The fourth bomb on why young people leave the church we now discuss. According to Barna headline it is summed up in this sentence: Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. The article expands to the following.
One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality.
Regular readers of this blog have seen the sexuality issue pop up several times. For this post two things need to be parsed out: what is official view of the evangelical church, how is it simplistic (and harmful), and what ought we to do?
Simplistic testimonies: Out of Touch and Out of Date.
Evangelical theology is quite often folk theology. This is not to say that it’s bad. It is more a comment on how a message gets accepted and how it gets communicated. You’ve seen it work if you have ever had someone “testify” to the goodness of God or their working in their life. Evangelical theology is deeply rooted in the folk experiences of God’s winners. That is, people who can tell us how great it is to live a holy life, all by the grace of God of course.
Exhibit A among “God’s Winners” is Mark Regnerus. Several years ago, he argued for the case for young marriage. In it he extolled the virtues of marrying young. Naturally, he answered many of the objection such as economic insecurity, immaturity, and even a kind of romantic perfectionism. He wisely admitted that it is unrealistic to expect people to wait. Instead, he argues that our crisis with sexuality is really a misunderstanding of marriage. Overall, he feels that inspiring young marriage (and helping people to get there) is the solution to our woes about sexuality. Not surprisingly, Mark Regnerus married young.
Another issue, we can call it exhibit b for God’s winners, is he frequent testimonies and sharing on podcasts like boundless.org, such as this story about bachelor pastor who got married late in life. In podcast 246, Steve DeWitt, talks about his lengthy time unmarried life up until age 44. He shares his thoughts on loneliness, expectations on perhaps always being single, and a scatterings of relationships a long the way. He remains one of God’s Winners because he remained pure.
Stories like this that help motivate the standard lines of the evangelical sexual ethic. It can be summed in few sentences: virginity is how the unmarried stay holy. Multiple partners will make used up. Young men should not dishonor young women. Young women should not dishonor themselves. If you ‘burn with passion’ just get married young. Marital sex is totally hot. Look up these in any evangelical message board, any evangelical sermon, and you’ll see these memes repeated ad infintum.
Overly simplistic, harmful and marginalizing.
For the young Christians the party line creates familiar feeling. It’s like a baby boomer telling you to “just get a job.”
Why are these messages so completely out of touch? Part of it is that the way church leaders dogmatically ignore bad consequences of the evangelical sexual ethic. Feminist Jessica Valenti outlined some of the interesting lopsidedness of what she pejoratively calls “virginity fetishism.” At purity balls, young women promise to keep their virginity intact. Young men promise not to defile a young woman by ‘taking’ her virginity. Does this not seem strange? Is virginity only a quality that women have? Why? Such a strange emphasis on one gender is damaging. I like to think that there is a bit more to being a ‘Godly woman’ than what doesn’t happen prior to marriage. It is also seems to imply that women are not interested in or tempted by sex. This is such an archaic, outdated notion that I face palm even typing it.
There are however more dramatic examples. In one instance a kidnapped rape victim, Elizabeth Smart, endured sexual slavery at age fourteen. She was rescued when her captors brought her out into public. Why didn’t she just run away the first chance she got? Elizabeth explained that rape victims struggle with a feeling of worthlessness and that this is made worse by conservative, abstinence only sex ed programs.
Some might say that this is an extreme example. Indeed it is. So consider the idea that virginity somehow helps single people prepare for a great marriage. It is rare to find a Christian in their mid 20s who doesn’t know someone who wasn’t hurt by this myth. It’s ugly result is a quick divorce to get out of a premature marriage. One candid story, entitled “My Virignity Mistake” the author tells a story of an expensive marriage, a disappointing sex life, and a subsequent divorce.
She ends with a hopeful note:
Soon after our divorce, he got remarried to someone who suits him better than I ever could have. And years later, I can confirm that I am not that woman who has no interest in sex. I don’t quilt. I haven’t compiled a grocery list in bed in years, and I now know that sex can be amazing … with a bartender who only knows your first name, a pilot you meet on vacation in Costa Rica and yes, with the right guy – sex in a marriage can be beautiful. The key is to figure that out before you find yourself walking down an aisle in a dress that costs more than the family car (my mother has since reminded me). It isn’t the most important thing when it comes to love. But for me, I learned that sex is important enough not to wait. -Salon
As you can see by this quote, this description of sex doesn’t fit with the idea that multiple partners make a person feel used up like a piece of tape that looses its adhesive power.
Shut up and Listen
Many people will see the negative results here -a shamed rape victim, a young divorce, and a lopsided sexual dogma- and insist that these are the results of sin not the morality about sex. Honestly, can such an attitude really reflect a thorough understanding of how “God’s losers” are experiencing sex? Remember, part of the problem is that Evangelical sexual ethic is folk theology that’s not just proclaimed but created by the testimonies of folks like a 44 year old bachelor pastor. I can see no justification to ignore or reinterpret stories of people who failed to get to meet the cut. These problems are not the result of sin. These problems are the result of an archaic, out-dated, lopsided, and completely out of touch sexual ideal.
The 80% of young Christians who are having sex anyway likely agree with this point. If we keep beating the drum about virginity, abstinence, and the virtues of young marriage we expect more young people to leave out of sheer alienation. If we trudge along with idealistic views of sexual purity, relationships, and dating we will lose the attention of young people who already know it isn’t working. I can’t emphasize enough that we need to re-evaluate our sexual ethic in light of our contemporary context, rather than appealing to an imagined past or somewhat selective examination of scripture.
Let’s start by honoring young women. You read that correctly. The current sexual ethic is not not really helping any woman who feels used up after sex, or is feels guilty about wanting sex. It bothers me that there are Christians out there who think that dating or marrying a non-virgin is either a taboo or a consolation prize. We need to erase the virginal purity idea from our minds. A women’s intrinsic worth as romantic partner no more depends on her not having had sex than a man’s not having viewed pornography. By way of example, consider this. Years ago, a friend once asked if she would be ‘used goods’ if she tried to date post-divorce. I told her that any guy who would think that of her isn’t worth dating in the first place. Why? Most likely because he is not totally aware of his own failings when it comes to his sexuality.
More generally, we need to have a more candid two-sided dialogue, when it comes to sex. You will notice that I did not talk about the famous passage in Corinthians. Equally, I did not reference lesser known references to the unexpected sexuality of the old testament. This because I find those conversations hard to start. The impression I get from most Christian romance media and message-board discussions is that Evangelical zeitgeist is still mired in a very black and white, very dogmatic, way of thinking on this matter. This is especially true for the organizations like boundless who speak just a bit too authoritatively about purity and romance. We need to understand what the Bible actually says about sex, and I do mean all of the Bible, not just the verses that reinforce the folk theologies.
Fortunately, the attitude is changing. Articles such as the ones of shared in this blog, this nice one at Internet Monk, and this wonderful documentary give me some confidence that other people’s stories will be heard. I hope also that most of the young Christians in what Relevant calls the “secret sexual revolution” will have the confidence to be less secret about it.
Make no mistake: it’s not going to be enough to revise or re-articlate the old ethic about sex. The current sexual ethic needs to be replaced. If we expect to keep the coming generations, we need to get sexual ethic that makes sense. We need to get one that works. This will begin only when more and more young people become honest and candid with themselves.
God’s losers need to be heard.