Sex is one of the first topics in Scripture, but we are not comfortable talking openly about it in church.
The first chapter of Genesis makes it clear that God created us as sexual beings: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them" (v. 27, NRSV). The next verse tells us to "be fruitful and multiply." We are to use our God-given gift of sexuality to join God in the process of creation! When God looks at all that has been created and sees that "it is very good," that includes humankind as sexual beings.
Why then is this gift so difficult to be open about in our communities of faith? When we do talk about sex in church, why do we do so most often on a surface level without giving opportunity for deep conversation? Why do hot topics like abortion and homosexuality so polarize us that we cannot coexist in the love Jesus modeled – at the expense of our care for one another? Difficult questions for us that deserve, at the least, conversation, if not thoughtful answers.
Our young people look to their faith communities for answers and conversations on important topics – including those surrounding their sexuality. In the absence of such conversations, they turn to other sources, including friends, school, media and cultural norms. They turn to the same sources that often informed their parents and church leaders, sources that frequently separate our understanding of this powerful gift from the Giver of Life of whom the psalmist says, "You knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13b, NRSV).
Understanding that our source of being is grounded in our source of life provides opportunity for real conversations about faith and sex. These are faithful conversations that do not cherry-pick passages of Scripture to reinforce a particular view of who we are and how we function as sexual beings. Rather, they meet a need to interpret Scripture as a whole and to develop meaningful ways to integrate all of who we are as followers of Christ. Such conversations are both challenging and freeing.
SEX: A Christian Perspective on Our Bodies, Decisions and Relationships (Discipleship Resources) is a new resource to begin these conversations with younger youth (sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the United States). Written by the Rev. Jeremy Steele, a longtime youth minister, and available through Discipleship Ministries (www.ypmfaithandsex.org), this four-session resource provides foundation for deep conversations to connect youth with a local church's understanding of faith and sexuality. The Book of Discipline is clear that the church should take an active role in sexuality education. SEX will assist churches in this role.
Encountering tough topics
Opening the lines of communication with young people around the topic of sexuality frees the church to delve into many of the tough topics they encounter. Our Social Principles state, "Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage" (Par. 161.F). The cultural and relational experiences of many of our young people are different from this standard.
In the National Survey of Family Growth (2011), the reason that teens cited most often for delaying participating in sexual intercourse was that it was against their religion or morals. Still, by the age of 19, two-thirds of our young people have had sexual intercourse, and many have participated in oral sex. Young people in this group account for almost half of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The teen pregnancy rate in the United States is one of the highest in the developed world. While the average age of first sexual intercourse is 17, the average age of marriage is over 25. More young people are choosing to be abstinent, and more young people are choosing to cohabitate. Gender transition and same-sex marriage are topics of wide discussion and disagreement.
The church's role
How can our church families help young people make informed, faithful decisions concerning this good and delicate gift of sexuality?
As a church, we must listen as much as we speak on these matters. There are holy conversations to be had, and we have missed the opportunity on many occasions.
Often the church is seen as judgmental and excluding at a time when young people most need the love and care that Jesus exemplified. As they deal with issues of gender and sexual identity, they often look elsewhere for the help and support they need. Many LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) teens will attempt to hide, ignore or change their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to be accepted. Some become hopeless when they discover that they cannot wish or pray away their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Teenagers who come from a religious cultural context or family with a religious doctrine that condemns homosexuality are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.
The good news is that we CAN change this as we change the way we approach the topic of sexuality and its relationship to our faith. A new approach can literally save lives!
We cannot remain silent and depend on the world outside the church to provide our young people with a perspective on their sexuality. If we do, we should not wonder why their attitudes and beliefs in this area are void of a faith perspective. We can, together, share in honest, authentic, informed conversation that can shape a healthy sexuality for our young people, our churches and our world.
The Rev. Michael G. Ratliff is associate general secretary for Young People's Ministries, Discipleship Ministries.
Opening the Door
Local churches have the potential to become places of safety for young people to be and grow in all areas of life – sexuality included. As United Methodist churches become known as places of safety, openness and acceptance, other young people and their families will find their way into the community. Here are some ways that churches can become places of hope:
Start the conversation.
Someone has to bring up the topic. Use some of the facts in this article and others you find to introduce your congregation to the need to explore this powerful and good gift from God.
You cannot be everything for everyone, but you can make a difference for someone. Have a conversation with the young people in your church and/or community about sexuality. Listen more than you talk. You will find young people more willing to talk than you expect.
Involve the church.
If you plan to use a resource like Created by God (Abingdon Press) or SEX: A Christian Perspective on Our Bodies, Decisions and Relationships (Discipleship Resources), find ways to make it a project that goes beyond the youth ministry team. The young people will both have the benefit of learning about sexuality in a safe environment and of developing relationships with adults in their community of faith. (The adults will probably also learn something new!)
Expand the conversation.
Hope and Self-Acceptance is the first supplemental module to the basic SEX resource created to address a more specific topic – LGBTQ teens and suicide. Others will deal with such topics as gender identity, pornography and language for talking about sex. At www.ypmfaithandsex.org, you will find an expanding cache of resources and articles to customize how your church continues the conversation. You can also provide input for other leaders about what works in your congregation and learn from others' experiences.