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HARVEST USA did two day-long seminars for parents and youth leaders at Chelten Church, in the suburbs of Philly. Afterwards, we sat down with Jon Shepherd, their Student Ministry Director, to talk about ways he addresses sexuality with his youth group. 

As a bit of an ice-breaker, what’s one of the funnest moments you have experienced in youth ministry?

Having been a part of the Youth Ministry at Chelten since 2006, I have so many fun memories. One that everyone can enjoy involved one of our senior guys laying on the beach at Ocean City, NJ letting a flock of seagulls eat Cool Ranch Doritos off his bare chest.

We know you have a heart for youth, so tell us a bit about why you got into youth ministry.

One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Douglass who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I got into youth ministry because I want to use the gifts that God has given me and my own experiences to help the next generation know Christ and follow him from a young age.

What do you think are some of the unique challenges facing youth ministers today in discipling students in the area of sexuality?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the culture’s definition of normal sexuality. From billboards to TV shows, songs to smartphone apps—we are combatting a message that says that you get to define your sexuality and do what seems right for you.

Also, what is unique to our day and age is the role that the smartphone has played in the lives of our teenagers. Social media, for example, tells our young people that they don’t look good enough. Other apps make hooking up or sexting as easy as a swipe of your finger. Unfiltered cell phones provide accessibility to endless amounts of pornography with just a few simple clicks.

This type of leading, from a point of need and weakness, creates a culture within the church where it becomes safe for students to approach leaders to share their struggles.

Leaving the depressing state of our world, what have been some of the best moments in addressing sexuality amongst students?

The most impactful times with students have always come after another leader or I have made the first move toward individual students by sharing some of our own struggles. I can remember a night where we had a “guy’s night” and allowed the students to anonymously write questions on index cards where a panel of their regular youth leaders would take turns answering. Several of our leaders were very vulnerable with our guys and shared both past and present struggles with sexual sin. This type of leading, from a point of need and weakness, creates a culture within the church where it becomes safe for students to approach leaders to share their struggles.

As we take the risk of sharing our need for Jesus in the area of sexuality, we open the door for students to invite us into their lives. Young men will come and share their addiction to pornography. Young ladies share that they have turned to self-harm or an eating disorder because they don’t feel pretty or sexy enough. It is then a privilege to walk beside them to Christ, knowing that we both need the same grace.

HARVEST USA came to your church to do Gospel Sexuality: Student Ministry Training. What did you take away from the seminar that you would like others who work with students to hear?

One reason youth leaders don’t talk about sexuality is that we feel the pressure to have an entire night or series devoted to the topic, which is overwhelming and quite honestly, terrifying! Your training gave us some great tips on how to make sexuality a regular topic of conversation. For example, when addressing different sins that students may be battling, include in your talk a sexual sin like looking at pornography along with lying to your parents and trashing someone else’s reputation.

Also, we learned that when we don’t talk about sexual issues, it communicates shame to the one who is struggling in those taboo areas. Jesus invites all sinners to come forward from a place of shame, as he did the woman with the bleeding problem in Mark 5. We must create a church culture in which sexual sin is not ignored but is instead safe to talk about, a place where we can confess and find healing in Christ.

Push through the awkwardness when talking about sexuality. That first step to begin a conversation that’s uncomfortable to you and the student—or your child—is hard, but it’s totally worth it.

 What did you take away from Gospel Sexuality: Raising Sexually Healthy Kids that you would like parents to hear?

Gospel Sexuality: Raising Sexually Healthy Kids began with providing the bigger picture on sexuality and sexual sin by using the metaphor of the tree. This metaphor showed that we cannot simply address the fruit—the behaviors that we see—we must also address other factors as well.

Also, it is not enough to have “the talk;” we must, instead, engage in multiple discussions at different levels over the course of our child’s life. In other words, discussing sexuality with our kids is not a box to be checked, but is instead an ongoing topic of conversation and discipleship. We want to maintain ongoing communication to the point where we can be there to help pick up the pieces when they mess up and walk with them to Christ.

As a parting gift, what are three words of wisdom you want to give to youth ministers or parents on talking about sex and sexuality?

Push through the awkwardness when talking about sexuality. That first step to begin a conversation that’s uncomfortable to you and the student—or your child—is hard, but it’s totally worth it. Sharing your own need is also a great way to begin that conversation. As you share your own story, where you talk about your past and present need for Jesus, you invite them to open up and share their struggles.

Second, shepherd in community. Sexual sin can be a dangerous area to enter into with a young person. It is essential that we shepherd our students in community. Developing a team of adults in your youth ministry is key to this. In our youth ministry, every student is divided into small groups based on age and gender with multiple volunteer youth leaders over every group. We regularly divide into small groups for processing God’s word, sharing, and prayer. When a student comes to a staff member or volunteer leader with a sexual sin, we ask the student to continue to widen the circle of knowledge by involving another staff member, volunteer leader, or parent into the conversation. While it is extremely important to protect the student’s trust and privacy, it is also important that we, as youth leaders, are accountable to one another for our own protection.

Third, pray for your students more than you talk to them about sexuality. The reality is, we cannot fix the brokenness in our own lives or the lives of students. Redemption and healing can only be found in Jesus Christ. Knowing this truth is a huge relief and comfort. God is far more invested in your youth ministry and the sexuality of your students than you are.


Watch Jon talk more about this on his accompanying video: How does a youth pastor address sexuality with students? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

Whether you’re a youth minister or a parent, talking about sex and sexuality to teens is uncomfortable, to say the least. But it needs to be done. Listen as one youth minister at a large church gives his tips on how he and his youth team handles it.

And click here to read more of our interview with Jon at our blog: www.harvestusa.org.

 

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.

Practical Repentance

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.

Practical Love

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.

Seasoned Mentors

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.

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 john@harvestusa.org.


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