opportunities outside of worship.3 If child trafficking is in the news, people are already thinking about the topic. If your congregation is working on “safe church” policies, people are working through a similar, difficult topic.
  • Pay attention to the age of your audience. I try to avoid details of exploitation; people hear enough of that on the evening news. Find ways to talk about the topic in language that is appropriate for a variety of ages.
  • Don’t try to do too much with one sermon. Working for justice is a long-haul endeavor, not a one-shot deal. This issue is urgent, and one sermon will not solve the whole problem.
  • Love your congregation, as Paul instructs us in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2.

Caring for Yourself

  • Does the sermon give you hope or energize you? If not, it probably won’t do much for your congregation either!
  • Pay attention to your emotional needs and your health. This is a difficult topic to discuss, even if you haven’t experienced exploitation yourself.
  • Nourish your soul with prayer or meditation. One of my favorite books for this is Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan C. Merrill.
  • Have good professional boundaries. For example, if I meet with someone one-to-one, I meet in a public place. Follow this link for more information on clergy boundaries from the FaithTrust Institute.

Blessings on your journey to speak this truth within your congregation and beyond. May the Holy Spirit inspire you to be the voice that is needed on behalf of children.

Visit for more information, back issues of the newsletters, and resources for congregations.

  • Wednesday Prayer: weekly e-devotion and prayer focused on prevention, leadership, God’s love for children.
  • E-Quipped for Prevention: bi-monthly e-newsletter of ministry ideas, resources, training. The November 2013 issue provides additional resources for Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
  • Cherish Our Children Facebook page for the latest articles, ministry ideas, training, and resources.
  • Sample worship service created by Pastor Terri Blomberg and Diaconal Minister Amy Hartman.


Some of the ideas presented here are from the author’s M.A. thesis Release to the Captives: Preaching on the System of Commercial Sexual Exploitation, Luther Seminary, 2006. The rest has been gathered along the way from the experience of giving sermons, listening to survivors, reading numerous articles on the topic, hanging out with other prevention advocates, and asking questions of various people.

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination,pp. 12, 45-46. (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2001)

See Marie Marshall Fortune’s Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin (The Pilgrim Press: New York, 1981), p. 221. Also, see sample worship service created by Amy Hartman and Terri Blomberg.