01 Mar 2018
“I really need to talk,” one student said to me over the phone. We met at a good BBQ place and, for the first couple of minutes, caught up on life. Then he fell silent.
After an intense and awkward pause, he spoke.
“I can’t tell you what I need to tell you. But I’ve written it down for you.”
He pulled a letter out of his jacket pocket, put it on the table, and slid it across to me. I unfolded it and began to read. On page after page, he described his four-year battle with same-sex attraction.
Imagine yourself in that moment. Imagine the importance of your time together. What will you say? How will you respond?
Let me offer some initial, first steps we can take together.
Listen and Learn
If you’re anything like me, when students come and talk about their struggles, you want to do something about it quickly. And our desire to help is certainly good! Unfortunately, this fix-it-quick attitude tends to ignore students as complex people with unique stories. Human complexity puts a check on swift, fix-it-quick methods and attitudes.
What helps us take students’ complexity and uniqueness seriously is when we pause, listen, and learn from them as fellow strugglers on this journey. Let’s begin by asking questions of our students rather than trying to simply fix their broken situation. Where are they in their lives right now? How has their struggle with same-sex attraction affected their lives in the past? How has it affected their lives in the present? How can we best support them and walk with them now?
You might begin by asking this simple question: “What has life been like for you as you’ve struggled?”
Along with learning from them, we also want to be realistic with our students about what life is going to be like on this side of things. Because we live in a world that is increasingly hostile to Christian beliefs, an affirming LGBTQ community will look like home, especially when the church has done such a poor job in this area. But we also want to help same-sex attracted students see that following Christ is now, and will be in the future, truly life-giving. It’s a hard sell, but we must reveal the tension.
Human complexity puts a check on swift, fix-it-quick methods and attitudes.
We also want to give our students the ultimate, realistic goal of life: holiness and Christ-likeness, not heterosexuality. God never promises heterosexual desires to the exclusively same-sex attracted person. God wants us to seek Him above all things, even if He might leave those same-sex desires in place to drive us to Himself. Pursuing Christ above a simple, 180-degree change of desires is hard to grasp, but it makes Christ, not heterosexuality, the goal of our pursuit of holiness.
Give Them a Vocabulary for the Christian Life
Along with this realistic view of the Christian life, we must give same-sex attracted students a vocabulary for following Christ. This life is lived in daily faith, repentance, and love (Mark 1:15; Matthew 22:36-40); we must daily reorient our trust around the person of Christ, daily turn from our sins to follow Him, and daily love others by serving them. How can we practically help our students engage in these practices? The key is detailed, practical measures, not lofty goals.
Help Them Grow in Community
We must let students know that they have a community in Christ’s Church. Oftentimes, same-sex attracted students struggle to grow in openness and community because of the intense, prison-like nature of shame, other people’s judging gazes, and the church’s unwillingness to talk about these sensitive topics.
Part of our job in ministering to our students who wrestle in this way is to help them, over time, open up about their temptations, sufferings, and sins to other godly people and find life in godly community. This doesn’t have to happen right away. But as you meet with this student, instilling within them the grace of God and the identity he has in Jesus, we should be helping him to identify other people in whom he can confide, encouraging him to let in more and more light into his life. We should also help them see that, we, in fact, will be committed to loving, discipling, and walking alongside them in this journey. In other words, helping students grow in community begins by embodying community personally with them.
Help Them Grow in Love and Ministry
Same-sex attracted students, like the rest of us, have been given gifts to contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ. Let’s help them discover, develop, and use those gifts in love and ministry, helping them to cultivate their God-given uniqueness to build up the Kingdom. We need to be aware, however, that many times, same-sex attracted students’ gifts will not match the gender-stereotyped norms of the culture in which they live. This is more than okay. The question is: what gifts has God given them, and how can they, in turn, use them for His glory?
It’s a blessing when any student approaches a student minister for help, and it is our privilege to walk alongside them. Let’s commit to bringing the truth and mercy of Christ to our same-sex attracted students, to walk alongside them as we both move forward in the life-long process of discipleship.
