Here's the first harsh truth: if your sexual ethic for teenagers begins with the words, "You can't do this…" then you have already lost the battle before you even started!
In my previous post, I define what I mean by the term, "Post-Christian." It is a difficult term to understand and define. It is fraught with connotation and misinterpretation, which may be further complicated by your geographical location. It certainly is for me living in the Bay Area. For the sake of brevity, please see the definition that I give for this term here, and you will understand why this issue needs addressed. Before I dive into this issue, however, allow me to first explain the impetus for this post.
I am blessed to participate in a thriving community of Youth Pastors in Marin County and beyond. In fact, our Marin cohort meets once per month — on our own — without the prompting of a denomination or external leadership. I have since learned in my two year youth ministry tenure that such a gathering is a rarity. And in the a-religious Bay Area no less, which may actually make it all the more appropriate.
Of the dozen or so guys (we are open to women serving with us, by the way) in the group, our de-facto leader, Ben Kerns, has been spurning and facilitating conversations between the guys on this topic, specifically on the issue of sexuality. As you may well know and understand, discussing the topic of sexuality often conjures up awkwardness and deafness before the full word even exits your mouth! Yet, as my professor and mentor, Kenda Dean, used to exclaim in class: 'this is the one issue that is on the mind of every teenager — every decision is made through this lens… every truth claim is interpreted through this lens… and (mostly) every action is done through this lens.' Essentially, sexuality is the heartbeat of the teenage mind.
Given the premise of my previous post, regardless of where you may land on this topic yourself or how you may see yourself fit in the post-Christian schema, our kids — in every context and geographic locale — are enmeshed in it! This is their worldview. Case in point: not less than a month ago, a middle school boy uttered this sentence to me: "I see no reason why porn is bad." A middle schooler! This admission illustrates well the current positioning of post-modernity, post-Christianity within our society: sin is culturally defined, morality is set by the individual, and there is no longer a cultural or societal story that links across racial, ethnic, and geographical boundaries to provide foundational footing for morality or spirituality. In fact, if anything, I think we can rightly state that certain pockets of our culture and in particular the Bay Area reflect an amorality archetype.
All of this begs the question: how do we appropriately and faithfully land the plane in such a way that holds room for our teenagers to still live within society and grapple with the grander, meta-narrative of Scripture and the claims that it makes on our sexuality? Here are some ground rules for post-Christian sex talk:
1. (I hate to say this) Study the truth claims on sexuality given in Scripture. This may seem patronizing, but even you need to withdraw from culture (as much as one possible can!) and read Scripture with a 1st century lens, asking 21st century questions. Thank you for this wonderful phrase, N.T. Wright. In doing so, you may discover some interesting perspectives that may shake you.
2. Particularize your sex talk. Obviously, we do not live apart from our kids and families in some protective Christian air-bubble. Rather, we live in the same towns, eat in the same restaurants, shop at the same malls. You (ought to) know the blight of your community better than anyone else. You are a student of your community. What are the major socioeconomic issues? What are the major demographic issues? How are kids responding and acting out to such issues with their sexuality, for they most certainly are? Do you have latch-key kids? Is rape an issue? Is teen-pregnancy an issue? Perhaps before you get to the nuts and bolts of relational boundaries (a youth pastor's favorite topic), you need to address these larger systemic issues and ask first: what's brewing underneath the surface?
3. Use a relevant and up-to-date vocabulary. For example, talk about the importance of friendship and time well invested into a relationship without using the word, courting. Talk about manners and the practical responsibility of a man without saying the term, chivalry. Owning a vocabulary that uses the common lexicon of a teenager not only buys you street cred, but it also serves a practical function: kids will understand what you say.
4. Stay focused on the student. As the authority of the village elder, which in youth ministry is the youth pastor, has disintegrated, your past, too, has become less and less relevant to the conversation on this topic. This is a hard one for us to chew and swallow, but this factor is a result of post-modernity and the disintegration of the meta-narrative and the roles of folks within it.
5. RE-invite them into a new story, beginning with community. As youth pastors theologize about how to respond to a post-modern, post-Christian society and culture, I have heard many respond saying, 'We just need to preach all the louder, and make the Gospel that much more grander," as if this is a shouting match. That's one strategy. Perhaps a more subversive and richer one would be creating a landing place for kids to wrestle with these big issues — in a community that allows for doubt, questions, and even, unbelief. One of the greatest counter arguments to post-Christendom is offering a place to belong before one believes. This flies in the face of everything Christendom.
6. Own your own junk and its implications. I will close with the second harsh truth: you need to own your personal junk, your mistakes and faults, and not project your shame and guilt upon kids wrestling through what every human being endures: sexual confusion, sexual mistakes, and sexual identity. As a youth pastor, volunteer leader, or caring adult, you possess the greatest privilege in the world: walking an individual through the process of faith formation and development. And it is just that: a walk… sometimes a very slow one. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Endure it. And most of all, let it be with the student. That may mean that you need to wrestle through some of these issues yourself before you walk a teenager through it. If so, then great! You will be all the more equipped to listen and respond to a teenager with faith and patience.
Christ is shining through you. Your presence is often enough. May you dive headfirst into the mystery of sexuality, knowing full well that God has created and redeemed you for his good work with teenagers!
Question: What additional rules would you add for post-Christendom, post-modern sex talk with teenagers?