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Teens, churches & families redefine the courting scene


ATLANTA (BP)–Whenever love is in the air, many youth these days are saying “not so fast.”

In sexual abstinence programs such as True Love Waits and books such as “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” the rules continue to change — for the better — for many youth as they explore relationships with the opposite sex.

And waiting for marriage is not just for teens. Even some single adults already in the workforce are embracing chastity as the new norm that defines their dating code.

Churches have incorporated a variety of approaches into their ministries to help their youth remain sexually pure until their wedding day. Many of those approaches have gained traction in the secular world and are resulting in reduced levels of teen pregnancies and abortions.

For the past several years, teens have accounted for nearly 1 million pregnancies, most of them unplanned. And, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal last fall, taxpayers have been paying as much as $20 billion annually to financially support families started by girls 17 years old and younger.

When the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy set a goal in 1996 to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by one-third in 2005, proponents acknowledged it was a formidable challenge. But that goal was reached in November when the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control reported that the birth rate among girls between the ages of 10 and 14 had fallen to its lowest level in nearly 60 years.

Thus, abstinence has gained credibility as a valid method of birth control. Many youth ministers have been at the forefront of that movement, teaching that God requires holiness of believers and sexual purity is an important part of an unmarried Christian’s daily walk.

While some teach the True Love Waits approach pioneered by LifeWay Christian Resources (www.lifeway.com/tlw), others have blended the material with newer offerings and still others have written their own curricula.

Bill Hughes, youth minister at First Baptist Church of Tifton, Ga., has written material for LifeWay that serves as companion pieces to the TLW curriculum. His two booklets — “Living Pure Inside Out” and “Souled Out” — provide added content that teaches teens how to remain pure through spiritual discipline.

“From my perspective, I felt that some teens were focusing more on the emotional appeal of signing a pledge card in February (the traditional month when TLW is stressed in coordination with Valentine’s Day) but did not have the spiritual foundation to help them remain pure the other 11 months of the year.

“I just wanted to help those teens find that spiritual strength to help them deal with the temptations and peer pressure that they face throughout the year,” he said. “Youth don’t think logically, they think with their emotions. I base our approach less on logic and more on Christ-controlled emotions. I am convinced that the key to remaining sexually celibate is having emotions that are in check with biblical perspectives.”

Hughes’ approach also includes a pact between teens and their parents and includes a place on the pledge card where parents commit to support their son or daughter on their quest to remain pure.

“Seven of our students have been married since June and I know for a fact, based on their testimony, that all seven were virgins on their wedding day. Some had been dating for years and could easily have crossed that line, but they didn’t. They tell us that when they and their boyfriend or girlfriend placed Christ at the center of their relationship, they discovered that sexual temptation was greatly reduced.”

Jon Palmer of Tifton, who married Anna Samples on Jan. 8, agrees with that concept. The couple dated for four years before they wed.

“It wasn’t about what we did to stay pure, it’s Christ living in us that kept us pure. That’s what it’s all about; He’s the one who kept the relationship pure, healthy and growing. When the emphasis is on your relationship with Christ, everything else falls into place.

“I married my best friend and now we are ready to experience all that God has to offer us for the rest of our life together.”

Teens agree that parental support is an important part of keeping the pledge. Morgan Bradley, a junior at Winder-Barrow County High School in Winder, Ga., says it meant a lot to her when her father placed the True Love Waits ring on her finger during a ring ceremony.

“It really meant a lot to me for my parents to be involved at that level,” the member of First Baptist Church of Winder said.

(According to the True Love Website, a ring ceremony is “a special picture of the commitment to sexual purity shared between a parent and his or her teenage son or daughter.” The ceremony typically is part of a True Love Waits commitment service, when a parent presents a ring to his or her teenager to wear as a symbol of the teen’s commitment to purity. “The ring ceremony can be the most pivotal, meaningful event on your church calendar because it can impact the lives of students and families for generations,” the TLW website states.)

Amy McGee, a senior and classmate of Bradley, has a one-sentence response for remaining sexually pure: “Being celibate sure cuts down on the gossip about you,” she said with a chuckle.

Minister of students and evangelism Spencer Breedlove, at the Winder church, tackles the issue as part of a year-round focus on discipleship.

“Sexual abstinence is just one area of personal holiness, and personal holiness is a relationship with God. It’s important for us to remember that God calls us to a life of worship and if we are not focused on honoring Him we are focused on honoring ourselves,” he said.

“Personal holiness is not a cake walk. It requires regular discipline, and it’s important that we communicate that to our youth so they can reach their potential before God.”

Erica Tomlinson, 16, a junior at Lee County High School in Leesburg, Ga., first learned about True Love Waits in sixth grade through her youth group at Albany’s Lakeside Baptist Church. She was 13; she signed the pledge card in the seventh grade.

“I am asked all the time about my purity ring which has a cross, a heart and a key. It provides witnessing opportunities all the time with my friends,” she noted.

Tomlinson is no wallflower and has had numerous opportunities to date. She has been a cheerleader, a competitive dancer since age 7, has participated in a variety of scholarship pageants, and currently models.

But when it came to dating, many of her first encounters with males quickly ended when she drew a line in the sand over the issue of physical intimacy.

“Out of a classroom of 30 peers, I would say that 20 are sexually active with one or more persons. It’s just expected for teens to have sex these days,” she said.

Kristie Smith, who teaches ninth grade at Crist County High School in Cordele, Ga., and her fiance, Brent Willis, remain still true to their pledge as single adults. The couple — who have never kissed each other — plan to wed on June 11.

Their commitment is part of a trend among some youth and adults to abstain from any kind of physical intimacy until they are married.

“I dated some while in high school but it was during a summer camp experience when I felt led of God not to kiss until I got married. The camp speaker gave his testimony about why he felt it was important, and I agreed with what he said.”

Her fiancé, who serves as family minister with emphasis on youth at First Baptist Church of Acree, Ga., had a similar conviction after he felt called into fulltime ministry. While he didn’t have as perfect a track record as Kristie, he has not kissed anyone since that calling.

“When I surrendered to the ministry I discovered there were others who had made a similar commitment, so I felt that calling was reinforced by my peers. They didn’t make a big deal out of it, it was just something they felt led to do,” he explained.

The Joshua Harris book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” which has sold more than 800,000 copies, has helped fuel the movement. His call to sincere love, purity and purposeful singleness — and a more focused effort on serving God — has struck a strong chord with many. The website at www.joshharris.com/QandAmain.htm answers many questions about the approach to holy living.

“It’s not that I’m against kissing,” he emphasizes, “but it needs to be kept in its rightful place, in its right perspective. Sex is great when used as God intended and that is the message I want to communicate to my youth.

“The old saying is absolutely true — good things do come to those who wait.”
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Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.christianindex.org.

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  • Joe Westbury