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You did everything right.

You had your son read a variety of books by well-known authors on the subject of purity. You took him to purity conferences. You had him listen to purity lectures from his youth pastor. You even bought him a purity ring and watched him participate in a special ceremony where he signed a covenant to stay pure. He was informed, and he seemed fully committed to remaining pure until he married.  And yet…

…he didn’t.

A recent article from Relevant Magazine revealed some disturbing statistics. According to a survey by Christian Mingle and JDate in their “2014 State of Dating in America,” 87 percent of those surveyed said they would have sex before marriage. And according to research from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that was referenced in the story, 80 percent of the unmarried evangelical Christians surveyed said that they have already had sex.

These numbers are startling when you consider that churches, Christian schools, homeschool groups, and a variety of other Christian organizations, are regularly promoting physical purity through sermons and conferences. And most teens have read at least one of the many bestselling books on purity that have flooded the market in recent years.

Why is it then, with so much information available to young people, that the statistics for premarital sex among Christians are so high? Quite obviously, the messages from all these lectures and books are not reaching their hearts. But why?

After some recent conversations with my own kids (ages 16 to 23) who have shared with me portions of their conversations with their peers, and after listening to some thoughts from other young people that I know, I have come to some conclusions.

First, some kids who have grown up in Christian homes are simply not Christians. They haven’t accepted the faith of their parents so why would they accept the behavior related to that faith? They may act the part of a Christian for a while, but as they grow older and begin to acknowledge their nagging doubts about Christian doctrine and sexual ethics, much of their childhood teachings are rejected, purity included.

Secondly, some kids are Christians but they have not learned self-control. They know sex before marriage is wrong, and they know about the damaging consequences of sex outside of marriage, but they are not emotionally or spiritually strong enough to fight against their sexual urges when placed into a situation of temptation. They want to remain pure but have not thought through the necessary preventative steps to be successful. And with a culture that is so permissive and that so easily draws young people into its web, it really isn’t any wonder that they fall.

My third conclusion is that teens and young adults are tired of the purity movement. Most young people that grow up in the church have heard the purity message their entire lives. They know about STDs and unplanned pregnancies. They know about the emotional pain and guilt that accompanies pre-marital sex. They’ve heard it since they were small and they are sick of parents and pastors hammering away at them with the same old message. And for some, all the sex talks they hear only serve to make them feel rebellious. As one young man said, “All the purity talks are only giving us more of an incentive to have sex, purely out of defiance.”

And this ties into my fourth conclusion, which is that some parents have not earned the respect of their children and therefore their counsel is not heeded. Parents often fail to make the effort to understand and befriend their kids. Conversations between parent and child habitually consist of scolding over some chore or assignment that hasn’t been completed, or a stale lecture on morality. This continual criticism, and what the kids perceive as nagging, results in bitterness and anger on the part of the kids, and rebellion toward their parents.

Youth pastors and purity speakers don’t fare much better. Their hearts are in the right place in that they desire to connect with the youth and minister to them, but they try to make the connection by acting cool. They tell jokes and humorous stories in hopes that the kids will relate to them and listen to their message, but in the eyes of the kids, they are just another trendy looking thirty-something guy trying to act young and cool. His stories might be good for a laugh, but his message about not sleeping with a girlfriend or boyfriend before marriage simply isn’t getting through.

So if our current methods for teaching purity are failing, what can we do instead to reach young people? Here are some of my thoughts.

First, we need to recognize that most young people know a lot about sex at an early age. Unless they have been raised in a secluded environment with little contact with other kids, they know about birth control, pregnancy, and STDs. We still need to have conversations with them about sex, but we shouldn’t think that they are ignorant. Parents and pastors should understand that by the time most kids go to a purity conference they are not hearing new information. And for a lot of kids, purity conferences are broken records.

Next, as parents, we need to build relationships with our kids so that they will talk to us about their feelings and struggles. We need to be honest in our dealings with them, never giving them cause to point to us with the accusation of hypocrisy. And we should work toward being their best friends and confidants, people they can go to for counsel and encouragement. Our role as parents is to partner with our kids in the battle for purity, but we can only do that if they view us as allies, not enemies.

Parents also need to understand that they are not helping their kids to win the battle by following a restrictive method of courtship or dating that prohibits young people from being alone together. So often parents think that if they can get their kids to the altar still sexually pure, that their parental mission has been accomplished. But if parents haven’t given their kids the tools of self-control, if their kids were only kept from sexual sin because of a lack of opportunity to sin, then they are merely exchanging the threat of fornication for the threat of adultery.

Our youth leaders also need to re-consider their methods. First, they need to realize that kids don’t need funny stories. They don’t need another cool guy giving another sex talk. They need mentors that will pour their energy and love into them. They need someone to take them to lunch or to the movies or to a concert. Someone who will just let them talk and will listen to them rather than preach at them. The mentors who have the most impact in the lives of teens are the ones who invest their time on a one-on-one basis, not who stand on a platform telling them the many reasons they shouldn’t have sex.

Finally, it is essential that we understand that purity is not just a physical issue; it is an issue of the heart. Successful sexual purity is the result of a heart that desires to obey God, so we need to first and foremost reach our kids with the gospel, and then follow-up with a comprehensive education of Scripture. And once they have made a true and heartfelt profession for Christ, we won’t have to rely on conferences or ceremonies or pledges because the natural consequence of a heart sold out for Christ is a desire for righteousness. And when righteousness is a young person’s chief object, the battle for purity will be one step closer to being won.

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