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One of the biggest turning points in my Christian life happened when I learned how to read the Bible. I was about 15 or 16. Up until that point, my devotional life had consisted of opening up my Bible to a random page and reading until I felt like I’d been inspired or learnt something. Or if I needed some particular issue sorted I’d open up my Gideons Bible to the bit at the back with the verses for specific situations. I always loved reading those ‘greatest hits’ verses of the Bible. It was like getting a muffin and just picking all the chocolate chips and eating them. Who needs the muffin when you can just enjoy the chocolate?
But then I read a book on prayer and the author was describing what his morning devotional time was like. The author said that he would read through one book of the Bible at a time. Each day he would read a small amount, reflect on it, and then spend some time in prayer. The next day he’d read a little more, reflect on it, then spend time in prayer. He would do this every day until he had finished that book of the Bible, then he’d move onto the next book. MIND BLOWN! It had never occurred to me to treat the Bible like a collection of books, rather than just a collection of wise sayings and random stories. I started following the author’s example and suddenly the Bible came alive! Books made sense from beginning to end. Over the next few years, I read the whole Bible and was excited to discover that the Bible itself had one big story that it was telling from beginning to end. Instead of just eating the chocolate chips, it was like the time when I discovered you could microwave a chocolate chip muffin and those hot, melted pockets of chocolate worked in perfect harmony with the muffin. They were better together!
I’m saying all this because in youth ministry I have found that helping young people get excited about the Bible is one of the hardest but most important jobs to help establish young people in lifelong, growing, robust faith. Anything that can help them discover what I discovered about the Bible when I was a teenager is pure gold – which is why I’m so excited about my mate Chris Morphew’s new book Best News Ever.
Best News Ever is a book of 100 daily reflections working through the book of Mark from beginning to end. It’s designed to help late primary and early high schoolers read and understand the book of Mark. Unlike the normal devotionals that we often give young people that have a bunch of inspiring prooftexts or an author’s selection of Bible passages to give encouragement in whatever theme the devotion is covering, Best News Ever divides Mark’s gospel into 100 easily manageable chunks and offers a short reflection on each passage. Each reflection helps the reader grasp the teaching of the passage and places it in the context of the story of Mark and the big picture of the Bible. Each day also gives the reader a question or two to consider and apply, followed by a short prayer. This is a book that treats its readers like capable young theologians, able to understand difficult concepts and big themes and then apply them to their lives. Even after having spent years studying the book of Mark, I found myself getting surprised and excited as Chris shows how Mark has brilliantly put the story of Jesus together.
Chris sent me the first forty days of the book to read last year. I loved it and couldn’t wait to get the final sixty days, even though I was pretty sure I knew what happened at the end. I got the full book when it came out last month, and read them over the last few weeks – I wasn’t disappointed. This book is great! And I’m not just saying that – I’ve ordered a bunch to give to the younger kids in my youth group when we get back in the new year.
Best News Ever won’t just teach young readers what’s in Mark, it’ll teach them how to read Mark and the Bible in general. This could be the book to set them up as lifelong readers of the Bible, which is exactly what we want for them. To use my mediocre metaphor one last time: it’ll show them they can enjoy the whole muffin, not just the chocolate chips.
Best News Ever can be bought from all the good booksellers. For a sample and lots of store links head to: http://chrismorphew.com/best-news-ever
Have you ever looked at my stuff online and thought ‘That guy loves himself. He’s always trying to promote himself. What a tool.’? If you haven’t, I certainly have. I really don’t like self-promotion. I do self-promotion, but it always leaves me feeling a little bit dirty.
When you’re an author there is a pressure to promote yourself, to build a platform, to create content, to have a presence on social media. You keep hearing that publishers will be more interested in you if you have a platform. Being self-published, I need to promote myself, or at least my books, or no-one will know they exist. If no one knows about them, what’s the point of having them at all?
Why did I choose to self-publish? While the answer to that is a longer blog post for another week, the short answer, in terms of self-promotion, is that I was going to have to do self-promotion either way, so why not just do it myself? Still, I hate having to sell myself to the world.
When I was a young preacher, I knew I really wanted to get opportunities to preach. Especially to preach in places with big stages and big crowds. I knew that, while part of me was interested in people hearing about Jesus, a lot of me was interested in people hearing about Jesus from me. So I determined not to offer to preach anywhere, only to accept invitations to preach. The only time I broke this rule was when I moved to a new church and let them know I was available if they wanted me.
