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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:


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

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 (, 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.


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.

Updated 4.13.17

Read on to discover Harvest USA’s perspective of pornography’s effect on children.

Our friends at the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU, have just published a brief handout on the effects of pornography on children. It’s titled, “A Parent’s Primer on Internet Pornography.” It contains useful information on who is looking at porn and what our kids are viewing, as well as information on how harmful porn is to the minds and hearts of kids and adults.

Led by Dr. Walt Mueller, CPYU is a terrific ministry organization—and not just because they like us and reference us in this handout! One thing to note in this handout: Walt refers to an online article Harvest USA wrote, entitled, “My Kids Have Looked at Porn! What Do I Do Now?”  That article is now published as a mini book by New Growth Press, called “iSnooping On Your Kids: Protecting Your Family in a Internet Age,” which is available for purchase in our online bookstore for just $3.99. Check out the Harvest USA bookstore, which has lots of information on preventative steps to take, as well as what to do when your kids have already been exposed to porn.

Updated 5.5.2017

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