A little heads up: you might have flicked to this page because you’re working with a group of fantastic and vulnerable young people who don’t yet know Jesus and whose immediate need right now might be to know how to use a condom or report abuse. It’s an incredible privilege to work with such young people, and it’s what I’ve been doing for most of my youth work life.
But this article isn’t about them. Not because they don’t matter or because Jesus has nothing to say to them, but because it’s been gnawing away at me for some time that some of the young people who are very vulnerable when it comes to romantic relationships are the same young disciples who come to my home each Wednesday night to learn to love Jesus more. They probably come to your home too.
Last Wednesday, I asked my group how they feel about dating. Ashley went off on one. He studies psychology at A-level. He’s bright and brainy, and very funny. Most of his rant was delivered in his ‘Bane’ voice. So it was all brilliant stuff that I can’t go into now (and frankly can’t actually remember), but he ended with, ‘Being in a relationship is complicated!’
He’s right. But so often our young people are given misleading ideas around relationships by the media, peers, and…take your pick! So here in a nutshell are the cold hard facts that young people are sold about dating (or whatever they want to call it):
- You owe it to yourself to be happy
- If this relationship doesn’t make you happy, move on
- Sex is part of the deal that makes your relationship count as ‘serious’
- Sex is nothing special, but you can’t really opt out of it
These values (and contradictions) have infiltrated Christian culture to such an extent that although many young disciples may want to navigate their romantic relationships in a God-honouring way, they feel completely clueless as to what that looks like. It’s time to challenge the contradictions and present a different approach to dating. Young people tend to fixate on the sex question (how much can they feasibly get away with before it appears on God’s ‘they’re doing it’ radar) because they have no idea that God is very invested in seeing them grow in Christ-like-ness, and that he is more than happy to use dating as one of many vehicles for this.
Some Christians balk at the idea of dating, let alone teaching teenagers how to date well. They would prefer a return to courting (where trusted peers or adults chaperoned couples). A big problem is that the Bible doesn’t say anything about dating or courtship. The concept of pre-marital relationships didn’t exist. For most of human history the concept didn’t exist. Of course, people have always fallen in love, but being free to choose to marry based solely on emotional or romantic criteria is still pretty new.
So dating God’s way throws up many issues and questions both theologically and practically speaking. But as this is an article on dating, not a book (cheeky plug for our book on dating The dating dilemma which covers lots of issues), I thought I’d focus on the three I’m most asked by young people and youth leaders.
- Does God have ‘the One’ for everyone?
- Dating a non-Christian - ok or out of the question?
- Sex before marriage - how far is too far?
So let’s look at these in turn.
1. ‘THE ONE’ MYTH
God has a plan for our young people’s lives, and he’s not about to bench that plan when it comes to something as significant as the decision of who to marry. But this is different to teaching young people that God will tell them exactly who they should marry. Nowhere in scripture are we told to expect God to provide the right boy / girlfriend. It’s not a partner who ultimately makes sense of our lives but a deepening relationship with the God who calls us his friends. Encouraging young people to allow God to develop their character is a great way to help them see how God wants to guide them towards any future relationship, or singleness - by preparing them to be emotionally and spiritually mature.
Alongside the idea of ‘the one’ sits the idea of ‘the perfect one’. I can’t count the number of Christian couples I’ve heard tell me that once they met each other everything was amazing. They took it as proof that God really wanted them to be together. God might well be thrilled that they’re together, but a relationship you need to work on is no less a gift from God. Helping our teens understand the work required to build a healthy dating relationship is all part of our role as disciple-makers who know that the whole of life matters to God.
Over the years I’ve noticed the trend to look for ‘the one’ expressed in different ways among Christian teenagers. I hate generalisations, but on the whole, Christian young people tend to either go about finding ‘the one’ by kissing dating goodbye and waiting for God to present them to him or her, or by kissing every boy or girl in the youth group until they find ‘the one’. What both of these approaches ignore is the need for character growth. I love the way Paul orientates his new disciples around embracing the potential for growth in godly character that the regular stuff of life, surrendered to God, offers. ‘Take your everyday life…and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out’ (Romans 12:1-2 MSG).
What God expects of young people when they date is no more or less than what he expects of them in every relationship - that they surrender it to him by inviting him to work on certain muscles to help them live this inside out life:
SELFLESSNESS - are you becoming a better listener? When did you do something generous for them? How could you handle disagreements better?
FAITHFULNESS - how do you treat them in front of your friends? How sensitive are you as a couple to others in the group who are single or you may have dated?
CREDIBILITY - are you living by your values when you date? How does the way you date help you to follow Jesus?
COURAGE - are you able to think for yourself when you date? Are you committed to working at the relationship, rather than just wanting the good times? Are you able to seek godly advice and make the right decision, even if it’s tough?
I tell my young people that God is a big fan of dating, not because he thinks feelings are more important than faithfulness, but because surrendered to him, it can transform them!
2. DATING A NON-CHRISTIAN
First a word of wisdom: There’s something about a young person pursuing a relationship with someone who isn’t pursuing a relationship with Jesus that means there will be some shift in destination. We need to help them consider the following question: how selfless is it to ask someone who isn’t putting Jesus first to accept that you will always put him above them?
Then a word of caution: There’s something about saying this that can come across cruel to a young person who is dating a non-Christian and yet is following Jesus with all they’ve got. How pastorally sensitive is it for us to potentially alienate a young person for a choice they’ve made that the Bible (again) says little about? Dating doesn’t always lead to marriage and we wouldn’t dream of telling young people to dump their non-Christian mates or move out of a non-Christian family home! So why do we advise against dating?
