by Barbara M. Kohl, D. Min.

Scripture speaks of virgins and a Virgin Birth, of the erotic and the carnal, of heterosexual and homosexual behaviors, of the body and the flesh. Does the youth group your son or daughter attends ever address these issues? If not, the morning paper does, the evening television news does, the weekly news magazines do, their peers do, and their schools may. . . Do the churches have a heart for teenagers, who live in a sex-laden atmosphere? If so, if our teenagers are to be light and salt in their own environment, someone must help them make sense of sexuality. What is the effect of such a sex-laden atmosphere on teens today?”                                                                                                                                                                   Christian Medical & Dental Society[1]

“Sex is not seen as a topic to be dealt with but as a way of life,” says Walt Mueller, speaking of popular teen television shows like Dawsons Creek and The O.C. “All the characters are sexually active and confident in their sexuality.”[2] In society in general widespread teen sexual activity is not regarded as a problem. Sexual desires are considered a natural aspect of life, and teens – like adults – should have the “right” to express those desires freely and to enjoy their sexuality. The only “problem” is what is perceived by some to be inadequate provision for the “reproductive needs” of teens. Providing “adequately” for reproductive needs means, for the most part, providing easier access to contraceptives and condoms and better training in “negotiating” with one’s sexual partner in order to avoid possible negative physical and emotional effects. It also means providing confidential access to “safe” abortion.[3]

“Don’t be offended if no one speaks up when you ask for discussion. Sex is a taboo subject here.” I have heard this warning from organizers of my seminars on teen sexuality from Ukraine to Lebanon to Malaysia, from Argentina to Sri Lanka. These leaders could not have been more wrong; there is never enough time to deal with all the questions and concerns brought up by the audience. Parents, teachers, and other adults are desperate for help in dealing with teen sexuality, and almost inevitably at the end of the seminar one or more of the younger adults come to me and say, “I wish my parents had heard this when I was a teen!”

“I can’t put up these posters. They have the word sex in them!” The two posters in question had been prepared by the ethics department of the local seminary for distribution to both churches and secular schools in a city in Ukraine. Beautifully designed and colorful, one listed the differences between love and lust, and the other the benefits of saving sex for marriage versus the negative consequences of premarital sex. The head of the ethics department of the seminary had offered copies of these posters to the speaker, the assistant to the pastor of the church he was visiting. In another church, in North America, a young father was reprimanded for saying in an interview during a Sunday worship service, “My wife and I talk with our children about sex.”

These are common scenarios throughout the world: Christian adults working with teens want help in teaching sexual purity, both because that is what God wants for young people – and what is best and healthiest for them – and in order to counteract the untruthful and destructive messages teens are receiving from the culture. And too often the church is silent, giving no help to either teens or adults while at the same time giving teens the impression that there is something terribly wrong about sexual desire. Meanwhile teens, wanting to understand their sexual desires and how to deal with them, are left with their peers, the media, and possibly their school sex education program as their guides in sexual matters. The guidance they will get from these sources will in all probability be similar to that given by an experienced adolescent psychiatrist to Miriam, a 15-year-old girl who had decided to have sex with her boyfriend:

I walked her through the questions that I encourage boys and girls to ask themselves before they have sex. Was she doing this for herself? Did she trust this partner? Could she talk to Julian? Would she be comfortable saying no, even at the last minute? Had she and Julian practiced with other sexual experiences before deciding to do this? What was her plan for protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease?[4]

Regardless of what the world says, teen sexual activity is a problem today; it is not healthy for teens to be having sex. Premature sexual activity results in pregnancy, disease, and emotional trauma, and in weakened opportunity for successful future marriages.[5] It also causes heartache for those who love and live with the teens involved. Teens need help in understanding and dealing with their sexuality, but not all kinds of “help” are beneficial. What is your church doing to help your teens to understand and rejoice in their sexuality and to please God in this area of their lives? What more could you do? What could you do to help teens outside the church?

Christ calls the church to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). In obedience to God’s command to “fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds” and to “teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 11:18-19; 6:6-7), parents should be teaching their children what Scripture says about sexuality. They, not the church, should be the primary sex educators of their own children. If parents are unwilling or unable to fulfill this responsibility, then the church’s role is not to relieve them of their responsibility but rather to challenge them and to equip them to take up this task. The church can also supplement parents’ teaching in many important ways. (See diagram.)

Parents should be the primary sex educators of their teens. Pastors and lay teachers equip parents and supplement parents’ teaching. Youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, and other adults also supplement parents’ teaching.

Together, parents and the church should take up the task of teaching teens why they should save sex for marriage, how they can do that successfully, and how they can enjoy healthy relationships as single young adults. They should also introduce teens to a loving and forgiving God, from whose love in Christ nothing can separate (Romans 8:38-39), a God who runs to meet and embrace one who has sinned (Luke 15:20).

I. Equipping Parents

Most parents admit to two reasons why they do not talk to their teens about sex: embarrassment, and not knowing what to say or how to begin. “What should I teach, and at what age?” is the most frequently asked question. What they often do not realize is that, whether they are consciously teaching about sex or not they are in fact, as Stan and Brenna Jones point out, their child’s principle sex educators and they “will either have an anemic, unintentional, mixed-up, and hence negative impact, or a powerful, deliberate, clear, and positive impact.”[6] The church can help parents to effectively teach their children about sex so that they will honor God in their relationships, both as teens and later as adults, and so that they will avoid the negative and far-reaching consequences of premature sexual activity.

