Remember when you first started figuring out your sexual identity? One day you’re strangely obsessed with a “special” someone in a “special” way. Soon you’re awakened to a new world of attraction you didn’t realize was always in front of you.
Then again, perhaps some destructive influences shaped your sense of sexuality much differently. Maybe a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman wasn’t modeled in your home. Maybe certain conversations or pictures warped your sense of the human body. Childhood sexual abuse may have done lasting damage. Such challenges compound from one generation to the next, adding confusion.
Once upon a time, we may have worked with divorced parents who didn’t talk to each other yet shared a common interest in their kids.
Now we work with couples who live together and may want to serve in our ministry. Perhaps a student’s actual parent is less involved than a stepparent’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Same-sex relationships are now more accepted, so a homosexual couple may want to partner with you in a teenager’s faith walk.
As the word “family” evolves culturally, we’ve confused what sexuality means. Just because we have something to say doesn’t mean we get an automatic pass into influencing a teenager’s sexuality. We must be formally or informally invited into their lives. That often occurs because of a crisis.
Here are six crises—aka opportunities—that can open doors for talking about sexuality:
1. Household crisis: “My family is going through something.”
During our formative years, we learn what words mean by observing how the people we live with actually live. I experienced this as a preteen when I walked in on one of my parents kissing someone who wasn’t my other parent. You’d better believe that tainted my definitions of love and marriage.
Thankfully, Jesus disrupted that disruption. A few years later, I shared this family baggage and more with my youth worker. He walked me through the true definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13—a passage so familiar that we tend to overlook its revolutionary power.
Every family-based issue—whether it’s a divorce, a same-sex affair, uncovered incest, parental abandonment, etc.—will feel unique to the teenager experiencing it. Yet the Bible’s timeless truths can help teenagers cope with the trauma, reset any circumstance, and process their sexuality amid it all.
2. Personal crisis: “I’m going through something.”
Susan (not her real name) said she had something huge to share, but her initial confessions were rather mild. “I get picked on at school.” she said. “Is it okay to hate people back?”
I realized this was a test. How I responded would either shut down or open up the conversation. Through reflective listening and sharing how Jesus navigated similar temptations, I demonstrated I was “all in.” Susan then shared a slightly deeper topic, then another, and another.
Finally we arrived at the real whammy: Susan was sorting through same-sex curiosity. I kept listening while leaning into the Holy Spirit for timing and perspective. This teenager didn’t need a sermon but rather a nugget of wisdom tethered to Jesus. In that particular conversation, the nugget was this: Sexual curiosity doesn’t equal sexual orientation. We discussed how our culture is quick to say the former is the latter.
That’s why circling back to Jesus is so important. Either our sense of identity forms our perspective of Christ or we let Christ form our sense of identity. As Bob Goff says, “Don’t let who you were keep you from who you’re becoming.”
3. Relational crisis: “My relationship is going through something.”
In a pizza place, a teenage guy revealed that he’d just been dumped by his girlfriend. He was a bright Christian and a strong leader, but this had really broken him.
“How many times have you eaten here?” I asked.
The question caught him off guard. “Maybe 20.”
“What do you think of the lights?” I pointed to the overhead lighting shaped like pizza slices.
“I’ve never noticed them before,” he chuckled.
“What if Jesus has something to show you through this relationship ending that you haven’t yet seen? Maybe something huge and bright requires looking up instead of down.” It was the nugget of hope this young man needed to hear…and I recalled it aloud six years later while officiating his wedding to a godly woman.
4. Peer crisis: “My friends are going through something.”
Teenagers often figure out their own values regarding relationships and sexuality because of what their friends experience. It might be the couple whose antics are watched like a reality TV show or the single person everyone tries to match up. This is a great opportunity to debrief the deeper takeaways—not by gossiping but by deconstructing the drama and reconstructing a relational journey rooted in Jesus.
5. Cultural crisis: “My world is going through something.”
My two teenage sons and I regularly watched a show where a main character came out as gay. In another show, the main character moved in with his girlfriend. Both plots were presented as if viewers should merely accept them “as is” without kicking back. I invited my boys to kick back with me anyway, even if it meant no longer watching those shows.
Our culture’s music, movies, shows, videos, books, and games all present a worldview. Even if it’s hidden in quick dialogue, we slowly absorb it. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “If Jesus wrote the script, what might he have done differently?” It’s not meant to shove Christian morals down students’ throats but to explore God’s joyful creativity within his original plan for people. That’s the real plot for our lives that we can reclaim.
6. God crisis: “My faith is going through something.”
At some point, the “Jesus thing” will wear off. Not Jesus but the “Jesus thing.” You know the difference, but students may not. I learned this the hard way as a rookie youth worker when a student (after four years of attending church) said she didn’t think she was a Christian. For an hour, I tried to convince her she was. In truth, I should’ve noted she was leaving for college in a week. She admitted she was looking forward to partying and hooking up with guys. Maybe her faith crisis had more to do with that than a theological debate.
During these critical years of figuring things out, students need to be surrounded by the body of Christ. That’s a big reason Jesus created the Church. When teenagers feel a disconnect or face a hurdle, your love and presence reminds them of Jesus’ love and presence.
What do you think? Can you share any breakthroughs or hurdles we can learn from?
– Tony / @tonymyles