One thing has become clear to me these past few years, if you are a Christian parent of a teenager who is a follower of Jesus then you are charged with preparing them for a far more torrid experience than you or I had in the early eighties or nineties as teenage Christians.
Simply put, parents, there is a growing animosity towards the Christian ethical framework that is flowering in your teenagers’ youth that you never experienced, and it is especially evident in the area of sexual ethics. And it is going to pick them off one by one if we are not vigilant, careful, prayerful and, most importantly, able to offer them a better vision of life than the one on offer by the secular framework, a life with more beauty and colour than the one being presented by the culture.
Granted it’s hard enough to navigate young people through the sexual ungodliness of a culture without Christ, but things have changed. Now this is not to say that the level of ungodly behaviours has changed all that much. So I well remember hearing the 15 and 16 year olds at school regaling us all with Monday morning tales of the Friday night parties and the sexual favours/conquests/assaults-whilst-girls-were-comatose they indulged in.
So the level of ungodliness has not changed. What has changed is how the Christian perspective is viewed by the wider culture, especially among a younger generation. How was I regarded as a young, chaste, Christian boy back in those days? With mild disinterest – that’s how. Oh, and a touch of pity or scorn, mainly on the basis that it was decidedly lame to be a Christian. I well remember one bloke trying to shame me in front of the whole class by pointing out that at least he didn’t go to church like I did. Since pretty much no one went to church, the class looked at me rather oddly, before deciding it wasn’t a category they knew or cared that much about, and went on with whatever they were doing.
This view that Christian sexual ethics was passe, was reinforced in the upper school English and Literature curriculum, if not explicitly by the texts we studied, then certainly by the staff who taught us. There was a general view that traditional marriage (an unfortunate and virulent cast-off of Judeo-Christian values) was outmoded, outdated and something that kept women in their place (a view that grew to incorporate “a licence to rape” in the university English degree that I took). Students of course viewed marriage as quaint, antiquated, and not worth the paper it was written and signed on. It would fade away of its own volition.
Here’s the problem. The Christian sexual ethic is proving surprisingly stubborn to root out (there’s a natural theology point right there), and since this is so, it will, or so it appears, have to be seen off, shoo-ed away. To the surprise of some, this latest culture lurch is not blasé and immoral about ethics, but rather, vigilant and hyper-moral with a zeal that seeks conformity.
So my own daughter, as we talk, has asked how she is going to cope, knowing that many of her friends are going to consider her a bigot or homophobic on the basis that she holds to a Christian view of sexuality. She gets worried about it What happens when she is viewed as the “baddie?”
She seems almost surprised when I tell her that marriage was considered on the way out when I was young, rather than the ultimate expression of love that should be denied to none, as it is thought of today.
Today anything that threatens to get in the way of individual fulfilment – individual relational and sexual fulfilment – is viewed as the new immorality. And this new immorality is a threat to harmony and peace in our playgrounds, apparently. Failure to not adhere to the new morality is going to put increasing pressure on our teenagers.
Don’t think that can happen? Then witness the furore over the screening of a film in NSW schools that aims to promote a positive view of gay parenting, a documentary in the post-Mike Moore era – which aims to dismantle negative perceptions of same sex parenting.
Whatever your view of the film, Gayby Baby, this much is clear: if you are a Christian teenager who holds to a traditional sexual ethic, and your school holds a day to celebrate the movie, requires you to wear purple, and the police officers in attendance at the event turn up in purple uniforms for the day, you won’t be suggesting too loudly that there may be another perspective on sexuality, or that it may be okay to agree to disagree. Those days are over for your teens. They’re going to have to keep their heads down or get them lopped off. The middle ground has been vacated, and you need to prepare them for a life in which argument by social media will push that evacuation even more forcefully.
So what should parents do? How can Christian mums and dads prepare their teenagers for the complexities facing them in the next fifteen years until they land safely on the other side of thirty, by God’s grace?
1. Don’t Get Mad
Christian young people don’t need to be caught up in the middle of a slanging match between angry secularists and angry Christians. They need to see godly love modelled by their Christian community, and a commitment to maintaining gentleness and respect. Anger will fuel insecurity, and may indeed confuse them even more.
There will definitely be an increasing scorn and abuse of Christians for holding out on this issue, and there is already a push towards ensuring that schools line up with the new sexual ethic in their teaching, as well as a peer pressure on young people to line up with it. Teach them that a gentle answer turns away wrath. They don’t need to hear their parents angrily or scornfully discussing the culture with hatred or contempt. They need to hear a sober, almost mournful love for a culture that is seeking love in all the wrong places. They also need to hear love spoken towards those who disagree with them.