A. What Parents Need to Know

The many aspects of teaching sexuality are summed up in Jones’ first principle of sex education, Sexual education is the shaping of character:

Education about sexuality goes beyond providing information that is accurate and timely. We must also shape the values and attitudes of our kids, shape their worldview, practice what we preach (modeling), provide our children with the emotional strength they will need to make godly decisions, and instill in them the skills to implement the good decisions they make. Most importantly, their behavior will spring from their hearts, which will be formed by their personal relationship and devotion to God. Thus, influencing their spiritual growth must be a top priority.[7]

Sex education is an essential element in discipling teens, and the church can help parents to fulfill their responsibility by helping to train them in at least four important aspects of parenting:

1. Preparing their children for puberty

Before a child begins to go through the physical, intellectual, and emotional changes of puberty he or she needs to know what lies ahead. A boy needs to be prepared, for example, for the uncontrollable “squeak” as his voice deepens, for the first nocturnal emission, and for spontaneous erections at inopportune times. A girl needs to look forward to her first menstrual period as a wonderful sign that she is physically becoming a woman, rather than being terrified that something is radically wrong with her when she suddenly discovers blood on her panties. Does the age of nine or ten seem too young to start discussing sex? Many state school sex education programs for 10- and 11-year-olds teach contraception and have students practice putting condoms on a banana or a cucumber. Pediatricians are advised by their superiors to include this information in routine visits of children in this age group.[8] Both boys and girls need to know that emotional ups and downs are normal and that they may sometimes feel, as one boy expressed it, “as if I don’t know myself any more.” Identities can be fragile in this stage of development as pimples appear on the face, feet and hands grow faster than the rest of the body, girls gain unwanted weight, and each wonders if what he or she is experiencing is “normal,” especially if they develop earlier or later than their peers. Many young people lose confidence in themselves during puberty.

Young people need to be able to talk with their parents about all these issues as they arise, but for parents whose own parents may never have talked with them about such things this is difficult to do. The church can help give them confidence and the tools to fulfill their role.

2. Preparing their teens for opposite-sex relationships

The information needed to prepare children for the changes of puberty is relatively easy to obtain; a medical book, a book on puberty, or even a talk with a nurse or a doctor can provide what is necessary. Preparing teens for opposite-sex relationships is not so straightforward. Parents must first ask themselves questions such as “How old should my child be before he or she begins to date?”[9] “What type of dating is appropriate (group, double, single) at what age?” “What are appropriate activities for a date, and where?” “Should there be a curfew?” “Should we always meet the prospective date first?” “What level of physical contact is acceptable?” Or, “Is it necessary, or advisable, to date?” Who will make these decisions – parents, or the teens themselves? Parents need to discuss and come to an agreement on such issues prior to discussing them with their teens. They also need to know how to reassure their young teens that the strange new feelings of attraction they are experiencing for the opposite sex, at the same time both scary and exciting, are normal. Many young teens – and many young adults – otherwise feel that they are “bad people” for having these feelings.

The church can help parents to think through these issues. The church can also address with parents topics they will need to discuss with their teens, topics such as the difference between love and lust; the differences between males and females, especially but not only in terms of what arouses each sexually, and what it means to respect these differences; the “slippery slope” nature of physical intimacy and the danger of indulging casually in intimacies intended to arouse the body for sexual intercourse; the importance of choosing friends wisely; the meaning of sex, which is typically understood by today’s teens as being only vaginal intercourse;[10] and the advantages of saving sex for marriage.

3.   Being aware and available

Patricia Hersch, an American journalist who for years had been writing stories about the “dramatic and the worrisome” in the world of adolescents, decided to become an “explorer” in order to discover the nature of regular adolescent life from the inside. “If ‘regular’ adolescence had been lost in the shadows,” she writes, “I wanted to yank it into the sunlight.”[11] For six years she followed eight teenagers, “talking and talking. We talked in cars, in fast-food restaurants, in their homes, in parks, at malls, at football games, in the halls at school, in my office, on the phone, at the all-night track meet (at 2:30 in the morning).”[12] In the preface to A Tribe Apart, Hersch writes,

“There is a frightening mismatch in America between the lives our adolescents live and the willingness of adults to absorb those lives and talk to teens before trouble occurs. This blindness . . . isolates adolescents from freely communicating with adults, and locks them in a tribe apart. . . Part of the solution to the underlying problem of school violence is so apparent we are missing it. Listen to the kids. (Emphasis in original.) Hear what their lives are like, what matters to them, how things are going in their world. Listen and bring adult wisdom to the discussion. . . This book is rooted in that kind of communication. Its pages reveal not only the hearts and minds of adolescents but also their willingness to talk to an adult who cares . . . even in a world that has disappointed and scared and hurt them, they still want to connect.”[13] (Emphasis added.)

Hersch did her research in the late 1990s, as school shootings in the United States were becoming a terrifying problem; hence her references to school violence. But her solution to the problem of violence also applies to teen problems in general, and her observations are backed up by the results of a Carnegie study of adolescent development: “Young adolescents do not want to be left to their own devices.  . . They want more regular contact with adults who care about and respect them.”[14] This view is contrary to the belief of many adults that teens want to be left alone.