If you’ve seen my social media you might have noticed that I don’t stick to that rule anymore. If I’m travelling to Sydney, I’ll often let people know that I’m available to preach in case they want me. A few years ago I decided that if I have been gifted by God to communicate his word in a way that encourages others in their faith or helps people commit themselves to Jesus, then I should make myself available for people to make use of my gifts.
Still, I get uncomfortable doing this. It still feels a bit self-promotional. I’d rather things just happened organically. And I often wonder if I should just leave things be – if people want me for something they’ll contact me.
What is at the core of my discomfort? I would like to say that it’s my abundance of humility, but I suspect that actually, it’s pride. When I see people doing really overt self-promotion, especially Christians, I cringe. I think ‘Pull your head in, mate. You’re not Kanye, and not even Kanye is Kanye these days’. I don’t want people to look at me, and think ‘That’s the guy who is always just tooting his own horn and pushing his own barrow.’ I want people to look at me and say ‘Wow! What a funny, but self-effacing guy. He’s not like those other try-hards who promote themselves all over social media.’
So when I hold back from promoting myself, it’s pride. And when I promote myself, it’s pride.
I’m pretty sure there are plenty of us dealing with this. Social media has turned us all into self-promoters. What are we meant to do?
For me, I don’t think the solution, currently, is to just get off social media altogether, but perhaps it will be in the future. Nor is it to just let other people promote me and my stuff because I’m too ‘humble’ to do it myself, though perhaps I shouldn’t write that off either (without the false humility bit).
While I haven’t found the solution there are some things that I have found helpful:
Cheer everyone on
When I see people doing things that I want to be doing, I have to remind myself that what matters is not that I get to do it but that it gets done. If I want people to hear about Jesus then it doesn’t matter who they hear about him from. So when I encounter the twang of jealousy, I try to encourage the person if I know them or speak positively about them if I don’t. Sometimes, when I think of it, I pray for them and their ministry too. I’ve found it helps me get excited about the work of the kingdom above my work for the kingdom.
I also remind myself that other people probably look at me and the things I get to do and get jealous. So however mediocre, inadequate, unsuccessful and sinful I feel, I suspect the people I envy feel similarly.
Remind myself that Elijah had a ministry to ravens
In 1 Kings 17, before Elijah has become the great prophet, God calls him to hang out in a valley with some ravens before hanging out with a widow and her son. None of this is glamourous ministry, but it’s what God had for Elijah to do at that time, and so that was enough. By God’s grace, I have a ministry to more than ravens, but if I have peaked in terms of worldly ministry success, then that’s ok. If from now on only birds read my books (which would be weird because birds can’t read) I’ll need to be ok with that.
Don’t bury my treasure
In the parable of the bags of gold the ‘wicked servant’, unlike his good investing counterparts, takes the resources he’s been given by the master and buries them in the ground out of fear of the master. When the master gets back and discovers his servant has done nothing with what he’s been given the master isn’t impressed. We don’t have to be afraid of God, like the servant was, because God isn’t like the hard master. So shouldn’t that make us all the more eager to use what we have been given for the sake of God’s kingdom while we wait for Jesus’ return?
God has given me the gifts he has, he’s given me the platforms I have, he’s given me the time I live in, he’s given me the education I have, and the personality I possess. All these things are given to me to use for him. He hasn’t given them to me so I can bury them out of some false humility and fear of man. No, he expects me, with his help, and the help of others, to navigate the challenges of this era of ministry that I’m in – where you can have a ministry to people all over the world without leaving your house and you can say whatever you want to a potentially giant group of people without the traditional gatekeepers making sure what you’re saying is faithful and helpful. So when I share a book I’ve written, a video I’ve made, or I make myself available to preach, when it’s done for the sake of the kingdom and not my own fame, I’m sharing the treasure that God has given me for the multiplication of his kingdom.
