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.
26 Oct 2017
Youth pastors have challenging ministries, and that’s an understatement today. I took a phone call from Tom (all names have been changed), a youth pastor at a large, PCA church, and his situation is something churches will be encountering everywhere.
Tom said he had worked hard to build a thriving, discipleship-oriented youth ministry. He solicited many 30-something adult helpers and small group leaders. His ministry emphasis was on biblical education and personal ministry, but he also worked to develop an outreach mindset for the unsaved and outsiders among his kids.
And it was working. The youth group grew. Many un-churched kids regularly attended as a result of being invited by his kids. But one day his outreach approach came close to tearing the entire ministry apart.
What happened? One of the invited kids, Eric, who got very involved in the youth group, announced one day that he was gay. This is where the problem for Tom began.
The kids from church had different responses to Eric’s disclosure, and they fell into three camps. The first camp was, “That’s wrong! He shouldn’t be in the youth group.” The second was, “He should be here. The church is the best place for him to learn about Christ.” And some said, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
All three responses created confusion and turmoil.
And then the parents got wind of it all. Not only were they shocked by the emerging disorder in the youth group, but many of the parents began to learn, for the first time, what their children believed about this issue. And they responded with anger and fear at everything that was happening.
Tom’s phone rang, and his email overflowed. “How did this kid get into the church’s youth group?” asked one dad. One mom gave an ultimatum: “If that boy continues to attend, we’re pulling our sons out.” Another said, “I don’t want that kind of bad influence around my child.”
Some church kids threatened to leave if Eric was asked to leave; others said they would never invite anyone else to come. To top it off, Tom’s staff had different responses. Tom was in no-man’s land, feeling pressure to make the right decision. Clearly, there would be consequences no matter how he handled the situation. Hence his phone call to me!
We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
As issues of sex, sexuality, and gender become the defining identity marker in the culture, it has never been more critical for the church to be educated and equipped. With the church and parents often committed to not speaking about these matters to our kids, most kids make up their minds about sexuality and gay marriage by the age of 12 these days (and it’s getting younger every day). The culture has “discipled” them well. They are listening to the voices on the Internet and media, which they spend hours each day consuming.
Churches need to educate their leaders and volunteers in how to lovingly and compassionately minister to youth, some whom struggle silently with sexual issues from a relatively early age. Parents need to be taught how to talk to their kids, well before an issue explodes and they respond in anger and fear.
Those who are involved in ministry to junior and senior high youth must speak boldly, frequently, compassionately, and truthfully about sex, sexuality, and gender, especially because most kids struggle in their silent formative years when sexual identity is being formed and embraced. We must take seriously this awful fact: the culture (not parents, not the church) has become the predominant and authoritative teacher of sexuality for our youth. If youth leaders don’t want to take the initiative to address these issues, they should not be in youth work today.
Yes, you want 13-year-old Jason to trust you (or his small group leader) to tell you he’s looking at porn on his smartphone. Yes, you want 15-year-old Erica to confide that she’s attracted to other girls, and wants to know, is she gay. You want Sam to tell you he feels he’s another gender. You want these kinds of talks because God has placed you in their lives at this crucial time, while they still live at home and before college. Believe me, once they get to a secular college, there will be plenty of voices saying, “Yes, please come talk to us. We’ll help you figure this out.”
I’m so serious about this I’m going to repeat it: if youth leaders are not willing to engage these issues with the youth under their care, they shouldn’t be involved in youth work today!
HARVEST USA is ready to help your church become educated and proactive in dealing with these matters. We can meet with your church staffs and elder boards to help them strategize and implement how to do 21st-century youth ministry work.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
19 Oct 2017
I’ve been watching youth culture for almost thirty years. I’m convinced that there’s no visible cultural shift that’s been faster, more significant, more widespread, and more life-altering than our beliefs and behaviors regarding sex and sexuality. And if culture refers to the way that we define and live in the world, then the road map we’re following in today’s world is pointing our kids to a sexual ethic void of borders and boundaries, with the exception (at least for the time being) of labeling anything non-consensual as “wrong.”