The church needs to challenge parents to spend time with their teens. Adolescence is a journey, as Hersch reminds us, “a search for self in every dimension of being,”[15] and teens need adult help in making that journey.   “The lives of the kids in this book illustrate in subtle and not so subtle ways the need for adult presence to help them learn the new lessons of growing up. . . The kids in the book who do best are those who have a strong interactive family and a web of relationships and activities that surround them consistently.”[16] Parents who do spend time with their teens will be aware of the tremendous pressures on them in terms of sexuality: pressures from their peers to engage in sexual activity, rejection if they don’t, and the impression given in sex education in their schools that teen sex is natural and normal.

4.   Setting standards, guiding, and supervising

Parents are often blissfully unaware of the dangers into which they may unintentionally plunge their teens by not helping them to set standards and by failing to guide them and to provide appropriate supervision. Parties without adult supervision and large parties attended by teens not known to the parents are open invitations to involvement in drinking, drugs, and sex. Free and unsupervised access to the Internet makes it easy for teens to find misinformation on sex and can open the way to cybersex, to enticement by sexual predators, or to an addiction to pornography.[17] The church can help parents in dealing with these issues as well as with the more mundane day-to-day activities of their teens.

B. How to Reach Parents

Your church can reach parents with the information and training they need in a number of ways. You can offer courses on teen sexuality as part of your Sunday School curriculum, using your own staff or members of the congregation who have some training and experience, such as doctors, nurses, or directors of crisis pregnancy centers. You can organize seminars, either as a cooperative effort with other churches and parachurch organizations working with youth or on your own, and invite parents from the community to join parents from your own church. You can provide informal opportunities for parents to come together to discuss questions and problems they are currently facing. In addition to gatherings such as these, you need to provide resources that will make possible further independent study on the part of the parents themselves.

1. Courses

Courses or discussions on understanding and dealing with teen sexuality should include topics such as:

  • Preparing your pre-teen for the changes of puberty. This topic needs to be addressed with parents of 9- and 10-year-olds so that they can prepare their children for the changes that will come. If they begin discussion at this stage, before their child becomes self-conscious about these developments, he or she will be more likely to be willing to talk later on.
  • Preparing your teen for opposite-sex relationships. This could be a course for several weeks for parents of 13- and  14-year-olds and should include discussions on topics such as choosing friends and dealing with peer pressure to have sex; recognizing and dealing with the influence of the media (music, television, movies, magazines) and use of the Internet; dating, setting boundaries, and self-control; self-worth; differences between males and females, and mutual respect of the one for the other; the meaning of sex; real beauty, modesty in dress, and the use of makeup..

Other topics that could either be included in such a course, or offered on their own would be:

  • How to talk with teens. Beginning a conversation on sex is often the greatest obstacle parents face; if they can learn this, from examples and practice, then they can seize teachable moments, take the initiative in bringing up the subject as they sense a need, and answer questions. Teens need to know not only the facts about sex, but also their parents’ attitudes and beliefs. Parental disapproval of sex before marriage, communicated in discussion rather than harshly imposed, can make the difference.
  • Secular views versus the Christian view of sexuality.
  • The benefits of abstinence[18] until marriage and the consequences of premature sexual intimacy.
  • Preparation for marriage. Teens should be encouraged to consider the qualities they want in a future spouse, to pray for that as yet unknown person, and to think about what they would like to be able to say to that person on the eve of their wedding. Will they be able to say, “I saved myself for you”?
  • Reproduction and abortion. A young teen boy was heard casually saying to a friend, “Well, if he does get her pregnant she can get an abortion. He can afford it.” A young teen girl asked, “What happens in an abortion? What do they do to the baby?” With society treating abortion as a simple solution to the problem of unintended pregnancy, teens need to know the facts about abortion: the fact that by the time a girl knows she is pregnant the fetus is already recognizable as a human person, that abortion ends the life of this person, the fact that an abortion can cause physical harm to the mother and long-term emotional distress for both the mother and the father.[19]
  • Answers to commonly asked question on sexuality.

2. Seminars

Some of these topics could also be covered in seminars, where you can bring in Christian professionals (doctors, nurses, directors of crisis pregnancy centers, high school teachers, and others) who often command greater respect simply because of their professional standing and who can address the issues in their area of expertise and offer a broader perspective on some aspects of the topic. A Christian doctor can, for example, address more specifically the medical and social aspects – as well as giving the Christian perspective – of teen sexuality, homosexuality,[20] etc. A social worker or psychologist could address the issue of abuse. One of the most popular speakers at seminars can be a young adult who is just far enough away from his or her teen years to be able to understand their experiences at that time but still close enough to remember how it feels to be a teen.

3. Forum for discussion

Research shows that this kind of informal gathering, in which parents can share their questions, their struggles, and their discoveries is very effective in promoting discussion, particularly with a good facilitator. Such forums, held on a regular basis, can make parents feel comfortable with each other and can reassure them that they are not alone, whatever the situation they face.