Remind myself that I probably don’t want what I wish for
I regularly daydream about what would happen if I sold a million copies of my book. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. In my daydreams, my life stays pretty much the same, but I have a lot more money and people regularly invite me overseas to preach so I also have Gold or Platinum status on Qantas. But when I actually think about what it would be like if I did reach that level of success, I’d have pressure from people wanting more from me than I could give. I’d have thousands of people critiquing me and my theology. I’d have people judging me without knowing me. I’d be feeling the pressure to write the next bestseller or to always have something profound to say. And I’m sure we’ve all noticed what seems like a higher than normal level of moral failure of prominent people in ministry. I don’t need that kind of temptation in life. If I really mean it when I ask God to ‘save us from the time of trial’, success could be one of the things I’m asking him to save me from.
If I’ve had any mantra over the past few years it’s been ‘God calls us to faithfulness, not to success’. So what does faithfulness look like? As a non-exhaustive list, it’s to seek first the kingdom, love my wife, love my neighbour, be diligent in my work, hold fast to the gospel, and leave this world better than I found it. I can have exactly the right, most balanced, and humble promotional strategy but if I don’t have love it’ll just be a clanging gong or a banging cymbal. I could delete Facebook and Instagram and never get on stage and still be the most prideful, self-promoting fool around. Faithfulness asks different questions, not ‘What is the right way to do self-promotion?’ but ’What is the way of love for God and love for others?’ and ‘What builds God’s kingdom over my own?’ If I can keep answering those questions, and keep listening to others as they help me answer them, I should be on an okay path.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured out all this self-promotional stuff. I’m sure I’ll be struggling with pride and vanity till the day I die. On the other hand, I do also know that deeper than my desire to glorify myself is my desire to glorify God and grow his kingdom. I have to trust God that he is at work in me, fixing my heart in all the ways I cannot. God has been working with prideful disciples since he invented humans, I’m sure he can work with me, and in me, too.
And now for the self-promotion. The audiobook for Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed has just come out. If you want that, or any other version of my books, you should definitely get on it.
As you might know, I recently released my second book Talks That Don’t Suck. When we decided on the name for the book, I thought it was great! It’s fun, catchy, and doesn’t promise too much. I’m not going to promise to teach you how to do the greatest talks, I’m just going to teach you how to do talks that don’t suck. That seems achievable.
However, since releasing the book I have felt a lot more ambivalent about the title. I’ve set myself up as the guy who does talks that don’t suck. This is a problem because sometimes my talks aren’t great, and now I’m pretending to be some kind of expert.
A few weeks ago at youth group I did a new talk and it wasn’t that good. On reflection, it was probably a good first draft. If I were to do it again, I reckon I could do a pretty good job, but I shouldn’t really be giving talks that are first drafts. Emily heard it and she said ‘It wasn’t your best’, which my mum helpfully translated for me: ‘That means your talk sucked.’ *
My general experience of ministry is that most of the time you feel like you’ve done a mediocre job (which is hard to judge objectively). Some of the time you objectively know you’ve done a mediocre job. And every now and then you can walk away from whatever event you just ran, talk you gave, or conversation you had, and quietly say to yourself ‘I think I did alright’.
While I’d love to always feel like I’m winning, it’s probably best not to always feel great. That would be a dangerous place to be. I’d have little incentive to improve. I’d probably be pretty proud of myself. I wouldn’t feel the need to pray. I’d be more likely to attribute success in ministry to my amazing skills, rather than the work of God. It doesn’t feel good to feel bad, but too much feeling good might be bad.
So what do you do when you’ve done a talk and you realise it sucked?
One: Relax and trust God
The first thing you should do is relax because, the truth is, God will achieve what he wants through his word. It has been my experience that some of the talks I’ve felt the worst about have had the most profound effects for those who heard it. Who knows, the talk you thought sucked may have been the most powerful talk you’ve ever given. But even if no one got anything out of it, most likely people will just forget everything you said, so you don’t need to stress.
Two: Do post-talk analysis
It is always good to figure out what went wrong. So, listen to the recording, read your notes and ask people for feedback. The best opportunities for growth come from when you make mistakes, so make the most of your sucky talk.
Three: Buy yourself an ice cream
Cheer up, you preached the Bible and preaching is good and important work. So, it wasn’t your best? Don’t punish yourself. Jesus won’t punish you, so why should you? Buy an ice cream, take a nap, watch some TV. Do whatever you normally do to recharge after you’ve preached. God’s kingdom won’t collapse because of you, but if you beat yourself up every time you do a sub-par job you’ll definitely be less effective for the kingdom in the long-run as you operate out of a success/failure mindset rather than one that’s fueled by grace.
