Thursday, August 13, 2009

Teens, Sex, and Early Marriage. . .


There's an article in the latest edition of Christianity Today magazine that I'm sure is already getting some attention and buzz. "The Case for Early Marriage," by Mark Regnerus, is one of the most thought-provoking assessments of our current abstinence culture, the state of marriage in America, and numerous cultural forces that are leaving a mark on people in ways that should cause concern.

While the article is about marriage - not marriage for the sake of legitimizing sex - Regnerus has dropped some thought-provoking and well-reasoned fodder for discussion into what I hope becomes a healthy debate about teenagers, abstinence programs, and what we focus on in youth ministry. Regnerus rightly asserts that "few evangelicals accomplish what their pastors and parents wanted them to" in terms of saving sex for marriage. I agree. I also believe that much of the fervor of parents and pastors is rooted in reckoning with the personal difficulties they had when they were the same age. It's important to note that Regnerus is not suggesting that teens get married. However, he does support marriage among those three and four years removed from their teenage experience. Again, the implications for those of us doing youth ministry or raising kids are deep.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, here's just a little of what Regnerus writes to whet your appetite:

Indeed, over 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying. The percentage of evangelicals who do so is not much lower. In a nationally representative study of young adults, just under 80 percent of unmarried, church-going, conservative Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort. I'm certainly not suggesting that they cannot abstain. I'm suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don't and won't.

What to do? Intensify the abstinence message even more? No. It won't work. The message must change, because our preoccupation with sex has unwittingly turned our attention away from the damage that Americans - including evangelicals - are doing to the institution of marriage by discouraging and delaying it.

Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they thing they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we've created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But is must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient.


I urge you to give the article a good look. Then, why not let us know what you think.

5 comments:

Joe said...

As a youth pastor with a group full of beautiful young girls and handsome young boys, all of whom I care about tremendously, those statistics scare me. Does CPYU have any resources to help parents and youth workers address sex and marriage in any other terms than 'abstinence, abstinence, abstinence!'?

Jason from IN said...

I've heard this argument before and feel that it is very compelling...here's why:

My wife and I started dating in high school when we were just 16, dated for 6 years (had to finish college or Mom and Dad pulled the $ plug), and then got married. Sexually, it was anything but easy.

Although we were committed to abstinence, we at times, came dangerously close to having intercourse-usually as a result of 'messing around' in 'other ways.' These 'other ways' of messing around, by the way, were rampant among my friends on our Christian College Campus-even with otherwise strong Christ following believers.

Looking back, I'm regretful of the fooling around that we did, and wonder if we had gotten married, if we would have made it through college, which has led us into awarding careers. These are questions I do not have answers to. Probably the best thing for me to have done would have been to not date at all until my Senior year of college, but at the same time, would I have married my amazing wife and had the coolest kid on the planet? Probably not. On a physical/spiritual level, as a 19 year old, I simply was not strong enough to resist fooling around at that point in my life. Believe me, I tried...and failed, over and over again.

I think the key for those of us who work with youth is to encourage our young people in a culture obsessed with "hooking up" culture to "not awaken love" until they feel they are academically/professional prepared for a career, etc. And if they already have stirred those waters, well...then, I guess it's just a battle they will have to fight-one that most won't win[statistically].

Looks like once again, Scripture had it right to being with.

Greg Jones said...

Honestly I think sexuality is no different than any other type of sin... except that sexuality has chemicals and hormones driving it. Although I do not work directly with youth currently, I have in the past, and I think one of the key problems is business, or more accurately "busy-ness."

I remember dating the woman who is now my wife and enjoying the moments we could hide away and "get physical." The reality of it was, all the "getting physical" we should have been doing at that point, we should have been able to do in front of friends or family because it should have been limited to kisses and hand holds. Like any other sin, though, we sought to run to the darkness to make these beautiful moments dirty.

I think the answer (if there is one) is in busy-ness. We need to help youth stay BUSY with doing God-honoring things rather than focusing on the sin. If a couple is spending an evening together, the message of "don't mess around" does not resonate nearly as powerfully as a proactive approach. So many dates, movies, and cultural messages are about sexuality. What if we put a challenge to our youth couples to work together for God's kingdom WHILE they are dating? Can you imagine how God would bless that relationship and eventual marriage?

The real drag is when couples feel like they are missing out. Everyone else is crossing lines and seems to love every minute of it. What if, instead of a story about "how far" the couple got on a Friday night, they could instead tell a story about someone they helped or a difference they made in the world?

Yeah, it's probably unrealistic. Those of you with youth groups are thinking "that will never work," but I have to think that saying "whatever you do, don't touch the hot stove..." has been the tactic forever... and according to the article 80% of couples are burning their little hands. Maybe a proactive BUSY-ness approach is worth a try...

Jonathan said...