4. Resources

Your church library should contain good books, audiocassettes or CDs, and videos on teen sexuality, and parents should be regularly reminded of their availability and encouraged to make use of them. If finances are a problem in obtaining such resources, then consider creating your own: simple handouts, for example, on topics such as “Biblical Teaching on Sexuality,” “What Parents Can Do: Some Ideas for Sex Education in the Home,” “Setting Dating Standards,” and “A Sample Conversation.” Ask speakers in your courses and seminars to allow you to photocopy the text of their talks for your library.[21]

 

II. Supplementing Parents’ Teaching

A teen’s relationship with his or her parents and the ability to communicate openly with them, even about sex, is one of the key determining factors in delaying initiation of sexual activity. This fact cannot be overemphasized. Teens need someone who is readily available to talk with them whenever they have questions or problems and, contrary to popular opinion, most teens would like to be able to talk with their parents about these issues. This is why it is so vitally important that parents be helped to facilitate this relationship. There are, nevertheless, things that the church can do more effectively – and more easily – than parents, and it is in these areas that the church can and should supplement parents’ teaching. Most parents, for example, will not have the biblical knowledge of the pastor or some of the other church leaders. The church is also able to help create a positive peer culture to counteract the negative peer pressure that teens face outside the church. If they are able, as a group, to hear a common message, and if they are encouraged to be accountable to each other, then they don’t feel so alone.

A. Biblical Teaching on Sexual Purity

Teens should hear this common message on sexual purity in the pastor’s preaching, in their Sunday School classes, and in their youth groups. They should hear that sex is good, a gift of God intended to unite a husband and wife and to give pleasure in the marriage relationship (Genesis 1:27-31; 2:20b-25, Song of Songs); that sex outside marriage is contrary to God’s will and has negative consequences (2 Samuel 13); that sex is not an act to be taken lightly (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), because Christ himself lives in the believer; that it is possible to resist temptation (Galatians 5:22-23) if they truly love God (Ephesians 5:3); that even if they sin they can be forgiven and restored to fellowship with God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) and become again as virgins in his sight.[22]

B.  Practical Training in Healthy Relationships

How can teens learn to incorporate these biblical standards into their everyday lives in a concrete, practical way? How can they learn to recognize the temptations they face and develop the necessary skills to deal with these temptations? One way is through a weekend retreat. We have held such a retreat at my home church in Canada once a year for the past four years. We bring together sixth grade girls (12- to 13-year-olds) from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. Having them together for this extended period allows the girls and the leaders time to become comfortable with each other so that they feel free to talk openly.

The weekend begins with worship and continues with a wide variety of activities. The girls search secular teen magazines for popular views on dress, dating and relationships, and self-worth. They discuss the Christian view of issues such as purity, boundaries, temptation, and resistance skills, using the Bible and the book And the Bride Wore White, by Dannah Gresh.[23] They watch and discuss a video on sexually transmitted diseases and other consequences of sexual intimacy outside marriage. They try to identify what is presently the most important thing in their lives, and then make a necklace with a single pearl to symbolize the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:45-46), Jesus, and their love relationship with him. If they are ready to do so, they write a letter to God telling him their struggles in the area of sex and pledging to keep him in first place in their lives and to save sex for marriage. They watch and discuss a homemade video in which adult men in our church answer the question “What are you looking for/did you look for in a wife?” Toward the end of the weekend each girl is given a luxurious hand massage by one of the adult leaders and – the grand finale – the girls dress up for a cookies and juice party in a beautifully decorated room.

A key element in the success of this weekend is involvement of the parents. Parents of girls who want to take part in the weekend must attend a pre-retreat meeting at which the activities of the weekend are discussed. This year, at that pre-retreat meeting, we had a mother-daughter testimony of how last year’s retreat had transformed their lives and their relationship with each other. On the Saturday of the retreat the mothers come for the last hour. They first form a “guard of honor” for the girls as they come into the party room, and then spend an hour with one of the leaders discussing how they can use this weekend’s experience as a starting point for further discussion and teaching at home. One of the activities suggested is a take-home mother-daughter bible study on topics related to sex, at the end of which both mother and daughter will sign a card pledging themselves to sexual purity.

Such a retreat helps to counteract many of the motivating factors and the unhealthy influences that cause teens to become sexually active.[24] They begin to understand and learn to express in words what they are feeling as they enter this new phase of life, and to stand up for their standards in public. They learn the facts about the effects of early sexual intimacy and some of the skills necessary to be sexually pure, to stand up to peer pressure, and to recognize the false information presented by the media. The hand massage and the party tell the girls that they are of value to other people, and that they should never let anyone treat them with any less respect. The bible studies tell them they are of value to God and show them his standards for relationships and his desire to be first in their lives. The participation of their parents shows them that their parents care about them and want to communicate with them.

Each year both teens and parents are becoming more excited about this “Covenant Girls Retreat.” Teens have said, “This was the best weekend of my life!” and “I learned so much!” Mothers have said, “Thank you for teaching and sharing with us” and “This ministry is so amazing – I want to be involved.” A father said, “I am amazed at how you present these topics in such easy yet memorable ways! I thank you.” Parents are asking for a similar activity for boys.[25] A year-long study for older girls is being considered, as well as a seminar for parents of children about to enter puberty.

C. Creating Positive Peer Pressure

In Sunday School classes and youth group meetings the church can encourage the development of a counter-culture, a group setting in which its teens can support each other in resisting the negative peer pressure they face in other contexts, and can help them to reach out together to their school friends. One very effective way of creating such a culture is the “True Love Waits” program, in which a parent-teen bible study done in their own home culminates in the signing of a commitment card, followed by the public presentation of all signed cards in a special worship service at the church. Holding such a service every year would keep the ideal of sexual purity before the entire congregation and encourage members to hold each other accountable.

