By / Dec 14

We began our gender and sexuality series by examining what the Bible teaches us about these important topics. And as we close out this series with two more episodes, we’re going to concentrate on the Church and how pastors and leaders can disciple their members to wrestle with and hold fast to God’s good design for us. Because gender confusion has disproportionately affected younger generations, we’ll spend a lot of time today focusing on discipling those at the forefront this ideological assault. 

As we discuss these important topics, you might have additional questions. We’d love to hear from you. Please e-mail us at [email protected] and let us know how you’re processing this conversation. 

Joining us on today’s episode are several of our former guests: Katie McCoy, the director of women’s ministry at Texas Baptists; Steven and Amy Castello from City on a Hill Church in Boston, where Steven is the lead pastor and Amy is the director for women’s discipleship and care; and Christopher Yuan, a professor and the creator of “The Holy Sexuality Project.”

You’ll also hear from Dr. Dub Oliver. Dr. Oliver is the president of Union University, a Southern Baptist college. He completed a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Baylor University, Master of Science degree in educational psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy in educational administration from Texas A&M. Dr. Oliver and his wife, Susie, have one daughter and two grandchildren. 

The ERLC podcast is a production of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. It is produced by Jill Waggoner, Lindsay Nicolet, and Elizabeth Bristow. Technical production is provided by Owens Productions. It is edited and mixed by Mark Owens.

By / Mar 15

For many students, the youth group is where they go to get away from Sunday worship. It’s often a place where they can laugh at some silly antics, enjoy music that is their style, and listen to lessons that might be a bit more palatable than what they’d receive in corporate worship with the larger church. But trying to escape “big church” is a problem. Instead, I’d like to suggest that your student ministry worship service should train students to participate in worship on Sundays. 

Some dangers to watch out for

While there is a place for appropriate contextualization, the temptation to replace songs sung on Sunday with what’s new, cool, and hip leads to one of the worst iterations of youth ministry. Sometimes the set list begins to look more like the average Spotify playlist more than the song list of the church. The sermons might be significantly shortened with less depth, less Bible, and less demand. Or, there may be no significant teaching at all. And, if your church does responsive readings or recites creeds, those may be left out completely.

Though this might come from a good heart meant to reach students you would not normally reach in your context, I believe that this approach drives students further away from the most essential discipleship aspect of the week: the Sunday gathering. The regular meeting of the larger church is one of the essential means that God has ordained to sanctify and grow his people. If our youth services undermine or cause confusion about what is essential and ordained by God, we have gone in a bad direction. 

Merely getting youth into a church building does not mean you are discipling them, training them in godliness, or seeing them saved. If anything, simply attracting youth to a church for the wrong reasons harms both the youth ministry and the church at large more than it helps. It creates a culture that entertains non-believers and keeps new believers immature rather than providing steps for spiritual growth.

A better way

By contrast, what if we saw our student worship gatherings as an opportunity to equip youth and facilitate greater participation in corporate worship? What if we used our student gatherings to train students in the how and why of our church or tradition’s rhythms of worship? This would mean making uncomfortable or uncool aspects of corporate worship accessible, instead of avoiding them. We’ll help youth grow as Christians and be better church members by discipling them in an understanding of how to best participate in that which is essential. After all, they are in high school for just a few years, but they’ll be Christians in the gathered body now and for the rest of their lives. We should pastor youth like that is the case. 

However, I am not arguing that we should get rid of all contextualization. Your youth service will look different from the corporate gathering because of the age of the kids, resourcing, help, and other practical matters. But I am saying that your student ministry service should not undermine the style, elements, and importance of your Lord’s Day gathering. Rather, the two gatherings should complement and feed one another, not create the sort of dichotomy where students feel at home in one and not the other. 

Some practical considerations

So, how do we equip them for Sunday worship? One of the easiest and most important things you can do is take advantage of the power of explanation, practice, and ritual. These three things, if reinforced in a student service, can help students sing louder, participate more fully, and engage with preaching as well as anyone in the church. Here are a few examples:

Singing. Instead of eliminating hymns, take a few minutes to explain why we sometimes sing old songs. When you sing new songs, explain what it is about that song that made it worth singing. Old songs and new songs glorify God but not because they are old or new. Our songs are intended to help us see and worship the risen Christ. Three minutes of explaining some good theology as it’s expressed in your music could not only help youth sing better but also disciple them toward a greater appreciation of a diversity of songs. 

Reading and reciting. Students often find responsive readings, creedal recitations, or written prayers strange. Instead of eliminating or replacing them, talk the youth through how Christians have engaged these practices and confessed these truths for thousands of years. In doing this, you connect youth to something deeper and richer than the next game or gimmick. I’d wager that with Generation Z’s search for authenticity and depth, they may even find it to be cooler than you think. Both singing and recitation also provide hands-on ways for students to lead worship as well. You might explain the practice yourself but then have a student lead the reading or singing.

Preaching. Preaching has fallen on hard times in student ministry. Some have abandoned the practice completely and others have pushed it so far to the periphery that it is not a key element of a student ministry. One of the reasons that students don’t like preaching is because they’re told that it is important for someone else, but in their spaces, it is not needed. Instead, we should be teaching students as God has instructed us. Paul commands Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). That command should be in effect in student ministry as much as anywhere. Our students can sit for two-hour movies and sporting events. They sit and learn for much longer at school. They can certainly sit for a shorter time in order to learn about eternal things. 