The life-shaping cultural soup that our kids swim in 24/7 tells them that when it comes to sex, you can do whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want. To be “sex positive” is to be authentic and true to your desires and feelings in the moment.
Over the course of my years watching culture, I’ve looked for ways to effectively engage in conversations that might challenge kids to rethink the cultural narrative in light of the biblical narrative on God’s good gift of sex and sexuality. One valuable tool we have at our fingertips is the cultural artifact of popular music, which happens to be one of the more voluminous ingredients in the cultural soup. So, why not use it to our advantage?
Perhaps we can take a lesson from the missionary approach of the Apostle Paul. In Acts 17 we read of his encounter with the Athenians and their pagan culture. Before challenging their cultural narrative with the biblical narrative, Paul took the time to look carefully at what they held near and dear (v. 22-23). He kept his eyes and ears open, listening to their beliefs and behaviors before confronting their beliefs and behaviors with the Gospel. Then, when he opened his mouth to speak the truth, he did so in ways that reflected his knowledge of their culture.
The life-shaping cultural soup that our kids swim in 24/7 tells them that when it comes to sex, you can do whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want.
When it comes to talking to kids about sex and sexuality in today’s world, it’s not enough to know the ins and outs of biblical sexuality. We must also know the ins and outs of what culture is teaching our kids on these matters so that we might be able to celebrate and affirm where the culture might be getting it right (and that happens from time to time), and where the culture might be getting it wrong. That can only happen when we are committed to taking the time to listen carefully.
At the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org), we endeavor to allow popular music to serve as a tool that pulls back the curtain on the “spirit of the age.” By listening carefully to the music, we begin to unfold and see the maps that guide our kids. Then, we work to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on the realities that exist. A simple way to hear the music speak and to frame a response is to utilize what we call a “3(D) approach.” We begin by Discovering the worldview woven in and through the musical piece. Then, we work to Discern how that worldview affirms or conflicts with the biblical worldview. Finally, we Decide how to best respond to what we’ve Discovered and Discerned.
Singer Ed Sheeran’s song, “Shape of You,” offers a great example of how to use music to spark conversations on sex and sexuality. Pre-released as a single digital download on January 6, 2017, this Caribbean-flavored dance song from Sheeran’s album “÷” (Divide), has already topped the charts in 30 countries (including the U.S.), and just might wind up being the most-listened-to song of the year. Find the song’s lyrics online and give them a read. Then, go to YouTube and watch the official video for the song. Then take a look at how we’ve broken the song down using our 3(D) methodology (see below). Finally, take what you’ve learned and use it to spark discussions with the kids you know, love, and have been called to lead!
Discover: What is the message/worldview?
- The song’s title is a straightforward reflection of the song’s message. The song and video depict and promote a quickly-formed mutual male/female relational connection prompted solely on the basis of visual/physical attraction.
- In the video, Sheeran and his female interest cross paths while training in a dimly lit boxing gym. In the song, Sheeran sings of his deliberate quest to hook-up in a bar: “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover/So the bar is where I go/Me and my friends at the table doing shots/Drinking fast and then we talk slow/Come over and start up a conversation with just me/And trust me I’ll give it a chance now.” With inhibitions lowered due to alcohol, the couple agrees to dance.
- The dance leads immediately to each of them declaring a desire for a sexual connection. He sings to her, “Girl, you know I want your love/Your love was handmade for somebody like me/Come on now, follow my lead.” She follows his lead while discouraging any getting-to-know-each-other through conversation: “Say, boy, let’s not talk too much/Grab on my waist and put that body on me/Come on now, follow my lead.”
- The encounter quickly leads to a hook-up: “I’m in love with the shape of you/We push and pull like a magnet do.” Sheeran tells us that continuing sexual encounters based on visual attraction precede love: “Although my heart is falling too/I’m in love with your body/And now my bedsheets smell like you/Everyday discovering something brand new.”
- Reflecting and promoting current cultural trends regarding sex, dating, and love, Sheeran puts a dating relationship following a week’s worth of sexual encounters: “One week in we let the story begin/We’re going out on our first date.” The song ends with Sheeran singing his mantra of physical attraction: “I’m in love with your body/Oh-I-Oh-I- Oh-I-Oh-I.”