Cooper talks more about this on his accompanying video: What Is the First Step in Helping a Student with Same-Sex Attraction? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
If you’re anything like me, when students come and talk about their struggles, you want to do something about it quickly. And our desire to help is certainly good! Unfortunately, this fix-it-quick attitude tends to ignore students as complex people with unique stories.
I just want to offer one, beginning place in loving this student well, or any student well who confides in you a struggle with same-sex attraction. – Cooper Pinson
You can read more of what Cooper has to say in his blog, First Steps: Students and Same-Sex Attraction — by clicking here.
22 Feb 2018
An article entitled “Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy” appeared in the New York Times. Its premise is this: economics influences dating. And here’s where things get interesting: the article argues that dating nowadays simply “applies the logic of capitalism to courtship. On the dating market, everyone competes for him or herself.”
If the article is right, in spite of the fact that humanity has always thought of people as objects to be used, kids, growing up single people playing the dating game, might be growing up in a world that intensifies this attitude.
What can we do, then, to confront a worldly attitude that promotes using other people? Watch Cooper’s video, or read his blog: ‘A Culture of Freelance Relationships’ by clicking here.
22 Feb 2018
Single people, we live in hard world.
An article entitled “Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/opinion/sexual-freelancing-in-the-gig-economy.html) appeared in the New York Times. Its premise is this: economics influences dating. The fact that we prefer a Netflix binge nowadays to the Leave-It-To-Beaver date night means that our economic situation has, yet again, shaped us.
And here’s where things get interesting: the article argues that dating simply “applies the logic of capitalism to courtship. On the dating market, everyone competes for him or herself.” Hold on. Is this really the way we view dating? Honestly, I think we have to own it: We do, in fact, tend to treat people as objects instead of people. But is this the way it should be?
What’s more, the article goes on to state,
The generation of Americans that came of age around the time of the 2008 financial crisis has been told constantly that we must be ‘flexible’ and ‘adaptable.’ Is it so surprising that we have turned into sexual freelancers? Many of us treat relationships like unpaid internships: We cannot expect them to lead to anything long-term, so we use them to get experience. If we look sharp, we might get a free lunch.
If the article is right, in spite of the fact that humanity has always thought of people as objects to be used, we, as singles, might be growing up in a world that intensifies this attitude. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Think about the porn epidemic. Think about the hookup culture. Our own use of Instagram might even reflect this mindset of consumeristic relationships (http://www.techinsider.io/teens-curate-their-instagram-accounts-2016-5)!
What can we do, then, to confront a worldly attitude that promotes using other people?
Take Each Other Seriously
I think we must start here: as single people looking to date other single people, we must take each other seriously. People are not to be invested in for the simple return they may yield to us. As always, C.S. Lewis says it well at the end of his sermon, The Weight of Glory:
There are no ordinary people . . . it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love. . .
Do you see what he’s getting at? We Snapchat with immortals.
All people will one day be everlastingly transformed into glorious or horrendous beings. And this means that, even in the dating realm, we are to take each other seriously. And part of what it means to take each other seriously is to actually love one another in tangible ways instead of using and exploiting others for our own profit.
Jesus’ words are hard to hear: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25); “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
In the topsy-turvy ethic of the Kingdom, true life on this planet looks more like losing an investment than gaining a profit. Love looks more like the cross than the crown. Meaningful relationships look more like the servant who washes feet rather than the master whose feet get washed.
In other words . . .
Meaningful Relationships Are Costly
We need to steep ourselves in the truth that meaningful relationships cost time. In an age of instant gratification and constant distraction, simply finding the time to talk meaningfully about life is rare; it’s commonplace to see couples at restaurants perusing their Facebook and Twitter feeds. But a meaningful relationship will cost an hour here and there, or thirty minutes when we feel we need to be doing something else. And it must cost a social media-less dinner.
Meaningful relationships also cost the facade. The thing about the freelance mentality of relationships in our culture is that this constant shopping around helps us avoid the true vulnerability that comes with meaningful relationships, where we are both known and loved, not simply for our accomplishments but for our failures as well.
