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Christian parents and churches need to face up to a problem long hidden in the dark: Evangelical teenagers are just as sexually active as their non-Christian friends.
In fact, there is evidence that evangelical teenagers on the whole may be more sexually immoral than non-Christians. Statistically, evangelical teens tend to have sex first at a younger age, 16.3, compared to liberal Protestants, who tend to lose their virginity at 16.7. And young evangelicals are far more likely to have had three or more sexual partners (13.7 percent) than non-evangelicals (8.9 percent).
What about abstinence pledges? Those work-for a while-delaying sex on an average of about 18 months, with 88 percent of pledgers eventually giving up their vow to remain virgins until marriage.
These are the findings of sociologist Mark Regnerus, himself a Christian, published in his new book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
It isn't that evangelical teenagers do not know any better. Some 80 percent of teenagers who say they have been "born again" agree that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. Still, as many as two-thirds of them violate their own beliefs in their actual behavior.
We can blame the culture. Regnerus gives evidence that correlates the sexual activity in the schools that Christian kids go to with their own behavior. Peer pressure is real, and Christian teenagers are not immune.
But might we also blame the culture of the church? Not only because so many of today's evangelical churches follow the path of cultural conformity as a way to grow bigger and bigger. It goes deeper than that.
Churches used to teach and exemplify self-control, the necessity of keeping one's emotions in check, the discipline of self-denial and mortification of the flesh. Today the typical evangelical church, in its example and practice, cultivates "letting go," emotionalism, self-fulfillment, and an odd religious sensuality.
The Bible is utterly realistic about the weakness of our fallen flesh. The law alone and external restrictions cannot make anyone righteous. We need Christ for that. An encouraging finding of Regnerus is that the 16 percent of American teenagers who say that their faith is "extremely important to their lives" are living chastely.
Evidently, many "evangelical" and "born again" teenagers still need to be evangelized. They need to be brought closer to Christ, so that a growing faith can bear fruit in better conduct.
And the Bible does offer a direct solution for people who are burning in lust: marriage (1 Corinthians 7:9). Adolescence-that time when a person is physically an adult but socially a child-is a modern invention. In the past, people married much younger, as soon as they were sexually ready. Today's culture postpones marriage while stretching celibacy to the breaking point.
A counter-cultural church may do well to encourage younger marriages. The young couple may still need the financial support of their parents and the social support of their fellow Christians. But this would be better than the current hypocrisy and guilt. And it would fulfill God's positive purpose for sexuality.