by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
I’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately.
If we were to believe what I suspect to be a baseless rumour, men think of sex every seven seconds or so. So I might be excused for such indiscretion. Then again, the Kinsey Institute suggests that 54% of men think about sex at least once daily, 43% think about it a few times each month, and 4% less than once a month. I suppose there’s a whole spectrum out there…
The reasons for which I continue to think about sexuality are really quite simple. Throughout my time growing up in the church, it has been a rare occasion when I have had a positive conversation related to sexuality.
The other week I was down at Princeton Theological Seminary for a youth ministry conference, and one of our workshops dared to broach the subject. Dr. Kate Ott, from the Religious Institute was working with youth leaders from across North America on how we might discuss sexuality in the church not just with young people, but from birth through death. Our whole lives.
For me this was new. Outside of some fantastic conversations as part of our Wine Before Breakfast community in Toronto, I have only been privy to silence, or the negative “don’t do anything” kinds of monologues about sexual behaviour. But limiting sexuality to pure mechanics or particular acts is reductionist. Sexuality is much broader than these themes suggest, and much broader than any church in my past has been willing to concede.
How then might we openly and honestly engage with the realities of human sexuality within our churches?
Ericka posted several weeks ago about Lisa Graham McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World. In that post she pointed to a question that has bugged me for quite some time. What indeed do we do about the 15+ years of awakened sexuality, between puberty and marriage? What has the church to say about this?
Until recently, I was pretty sure that the church had nothing useful to say. The only answers I’ve had have been blank stares, or the prohibitions. This is less of a pressing question for me now, having been married for just over 2.5 years, but it still comes back to me as I consider how youth (and other) ministries of our churches might engage sexuality. With a more long-term vision, how might my generation approach these same questions with our children?
All of this is caricature to some degree. I grew up in a particular set of communities. Just because this was not the case for me, it seems at least loosely plausible that there are Christian communities out there with healthy approaches to sexuality education.
Donna Freitas’ Sex and the Soul, studies American college students at Evangelical, Spiritual and Secular schools. What she finds is that only at Evangelical colleges does religious belief affect decisions about whether or not to engage in sex. What does that say about our mainline traditions? Where are they in all of this?
I’m not saying that the evangelical experience is all Knights in Shining Armour and Damsels in Distress (no matter what John Eldredge has to say for himself). I’m not saying that they have it all figured out. The question I’m left with, as someone who works in the midst of a mainline context, is why (if Freitas’ study is reliable) there is such a disconnect between faith and action for those coming from this quadrant of Christianity.
One could generalise, I suppose, about the failure of youth and young adult ministries in the mainline context. One could suggest that the average person in a mainline context simply doesn’t engage the scriptures in the same way many evangelicals do. Many things could be suggested. Whatever the case, I do believe that one thing we all need to be doing – no matter what corner of the Christian world we come from – is to engage in conversations about sexuality, and what a biblically informed worldview might call us to.
We have to know that whatever it is we ourselves believe about sexuality is what is going to be passed along to our kids. If we have not considered our own opinions, if we haven’t weighed these things against our scripture, tradition, reason and experience, who knows what we’ll pass on?
[Insert over-quoted Socratic notions about the unexamined life here]
In the context of the church, conversations about sexuality (amongst other things) should be taking place over the course of an entire lifetime, from birth to death. Our churches seem rather ill-equipped to take these challenges on. According to the Religious Institute, most of our clergy have received little to no training in how to engage these issues in their own seminary training. Whether they’ve received the training or not, we need to find ways to engage these issues in more contexts than simply the awkward birds’n’bees chat.
If the Christian faith has something to say about our sexuality (and indeed, I believe it does), then we need to continue to examine these things as we pass through various life stages. In the same way that salvation isn’t about some trite little prayer we pray once in our lifetime, our sexual education is not limited to one conversation during puberty. Sexuality, while not defining us, is a significant part of our identities. If we’re unable to work through our questions, struggles and joys in community, it seems to me that we’ve lost an important piece of the puzzle.