Four: Do a better job next time
Finally, use the opportunity to take what you learnt from this experience so you can do a better job next time. Let your striving for improvement be an act of worship. The week after my bad talk, I had another talk to do and it was a lot better than the previous one, partly because the talk the week before wasn’t that good. I tried hard not to make the same mistakes, I wanted to do a better job with God’s word. If you let them, bad talks can beget good talks.
‘But Tom, you don’t understand. I heresy-ed! It wasn’t just a bad talk, it was actively wrong.’
Oh dear. That’s no good, but also not the end of the world. Heresy is a big problem when it’s consistently preached as truth. The people who are regularly preaching heresy generally don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong. They think their lies are truth and they refuse to submit to Scripture. But the person who says the wrong thing and corrects themselves is not really a threat. So if you realise something you said was contrary to what the Bible teaches, fix it next time you preach. You can say something like, ‘You know how last time I said “True Christians don’t suffer from allergies”? It turns out that’s not what the Bible teaches and I appreciate having my error pointed out to me. What the Bible does teach is that in the new creation we won’t suffer from allergies or sickness, but until then, while God can heal people, often we, like Timothy, will have upset stomachs (or noses, or skin, or whatever) which may or may not be improved with wine (1 Timothy 5:23).’ Ok, maybe don’t finish all your clarifications with a suggestion that people drink alcohol – especially if you’re speaking to teenagers. But if you realise you made a significant error, fix it and move on. In fact, your admission of fallibility and your willingness to correct yourself according to the Bible will encourage those listening to you to check your teaching (and others’) against the Bible. In the long run, this will make them less susceptible to false teaching.
Finally, if you realise that every talk you do is terrible (and I mean objectively bad, it’s not just your low-self-esteem talking) then feel free to stop doing talks. Not everyone has to be good at preaching. There is no dishonour in saying ‘I don’t think this is my gift’. If all your talks suck and you decide to pursue other ministry opportunities, I promise, you and everyone else will be relieved. You’ll feel the weight lift off your shoulders and you’ll go on to find a ministry that you truly do not suck at. It’ll be great!
So let your talks suck sometimes. You’ll be ok, your listeners will be ok, your talks will get better and even if they don’t, Jesus will keep loving you – I guarantee it.
* Emily would like me to make clear that she didn’t think my talk sucked. She says she’d tell me if my talk sucked.
Want to make sure your talks don’t suck? I’ll give you my book for free and you can learn all my best ideas. Get it right here: tomfrench.com.au/ttds
On Saturday, Emily and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. I had been hoping to make a bigger deal of the event but Em is in the middle of exams which would just make too much celebrating stressful. We did, however, go to the Rain Room which is an art installation in St Kilda where you stand in a large room full of fake rain with sensors in the ceiling to make sure the rain doesn’t fall on you. It’s like the opposite of those cartoons where a character has a rain cloud just over their head. We also ate cheese for dinner.
Despite not doing much for our anniversary I did think to myself ‘I could write a really romantic blog post’. Every year around our anniversary I have the same thought, but I rarely manage anything. Two years ago I wrote about the things I’ve learnt through marriage and that’s the only other post I’ve done. Once again I haven’t managed the super romantic post, but I am going to provide you all with some really practical, hard-won advice for having a great marriage (though you can apply many of these tips for success to most relationships – boyfriend/girlfriend, friend/friend, boss/employee, US President/Ukrainian President).
One: If your wife’s name is Emily, don’t call her Emma
It turns out wives like to be called by the correct name.
Two: Cling to the conviction that your own farts are always funny, but your spouse’s are disgusting
This is one of the few times where double standards are acceptable.
Three: Learn how to make coffee, even if you don’t drink it
As the sayings go ‘Caffeinated wife, happy life’ and ‘Coffeed husband, blah, blah, wusband!’
Four: Be your partner’s biggest cheerleader
Except when it comes to their farts, then be your own biggest cheerleader.
Five: Keep an up to date database of films and TV shows under embargo
Just because you haven’t watched Jessica Jones in over 18 months doesn’t mean you’re allowed to watch it by yourself yet.
