5 Ways to Help Emerging Adults Find Good Love and Good Lovin’
By Haydn Shaw
Connie wrung her hands as she confessed that her 24-year-old daughter had started having sex with her boyfriend.
“My husband and I raised her in the church. Until recently she believed that sex outside of marriage is wrong,” Connie told me. “But she informed me that as soon as she can get a better job, she’s moving in with her boyfriend. She says they love each other and plan to get married in a few years.”
Why are my kids putting off marriage but not sex? is a question I hear all the time from parents, especially committed Christians. I’m not surprised.
Most parents and churches do attempt to talk about the facts of life. We explain that God designed sex for marriage. Often we promise that sex will be much better if emerging adults will wait. But there are two facts of life we don’t talk about, and our silence is hurting our young people.
We don’t talk about the fact that most Christian singles are having sex. According to religion researcher Robert Wuthnow—from his book After the Baby Boomers (2007)—evangelical Protestants are the most likely to say that premarital sex is always wrong (about 42 percent), yet 69 percent of unmarried evangelicals ages 21 to 45, and 78 percent of mainline Protestants, had sex with at least one partner during the past year.
We must also consider that millennials are waiting about five years longer to marry than boomers. Since most of us who are older didn’t wait that long for marriage, we don’t know what to tell them. Some of us doubt anything will work, so we say nothing and hope they aren’t doing what they shouldn’t be doing. But it sends mixed messages to our kids when we don’t talk about sex much in a world that talks about it constantly, that worships it. And when singles do ask how to handle their sexual desires for five additional years, parents and churches stammer and mumble things about trusting God and holding strong.
Emerging adults (and their parents and grandparents) need practical help figuring out how to deal with the additional five years until marriage. We have to start talking about this new fact of life.
Millennials want to marry eventually, but like Connie’s daughter, they don’t think it’s realistic to go without sex until they’re 26 and finally get married. Western culture flipped during the 1960s. Christianity historically has said that sex was good but not vital. The sexual revolution said that sex was vital and faith optional.
So what do we do?
We’ve not had to face later marriage since the 1940s, when our grandparents last married later. But they didn’t spend as much time alone and weren’t immersed in a culture that worships sex. (Chapter 10 of Generational IQ explains how we came to worship sex and evaluate Scripture by sex rather than sex by Scripture.) I don’t have all the answers, but I will make the following suggestions.
Start the Conversation
We need to start talking about sex and the additional five years people are waiting before they marry. And we need to do it now. If we stay quiet because we don’t know what to say, our emerging adults will wonder whether we think it’s impossible to wait that long. What’s more, those lessons and discussions need to happen frequently and at a much younger age than we are comfortable with. Studies show that girls begin to think in terms of their sexual identities as young as age 6. Of course, we only talk about what our kids are ready for, but if we listen, we will learn what they think and what they need to know.
Listening so we know what our children think and what they need to know applies to emerging adults even more. Connie was surprised her daughter was sleeping with her boyfriend because Connie hadn’t talked to her daughter about the ideas and images in our culture that were undercutting her daughter’s beliefs in God’s plan. We can’t help our kids unless we learn what they really think.
We need to ask more questions as we transition from being the parent of a child to being the parent of an adult.
Talk Why and How
Connie thought her daughter believed sex outside of marriage is wrong. Her daughter may have known the commandments and some of the consequences like pregnancy or disease, but she didn’t understand or agree with the why. She didn’t believe God would give her what she needed to be happy, because she believed she needed sex.
We want kids who not only know the rules but who agree with God. Our kids become transformed spiritually when they grasp the beauty of righteousness because they see the good that comes from obeying God. That won’t make their sexual desires go away, but it will make it worthwhile to learn how to deal with them when they really believe God knows what he’s talking about.
Don’t start with the commandments about sex; start with why God gave them to us. We don’t sugarcoat or soften what God says. We just reverse the order.
Take a moment to practice. Try this exercise that I give groups when I speak in churches: List three reasons sex before marriage isn’t best for us, without mentioning the Bible. If God is great and good, then there are practical reasons for his rules. Talk about those reasons more than the commandments.
Teach Your Children the Beauty of Sacred Sexuality
God made us sexual beings even if we never have sex. He wants us to find our sexuality rooted in him instead of in our bodies. There are three central reasons sacred sex is more vital than the worship of sex.
1. You can be happy without sex. Jesus’ life shows we can be happy without sex. Many fans of Jesus but not Christianity forget that Jesus was a virgin. Sex is so important in their worldviews that a psychologically healthy, happy celibate makes no sense to them. They can’t help but try to marry Jesus off (see The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code for examples).
So why wasn’t Jesus obsessed with sex as people are today? Jesus knew that sex, when it’s removed from its rightful place, can own us. He shows us how to take sex less seriously because it’s good, but not vital, to a vibrant, healthy life. Because Jesus didn’t make sex the epicenter of his world, sex did not own him.
2. Sex is too powerful to be “vital.” Each generation has increasingly seen sex as more vital than the last. It is seen as vital because it’s so powerful that resistance is futile. The book of Proverbs agrees that sex is powerful—too powerful to be vital: “Can a man scoop a flame into his lap and not have his clothes catch on fire? Can he walk on hot coals and not blister his feet? So it is with the man who sleeps with another man’s wife. He who embraces her will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 6:27-29, New Living Translation). The apostle Paul later explained that not only is sex nonvital, unmarried sex harms our vitality (see 1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
Christian sex keeps this power in a safe container—marriage—where it can bind two souls together. Jesus didn’t talk specifically about sex much (the Bible he read talked about it a lot, and he didn’t have much to add). But one statement was so important that Jesus quoted Genesis: “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (Mark 10:7, 8; see also Matthew 19:5). According to Jesus, our images and ideas about sex focus too much on how it feels to our bodies and not enough on what it does to our souls.
3. Sex is too fragile to be the foundation of a marriage. Looking for heaven on earth always disappoints. How could we not be disappointed when it inevitably gets boring? Because sex, like all other physical desires, will at some point become boring. When it does, it takes more or someone else to make it spine-tingling again.
Sex will disappoint Christians who wait as well. This is part of the problem with abstinence approaches that promise, “If you wait until marriage, you’ll have better sex.” I’m the first to admit there’s a strong case in the psychological literature about the benefits of married sex, and I think we should tell people about them. But sometimes in our desire to get people to follow the Bible’s teachings, we use a sales pitch the Bible never promised. The reason to have sex only with your spouse is because marriage is a God-ordained mystical unity. Marriage teaches us to love the way God loves us, which we can’t do if sex (and our marriage) is all about us. If the best reason to wait is to have mind-blowing sex later, then sex is still worshipped more than God, and the minute it gets boring, we’re not only disappointed, but we also feel lied to and robbed.
When a couple centers their life and marriage on God, they don’t take sex as seriously. They don’t have a “duty” to have mind-blowing sex; they can pull it off the throne and put it back in its proper place. Then they are free to discover its unexpected surprises and a mojo that can last throughout the years.
Ask Them How They Are Doing
We ask our emerging adult children awkwardly direct questions about how they are preparing for the sexual temptations in their romantic relationships. My wife, Laurie, and I found it hard dating for four years; we have to talk about it if our kids are going to make it six more.
I ask my boys, “How’s your car running? What’s your plan to stretch your money until you start your summer job? And how are you doing keeping your hands to yourself?” They don’t even flinch at the question anymore.
Times have changed and sex is the most important topic the church must address to help people find a vibrant faith. I’ve asked us to start talking about sex and marriage in a way that helps people discover the God who gave us our sexuality and knows what to do with it. That’s the only thing that will help us get to 28, or 88, if we never marry.
Haydn Shaw is a minister who speaks to and consults with churches and other organizations to help them grow. He is founder of People Driven Results and is a leading expert on helping different generations work together. For more about this topic, see chapter 10 of his book Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Are the Problem, and the Future Is Bright, from which this article is adapted. Learn more about generations in the church and find free resources at http://christianityisnotdying.com.