by Scott Gillenwaters
You can tell a three-year-old not to touch an electrical outlet and, usually, he or she will do what you say. As the child grows older, there may be curiosity as to why the outlet shouldn’t be touched. The same is true for sexuality. The church has been content to simply tell students to stay away from sex but, as teens become older and more experienced, they begin to wonder why. Churches have a tremendous opportunity to share the glorious topic of sexuality with students. God created sex after all, and God wants us to enjoy it to the fullest.
Why should the church tackle this topic? Why not just let students learn it at home or at school? There are several reasons:
All teenagers have questions about sex, most of which are about their own bodies and the bodies of others. Girls generally know more about their bodies because of their menstrual cycle and breast development. They almost have to have a conversation, usually with their mother, about these topics. Because guys don’t have anything that happens to their bodies that has to have immediate attention, they often don’t talk to anyone about what is happening to them biologically. Even though girls learn about their own bodies, they also want to know about guys. Students want to know they are like everyone else, and find encouragement when they realize they have similar feelings and questions as their friends.
I’ve been asked a hundred times where the Bible says you can’t have sex outside of marriage. Where does the Bible say you can’t masturbate or look at pornography? Our students are asking these questions, and we can’t just say these things are wrong, and not share why. The church cannot simply say, “It’s a sin, don’t do it.” Students deserve more than that and, if they don’t get straight answers from the church, will find them elsewhere.
Our students are not only thinking about sexual issues, many are also engaging in various levels of sexual activity. We may preach against sex outside of marriage, but that’s not keeping our students from experiencing it. We can tell students looking at pornography is a sin, but websites are visited by Christian teenagers every day. Attending church doesn’t remove the curiosity or peer pressure. The church needs to insure our students are getting good, solid information from reliable sources, and be willing to meet them where they are in their level of engagement.
Teens in the backseat of a car, or left home along with their boyfriend or girlfriend are tempted just like anyone else. A teenager at a party wants to fit in just like the others in attendance. The church’s responsibility is not to put teenagers in a bubble and protect them from these situations, but to give them the tools and information to make informed decisions when faced with moral decisions.
One of the best things about churches teaching sexuality is we can get away with teaching a broader curriculum than schools or other places. We can teach the biology of the human body, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (STD), but we can also share our views on sexual morality and conduct. A school may get into trouble if a health teacher speaks for or against abortion, but the church can be very honest about that topic. A school can’t say intercourse outside of marriage is a sin because that crosses a line schools don’t like to cross. Churches, however, can share their views on the subject without public recourse.
Sexuality is a wide topic. It can include dating etiquette, how to ask someone out, what’s expected on a date and in a dating relationship and even how to break up with style. It can include dating abuse; how to avoid it and how to help someone who’s dealing with it. Many teenagers fail miserably trying to deal with these issues because they have no role model to teach them. The church is perfectly positioned to teach these topics.
The church has been and should continue to be the moral compass for our students. Where else are students going learn morality? TV? Music? Movies? Each other? The message students receive from the church will be much different than the message they get from other sources.
The church must be careful to not be seen as a place of judgement, but as a place of acceptance. We can’t scare teens into not having sex, but we can educate them so they can make informed choices. If they make choices they later regret, the church can be there to help them through it.
If we guilt them, they will go elsewhere and resent the church. If we lie to them, they will doubt other things we tell them. If we ignore their sexuality, they will see us as irrelevant. If we love them, share with them the truth, and show a willingness to take on difficult topics, then the church can become a place to celebrate the great gift of sexuality given to us by God.
Scott Gillenwaters is the Director of Student Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
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