Touch the Sexual Sinner

Feb 13, 2009 |Mike Ensley

Our ability to redeem the sexual generation will lie in our willingness to live and love with the same kind of daring Jesus did.

Nobody needs to be told about the startling statistics regarding youth and sexuality. A rant about how the media and entertainment industry push the envelope would just be stating the obvious to anyone with ears to listen.

What gets me ranting is the Church's response; all too often living in the definition of insanity in regards to responding to the crisis of our culture. Despite its monumental failure to accomplish anything in the way of personal transformation, too many Christians — worse, those in ministry — seem bent on responding with our most ineffective asset: religion.

Teens get involved in risky behaviors; we expand our list of don'ts. They're drawn to worldly influences; we decry them from the pulpit. The media push the envelope; we boycott. And the numbers get worse every year, the gap between Christians and the troubled next generation growing ever wider.

Having spent some time on either side of that gap, I know the common frustrations of youth and those ministering to them. I've gotten a chance to make both kinds of mistakes, and afterwards learn a thing or two about what is getting lost in translation in the sometimes forbidding world of youth ministry.

Generation Why

I'm one of those disappointing kids. I was a well-mannered, seemingly genuine on-fire-for-God young man who played guitar like every good Christian guy, but nevertheless had privately gotten mired in "the World" (cue ominous sound effect). Sorry, folks, the pastor's son isn't leading worship today. He has a boyfriend now.

It came to a head right around that transition between high school and college, when they say most Christian kids go through a crisis of faith — many of them leaving it behind. Everyone was so shocked (well not everyone) when I came out of the closet. What did shock everyone was that I was embracing it; they thought I knew better. And, well, I did.

Nobody likes to see their hopes for a promising young Believer dashed. What makes it happen? Is it a simple case of choosing one's flesh over Jesus, the world instead of the Body of Christ? There's definitely truth in that, but I don't think it's the whole truth. After all, I wasn't just seemingly on fire for God, I really loved and believed in Him. I was never unconvinced of the gospel.

Why on earth would I slip into "the gay lifestyle," then?

To be frank, the gay community offered something the Church should have, but didn't. I found something among homosexual men that, as far as I knew at the time, Christian men and their God could/would not offer.

I'm not talking about sex, but about intimacy. As wrong as I knew it supposedly was, homosexuality fed my need to be fathered and to experience brotherhood far beyond anything I experienced in the Church up to that time.

I believe most young people who get caught up in sin could say something similar. Sure there's immaturity, selfishness, sin nature and rebellion involved; there always is. But none of that is a reason, only an illegitimate means to acquire what we strive for.

And young people are absolutely striving for intimacy, for identity and for significance. Unfortunately, our post-modern culture often does a better job than we do of addressing it. They don't have the true answers, but at least they are paying attention to the question.

Underestimated

I felt disenfranchised by the Church as a teenager, and to be honest, I have often felt that way as a young adult. Everyone thought they knew me, and that there wasn't much to know. After all, what could be that deep or complicated about a teen guy? I was an insecure, selfish hormone on legs, and no one let me forget it.

One of my best friends in high school, who was of course a girl, had to tell me we couldn't hang out anymore. When I asked why, she bitterly let me know that her parents told her I was a pig who was only interested in her for her body. I thought that was cute, being stereotyped in the completely wrong direction. But isn't that what so many Christians think is all they need to know about young males?

I would say that about 95 percent of the guy-specific ministry I experienced from the teen years on up had to do with managing lust. A vital topic, to be sure, but I often wondered if anyone saw anything else in me, or if anyone could answer my deeper questions about life, relationships, real manhood — which is more than just white-knuckling our way to our wedding night.

My secret struggle with my sexual identity underscored how little was taught to me and my peers about building a godly masculine identity in the first place. I'm sure someone touched on it in a sermon somewhere along the way, but preaching never has a lasting impact on such core, complex parts of a person's being.

And if anyone was going to help me respond healthily to my feelings, they needed to at least acknowledge their reality and validate my experience, not just tell me that sin is sin and feelings don't matter. That's where the self-named "progressives" are one step ahead of Christians; they take time to listen, and they take young people seriously.