Discern: How does it stand in light of the biblical message/worldview?
- Culture is bombarding our kids with hyper-sexual messages that lead them to equate “love” with sexual activity of all kinds. “Shape of You” both reflects and promotes the message they hear, specifically that there are no boundaries when it comes to sexuality, except for mutual consent. When it comes to sex, you are to “follow your heart” and your emotions, pursuing physical intimacy by doing whatever you want, wherever you want, however you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. Increasingly, dating may now follow sexual hook-ups (which are increasingly random and anonymous). Contrary to these beliefs, the reality is that sex has been created by God as a good gift that He’s given to humanity. The Scriptures are clear from Genesis to Revelation: Sex is a wonderful and good thing that has its place: shared between one man and one woman within the context of a covenantal marriage (Genesis 2:24). Sex also has its divinely-ordained purpose: consummation of marriage, procreation, intimacy, and pleasure. We are to flee from any sexual activity which is outside of this place and purpose (Colossians 3:5; Galatians 5:19-21; I Corinthians 6:18).
- The Bible defines “lust” as a strong attraction and desire that can move in either a good or evil direction. In this case, Sheeran is promoting indulgence and servitude to the lusts of the flesh, which the Bible states are not of God and which war against the soul (Ephesians 2:3; I John 2:16; I Peter 2:11). Indulging lustful feelings is not only immoral, but it selfishly sabotages personhood (both of self and other), our flourishing, and the potential for full relational intimacy (both now and future).
- Culture puts a premium on physical appearances. Our boys are growing up in a culture that encourages them to view females as nothing more or less than sexual objects. Our girls are learning that they must center their lives and identities on creating a sexually attractive visual persona that is attractive and pleasing. Identity is now found in curating one’s self to satisfy “sexual consumerism” where we display ourselves, window-shop, purchase, consume, and then quickly dispose of that which is no longer novel. The Scriptures tell us that we have been made by God and for God. Finding our identity in anything other than Christ is idolatry (I John 5:21; Exodus 20:3-6). While humans mistakenly idolize outward appearances, we must rewrite the cultural narrative by cultivating inward character and hearts bent on faithful obedience to God (I Samuel 16:7; Proverbs 31:30).
Decide: What do I do with it?
- You can be assured that the overwhelming majority of kids have seen and/or heard “Shape of You.” The song’s video treatment is relatively tame, using the boxing gym as a metaphorical representation of the song’s lyrical content. We recommend showing the video to students and then talking about the song’s lyrical messages, contrasting those messages with the message of the Scriptures on sex, sexuality, love, identity, personhood, objectification, and dating.
- Ask students to evaluate how Sheeran’s song reflects the movement towards “expressive individualism” (being faithful, true, and authentic to one’s self) in our culture, as opposed to following the way and will of Jesus Christ (being a faithful, true, and obedient follower of Jesus).
- Show the video to parents and youth workers, demonstrating how a cultural artifact serves to mirror current beliefs and behaviors. Specifically, describe the current cultural order of relationship building (hook-up, conversation, dating relationship). Then, teach them how to use “Shape of You” as a springboard for engaging in narrative-shifting conversations in a manner Jesus himself used: “You have heard it said that. . .” (the erroneous cultural narrative)… “but I tell you…” (the corrective of the biblical narrative).
- Ask students to consider this quote from Lord Acton in relation to “Shape of You,” from a talk that Os Guinness gave to Cambridge University students: “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like. It’s the power to do what you ought.”¹
Note: This blog originally appeared as an article titled “An Exercise in Cultural Discernment: From Bar to Bed..and Other Lies” in the Fall 2017 harvestusa magazine.
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.
To see Cooper talk more about this issue, click on Cooper’s video blog, A Look Up: Touching the Heart of Students. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
09 Jun 2016
It’s easy to go on idol hunts. Do you know what I mean? A student might be sitting in front of me, talking about how hard life has been for him, how sexual sin just keeps dominating him—and I’m on the prowl! I’m hanging on to every word, thinking, That smells like worship! Is that an idol!?
