Approaching Sexuality in Youth Ministry

“My friend ‘came out’ recently as a bi-sexual.” she explained, sitting across from me on my frumpy youth office love seat.  “How did you respond?” I asked.  “I told her I was really proud of her,” she stated with an air of determination, not quite defiance.

Having received an email from this student prior to our meeting, I had had a sinking feeling going into the conversation.  I kind of knew how it was going to go, so I found myself quite agitated the night before.  I felt a sense of discomfort because of two things: 1) I suspected that this was going to be the first of many similar conversations to come.  Clearly, the issue of sexuality has become the defining issue of this generation, and my youth group students are being daily challenged with where they are going to draw their own personal line in the sand.  This thought scared me.  In addition, 2) This conversation was not with a student on the outskirts of my ministry.  It wasn’t a student on the periphery looking to cause trouble.  This was one of my student leaders.  She is one of my most involved and invested students.

I admit that the issue of sexuality stresses me out as a youth leader.  I am absolutely committed to remaining faithful to the truths of Scripture when it comes to this issue.  As a result, I often find myself fearful as I consider how I am going to navigate this conversation with my students, my own children, and with the world around me.  

So, here are my current guiding principles as I begin to navigate this conversation with my students.  I will not be surprised if some of them shift over the years as I gain more experience and grow in my understanding of Jesus’ priorities and values!

1. Keep the main thing the main thing.  At our church, our goal is always to stay focused on our highest priority.  We like to say that we want to keep “the main thing, the main thing”.  This means that we don’t want our primary focus to be politics, social issues or the color of our church’s carpet.  We may all land in different places on these issues.  However, if we keep our daily need for the Gospel of Jesus as the theme of our church, all the other things will find their rightful place under the main thing.  

While it is critical that I have an on-going, open dialogue with my students regarding the topic of sexuality, it is not my first priority as a youth leader. My highest priority in my youth ministry is to show them Jesus over and over again.  Until they know and love Jesus, their stance and experience related to sexuality will be driven by fear, guilt, or sensuality.   When I keep Jesus as the main thing, everything else will fall into place as my students long to have His values as their values.

2. Remember that my comfort is not the highest priority.  I walked away from my Sr. High Sunday School class the other day with a flurry of mixed emotions.  I found myself quite distracted through our worship service and sermon—and even into my family’s lunch time.  I know this because my wife asked me if I was OK as I picked at my lunch.  You see, I was really uncomfortable, still, from the conversation that took place during the class.  My students were unusually talkative that morning.  However, many of the things that the students said were not necessarily based on Biblical truth.  Some things were actually quite contrary to truth.  That was the part that made me feel so uncomfortable.  It would have been so much more comfortable for me if they had just said the right things!

While it is clearly my job to teach my students Biblical truth that leads to right thinking, the process of getting there may be more important than getting them to say the right thing.  It would be so much more comfortable for me if my students would simply act as robots and regurgitate the things I know to be true.  

But if my students are going to grow as disciples of Jesus, they must be able to own their faith as they question and wrestle with the truth of Scripture.  Though it will often feel uncomfortable for me to hear, I want to provide a space at church where they feel safe to question and even say the wrong thing.  If they don’t feel safe doing this here, they won’t do it at all!  The fact that my students were openly sharing their hearts gives me a lot of hope!

3. Honor the Word of God. I used to be a gym teacher.  The days that I forgot my whistle were the worst!  I needed something that stood out above the noise of the gym to get the students’ attention.  My voice just didn’t cut it because it was drowned out by the louder noise of a myriad of students running, kicking and throwing all around me.

Why is my student leader giving her friend a “high five” for coming out as a bi-sexual?  Because the very loud noise from the culture around her is saying that this is a really good thing to do.  The culture is honoring the Caitlyn Jenners of the world for being “true to themselves”.  This noise is so loud that my single voice telling her that it isn’t healthy to celebrate brokenness and sin gets drowned out by the masses.  If I am not training my students with a noise that is louder and holds more authority than my voice or the voices of the culture around her, then of course she is not going to hear and respond.  It is only if my students and I hold the truth of the Scripture as the absolute authority over all that we think, believe and do that I can have any hope to be heard.

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness. 

Todd Hill is the youth director at New Life Presbyterian Church in Dresher, Penn.  He earned his bachelor's degree in Bible and in education from Philadelphia Biblical University. He also holds a master's degree in education from California University of Pennsylvania.  When he isn't running his two children to soccer practice, Todd loves to play basketball and travel with his wife Young-Mee to places with good food.

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