January 13th, 2010

I've been re-thinking the whole youth ministry sex talk.

While I haven't given one yet, I think it's good to think about this far ahead of actually doing one. Especially in the light of what I really want to communicate if and when I get to have these kind of conversations with students.

First I want to really examine what we are communicating with the message “no sex outside of marriage”. Let me first say I wholly ascribe to this line of thought. But I must say that I do not like what undertone(s) this message communicates. I'd rather come with a message of “it's ok to make mistakes (sexually)” (I'll further explain what I mean shortly)

I want to start with the more traditional message that we are giving students. With the message of “NO SEX” I think we state a few things. We state that feelings of sexual nature are something that are bad, or a hindrance to living a full life. It also communicates a message that says that you can seriously compromise your faith if you participate in sexual activity. It also can lead to shame and possibly being ostracized by peers and other “christians”. And finally it communicates a sense of regret and shame if one does make a mistake.

While these things are not overtly prominent or even things that we want to state, sadly we do communicate these things whether we want to or not.

Maybe the whole “pledge card” or “promise ring” theory isn't paying off as well as we'd like. Actually lots of studies (christian and secular) have come out within the year that show that all these programs really do is delay the onset of sexual activities for the participants. I'll say it again in case you forgot. Studies over and over show that “christian” students are almost indistinguishable compared to other students. And I think we are only perpetuating this when they feel like they can't relate to other students in a normal way.

Those who do identify with the christian heritage are incapable of being able to share with the rest of the student population because they are supposed to “be a certain way” otherwise they are not seen as a good christian.

Let's do a case study:
Scenario 1: Student C (for christian) is talking with student R (regular non-christian) and student R confesses that they have recently become sexually explorative with their significant other. Student C also has actually had the same experience. But student C feels that they cannot share this experience with student R because student R knows that student C is a christian. 2 things happen here, both negative for student C. 1st student C now has missed an opportunity to relate to student R, even on basic friendship levels. Student C misses an opportunity to just process the situation with another person. 2nd Student C misses an opportunity to share a gospel message with student R. Using the personal experience of grace and the ability to admit a mistake could be an open door into student R's life that student C could have been a part of.

Well pick up scenario 2 after we further examine what it looks like for a new way of dealing with sex.

I think the idea of “it's ok to make mistakes” is a better way to talk about sex. Before you get all fussy and think I'm way off track, hear me out. (Though I know I will most definitely upset a number of people.)

I think if we took a poll of church members there would be a surprising number of people who have made “sexual mistakes”. Pre-christian, post-christian, pre-marriage, in high school, in middle school, in college. First let's have the humility to admit our mistakes and recognize the grace that covers those mistakes. Should we have made those mistakes? Probably not. But we can't change the past. But that doesn't mean we should make others feel guilty because of their mistakes. Especially students. I'm NOT saying that we should go out and sexually experiment knowing that it's ok. This point needs to be hammered home. I admit my mistakes, no need to name them but I am willing to recognize them. This is the starting point.

While we want the best possible results for our students and we want to live lives that honor christ, we often fail and fail hard. But THAT'S OK. It really is. Really.

This is where we start with students. We start with the message of hope and redemption. We don't start with the consequences and pain that comes with failure. I am not denying that with failure comes consequences and pain. To yourself, to God and to your future mate. These are realities. But sex is not bad. And with a “no sex” message, sex becomes something to be seen as an enemy instead of a gift. We need to start to help students realize that they probably will make mistakes, we hope they won't, but they probably will. And if for some reason they do make the mistakes, which we hope they will try and avoid, that the more important thing is that with the hope and grace of christ they can start over and be redeemed. Shame and guilt and regret shouldn't be tools used to scare teens or make them feel bad about mistakes.

I want to communicate to students that the hope and goal is to remain chaste, pure and holy. To reserve sex for marriage and marriage alone. But I want to do this in a manner that allows students to be comfortable with their story. The story that includes (for many of them) sexual mistakes. I would even go out on a limb that many of the adults in our congregations are still not ready to be comfortable with their whole story, sexually mistakes and all. While they have confided them in their spouse, I would venture to say that they don't readily offer them to others, out of fear and shame and regret. All things we are trying to avoid.

When we convey a message that IF we make mistakes we can be alright about them. That mistakes should not ruin our ability to have a life in christ and a life with other believers and I think it conveys our willingness to relate to other people who maybe don't share the same stance on sex.

Back to our scenario.
Scenario 2: Student C and student R are in a conversation where student R shares that they have started to sexually experiment with their significant other. Student C also is in the same situation. Now we see the possibilities for a few things to happen. Student C now has a place to share their emotions and feelings. Student C can now openly share that they have been going through the same thing. Student C will hopefully be willing to share that their belief says that this probably wasn't the best thing to do, but instead of the perception that sex is bad and that they should feel bad about the situation, student C now begins to share how the experience has helped shape their understanding of how certain actions lead to not desirable results. Student R will hopefully realize a few things, mainly that as a christian, student C is a real person and willing to admit to mistakes instead of having to keep a certain “pure” image. This situation will also hopefully offer an opportunity to talk about redemption and grace. That even in a situation of regret over things done (sexually) that the regret is not something that should be a hindrance to the rest of your life.

For when we begin to talk about regrets (sexual and others) we often feel oppressed because of them. We often have a hard time moving on from them. Even when scripture talks heavily about leaving our old lives behind and moving on to a full life. And we as christans need to develop better theology when it comes to regrets. We need to watch what our messages say to those who have gone through what we are trying to avoid.

Case studies:
Scenario 3: A student who has had sex shows up and hears a message saying that sex before marriage is wrong and to live a good christian life we should not have sex. That student is automatically disenfranchised because they internalize the message that they are not a good christian. And may even think about dropping their faith.

Scenario 4: A woman shows up to church and hears a message that life is valuable and abortion is wrong. Problem is that she's had an abortion, has seen herself as redeemed and is wanting to follow christ with all her heart. She stands at coffee hour and hears others saying things like “I could never be friends with someone who had an abortion.” or “A woman who has had an abortion cannot be a christian.” Our subject is now feeling like crap.

I think these scenarios show how our good intentions and actually good messages, when not really thought through can in fact alienate people who shouldn't be alienated.

I don't think it sends a good message to people or students on many issues including sex, where people need to realize that they are loved and mistakes are just that – mistakes.

The final message is that when talking about sex with students we need to carefully examine what our message says and doesn't say. We need to assume that when we talk about how not to do something, we must assume that there are people in the audience that have done that thing. And we must be willing to say to those people that “it's ok to make mistakes”, but the goal is to have the least amount of mistakes.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.