To be an idol-maker is to be a sinner. And for many of us, the sinner category is the only category out of which we operate when we minister to students. I’ll confess: I tend to love both quick fixes and be the “fixer” of people. And when I’m operating from the sinner category, it’s easy to call students to simple repentance and demand quick change.
But simply emphasizing this category results in conversations like these:
“Dude, repent. You just need to stop this. It’s destroying you.”
These conversations often result in impatience and frustration for both me and the student I’m trying to help. But, like all emphases, the category of “sinner” doesn’t give us the total picture. God gives us another category, one that nuances and deepens our ministry to students.
Sufferers. Not Just Sinners.
The Bible tells us that our students are not simply sinners; they are sufferers as well. In fact, the Scriptures make suffering a stipulation for sharing in the coming glory of Christ: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, their heirs—fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17).
Paul says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Philippians 1:29). Doesn’t a large part of our suffering as believers have to do with the “passions of the flesh” that “wage war” against our souls (1 Peter 2:11)?
All of us are walking battlegrounds, hosts to the war between flesh and spirit. As new creations in Christ, we bear the scars. The very presence of the “old man” waging war against our new selves means that we are sufferers.
What are some sufferings that students might face? For a student who struggles with same-sex attraction, her gifts and personality might not match up to the particular cultural group in which she lives. Feelings of isolation, shame, and being out of place might result from not living up to a certain societal ideal of what it means to be a woman.
She didn’t choose her gifts! And she didn’t choose to have a peer or parent say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like to do X like the other girls?” Her gifts that don’t correspond to cultural norms or those comments made by peers or parents are not sins on her part; they are her sufferings.
For a student who struggles with pornography, his home life might be an absolute mess. His mom and dad might constantly fight. Perhaps he perceives porn as his only escape and refuge from life’s storms. But he didn’t choose his home life! It is a part of his sufferings.
What Difference Does This Make?
While students who struggle sexually need to hear the call to repentance that comes from the sinner category, they also need the compassion, empathy, patience, and oftentimes listening ear that come from the sufferer category.
The way we talk to a robber and the way we talk to someone who has been robbed differ drastically. We would usually be stern with the robber. But how would we speak to the one who has been robbed? We would be gentle. We would be compassionate and empathetic. We would be patient as they work through feelings of insecurity and fear. We might simply be quiet, letting our presence do the talking. As sexual sin rears its head, students, many of whom are new creations in Christ, are simultaneously the ones robbing themselves and the ones being robbed of the joy that Christ brings.
Sometimes we need a firm hand to guide us. Other times we need a gentle hand to sustain us. Sometimes we need to hear about our need to rest in our identity in Christ. Other times we need to be told to pick up our tools and start working. The truths we give to students shift depending on the situation.
The category of sufferer provides our students with the truth that, though they sin, they are not defined by their sins. They can cry out to the Lord for help in the very moment that they are being assaulted by sin and temptation. This category also helps students draw near to the Lord who knows what it is like to suffer. He willingly suffered in their place and is with them now in the valley.
We might not operate out of the “sufferer” category every time, but when students are so beaten down and broken over their sexual sin that they can’t find the strength to move, this can be a useful tool. This category will help students find the helping hand of Christ who is God With Us and gives us, as ministers, godly and nuanced patience, compassion, empathy, and love for the students under our care.
24 Dec 2014
When my car breaks down, I take it to the mechanic. When my computer has a virus, I take it to the computer people. Problems. Turn on any news station and you will see and hear an endless stream of news stories of problems that need fixing and multiple opinions on what needs to be done to fix them.
If we’re not careful in our ministry, we can start looking at the people we serve as problems to be fixed. But people are not problems. Those you serve in ministry are more than merely the problems and issues they present.
It’s quite easy to slip into this mindset when doing ministry with high-maintenance teens or young adults.(Confession: I, too, was a high-maintenance kid!) There are a number for reasons for doing this. Here are just three of them. Do you see yourself here?
- I like fixing things. Men are really good at this. We think we know what someone needs, and we are really good at telling them what to do. We love to give advice all the time.