 

Student Commitment

 

 

Adult Commitment

Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this 

day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.

 

Signed  _______________­­­_________

Date ­­­________

Believing that true love is pure, I join ___________ in committing to a lifestyle of purity. I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, and my community of faith to abstain from pornography, impure touching and conversations, and sex outside a biblical marriage relationship from this day forward. 

Signed  ________________________

Date ­­­________

“True Love Waits” two-sided commitment card[26]

Studies show that next to a healthy parent-child relationship, the making of a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage is one of the strongest incentives to avoiding sexual intimacy until marriage. Teens who sign such pledges delay initiating sex, are significantly more likely to be virgins when they marry, and are less likely to have a child out of wedlock.[27]

D. Training to Counter Popular Misconceptions

Every day of their lives teens receive misinformation on sex – from their peers, from other adults, from the media, or on the Internet. The church can help to provide correct information, as well as to point teens to reliable sources of such information: books, videos, web sites. Sunday School classes or youth groups can, for example, include discussion on sexual issues in the news, asking what light Scripture sheds on how to think about such issues (Acts 17:11) and how to deal with them in practical ways. Teach teens not to accept anything they hear or read or see without first evaluating the source, and train them how to do that.

E.   Special Events

Special events for children and their parents can play an important role in strengthening the parent-child bond as well as in giving children a sense that they are of value not only in relation to their own families but also in the wider community of the church. One church holds an annual “daddy-daughter” banquet for girls aged 6 to 16 and their fathers. When Charlotte, our oldest granddaughter, went to this banquet with her daddy she felt like a princess! Her sister Clara, two and a half years younger, could hardly wait until she was old enough to go and, long before the event, was planning what she would wear and how she would have her hair done! Little cards that are sent home with the girls, promising a special outing with daddy or some other special treat, can be redeemed in the months that follow the banquet, prolonging the excitement and giving further opportunities for father-daughter interaction. Other special events could be a mother-daughter tea, a father-son camping trip – the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Such special events strengthen the bonds between children and their parents and lay a firm foundation for a relationship that will last into the teen years, confirming a young person’s worth and assuring him or her of a parent’s love and willingness to walk with them whatever life brings. In such a relationship, not only can teens talk with their parents about sexual issues but they will not need to look for love and significance in premature sexual intimacy.

III. Beyond Sex Education

Sex education is but one part, albeit a very important part, of helping young people to mature. Teens become sexually involved for many reasons, and unless the other motivating factors and the unhealthy influences that lead to premature sexual intimacy are either removed or counteracted even the best sex education may fail to persuade some teens to save sex for marriage.  Your church needs to address these issues. You also need to create an environment in which those who do sin sexually may find forgiveness and restoration, not judgment and rejection.

A.  Discipling Teens

A key to teens’ adopting healthy, God-honoring boundaries in boy-girl relationships is their relationship with the Lord. Heather Jamison, like many other young people who seem on the surface to be committed Christian teens, attributes her becoming sexually active before marriage to her superficial relationship with the Lord.[28] Josh McDowell has shown that there is a direct relationship between a teen’s commitment to absolute truth – and to the God who has revealed that truth – and his or her commitment to abstinence until marriage.[29]

Sexual purity is a matter of the heart. Teens who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength (Deut 6:5; Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27), and who want to show that love by obedience to his commandments (Jn 14:15; 1 Jn 2:3-6) will be able to save sex for marriage. The church needs to help teens to realize that their bodies are a sanctuary, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Their song should be:

Lord, prepare me

To be a sanctuary,

Pure and holy,

Tried and true.

With thanksgiving

I’ll be a living

Sanctuary

For you.[30]

Such teens will be salt and light in their own environment, witnesses to their peers of a “better way” in sex and relationships.

B. Strengthening Families

One of the strongest “motivating factors” in teens’ becoming sexually active is a poor home environment: a broken home, or a home in which love is not expressed or there is little interaction between parents and children, or in which the father is either physically or emotionally absent, or where the parents do not “parent.” One young woman, talking about her sexual activities as a teen, told how her mother would find used condoms under their living room sofa – and say nothing – and how her father would meet her in the driveway in the early morning as he was going to work and she was just coming home – and say nothing. Her conclusion: “They didn’t care about me.”

A happy family life and good communication between parents and teens is the best deterrent to premature sexual activity. The church needs to be in the business of strengthening families: honoring and celebrating marriages, providing marriage enrichment and help for struggling couples, and challenging and training parents.

C. Creating a Culture of Forgiveness and Restoration

Heather Jamison asks a poignant question: Is getting pregnant out of wedlock so much worse a sin than any other? In her experience it seemed that for the church the repentance of a pregnant teen was not enough; it was almost as if she was expected to do penance in order to earn forgiveness. If your church is to live up to its calling, it must become a place where sinners – whatever their sin – know that they can seek forgiveness and restoration. In order for this to happen every member of the congregation must see themselves as sinners, saved by grace. As such, they are no better than any other sinner and so they can offer to others the forgiveness that they themselves have received from God on the basis of Christ’s death for all people while they were still sinners (Rom 5:8).

Your church should be a haven to which all sinners feel free to come to receive God’s forgiveness, fleeing to him and the body of believers rather than from him and his people. Achieving this requires engaging all members of the congregation in opening themselves to a change of attitude, as well as specific teaching on how to respond biblically in every situation.

