GOOD HOPE, Ala. – It's one thing for a church in a big city like Dallas or Atlanta to tackle the ticklish topic of sex. It blends in with the urban scene.
It's another thing when a small-town congregation puts up billboards with the phrase "Great sex: God's way" on rural highways to promote a sermon series. You can't even legally buy beer in Cullman County, and a preacher is talking about S-E-X on Sunday morning?
Daystar Church, whose congregation has grown dramatically under pastor Jerry Lawson, has run up against the sensibilities of a conservative north Alabama community with a monthlong focus on sex.
Sex just isn't an appropriate topic for church, some say, and others are upset over the church's signs, which advertise the sermon series and accompanying Web site.
"It's really stirred up the people here," said Good Hope town clerk Joann Jones.
Evangelist Roland Belew, a self-described fundamentalist and former trucker who now preaches at a truck stop, said the whole idea goes against the teaching of New Testament apostles.
"Paul said preach the Gospel," said Belew. "Talking about sex ain't gonna get nobody to heaven."
The controversy is a bit ironic considering the church's overall point is about as straight-laced as they come: That God intends for sex to be enjoyed solely within a heterosexual marriage, and that anything else — adultery, pornography, homosexuality, even "sexual arousal" outside of marriage — is sin.
Churches have been talking about sex and sexual purity more often. In November, the Rev. Ed Young of the Fellowship Church based in Dallas drew nationwide attention by challenging married couples to have sex for seven straight days in the name of strengthening marriages.
But an expert who tracks evangelical Christianity, Larry Eskridge, said few are addressing the subject as directly as Daystar.
"It sounds like an example of one of those church-growth, market-savvy campaigns going out to an area where you wouldn't normally see it," said Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illionis. "I could see where in that particular setting, that could raise some eyebrows."
City Hall has gotten a few complaints about the church's sexy signs from a handful of people like Belew, 71, who preaches in a trailer off Interstate 65.
Even the 22-year-old mayor, Corey Harbison, worries that the "great sex" message will force parents to talk about the birds and the bees with inquisitive young children before either is ready.
"I understand what they're trying to do. I get it," said Harbison. "(But) some people just aren't ready for that. Good Hope is just a good old, country town."
Lawson, the pastor at the center of the debate, said the purpose of his sermons and the billboards was to get Christian parents talking to their kids about sex before they learn too much immorality from TV or playground buddies.
"I think some people are kind of missing the point," said Lawson.
Lawson is the lead pastor at Daystar Church, which is affiliated with the Church of God and draws about 2,000 people on Saturday nights and Sunday to its $5.7 million campus on a hilltop beside I-65. People come from as far away as the northern suburbs of Birmingham, 45 miles to the south.
The church's attendance is slightly larger than the entire population of Good Hope, which has three other churches in its town limits and five others within a stone's throw. The community is a mix of farm homes, middle-class subdivisions, mobile home parks and a few McMansions.
Daystar was a country church called Glory Hill Church of God when Lawson arrived nearly nine years ago. The church "relaunched" itself in the pattern of an urban megachurch in 2002 — there's Starbucks coffee in the lobby and video screens everywhere — and took off.
"In the next seven years 100 people became 2,000 people," said Lawson, who sports the hip, young megachurch look — short hair, a goatee and dark clothes, minus a tie.
The church has a second-hand clothes shop for needy neighbors, and Lawson said it sends out 100 volunteers at a time for local work days. Members even are trying to raise $10,000 to put new sod on the baseball field at the local high school.
But it's the "great sex" series — timed to coincide with Valentine's Day — that got people talking about Daystar. More than anything, people noticed the blue billboard along Alabama 69 with the "GreatSexGodsWay.com" Web address beside a drawing of a bride and groom.
Belew worries that vulnerable teenagers will get the idea from the sign that God says it's OK for them to have sex.
"It's a delicate subject. Preach the word of God and people will live right and get right," said Belew, who has a big wooden cross and U.S. flag in his front yard.
The mayor said some longtime residents already were a bit leery of Daystar because it's gotten so big so quickly, drawing members from other cities and dwarfing everything else in town. The focus on sex — particularly the billboards — turned some off even more.
Lawson said his sermons are more than marketing at Daystar, which dreams of opening satellite churches in big cities. The church needs to be out front on the topic of sex when even kids' TV shows depict illicit relationships and homosexuality, he said.
"It comes down to God saying the most healthy place for sex and the only right place for sex is within a marriage — one man, one woman, and one marriage," Lawson said.
Ed Scarborough's landscaping company is almost directly beneath one of Daystar's "great sex" billboards. He doesn't go to Lawson's church, and he likes the idea behind the signs and the sermons. But still ....
"For Christian people I think it's portraying the message God sent in the Bible," Scarborough said. "But I do wonder if a non-Christian would get it."