In Christ, we are free to demolish our facades. We don’t have to pretend to be someone we’re not. The safety that Christ brings allows us to say “I’m not okay” to our neighbor. This vulnerability is crucial for human flourishing, because vulnerability pushes us toward the Kingdom. It helps us to lean into Jesus and into the identity we have been provided in Him.
Changing a culture of freelance relationships starts with living out a richer culture.
Of course, then, meaningful relationships cost ourselves. I’m not saying that we should give ourselves away to every Jack and Jill on the street, but maybe sooner, rather than later, we ought to be thinking, How can I intentionally sacrifice for and serve this other person? How can I serve others in the lunchroom, on the football field, in the school hallway, on social media, at the cubicle next to me at work?
This is the ethic of the Kingdom: We seek the good of others, because He gave Himself away for us (1 John 4:10-11). We give ourselves away in love and service because we get Christ (Philippians 3:8-11) — because we ultimately already have Christ.
For Those Who Love Single People
Maybe you are thinking, I’m not single. What does this have to do with me? Well, as Christians, we believe in the power of community. In other words, wisdom does not function in a vacuum. If you are parents of single children, friends of single people, or perhaps even a minister to single people, a couple of things come to mind. . .
Ask singles tough questions. Ask them how life really is. Ask them about their doubts and worries. Ask them about their view of God, themselves, and others. Ask them to explain when they talk about life’s hardships, or how happy they are. Ask them questions to let them know that you take both them and God seriously.
Put away the phone. When meeting up with singles, let’s ditch our phones. Turn them on vibrate and don’t answer them unless it’s our spouse. Let’s not ever check our social media when we are engaging with them. Let’s be present.
Be vulnerable. When talking about how things really are, while still being wise about how much we share, let’s open up about our own doubts, fears, and failures. Let’s let them know that we are no more a super-Christian than they are.
Taking each other seriously means that we really listen to, learn from, sacrifice for, ask the hard questions of, and pray for the singles that come into our paths. Notice that our interactions with single people are the embodiment of the principles we hold dearest as Christians. Changing a culture of freelance relationships starts with living out a richer culture.
Does the prevalent view of humanity we pass to singles look more like the gig-relationship mindset that pervades our culture? Or does it look more like Jesus, who takes us and our lives seriously from the outset, who served us that we might be washed, and who sacrificed Himself that we might have life in Him?
Cooper talks more about this on his accompanying video: How Do We Create a Richer Dating Culture? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Jan 2018
For all of us, it’s no secret that pornography is everywhere on the internet. And with the startling rise of mobile devices, and their ability to hook us to keep looking at them, then the problem with pornography is only getting amplified. We have to begin asking ourselves hard questions. We have to protect our children—and yes, even ourselves.
Click here to read more about what Cooper is talking about on his blog: “Is it Time to Walk Away from Our Mobile Devices?”
11 Jan 2018
The proverbial kid in the candy store is a striking portrait, and so is our obsession with mobile devices, porn, and the Internet. Permeated by a wonderland of mobile devices with varied apps and social media platforms, the internet via our smart devices has become a major highway to porn.
As parents, we rightly yearn for the details of helping our children deal with porn and manage their devices: the filters and accountability software to use, screen-free zones in the house, etc. The concern for managing technology, however, is asking how to rightly eat the candy.
But I’m concerned that we’ve refused to acknowledge that the candy might be laced with cyanide.
I’m concerned that we’re not questioning the assumed blocks of our 21st-century existence.
I’m concerned, because if we’re not asking deeper questions, pornography usage, which is closely connected with smart devices, will further rise like an overwhelming wave to consume our children.
On January 6, some of Apple’s shareholder’s, owning some $2 billion in stocks, sent Apple an open letter urging them to address recent, scientific findings about the addictive and harmful effects of smartphones among teens. The science is pretty compelling. Consider also Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who has launched a new initiative for more ethically-conscious tech in light of his own knowledge of how the industry works to manipulate our time. Check out his TED talks here and here and some of his articles here, and here. If our devices seem designed to keep us coming back for more like a Pavlovian dog, and if pornography is as ubiquitous as we all know it to be, let’s pause.