IV. Reaching into the Community

It is difficult for teens to constantly hear conflicting messages about sex. How do they know which voice to listen to? In a Christian home they may hear, “No sex before marriage” but without a clear definition of what “sex” is and without reasons as to why they should abstain. In the church they may hear the same message, or nothing at all. At school they are probably being told that when they begin having sex, which they inevitably will, they should use condoms and contraceptives. They may well hear that message also from health care professionals, and they certainly do from the media. If they are not being sexual they may be ridiculed and rejected by their non-Christian peers, because “everyone is doing it.” Can the church do anything about these conflicting messages?

Even if your church is hesitant to speak out or take action as a church body, your members can. The church can encourage them to act, both as individuals and as groups of concerned citizens. Parents can speak out about the sex education curricula in their children’s schools. Often heads of schools and members of school boards are unaware of the content of these curricula or of the effect of the teaching on children and teens.[31] Informed parents can bring this information to the attention of school authorities and influence the choosing of curricula and materials. Teachers of sex education, social workers, and health care professionals can be invited to seminars offered at the church. Many professionals are poorly informed or misinformed about the facts of teen sex.[32] Abstinence messages can be provided to the media to counterbalance the “safe sex” messages. [33] Church members can write letters to the editor of the newspaper to point out errors in reports or to provide valid alternative viewpoints to articles on sex. Such activism is more likely to happen if the subject of teen sexuality is regularly discussed in the church.

Some will object to the promotion of abstinence to the general public, saying that since large numbers of teens are in fact already sexually active the message they need to hear is the “safer sex” message of condoms and contraceptives. In the interests of public health, they will say, public policy demands the latter message. The promotion of condoms as “protection” from sexually transmitted diseases, however, is misleading. Except in the case of HIV/AIDS, condoms actually offer little risk reduction for transmission of disease.[34] To give teens the impression that condoms “protect” is to give them a false sense of security and may actually increase the numbers of teens who become sexually active. Public health policy should, therefore, promote sexual restraint rather than risk reduction. “Because sexual restraint is an aspect of emotional health and maturity,” says Joe Webb, President of the Medical Institute of Sexual Health in the USA, “it must be the foundation of sexual public-health policy.”[35] Regarding the promotion of contraception for teens, Trevor Strammers, an eminent British doctor, says,

Much teenage sexual activity has little to do with sex. It may be a way of expressing anger or frustration, a means of acting out, or a cry for attention. It is frequently part of a search for love and meaning – neither of which are necessarily found in sex. Concentrating on preventing conception is treating a symptom rather than a cause; it does not address the issue of why teenagers are having early and unprotected sex.[36]

Statistics from the Search Institute in the United States provide an answer to that question, as well as to why teens engage in other risk behaviors. Search has identified “40 building blocks of healthy development that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible.”[37] These “developmental assets” include family support, positive family communication, parent involvement in schooling, a sustained relationship with an adult outside the family, neighborhood boundaries, and religious community. Studies show that among young people who have 31-40 of these assets, 3% engage in sexual intercourse; of those who have 0-10 assets, 32% engage in sexual intercourse. Depression, both a cause and a result of early sexual intimacy, affects 5% of youth with 31-40 assets and 42% of youth with 0-10 assets.

Teens are most likely to commit to saving sex for marriage if their environment is healthy and supportive and if the sexual message from the entire community – the home, the church, the school, the media – is a unified one. The church can play a very important role in making this happen.

V. Transforming Sex Education in and through the Church: Ten Approaches

1.  Hold classes and discussion groups for parents to help them to become more effective in teaching their children about sex and relationships and to give them an opportunity to share concerns and issues with other parents.

2.  Organize seminars, either on your own or in cooperation with other churches, for parents and for others involved in the sex education of your teens.

3.   Involve parents whenever possible in what you do with teens. When parents are involved, communication with their teens improves and teens are less likely to become involved in sexual activities.

4.   Focus on husbands and fathers. If the hearts of men are changed to value women and to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood, then boys will learn to treat girls with respect and girls will not need to seek the affections of boys in order to have the male contact they want and need.

5.   Provide regular opportunities for teens to make a public commitment to sexual purity.

6.  Encourage your members to care for and lovingly confront each other when necessary on sexual issues, speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15-16). Teens should hold each other accountable, adults should not ignore warning signs that a teen is headed for trouble.

7.   Address current issues as they arise in the congregation or in the media. Seize every opportunity to correct misinformation and to give teens and adults alike the facts they need to support their stand on sexual purity.

8.   Find ways to use the public media (print, radio, television) to broaden the reach of the abstinence message

9.   Build up a library of resources on teen sexuality and regularly refer parents and teens to these resources.

10. Display pamphlets and posters on sex and relationships in the church. Keep the Christian message about sex constantly before the eyes of teens to counteract the wrong messages with which they are constantly being bombarded in society.

Summary

In a world in which sexual immorality is rampant and destructive, the church can provide its teens with an alternative culture – one in which the norm is abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage. In such an environment, parents will be encouraged and equipped to be the primary sex educators of their own children, teens will be strengthened and encouraged by peers who share their standard of sexual purity, and every member of the church will care enough for teens to confront them when they appear to be making unwise choices and will forgive and restore them if they fail. The church will undertake to help teens to become mature in every area of life, and will reach out into the community to help to create an environment in which all young people will thrive.


