Sex: a little word that causes our Christian teens no end of trouble when it comes to trying to work out what it means to be human, to be adult and to be faithful to Jesus. As someone fascinated by the link between teen Christian identification and sexual attitudes and behaviour, I found these stats to be intriguing, encouraging and confusing all at the same time!
What grabbed me right away was the figure that more than four out of five young people surveyed think sex is only for marriage. Let’s not pass over how radical this is. We’re hearing how peer-on-peer sexual violence is more widespread than we think and being a teen virgin denotes that something is profoundly wrong with you. So to say that you think sex is best understood and expressed in marriage, and then to try and live out the implications of this is to go against the tsunami of peer opinion and affirmation; it just doesn’t easily happen, unless the young people involved have grabbed a greater vision than the one on offer.
A group of teens I chatted to recently could easily define ‘bestiality’ but struggled when it came to defining ‘consent’. So I’m rejoicing that a bunch of Christian teens understand sex to be an expression of life-long, covenant faithfulness.
The other striking stats are around attitudes to homosexuality: two out of three young Christians (presumably who attend church and youth group) think that the Church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality is mistaken and half of young Christians who attend church but not youth group think the same. This all points to the fact that when it comes to the topic of LGBT identity, something is shifting in Christian youth culture circles. They get grace. They don’t want to judge. They probably know someone who’s gay. They may know a Christian who’s gay. Some of them may even themselves be gay.
Whatever the case, they believe they can choose ‘God’s best’ and love God’s people (who may believe different things to them) at the same time. To slightly misquote Sally Hitchiner from this year’s Youth Work Summit, it seems these young disciples want to, ‘talk about LGBT humanity, not just LGBT marriage.’ It’s radical and it’s beautiful and it’s the direction our conversations need to go in if we’re going to stand a hope of being faithful to Jesus’ declaration that people would know we’re his by how we love each other.
But that’s not the only story these stats tell. What’s equally striking about these stats is that they don’t really make sense. If you think that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is mistaken but also think that gay marriage is still instinctively wrong, then there’s clearly some confusion. What does this mean? The struggle seems to be less to do with the validity of gay identity and more on the struggle to offer a viable alternative: they want to be inclusive, but they’re still uncertain about whether gay marriage is OK or not.
This raises some really interesting questions for us. As (potentially) the next generation of evangelical Church leaders, does this mean that the Church’s historic teaching on sexuality has a sell-by date and is nearly up? How do we feel about this and what are we going to do about it?
The one thing we could do looks like the one thing we’re still struggling to do. Given that fewer than one in five young Christians thinks the Church talks about sex too much, clearly we’re not talking about it enough! The young people surveyed may be willing to air their views on sexual orientation at a Christian festival but they still feel the Church doesn’t offer enough spaces to chat through these big issues they’re wrestling with.
There’s the rub. There are so many great questions that we need to talk about for ourselves, let alone with our young people. How should we apply the teachings of Jesus to the gay debate? What did Paul have in mind when he warned against same-sex relations? Can celibacy be a calling if it’s mandated by the Church?
But we need to be faithful: to Jesus, to his body, to his world, to his mission. There are some very stark statements in scripture concerning sexual desire that need to be wrestled with as we find a way to move forward together. We don’t need to agree with other Christian’s reading of scripture to be able to love them or celebrate their fruitfulness, but we do need to agree that we will love, that we’ll be faithful in what we say and how we say it and in what we do and how we do it.
The brilliant message of the gospel is that anyone who finds Jesus finds everything. There’s only one way to find this kind of everything; it starts with an emptying: a laying down of our deepest desires and sense of self so that we can be born new, have a new life pulsing through our veins. I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped that yet. It’s a long journey of discovering and living out sexual authenticity and I’m prepared to walk slow with my young people because I’m still working it all out too. So as we absorb this slice of Christian teen thinking, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the true test of good youth work isn’t whether we help young people to morally navigate adolescence, but whether they become passionate lifelong followers of Jesus Christ. Sex matters, but God’s mission matters more.