Youth growing up in many Mennonite churches could be forgiven for thinking that homosexual sex is the only kind of intercourse people have, because that’s the only kind many congregations discuss.
Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible, religion and philosophy at Goshen College, Ind., says that congregations have been so focused on gay and lesbian relationships that they have missed an opportunity to discuss intimacy with heterosexual youth and young adults.
“If I’m heterosexual, I get no guidelines for how to think about my body, sex, sexuality and relating to the other sex,” he says. “That’s a really bizarre thing.”
While some churches, families or youth groups do a good job, many ignore the uncomfortable subject to the possible detriment of future relationships. “I don’t know how we can imagine, as a church, that our people are going to grow up to be healthy sexual beings in congregations if the church does not talk about sexuality at all during their adolescent years,” he says.
While the topic may make some parents or pastors squirm, many youth have questions the church won’t answer.
Giesbrecht says that even when we don't explicitly talk about sex, we are still communicating our values.
What to talk about?
The conversation in many churches may focus on homosexual relationships, but youth and young adults often have different priorities.
Twenty years ago, Graber Miller promised himself that he wouldn’t give presentations on sexuality if he could not speak about masturbation. While he says that the majority of men and women self-pleasure, including those in relationships, many wonder if it’s okay or feel tremendous guilt about it—something he aims to alleviate.
He usually links that discussion to one about pornography because for many people the two are closely linked. While Graber Miller affirms masturbation, he is against pornography, arguing that it exploits women and can create unrealistic expectations for relationships. He advocates separating masturbation from pornography in order to foster healthier relationships.
In the past, students have come to him, saying, “I’m in a relationship now really for the first time with somebody I really care about, and I’m finding that my past addictions to pornography are affecting the way I’m relating to the person I’m dating, and I don’t want to be that kind of person,” Graber Miller says.
When serving as youth minister for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan, Anna Rehan also gained an understanding of what youth and young adults want to know, and masturbation is one of many items on the list. She says that many questions are practical in nature, such as:
• At what point in a relationship should you or shouldn’t you have sex?
• Is it okay to live with a partner before marriage?
“Those are realities that they’re asking because that’s what’s out there,” says Rehan, who is now retired but serving on an interim basis until July.
Wendy (Harder) Eisler also encountered youth with a lot of practical questions throughout her 17 years in youth ministry. “When they start dating, that becomes their world and so they have tons of questions,” she says. “I guess to me there wasn’t ever a topic that was taboo.”
Eisler says that sometimes kids just need a safe space to raise questions they are embarrassed to ask their friends or parents. Having open communication allows teens to understand what their friends are talking about, and then to form their own opinions.
Both Eisler and Graber Miller stress to youth that there are stages of intimacy in relationships, and encourage them to consider the significance of each one. Eisler provided youth with a pamphlet that described different stages of intimacy, and placed the talk in a series of Bible studies on relationships.
Graber Miller often distributes a list of approximately 40 intimate behaviours, from simple things like holding hands all the way to intercourse. He wants to remind youth that there are many acts of intimacy before sex that can have a significant impact on their lives and relationships. “What I want us to get away from is, to think that sex, having sex, is genital-genital sexual intercourse only. To me, there are broader forms of sexual behaviours that involve genitalia that are morally significant and that should not be entered into lightly,” he says.
When it comes to guidelines about sex, there are variations in what leaders will suggest. While Graber Miller says he is realistic that not all young people will save sex for committed, publicly affirmed relationships, he still presents that as the ideal.
Rehan says that she wants to affirm sex in a committed relationship, warning youth against recreational sex, which she says is harmful over time: “I think that would be our concern . . . to let kids know that you’ve got these impulses and it feels good for the moment, but what are some of the long-term effects that that can have and how healthy is it in the long run?”
Eisler always made clear to the youth where she stood, but remained open to talking with those who didn’t do the same. “What I learned early on in dealing with teenagers is, if you do draw the lines in the sand and you create things really black and white, they stop talking to you.”
Kathy Giesbrecht, associate director of leadership ministries for MC Manitoba and a long-time youth pastor, took a similar approach to encouraging a dialogue with youth. When teaching Sunday school, she tries to give them some guidelines, but doesn’t set out strict rules, even though that’s what some parents might prefer. “We want to help our kids think . . . and understand, and so giving them guidelines for a variety of scenarios isn’t probably our most helpful strategy,” she says.
How to have the conversation
Once a congregation decides to talk with youth about sex, it faces another significant hurdle: How to bring it up.
Both Eisler and Graber Miller suggest bringing in a facilitator from the congregation or community who is familiar with the topic, such as counsellors, social workers or doctors.
Graber Miller has also asked youth to write down questions on the topic ahead of time to diffuse some of the tension. Youth groups can also watch popular movies, then discuss “what kind of messages are being communicated and how is that similar to, or different from, what you hear from the church and from your school and from your peers,” he says.
Giesbrecht suggests bringing in couples or individuals in different stages of life to share about their experiences in adolescence and adulthood, and the stages of their relationships. “That has been helpful because it often will normalize experience, and kids will just see people in the congregation differently,” she says. She has also found that holding both co-ed sessions and separate ones for women and men helps some youth feel safer to voice their questions or concerns.
Youth assemblies or provincial retreats are also good opportunities to have a guest speaker start the conversation. Then youth leaders can pick up the discussion in smaller groups.
Janna Wiebe, youth pastor at Springfield Heights Mennonite Church, Winning, and a session planner for this year’s youth assembly, says there will be talks with youth about sexuality, although the details aren’t confirmed at this time. “At the 2007 assembly, the seminar on sexuality was the most popular and well-attended seminar of the entire week, which just goes to show that youth crave a safe outlet to talk about and learn more about sexuality,” she says.
While talking with youth is important, both Giesbrecht and Graber Miller suggest that sexuality should also be part of congregational discussions. Hearing about sex, or even relationships, pregnancy, adoption and infertility, would foster healthier congregations and help youth feel more comfortable asking questions. Observing honest discussion from the pulpit “would help youth in the church say, ‘Oh, look the church does talk about sexuality and bodies, and maybe it’s okay for me to talk to people here about them, too,’” Graber Miller says.
Eisler says that to remain relevant to youth, churches need to talk about relationships of all kinds.
Why it’s important
If congregations choose not to talk about sexuality from a faith perspective, it’s as good as telling youth that anything they hear from friends or the media is good enough, Rehan says. Instead, she says congregations could say, “Here’s another way of thinking about it as Christians. As a child of God, how do we look at this whole picture?”
Some parents, teachers or youth leaders may fear they will encourage more sexual behaviour by talking about it, but Graber Miller says that is unlikely. “We’re not going to make them want to rush out and engage in something,” he says. “They are exposed to this all the time in other kinds of ways. They just haven’t had a chance to think about them from a faith perspective or from an ethical perspective.”
Furthermore, he says that if the church wants to remain relevant, it cannot ignore the issue. “The church will become increasingly irrelevant to youth if they’re not talking about sex and sexuality,” he says.
While Giesbrecht agrees that discussions with youth are important, she firmly believes congregations need to foster conversations about relationships in all age groups. “It’s actually about us as adults, as a whole community, being healthier, and then our children will feel our health,” Giesbrecht says. “They will experience it. That’s the greater gift.”
Giesbrecht says it's important to discuss sex and relationships with the whole church community.