[1] Lewis Penhall Bird, “Why the Church Should Teach Teens about Sex,” Christian Medical and Dental Society Ethics Position Statements Online. www.cmdahome.org

[2] Walt Mueller, “The Truth of the O.C.” http://www.cpyu.org/PAGEVIEW.ASP?PAGEID=29589 Accessed 4/25/05. Mueller is president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CYPU).

[3] Easy and confidential access to abortion services is considered by family planning organizations to be an integral part of providing for reproductive needs. Organizations affiliated with International Planned Parenthood (IPPF) take this approach. One such organization in Brazil is BEMFAM (Sociedade Civil Bem-Estar Familiar no Brasil), which was founded in 1965 and operates its own clinics in 14 states of Brazil. According to its web site, two of its initiatives are “Sexual Education in the Schools: BEMFAM designed and implemented a sexual education curriculum, focusing on STI/HIV prevention” and “Condom Social Marketing: Intensive marketing of PROSEX, BEMFEM’s own brand of condoms, has allowed BEMFAM to promote safer sex practices and increase its sustainability at the same time.” http://www.ippfwhr.org/profiles/association_e.asp?AssociationID=3 Accessed 4/23/05.

[4] Lynn Ponton, The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls (Toronto: Plume, a member of Penguin Putnam, 2000), pp. 124-5.

[5] Two-thirds of women who delay sex until the age of 21 or 22 are in stable marriages in their 30s, according to a recent study, compared with only 28% who first had sexual intercourse at the age of 13 or 14. “Study shows premarital sex’s harm to teen girls,” Focus on the Family Citizen (December 2003), pp. 10-11. For statistics and a more detailed discussion of the problems associated with teen sexual activity, see Barbara Kohl, “The Pastor and Teen Sex Education,” Chapter *** in Manfred Waldemar Kohl and Antonio Carlos Barro (eds.), ***.

 

[6] Stanton L. Jones and Brenna B. Jones, How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex: A Lifelong Approach to Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Character (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1993). Stanton Jones is a licensed and practicing clinical psychologist who has written extensively on religion and psychology.

[7] Jones and Jones, p. 10. This principle is the first of ten offered as guidelines for parents.

[8] Dr. Miriam Kaufman, chairwoman of the adolescent medicine committee of the Canadian Pediatric Society, recently told colleagues at a meeting of the Society that family doctors should begin talking about sex with their patients when they are 10, 11, or 12 years old. “It’s not just ‘This is the pill, this is a condom’ either. It’s how to put on a condom, how to negotiate with a partner, all those kinds of things.” Christine Doucet, “MDs urged to counsel teens on sex.”

[9] Statistics show that the earlier teens begin to date the more likely it is that they will become sexually active, and the greater the age difference between a girl and the boy she dates the more likely she is to become pregnant.

[10] Many teens, even evangelical Christian teens, who want to be virgins when they marry do not consider oral sex, mutual masturbation, or even anal sex as sex. These are considered acceptable activities which do not mean a loss of their virginity. Oral sex is becoming so common that it has been called “the new goodnight kiss.” Deborah A. Wilburn, “It’s Not Really Sex: The Dangerous Belief that Puts Kids at Risk,” Family Circle (19 October 2004), pp. 51-3 (51).

[11] Patricia Hersch, A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (New York: Reader’s Companion, a division of Ballantine Books, 1999), pp. 14-15.

[12] Hersch, p. 29. Hersch chose for this study eight teens who appeared balanced, willing to work, relatively well behaved, and respectful. These eight teens were chosen gradually, on the basis of personal interviews, from sixty students observed over the course of a full year in which Hersch attended classes with these students at a middle school and a high school in the town in which she lived. (pp. 23-25) Her book tells the stories of these eight teens.

[13] Hersch, pp. viii-x.

[14] The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, A Matter of Time. Cited in Hersch, p. 364.

[15] Hersch, p. 17.

[16] Hersch, p. 363.

[17] In 2003 there were 260 million pornographic web pages indexed by Google, an increase of 1800 percent from 1998, and the Kaiser Family Foundation found in a 2001 poll that 70% of 15- to 17-year-olds in the United States had accidentally stumbled across pornography on line. [Family Resource Council, Culture Facts 6:4 (4 June 2004)].   Pornographic web sites are often purposely named according to common misspellings of words that viewers might type in while looking for a particular site. Teens looking for “Encyclopedia Britannica,” for example, might type “Brittannica” (‘tt’ instead of ‘t’), and a pornographic site would come up on the screen. Pornography has been found to be more effective in producing a chemical high than heroin or cocaine and, similar to drug addicts, addicts to pornography require ever-increasing levels of stimulation to achieve the same result. Addiction to pornography can lead to sexual promiscuity and even abusive sexual behaviors. Tim Stafford & Tim Geare, “Exposing the Nature and Impact of Pornography.”

[18] “When the term is applied to issues of sex and sexuality, true ‘abstinence’ means avoiding sexual intercourse as well as any activity involving genital contact or genital stimulation.”  Medical Institute of Sexual Health, National Guidelines for Sexuality and Character Education (Austin, Texas, 1999).

[19] Guy Condon and David Hazard, Fatherhood Aborted: The Profound Effects of Abortion on Men (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001).