2. Model Godly Marriage in Community
Christian parents – and Christian communities together – should model to teenagers what godly marriage looks like. They should see costly examples in their own home of forgiveness, love, compassion and dying to self. If they don’t see it at home, or among the Christian parents they know, then they are not going to see the better vision of life that we claim the gospel provides.
We need to be careful not to give them cause to think that “anything must be better than what my parents modelled to me.” And that’s not about being perfect parents. It’s about being repentant parents, repenting openly and often to each other and to them. I still remember how influential the happy Christian marriages were in my own thinking as I grew up, even as my own parents divorced.
I think this means that parents and churches should not outsource teaching of sexual ethics to anyone other than themselves. The church community is the place to model sexual purity, both in word and deed, and to offer an alternate vision of the good life that honours marriage AND singleness; that refuses to define us according to how sociology defines us; and that models warm, lasting intimate non-sexual friendship, in which men reading John 13:23 don’t squirm when it says John laid his head on Jesus’ breast.
3. Highlight The Cost of Following Jesus
And speaking of Jesus, following Jesus is costly, but worth it. Following Jesus is worth it, but costly. If there is one thing we want to model and teach our teenagers it is that there is a cost to following Jesus – but the pay out is huge. We follow Jesus outside the city and bear his shame. We need to make that theology normative. If that necessitates a book burning of Your Best Life Now, so be it!
Our culture is enamoured with a vision of the good life that may indeed be good – up to a point. But regardless of how liberating it may appear, regardless of how well same sex parents bring up their children (or heterosexual couples for that matter), all of that ends at the grave. Only a hope in Jesus beyond the grave can make pain, struggle, and social isolation worth it on this side of the grave.
That means we must take our children’s fears about ostracisation seriously. As Christian adults we can buffer ourselves far more effectively from those who disagree with us, and often we are far more robust in our thirties and forties anyway, but teens are often raw, impressionable, and fear social isolation. Don’t downplay that fear, but point to how Jesus makes it worth it. Demonstrate how Jesus himself faced the ultimate isolation on the cross, from family, friends and Father, so that we would never have to face anything alone.
4. Don’t Throw Simple Answers At Complex Questions
I am always amazed by how profound my children’s concerns are. When I asked my son (he’s 7) what he was worried about the other day, he replied softly, “Growing old and dying.” Whatever happened to the West Coast Eagles losing the finals? And my 14 year old daughter? Her big questions are about what it will be like to follow Jesus as she watches the media and sees a growing hostility towards traditional Christianity. The conversations we have in the car on the way to school are enlightening and sobering!
I grew up fundamentalist, but it was pretty much knocked out of me by university, and I am kinda surprised I even stayed Christian. Many of the answers I had been given to the big questions were not adequate answers. They tripped at the first hurdle outside the bubble of a fundamentalist community. I struggled for several years, before some good Christian community and a firmer grasp of God’s Word helped me up.
So, in this current setting and in light of the whole sexual ethic questions, get to the question behind the question with your teenagers. If your teenager is asking whether you think that children of same-sex parents are going to be missing out and have a worse upbringing than those with heterosexual parents, then consider what they are asking. They may have friends in that situation. They may be looking at friends in traditional relationships who are miserable. They may be reading conflicting information in different online articles. There are so many other social factors involved, and there has not simply been enough latitudinal study to determine that (if ever such a study could be done without bias anyway).
In short, take time to get to the question behind the question. We are to impress upon our children that there are many ways that seem right to humans, and God’s grace extends to people involved with all sorts of brokenness. There will be examples of relational light in all sorts of people, because we are created in God’s image to enjoy relationships. So we don’t need to paint obviously black and white pictures of how things will pan out. The Christian life is about negotiating increasingly complex situations, bringing everything into the light of Scripture’s big story, and working out what is required of us in our generation.
Most of all we want to point out to our children that we are not trying to promote morality, but rather proclaim Jesus. Ask any new Christian whose life has been turned upside down by Jesus, it was the power of new life from within that shifted their thinking on everything. Now, especially now, we need to get the law/gospel thing the right way around. Let’s not tell our children that it’s about the grace that teaches us to say “no to ungodliness”, whilst at the same time railing or placarding against a culture that is devoid of grace, as if somehow it can pull itself up by its bootstraps.
