by Scott Gillenwaters
Teaching sexuality in the church can be a tricky proposition. Communicating your intentions with all of the players involved is important. If your church has a program council or something similar, that’s a good place to begin. Make sure the council knows what you’re planning, and keep them informed throughout each stage. Hopefully, your pastor is part of that group. If not, make sure he or she is in the loop.
Parents are another critical group with which to communicate early. Make sure they are aware long before the event is ready to launch. If parents have been part of the planning team, and feel they’ve been part of the process, there is much more likelihood they will attend the event with their teen as well as encourage their friends to attend with their students. A great way to include parents is with an initial survey to seek input on the perceived needs of their teenagers.
Certainly students need to be part of the process also. Surveying them and having them on the planning team will go a long way in giving them ownership of the event. Having students write questions, anonymously, in advance is not only helpful in gaining buy-in, but it also assures you’ll cover topics of interest to them. I have accomplished this by handing index cards to a room full of students, asking everyone to write a question on the card (or write something if they don’t have a question) then have everyone return their card. By having everyone return a card, no one knows who asked a question and who didn’t. Doing this anonymously will garner you some great questions! Be prepared.
If you’re going to broach topics which might upset other groups or churches in your community, informing them of your plans could help a lot. I invited a controversial speaker to my youth group many years ago, and a neighboring church sent a few of their youth to confront him. Had I informed the other church beforehand, perhaps we could have avoided the awkward situation that occurred.
Determining the format for your event is critical. When I first began leading “sex weekends” we began on Friday evening, continued all day Saturday, met during the Sunday school hour on Sunday and again Sunday night. We had both student sessions and parent sessions, then combined the two on Sunday night. Getting families to commit that amount of time may be difficult today. If the event is going to meet more than once however, it’s important that each family commit to the entire event. One format possibility is to begin with a gathering of youth, then have parents join later. That way, you can do the event in an evening or a morning.
If your goal is to just communicate good information to teenagers, parent sessions may not be necessary. If your goal is to help teens and parents begin a dialog about sex and sexuality, then having both student sessions and parent sessions is important.
Many churches prefer to separate boys and girls when talking about sex. However, I’ve found it works best to meet together. There can be an initial awkwardness, but learning about each other in front of each other goes a long way toward promoting discussion later. I remember being separated for Sex Ed in the 6th grade. As soon as we came back together, we asked the girls what they talked about and they asked us what we talked about. Guys and girls need to learn about each other and, when you do it together, each knows what the other has learned.
Deciding how much information you want to cover is important. If a weekend event won’t work at your church, consider doing a series of topics at your regular youth meetings. You can even do a monthly or quarterly “Sex Night” if you want to spread things out.
We’ve recently been doing an annual Human Sexuality Night at our church (which the students affectionately call Sex Night). We collect questions for a few weeks in advance, then the presentation team finds the answers. I’ve been fortunate to have a Health Department official and a few medical professionals among my youth parents who, along with me, research the answers beforehand, then present the answers during Sex Night. We’ve projected photos, passed around objects and used any other aids to help explain the answers. We’ve even made games for some topics (Try playing Pictionary with body parts!). We’ve brought in speakers who are “experts in the field’ but, in my experience, the students don’t respond well to them. If you’re going to talk about personal things, it’s best to have them presented by someone the students know personally.
Evaluating the event is important in order to make sure you not only covered topics of interest, but also in a way that made the participants comfortable. Addressing topics which students have already studied, or by presenting things in a boring way, will definitely lower your numbers when you do it again. Sending an electronic survey after the event, or even having participants evaluate the event before they leave will prove very helpful for future workshops.
Early planning, inclusion of all interested parties, presenting a quality seminar and a thorough evaluation are all critical components of a successful event.
Scott Gillenwaters is the Director of Student Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
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