[20] “The Statement on Homosexuality” of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations begins “All people are loved by God. All struggle with moral failure and fall short of God’s standards; and therefore need the forgiveness that God provides through Christ alone. Homosexuality is but one of these struggles. While recognizing the need to reach out in love to those struggling with same sex attraction, CMDA opposes the practice of homosexual acts on biblical, medical and social grounds.” The conclusion of the statement reads, “The Christian community must respond to the complex issues surrounding homosexuality with grace, civility and love.” http://www.cmdahome.org

[21] For recommended books and videos in English, and for links to other reputable web sites, see www.barbarakohl.com

[22] For a more detailed treatment of biblical teaching on sexuality, see Barbara Kohl, “The Pastor and Teen Sex Education,” Chapter *** in Manfred Waldemar Kohl and Antonio Carlos Barro (eds.), ***.

[23] Dannah Gresh, And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999). Each girl attending the retreat receives her own copy of this book.

[24] For more details on the reasons teens become sexually active, see Kohl, “The Pastor and Teen Sex Education.”

[25] Two excellent guide books for a program for boys are Who Moved the Goalposts? Seven Winning Strategies in the Sexual Integrity Gameplan, by Bob Gresh (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001) and A. C. Green’s Game Plan Abstinence Program (Golf, Illinois: Project Reality, 2001).

[26] www.truelovewaits.com More than one million young people around the world have signed TLW commitment cards to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, and many other organizations have developed similar cards. You could also create your own.

[27] A study done in the United States in 2001 found that teens who had signed such a pledge delayed initiating sex 18 months longer on average than did teens who did not sign such a pledge, were twelve times more likely to be virgins when they marry, and were at least 40% less likely to have a child out of wedlock. http://www.lifeway.com/tlw/articlereduce.asp Accessed 11/6/04.

[28] Heather Jamison, Reclaiming Intimacy: Overcoming the Consequences of Premarital Relationships (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001).

[29] Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, Right from Wrong: What You Need to Know to Help Youth Make Right Choices (Dallas, TX: Word, 1994), especially Chapter 10: “What’s the Truth about Sex?”

[30] John W. Thompson, Randy Scroggs c. 1982. Whole Armor/Full Armor Music, admin by Justin Peters, Lita Music.

[31] “Comprehensive” or “Safer Sex” curricula are very explicit, and focus on risk reduction through the use of contraceptives and condoms. The rates of sexually active teens, pregnancies, and abortions have risen rapidly in every country using this type of curricula. See Kohl, “The Pastor and Teen Sex Education.”

Rates have gone down, on the other hand, in the United States and most remarkably in Uganda, with increasing use of abstinence-based curricula in state schools. Recent studies of one such curriculum, Best Friends, show that 12- to 14-year-old girls who have participated in this program are more than 6 times less likely to engage in premarital sex than girls who have not. High school girls who have participated in the program are more than 120 times less likely to engage in premarital sex. www.welfareinfo.org/best.htm “Can Abstinence Work? An Analysis of the Best Friends Program,” Adolescent & Family Health, a peer-reviewed journal of the Institute for Youth Development. Cited in Culture Facts (9 May 2005). Participation in the program also markedly reduced the likelihood of both groups of girls’ using drugs, smoking, or drinking alcohol.

[32] According to a poll taken in urban areas of Brazil in 2001, 47% of teachers said that their own knowledge about sexuality and reproductive health was insufficient. Lidia Rebouças, “Brazil Confronts Adolescent Sexual Health Issues” (October 2002). Lidia is a freelance writer with the Brazil Information Center, based in Washington, DC. A Canadian gynecologist, one of the speakers at a seminar I led, admitted to being unaware of the facts about condom effectiveness, although he was a professor of medicine at a top university in Canada. This information was never provided to doctors in training, he said, either during his initial training or in professional workshops. Donetsk Christian University, in Ukraine, holds workshops on teen sexuality for secular teachers, social workers, and psychologists, and then invites participants in these workshops to enroll in courses for further training in the subject. Most training opportunities for these professionals around the world are offered by member organizations of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and teach “Safer sex.”

[33] An excellent resource for someone wanting to provide television spots is “Waiting Teen Media,” which offers ready-to-use “advertising with impact” spots on such topics as character values, STDs, consequences of sexual activity, and the importance of parental involvement.  This company will personalize such spots to carry the logo of the organization sponsoring them on television. www.waitingteen.org

[34] Studies show a risk reduction of 60% – 90% for HIV with consistent and correct use of condoms. An evaluation of all available studies through 1990 of heterosexual couples where one partner had HIV and the other did not, showed a 60% risk reduction. The 90% figure comes from two studies from Europe and one from Haiti of heterosexual couples who had one HIV-infected partner and who always used a condom. However, many individuals chose not to continue having sex because of the 10% risk of acquiring a fatal disease. Sexual Health Today: Exploring the Past, Preserving the Future through Choices Today (Austin, TX: Medical Institute of Sexual Health, 1999), pp. 163-64. For other STDs there is minimal or no risk reduction, according to the latest review of all studies done up to 2003.

[35] Washington Times (21 June 2004).

[36] Trevor Stammers, “Sexual Spin,” Postgraduate Medical Journal (November 1999) 75:889, pp. 641-642 (642). Stammers is a tutor in general practice at St. George’s Hospital Medical School, London, UK.

[37] “40 Developmental Assets” www.search-institute.org