If we expect students to grow from Sunday sermons, our student ministry sermons should look and sound similar but with more contextual application. Students are hungry for the Word, and preaching is one of the best ways to give it to them.

The ordinances. At our church, we practice baptism and communion in our gathered Sunday service. But one idea we’ve found helpful is to use a youth service before a Sunday where one of our students will be baptized in order to explain these ordinances. Give 5 to 10 minutes to go over why we baptize, how we baptize, and who gets baptized (or the same with the Lord’s Supper). Do this quickly and contextually in a way that builds anticipation for the upcoming Sunday worship service. Then, end your youth service by encouraging the students to come to the larger gathering where the ordinances will be celebrated.

Training ground for Sundays and for the Christian life

In each of these ways, you’re helping students understand the reason for your church’s practices, and you are equipping them for the Christian life. When you follow this model, student services point toward corporate worship, train students to make the most of what God has deemed essential, and give them a rationale for the habits and practices they might take for granted each Sunday. I admit this may not be the most attractive model for drawing tons of youth, but I believe it will be the most effective in the long run, because it disciples students in every aspect of church worship.

I encourage you to use your church’s identity to help students value who you are as a body. We do not want students leaving for college who loved their youth group but don’t know what it looks like to be a part of the church. We want students to leave our churches with a love for the church. When this is the outcome, chances are they will find another church to love and not just look for the next best thing that serves their personal style. If we conceive of our student services as a training ground for Sundays, I believe that they’ll also be training grounds for walking faithfully as Christians.

By / Dec 15

A 2018 survey from the Barna Group and Impact 360 reveals that 33 percent of teenagers believe a person’s gender is determined by what the person feels like rather than their birth sex.1The Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 46–47. Although only 3 percent of the American population identifies as LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer—that number more than doubles to 7 percent among teenagers. Additionally, 30 percent of teenagers know someone who is transgender. My goal in this article is not to present a defense of historic Christian sexuality, but to help youth workers sensitively care for and minister to students in these confusing times.

The rules for engaging students in a modern age are essential: listen, clarify, and keep the gospel and a person’s identity as an image-bearer the main thing. This will help youth workers take a gracious posture that covers a multitude of missteps and will assure LGBTQ students that we are not their enemies. It’s also essential to remember their greatest need is the same as the greatest need of every student—to be reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Youth workers can trust the Word of God to do the work of God. The Bible has power to change people’s hearts through the words God inspired. But Scripture is not a weapon to wield against sinners who need the grace of God. Youth workers build their ministries upon the Scriptures to proclaim the life and peace and hope of the gospel. As you minister to LGBTQ students, pray for the Holy Spirit’s illuminating work to turn the unbeliever’s heart toward the truth.

Don’t make every conversation with LGBTQ students about their sexuality, which would only anchor them deeper into viewing their sexuality as the most important thing about them. A sole focus on changing students’ sexual orientation misses the bigger picture. The mission of youth ministry is not simply to make students’ lives conform to godliness, because legalism can do that too (at least, on the surface). Instead, gospel-centered youth ministry calls students to live in light of the grace of Jesus Christ, confessing and repenting of their sins daily as they strive to live their new life in Christ through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

When students identify as LGBTQ

A key question that comes up in youth ministry is whether or not someone can embrace a homosexual or transgendered lifestyle and still be a Christian. A Christian’s identity is first and foremost shaped by their relationship with God through Jesus Christ, so I am uncomfortable with combining any other adjective with the label Christian. When we do that, there is a subtle competition between the two identities. The Christian’s identity as a Christian should be the core identity that reshapes and refines every other identifier: gender, nationality, sexuality, cultural preferences, denominational affiliations, etc. These other identifiers may be valid and important, but they must be shaped by God and by the authority of Scripture rather than the other way around. 

The Bible does not permit homosexual activity, and it teaches us that a person’s sex and gender are assigned by our wise and loving God at birth. Christians who live with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction embrace their identity in Christ as their primary identity rather than allowing their sexuality to be the most important thing about them. This is often a confusing and difficult road for them, and youth workers are called to ensure they don’t walk it alone.

The call of the gospel is an invitation to a new life through grace-fueled repentance. A new believer will not repent of every sin immediately; it is a lifelong sanctification journey that requires much grace (from God and from others!). But Christians do repent eventually. The Holy Spirit is at work in their hearts, persuading them of the goodness and truthfulness of God’s Word—even when it brings conviction of sin. Those who profess faith in Christ Jesus but never repent of sin show that, although they may be trying to gain the treasures of heaven, they don’t really want a new life as a child of God. The timeline for this repentance may take years because of the nature of sexual confusions and how ingrained these identities have become in our culture. Be generous and long suffering with students and LGBTQ friends. If a practicing homosexual or transgendered person professes to be a Christian and yet persists in rejecting the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, that person’s conversion remains questionable.

But rather than lobbing this warning as a grenade, offer concern that befits the gospel. It is not a cop-out to leave judgment in God’s hands. The Lord has not rushed into judgment, and neither should youth workers. So, when in doubt, err on the side of patience. At the same time, Christian leaders will be held accountable for holding fast to biblical teaching (James 3:1), and it is not loving or gracious to affirm a professing Christian’s sinful lifestyle, regardless of what that particular sin may be.

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.

  • 1
    The Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 46–47.
By / Oct 14

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.