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How youth workers can talk with teens about sex and dating

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Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youth Workers

Mike McGarry

New Growth Press

Lead Them to Jesus offers insight into the religious worldview of Gen Z and illustrates how to connect the gospel to their questions and core desires. Not only are young people ready to discuss hard issues such as suicide, suffering, and navigating difficult relationships, they are looking for authentic leaders who are committed to speaking truth and investing into their lives.

Sex is like fire. When it resides in the proper boundaries it gives light and heat, but unrestrained it causes great harm. Teenagers are receiving messages about sexuality every day — from the latest Netflix series, from social media, from their conversations with friends. Parents and youth workers must not overlook the value of having their own ongoing conversations with students about biblical sexuality.

Youth ministry has a legacy of urging teenagers to make virginity pledges and other similar efforts that can easily drift into manipulation. While the intent is good, since we should be teaching about sexual purity, the way we engage in these conversations matters. By now it should be obvious that we need to talk about sex in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not according to the law. It is not a matter of dos and don’ts but of helping students discover the nature of sex, the goal of sex, and the fulfillment of what sex can offer.

When youth group only talks about sex once a year, usually a few weeks before prom season, it makes sense that many students will be more shaped by the messages the culture and their peers are sending: “Sex is awesome.” “Love is love.” “Be careful but do what you want so long as the other person gives consent.” Others graduate from youth ministry with the impression that sex is inherently sinful. Some Christians even feel guilty about having sex after they get married because of the way sex was discussed during their teenage years. The solution is not to overcorrect by talking about how great and awesome sex is, but simply to be biblical.

God created us as male or female and gave us the gifts of marriage and sex to promote human flourishing. He did not need to make it feel good, but he did. It is a gift that reflects the delight and pleasure we were created to enjoy through intimacy with our Creator. At the same time, the Bible doesn’t pull punches about the dangers of unbounded sexuality. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as judgment for their rampant evil and sexual sin. King David, a man after God’s own heart, caused great suffering in his family because of his sexual sin against Bathsheba.

Sex is a quest for intimacy

God gave the gift of sex to strengthen intimacy between a husband and a wife. The goal is intimacy — to be fully known without any fear of rejection. This is what so many men and women are trying to attain through their sexual activity, as if sex were a shortcut to it. Whether we are talking with parents or students, it is helpful and biblical to build the conversation around intimacy: God created us for intimacy with him and with each other. Sin has brought suspicion into relationships, but sex is a brief moment of joyful acceptance between two partners. Aside from the physical pleasure, this is what makes it so powerful.

This quest for intimacy also gives fulfillment to men and women who never marry. To many students, the idea of singleness can sound like a sentence to lifelong loneliness, and this fear drives them into toxic dating patterns. However, celibacy is an old-fashioned virtue worth reclaiming, especially considering that neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul ever married. Some churches treat married couples and those with children as priority members, but this should not be, and youth workers have an opportunity to teach students a wider view of human sexuality and relationships.

Sex is about intimacy, and perfect intimacy is found only in Jesus Christ who loved us and saved us while we were still enemies. God chose to redeem sinners and adopt them as sons and daughters. If he gave his life for us while we were still his enemies, then truly nothing can separate us from the love of God. In the midst of today’s sexual revolution, it is important to remember that sex is about enjoying intimacy with a spouse and yet, as good as sex may feel, it cannot deliver the type of intimacy our hearts most desire.

Best practices for discussing sex and dating

  • Always talk with parents first. Whether you are teaching in youth group or initiating a conversation with a student at the coffee shop, always talk with parents first. Many youth workers have assumed parents would be comfortable with another adult having these conversations with their kids, only to find out they were wrong. Plus, if the talk goes sideways, you’ll be thankful to have parental support while dealing with the fallout.
  • Make it an ongoing conversation. As you preach through biblical texts, make ongoing applications to students’ dating lives and sexual identities. If the only time you talk about sex is when the entire lesson is about sex, you’re missing a chance to shape the whole person.
  • Avoid a lot of joking about who’s dating whom. Laughter is good medicine, but it can also make having serious conversations awkward. Students may become hesitant to ask you about relationships because they fear you might turn it into a joke.
  • Teach about a biblical view of marriage. It can be tempting to avoid talking about marriage because teenagers are likely not getting married anytime soon. Inviting married couples of various ages to share their stories and what they’ve learned about marriage can be especially helpful for students from fractured households, because they may not receive this type of teaching (or example!) anywhere else.
  • Don’t overlook the Bible’s teaching about celibacy. Christian men and women who never marry are just as important and valuable as those who have large families. Especially in today’s culture surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, reclaiming the holiness of celibacy enables students to hear that it is possible to be both celibate and fulfilled in life.
  • Avoid damaging illustrations and examples. Many skits and examples have been used in youth ministry to persuade students about sexual abstinence. The most popular has been handing out a piece of gum for someone to chew, only to later hold up the piece of chewed gum and ask “Who wants this?” This illustration and others like it implicitly tell students who have sinned sexually that they are worthless and undesirable, both to other people and to God. The gospel, however, proclaims the love of God for sinners and his delight in giving grace to those who need it.
  • Resist talking about “sexual purity until marriage.” Married men and women also need to guard their sexual purity. When youth workers talk about sexual purity until marriage, this either conveys that sex with your spouse makes you impure or that you will not need to guard yourself against sexual sin after marriage. Rather than making it seem like sexual purity is a teenage problem, call students to sexual purity as a lifelong pursuit.
  • Consider speaking to the boys and girls separately. There are times when large-group teaching may be best, but consider ways to speak to students in forums that will minimize awkward moments while maximizing the potential for real conversation.
  • Ask students about their friends’ views. This will allow them to talk with greater comfort. It will also help you interact with the other viewpoints they’re hearing and get a glimpse of their own opinions. How you respond to this conversation will help them decide whether or not they can trust you.
  • Keep the grace of Jesus Christ front-and-center. Sex is about intimacy, and perfect intimacy is found through fellowship with God in Christ.

Excerpted from Lead Them to Jesus © 2021 by Mike McGarry. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.

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