Ever listen to how a freshman in high school describes the start of their high school experience? They often talk about their goals and dreams. They are optimistic about their future and the relationships they will share with new friends. But only three short years later I listen to these same students as seniors. They tell their stories like a wounded vet. One who has stood in the trenches and had the shrapnel of life thrown at them. These once wide-eyed and optimistic freshmen are now war-torn and bruised. They are matured by their experience with pain and heartache.
This is especially troubling when I discuss with them the experience of relationships while in high school. Specifically, I am interested in the romantic relationships they’ve shared. I find that most of those who committed to abstinence or purity did not follow through on this commitment. By the time they have entered college their decisions surrounding sex have completely changed. Unfortunately, some have even had the choice of having sex stolen from them through rape or abuse.
The reality of the world we live in hits our youth hardest while in high school, or right after graduation. The number of choices compounded with a growing number of media influences and messages a teenager is faced with makes it very difficult for a teen to find success in achieving his or her goals. Optimism is replaced with anxiety, depression, fear and discouragement. However, we can’t just blame media or the teen for everything that is happening. We’ve added to this lack of optimism with our own language that speaks more of apathy then it does empathy, especially when it comes to discussions surround ing our sexuality.
Curbing this trend is important. Injecting a dose of optimism has to happen, especially in the life of the teenagers we encounter on a daily or weekly basis. We need to resurrect optimism and bring forth hope for those that are lost. If we don’t engage teens now, then the trends of earlier sexual activity, depression and self-worth will continue to only get worse, not better.
Allow me to offer five suggestions for how we can break these disturbing trends and begin helping our youth remain optimistic on issues of sex, sexuality and relationships.
First, we can never forget that teens have it rough. Too many systems like schools, churches, sports programs that were once created for youth now serve the adult. As Chap Clark mentions in his book Hurt:Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers we are seeing systematic abandonment of youth. Schools are more worried about upsetting the parents then they are the education of the child. Sports programs become more of show- and-tell for parents then they are an extracurricular activity for kids. Combine this with the pressure a teen has to be popular or find acceptance and they don’t get a whole lot of breaks.
Teens are also constantly marinating on the topic of sex. Denying this or never discussing this only complicates the issue. If we are going to begin having any hope in restoring some level of optimism when discussing this issue the first thing we have to do is realize that there is an elephant in the room and its name is “SEX.” Getting it out in the open, sooner rather than later, is the best advice I can give any youth leader, pastor and parent. We can make this one subject, if handled in a disarming way, that doesn’t have to be as rough as we make it for our teens.
Second, we have to choose language that is encouraging. I recently attended a conference where a group of teens explained their time at the event in a nutshell: “Don’t have sex cause it will kill you. Don’t do drugs because they will kill you. Don’t drink alcohol because it will kill you… don’t do anything because it could, well, kill you!” I had to laugh because this was their take-away. However, I guarantee this take-away will not be one that impacts their behavior all that much in the short-term or at all in the long-term.
Unfortunately, we much too often think of ourselves as moral policemen and policewomen. I love the way Jim Henderson describes this concept in his book Jim and Casper Go To Church, “Jesus didn’t just teach principles, He taught practices. He gave people something to do. He didn’t just teach them about forgiveness, he told them to forgive their debtors. He didn’t just talk about love as a concept (eros, phileo, and agape), he told people to love their enemies. He didn’t just tell people to think about changing their behaviors, he told them to repent (change their actions). Sure it’s challenging, but it doesn’t take a weekend seminar to understand what he means.” If we are going to see youth succeed by recognizing the beauty of waiting for sex in marriage, make wise choices when it comes to drugs and alcohol and find success in completing their goals we have to start injecting a dose of optimism with “do” statements rather than “don’t!”
Third, we have to give equal emphasis to intervention (the actions after) as we do with prevention (the actions before). I’ve been privileged to work with many pregnancy resource centers in our region. These ministries see sex as something that should be celebrated and shared in the marriage relationship. They often provide a preventive message of waiting to have sex. This is to prevent teens from experiencing the potential for physical, emotional, social and spiritual consequences from having sex early. However, a majority of the work these ministries provide is after the fact, or through intervention.
This is where our work as youth leaders can have the most impact. Sometimes the way we talk about Christian sex is more about waiting and holding onto our virginity then it is about anything else, like our relationship with Christ. Because we make it all about waiting we can make those that have already had sex feel less than human. One teenage girl said, “I’ve tarnished my virginity so why start over? I am tarnished and it’s too late for me.” She represents the voice that I think many youth share.
The reality is that we are all tarnished. That is why Jesus died for the sins of all human beings. That includes you and me, not just that teenager that made a mistake. Yes, we have to be unapologetic about the sin these teens are engaging. However, if we are going to be successful in seeing teens engage in fewer risky behaviors then we have to start thinking about how we discuss them with teens. If we are not pointing them towards the restoring and redeeming work of Christ then they will never be able to experience the rebranding that takes place when we are in his presence.
Fourth, we can’t be surrogate parents to our teens. We need to find a way to empower parents to do their job! If we are encouraging teens to make a commitment towards purity, then we need a commitment from their parents as well. No one is going to have more influence over their son or daughter’s success in remaining pure then that teen’s mother and father.
Too many youth programs I have seen do not involve parents. This blows my mind. Why would you exclude such an important element in a teenager’s life? Study after study tells us that a parent’s involvement is key to a teen’s success. For instance, a study by Fathers Direct found that kids want their dads to talk with them and spend time with them, just hanging out. The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health found that the greatest factor in keeping kids away from high-risk behaviors was the degree of closeness, caring and satisfaction they experience in relationship with their parents. Can’t we do something within our ministries to begin addressing this very serious issue?
Ironically, it is those parents that attend church more often that have the hardest time talking about sex. Using both the National Study of Youth and Religion telephone survey data and the first wave of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health survey data, Dr. Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, has found that the more important religion is to parents, the more difficult it is for those same parents to talk to their kids about sex. Empowering parents to become the authority on this subject is a must.
Finally, we need to understand that teens today have an incredible capacity for relationship. They desire it in ways that my generation and the ones preceding it never imagined. Part of this is because of the lack of authentic and tangible relationships teens share in their media saturated world. They are lonely. They desire to be known deeply. With nothing real in their world they are left with a void. That is one reason they are so aggressive in their pursuit of romantic relationships. But I think that this also makes them perfectly ripe for the one relationship that changes everything. The relationship we share in Christ.
I’ve come to appreciate the words of Pastor Timothy Keller when thinking about relationship. Recently, I heard him speak of the need for gospel renewal. It’s this idea that if we are really going to see change in people and in the communities that we play and work that something radical has to happen in the lives of those involved. This means that Jesus has to be central to everything and every person. Often we try to stir up the crowds and use sin (fear) to get people to do the right thing. However, in this process we are not changing the heart. We are not getting to the fundamental self regard, self centeredness, and self absorption of the human heart out-of-the-way. We are just manipulating it. Unless the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is leading the way it will never bring forth change in the person or its surrounding community. According to Keller, A person who always tries to obey will never really find acceptance, however, the person that knows they are accepted finds it easier to obey.
I believe that if we are going to begin resurrecting optimism on issues of sexuality then it is go ing to have to start with the one relationship that stands above them all, Jesus Christ. Sometimes I can think this sounds cliché, but it is true. It is in Jesus that we find hope. It is in Jesus that we can find a reason to be optimistic. It is here that real change begins to occur.