- I hate chaos and disorder. I need to fix it—fast. Get control quickly.
- I feel pressure from parents, pastors/leaders, etc. to fix things. I need to show them that I know what I’m doing and can do it well. Otherwise, it’s curtains for me.
Ministry leaders can especially find themselves here when the problems that a particular student has involves sexual issues. What if John comes to you and says, “I’ve been struggling with looking at porn,” or Sue opens up and says, “I struggle with lust”? Sexual issues can be complicated, hard to talk about, and unpredictable. They can dominate a person’s life (and oftentimes they do!). And, what’s more, they don’t tend to be fixed quickly or easily. So, after a while, we let their issues become the “face” we see rather than the whole person whom we are trying to help.
How might this play out in our ministry? Here are five litmus tests to see if we view students as problems to be fixed rather than people to love and walk alongside of, showing them how Christ is their helper.
- We get involved when an issue arises, but once we feel they have “conquered” their sin, we then move on to others with their new problems.
- We think of students only in terms of their sin. “That” becomes their identity and how we think of them all the time.
- We don’t recognize the good and godly things that are also going on in their lives.
- All we ask students about are their particular struggles and sins when we talk with them.
- We focus on their behavior, and fail to see that their struggles spring from so many other desires, beliefs, and fears within them.
Please don’t misread me. The problems and sins we face are serious things. They should be addressed, and God is clearly interested in addressing our sin—look at practically the entire letter of 1 Corinthians as an example.
But to miss the person because we are centrally focused on the problem is to miss really knowing them as the Lord knows them. This is the beauty of relational ministry.
One of the most relational passages of the Scriptures is Psalm 139. The entire Psalm is an exploration of the ways in which the Lord intimately knows David—you know, the guy who led Israel, whom God anointed as the archetypal leader of his people and the foreshadow of Christ, and the one who committed adultery and murder, as well.
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” (Psalm 139: 1-6, ESV)
Our God is a personal God. He delights to know us intimately, through and through, and David is equally enraptured by being known this way (“such knowledge is too wonderful for me”). It’s obvious that God would know all these things about David. He’s God. He knows these things about all of us!
But the main point is this: He doesn’t relate to us solely on the basis of our issues and problems. No! He really loves his people (Psalm 149:4: “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people”), and as the prophet Zephaniah exclaims, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
The LORD rejoices over his people? The LORD sings as he delights in us? YES! Our God doesn’t simply see us as problems; he sees us as people to be known and loved. He has loved us with a greater love than we could hope for, having purchased us and adopted us into his family. This isn’t simply about fixing us. This is about family.
How are you doing at reflecting this quality of God to the students you serve? Do you desire to know and love your students as children of the living God? Do you rejoice over the good fruit that is also there in their life? Do you desire to plumb the depths of their hearts, to know their fears, beliefs, and hopes instead of just responding to the issues you see on the surface? Do you desire to know them for who they are?
Here are five ways, mirroring the five litmus tests above, that help us relate more in-depth to the students we minister to:
- Pray that the Lord would help you to see students as unique individuals and not as problems you need to fix. Prayer for the Lord to reshape your vision is the first step to take.
- See your students not simply in terms of their struggles and sin, but as a mixture of sin, beliefs, desires, fears, hopes, dreams—the light and the dark of their lives. Recognize that they live in a messed up world, and, coupled with their youth and immaturity, let that guide your approach to them.
- Rejoice in the good you see in your students’ lives. Rejoice with them in their successes, and let them know that you praise God for the work you see.
- Ask students about the good things that are happening in their lives. Be intentional here, and in doing so, help them to give thanks to God for his goodness in their life.
- Recognize that you are more like your students than you realize. You don’t have it all together, either. As you cry out to God in your own weakness and struggles and sin, and as you embrace Christ’s grace and forgiveness, and as you then walk forward in faith after you have stumbled and fallen—this is the same life you want to model for them as well.
It’s an astonishing thing that the Lord takes our problems and sins seriously while simultaneously treating us as the sons and daughters in whom he delights. The Lord help us to mirror this in our relationships with our students.