While I agree that sexual sin is no different that other sin, I must take issue with a "proactive busyness approach." The reality of a "proactive" approach means that parents must start living out their covenantal responsibilites as spiritual guides to their children (read Deut. 6). The "proactive" approach means that parents must begin to have real conversations (means talking with your teens on a regular basis about the subject of sexuality and all that comes with it) with their pre-teens and teens about sex and not just words about the birds and the bees and the do's and don'ts! Parents have a scriptural mandate to engage their children in spiritual matters and in this culture today that includes dealing with heavy cultural issues as well. I don't ever remember having a conversation with my mom or dad about sex (other than the mehanics of it all). When I lost virginity as a teenager,my parents nor my church did anything to help me with my struggles. Churches also have to realize that sex is not a bad word, but is a gift from God. It is imperative that parents and churches engage their teens together. If we want to be proactive, then forget busyness, but rather parents and churches get busy in learning how to engage teenagers in their culture today. Parents need to realize that spending time with your kids is not driving them to school, school functions, or church events. It is having a conversation and doing things that builds relationship! Churches need to realize that "over-programming" our teens can lead them to despise spiritual matters. I am in my last year in seminary and I have seen a lot of people point the fingers of blame in a variety of places rather than where it should be--us It breaks my heart to see how parents are willing to drop off their teens to youth events and yet are so unwilling to converse about serious matters such as sexuality. If we want to be proactive, then parents and churches alike need to only learn how to engage their teens, but also get on our knees and pray diligently for their teens. How many prayers groups are there in churches today specifically geared towards teens (meaning adults praying for their teens). Come on people when are we going to recognize that we are the problem. Walt, I am actually planning on using your book "Youth Culture 101" and another resource to teach a Sunday School class this coming fall to parents about youth culture and ways to engage teens today! Please pray that God moves in a real way and that the Holy Spirit changes some of my parents in my church to change some of their ways.

Jason Soucinek said...

Walt, thanks for pointing out this article. I too struggle with this issue and it gave me a lot of “food for thought.” Especially, since it hits so close to home being someone that speaks about sexual abstinence/purity often. For whatever it is worth here are some of my thoughts.

First, let’s be honest, sex is a difficult subject to discuss. Throw marriage in the mix and it only becomes more complicated. Too often we hold sex on a mantel and make it the end all of relationships, specifically the marriage relationship. In Christian circles we’ve turned the topic of sexual purity into another way to market our Christian Faith. We have breath mints and bubble gum that is for the “pure of heart”, bumper stickers that say, “I am pure, no need to swear” and weekend retreats dedicated to how we stay pure. I would agree with Joe’s comment above, we do often make this about "abstinence, abstinence, abstinence" without any additional content. These messages typically have a “don’t do it!” attitude causing the listener to think they will feel dirty, or guilty after engaging in premarital sexual activity. They may even think that sexual desire before marriage is not God given. These messages are delivered while failing to recognize one simple fact a growing number of teens and young adults that sit in our pews are already sexually active. They find sex liberating and freeing. Yes, the guilt we always try to throw at them my follow but the freedom they enjoyed during that one moment of instant gratification was real. Now what happens if they experience this thrill after being told that premarital sex was not going to be exciting? The answer is, “it depends.” Some may repent and start over. While others may begin to think about everything else that was shared about sex and God and begin to question the answers they’ve been given. This doesn’t just impact our message about sex it also harms what our teens and young adults think about marriage and what they think about Jesus.

Second, Regnerus failed to point out the home life of many teenagers today. Part of the trouble of discussing marriage is that many teenagers and young adults have not had a successful marriage modeled for them yet amazingly it is still something they desire. I will often be in a class where more than half are dealing with a recent divorce, remarriage, living with a sibling or relative, and even mistreatment from a stepparent. Still, in the midst of all this, many, if not all, of the students want to marry. However, many of those same teens say they do not think marriage will be life long. If we are going to be serious about talking about marriage as a framework to curb some of the emphasis placed on sexual abstinence or purity then I think we are going to need to do a better job of promoting healthy marriages in our churches.

Third, encompassed within this charge is also the realization that as youth leaders and pastors we can’t be surrogate parents to our teens. We need to find a way to encourage and equip parents to do their job! If we are getting commitments from teens for their virginity or purity we also need to be doing the same with the parents. No one is going to have more influence over their son or daughters success in remaining pure or seeing marriage as a great institution than that young persons mother and father.

Finally, we have to stop seeing our selves as moral police officers. If we are going to see youth succeed by recognizing the beauty of waiting for sex in marriage, we have to start injecting a dose of optimism with “do” statements rather than “don’t!” That means demonstrating the “do” in our own lives. Jesus didn’t teach principles, He taught practices. He gave the people something to do. He didn’t just tell people to think about changing their behaviors, he told them to repent (change their actions). Sure it’s challenging, but which one of the many messages we see given by Jesus isn’t?