Six: Be so biased about how good your spouse looks that you’re useless at giving fashion advice
You: ‘You look great!’
Spouse: ‘This top has vomit stains on it.’
You: ‘But you know how to make it work!’
Seven: Instagram polls are a good way to build engagement with your followers but a bad way to decide things like whether a new TV is a legitimate way to spend the money you’ve been saving for a house deposit
They’re also bad for anything concerning fertility.
Eight: Marriage books won’t teach you about meme etiquette but you ignore it at your own peril
For instance, never leave memes from your spouse unread, or worse – read and unreacted to. Also, if you see a meme you know your spouse will appreciate, you are obliged to share it with them.
Nine: Tell your partner you love them regularly
Turns out saying ‘I love you’ is not a once and done event. It should happen at least at birthdays, anniversaries, and whenever Donald Trump tweets.
Ten: Bluey, the kids’ TV show about a family of dogs, is actually pretty good
Okay, that’s not really a marriage tip. But check it out – it’s a good show and each episode is only seven minutes long, so you can binge-watch five episodes and still feel like a functional human being.
There you go, friends. If I’ve just saved your marriage, you can thank me by sending cash or Lord of the Fries gift-cards. Watch now as the publishing houses beat down my door to write the next bestselling book on marriage.
Also, Emily, if you’re reading this, I love you, happy anniversary and can you pick up some milk on the way home?
On a completely different note, did I mention I have a new book out? Get it for free here: tomfrench.com.au/ttds
Or get my other book Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude here: tomfrench.com.au/wcfn
So you have to speak to a bunch of teenagers about Jesus, but you have no idea what you’re doing. Don’t worry, if you follow my tips you can be the most dynamic youth speaker around. In fact, I’ve used these tips to coach thousands of people just like yourself to youth ministry fame and glory – some of them have even been featured on Preachers N Sneakers. If you listen to me, in no time you’ll be strutting the stage of Jesuspalooza sharing the good word to the young folk till the only influencer they want to hear from is you (and maybe Jesus).s.
1. Throw Chocolates (and Xboxes) into the Crowd
Let’s face it, Bible talks are boring, but free food isn’t. When I’m speaking to a group of youth, whenever I sense a lull in the energy I yell “Who wants some free stuff?” then proceed to throw lollies and chocolates into the crowd. That perks them right up, and fills in about 1-2 minutes while they scramble on the floor trying to grab the food before the others. It’s a great way to keep young people energised. Sometimes, if there is one kid who is especially annoying me, I will through a chocolate bar right at their face to teach them a lesson. If they complain I can just say I was giving them chocolate – you can’t complain about that. It’s like the Bible says, “If your enemy is hungry, give them something to eat.”
One more tip, increase the value of your giveaways throughout the talk. Start with lollies, move up to chocolates, then perhaps try t-shirts or burgers. Finally, throw an Xbox into the crowd; if they know an Xbox is coming, you can be sure they’ll be super attentive to any wisdom you have to lay on them.
2. Talk like a Teenager
There’s nothing teens love more than to hear older people speaking their vernacular. It assures them that person speaking is cool and worth listening to. So here are some words that are popular right now. Throw these into your talk and you are guaranteed to connect with the young people:
Spill the tea
3. Appropriate Good Stories for Yourself
There is nothing that makes a Bible talk pop more than a great story. However, most people don’t have very interesting lives. Chances are, you’re one of those people. But don’t worry, young people haven’t done a lot of schooling yet, so you can often tell a story that happened to someone else as if it happened to you and they won’t know the difference. You may feel like this is lying, but what you’re saying is true, it really happened, you’re just making the truth personal. I’ll give you an example. I was talking to a group of teenagers and told them about how I was born and raised in the inner-city, and then one day while I was playing basketball with my friends I got into one little fight, so my Mum sent me off to live with my rich auntie and uncle. I talked about the struggles of being an inner-city kid having to live in a rich neighbourhood. That story didn’t happen to me but it did happen to someone. The story was so powerful that many young people gave their lives to Jesus that night.