She wants to meet with you. She’s part of the youth group, but she’s been more of a marginal participant. Quiet, a bit aloof, definitely reserved. You’re eager to finally get a chance to know more about her. But when you finally get together, and after some awkward and hesitant initial talk, she says it: “I think I’m gay. I’m attracted to girls.”
If you’re like most youth leaders today, your first impulse is to wonder what to say that would be helpful. You don’t want to negate her sense of self, because that’s what she experiences, but nor do you want to confirm it, as if the matter is settled. The problem you have, and what is making you uncomfortable, is that you are not like that; that is, you are not attracted to people of the same sex like she is. Her experience is so unlike yours. What can you say? Your inclination is to retreat because you don’t think you can relate to her in any way that might be helpful.
But wait a minute. You have a lot more in common than you think. You are more equipped to help than you give yourself credit for. Or give God credit.
Start with 1 Corinthians 10:12-13, a familiar passage: “Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (ESV). Now look at the context of that passage. Paul is describing the desert journeys of Israel after they left Egypt. Israel stumbled, desired evil things (v.6), worshiped idols (v.7), and engaged in sexual immorality (v. 8). They put God to the test (v. 9), and constantly grumbled against him (v. 10) because they didn’t like how life was turning out for them. What’s the lesson Paul is teaching the young church in Corinth? This: Be careful! Though you as a Christian have been chosen and loved by God, just like the Israelites, you also live in a broken world, and life will not go smoothly nor be what you hope it will be. You, too, are tempted to grumble against God and be tempted by many things to fill your empty hearts (even if they are different temptations), so don’t think more highly of yourself than anyone else, nor think that someone else’s struggles or sin is so strange and different that neither you nor the gospel can connect with them.
Paul asserts that no temptation has seized us but what is common to humanity. No temptation. There is not a temptation under the sun that is not common to fallen humanity. While you might not struggle or sin in this particular way, you have everything in common with someone who has same-sex attraction. This student is not “other” than you. She is no stranger. She is a fellow sufferer who lives in the same fallen world that you do, and that is the world that Christ came to rescue.
What about James 1:14-15? James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Beneath her attraction for those of the same sex, this girl has other intense desires within her. Desires that are similar to yours: desires for companionship, meaning, purpose, identity, salvation, etc. It is these desires, usually unaddressed and hidden in the heart, that the fallen human heart twists into misshapen idols that we live for and worship. Good things that become idols that lead to actions and behaviors that feel right and that give meaning and significance to a void that she (and all of us, too!) becomes desperate to fill. Her heart tempts her to attach these desires to things that cannot give life, nor glorify God—but so does your own heart!
Can you relate to someone who wants to be loved? Can you relate to someone who feels that their identity needs to be defined by someone or something other than Jesus? Can you relate to someone who wrestles and struggles with his or her particular besetting sin? Can you relate to those who want to follow Christ but find strong, competing, sinful tendencies within themselves moving them in wrong directions? This girl is not radically different than you. Her longings and struggles, of which one of them is same-sex attraction, may be different than yours, but the seed is the same. We all come from the same parents. There are sinful and broken tendencies within all of us that are experienced by each and every one of us. Christianity levels the playing field, and connects every one of us to each other.
Without seeing the common ground between us and someone else, we erroneously separate and distance ourselves from others. We either think less of them because we would never do those things, or we think less of ourselves in terms of our ability to help. Hebrews 4:15-16 levels the ground, closes the distance, because God himself came close to us, in his humanity, so that we might intimately know how much Christ is for us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.” One of the wonders of the Incarnation is that Jesus lived a real, human life, and experienced all the desires, temptations, and sufferings that we experience. He knows what life is like; he is able to help us; he understands us; and he loves us in the midst of our struggles in a way that transforms us. We can trust him. We can rest in him.
We reflect the help, understanding, and love that Jesus gives to us by moving towards our students, not away from them. The issue I raised at the beginning is a bit misleading: it really isn’t a question about finding common ground. It’s about recognizing the common ground that we already have when we walk alongside someone who experiences same-sex attraction. We both share the same fallen, human condition, and we both have access to the same, divine help: a help that comes close to us in love and power.