You may well find this article unpleasant to read.
The following scenario is created from observing kids over the years, and illustrates the kinds of challenges which need to be addressed in the church.
Mid-teen Tessa tells her parents that her friend Clare is going off the rails. From an intact family and active in a lively evangelical youth programme, Clare starts to become sexually active. Neither Tessa nor her parents know what to say. They share their concern with me. I approach Clare’s youth leaders, not mentioning her by name but highlighting the fact that at least some youngsters in their care are being ‘got at’. They deny it — they know better! Clare slowly drifts away, yet one more evangelical casualty.
This illustrates at least three crucial points which keep getting overlooked.
What is missing?
Teenagers in our church youth groups are capitulating to the lure of sex and abandoning their faith. ‘The world, the flesh and the devil’, plus inadequate input or traumatic personal or family problems, leave them vulnerable. Of course, it is never too late, but kids like Clare have been hardened and now react against the teaching they received in the past. The situation has been aggravated by the fact that she believes she ‘tried God’ but that ‘it didn’t work’.
Tessa, her parents and the church youth leaders may have used the wrong methods to engage most effectively with Clare. They may have played the ‘God’, the ‘Morality’ and the ‘You May Regret It’ cards, but to no avail. These arguments on their own do not penetrate her defences. It’s all very well to say ‘no sex before marriage’, but young people need help in understanding how and why. And where are Clare’s parents? Did they have any inkling that she was being defeated on the moral/sexual battleground? Probably not.
Most seriously, many churches are simply not addressing the sex issue at all — often because of naivetŽ, ignorance, embarrassment and denial, demonstrated by Clare’s youth leaders. Some youth leaders’ understanding of youth culture was formed years ago, so their mentality and awareness levels (both of what was going on and how best to respond) is a good decade out of date. Of course, there is no magic bullet, but certain approaches are far more effective than others and address the pressing issues (for some) of youth sex culture in 2013.
In my view, too many good evangelical youngsters are being damaged, body, mind and soul, by either being given unhelpful guidance or no guidance. There are excellent non-religious as well as faith-based reasons for kids to steer clear of all kinds of sexual activity, which takes their virginity but more importantly sabotages their moral compass and destroys their faith. But because they stop coming and, because youth leaders tend not to follow-up ‘the dropouts’, they remain clueless as to what went wrong.
Because the culture has changed so perniciously, because adults often see their youngsters’ present through their own past (and kids do not disabuse them), they fail to realise the current state of play. A little bit of ‘naughty fun’ or ‘Oh well, kids will be kids…’ can prove to be a serious, or even life-shattering, business. While the church continues to think that ‘prayer and preaching the gospel’ will sort things while ducking these issues, the truth is that they won’t. It is time to engage with 2013’s challenges.
Subtle routes into bad sex
There are various routes into sex being sold to youngsters these days. One of them is the sexual ‘health’ sites which the NHS and other mainstream organisations endorse; some groups are present in schools now.1 Do you even know what kind of ‘advice’ your youngsters or those in your church’s youth group are being given by the so-called sexual ‘health’ authorities or in school SRE lessons? If kids attend to the tacit encouragement to ‘when you’re ready, explore your sexuality!’ such advice drives a coach and horses through a traditional Christian sexual ethic. Has anyone even noticed? And, if so, why is there no outcry?
I appreciate that some aspects of this ‘advice’ are accurate, wise and thoroughly commendable; however, in my view, this actually compounds the problem. It gives a false impression of reliability and soundness across the board, for youngsters think: ‘Any group which nags me about Eating 5 A Day and not smoking would surely warn me against behaviours which are potentially even more risky’. But such is not the case.
The pornography gateway
Here again we find that many of us have an outdated understanding of pornography, conjuring up a Page Three image with the word. Sadly, Page Three is benign by comparison.
A recent Daily Mail article2 is a must-read for those who think: ‘But our kids would never do such things!’ Three aspects to note:
First, youngsters from solid stable families, and both sexes, are involved, and at a young age (13-14 years old). Secondly, their parents were oblivious of their involvement. Thirdly, interest in more ‘alternative’ kinds of sex was on the rise through this modelling, tutoring and permission-giving; so, anal sex, violence, Sado Masochism, horror and even bestiality, are now on the increase.
Because of the immaturity of the teen brain, youngsters are even more disadvantaged than adults. As the Daily Mail article notes: ‘The brain’s reward centre is fully developed by the time we’re teenagers, but the part of the brain that regulates our urges — the pre-frontal cortex — isn’t fully developed until our mid-20s. The brains of teenagers are not wired to say “stop”, they are wired to want more’. This helps to explain how porn can become so addictive.
Porn’s virtual reality is being acted out in real life and in real relationships, and girls especially are paying for it. ‘When you interview young women about their experiences of sex, you see an increased level of rough, violent sex. That is directly because of porn, as young boys are getting their sexual cues from men in porn films who are acting as if they’re sexual psychopaths.’ It is touching the youngsters in your life and mine. And even if they are able to remain immune, can they explain to their mates why they do not do ‘that kind of stuff’?
What can we do?
* Update yourself on what is happening in your kids’ lives. A useful way of getting them to open up is to ask them what ‘their friends’ are up to; and when they tell you, keep calm. If you blow up, they will shut down.
* Update yourself on reasons why youngsters and sex of all types is toxic. Some good websites are:
* Update yourself on why porn is pernicious. See, for example:http://www.yourbrainonporn.com
* Bring groups in to speak to your youth group, such as Lovewise, Evaluate or Challenge Team. I also do a ‘Sex-Proofing your Kids’ seminar, which covers mainstream sexual matters.
Something I once read stuck with me and points to where I believe the church has got things wrongs: ‘Everything interesting in life is illegal, immoral or fattening’. Though we know this is not true, there are strands within our culture, and especially youth culture, which affirm and live by it. Indeed, who wants to be seen as boringly good? Not many, and not our youngsters! So we must show them a better way.
You can contact Dr. Lisa Nolland on Ls.firstname.lastname@example.org
1. http://www.rainbowbournemouth.co.uk/pdf/sexy_stuff_guys.pdf andhttp://www.respectyourself.info & http://www.4ypbristol.co.uk/
2. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2432591/ Experiment-convinced-online-porn-pernicious-threat-facing-children-today-By-ex-lads-mag-editor-MARTIN-DAUBNEY.html
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057