This is part three of a three part series. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.
by Scott Gillenwaters
There are those who believe there is no need for sex education in the church. They argue if we simply teach students to live their faith, sexuality won’t be an issue. The problem with this thinking is there is not a lot about dating and sexuality in the Bible. What is mentioned in the Bible is more about what not to do than what we should do. King David (2 Samuel 11) or Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) are certainly not examples of how we want our students to live.
I believe there is no topic that is off limits for a youth group to study. Whether it’s personal finance, how to cook a steak, dealing with divorce, or a topic of sexuality, the church shouldn’t shy away from it. If parents aren’t talking to their kids about it, why shouldn’t the church jump in? Teaching our students about human sexuality and engaging them in conversations relevant to their daily experiences give students what they deserve. We honor God by honoring our students and teaching them to honor not only their bodies, but also the bodies of others (their marriage partner, other genders). We honor youth parents by giving their kids good information on a subject many of them are afraid to talk about.
Creating a Safe Space for Discussion
The church must also be there for students who engage in sexual activity. A church that turns away a student who is sexuality active or who comes out as gay should reexamine its ministry to students. We should strive to create an environment where students feel comfortable enough to share in a small group what’s going on in their lives if they choose to.
I’ve never been with a group of teenage guys who didn’t, at some point, talk about masturbation. It is said 80% of teenage guys engage in it at some point, and the other 20% lie about doing it. I had a youth worker friend who consistently told her students masturbation was a sin and they should never do it. This created a lot of guilt among her students, because many of them were doing it anyway. By condemning the act outright, she had created an environment where the students didn’t feel free to even talk with her about it.
Sexual identity and gender preference are two topics from which the church often runs. Hopefully students feel free to talk about their sexuality in front of their youth group without fear of judgement. Not that every students needs to admit their sexual identity but, if a student is struggling with his or hers, the youth group or a small group should be a safe place for that discussion. Regardless of your church or denominational stance on an issue, a student who opens up before a group should be loved unconditionally by the group members. Jesus gives us a perfect example of how to love those the world has difficulty loving.
Broaching these topics in a discussion of sexuality may seem edgy, but it is necessary if it’s what your students are talking about. We also must make sure we are telling students the truth. One popular lie often heard in a sex workshop is that those who have sex another person leave a little part of their emotions behind with that person. This is often demonstrated by giving each student a piece of masking tape and asking them to go around the room sticking it to other people’s shirts and then pulling it off. In the same way the tape gets less and less sticky as students go around the room, it is explained, we too became less able to stick to our marriage partner if we’ve had lots of other sexual partners along the way. This is simply not true; human beings are fully capable of emotions at any time. We don’t lose any of that capacity. There are plenty of married people who had sex with others before marriage yet are completely in love with one another now. They are no less capable of love than someone who has never had sex. It’s like telling a parent not to use up too much love on their first child or they wouldn’t have any left for the second one.
I’ve confronted (lovingly, of course) several instructors who have perpetuated some untruths like this. They usually tell me they are simply repeating what they had been told growing up. Students have been told they’ll go blind or develop acne if they masturbate, premarital sex will ruin their marriage, only gay people masturbate, and any number of other misleading information from various sources. We must make sure any information presented by the church is solid and truthful. Even if you don’t want your students having sex before marriage, you can’t lie to them in order to scare them out of doing it. Once they find you’ve lied about that, they will wonder what else you, as their leader, lied to them about.
The rewards of having a safe place in which student can talk about their sexuality are great. Once a group is seen as open, once a leader is defined as approachable, once a church is known for acceptance, there is no end to what students will share. Long after students graduate from the group, they will remember what they learned there and how safe they felt.
Scott Gillenwaters is the Director of Student Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn.