Monday, November 28, 2011

Matt Chandler, an elder at The Village Church in Denton, TX, shares a powerful story of coming to understand the grace and mercy of Christ in relation to sexuality.

Friday, November 25, 2011

But Did We Make It Sexy?

Every youth worker knows the dilemma of talking about sex with teenagers. On the one hand, simply say the word and you will get most people's attention. On the other, it's really difficult to hold or keep that attention and gain a hearing for the deep, life-giving, biblical truths you want to teach (right?). I can think of times where I talked to students and you could hear a pin drop - and times where one mis-spoken world tanks a whole evening.
Last year, in an effort to gain attention and look at some cultural realities, I pulled some blunt lyrics from five gritty, popular songs on sex and had students come forward to do a solo "dramatic reading." Honestly, my hope was the relevance of the songs and a look at the lyrics would create some discomfort that we could talk about as an entry to the Scripture that evening.  But the opposite happened: everyone started singing the songs with no embarrassment! I'm not sure we ever really landed the point I wanted to teach that night. I walked away with my own discomfort: in trying to make the message sexy, did I just sell it out?
By now we know that our message and medium are intertwined - so much so that the medium becomes the message. How you say something fundamentally shapes what you say. It's just as true for our teaching on sexuality.  On Christianity Today's website, Sarah Pulliam Bailey posts an interview with Christine Gardner, author of Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaign. (The link takes you to the print view of the article for easy reading: once there, you can follow the links to the article’s original context). She talks about the difference between some American and African programs in terms of both what they call students to and how they appeal to them. In the short interview (I want to order the book), Gardner seems fair, critical, and points in some promising directions. Read it!
She ends with this zinger:
"I wonder if a more richly theological under-girding to some of the programs could help lengthen those commitments. When the going gets rough, and there is no marriage partner on the horizon, and the abstinence pledge starts to grow cold and stale, what is going to be there for them? I hope that it's something more than a funny skit, a dramatic rock song, or a winsome testimony from a cute guy. I hope there is something deeper from God's Word that's going to stay with them."
Please God, let it be so. And let's each of us go back and think hard about both what we say and how we say it. Before you teach on sex again, may I encourage you to stop, read these questions, and then jot down some of your own responses?
  • Have you ever used "sexy" to sell your teaching on sex? Where? Why?
  • What is our primary motivation to get students to consider a chaste and abstinent life?
  • What's the difference between calling students to abstinence or to chastity?
  • What kind of life or experience are we promising down the road?
  • Where has "individualism and self-gratification" crept into our teaching about sex?
  • Have you ever used an abstinence pledge or purity ring in teaching about sex (or been to an event that does)? What role does the pledge or ring play? What gets communicated to students who break their pledge or go against the symbol of the ring?
  • The interviewer suggests that abstinence must be part of a larger endeavor, and Gardner calls that living out a bodily commitment to “become like Christ.” How do you situate your teaching like sex in this larger call and context?
  • After reading this article, what is one way you want to re-evaluate your teaching on sex or one significant change you need to make in the message or the medium?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Take Me to Pleasure Town: Sex Education and the Pursuit of Pleasure

Read Part 1 of Harrison's article, "The Philosophy of Sex", here.

Too often we believe that pleasure is not on the menu for Christians, or if it is, it's like you're swearing and getting away with something. The truth is, scripture holds pleasure in high regard, even to the point of hedonism, and only condemns the perversion of our pleasure.

Romans 1 says it well:  we suppress the truth because of our desire for pleasure (vs 18).  Often kids know what's true or what they should do, but they (and we) easily lose grip on those convictions because culture tells us we should love pleasure the most.  Look no further than Las Vegas and every spin-off movie that portrays that kind of life-style: pleasure is the holy grail.  Romans 1:25 says that we tend to worship the created creature rather than the Creator.  Sex becomes what we worship - something every boy draws in his school notebook and finds on the internet, and I can't speak from the girls' perspective, but I assume it's on their minds too.
                                                                                                                               Did you know God says we should love pleasure the most too?  I love that the Bible fights fire with fire.  The idea of Christian Hedonism is that God is out for our ultimate pleasure, just like the world is.  But he says "my pleasure is better than the world because it's more than pleasure, it's joy."  We have the opportunity to ask students:  what's the difference between instant gratification (short pleasure) and lasting happiness (joy)?  Which would you prefer?  How have you experienced the two?  We also can fit in bits of testimony:  we all have bad habits that give us quick pleasure, but they come at a cost.  Mention the ways God has been good to you in giving you joy, helping you to leave emptiness and find meaning and those amazing days when you know you're not wasting your life.                                                 
Side note:  I'm not saying that seeking pleasure is our ultimate good, but seeking the ultimate good - God's will - leads to more pleasure.  Some people are inclined to believe that Christians are supposed to seek God’s will as a sacrifice, which means we never pursue our own pleasure because that's selfish and isn't what a missionary would do.  No wonder people can be bored with the church or never want to step foot inside.  But that's an incorrect interpretation of Rom 12.  It's not a living sacrifice that leads us to obligation, duty, and rainy days, but a giving up of cheap pleasure (sitting in the mud of sin) for the ultimate pleasure of having purpose (a holiday at the sea - see C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory).
For the married youth ministers among us, it's another great idea to use our own marriages as a platform.  I hope that we have the kinds of marriages where we don't make the spouse out to be the god or goddess, but that they are an arrow that points to the true God worthy of worship.  And that the love we need and grew up pining for as teenagers is the love of God - it's the same love that we experience and find in our partner.  It's all wrapped up together.  Which is why the last thing I will recommend is that you should have a Valentine's day party in your youth group and just pass out "God is love" hearts instead.
At the end of the day, we all want relationships because we all need love.  Youth leaders have an amazing opportunity to show kids that God is the source of that love, and technically, he is all we ever need because he brings the relationships and joy to us. Kids can so easily find their identity in being able to attract the opposite sex or in making people laugh before they even know what "identity" means.  Getting them to realize they have an idol like that is a tall order - in fact it's impossible if God is not speaking to them.  So as youth leaders, we can't forget to be praying that God would speak to the kids.  We can't do this ourselves.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Philosophy of Sex

Harrison Jones is teaching in a secondary school in Mbarara, Uganda, and is involved in many ministries in the area, including developing businesses, sports, Bible studies, fellowships, and a film group. Before moving to Uganda, Harrison worked as high school teacher, and volunteered as a Young Life and youth group leader.

Covering sex in youth ministries - it's always a fun night.  The awkward squirms and breaking-ice moments will have the kids thinking for days.  For many of the students in the room, these sorts of discussions are the first time they have ever heard sex talked about in an intelligent way.  Most kids don't know what "philosophy" means, but little do they know they have no philosophy on sex because the world never does either.  It's always treated as the elephant in the room everyone knows about and is likely to feed, pet, and have fun with, but you don't actually use your brain when it comes to sex, right?  If you did, that might mean you won't be having sex right away if you actually think about it.

Talking about sex in youth ministries (from Sunday school to youth group to high school fellowships) is vital, but it is not the gospel and should not come first in our curriculum plans.  It is a major stone in life that students leave unturned and often have so many questions about, however, if the gospel is not clear in our ministries and we aren't sure that the students could repeat it back to us first, I believe we have no business moving on to sex.  Paul obviously sees the life-giving worldview-changing heart-saving gospel of Christ as a priority (1 Cor. 15), even in a church that was so backwards sexually that they were having sex with their mothers and Gentiles were judging them for it.  It is very tempting for us in ministry to see a problem in our local culture and want to focus our time applying a spiritual ‘Band-Aid’.  But if you have ever watched ‘House’ or a good medical TV show, you'll know that the symptom is not the same as the source of the disease.

A broken sexuality is something to weep over in our teenagers, but if we think we will fix it by quoting Hebrews 13 or 1 Corinthians 6 to them, we're mistaken.  Paul says that we have no ability to keep the law apart from Christ, who perfectly kept the law.  Our disease is bigger than teenagers watching provocative movies, listening to sex-dripping rap music, or of course having sexual encounters before marriage.  Our disease is that we're separated from God spiritually, and until we receive Christ's grace, we won't be reconnected to the only power that can pull us out of our sin.  Often churches can move on to practical living without considering how the gospel is the empowerment for that:  suddenly we will find ourselves teaching moral-deism (how to be a good person), not Christ, and with that comes a large percentage of people leaving the church because white-knuckle self discipline only lasts so long.  (Watch this short clip from Matt Chandler for more on Reaching the De-churched)

All that said, if the gospel is clear in your youth ministry, kids can awaken to wisdom on sexual matters at a very young age.  You can have an amazing platform for wisdom as a youth leader in light of how the gospel helps us to understand everything about ourselves, especially that we were created to have sex but the best sex is in a married, loving relationship.  It's not that we're Puritan 2.0's, not allowed to talk about sex, and it's not that we're heathens, thinking about it all the time.  Christians should be happily in the middle: feeling comfortable talking about sex openly but knowing that it has its fences.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

God Gave You Sex! (Part 1)

How many times have you told a group of students, “All you need is Jesus?” I know I have as many times as Michael Jackson did the moonwalk or as often as my junior high kids reference Lady Gaga. Thousands.

The question begs: would Jesus Himself agree with that statement? I think the answer is both yes and no.

In studying ecclesiology and sacraments, one comes to see that indeed our union with Jesus is the very thing that sustains and satisfies us. At the same time, God recognizes that in our weakness and sinfulness and in this fallen world, we need physical reminders and representations of the grace God has given us through Christ. Scripture, the sacraments, the Church, and, to a lesser degree, marital sex, are gifts God has provided to help us enjoy and better grasp the reality of our union with Christ.

I have seen a propensity for youth workers - mainly myself - to hyper-spiritualize conversations about sexual abstinence. Knowing how fervently students yearn for sex in their teenage years, I try to help them understand at the heart level that what they desire for is union with Christ. While this line of thinking is theologically sound, it is somewhat incomplete biblically.

While reminding students that the object of their perceived “hormones” really is Jesus, our message is incomplete without acknowledging that God gives us physical means by which we touch, feel, consume, and process our spiritual union with Christ. Their desire to experience union in a physical, tangible manner is accepted by and accounted for by God. He also knows that we cannot grasp the mystery of this union and has blessed us with signs to help us better understand and experience it.

Too often this statement “all you need is Jesus” takes on a mystical, hyper-spiritual nature which discounts our very real need for physical representations of grace. God gave us sex and marriage - among other things - for that reason. Paul hints at this in Ephesians 5:31: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.The union of a husband and wife, sealed through sex, resembles the union of believers to Christ.

Theological jargon aside, we need to affirm that a student’s desire for union in a physical manner is a reasonable, human thing. We need to acknowledge that God knows that they need physical signs of our union with God and, consequently, has given us His Word, the sacraments, the Church, and marital sex as helps in this struggle. And we need to direct students to Jesus and these gifts, which point to Him, in order to satisfy our deep need to experience union with God.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Theology of Sex

Rooted Blog editor Liz Edrington kicks off our new series on the Theology of Sex. We'll address the question of why and how we approach and address sexuality in light of the gospel in our ministry to students. Stay tuned!

Sex! Yep- it’s what gets their attention… (that and food).

There is no question that our kids are being bombarded by messages about sexuality every day and in any number of capacities. They regularly watch ads on TV which use sexuality to sell products, they watch shows which make sex into a commonplace way of relating in casual relationships, they read magazines which offer advice on ways to use their sexuality to lure potential partners into relationship, and they exist in a culture which says, “Hey, sex is no big deal.”
So, as I see it, there are few topics as important to address with our kids in the church because they are relating to sexuality (their own and the world’s portrayal of it) whether anyone likes it or not (which I say because there tends to be a lot of denial in the parental realm). And the great thing about it is that it really is a universal topic which can be a platform for so many of the crucial truths of Christianity and ways of relating which Jesus offers.
Before we can dive into offering our kids teaching, advice, or really anything deep in relation to sexuality, we’ve got to come to terms with the ways we relate to it ourselves. We all bring our broken selves to the table- hopefully recognizing that

A) There is a proper design to the intimacy of sexuality, and that is within marriage (Genesis 2:24).
B) We are all the same in our sexual brokenness because it is in our hearts and minds and not just our actions (let’s take Jesus seriously in Matthew 5:27-28).
C) We really are all forgiven by, in, and through Jesus for our sin (Romans 3:23-24) and we need to look to His Word (scripture and the Living God) for help at every step in relating to one another in love, honor, and faithfulness.
                                                                                                                           Folks, let’s face it, it’s probably going to be awkward to broach the topic with our kids (unless you have that gem of a student who brings the issues & questions to you), but it is going to be worth it. Humor can be helpful here. Honesty, vulnerability, and relationship with our kids are fundamental to any kind of ministry we do- and teaching on sexuality is no different. Our kids must know they are loved and met just as they are (and not left on their own), and everything we do should reflect that. We must use wisdom and discernment in how we share of our own lives and experiences (considering where we are with our own relationship to the Lord and sexuality), and I think it incredibly valuable to tackle the topic as a team or in a partnership when possible.

Hopefully any topic on which we teach allows for the message of the gospel to be conveyed, and certainly the lies of culture and the world yield countless platforms for this. The lies the world is telling our kids about sexuality are no different. We don’t need to swing to the opposite side of the spectrum then making the biggest deal imaginable out of a subject which should find its rightful place among other subjects of scripture; but we should be aware of the particular significant connections sexuality has to relationship, love, identity, and sin (I Corinthians 6:12-20). And we should be cautious about talking only in abstractions to our students; they have very concrete questions and situations to address, and we are here to walk alongside them in those and to point them to our Living God who has the best for them. Let us also remember that there is no shortage of abuse or unhealthy relating to sexuality which plagues the lives of our students. The message of God’s gift of intimacy in the form of sexuality must be coupled with the message of God’s forgiveness and redemption of the very broken ways sexuality has been twisted. And let us pray for and with our students regarding this, for Heaven’s Sake!

*Recommended reading: 'Mom, Sex is No Big Deal' by Sharon Hersh, and ‘Real Sex’ by Lauren Winner