More basic than management of our devices is the worldview by which we live. As parents, along with ways to help our children manage the Internet and their mobile devices, are we coming to terms with our own worldviews — and helping our kids come to terms with theirs — which oftentimes assume an enslaving normality?
If our devices seem designed to keep us coming back for more like a Pavlovian dog, and if pornography is as ubiquitous as we all know it to be, let’s pause.
Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
Implicit in His words is a love for Him than surpasses anything else on this planet. In the wake of Him, every minute detail of life, even the thing that seems so indispensable, is to be filtered through this question: will this contribute to me following Jesus?
One of the goals, then, of discipling our families is to help cultivate in them a love for Christ that will enable them to formulate worldviews which are radically oriented around the Kingdom of God. To be sure, evil doesn’t begin in the candy store; sin begins in our own hearts. But the candy store can play a significant role in how our flesh roams. Assuming, then, that there’s more to be done than managing our devices, let’s turn our attention to the candy itself.
Question the Closeness of the Internet
In helping both ourselves and our children avoid pornography, what’s a more basic worldview question than, what are the best filtering and accountability options?
It’s this: is having the Internet so close to us all the time facilitating our walk with Christ? For the child, and the parent, who is struggling with porn and tempted constantly, the answer is an emphatic no. In light of Christ, we must have the courage to act on that answer.
But even if we and our children are not so engaged with porn, shouldn’t we all be concerned with having such a potentially destructive force in our hands at all times? Because of our own weakness, the addictive design of the smart-phone, and the prevalence of porn, perhaps we should all question the accessibility of the web in our lives. What if we actually removed our capabilities to access the internet on some of our devices altogether? What if, through our use of filtering software, we implemented times throughout the day during which we can’t access the Internet?
To be sure, evil doesn’t begin in the candy store; sin begins in our own hearts. But the candy store can play a significant role in how our flesh roams. Assuming, then, that there’s more to be done than managing our devices, let’s turn our attention to the candy itself.
Question the Smartness of Smart Technology
Maybe we should also thoughtfully ponder the role that smart technology plays in our lives. Let’s bring our phones, our tablets, our watches, our TVs, and everything else that we can use before the feet of Jesus. Perhaps the better question is not, “how do I manage this device?” but rather, “should I even have this device?” Before we rejoice that we aren’t like that guy over there looking at porn regularly on his smartphone, we should also remember that we are more like that guy than we would often care to admit. It only takes one moment of weakness, and we are very weak. It might be time to regress to a dumb phone.
At the very least, it is time to admit that these devices are beginning to own us, and our kids, and we must no longer be passive in allowing our children and us to keep on deepening our addiction to them.
Christians have always questioned the foundations of the culture in which they lived. Instead of accepting those assumptions as normative, I want my children, and myself, to bring those assumptions of our modern culture into the light and ask hard questions of them. Are we helping our kids form worldviews that perceive the supremacy of God in Christ as the ultimate point of life? Are we helping them to experience an alternate life, a life filled with actual human beings, actual relationships, and true, sacrificial love? Or are we simply digesting the norms of our culture, without thoughtfully vetting them through a Christ-centered worldview?
Jesus knows that anything we give up on this side of eternity will be nothing compared to what is now given to us in Him and what will be given to us by Him when we reach the other side. As we start the New Year, if we centered the discussion around our devotion to Christ, with His splendor, glory, and superior beauty, and asked hard worldview questions of the assumed pillars of our 21st-century existence, we might stand out, for example, at restaurants as people who engage others and are not consumed with our screens. We might find a measure of sanity concerning porn. And, most importantly, we might become more thoughtful, intentional, and devoted followers of our Lord.
Cooper talks more about this on his accompanying video: Is it Time to Walk Away from Our Mobile Devices? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Dec 2017
As a youth minister, it’s an already confusing task to lead youth to the feet of Jesus when you yourself need to take the journey. How can we, as youth ministers, bear students’ sins and sufferings when we’re barely holding on? How can we lead youth to streams of living water when we’re dying in the desert?