Many of those lessons I didn't learn until years later though, in college, when my young adult pastor entered into a true mentoring relationship with me. We did the typical once-a-week meeting at his office with accountability questions and Scripture memory, but he didn't leave it at that. Afterwards he took me home to his family; he let me become part of the family. I've forgotten most of what we read or talked about in our meeting time, but the impact of the intimate involvement in his home is what lasted. That's where my misconceptions about men, women, marriage and family were challenged and ultimately replaced with hope and truth.

He and other men like him who were willing to invest in me relationally showed me that God cared about my deep, long-unmet need for fatherly love and affirmation. When I saw that the cry of my heart mattered to God, and that He had a pure and right way to answer it, I got the strength to break my dependence on homosexuality. Who knows if I ever would have fallen into that sinful life in the first place if relational ministry had been offered to me sooner?

Of course I was a little more relationally open in college than I was as a teenager. The same will be true of most youth. But if teenagers are shallow and immature, I don't think it's necessarily all their doing. Consider most of them have largely been raised by godless government employees — most of them women — who split their attention between them and 40 other students. Not to mention the way our culture panders to stupidity and base desires.

That doesn't mean that real depth, emotion and relational potential aren't all waiting there beneath that thin veneer of whatever image they have adopted. We have to keep believing in it, beyond the pulpit, by intimately investing in their lives — and inviting them to invest in ours.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

I recently read an article by a youth pastor complaining about the unhealthy forms of physical affection he was seeing between guys in his group. This homoerotic intrusion motivated him to institute a new ban (which he encouraged other youth pastors to enforce) against "same-sex PDA's."

His new rule, he said, was that anything deemed inappropriate between a guy and a girl was now also inappropriate between guys. He suggested strict time-limits for hugs; said horseplay is too risky to be allowed. I can see him standing there, stop-watch in hand, totally oblivious to the relational famine that is his real problem.

I probably would not have thrived in such a youth group. Sexual identity issues are the American Church's new leprosy; and while sexual sin in general seems to be our number one enemy, many feel the need to conduct young people through their teen years as if they were running a quarantine camp for highly infectious diseases. Never mind that physical touch is a real human need, and a lot of kids have never experienced it in a healthy and soul-affirming way.

The fact that other guys who knew of my struggle were still willing to hug me, horseplay, and sit next to me without a "buffer" seat between us meant the world to me. The freedom I experienced in those friendships was actually the best defense I had against temptation.

I knew sin was sin — but being told how bad it was never going to set me free; kind of like Paul's dilemma with the Law in Romans 7. Letting go of my unhealthy patterns wasn't possible until I had the freedom to struggle and imperfectly explore the healthy ones.

But why is focusing on the negative so many Christians' default setting in responding to youth? Parents, preachers and youth ministers alike seem always to react to each new crisis with heightened restrictions.

In contrast to my experience, one of the young men I mentored through a local Exodus ministry was practically punished for his struggle. He had never acted on his desires, never wanted to embrace a homosexual identity, but when he confided in his youth pastor he was taken out of the worship band, removed from leadership and told to stay away from children. I shudder to think how they might have dealt with a gay-identified student.

Our ability to redeem the sexual generation will lie in our willingness to live and love with the same kind of daring Jesus did when he dared to speak to — and touch — the lepers, Samaritans and sexual sinners of his day. Unlike the religious folks around Him, I don't think Jesus identified people by their disease, nationality or sin; He looked beyond all that and saw the beautiful potential of what God created, and He called it out by treating them like they were worthwhile.

Working with teens is not an environment that naturally encourages transparency or genuine intimacy, but as the ministers we must bring those things to the table. What little I know of relational living comes from those who moved past my immaturity and made the sacrifice of investing their hearts in me, and believing I could do the same.

Looking back on my troubled, lonely teen years, I believe that's what I was looking for all along. I believe it's the cure that a shallow, sin-saturated new generation is crying out for.

Our youth have hearts that need pursuing. If we don't go after them, there are other people out there who will.

Copyright 2008 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.

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