4. Guilt is Powerful
Some of the most powerful times of ministry happen when young people come down the front after a talk to cry and cry. After the talk you can look at all the crying young people, watching all the powerful walls being broken down and say to yourself “I did that.” But how do you actually make that kind of power ministry happen? Guilt. The best way to get young people to cry en-mass is to make them feel guilty. So go hard on the sins you know they’re committing. Swearing, drinking, skipping school – these are all pretty good. But the most powerful guilt weapon is sex. Talk about lust, porn, french kissing, and worst of all, sex before marriage. If teenagers know anything it’s that they should feel guilty about sex. So make sure you bring up their sin and yell at them telling them God is angry and wants them to repent! Then invite any young people down the front who want to stop making God angry. I guarantee you’ll have so many tears you’ll get a pay rise, and many young people will commit to leaving all their sin behind. (On a side note, if you’re planning to take an offering, play a song about being set free after your prayer time and ask for money then. Your audience will give out of relief that they are never going to sin again – you can’t put a price on perfection.)
5. Less Bible More Great Quotes and Power Phrases
The Bible is a pretty good book, but it was written a long time ago before people had Instagram or phone lock screens to put inspirational quotes on. So if you want your talk to engage young people not just while you’re giving it, but for a long time after, make sure it’s full of quotes and catchphrases that they can share with their friends. Let me give you some examples, Jesus said “Love your enemies”, which is fine, but you can say “The best revenge is success!” Both deal with the issue of enemies but see how one is more shareable than the other?
Another example: the Bible says “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” That’s an alright message but quite exclusive. But what if in your talk you riffed on “The work of God is to believe.” And then you can say “Believe in your family, believe in your friends, believe in your dreams, and believe in yourself! When you believe you’re doing God’s work.” Wow! Powerful! Now you could have everyone stand and shout “I believe.” Goosebumps. And finally, finish with a slide, which you can share as on Instagram which just has the word “Believe” over some mountains. Young people eat that inspirational stuff up! They’ll go home feeling like kings and queens of the world!
Pro-tip: Before giving your talk, have all your best quotes ready to go as shareable social media tiles so as soon as you finish speaking you can share them on all your social media platforms ready for your audience to like, share and regram. Best practice is to have your quotes written over photos of you holding a microphone, so as to maximise your personal brand.
So there you have five powerful tips for awesome youth talks. I promise if you put them into practise, you will change many lives and be a regular on the youth preaching circuit in no time.
Ok, if you haven’t left already because you’re appalled at my terrible advice, I thought I’d let you know that you can get a free copy of my new book, Talks That Don’t Suck: How to Write and Give Bible Talks for Teenagers. It’s full of hopefully good advice. Just fill out the form below to sign up to my mailing list and I’ll send it right along!
Let me just say upfront, this post is about Christian sexual ethics, so if you’re not a Christian, you’re welcome to read this, but please know that this isn’t about you, and I have no expectation that you should have the same view of sex that I have. You, like everyone, are free to choose to do what you want. But feel free just to read this as an interested (or disinterested) third party.
We Christians have a problem with virginity.
A few weeks ago I spent a few days on a school camp. I was the speaker for year nine and my job was to run six sessions talking about sex and relationships. In preparation, I found myself listening to a bunch of Christian books on sex and relationships. In one book (written in 2017) the author described how he and his wife bought purity rings for each of their young daughters to wear on their ring finger to remind them of what they were being taught about relationships. The author’s plan was to give them the rings and tell them that God was going to bring them each a husband who would care for them as he cared for their mother, and they should not give themselves to anyone until that day.
I don’t know how that makes you feel but I felt pretty uncomfortable. Imagine your father giving you a ring that symbolises your sexual purity (which is code for virginity) and then, when you’re older, you sleep with your boyfriend. What are you supposed to do with your ring? Do you keep wearing it and feel like a fraud who is lying to their father, or do you take it off and face the shame of letting your father down? And imagine having to wear a constant reminder of your parents expectations that you save sex till marriage? You don’t have to wear any jewellery to remind yourself not to lie, or you keep yourself from greed, but for some reason sex is given a special role in your life.
Now I know the whole purity ring thing is much more of a deal in the US than it is here in Australia. But virginity isn’t only valued in American Christianity. One of the things that struck me while on camp was that I was asked a number of questions about virginity. “If I do this, am I still a virgin?”, “Is it ok not to be virgin?”, “Will I be the same after sex?”. These students, growing up in Christian culture, had absorbed the same message many of us who have grown up in Christian culture absorbed: virginity is important.