And then throw porn into the mix. Some churches call for an all-out air strike on any of their staff who might wrestle with pornography: the staff position will be taken away, and the staff person will leave in shame. While we don’t have time to get into church policy, the measures taken by any church should be nuanced enough to vary by situation. But as youth ministers, how can we ourselves move forward? What are some initial categories we can keep in mind?
Confession to My Spouse, Boss, or Mentor?
Placed in context, the richness of James’ teaching on confession becomes apparent:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (5:13-16, ESV).
Confession does help others hold us accountable, but more than that, confession is a means for others to join their healing prayers for us with the two Divine intercessors, our Great High Priest and the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27, 34). Sin says, “Don’t confess. No one can be trusted.” Jesus says otherwise. Sin casts confession as insecurity and defeat. Jesus casts confession as a means to healing. Confession is scary, and I always wrestle with it whatever my sin. But I’ve got to lean into what I know is true: God says there is healing here, not destruction.
If there is a pattern of confession already taking place in your marriage, confess to your spouse. I understand there are a whole host of issues that need to be addressed, from the support your wife needs after hearing your confession to how often you confess to your wife, but I always air on the side of transparency. But should you confess to your boss? It certainly depends on the type of church culture you are in and, more particularly, the relationship you have with your boss. This needs to be in the equation at some point, but I would suggest you first start elsewhere. What about a peer? I certainly think so, but peers usually do not have the grey streaks of wisdom that come with age and experience. That grey-streaked wisdom can help to lift us from the mire, instead of simply commiserating with us in the midst of it.
Consider confessing to someone older and wiser, preferably someone in ministry, who has demonstrated not only a record of humility but also a record of being able to shoulder other people’s burdens. This person will be able to both empathize with you and point out potential blind spots in yourself.
The urgent call is clear: we need to brainstorm ways, to whomever we confess, to practically turn from our sin and turn to Jesus. At minimum, it will mean installing filtering and accountability software on all devices you use. But it could also mean getting rid of smartphones or personal computers altogether. It could mean setting up times of Bible study and prayer with the person to whom you confess. It will certainly mean making a habit of daily prayer to cast ourselves upon our God. The key is practical, daily repentance, not lofty, vague goals.
As a youth leader, you are already serving. But as a way to battle the inward spiral of selfishness that porn facilitates, let’s look for ways for you to serve more. Can you set up regular times to do the dishes for your wife or husband instead of surfing the Internet? Can you set up a standing meeting with students that will interfere with your usual time of looking at porn (i.e., early breakfasts, dinners)? With the person to whom we confess, it’s good to brainstorm little, practical ways that we can further love and serve others for the kingdom of God.
All of the above ideas – confession, repentance, and love – happen in the midst of a relationship with someone we trust. I would strongly advise finding older and wiser men and women who can serve as mentors for us. This could mean having a standing meeting where we talk about life, stress, good things, hard things, or anything at all. During these meetings spend time in prayer, walk through a book on Christian living together, or simply read Scripture.
Pornography thrives in the darkness of isolation. It is best dispelled in the light of relationship with others.
When Do We Need to Exit Ministry?
When is pornography a disqualification from ministry? My first response is: I don’t know. If we continue to harbor the secret sin of porn and do not confess and ask for help from anyone, then clearly we have no business in ministry, where openness and honesty in the light of Christ should be the norm. On the other hand, if the presence of pornography is simply ubiquitous, infused into our lives with power and influence, and if taking the steps above are not leading to measurable evidence of practical repentance and change, then yes, step away from ministry. Here is when you need to ask your supervisor for their input and honestly submit to your local church.
I think a certain posture is key, however, in being able to do this: we need to be so focused on Christ and His faithfulness in practical ways that everything else in our lives, including our jobs, can be up for grabs. We need to ask at least two question of ourselves. The first is, are we going to be helpful to others if we continue to struggle like this with porn? The second is, am I giving myself time to heal, obey, and follow Jesus if I’m struggling so much with porn and trying to lead others to Jesus?