5. Trust God’s Grace
Which brings me to grace. We sing it all of the time: “t’is grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” It’s not as if there has never been a time when grace was not needed to get us this far and to bring us home. God’s grace in our teenagers’ lives is an empowering drawcard to live a godly life. We would do well to trust the grace that has brought us this far, to bring our teenagers home. Model grace, teach grace, live grace, speak grace. Do it in your household and among the household of God. We need to put flesh on what this looks like, and even now I am thinking about that as the pastor of a church plant with an increasing number of young people, but as far as it is up to you, show your teenagers grace, because they’re going to find a distinct lack of it in the world. They’re going to find a “win-at-all-costs” approach from the new sexual ethic that will take no prisoners, and all in the name, apparently, of love. If the comments below the line in the newspaper articles are any indication, there’s not a lot of grace on offer out there for anyone who doesn’t tow the line.
Grace as much as anything, may be enough to open your teens’ eyes to a kaleidoscope of love that puts any variations of rainbows and purple in the shade, that demonstrates that the good life found in Jesus and among his people has more colour in it than they ever knew exists.
After reading your blog, I wondered whether I could find the section of The Blue Parakeet where Scot McKnight uses the issue of sex before marriage as an example of reading the Bible with discernment. I found it. There are no answers , only more questions but someone who follows his blog wrote that she wishes that someone would thoughtfully address the issues in today’s culture of the gap of many years between the age of sexual maturity and age at which people enter marriage. She saw 4 choices:
· Remain celibate for 1 – 2 decades of the sexually intense time of their lives
· Marry at a much earlier age than their contemporaries
· Stay away from church and engage in premarital sex until married
· Attend church and compartmentalise that part of their life and keep premarital sex private.
Scot reminds us that people are asking “Why we do we say the rule about premarital sex is to be applied but not e.g. the rule about keeping the Sabbath (Friday night sundown – Saturday night sundown) and so he goes on to explore the whole issue of reading the Bible with discernment within this time, this culture.
Your children will be protected by having wonderful role models for parents, solid self esteem, a friendship group with other strong Christians within the group (and they don’t have to be at school), friends who are trusted and even if they don’t share the same values or ethics are respectful of your children’s and as you say God’s grace.
And by the way, Muslim’s share the idea that premarital sex is not a good idea. Will people of this culture deride Muslims’ for this choice??
Hi Pauline. Will have a good read of your reply when I get to Sydney later today – some good, comforting points there. And yes I do wonder about that last thought of yours. I had some interesting conversations with some young Muslim women at your old stomping ground Sheffield University a few years back about why they decided to take on the veil. It was primarily to demonstrate to decadent students that they were operating within a different ethical paradigm.
Praise God for Sophie! You have the gentle spirit of a dove and inner strength of a lion… Who is God in you. Thank you for sharing this, Stephen – as a teacher in a Christian school I also take encouragement. Mrs Canas (English 2014)
Great points Steve, with issues that are very close to home. My seven year old daughter has already come home distressed about the big bang vs. God’s creation. I felt a little like the girl in the taco ad saying “Why not both”. Note that I’m not sure I am prepared to give the same answer if after some eager LGBT education she starts to question whether she is a boy or a girl at heart.
What I wonder about is our seeming inability to keep our kids from having to deal with very adult issues until an appropriate time.
Parents have abdicated much of their responsibility for the sexual education of their own children to the schools. When that hasn’t happened there are plenty of groups which claim that parents are not qualified to provide this education due to their own bias.
This education is being increasingly targeted at younger and younger kids on the basis of keeping them safe and informed. This now includes a push for “improved” knowledge of gender issues.
As a parent how do I offer some level of protection to my child before they are fully able to critically review the information being presented to them as fact?
Hi Stephen. Thanks so much for this thoughtful blog (and everything else you are writing at the moment). Iâm the minister at St Ives Family Church (a congregation of Christ Church Anglican, St Ives). Would it be ok if I gave out a printed version of this blog? I can link it to our Facebook site and an email, but Iâd like t put a hard copy into peopleâs hands. In Christ James
Hi Steve, I hope to do the same as James above with you permission. It is excellent stuff. I have the odd privilege of being in the Gayby Baby film as the representative conservative pastor, and my teenage daughter is cringing at what her school mates will make of it. I couldn’t agree more that this is a torturously difficult culture for Christian teenagers and old approaches and fortress mentalities will not help. Keep writing, I love it. Jim
Hi mate – you sure can reprint it. Wow – that is indeed an odd privilege. And yes, your daughter is the one who is going to come under scrutiny over it – quite an indictment on the inability of the tolerant to tolerate. Meeting it with love is the hard thing to do, but the only option we have. Blessings bro.
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