I believe that God’s intention for sex is that it would be kept within marriage, and therefore I think we should wait till marriage to have sex. But as I dealt with these students’ questions I kept coming back to the idea that virginity is the wrong way to think about sexual fidelity. In the Bible, there is an expectation that sex is to be saved for marriage, but it’s not the be all and end all of sexual ethics. You can be sexually unfaithful and still technically a virgin. And you can sleep with someone before you’re married, and still have spent most of your time pursuing faithfulness.
Virginity is somewhat binary. You either you are or you aren’t. If, as Christians, we emphasise virginity, then we run into trouble. You either are a virgin, and you can be proud that you can present your unsullied sexuality to your spouse, or you aren’t, and you feel shame and must seek forgiveness, feeling bad that you cannot offer your spouse your greatest gift of all. Neither outcome is good.
What’s more, if you’re a rape victim, aside from all the other baggage you have to deal with, our Christian preoccupation with virginity can mean you can feel shame and of diminished worth, because of what someone else has done to you! What an absurd burden to have to carry after an already terrible experience.
As Christians we have made too much of virginity. Actually, we as humans have made too much of virginity. You only had to watch a few episodes of Married at First Sight this year to see Matt’s entire character reduced to the fact that he was a virgin. He was referred to as “Virgin Matt” until he had sex and then he became “ex-Virgin Matt”. I was unsure why everyone on the show wasn’t referred to as “ex-Virgin Bryson”, or “ex-Virgin Cam”.
In the secular world, the virginity narrative goes something like this “Have sex when you feel ready, with someone you love. Preferably between the ages of 16 and 20. If you’re a virgin after that, you start to get weird. The longer you go without sex, the weirder you get.” I remember people finding out that I was still a virgin at 30 and they were astounded.
In the Christian world, the virginity narrative goes something like this “Remain a virgin until you get married. Your virginity is the most precious gift to give to your husband/wife.” But as I mentioned above, this only leads to pride or shame. Plus, once a Christian has lost their virginity, what point is there to pursue sexual faithfulness in their obedience to God? You’re damaged goods anyway, so go and do whatever you want, you’ve squandered your special gift anyway. We sometimes send the message, “God can forgive your sin, but you’ll never get your virginity back.”
Considering all this as I spoke to the young people, instead of talking about virginity, I encouraged them to sexual faithfulness. To be honouring their current boyfriends/girlfriends, their future spouse, and their boyfriend or girlfriend’s future spouse. A life of faithfulness is not binary. Faithfulness means pursuing obedience to God, and love for others. If you fail to be faithful, it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t mar you forever. You get forgiven, and you recommit yourself to faithfulness in the future.
The work of Jesus at the cross is not about making us feel shame for our sin, but about freeing us from shame. The shame for what we have done, or what others may have done to us. Jesus invites us to receive forgiveness, healing, and wholeness. Your identity in Jesus is found in being a child of God, not in your virginity. If you follow Jesus, to God you aren’t viewed as a virgin or not, a sexual sinner or not, but as his child. Your purity and value comes from Jesus, not from what you have or haven’t done.
As we teach about sex, we need to talk less about virginity and talk more about pursuing sexual faithfulness – in singleness, in relationships, in friendships, in marriage. Sexual faithfulness encompasses not just not having sex before marriage, but how you treat people you’re not even in a romantic relationship with. It encompasses how you navigate sexual tensions, and power dynamics. We are called to sexual faithfulness towards all people, no matter how we feel about them. Faithfulness is not about pride and guilt, but about pursuing love and honour in all our relationships.
In the end, my main message during the camp was this: “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.” I don’t know how many times I said those words, but I wanted the students to know that no matter what they had or hadn’t done, no matter what had been done to them, no matter who they are attracted to, they are loved. If they can understand that, accepting the love of Jesus, everything else can be sorted out. Understanding Jesus’ transforming love frees you to live a life of faithfulness to others.
We have a problem with virginity, but perhaps we can fix it by calling each other to faithfulness. As we know God’s faithfulness to us, we will know we are loved. As others are faithful towards us, we will receive their love. As we pursue faithfulness towards God and others, we will love. Jesus saves us to freedom. Emphasising concepts like virginity only weighs us down with pride and shame. Faithfulness to Jesus and others sets us free to love the way we were created to.