Jesus Chose You
Overall, it is difficult to reconcile our own sin with the leadership task we have been given as youth ministers. But we also need to recognize that God has chosen sinners to act as youth ministers; He has chosen us in our weakness and sin to point others to Himself. Jesus’ words are obvious, but I often forget the obvious: “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17). Still, just because Jesus chose sinners to do his work does not mean that we should continue in youth ministry. Wisdom and input from others is crucial.
Whether we continue in our job or not, we must remember that Jesus came for people like us and has united us to Himself in a Spirit-forged bond. The Spirit residing within us is power to engage the fight passionately and relentlessly. He will not give up on us. And that truth is water to a desert-ridden soul, hope for the confused youth minister, and fuel to keep leading others to the very same Savior that we ourselves so desperately need.
You can watch Cooper talk more about this on his accompanying video: What does a youth minister do when he struggles with porn? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
People in ministry struggle as much as anyone with the sexual temptations that are all around us today. But for those in ministry positions—particularly those who work with youth—there are struggles and dangers unique to them if they are caught up in viewing pornography.
For more of Cooper’s insights, click here to read his related blog: Help! I’m a Youth Minister Struggling with Porn!
11 Oct 2017
We are bombarded with practical strategies for helping our children and students live rightly and well. Nothing wrong with that, but to reach their hearts you can’t start with a technique. You have to start with your own heart. You have to be authentic with them about how God is working in your life first.
Click here to read more thoughts from Cooper Pinson in his blog: A Look Up: Touching the Heart of Students
11 Oct 2017
Every adult generation has a similar refrain: a proverbial uphill-both-ways-commute, a more centralized family, a simpler life, and perhaps even a better America. And some of the generational shift is true. The neighborhood newspaper kid has been replaced with the online news feed. The drive-ins and Blockbusters of the world have been put to rest by Netflix and Amazon Prime. Those RC colas have stepped aside for pour-over coffee and craft beer. Now we have transgender bathrooms in elementary schools. Students are exposed to hardcore porn on smart devices at their friends’ houses. Fueled by the catalysts of hyper-individualism and secular humanism, a new sexual mantra has emerged:
Sexually, you are the only one who can define yourself, your truth, and your happiness.
But consider what has not changed: students are still searching for Meaning. Ever since we decided to forsake Meaning and rebelliously set out east of Eden to subdue the great unknown, we have forgotten who we really are. Yet we still search for that which we lost. At its core, our secularized sexuality is a meaning-quest, a desperate grasp at self-definition, finding ourselves. Rather than simply lament the state of today’s youth and the sexual chaos that has enveloped them, let’s take a fresh look at this quest.
Self-Defining as an Expression of Suffering
Think about transgenderism. What thoughts rise up inside of you?
“What is the world coming to today? The LGBTQ agenda…those liberals…the world is going to hell in a handbasket…”
But when the culture is preaching a message of radical self-expression, and when we ourselves feel the insecurity within us, is it any wonder that students seek to self-define? Who else can they trust? Newsfeeds are awash with upheaval in other countries, corrupt leaders, neo-Nazi hate groups, and TV preachers hyped up on riches. In other words, do we see gender-dysphoric students as political subversives or as human beings caught in a post-Eden world of chaos?
Our students are wrestling with the ever-increasing darkness of our culture. We are not seeing them accurately, nor are we helping them, when we criticize their behavior without taking into account the larger context of their world.
Think about the hookup culture.
“Kids can’t control themselves…I would have never thought about…If parents would just…”
But given the rampant divorce rate and relational hurt many experience in broken families, doesn’t it seem logical to protect yourself from that by-gone institution? Shouldn’t we take the “best” of that bubble, the sex itself, and celebrate it without chaining ourselves to the social construct? The hookup culture is not simply a symptom of our sex-drive; it’s also an attempt to discover a better way.
Students aren’t mindless drones. They are responding to the world around them in panic, like sheep without a shepherd. What if we saw meaning-making and self-defining as desperation in the face of deep suffering?
Perhaps it’s time to give voice to what we often fail to recognize: following Christ in this world is hard and seems absurd at times. When the mantra, “God is in control,” is spoken, it can be horrendously applied. Our students are wrestling with the ever-increasing darkness of our culture. We are not seeing them accurately, nor are we helping them, when we criticize their behavior without taking into account the larger context of their world.
But our kids are not alone in dealing with the chaos. We, too, have struggled with the notion of a good God in the midst of a twisted world. We were once the hippies, the punks, and the dropouts.
The Gospel of Jesus doesn’t promise daisy fields on this side of eternity; it promises crosses. And crosses are still heavy, despite the fact that they will give way to crowns. It’s only as we are honest about our own sufferings that we will be able to effectively walk arm and arm as fellow sojourners with kids.
For parents, youth workers, and anyone who works with kids, what does it look like to come alongside of our students as they make sense of this world? It means sitting your kid down this week to take a look at the news, asking questions about how he or she is processing the suffering in the world while not giving canned answers in response. It means taking a student out for a meal and asking, “What has been particularly difficult for you this week? How has that impacted you?” It means talking about our own hardships as well. Notice that Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus before he reframes suffering in a flood of resurrection-light (John 11:35-44).
Self-Defining as an Expression of Sin
However, our students’ attempts at self-defining are more than expressions of suffering. They are ultimately expressions of sin.
As one theologian said, secularization is “essentially forgetting Christ, because secularization is the isolation of the world within its own immanence.”¹ But since we can never truly isolate ourselves from our Creator, our secularized sexuality is at best attempted isolation, an endeavor to cut ourselves off from God. It is, essentially, an effort to burn Jacob’s ladder to the ground. But true purpose and meaning come from beyond the self.
When we have no Cosmic Norm, we brew confusion. If there is no Authority, we are all authorities, and when we are all authorities, there are no legitimate rights and wrongs. So while we need to approach our kids with a compassion that seeks to validate their suffering, we also need to approach them with a challenge about their rebellious hearts.
We need to help students see that repentance and faith are things we practice every day, not just things we did long ago when we were immature and foolish students ourselves.
How can we do this practically? If we want kids to trust God, and what his Word says about sex, sexuality, and gender, then as parents and leaders, we must be willing to wisely talk about our own sins with kids. We must be honest about our mess and the truth that Jesus — yes — has changed us, and that He, by His Spirit, is currently changing us as well.
We need to help students see that repentance and faith are things we practice every day, not just things we did long ago when we were immature and foolish students ourselves. Maybe we let our older teens in on some of the sins we struggled with, and still struggle with, as youth ministers. When we are honest, we open up space for students to be honest with us. If we want to make disciples, we’ve got to be willing to walk alongside of our children and our students for the long haul, not simply lecture them momentarily on morality.
Self-Defining as a Farce
Under the angst, both we and our kids know that our experiment in self-defining is a farce. We all “know” the true Meaning of the universe, and our knowledge of Him betrays us even as we seek to suppress it (Romans 1:18-20). We know that our attempts at self-defining are exercises in hewing broken cisterns that hold no water and give no life (Jeremiah 2:13; John 4:13-14).
Take a look at the celebrity culture. These people can have all the sex, all the money, and all the fame they want. But what sense can we make of those tip-top celebrities being jailed for drugs or racing their Lamborghinis to spite the police? What do we make of all the rampant divorce plaguing the celebrity world?
If we are attentive to the culture, we will see this truth: human beings can never be “authentic” when we attempt to separate ourselves from God. Even in attempting “authenticity,” we find ourselves just repeating our culture’s sexual mantra. In other words, we are still “going with the flow” even if we buck traditional, Cosmic authority.
We can only be authentic when we are being worshipfully derivative, “receptively reconstructive” of our God-created sexuality, not “critically constructive” to the exclusion of our God.² In other words, when we construct meaning ourselves, we sinfully burden tweens with the idea that they can choose their own gender. When we don’t receive the meaning of sexuality from God, we praise porn stars for their “artistic” ability as we chain them to an industry bent on their exploitation.
