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Joshua Harris and the ‘Purity Problem’ With Teenagers

We are shorthand people who prefer shorthand solutions to complex problems. That’s true in life, and it’s true in youth ministry. In the past, our shortcut paths to deeper discipleship included…

What Would Jesus Do—”Go beyond your identity as a church-attender and have the courage to live like Jesus. Wearing the bracelet will prove it.”

True Love Waits—”Go beyond cultural expectations and make your mark as a true believer by making a purity pledge. Wearing the ring will prove it.” (In 1994, more than 211,000 pledge cards covered the National Mall in Washington. In 1996, more than 350,000 cards were stacked to the roof of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.)

Because it’s difficult to define “maturity” and “authentic commitment,” we use shorthand markers like these to check those boxes…

“Will you remain a virgin until you’re married? That’s what disciples do.” 

“Will you agree that dating is bad and that courtship is better? That’s what disciples do.”

“You had sex already? No problem—you can become a secondary-virgin and agree to never lust again. That’s what disciples do.”

Of course, shortcuts sometimes end in brick walls. They seem to work, until they don’t.

Along the way, our box-checking mentality left us vulnerable to some bad sales pitches—like 21-year old author Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris gave us everything we thought we wanted to hear: how an extreme approach to romantic relationships can wipe out the moral ambiguity that has crept into our culture, and with one checked box we can simplify our message to teenagers. The book’s skyrocketing sales gave us all the credibility we needed.

But lurking in the shadows was a kind of spiritual dysfunction—like the people of God throughout history, we prefer the “lesser gods” of disciplined moral commitments to an intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus. Now Harris has made headlines after (very publicly) recanting his faith and trashing the foundational premise of his book. In a 2017 Ted Talk, Harris offers a disturbing mea culpa:

“I was religiously zealous, I was certain, and I was restlessly ambitious… I gave the impression that there was really one formula that you could follow… but probably the thing that I regret the most is that there was a lot of fear inside of me that I transferred into my writing, and fear is never a good motive: fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else… fear of sex.”

Of course, Harris needed willing partners to propagate this sham, and he found plenty in many of us. In a subtle way, we leveraged two organic forces in kids’ lives to herd them toward these shortcut paths to discipleship…

  • Teenagers want to fit in. They walk into our youth room wondering, “How do I connect here without looking odd?” How many kids signed purity pledge cards simply because they wanted to fit into the community?
  • Teenagers can’t see the future. No one can, but we forgot this when we promised fallacies like: “If you remain pure until marriage, you’ll have amazing sex when you get married. Christian sex is the best sex.”

So, what are our alternatives to the shorthand and shortcut strategies that tempt us? We need to grapple with the right questions more than adopt a new set of boxes to check…

  • Have we helped our teenagers encounter Jesus Christ as He really is? It’s one thing to make Jesus a promise, and another thing to embrace Jesus in all of His untamable, upending, and box-busting reality. If we are determined to focus on Him and His heart in everything we do, our kids will slowly bend toward “true north” with us… but they won’t see the difference unless we are all-in with Him ourselves. That means if we continue to compartmentalize our pursuit of Jesus into just another box on our to-do list, our teenagers will just “do youth group” and then graduate out of it.
  • What are we really asking them to do? Are we asking our teenagers to white-knuckle a list of moral imperatives or “taste and see” that Jesus is good, leading to a deeper trust in Him? Are we asking them to avoid something or honor something? What if replace “Don’t date!” with a wrestle-question: “What does dating look like when the end goal is for you and that other person to know God better?” Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). This is the “why” behind the “what,” because the more we see of Him, the more we get His heart, and the more we’re naturally inclined to follow His will.
  • Are we teaching about marriage in the metaphoric context Jesus intended? Yes, God created sex for marriage to be a unique, amazing experience of intimacy between a husband and wife. But marriage is more than this—it’s a living metaphor for the intimacy Jesus wants with us. When we demean marriage into a future sexsplosion (and nothing more), we’re setting our teenagers up for heartbreak, disillusionment, and counseling when the promise fizzles. Unwittingly, we’ve taught kids to assume they’re “due” a Christian spouse and kids “for being good.” This is a lie that overlooks the gift singleness can be even now, and it frames their relationship with Jesus as a transaction.
  • How will we fill the gap? The Bible doesn’t say what to do when you can’t stop staring at the hottie in front of you in Algebra, or what to do on your first date. Or… does it? Are these things implicitly clear based on what’s inherently clear? Maybe they’ll see this if we model what it’s like to live in the world but not be of the world—wrestling with the Holy Spirit over what is presented before us, just as Jesus first modeled for us. That means questions like: “What are you clear on regarding how God wants you to treat this person?” and “In light of that, how could you approach dating from a place that honors your relationship with Jesus above all else?”
  • How is purity a bigger, broader issue than just sexual purity? What does “purity” really mean, and how do we experience it? Our natural tendency is to manage and control our purity, instead of receiving it from Jesus like a branch attached to the Vine. Might this be the greater teaching we’ve been missing out on sharing because it’s easier to say “Don’t do that!” than it is to slowly, regularly show students and families how to slow down and root themselves in Christ.

Joshua Harris is no longer Jesus’ purity spokesman—that job was doomed to failure in the first place. Nor does Jesus need a spokesman or a pledge; He wants more of what Paul proclaimed: “I have determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ…” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Jesus does call us to purity, but only after He calls us to Him. Purity retreats and commitments aren’t “bad” unless we pitch them first and Christ second. His expectations for our intimate relationships are impossible without Him… but breathtaking with Him!

Photo by Kristina Litvjak on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Joshua Harris and the ‘Purity Problem’ With Teenagers

  1. Avatar

    While the article makes good points, it tends to lay the blame mostly at teens and their leaders. Additionally, and more importantly, when will we question the “Christian” business sub-culture that promotes, for a profit, books concerts, music, tee shirts, theme park days, et al with little concern to the qualifications of those speaking or the truth and impact of their message. The result of such mass marketing is predictable – it has little resemblance to the “narrow road” Jesus described for his followers – shallow at best, and heading the wrong direction at worst.

  2. Avatar
    DeWayne Strange

    Thanks for this. Sadly, I wish i heard more about this before Harris recanted. Speaking as a teenager who grew up during the mid 90’s, I had this philosophy shoved down my throat repeatedly. Time being the ultimate litmus test, I’ve seen the long-term consequences of this failed-approach visited upon myself and many peers. Fear of sex, feelings of guilt after sex even within the sanctity of marriage, broken family relationships, failed marriages that we’re basically arranged by their parents, etc. Many of us teens were crying out against the legalism that “courtship” and “IKDG” brought down on us. Many, like myself, who entered into vocational youth ministry, have decried this philosophy for years, yet only now, after Harris is “safe” to denounce, do we see articles like this popping up. There were a few, here and there, that tried, but not like recently. Where were these convictions amongst the ministry media then? Over the last 20 years? Why, do we only see voices of conviction speak out when it’s safe? More, so many of these ministry approaches that are touted and promoted by publishing companies, conferences, ministry magazines, websites as the new, best thing, are eventually denounced when the inevitable fallout of human-centered approaches to ministry run their course. Remember the “seeker-sensitive” movement? The “Emergent Church”? The Pastor as CEO model? Why should we trust any “movement” or “method” anymore and why should we keep turning to the “Ministry Leader Community” for guidance on these things?

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Joshua Harris and the ‘Purity P...

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