Offering a More Beautiful Sexual Ethic to Today’s Teenagers

A 2011 Barna Study addressed the question nearly every youth minister and Christian parent is asking: Why are young people raised in the church walking away? And even more important, what can we do about it?  A decade later, those questions are still pressing and Barnas answers are still timely. Here at Rooted, we long to see God work through youth ministers, parents, and churches to flip the statistic so that students would increasingly walk with Jesus into adulthood. We believe this vision is best accomplished through the five pillars of gospel centrality, theological depth through expository biblical teaching, relational discipleship, partnering with parents, and intergenerational integration. In this series Rooted writers show how this gospel-centered framework for youth ministry can help us address the six most common reasons young people leave church. We hope these reflections will help you to walk in wisdom as you point students to trust in Jesus now and well after they leave home.

Imagine with me what it might have been like to have grown up learning about the beauty and mystery of how sex in marriage reflects Gods intimate, committed, self-giving relationship with his people. Not sex as a prize thats won through “purity efforts.” Not sex as the most taboo of topics because of the fear of incurring shame from sexual sin. Not sex as a casual act centered primarily around pleasure. Sex as an ordinary-yet-amazing gift from God meant to reflect the intimate love, vulnerability, service, and creativity of Gods covenant relationship with his people.

How might understanding Gods bigger, grace-filled story of sexuality as a teenager have shaped your relationship with your own sexuality?

The 2011 Barna study reinforces that we have some essential work to do in helping our students develop a biblical vision of Gods design for sexuality. It reminds us that many teenagers find the churchs grasp on sexual issues to be” judgmental and overly simplistic.” When it comes to their questions and behaviors, they fear they will be met with shaming responses instead of gracious, incarnational love.  

The church has often failed to teach on sex at all, or it has reduced sex to mere behavior. Sadly, fear, guilt, and shame have been wielded as motivators. Faulty teaching has placed sexual sin in a category separate from the rest of our sin, which Romans 3:23-26 assures us has been completely atoned for and covered by the grace of Jesus. And our own shame and wounds have silenced us or kept us from daring to believe that sex is, in fact, a very good gift given for us within biblical marriage.

If we hope to capture our students’ longing for a more gracious vision of sex, we need the Holy Spirit to breathe life into our teaching on sexuality in the church. We need enlivened imaginations for understanding sex as a part of God’s big story.

Begin With Prayer and Story

It can be daunting to know where to begin when teaching our students a Christian vision of sexuality, but there is no better starting point than prayer. Invite trusted coworkers, parents, and friends to be in prayer, specifically, for this process and for the Holy Spirit to lead. As we pray, we must seek a personal understanding of Scriptures purpose for sexuality before we begin trying to teach our students about it.

There is no substitute for processing our own sexual history with Jesus and a mentor, spouse, pastor, or counselor. Ones sexual history may or may not include actual sexual acts; rather, it has to do with how we came to understand what it means to be a man or woman and what sex is for, along with any noteworthy experiences that have shaped how we relate to sexuality as a whole. If we dont do the work of vulnerability, grief, repentance, and hope in relation to our own sexual story, we will approach this topic from a place of fear, detachment, or avoidant shame. Without a humble understanding of our own stories, we will detract from the glorious, mysterious, evocative, Trinity-reflecting beauty that is Gods story of sex.

Our students can see and sense when we are teaching from fear, shame, pride, or numbness rather than dependent humility that relies on (and points to) the grace of God. Practically, this may mean that the wisest way to start planning for a series on sexuality with our students is to see a therapist about our pornography addiction, or to talk with a best friend about our same sex attraction. It may mean that we make time to share some hard stories about our sexual past with our spouse, or that we process our embarrassment about a lack of romantic engagement with a mentor.

We have the privilege of offering our students the grace and hope of Jesus that we first receive. So we must allow the Spirit to work through the often-painful, always courageous vulnerability of facing our own story in relationship. We must let a trusted someone see and tend to our brokenness lovingly, pointing us to the ultimate Redeemer of our stories.

Once we have tasted the goodness of Jesusgrace in relation to our own sexual story, we will be more equipped to offer his story in relation to their sexuality. Our willingness to appropriately share (i.e. not with graphic details) how God has intersected our sexual story with himself is one of the most significant things we have to offer. And as a side note, when we are still in the process of wrestling with our story or healing from something specific, it is wise to find someone else in the church who is willing to share honestly from his or her experience. Videos of trusted Christian leaders like Rachel Gilson are another option.

Understand Students’ Framework

In an era in which we are bombarded from every angle with influencer messages of “acceptance,” “living your truth,” and follow-your-heart-ism, it has never been more crucial that we consider the beauty of Gods design of sexuality as revealed through his Word.

Our students are seldom aware of the worldviews fueling the arguments theyre hearing about sexuality. They often havent thought of (or been shown) that they are drawing their “truths” from somewhere, that they are constructing their reality from some story. They often havent yet questioned the source of authority behind what theyre hearing. Authenticity, happiness, and self-fulfillment are fundamental goods and goals in their world. “Judgment” and constraint are two of the biggest evils.

Humble inquisitiveness is a prerequisite for conversation on sexuality with our students. We need to let them tell us about the world theyre living in. We want to meet them where they are with the compassionate curiosity of Jesus and invite them teach us what its like to go down the YouTube rabbit trail of transgender stories, or to find new, inspiring influencers to follow on TikTok or Instagram. We want to ask good questions to help them grow in awareness about their understanding of what sexuality is and where theyre getting their story from.

Teach the Bigger Story of Scripture

Consider what it is you find compelling about Gods story for sex. Beyond momentary pleasure, which piece of the story is particularly beautiful or amazing to you? Is it the way unity in differences reflects the value and importance of unity in the body of Christ? Is it the creative potential for life that reflects Gods generative character? Is it the generosity of each spouse wholly giving of themselves to one another as a small picture of Jesus offering his whole life to us on the cross? Is it the regular practice of trust and vulnerability within the security of covenant that reminds you of Gods deep love for his people?

The longer I live as a single woman who seeks to submit her sexuality to King Jesus, the more I am convinced that God’s way really is given for the flourishing of his people. His is the most excellent way, the way of true, beautiful, cross-bearing love that seeks to serve the other. It is deeply humanizing. It reveals what it means to live as a beloved child. It invites us to honor one another as image bearers instead of objectifying one another as pleasure-fulfillers. It ushers us into growing dependence and intimacy with the One who offers us abundant life in himself. All other intimacies are mere signs and glimpses of the union we have with him.

Before we talk behaviors, attempt to redeem the word “purity” from years of misleading teaching, or entertain the very practical questions our students have, we need to understand the compelling thread of God’s intent for sexuality from creation to new creation.

Our students want to know what sex is for, and we need to be able to answer that for ourselves, first, as single, married, divorced, and widowed people. With the help of the Holy Spirit and trusted friends in the body, we want to provide a vision for faithful sexuality in each of those categories for our students. This means we will need to teach that life in Christ is not about self-fulfillment, but a much more glorious, sacrificial love that entails dying to ourselves as we seek to follow Jesus, trusting him with more and more of ourselves. By sharing where Jesus has graciously met us in our unfulfilled longings, our mistakes, our failures, and mundanity, we can present a beautiful, biblical vision for a very specific type of intimacy that mirrors the greatest intimacy well ever experience, which is found in him.

Liz Edrington serves as the Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, and she has worked with students in one form or another since 2002. She is an emeritus member of the Rooted steering committee, and she's the author of a 31-day devotional for teenagers called Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R Publishing, 2023). Pickled things delight her, as does her snuggle beast, Bella the Dog.

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