With so much time spent looking down these days, it might be best to do the reverse.
A Way Out
I, like all high school students, experienced the pull to meaning-make, to self-define. But there were two, physical spaces that threw cold water in my face during those years.
The first was an observatory on an extremely large, and rural, college campus. This building was in the middle of nowhere (in a wheat field to be exact). I would drive my angst-ridden self out there many days after school and sit in the silence. I could see the pond across the gravel road, feel the wind in the wheat, touch the dirt, and experience the immensity of the land. I could see that the world wasn’t waiting on, or revolving around, me.
The second was the deck attached to my parents’ house, which is situated on top of a mountain in Northwest Georgia. In the late hours, when the house was asleep, I would often sneak out to the deck, and on clear nights, the billions of stars and the expanse of the valley infused Meaning back into my quest. But that Meaning came from seeing that I, in fact, did not live in an isolated snow globe of my own existence. I lived in a universe that sang a different song, and I was not its Theme.
If we are attentive to the culture, we will see this truth: human beings can never be “authentic” when we attempt to separate ourselves from God. Even in attempting “authenticity,” we find ourselves just repeating our culture’s sexual mantra.
I think, at times, given the chaos of our world and the genuine love we have for our kids and students, we run around looking for quick solutions, for a list of do’s and don’ts. But in our hectic spirit, we have neglected to look up.
Repositioning our secularized sexuality starts with turning our gaze elsewhere, escaping the prison of our own self-centeredness to rejoin the universe in its grand song to its loving Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.
A Look Up
There are tons of things we, as parents and youth ministers, can say and do to reach our kids. But we mustn’t begin there. Addressing the secularized sexuality of our kids starts with humbly addressing our own, with lifting our eyes to meet our Savior’s. We need to apply both the balm and challenge of Jesus to our own suffering wounds and sinful flesh in real, practical ways today.
As to our sexual sufferings, we need to bring them to the One who cares for us. Consider Psalm 56:8: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”
Can you imagine your God compassionately tallying your many, excruciating battles with pornography, loneliness, insecurity, or same-sex attraction? Can you imagine Him holding a bottle up to your eye to catch your tears shed for the son or daughter who has embraced a rebellious life? Can you think of Him with His cosmic book, recording your sorrows in prose?
But doesn’t that make the world about me? Certainly not. It is the ironic nature of grace. Grace is water to a dry mouth, enabling speech and song to our God.
How can we bring our sorrows and sufferings to Him? Let me suggest one thing: let’s honestly pray to Him today. Let’s lay our frustrations, our despairs, our inabilities, our sufferings at His feet. And, in doing so, let’s remember the One who hears us. He is the One who did not stay aloof but suffered with us, for us.
As for our sins, the call for repentance must be laid upon us before it can be laid upon our kids or students. In the warmth of his kindness (Romans 2:4), let’s turn back to Him in practical ways even today. When we get angry with our children, let’s apologize to them and ask for their forgiveness, teaching them how we come to our Father. Instead of trying to manage the pull to look at porn on our smartphones, let’s consider a dumb phone.
Do we need to apply the balm and challenge of Christ to our kids’ sufferings and sins? Absolutely. But we cannot offer to them something we haven’t received ourselves. We cannot ask our students to lift their gaze if our own is downwardly fixed.
Only when we, ourselves, fix our gaze on Jesus in everyday ways will our families and ministries find their true place in the universe, not as creators, but as creatures; not as masters, but as servants; not as movers, but as moved. Only then will we, and those kids under our watch, be set in motion, not by our farcical, self-defining meaning-quest but by love for our Great God.
High phantasy lost power and here broke off;
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and the other stars.³
Note: this blog was originally published in our harvestusa magazine as “A Look Up: Discipling Students in an Age of Pour-Over Coffee and Smart-Tech.”
¹G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: The Work of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 18.
² Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Ed., Ed. K. Scott Oliphint, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 72.
³ Dante Alighieri, Paradise, Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1969), 347.