Lessons from a Week Teaching Teenagers About Sex

Andrew Bunt 1 year ago
Blog 5 mins

Back in the summer, I had the amazing privilege of being at the Newday youth festival and heading up a team running a seminar stream called ‘Sex Questions’. Our aim across five sessions was to help young people to ask, discuss and wrestle with some of the big questions we all have about sex and relationships. We talked about sex (‘Why does God care?’), sexuality (‘Does God love gay people?’), porn (‘What’s the harm?’), and dating (‘How do I do it right?’).

It was an amazing week that I feel has given me helpful insights into where some of the teenagers connected to UK churches are at when it comes to questions around sex and relationships. Here are a few of the things I learned.

Teenagers want to learn about sex and relationships

Every one of the main seminars in the stream was packed out with teenagers and youth leaders. In the seminar on sexuality, 130 questions were anonymously submitted in the space of just one hour! An afternoon discussion on the same topic gathered four or five times the number that came to a similar session four years ago.

There is a huge appetite among young people to wrestle with big questions about sex and relationships. They want to hear teaching on these topics; they want to have a chance to ask their questions. This should be a challenge and an encouragement to all churches and youth leaders: our young people have lots of questions and they want to hear what we have to say about them. We need to be offering them spaces where they can hear a biblical perspective and where they can feel safe to ask their questions and think through the answers.

Teenagers hold a range of perspectives

This was a point that surprised me. I expected the majority of young people coming to the seminars to have views strongly shaped by a secular sexual ethic. Many of them do seem to have been shaped by that ethic, but the questions and conversations across the week revealed a broader range of perspectives than I expected. Some young people did seem highly influenced by our secular culture, but some seemed to be at the other end of the spectrum with very conservative (and I’d say equally unbiblical) beliefs such as that the very experience of same-sex attraction is something for which we incur guilt before God. There were also young people somewhere in the middle whose main concern was how to love their gay friends well and how not to come across as homophobic.

This range of views makes it complicated to know the right starting point from which to engage young people on these topics, but it reminds us of the importance of having conversations and finding out the perspectives and questions of the young people we get to serve.

Teenagers care about justice and fulfilment

The most common objection to the biblical sexual ethic was: ‘Is it fair that some people don’t get to be in a loving relationship?’. For some young people, this seemed to be a question motivated by justice: ‘Isn’t this unfair discrimination against gay people?’. For others, it seemed to be rooted in a belief that sex and romance are necessary for fulfilment: ‘How could God deny us something we need?’.

Young people today care deeply about all people being treated fairly and about all people having the chance to experience fulfilment in life. Both of those are really good things to care about because they are things that God also really cares about. We need to help young people to see that their sense of justice only makes sense because of what God has said about humanity and that he is even more passionate about justice than they are. Within that, we need to help them see that God’s parameters for sex and relationships are not unjust but are good for all. We also need to help young people see that God cares about us experiencing fulfilment in life, but that such fulfilment can only come through relationship with Jesus and not through romantic or sexual relationships. Jesus’ promise of fullness of life – effectively his way of talking about enjoying our best life – is a powerful way we can communicate the gospel to Gen Z.

Teenagers want detail but also need the big picture

Our aim was to root everything in the big picture of God’s plan for sex and relationships. We were exploring God’s purpose in designing sex and marriage and how that impacts the way we seek to live in order to honour God and flourish as sexual beings. We were trying to avoid the classic approach to youth talks which has often focussed on dos and don’ts. While we were giving the big picture of God’s wisdom for stewarding our sexualities, it was noticeable from the questions coming in that the young people wanted more direct and detailed guidelines. (The questions also revealed what a wide range of sexual practices young people are being exposed to today.)

I’m still convinced that young people need a deep understanding of the bigger picture. If we don’t understand why God has designed sex and marriage (to be signposts pointing to Jesus), we can’t understand his specific instructions. In reality, we don’t always know the questions we need to ask, so sometimes our role as leaders and pastors is to help people ask the right questions. But I also think I learnt that there is a place for direct and detailed guidelines if they are built on that big picture foundation. My hope is that youth leaders will be able to take the big picture we have tried to paint and use it as a basis from which to discuss some of the details with their young people.

Teenagers are acutely aware of gender

We didn’t directly engage with questions of gender identity and transgender within the seminar series, but it was clear from the questions coming in that these topics are at the forefront of young people’s minds. Some young people were asking about God’s perspective on trans experience. Many were asking about how biblical sexual ethics work for trans people. On hearing that the biblical pattern for marriage is one man and one woman, many young people seemed to instinctively wonder how that works for trans people. I wonder if this reveals that for many teenagers trans is not an issue of ethics but an issue of practicalities. The primary concern is not how individuals should respond to trans experience but how we make space for trans people within our sexual ethics. This might suggest quite wide acceptance of an affirming approach to trans experience among many young people.

If my analysis of the situation is anywhere near being right, it’s a reminder of how important it is that we engage with young people on the topic of gender and the more fundamental topic of identity. I’ve shared some thoughts on how we can do that well here.

God is still at work

Running the Sex Questions seminar stream highlighted to me many things about today’s teenagers and reminded me of how much things have changed since I was a teenager. But the week also highlighted and reminded me of one thing that has not changed: God is still at work.

Across the week, I had the absolute privilege of sitting down with a number of teenagers who love Jesus, want to faithfully follow him and who also experience same-sex attraction. They were wrestling with exactly the same questions and expressing exactly the same fears that I was facing when I was their age.

As we chatted, I could see the evidence of God at work: he has set his love on these young people, has brought them into his family and is now helping them to work out what it looks like to take up their cross and follow him on the path that can look like death but is actually life. So much in the world around us has changed since I was a teenager sitting in similar seminars on sexuality over 10 years ago. I’ve no doubt that in many ways it’s far harder for young Christians to work through questions of sexuality today. But my week teaching teenagers about sex also left me in no doubt that God is still at work. He’s seeking and saving, sanctifying and sustaining. He’s helping young people to work through their big questions about sex, relationships and following Jesus.

You can listen to some of the seminars below:

Sex: Why does God care?

Sexuality: Does God love gay people?

A chat with some gay Christians

Porn: What’s the harm?