Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sex, Sexuality, Youth Ministry, and The Church: Moving Beyond Accountability Groups

The high school youth ministry I grew up in was obsessed with conversations about sex and sexuality. Whenever we were polled by leadership on potential retreat topics, this one received a high percentage of votes. Whenever it lost, it was either to its companion, "relationships," or obsessions with the apocalypse.

What was also very popular was the "accountability group." I was a part of several. They never seemed to last for more than a few months, if that. Same-gender youth, often with an adult leader, would meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and share about life. We read Scripture, prayed, and encouraged one another. But mostly these groups evolved into conversations about sexual "temptations," how to avoid them, and what to do if we "stumbled." These gatherings got real interesting whenever someone was dating another member of the youth group.

I am grateful for the willingness of my peers to be so vulnerable and open about a delicate and awkward topic. However, what resulted was a hyper-sexualized theology that was all about fear, avoidance, and unending anxiety whenever in the presence of a member of the opposite sex. God, faith, Christianity, and the church became about codes of conduct for co-ed interactions, especially romantic ones.

Then, many years later, I became a Presbyterian youth pastor. While sexuality was an important and highly debated point of conversation at the denominational level, it was not one the youth ministry was as interested in having corporately. It certainly was not at the top of desired retreat topics. We definitely refrained from preaching about it from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. As a youth pastor, I was somewhat relieved. Sex and sexuality are not exactly on my list of "Favorite Things to Preach About with Regularity."

This new reality was not because the youth or larger congregation did not have their opinions on the sensitive topic. It just seemed to be too delicate of a conversation to engage publicly, especially in a denomination where there is a beholder of every opinion and convictiction under the sun.

I venture to say that what prevented the topic from being discussed was/is fear.

Fear of offending.

Fear of not knowing.

Fear of disagreement.

Fear of the possibility of ambiguity and gray areas.

Fear that somebody may open the can about homosexuality and actually suggest that it is possible to be gay and Christian.

Fear that somebody may say it is not.

All that said, this past Sunday the Imago Dei Youth Ministry opened that can on "sex, sexuality, and the church" as a part of our "That's Awkward Series." I confess: our conversation was incomplete at best.

But we at least started a conversation. And many of the youth seemed to be engaged and eager to have the conversation, some for the first time within a church setting. Others may have rather not been there at all.

So that leaves me with still more questions than answers:

What is the role of the church when it comes to conversations about sex and sexuality?

Have we isolated conversations about sexuality to obsessions about sex, losing in the mix the broader and God-given desire for human intimacy and relationship?

Are we having relevant conversations with youth about sexuality that invites them to see God's desire for their faith and identity as a disciple of Jesus to extend into all they are and all of their relationships, especially those most intimate?

Do we partner faithfully with parents in the conversation or simply have these conversations in isolation and assume we have the single and biblical answer?

Do we just let youth figure "it" out on their own?

What about thsoe who have been sexually abused? Do we foster environments for youth to find healing, advocacy, and freedom?

As someone who longs to invite youth on a pilgrimage of faith as they follow Jesus and live into God's dreams for the world with their whole person, I confess that this is an area I still find puzzling.

But it is a puzzle that must be pieced together as a community of faith nonethess. Even if the pieces are awkward and diverse, each contributing a different perspective to the larger picture of what it means to be called the image of God and the people of God in this world.

So what's your piece? How have you reflected on this with others, especially youth?

In love and grace- fire away. But please don't invite me to be a part of an "accountability group."

"Sex is not a prevalent topic of conversation at most churches- at least not when it comes to personal disclosure. Let's face it: sex scares a lot of Christians. Some Christians are afraid of being ridiculed or shamed if they are honest about their sexual needs, desires, or activities. Many don't want to discuss sexual issues for fear of getting tangled up in sexual misunderstandings. Others are resistant to entertaining ideas about sexuality because they fear that somewhere along the way without meaning to, they will compromise their faith. Sex can be a very scary topic for many Christians who struggle with personal sexuality in isolated silence."

---Carmen Renee Berry, The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church



Notes:

**A great read is Rob Bell's, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality.

***Would love recommended resources to be posted. One of the areas I have struggled to find adequate resources is in the realm of youth ministry and gay youth. I am familiar with PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), but have not found too many solid resources for youth pastors not interested in "fixing" gay youth. However, the resource highlighted here is actually excellent and I have recoimmended to many parents/youth in my context.

****For a really interesting conversation starter, check out Modern Family Season 3 Episode 16: Virgin Territory. Is this how we approach the subject today? In our efforts to be "cool," do we miss opportunities for faithful dialogue? Do we miss opportunities to be more than older kids, but adult mentors and guides?

 

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