Recently, a friend asked how I, as a pastor, have conversations about sex. The implication was, how do I, as a single 27-year-old have any coherent conversation about sex with my peers, who spend a decent amount of their time talking about sex. In general, the answer is that I avoid writing about sex, except to critique the church’s inability to talk about sex.
People in the post-college bracket are thoughtful about sex. It’s not all horror stories and hook ups. In fact, there are mostly not very many of those. But, as one friend said, just by being single, Christian, and older than 25, you’re living “off script.” You’re in the minority of Christians and the Church is using an outdated script to keep you on a path you were never on. I think this is why there are so few single young people in church. There’s not a place for them at the table.
This may turn into a multi-part series, but for now, I’ll share a few principles for talking with my peers who are dating. What I’ve realized, working with teens and with 20-somethings, is that sex is a whole different ballpark when you’re talking to someone who is paying her telephone bills, her automo-bills, etc. Let’s not bring on any early-2000s flashbacks.
1. Sex is not an act of rebellion. When I talk to high schoolers about sex, I give them advice about celibacy and they get uncomfortable, because they would be uncomfortable no matter what I was saying about sex. I talk to high schoolers about celibacy because it’s relevant to them. I want to give them resources to set the tone for a lifetime of healthy relationships–celibacy is a very healthy practice when you are 17. When I talk to my single peers–others in their late 20s and early 30s–95% of these friends are already sexually active. I don’t try to talk them back onto the single bandwagon (though I’ve considered it, since my buddy Russell Wilson seems to have a strategy–who doesn’t want to cheer for Russell Wilson, right?).
Most pastors who talk about sex are men who got married before they were 23. I sat through a sermon like that recently. I agreed with most of what he was saying. But it’s hard to hear it from someone who doesn’t really have a clue how you’ve navigated the last five years of adulthood. If you’re a pastor in this position, you can approach this conversation with a little more humility, without any less ethics.
Here’s the thing: my semi-Christian peers are not having sex “because they can.” It’s not just for kicks. Most of them have deep respect for the adults who mentored them and the traditions ingrained in them. The overwhelming majority of them–they gave celibacy a good shot. Most of them had a significant, long-term relationship between the age of 20 and 25 in which they did not have sex, and then after leaving that relationship, realized they weren’t on the marriage track and weren’t willing to dedicate their lives to indefinite celibacy. Most of them were celibate 3-10 years longer than the average Americans who are their peers. They learned something from celibacy. They’re trying to learn something from sex.
Few of my friends could consciously articulate it, but this is the paradox: Christianity encourages humans to build comfortable, healthy, intimate human relationships in order to strengthen our connection to all people and to God. And yet, when it comes to a romantic relationship, the Church suddenly says: “Don’t get too intimate or you’ll ruin your relationship to all people and to God.” My friends see a logical inconsistency and they go, “That don’t make no damn sense.”
2. Celibacy is hard. We in the church uphold celibacy like it’s the bare minimum expectation. Celibacy is difficult! It’s a big ask from the church. Church is full of big asks, that’s nothing new. Not lying, selling all you have and giving it to the poor, pacifism… Ideals are great. But let’s acknowledge that ideals are hard. Let’s not condemn people for falling short of high expectations. Let’s applaud them for taking seriously that church is full of hard expectations. Let’s encourage them to move forward in their faith from where they stand now, not from where they would’ve stood if they’d met the perfect mate when they were 19.
3. Sex is not the worst thing you can do in a relationship. Of the many, many friends I have who gave up on intimacy in their mid/late-20s, most of their thought process went like this: “My partner is fabulous. I want to maximize intimacy with my partner. I would like to have sex.” Sex is intimate, no matter what, and the vast majority of my peers are conscientious about who they’re intimate with.
As a pastor speaking to single friends, I’m rarely worried about sex in relationships. (What I’m most worried about is safe sex, but most of them seem to have that one down.) (Have you been tested? Get tested. Now.) What I worry about is unhealthy intimacy. Are you co-dependent? Is your significant other isolating you? Are there signs of emotional abuse? Is your spirit healthy? This is the realm of spiritual care, as much as sex is.
Healthy sex builds intimacy. Unhealthy sex builds barriers. But so does lying, poor communication, and plenty of other things. I am as worried about Christians lying and unable to make “I” statements in high stakes arguments as I am those having sex in relationships with healthy communication.
4. Sex is not the most intimate thing you can do in a relationship. In the Church, we often act like sex is the ONLY sign of intimacy in a relationship. You know what else is intimate? Sleeping together. Showering together. Near death experiences. The death of loved ones. Long drives down unmarked roads in South Carolina during a thunderstorm with a risk of flash floods trying to follow the only other car on the road going 70 miles an hour… have I done this? Maybe.
The point is, sex is intimate. It is deeply intimate.The Church asks people not to have sex before marriage because it sews your lives together in ways that are hard to sever, that imply a level of intense commitment. But in the scope of a relationship, there are other things that are intimate–that sew your lives together in ways that are hard to sever and imply a level of intense commitment. Throughout your relationship, you should be marking those points at which it is difficult to turn back. Be aware of what you are creating, emotionally and physically.
Every relationship is different. For some people, in some relationships, sex is not the hardest thing to let go of–it’s some other memory or act of intimacy.
The Church has done a disservice by treating sex as the only litmus test for an ethical relationship. 20-somethings know that. They’re not asking for a pass. They’re asking for a better theology; a theology that doesn’t use celibacy as the only measure of “healthy.” They’re asking for grace in their mistakes, forbearance in their disagreements. They’re asking for respect for the choices they’ve made–especially as they begin to see peers who married young, who married partly so they could have sex, starting to divorce. They’re asking for a little more critical thought into our theology. Is that such a high bar for the church?
If so, perhaps it’s time for us to rise to it.