Safe Sanctuaries

February 5th, 2017

I was a teenager when I was first immersed in the sexuality conversation.

A family member and I had an honest conversation about their struggle with homosexuality. This was back in the 80’s in the Midwest, when being gay was akin to having leprosy. I remember the contrast of loving the person I was talking to, and at the same time feeling weird about what we were talking about. For me, it was a seriously awkward moment. It’s also a conservation that, among others, continues to inform my growing understanding of human sexuality.

Sexuality is a huge, huge issue for our students. It’s a big deal, we have to talk about it.

I realize that a blog on teens and sexuality in the era in which we live is exactly like opening Pandora’s Box. The moment we begin talking about this topic, so many theological and political issues flood out. Are we a political conservative or liberal? Does our theology lean left or right? How do we really know what sin is anymore? Can anyone from one “side” of the teens-and-sex conversation really ever find agreement with someone from the “other side?” It’s a difficult Pandora’s Box to open, but we’ve got to open it, and we have to talk about it.

 So, from my perspective, as I’ve spent time with teens, and as I’ve listened to youth workers talk about teens and sexuality, a few ideas come to mind…

Youth ministries must be places of safe sanctuary.

There are moments in my life that have been better informed by art than by anything else. As the son and brother of artists, much of my life has been influenced by noticing the beauty of life and marveling at the way others have been able to capture it. And for me, art is the realized expression of so many deep and rich theological ideas that I can’t fully understand without the artist’s work. Rembrandt’s visual fleshing out of the prodigal son is the best theological unpacking I’ve seen of the concept of safe sanctuaries. Rembrandt visualized the very real and true narrative of how God receives all of us regardless of where we’ve traveled, who we’ve slept with, what we’ve watched, where we’ve wasted our time, and how we’ve attempted to fill our lives. Many of us preach long messages about Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-32; Rembrandt made it come to life. And in the expression of his paintings and drawings of that passage, he paved a way for us in youth ministry to live a different narrative.

Who should youth workers seek to become for teens? Arms open. Expectant faces. Hearts eager to receive.

By “Safe Sanctuaries” I simply mean that our youth ministries must be places where teens from all lifestyles and perspectives feel at home. Youth ministries must be for all teens, not just the ones that agree or adhere to our theology or doctrine. I realize that looks different depending on the theology of where you are located and by so many other factors where you work. Regardless of where you land on the theology in the LGBTQ conversation, we can all agree that Jesus invites everyone to God’s kingdom. Our youth ministries must reflect Jesus’ mission.

Youth ministries must be places of grace.

Kids are going to make mistakes. They’re going to feel weird. They will vocalize their struggles. Those realities offer youth workers opportunities. We can choose to be condemning, belittling know-it-alls, or, we can extend God’s redemptive grace. Kids will get pregnant, they’ll get caught surfing for porn, they’ll unleash a few sexually charged words, etc. Our response to those moments makes the difference whether the teen finds refuge in our ministry, or wanders away to discover God’s grace in another way.

Youth workers must remember that we are not the teen’s parents.

As I have listened to this conversation among other youth workers, this idea seems to be lost on many of us. Somehow we believe that we are smarter than a teen’s parents about this issue – like we have more truth or are wiser than their parents. In most cases, this simply isn’t true. Remembering that we aren’t the parents of the kids in our group tempers what we say to kids.

Unless a parents asks us to, it’s not our job to have the sex talk, it’s not our job to teach kids about intimacy. Give parents room to live out their place in their teens’ life.

Youth Workers must tell the truth about sexuality.

We have a tendency to be cagey in our conversations with teens about sex and intimacy. We paint an ideal picture of sex. We tell a struggling teen that marriage fixes sexuality. We imply that lust ends at the altar. We tell them how wonderful sex is, then we tell them to wait. Don’t imply that sex will make their lives great, that it’ll end their sexual struggles. If you’re going to talk about sex in your youth ministry, paint a true picture, not one infused with Hollywood endings.

Youth Workers must take teens back to scripture.

This should be a no-brainer, and yet, I often wonder if we offer teens more social commentary about sexuality than we offer instruction on biblical principles. Our theological contexts inform each of us differently, but that doesn’t negate the need to help teens read and understand God’s design and instruction on the issues.

Imagine the teen whose perspective about sex has been informed through porn, news media, etc. They’re unmoored. Take the opportunities you have to connect them with the truth of God’s word.

I realize that list is incomplete. Truthfully, it’s difficult to fully explore all of the issues related to sexuality in one blog post. For me, my goal is to be a youth worker who’s available to walk with teens through all their struggles, not just those related to sexuality. The more we commit to journey with teens, the more we’ll build students who are lifelong disciples of Jesus.

tim-bakerTim Baker has been a youth worker for nearly 30 years. He’s the editor of YouthWorker Journal and the author of more than twenty books for teens and youth workers. Tim’s the parish administrator and a youth worker at Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview, Texas. He’s the father of three kids and has been married to his wife, Jacqui, for 25 years.

This post was originally published by youthworker.com.


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.