Understanding Sexual Identity: A Review

Robin Barfield
Reviews 3 mins

Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry (Zondervan, 2013)

I thought I had handled the situation well. It was the first time as a youth leader that I knowingly had a young person who experienced same-sex attraction in the group. Looking back, it was a disaster, and I’m not surprised he walked away. I wish I had read Yarhouse’s work then. I’m sure many other youth leaders have made similar mistakes or just feel out of their depth and lacking wisdom and confidence in what to do when it comes to the topic of sexuality.

It is the youth group that is in the front line for questions of identity regarding sexuality and gender as young people grapple with questions of who they are and who they want to be.

Youth is often a time of exploration and experimentation, of engaging with the concepts and expectations of the wider world. It is the youth group that is in the front line for questions of identity regarding sexuality and gender as young people grapple with questions of who they are and who they want to be. Mark Yarhouse has done a great service in providing a usable guide on sexual identity for youth ministers and leaders. He uses the analogy of young people being on an expedition and requiring a ‘trail guide’ as they explore their desires and feelings (p.17). Yarhouse describes the stages, the map, and the experience of the journey that young people travel.

There are 11 relatively short and easy-to-read chapters. The analogy works well in some of these: for example, the chapter ‘Being a Better Trail Guide’ encourages us to walk with our young people in compassion; ‘Markers on the Trail’ guides the reader through the usual stages of teenage sexual identity, and ‘On Not Hiking Alone’ constructively encourages the need for supportive community around sexual minority teenagers. Other chapters feel as though they force the analogy: ‘Communicating with Base Camp’ deals with keeping in touch with parents, while ‘Ministry Between Miracles’ seems to abandon the central analogy altogether, yet is a balanced chapter on whether sexual transformation can happen or be expected.

Yarhouse’s work is based on thorough research, and this shows in the helpful diagrams and regular ‘counselling’ asides which are smattered throughout the book. The book reads as a simplification of years of careful, deep analysis and reflection, yet it is skilfully communicated and engaging. One highlight for me is his use of the concept of ‘convicted civility’ which is a ‘balance between holding convictions as a Christian and communicating those convictions with civility’ (p.22). His examples of speaking into communities that are often not welcoming of conservative Christians are models of gracious engagement and reflect his authority to speak on this subject. Throughout, he demonstrates that the manner of our speech is just as important as holding to our Christian convictions. Yarhouse is a model of clarity and charity.

This is an extremely useful and necessary resource for youth leaders, employed and lay, and I would encourage all involved in ministry to young people to read this.

This is an extremely useful and necessary resource for youth leaders, employed and lay, and I would encourage all involved in ministry to young people to read this. We will already be too late to be able to minister with understanding and compassion to some sexual minority youth, as demonstrated in my example above. But we will only face more and more situations where we need to be wise and careful as we walk alongside our young people, so now is the time for us to get equipped. This guide is clear and full of careful guidance and wisdom as to what may be going on as young people begin to question who they are.

There are, however, some negatives. Firstly, although the book was published in 2013, some of the categories and terms already feel outdated. Since 2013 a number of possible further sexual identities have become popular, and there is also no discussion of how issues of sexuality might connect with gender identity. In this way, the book can feel simplistic and lacking nuance. Secondly, Yarhouse ties sexuality with identity in a way that may not be helpful, rather than encouraging a deeper identity in Christ in the first place. Thirdly, while I had no problem with his conclusions, I can see that Yarhouse would be too conservative for many liberals and too liberal for many conservatives.

There are many other books addressing sexual and gender issues for teens, most tend to be either affirming or shrill, or are highly theoretical. Perhaps this suggests that this book’s strength is in its encouragement towards compassion and clarity in our ministry to sexual minority youth.