I can hear someone quoting, ‘Do not be unequally yoked!’ (2 Corinthians 6:14) - good! It’s a challenging passage, and it’s widely agreed that Paul’s warnings against compromising liaisons are directed at the Church as a whole, not individual believers. But having said that, we can’t avoid the reality that where our heart is, our treasure is also. There’s always the potential that someone who isn’t putting Jesus first might, even inadvertently, stop us from doing the same.
When asked in front of thousands of Christian teenagers whether they should date a non-Christian, Danielle Strickland said: ‘Run after Jesus with all you’ve got, then look round and see who’s running with you!’
In the end, choosing who to date is a decision each young person has to make, and I would caution against a heavy-handed response. That often only serves to accelerate the feeling in your young person that they have to make a choice between Church and Jesus, and their relationship. Instead, find ways to support them in approaching this relationship with an openness to God’s spirit.
- What is my PURPOSE in life? What’s theirs?
- What are my / their PRIORITIES?
- What is their / my POTENTIAL and am I / they exploring it?
- Why am I PURSUING this relationship?
(Taken from The P Test by Sally Binyman)
3. HOW FAR IS TOO FAR?
Sometimes I refuse to get into this discussion! Mainly because it starts with the assumption that sex is a destination, not a union. A commodity we can manipulate, not a gift we receive. But it’s an important discussion, because we’re all sexual beings with urges and desires and we need help knowing how to live with them well. Sexual maturity is about knowing yourself so well that you can exercise self-control but also not be afraid of intimacy; physical, emotional or sexual. In trying to help Christians get the whole sex thing right the Church has sometimes overstated the first and under played the second. I meet married couples who fought each other off before the wedding day, then struggled to enjoy sex once they’d said ‘I do’. Sexual purity starts in the mind (the mind that Christ says he is Lord over) and it is as much about celebrating our sexuality as it is controlling it.
I once played a game with my youth group called ‘Book or chuck’ where I typed out a load of Bible verses about sex, and then ones that I made up to sound like Bible verses, and asked the young people to say which was which. Side note: the ones I made up were all rules like ‘thou shalt not have sex on a day ending in a ‘y’’! The real Bible verses said things like, ‘Nothing can put this fire out’ (my version of Song of Songs!). Guess which ones they said were the real deal? You’re right. They opted for the random rules every time!
They were wrong in this instance, but they were right to think that God has placed boundaries around sex. Problem is, we jump straight into talking about the practice of not having it until marriage, rather than exploring the belief that informs the practice; that God created sex for two people to become one (Matthew 19:4-5). The only sexual intimacy that doesn’t fall under the category of sexual immorality is sex between people who are made one-flesh by God. Sex is created to be an act of deep intimacy where we are given the ability, like God, to create out of union. In the act of sex we mimic God. We can also worship him. Anything that glorifies God is an act of worship.
So how do we help our young people see their attitude to sex as a way of worshipping him? For Paul, the main reason we save sex for marriage is because we have a new identity - we are one with God (1 Corinthians 6:16-20). Without a fresh revelation of this truth about who they are, our young people will constantly be seeing sex as a test from God to see how worthy they are. So start here - not with the list of sexy dos and don’ts! Then you can begin to explore together what behaviours best reflect this new identity. You could use this approach to help your young people define their sexual boundaries and learn how to handle their mistakes well.
RECOGNISE - Take a look at what you do to express your desire for each other. Not all of it is entering the sex territory! But you know that moment when you start touching each other in a way that you can only do behind closed doors. Look at what the triggers are (home alone, revealing clothes, certain music or things you’ve seen) and how you feel afterwards. Even though it’s difficult, it’s important to be able to talk to each other about this.
RENOUNCE – No one is ever perfect, and all of us will slip-up from time to time. The most important thing is that we take our mess immediately to Jesus and allow him to release us from the guilt and shame that could keep us locked in the same cycles. You’re not renouncing each other, but the times you allow lust to take over. It’s ungodly to blame the other person for leading you on. This is all about you taking responsibility for not controlling yourself. It can really help to let someone you trust pray with you.
RESTORE - Every time we confess to God, he forgives and restores us. Which means that what’s past is behind us, and we get to start over. As part of this restoration, we may well need to apologise to our partner for our part in over-stepping the line. This level of honesty will strengthen your relationship and glorifies God who made not only you, but your partner in his image.
RE-SET - Now you need to sit down and decide where the line is going to be. You may have different ideas to your partner, so listen to their reasoning and if in doubt, opt for the less is more approach! Ask yourself whether it reflects your commitment to honouring your body, your partner and sex as a gift from God for marriage.
MY TOP TEN TIPS FOR DISCIPLING YOUNG PEOPLE IN THE AREA OF RELATIONSHIPS
1. Do your own wrestling and thinking around the issues your youth face.
2. Create a curriculum. Talk about relationships, sex and sexuality regularly, as part of your youth programme.
3. Build a team who models what you want to see mimicked in lifestyle and attitudes.
4. Pay attention to group dynamics to make sure everyone feels safe and supported.
5. Give lots of opportunities for young people to develop friendships with each other and show that these are as significant in God’s eyes as a dating relationship.
6. Inspire curiosity in God’s word, not just compliance to a Christian morality.
7. Listen, don’t lecture.
8. Be prepared to cover the same ground over and over again, and help the young people to be excessively kind to themselves when they struggle with relationships or singleness.
9. Introduce ideas and teaching in big group settings, but develop and encourage accountability in smaller mentoring or cell groups.
10. Always be for them, and let them know it!